Wednesday, August 9, 2023

The Licorice Eaters

August 9th marks the end of "the days between", an 8-day period where Deadheads (fans of the Grateful Dead) reminisce or celebrate the impact of the band.  Jerry Garcia was born on August 1st (1942) and died on August 9th (1995) and the period is named for a melancholic and nostalgic piece called Days Between.  There's a groovy boho town nearby called New Hope, where a gallery featured a free exhibit with a bunch of Jerry artwork, visiting that was my nod this year to marking the "days between".

I don't expect people outside of America to know the Grateful Dead - shoot, most Americans have forgotten about this particular subculture.  But the Dead did something back in the 70's that energized a following that shows no signs of diminishing.  They gave their sound away.

With a few exceptions, the Dead studio albums are not particularly good.  Their magic comes from live performances.  Every show has a unique set list.  Songs are played differently from night to night - solos are different, arrangements are different, they experimented on stage.  The Dead's formula fused psychedelic improvisation and jazz to traditional roots music like blues, folk, country, and bluegrass to create a distinct and new thing.  People started sneaking recording equipment into the shows to catch that lightning in a bottle and relive or share what was otherwise a transient experience.  As befitting a band built on libertarian ideals of freedom and expression, they weren't interested in policing this taping activity.  "The shows are never the same, ever. . . . and when we’re done with it, they can have it."  In fact, by the 1980's, there was a formal section behind the sound booth on the floor that was reserved at Dead shows for the tapers to set up their audio recording equipment.

An entire non-commercial sub-community sprung up within the Dead sub-culture around copying and sharing tapes, fan to fan.  The Internet Archive and Relisten both have some 17,000 recordings* of the Dead shows from the 1960's until 1995 that have been digitized by tapers and posted online for anyone to listen.  All free.

To be fair, there is also commercial activity that's keeping the scene alive - the Dead's record label still releases re-mastered and cleaned up versions of concerts a couple of times a year, from higher quality recordings patched directly from the sound boards, and that's what you can hear on streaming platforms like Apple, Spotify, or as Grateful Dead Road Trips, Download Series, or Dick's Picks, named after one of their archivists (Dick Latvala).  You're paying for quality.  (As an aside, I recommend Nugs for anyone that loves modern live music and jam bands, but if that's your kicks you probably already know about it).

Something else has happened because the music is about performances and not studio work.  The songs evolve.  It's an open invitation to do your own thing.  Everyone who played with the band or a side project has put their touch on the music - you can hear Dead songs played by touring acts like Dark Star Orchestra and Joe Russo's Almost Dead; in my area there are like 15 Dead cover bands that do the bar circuit in and around Philadelphia.  Dead & Company, with John Mayer and several Dead members, just finished a sold-out ballpark tour in the states that was extremely good.  Several days a week you can go have a beer and a burger or ribs and catch a Dead tribute band in your area - like I said, there are over a dozen around Philadelphia, and every state has them.  Some of the Philly ones are quite good.

Jerry had a quote: "If I work as hard as I can in my life, I may be able to end up building this thing that nobody can tear down after I'm dead."  This train is still chugging along.

Maybe it's unnatural or a forced comparison to compare the Dead scene to roleplaying games and early D&D?  They were both fronted by 70's icons with beards?  The OGL, and through it the OSR, opened the door to allow community sharing that captured similar egalitarian and communal spirits as the tapers and the cover bands.  There was a heady sense of freedom and creativity in the early OSR, and a great sharing of ideas.  Think of the interesting projects this scene has produced, whether it's one page dungeons, Hydra co-op, D23, or Prince's funny "no artpunk" collections.  There is commercial activity, too - many retro clones offer free rules, but you'll pay for quality if you want nice printed editions with art.

I don't keep up with all the permutations of new retro clone rules, but people are still cranking them out.  Does anyone follow all the new adventures that are published?  It feels like an ocean.  I try to keep tabs on what Bryce is looking at, and I get the sense it's a fraction of what's actually out there - just waves lapping on the shore.  I'm generally a positive, glass half full kind of person to start with, but this feels like a healthy scene with a lot going on, even if it is a bit decentralized and chaotic, with different centers of gravity.  Tenkar still has his crowd, there's the Dragonsfoot people, Pundit's place, the old school conventioners, some Discorders and Substackers sprouting up here and there.  Not a booming scene, but a scene that has weathered controversies and kerfuffles and has settled into a mostly even keel.

I have tasted of newer iterations of the game, and they've left me wanting - they're not licorice.  I'm glad an OSR scene was still here to come back and experience.

Later tonight when I'm pouring a bourbon or scotch to reflect on another "days between", I'll also tip one for the OSR and the folks out there still doing good, creative work and keeping this scene alive.  Cheers all.

*Footnote:  the Dead performed some 2300 concerts over their 30 year run, but since any given concert could have been recorded by several tapers, that's why there can be 17,000 recordings in the internet archive.


  1. Here a thirty-something guy from mainland Europe (non anglo parlant).

    Before I began listening to them, I had read a lot about the Grateful Dead. References abound in every book about history of rock, hippies, Woodstock, the counter culture movement or the psychedelic experiments. In fact, I think Jerry Garcia was among the 25 or 50 top rock guitarist of all time according to Rolling Stone magazine.

    Maybe they're a little less known than other bands because they lack a famous radio single. At least in Spain, is very infrequent, even among old rock radio stations, listening to Jefferson Airplane or The Doors, but "Somebody to love" or "Light my fire" have been some time on air.

    So I'm pretty sure here nowadays almost nobody remember them, but, as you say, I think it's extensive to that entire kind of music.

    I had never thought before in the similitudes between the OSR spirit and the music fans of yore...

    1. Deadheads are like instant friends, so well met Rol from Spain.

      I was just listening to an audiobook earlier today, "Mother American Night", the autobiography of John Perry Barlow. He was a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation - and 15-20 years earlier was writing songs for the Dead. Super interesting dude. At one point he pointed out how the Dead's policy of allowing free tape sharing (but not commercial activity) would be a model for how the internet should work. Like a creative commons license 25 years ahead of its time. Maybe I'm not crazy seeing the similarities in the fandoms after all.

      I agree with your point no one usually gets into the Dead through the radio, since they didn't make singles. It's like the Eleusinian Mysteries, you need a guide or initiation. Thanks for dropping a note.

  2. Beautifully written. As a fan of TGD (and various iterations since Jerry's Death), as well as D&D (and various iterations since I started playing in the 80s), I appreciated the sentiment. Thank you for taking time to write this!