Here’s an old joke:
Q: what do deadheads say when the drugs wear off?
A: Hey, this band sucks!
I’ve never done drugs but I’ve nonetheless been a fan of the Grateful Dead for quite some time. My friend Pete bought the Europe ’72 triple-album when it came out and we were in college and I enjoyed much of what I found there. But it wasn’t until a different friend dragged me along to a show in Denver in ’78 that I really fell in love with the band. What I understood much later when the Dick’s Pick’s series of CDs started being released was that a big part of the fun of the band was the improvisational nature of their music and how the songs shifted from show to show. That meant that when they were on they were really on and when they weren’t they didn’t always do too well. It also lead to them having a reputation of being “sloppy” and of being a band that you either had to “get” or not.
I was always a little uncomfortable with the band’s name and also with their drug-heavy image because, as much as I liked the music, their apparent heavy drug use (especially psychedelics) was something I had a hard time turning a blind eye to. I also thought that if I ever got a chance to meet them I might really dislike them – they were just too emblematic of that whole hippy culture that I sometimes found irritatingly laid back.
Since Jerry Garcia’s death, though, I also found that Phil Lesh – the bass player – had assembled a nice little band which took the concept of group improvisation even further than the Dead had but seemed more rehearsed. I actually liked them better than the dead on many occasions and the concert I took in a few summers ago at Pine Knob in Michigan was one of my all time favorite concerts. Even on tape, the version of “Scarlet Begonias -> Fire on the Mountain” they played that night is amazing. Phil seemed to have escaped the drug-haze of the Dead and appeared to have turned out to be a great player, musician and perhaps even a nice guy. In fact, I actually thought I’d be able to have a really fun converstation with him because he was really focusing in on the stuff I appreciated (ie. The music) and had left behind the stuff I didn’t (ie. Drugs).
So it was with great interest that I picked up his new book, Searching for the Sound: My Life With the Grateful Dead. Lesh has an easy writing style and you can hear his voice as he writes. I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit because of the musical insights. Lesh pulls no punches regarding the band’s drug use and his own bout with alcoholism but does not celebrate it the way Rock Scully’s book about his time as the Dead’s manager does. However, Lesh does credit LSD with opening their minds to a sort of group-think that he claims transcends usual thought. He also talks about music in a religious tone that seems a bit too much. He obviously has a God-shaped hole in him but Lesh has attempted to fill it with music. He celebrates his lengthy marriage to Jill but doesn’t even blink when he talks about the fairly large number of divorces that band members (including Lesh) have experienced. He regrets falling into alcoholism in the late 70’s but doesn’t appear to regret much else. This is the laid-back attitude that gets to me – it’s all cool, unless it’s not, and even when he has to convince Jerry Garcia’s that he has to dump his long-term girlfriend in person he has a hard time assigning any blame to him. By the way, Garcia finally wrote a letter – which was fine with Phil. So much for "in person". I don’t quite see how Lesh can be so focused on how much joy his family has given him and so oblivious to the way that infidelity has plagued so many of the relationships of his close friends.