The River

Saturday, August 30, 2003

It’s never too late or too early for the Grateful Dead

I was just reading about the 25th anniversary DVD edition of Animal House. That makes the film a 1978 release, and puts me at 15 when it came out. I saw it back then in the theater with my older sister and one of her friends. She was 23. I’m not sure why I was tagging along, except for the fact that she’s always been there to teach her baby brother about the world.

I think it’s a measure of my innocence, the innocence still possible at that time, that I felt I’d gotten away with something, that I’d seen an “adult” film that was a bit over my head. Later, in college, with cable a new phenomenon, I had one of the movie channels (or was it only HBO then?), which was playing Animal House several times every day. I watched it several times in one week. It hadn’t yet been officially recognized as a work of art by the Academy for Film Preservation or some such outfit tasked with compiling a list of essential films for preservation. All I knew was it kicked ass.

There was a lot of growing and changing in those years between that eye-opening viewing and my college apartment screenings.

My activity, my growth, was mostly directed at pursuing art (appreciation, not production), drugs, self-knowledge, and a good time with some very good friends. We were beats, we were hippies. But we didn’t have any of those generational homes. We were too late for the free-love boomer movement, viewed the beat generation as from another world, and were too old to be Gen Xers.

If I could give “us” a name, it would be GDIs, god-damned independents. That’s what we called ourselves at the University of Georgia. The frats were huge, and if you didn’t join one, you were some kind of scruffy outsider. Yeah, we embraced that. When Revenge of the Jedi came out, we called it Revenge of the GDIs. And, although we didn’t consciously trace a lineage, Animal House was one of our cultural touchstones.

We did, however, go back to the music of the hippies, the literature of the beats for inspiration, sustenance. Reagan was elected in 1980, and our disgust and discontent rose soon after. The whole “defining a generation” or “defining a decade” thing had become prevalent, something for the media to blather on about. It only served to heighten for us the fact that we’d missed it. And to give us a sense that, as long as defining decades was a common practice, by 1983 or 4, we could safely condemn the entire ‘80s.

Oh, but we had the late ‘70s, our early coming of age period. We had Saturday Night Live, Fernwood Tonight, truly funny comedies in the movie theater. Cheech and Chong. At 16, during one of the first times I got stoned (as in not the first time I smoked the weed), I took a couple neighborhood friends to see Nice Dreams (nope, it was Up in Smoke, a superior film released in...1978. Should have looked it up before posting -- ed.). The only thing I remember is laughing my ass off, enjoying myself completely, and eating a Suzy Q on my back porch when we were back home.

It’s perfect that Animal House came out in 1978. I’ve always looked upon that year as a vintage one for rock-n-roll. Being 15 and not quite aware of rock-n-roll or its connection with the 1950s and 60s, those eras we were born too late for, those inexpressibly cool decades, I didn’t at the time know that some sort of cultural apex had been reached. Now it’s a pet theory of mine. As inheritors and miners of a youth culture too exciting to miss no matter what your date of birth, we were in the habit of placing albums in their context and so always checked for the year of release. I’ve been amazed at how many fine albums were released in 1978 (or 77 and 79, but over the years I’ve fixated on 78). Here’s just a partial list that springs to mind: Darkness on the Edge of Town, Some Girls, London Calling, Running on Empty, Street Legal, My Aim is True, Excitable Boy, Wavelength, Damn the Torpedoes.

My affection for that year is also why, when trying to decide what CD to buy to introduce myself to a band I’d written off as boring in those days – The Grateful Dead – I opted for Dick’s Picks volume 18, the band caught live the winter of 1978 in Iowa and Wisconsin. There are 29 volumes of live shows in the Dick’s Picks line, a slew of others available, plus the studio catalog. How to choose? I let 1978 be my guide.

I can now report, from the vantage point of 2003, that me and my buddies missed it. It was part of our brash confidence, our “I’ll define what this and any other decade was, thank you” attitude, and maybe our need to reject something that seemed so knee-jerk hippie, and I love us for it, but we missed it. Just a little outside.

It’s cool, because I can drive around in my Honda Civic and listen to transcendent, tough, committed rock, just like I used to. This ain’t no self-indulgent, hippie, trippy, peace and love junk. I mean, there’s a joyous, tightly rocking, beautiful rendition of Good Love here. There are TWO Chuck Berry songs.

And, of course, there are the 10-plus minute jams. Jeez. We loved the electric guitar back then, and this here is inspired guitar playing. Jerry Garcia seems to channel a force he can only just contain, but contain he does to artful effect. The rest, with whom I’m still not that familiar, reveal gutsy, greasy, rootsy rock.

It’s not all hard-charging. It’s all over the place. It’s, ahem, a trip. Now, there’s a lot of cultural lineage, sustenance, and, dare I say it, baggage, I’ve gone over here. Now you know where I’m coming from, what I’ve brought to this 3 CD set.

So I’ll leave you with a review from my 3-year-old daughter. Last weekend I took her to get her hair cut. I grabbed Dick’s Picks volume 18 out of my car and stuck it in the CD player of the family car. I played Disc two as we took the 20minute drive to the hair cutters.

Eleanor was mostly silent. She didn’t ask for the Wiggles, the Australia kids’ group that’s not half bad but requires I listen to something more sophisticated as an antidote to their unrelenting catchiness; she just accepted that daddy was going to play some of his rock-n-roll. Finally, during Eyes of the World, a gorgeous, mid-tempo, deeply rocking song, she said, “Daddy, my brain is dancing.” No concept of the hippies, tripping, or higher states of consciousness. “Daddy,” sweetly, innocently, “my brain is dancing.”

I smiled. I made some sort of acknowledgement. A minute later, she said, “Daddy, my hip is dancing.” Again, a big smile from me. Then she wanted to show me what she meant. So she said, “they’re going like this.” And I look in the rearview mirror to see both her arms in the air, swaying back and forth like tree limbs in a breeze.

Yeah. Rock on Jerry. Shine on you crazy deadheads.

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