Paying Respects

It used to be cool to slag the Dead. Now the opposite is true.

For the most part, you can pretty much guess when someone is a Grateful Dead fan. The stereotypes abound: tie-dyed T-shirts, rat's-nest dreadlocks, baggy corduroys, etc. But what about Dylan Carlson, the mustachioed, cigarette-smoking, tattooed ex-junkie mastermind behind local drone legends Earth? Not only does he not look like your average Dead fan, but most of the man's music—in which classic Black Sabbath riffs are taken and pulverized—is the opposite of any sunshine daydream. Yet there Carlson was, perched on the edge of Jesse Sykes' couch this summer, dropping the Grateful Dead's name as if his fandom were as obvious as his reverence for Tony Iommi. Granted, Carlson's most recent music is much brighter and twangier than his older, gloomier stuff, and we were hanging out in the apartment of one Seattle's biggest Deadheads: Sykes, the moody roots songstress who has been a fan of Garcia & Co. since the '80s. For whatever reason, around 2006 it became more common to hear musicians admit they were Dead fans. And we're not talking about outfits like Hot Buttered Rum or Yonder Mountain String Band—paltry groups that would be less successful had they not inherited a good chunk of the Dead's rabid fan base in the wake of Jerry's passing. No, we're talking about folks like roots maniacs Oakley Hall, as well as our own purveyors of American jams: Whalebones, Fleet Foxes, and the Moondoggies. And last year, then–Stranger music editor Jonathan Zwickel outed many local closet Deadheads, including the owners of Neumo's, ex–Presidents of the USA members, and the booking agents at Nectar. By 2008, there was no longer any shame involved in professing unlimited devotion to the Dead. When I interviewed Justin Deary of Whalebones and members of the Moondoggies (on separate occasions), I couldn't wait to ask if the Dead had an influence on their music. Secretly, I was asking for my own benefit, since being both a Dead fan and a music snob is a sometimes lonely existence. At first, they hesitated to admit it, but as soon as I told them, "No, it's OK...I won't judge. I'm a fan too," they were put at ease. Strange to think that only a few years ago I watched a roomful of people at the Sunset snicker when Mudhoney's Steve Turner mentioned he'd recently bought a Dead album. Naturally, this renewed interest had its roots in California, where Ethan Miller and Devendra Banhart proudly let their hippie flags fly. Like many of us, Miller—who recently put aside Comets on Fire's psychedelic face-melting to focus on his hippie jam group Howlin' Rain—knew deep down he was a Dead fan all along. But it was many years before he could admit it to himself. "(Growing up) in Humboldt County, we had all these old hippies around us, and it used to be like, 'Look at all these crusty old hippies; they haven't changed at all,'" he recalls. "We were more into punk stuff, so we just hated the Grateful Dead without ever hearing it. But later on I was living in Santa Cruz and couldn't resist listening to them any longer." Despite their countless devotees, the Dead still managed to evolve into one of the most maligned groups in rock. This is partly the fault of their fans, who—in the '90s especially—grew to include not only annoying trustafarians, but also a fair amount of disrespectful party boys. It is also partly the Dead's fault for continuing to give those fans the good times they craved, rather than attempting to stymie them. That said, the Dead's reputation as bloated tone-deaf noodlers is criminal, because whether you like them or not, all you need to do is listen to Anthem of the Sun to realize they were some of the most skilled and adventurous players outside the jazz world. It's even more criminal that many haters formed their opinion without ever listening to the band. But like all trends, all it takes is a few well-connected hipsters to grow their hair long and spread the word before you've got artists like Ryan Adams telling Harp that he thinks the Dead are "punk as fuck." And voila: The Dead's reputation as a quintessential American band is now widely accepted. As Sykes told me, she was once embarrassed to admit she liked the Dead—but it wasn't akin to the guilty pleasure of secretly liking, say, Mariah Carey. Instead, it was more like she couldn't understand why so few of her hip music friends were into them. That's not the case anymore, obviously, since she can now geek out over them in her living room with Carlson, a man responsible for some of the darkest metal riffs ever played. Of course, not everyone has been convinced—yet. There are several people in the music community who harbor nothing but disdain for the Dead and all they stand for. I was apparently way off in assuming the Tractor Tavern's Ryan Ellis might be a fan, since he had booked many of the aforementioned local Deadhead musicians. "I always hated the Dead," he told me. "I do drive an old VW bus, but I've got a bumper sticker that says 'Grateful They're Dead.'"

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