The Grateful Dead were foreign to me until I started learning the drums. In a way, they're still pretty far away from my usual 45-minute-or-so high-volume blast through the Magnavox jam-box — a nightly habit I still enjoy. I currently have every studio and live album ever released by The Who, The Minutemen, and Mission of Burma in my collection, but only one Dead LP — a borrowed copy of American Beauty I never managed to return (sorry, Fred).
I think I was 12 years old when I first saw what any members of the Grateful Dead actually looked like. A shiny Zildjian poster in the old Pecknel Music on King Street pictured the band's drummer duo Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann, side-by-side, surrounded by shiny crashes, rides, and hi-hats. This the was the first time I'd ever heard of a rock band with two guys playing almost identical drum kits (those .38 Special videos had yet to hit MTV). Mickey and Billy looked like typical rock drummers of that time, but on the older, '70s-ish side of things — mustached layovers from the previous generation of rock stars or something. Compared to the New Wave and punk bands of the time, they looked avuncular.
Through high school, most of my garage band mates and friends dug into a variety of rock bands — mostly newer, slightly underground stuff, and barely any of the freaky hippie-rock across the border of Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan ever hit the turntable.
It was my senior year of high school before I actually listened to a classic Dead album from front to back. The band had released In the Dark, and the clip for "Touch of Grey" landed in heavy rotation on MTV. "Touch of Grey" sounded mild and undynamic to my ears, and the video with the band done up as skeletons on stage looked ridiculous.
That year, I hooked up with few new bandmates in a group called the Heytire Blowouts. They had good record collections with plenty of early-era Dead stuff. I'd switched from drums to bass, so I had to hustle when they assigned me to learn "Uncle John's Band" and "Friend of the Devil" — two songs that balanced the band's loose interaction and yelpy singing with sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic ideas. I liked what I heard, and I listened to more on such slabs as the folk-styled Workingman's Dead and the more orchestral From the Mars Hotel. But that's about as deep as I got.
Early August is a heavy time for the genuine Grateful Dead fans around here. Guitarist, singer, and founding member Jerry Garcia was born on Aug. 1, 1942 in San Francisco. He played with the band for 30 years before his passing on Aug. 9, 1995 (also in San Francisco).
Dead-friendly music venue the Pour House carries on with a traditional "Jerry Garcia Birthday Celebration" every year to acknowledge and celebrate the life and music of the rock icon. They've booked two events this year — one from a veteran group who shares early, deep roots with Garcia, and another one from an ensemble aiming to and re-deliver key musical song and improvisational moments from Dead concerts.
California-based band The New Riders of the Purple Sage perform at the Pour House at 8 p.m. on Fri. Aug. 7. They regrouped about five years ago and gradually assembled Where I Come From, which includes seven songs by Robert Hunter (the Dead's longtime lyricist). On Sat. Aug. 8 the Athens, Ga.-based group Cosmic Charlie will handle a little bit of everything from the Grateful Dead's vast catalog (they took their name from a song on the 1969 Dead album Aoxomoxoa). Thy consider themselves "a Dead cover band for folks that are ambivalent about Dead cover bands."
Maybe someone will play "Uncle John's Band" over the weekend. I'd twirl around to that. Check out charlestonpourhouse.com for more.