Love, Taste, and Sublime Dignity

Grateful Dead keyboard player Vince Welnick died June 2.

John Perry Barlow:

When Jerry Garcia died, Vince was alone among us in his wretched sense of utter loss. He attempted suicide about six months later, thereby 86ing himself from any further creative interaction with what was left of the Grateful Dead. As a culture, we were never big on emotional vulnerability. Like a caribou herd, we had learned, over a long period of time, to leave our cripples behind on the tundra rather than risk the entire local genome. That’s life, Dude. Devil take the hindmost.

It’s likely that Vince, while not exactly disliked, was the fans’ least-favorite of all the GD keyboard players. In his defense, he was stepping up just as Jerry was stepping down, and it’s a rare show from those years that’s worth listening to aside from archival investigation. But those few are hot. I suppose all this is just inside baseball, or the family’s dirty laundry. But maybe it’s important to know that for all the joy and light in the front of the hall, backstage was complicated and dark. Many in the audience thought they wanted to get backstage, but having been there once or twice, trust me, it’s not what you want. What you want are the results, the output, the benefits, the feelings, the buzz, the tribe, the cosmos—but no one need visit the sausage factory. Maybe backstage was once expansive and puckish, but after the shady characters arrived around ’77 or ’78, you’d best keep your distance. Garcia told the assembly of concerned family and friends “I see you got your list out, say your piece and get out,” and it was then a long slow decline, all the sadder since we watched it unfold before us, in slow motion over 15 years. [c.f. Boreal.]
Robert Hunter:

In the aftershock of the tragic death of Vince, an amiable man and a fine musician, the Grateful Dead is once more a target of public disdain, fueled by passion and indignation. Its ethics and humanity are being publicly questioned on a deeply troubling level. Sic transit gloria mundi. Do I know the score? To a degree. But I’m not concerned here with either justifying or condemning the attitudes which make a group of musicians, who must seal themselves together in that intimate time capsule called a tour, make the decisions they do concerning who they want to travel with and why. It’s not necessarily democratic and it’s not always pretty. They choose what they choose for reasons as much personal as professional.

But what if what you read is only half true? What if events tally but the interpretation placed on them is wrong? What if events have justifying precedents and antecedents of which you are entirely unaware? Or, if aware, interpret by a code of valuation foreign to the situation of participants? Are you willing to throw over something you truly prize on the basis of hearsay? Listen – I know these people. They’re bastards. Yet I find myself here trying to interject a little perspective into their public scorching because they’re my bastards. They played the songs I helped write with love, taste and sublime dignity. You know what I’m saying because you heard it too.

A shelf of books could be written and still only lightly perturb the surface of who the Grateful Dead were, are, and why. A book must have a point of view and I submit there is none extant sufficiently wide and informed to do more than tease curiosity. That possibility probably passed with Ramrod. Think of something approaching your own life’s complexity of nuance and multiply it by the number of characters in our scene, past and present, and put the spotlight of the world on it – see what I mean? There is an official Grateful Dead story, chronological highlights which are largely, and rightly, Garcia oriented, but no possibility of a comprehensive estimation. It wasn’t a story, it was life.

I may personally believe the only answer is to continue creating one’s art while being careful not to live beyond one’s means, physically or psychically. Sure. But that’s not what people want to know. What they want to know is: who’s to blame? Not the music. If the music were to blame they wouldn’t be asking the question in the first place. Play the recordings. I put as many clues there as I could. In a way, they are one long letter to the Grateful Dead. The tensions involved created art. I think that art lives. Go there for answers.

The rest of our lives will offer a parade of heros passing. Dylan, Phil, Bobby, Billy, Mick, Keith, Carlos, et al. God rest ye merry gentlemen. Please don’t be sad, if it was a straight mind you had, we wouldn’t have known you all these years.