Stuck, Ch. 12: What I Don’t Wanna Be: July, The Grateful Dead, “Touch of Grey”

by Akim Reinhardt

Stuck is a weekly serial appearing at 3QD every Monday through early April. The Prologue is here. The table of contents with links to previous chapters is here.

Image result for star trek originalDuring my late 1970s New York City childhood, repeats of Star Trek aired every weeknight on channel 11, WPIX. The original 79 episodes ran about three times per year, which means that, allowing for the occasional miss, I’d seen each episode about 10 – 12 times before reaching high school.

And so when I was 14 years old and my friend Erik suggested we attend a Star Trek convention at the Penta Hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden, I jumped at the opportunity. Shit, Leonard Nimoy was gonna be there.

I didn’t really know what to expect as Erik and I rode the bus downtown. But after a half-day traipsing through the convention, I realized there was something going on. It was more than just a bunch of people who really liked Star Trek. Throngs of hardcore fans obsessed over the show’s minutiae, and some even wore Star Trek costumes. I loved the show too, but I felt no sense of kinship with these super fans; in fact, it all made me uneasy.

This was the early 1980s, and the clichés about “Trekkies” were just beginning to develop: men who lacked social skills, couldn’t get a date, and lived in their parents’ basement back when a grown man living with his parents was considered a spectacular failing at adulthood. Today they are derided as geeks or maybe nerds. Back then they were simply losers.

But I don’t think I worried about dorkiness by association. I felt no disdain for the Trekkies, I didn’t look at them and think “fuckin’ losers.” Rather, they just didn’t seem like much fun. Their affection for the show, often expressed in hyper-attention to mostly uninteresting details, was different than mine. It also seemed like they might be compensating for something. That maybe they were a bit socially awkward and searching for acceptance and comfort through a shared love of Star Trek. And that made me uncomfortable. I enjoyed the show immensely, but it didn’t signify something greater. I didn’t envision it as a rallying point or some sort or social crutch.

I more or less stopped watching Star Trek around the same time. No direct causal link. I just got into other things as a teenager. Rock n roll. Shooting pool and playing poker. Beer. Trying and failing to have sex. That kinda stuff.

Less interested in television generally, during high school I moved deeper and deeper into the world of music. I experimented, looking for different sounds and grooves. Friends and I would make regular trips downtown and cruise the used record stores along St. Mark’s Place and E. 8th Street, which were plentiful during the 1980s. You would begin by selling some of your own records, for cash or credit, ditching LPs you’d grown tired of. Then buy this for a buck, that for two. Take chances and discover. Our trips would invariably end at Tower records where I chose more carefully as I flipped through that megastore’s new albums, sealed in plastic and costing more than the used ones at second-hand shops.

One used album, which I picked up on the cheap at a place called Sounds on St. Mark’s, was the eponymous, live, double album by the Grateful Dead. I later learned that people refer to it as Skull and Roses because of its cover art, which was enticing to a 16 year old. I figured it was worth a couple of bucks to see if I liked this band that was so ensconced in American culture, but which I knew very little about.

None of my friends listened to the Dead, and other than that one song about driving a train high on cocaine, the band almost never showed up on commercial radio back then. But I knew they had a big fan base of people who followed them on tour, and that they were committed to jamming and eschewed set lists, so that each show was unique, instead of the rehearsed set-pieces that most stadium rock groups performed for their fans.

I took the record home and spun it a few times. My favorite cut was a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” an early indication that I was mostly nonplused by the band’s own song writing. And their ballyhooed musical improvisations felt loose, too loose, kinda lazy and uninspired, or maybe self-indulgent and lacking direction. The music wasn’t bad. It had potential. The Dead seemed to have a good musical ethos and sensibility. But for someone like myself who, at that time, was into Jimi Hendrix and Southern rock, the Dead seemed a bit lethargic and almost inept. It felt like they would do a good job of building up a song, but then not really go anywhere, eventually descending into sloppy entropy, maybe because they just couldn’t play well enough. The album came across as some good songs and a bunch of noodling. It lingered in my record collection, largely ignored.

Image result for grateful dead skull and roses gatefoldSeveral years later, as I was finishing up college in Michigan, I became friends with a couple of guys who were really into the Grateful Dead, though I didn’t think of them as Dead Heads. They weren’t hippies, per se, despite their sympathies. One was a physics grad student who didn’t smoke pot. The other was from Brooklyn, a big hockey fan with a thick NY accent. They just seemed to really like the Grateful Dead, I guess the way I liked Lynyrd Skynyrd or Hendrix. One day as I was walking down the street, they pulled up in an old Toyota and said: “We’re gonna go see the Dead in Chicago (actually Rosemont, Illinois). Wanna come?”

I was 21 years old without a lot going on, and the GPA to prove it. I thought about it for half a minute and said, “Sure.” We stopped by my place so I could grab a change of clothes, and then hit the road. The three of us and a fourth guy, a Russian physicist named Dimi who’d driven up from Urbana-Champaign, attended the show.

By now I was more musically sophisticated than the high schooler who’d bought Skull and Roses on a lark. Music was central to my life. I’d spent a few years writing record and concert reviews for the college paper, and DJing a freeform radio show at the college station. Each month I was seeing several shows of various genres, and occasionally interviewing musicians. I was now in a position to appreciate more fully that the Dead might sandwich an original between covers of an old blues tune and a public domain folk song, and then work in some Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry. I had high hopes.

Alas. I had more or less the same reaction to the 1989 Rosemont show that I’d had to that double live album several years earlier: Eh. They’re on the right track, but they can’t really play. Some of the songs were good, but it wreaked of navel gazing without reaching some kind of transcendent artistic spectacle.

My friends loved it. They were sure I just needed to see another show. A year later I caught the Dead at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Same thing. Whatever.

But that doesn’t mean the shows didn’t make an impression. Anyone who ever went to a Grateful Dead concert couldn’t help but notice that you were entering a distinct subculture of Dead Heads. Lots of drugs of course, along with Woodstock-era apparel, endless hippie/dippie chatter and rituals, and scattered doses of Liberal politics that usually started with the need to legalize drugs before meandering onto America’s foreign policy blunders or what’s wrong with McDonald’s.

The first time I went, it was really interesting. I did a balloon of nitrous in the parking lot while a jet plane flew overhead. I marveled at the makeshift tents of political literature, the people selling falafels to support their pilgrimage, and the smiling fans walking around looking for “a miracle” (the gift of a free ticket), knowing that while such blessings were rare, it was also entirely possible that someone with a spare ticket might simply give it away instead of selling it because they were happy to be generous to a stranger just like another stranger had once been generous to them, or simply because instead of recouping some money, they would rather make a fellow fan’s night be magical. I mean, when you think about it, man, that’s pretty fuckin’ cool, ya know?

The second time I went, I mostly just felt sorry for the minimum wage stadium workers who had to stay late because the self-involved, middle class white kids getting high in the parking lot after the show just wouldn’t fuckin’ go home already.

Minimum wage back then was $3.35 an hour.

All in all, however, it seemed to me that Grateful Dead concerts were too much like that Star Trek convention: A bunch of fans creating a new social group to fetishize their favorite thing. Except that I didn’t like the Dead’s music nearly as much as I enjoyed the interstellar adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s velour-clad, mutli-ethnic crew.

So if I never went to another Star Trek convention, you could bet your ass I wasn’t going to another Grateful Dead concert. And then Jerry Garcia died, so that’s that.

But whether it’s Star Trek or the Grateful Dead, I guess I’m just not much of a joiner. The truth is, I’ve never felt comfortable being part of any group that involves everyone really liking something, even if I too adore whatever is being adulated. I don’t find comfort or a sense of freedom by joining the herd and subsuming my individualism into the Borg. Quite the opposite. Mass allegiance creeps me out. I’m the kind of person who goes to a big time college football game and, to avoid feeling dirty, quietly roots against the home team.

Public displays of mass allegiance are an odd social dynamic, simultaneously silly and scary. The end result is often group-think, and there are few things I find more repulsive than group-think, even when it’s borderline comical, like a bunch of hippies desperately trying to convince themselves that they’re mellow and open minded, when really they’re mostly judgmental neurotics self-medicating their anxiety with weed.

I’m not some angry loner who struggles to form tight bonds with other humans. Far from it. But even if I really like something, I also realize that other people may be bored by the object of my affection, or even loath it. That’s fine. Some of life’s most interesting conversations unfold with thoughtful, honest people who disagree with you. And if someone also likes what I like, that’s great. Let’s talk about it and share the joy over a couple of beers. But do we really need to advertise our affiliation by dressing up in costumes (informal or otherwise) and assembling in very large numbers?

Don’t get me wrong. Cos play can be awesome. And beyond that, I sympathize deeply with people on the fringes who find belonging and courage through shared culture. I appreciate the elation that comes from discovering something that feels like it was meant for you, particularly when it seems like there’s not much out there for you otherwise.

One of the most beautiful scenes in TV history, to my mind, comes in the series finale of Freaks and Geeks, when high school junior Lindsay Weir dances around her room after overcoming her reticence and really listening to the Grateful Dead for the first time. As “Box of Rain” plays, the music slowly seeps into her. We see her drop the needle on that first track from the album American Beauty over and over again. She begins floating around her room. She’s been struggling to find herself, and this piece of art is speaking to her like nothing else has during her tumultuous junior year.

Major spoiler alert. The show, and series, which only ran for one season (1999 – 2000), ends with Lindsay lying to her parents and running off with some hippies to see the Dead. And we root for her, despite the lying. She’s a good kid and feels really bad about that; it drives her to tears. But she’s also doing what she needs to do to grow and to grow up, and some guilty dishonesty is required because her parents would never, ever agree to this.

Here’s the thing, though. That growth comes from an act of independence, in defiance of social expectations, not by trading one set of expectations for another. If this is a chance for Lindsay to grow, it’s not because she has abandoned her family to become a Dead Head. It’s because she has found the courage to experiment with something new instead of simply doing what everyone wants and expects from her, a lifelong good girl, “mathlete,” and A student.

That value of open mindedness and experimentation must remain part of her. And so looking forward into the second season that never happened, we can imagine that she’ll soon recognize and become disenchanted with the hypocrisy and conformity of hippies in much the same way she has recently sniffed out and become disenchanted with the hypocrisy and conformity of her family and school. Membership in each of these groups is beneficial and rewarding, but also runs the risk of promoting the group think that limits your ability to be honest with yourself.

When “Touch of Gray” by the Grateful Dead got stuck in my head, it brought up a lot of these feelings. I was never a Dead Head, and not just because I think too much of their music is mediocre. Rather, I wasn’t one because I can’t be. Just like I can’t be a Trekkie even though I’ve loved Star Trek since I was a kid. I can’t be a joiner. It’s not who I am.

I am the son of a high school English teacher whose parting words to me at age 17, the night before I left for college hundreds of miles away in an era before Skype, cell phones, or even email, was to quote Hamlet, specifically Polonius’ speech to his son Laertes as the latter stands impatiently on the docks preparing to set sail and leave home for the first time:

“This above all, to thine own self be true.”

My mother could just as easily have quoted Popeye the Sailor’s cribbing of God’s self-declaration to Moses: “I am what I am.” Or the old Sammy Davis, Jr. song “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” It’s all the same message: there is an honesty and a truth to who you are at any given moment that you should never deny.

But social institutions like schools and churches, and social groups like Dead Heads, Trekkies, and even our beloved families, set expectations for how their members should think and behave, then exert pressure and demand conformity. That’s how societies works.

Of course there can be dissent among the head-bobbers. Families argue all the time. Trekkies debate which series or movies are better or worse, occasionally becoming indignant with each other and even with the franchise itself. Likewise, some Dead Heads were outraged when “Touch of Grey” and its accompanying MTV video debuted in 1987, complaining that the band had “sold out.” The signs were obvious, they claimed: cheesy synthesizers that were all the rage during the 1980s, and a band that had long struggled to get commercial radio air play suddenly being slotted into heavy rotation by the Corporate Overlords at MTV. To some fans it smelled like a money grab, a cynical effort to cash in, either by the band itself or at the behest of their handlers at Arista Records.

But perhaps the deepest cynicism is to be found within the song itself. It was penned by Robert Hunter, who didn’t actually play in the band, but authored and co-authored a number of their songs. Despite the song’s happy major chords, its lyrics are deceptively dark.

Paint-by-number morning sky
Looks so phony
Dawn is breaking everywhere
Light a candle, curse the glare
Draw the curtains I don’t care

Not exactly the typical peace, love, and understanding that one might associate with the world’s ultimate hippie band. It’s not even the earthiness of old time folk and blues that the band always clung to. This isn’t “authentic” heartache or romantic tragedy. It’s just dark nihilism.

I see you’ve got your list out, say your piece and get out
Guess I get the gist of it, but it’s alright
Sorry that you feel that way, the only thing there is to say
Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey

How do you do your stoner butterfly hippie dance to this one? It’s not about finding a new spirituality or pursuing a higher consciousness. It’s about how shit’s all fucked up, and that’s that, but I guess I’ll get through it. It’s about unhappily surviving as we wallow in the muck that mars and even defines our lives.

Image result for sammy davis jr i gotta be meMaybe that’s because Hunter supposedly wrote the song while coming down from a hellacious coke binge. Not getting mellow with weed or expanding his mind with psychedelics, but shoving his royalty checks up his nose and seriously indulging in the ultimate gimme gimme, more more, now now glam drug of the Me Generation and the Go-Go 80s.

I really have no idea what was going on in Hunter’s head when he wrote “Touch of Grey.” But the jaded, borderline contrarian in me wants to believe that after twenty years of The Scene, man, he was thumbing his nose at the feel-good hippies playing bongos in the parking lot and whirlybird dancing inside the arena, each of them thinking they were on some personal spiritual journey, but all the while conforming to the umpteenth degree, wearing the same styles of clothing, talking the same hippie jargon, parroting the same politics, and listening to the same music. Just like the Trekkies in their Halloweeny outfits celebrating and debating the merits of various episodes, the workings of imaginary technologies, and the ethics of the Prime Directive.

And I’d also like to believe that by the time “Touch of Grey” came out in 1987, Freaks and Geeks protagonist Lindsay Weir, now in her mid-20s, would have already moved on with her life enough to be neither one of the song’s vocal critics nor a loyal defender of the band, and instead merely take the song on its own mixed merits. Just as I couldn’t care less if the original Star Trek series is better than the most recent Star Wars trilogy.

Well, actually, it is. Way better. And the original series is definitely better than Next Generation. Wanna grab a beer and talk about it?

Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com

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