Our old leopard cur, Clio, loved to dance to the Grateful Dead. When “Uncle John’s Band” or “Sugar Magnolia” blew from the speakers and the windows started shaking she would dance with a smile, her brown eye focused on the here and now, her ice blue eye with the brown pie-piece wedge scanning the cosmos. She danced only to the Dead—not because they were all she heard but because how could she not? The Dead were the world’s house band, in the finest sense of the word.
Clio was a junkyard dog who took life as it came. She loved to charge through the woods with abandon, a pleasure that nearly brought her death one day in Vermont when at full tilt she flew off the lip of an abandoned quarry with a 100-foot drop to rocks. She managed to turn in free fall and get her front paws latched onto a small ledge. There she clung with a look on her face of horror mingled with panic. With Gina holding on to my left hand and on to a sapling that was bent double by our collective weight, I edged over the lip and stretching as far as I could just managed to grab the 50-round dog by the scruff of her neck and one-arm her up and over to firm ground.
After that adventure, Clio’s life was a long improvisation. She ghosted through my memory while I read Nick Paumgarten’s piece, “Annals of Obsession: Deadheads,” in the November 26, 2012, New Yorker. Paumgarten’s homage evokes theband without nostalgia but with appreciation and even love. In so doing it raises personal memories and collective history, for although the Dead were not political, they were thoroughly subversive.
On lead guitar, Jerry Garcia was sui generis, a force unto himself. When the energy flowed, his playing became incandescent—and rose to a different state, pulling the entire show, audience not excepted, with him. He was a wicked banjo player, too.
Of course it’s impossible to think of the Dead without wanting to hear them again and finding in the tapes from 30 years of touring a previously unknown gem, like a cover, seldom performed, of “Walking the Dog,” the 1963 Rufus Thomas hit that turns that prosaic activity into something sensual, seductive, more than vaguely risqué.
I’m walking the dog
I’m out walking the dog
If you don’t know how to do it
I’ll show you how to walk that dog
Paumgarten says that between 1965 and 1995 the Dead performed 2,314 concerts, all captured on tape and most archived. Those tapes, the record of the Dead’s long strange trip, are the focus of Paumgarten’s essay. The quality of those performances resembles a map of our days, ranging from the sublime to the embarrassing and lamentable. Listening to them again is like visiting with an old friend without whose company life would be diminished.