While maintaining a steady diet of metal and punk rock during my teens I also wandered off into different territories of music. Aided by my ever growing appetite for needing something new to listen to as well my father’s musical influence I began looking farther outside the realm of the heavy and anti-authoritarian music that was my core and found stranger and greater things out there.
When I was 16 my Dad and I moved out of my school district and instead of changing schools I decided to walk to school every day. Something roughly 5 miles gives someone a lot of time to think and I listened to music on my long strolls through all kinds of weather. I can factually say that I walked 5 miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways. I loved listening to tunes because it gave me something to focus on outside of my wandering teenage thoughts of girls and school.
One regular tape (this was back before CD’s were accessible to me and a tape walkman was still infinitely less expensive than a portable cd player) that was always in rotation was a compilation album, The Very Best of Grateful Dead. Now some of you may be wondering how I could be a metalhead and stand to listen to the classic rock/jazz combination that the Dead produced, the answer is simple. Great. Fucking. Songwriting.
Through the Grateful Dead and others of their ilk I found the importance of songwriting. Not just from the perspective of something catchy and fun but also from the view of the craft itself. If you listen to almost any Grateful Dead song you will hear musicianship at its finest. No small feat considering the copious amounts of drugs that the members were infamous for taking. The Dead took me down a rabbit hole of music that expanded the mind and the ears. Even listening today I can hear new things all the time. Thankfully the technology we have now allows for this with higher quality audio versions of the songs as well as higher quality speakers, headphones, and audio equipment.
This compilation spreads over about two decades of the band’s career with many songs coming from the earlier days between 1970-1976 with the most recent song being 1987’s “Touch of Grey” which I would have to say was my first actual exposure to the band through the music video being on MTV. Styles range from rock to jazz, fusion to country but the combination of songs written by various members of the band manage to come together in a good representation of their overall work and feel.
I am able to proudly confess that I was a musically weird kid in high school and managed to have a circle a friends that spread the spectrum of my musical tastes. We were a tight knit group of nerds, band geeks, musicians, and artists that liked what we liked, stood up for each other, and didn’t care what anybody else thought. If anything, I think we managed to sum up the philosophical standpoints of our musical input.
I remember I was listening to the radio on my walkman while delivering papers on my route the day that Jerry Garcia died. They announced it on the air and then played a few songs back to back. It was an odd day considering the hippies (if you can call them that in the mid 90’s) all knew and admired him. Music really hasn’t been the same since at least in my head.
“Truckin’” a moderate shuffle tune that you can chill or dance to. The Dead were great combiners of genre’s and feels and this song kicks off the album with a upbeat song musically, however; listen to the lyrics and you get a different story.
“Touch of Grey” as I mentioned earlier this was my first exposure to the Dead through MTV. The video for the song was always interesting because the band eventually turns into skeleton puppets of themselves throughout. Lyrically the song touches on the changes in your life with age as well as the cynicism that you tend to gain with experience but ties it all together with a sentiment of just going with the flow.
“Casey Jones” how can you resist singing a lyric like “Driving that train, high on cocaine”?
“Uncle John’s Band” this song comes from one of the Dead’s best albums and speaks to the communalism and search for joy in difficult times that their generation faced at the end of the late 1960’s.
“Box of Rain” a slower tune in the catalog but that does not make the song any less great. The harmonized vocals at the end of each phrase showcases the vocal ability of all of the members. Mainly sung by Bob Weir, there is a smoothness to the lyric singing that puts you at ease.
“Ripple” every now and then you find a song that keeps changing meaning over the years and seems to speak to specific events in your life. “Ripple” is one of those that age along with you and stick around like a good friend reminding you of old times but is there for the current ones as well. The lyric “There is a road, no simple highway, Between the dawn and the dark of night, And if you go no one may follow, That path is for your steps alone” gets me pretty much every time.
The Grateful Dead opened doorways in my mind. Doorways that I did not use drugs to find even though the stigma of anybody listening to the Dead are burnouts and potheads. The path to where I am now in live would be missing a nice stroll around a lake without the Grateful Dead and for the easy going and musically enlightening elements of their music. You don’t have to be stoned to enjoy the music you just have to be in the right mindset. These days if I feel too bogged down in the minutia of life I will throw on this album and sit back.
Until Next time… Keep listening!