I don’t get it

Only three more beers, and I’m done.

It would have been two, but I got into an engaging discussion about Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats on the break. The band I went to see was The Schwag, a band that a few people I know had recommended as being great. I suppose they are, if you’re into the Grateful Dead. I’m not. I’ve been trying to “get” this whole thing for nearly twenty years. I had a roommate way back when who was a deadhead. My Blake prof was a deadhead. I’m not a deadhead. I suppose, if anything, I’m a livehead. So, I had to give it another try, same songs, live, another time around. I think I’ve developed a theory, though.

The Grateful Dead must be postmodern, because there is absolutely no center to their music; if one develops, it rapidly shifts to another place and the listener is forced to follow. Or do they? I’m the veteran of at least 10,000 or more live music events. In the ones I remember best, the crowd responds to the music. Often, you can trace the ripples that rip through the crowd with each chord, each sound, each feeling. It’s magic. Sometimes, the music hovers in mid-air, and a crowd just wanders, waiting for it to land, hopeful that the music will last. There is a noticeable change when the music stops. Sometimes, jaws drop, and people stand transfixed at a particularly magical moment. Tonight I noticed that it didn’t seem to matter how good or bad the band was playing (there were moments of both). People just were locked into their own little universe, some of them following the music, some of them just wagging their heads so that other people would think they were “getting it.” I can’t lie. I don’t get it.

Maybe it requires a higher tolerance for boredom. Maybe it requires better drugs. I had a good buzz going on, so I thought it might help. It didn’t. The music killed my buzz right away, actually. It just became a social project. Lots of tie-die. Lots of good looking girls, all smiling friendly. I can see why people might want to lie and say that the music was great, just to hang out with the girls. But really, I just can’t hack it. I noticed that there was no center to the experience, just lots of circles of people too young to really have much of a clue about who the Grateful Dead were, gyrating in imitations of things they’ve probably seen. A few old folks wandering around, with obviously better drugs than I had. But it just seemed to be a social thing that had very little to do with what was being played on stage.

I remember seeing Rat Dog a year or so ago, thinking that there weren’t enough drugs on the planet to make the music seem interesting to me. But the crowd, well, that’s another story. That’s why I went to this thing tonight. Fortunately, there was a distraction: thinking about what being an English major means.

I remember well a teacher telling me that English majors were smarter than other people. I resisted the idea at first, but after a long time on this road I think he’s right. If you really begin to understand what some of these folks in literature were on about, it can literally change your mind in a way that no other subject does. It pulls everything together, and explodes it at the same time.

The guys I was talking to were about to enter a seminar on Lyrical Ballads and Songs of Innocence and Experience. I remember what those books meant to me when I first really got them. It was a rush; I feel so envious that they are about to cross into the same territory. I realize that’s why I stick with this literature nonsense. No matter how many things I’ve read, I find something new to explode my head with every other day. It feels good when you “get it.” What I can’t get is why so many people who seem to have otherwise good taste see in the music of the Grateful Dead. It just wanders around, occasionally lies down, and seldom seems like more than an extended out of tune nap. I jut don’t get it at all. But I keep trying. I mean, these people aren’t stupid. Maybe I am.