Don’t Come Hear Uncle John’s Band – God of the Machine
Sep 012002

In Slate Marc Weingarten bemoans the Deadhead cult; he misses the point. ‘Twas the Dead killed the Dead. More accurately, the band was still-born.

You can put the entire Dead ouevre on a tape loop and not notice, let alone care, when one song ends and the next begins. It’s rock muzak, so mild that it won’t even offend your parents. Weingarten describes Live/Dead as “lysergic-stoked free rock” and Workingman’s Dead as “space-cowboy country” and Wake of the Flood as “baroque prog-jams.” (These records hail from the golden age of 1965 to 1975, when the Dead were supposed to be good.) What’s the difference? There is no difference. “Baroque free rock” and “lysergic-stoked country” and “space-cowboy prog-jams” would serve just as well.

An ardent colleague dragged me to a Dead show about seven years ago. A Dionysian frenzy? Not exactly. Acid was nowhere in evidence; it was hard to find anyone even drinking beer in the parking lot. Everyone wore nice clean casual clothes that they looked like they’d changed into right after work. Quite a few still wore suits: no time to change I guess. They filed into and out of the arena orderly as you please. You wouldn’t find better behavior at a Christian Youth Conference. The two biggest Dead fans I’ve ever known were a corporate headhunter and an actuary. To blame the “decline” of the Dead on these innocent souls seems rather churlish to me. Of course the crowd is staid: the band is staid.

Weingarten, remarkably, neglects to mention the Dead’s true innovation, marketing. They were the first and still, to my knowledge, the only band to encourage bootlegging, allowing fans to tape concerts directly off the mixing board. The idea was to sacrifice some revenue in the short run to build fan loyalty, promoting album and concert sales in the long run, and it worked brilliantly. I’d listen to them lecture on brand loyalty any day. Just as long as I don’t have to listen to them play.

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