Dead Reckoning

What your favorite Grateful Dead song says about you.

The Grateful Dead just won’t go away. The surviving members reunited last year to throw their support behind Barack Obama, a blow to the McCain campaign, which had hoped to carry the crucial devil stick demographic. The band, buoyed by its successful foray into politics, went back on tour, performing simply as “the Dead.” Its merchandising wing, meanwhile, continues to churn out product. Though most Dead shows can now be listened to online for free, the band has kept on releasing elaborately packaged albums, culled from its “vault” of live recordings. The most recent, To Terrapin, captures what many consider to be one of the Dead’s greatest performances: the 1977 show at the Hartford Civic Center.

No one, I dare say, will make such a claim for the 2009 Hartford show, which unfolded Sunday night at the same venue. After a rousing rendition of “Bertha,” the Dead went on to play two perplexing sets, rewarding fans still spry enough for hallucinogenics while straining the good will of the crowd’s many graying boomers, whose sensory perceptions were altered, at best, by a Bud Light and a Flomax.

One wants to salute the Dead for not just playing the old favorites, though that sentiment faded for this fan around the nine-minute mark of the drum-heavy psychedelic dirge “King Solomon’s Marbles.” Given that the band isn’t shying away from some of its more—how to put this?—”challenging” material on this tour, it’s a good time to assess where you fall in the spectrum of Deadheadedness. This way, if your friend Larry in accounting mentions that he’s got an extra ticket to an upcoming show, you’ll know whether to say “Jack Straw from Wichita—I’m in!” or “Sorry, can’t get a sitter that night.” Herewith, a guide to what kind of fan you are, as revealed by your favorite Dead song. 

“Box of Rain”: You’re Lawrenceville class of ‘88, played midfield on the J.V. lacrosse team, and listened to the Dead only because fandom was de facto team policy. You received American Beauty as one of your 1-cent CDs from BMG (not as good a deal as it looked) and found the poignant if a bit hippy-dippy “Box of Rain” the most palatable of the songs on the record.

Yearbook quote: “Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.”

“Terrapin Station”: The turtle decals dancing across the bumper of your Volvo 740 wagon—she’s still got some pep!—attest to your love of the divisive “Terrapin.” For many Dead fans, the “Terrapin” cycle represents an overreach, a seven-part suite complete with a Homeric invocation (“Let my inspiration flow …”), a mysterious love triangle, and liberal use of a rain stick. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter claims he wrote the words and Jerry Garcia the music on the same lightning-lit night … but with neither knowing what the other was up to. “Yeah, right,” say most. “Right on!” say you.

Yearbook quote: “The sullen wings of fortune beat like rain. You’re back in Terrapin for good or ill again. For good or ill again.”

“Tennessee Jed”: Before you met your wife, there was this girl named Brianna. Man, you still think about her sometimes. The weird thing is, she wasn’t really your type. While you were paddling Vanderbilt freshmen over at the Sigma Chi house, she was hot-boxing in a VW bus with her vegan friend Judy. You hated all that drug stuff, but you were fond of Brianna’s liberated approach in the boudoir (actually the back of the VW). Brianna dragged you to a few Dead shows, but you never thought Jerry had anything on Gregg Allman. To get through the experience, you’d double down on the Southern Comfort in the parking lot, then say a small prayer that the set list didn’t include “Space.”

Yearbook quote: “Drink all day and rock all night.”

“Looks Like Rain”: You’re a girl. You fell in love with Bob Weir the first time you saw him at the Fillmore East—the rakish good looks, the adequate rhythm-guitar playing. You find the bad-cowboy Weir of “Me and My Uncle” very sexy, but it’s the lovelorn Weir of “LLR” who swept you off your Birkenstocked feet. “I’ll still sing you love songs, written in the letters of your name” is just about the most romantic lyric you can imagine, and you’re pretty sure that at the Salt Lake City show in ‘73, Bob was looking right at you when he sang it. Alas, such a love song would be all but impossible to compose, your name being Zelda Quinn.

Yearbook quote: “My landscape would be empty if you were gone.”

“Drums”: You’re a percussionist. There’s really no other explanation.

Yearbook quote: “On the drums on stage right, Mr. Bill Kreutzmann.”

“Cosmic Charlie”: You know that line in “Scarlet Begonias,” the one where Jerry talks about the sky being yellow and the sun being blue? For you, the sky and sun are really like that—have been ever since you dropped that tab of suspect provenance at the Avalon Ballroom show back in ‘69. Cosmic Charlie remained your favorite track despite the fact that the band retired it in, like, ‘76. Every now and then, you torture yourself by listening to your tape of the Great “Cosmic Charlie” Fakeout of ‘94. That night, in Oakland, the band played the opening bars of “Cosmic Charlie” but, just when the first verse would have kicked in, played “Wharf Rat” instead. The gods can be cruel.

Yearbook quote: “Dum dee dum dee doodley doo.”

“Wharf Rat”: Back when you were in grad school at Cornell finishing up the coursework for your literature Ph.D., you had this great riff about how the structure of “Wharf Rat” mimicked that of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—an unreliable narrator relaying a tragic tale through a second, ostensibly reliable narrative voice. At this point, your buddies typically ducked out, ostensibly to pick up another sixer of Genesee.

Yearbook quote: “I got no dime, but I got time to hear his story.”

“Truckin’ “: You’re a poser. Sorry, but you are.

Yearbook quote: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

“Touch of Grey”: The Dead’s only mainstream hit. The song made the Billboard Top 10 in 1987, though you first heard it at a show in ‘86, shortly after Jerry returned from his diabetic coma. Today, you’re a senior partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, with more than a touch of gray about the temples. But during that year between college and law school, you apprenticed at Garcia, Lesh & Weir, LLP. You recall the experience with fondness, though also with regret. A few years ago, your name was bandied about when a prestigious judgeship opened up. Knowing, however, that there were lingering questions regarding June 16-18, 1987 (the Ventura County Fairgrounds shows)—questions for which you had no good answers—you quietly withdrew your name from consideration.

Yearbook quote: “I will get by. I will survive.”

“Help on the Way”/”Slip Knot”/”Franklin’s Tower”: For you, it’s less about individual songs and more about the band’s talent for transforming one song into another. You experience a wave of euphoria when “China Cat Sunflower” blossoms into “I Know You Rider.” You’ve got a tape with a killer “Saint of Circumstance”/”Ship of Fools.” You’re still hunting for that great “Lazy Lightning”/”Supplication.” Sadly for you, no such thing exists.

Yearbook quote: “If you plant ice, you’re going to harvest wind.”

“Sugar Magnolia”: You favored blouses made from tapestry cloth that revealed as much back as possible. The smell of patchouli preceded you by several yards. Sometimes you and your friend Willow would weave wildflowers into bracelets and give them away to concertgoers. You were a fixture outside the late ‘70s shows and got into a good many of them, despite never actually purchasing a ticket. Once inside, you twirled. You twirled with abandon.

Yearbook quote: “We can discover the wonders of nature, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.”

“St. Stephen”: You’re the outrageously dirty young fellow—with the white-boy dreads and the benign but distant gaze—outside the Hartford show who inquired of me, “Hey, man, do you want to pour some of your beer into my beer?” Apologies again for declining, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere near your cup.

Yearbook quote: “One man gathers what another man spills.”

“Dark Star”: You consider any Dead song that clocks in at less than 20 minutes a frivolous ditty. You believe the band was never the same after Ron “Pigpen” McKernan died in ‘73. You don’t own a Dead T-shirt, but you own several Dead tattoos, including a terrifying Steal Your Face skull on your forearm that renders you unemployable in several service-related fields. You don’t own a motorcycle operator’s license, but you frequently operate motorcycles. You’re familiar with the effects of PCP; you’ve done a little time. You can’t believe what’s become of the Haight. You, my friend, are the genuine article.

Yearbook quote: N/A. Didn’t finish high school.