Thursday, August 24, 2006

Ann Coulter, Ratdog, and deadhead Identity

{First set – Ann Coulter and Greek Culture}

Having just gone to see Ratdog at Radio City Music Hall several weeks ago, I started thinking about deadhead identity, which reminded me of a recent interview with Ann Coulter on I just re-read the interview, and wanted to respond to a couple of things… I do need to start off by admitting that, due to how busy (and sometimes lazy) I usually am, I really have not done a great job of keeping up with politics over the last few years – so I do not really know much about Coulter’s political views. However, there seems to be much animosity between her and persons that I have paid attention to and that I respect. Therefore, I am guessing that she and I would tend to disagree on many points….

The point that matters the most here: is Ann Coulter a deadhead? Whereas Taylor Hill, the interviewer, states, "there’s no doubting her tie-dyed credentials," the article does, in fact, leave me doubting her "credentials."
My primary response is to say that she is not really a "true" deadhead. Yet, what ARE the credentials for being a "deadhead?" I personally don’t believe that being able to claim attendance at a bunch of shows and knowing song titles makes one a deadhead. Since she grew up in a "preppie town," tends "to associate the Dead with lacrosse players," and hung out with fraternities, I’m guessing that she was in a sorority. Since she went to Cornell, and would go sailing before concerts, I’m guessing that she also has always had access to money, which often seems part and parcel of those involved in Greek culture (as well as politics).

In my personal experience, those involved in the Greek culture have a very identifiable appearance. Isn’t it quite easy to spot a "frat boy" or a "sorority girl," based on how they dress, talk, and act? Sure, there are folks in these groups who do not so easily fit the mold – but for the most part, there is almost a cookie cutter look to those involved in the Greek scene. Of course the same might be said of "deadheads," (or any group, for that matter) as entering a Dead parking lot is like traveling back in time. However, just as there were a few "true" deadheads who found their way into the Greek scene, it should not have surprised anyone that a few folks from that scene then found their way into the Dead scene. Cross-pollination has occurred – and naturally so, as these two groups need not be mutually exclusive.

However, in my personal opinion, those involved in the Greek scene have always had a tendency to be very fad-oriented. Even their very "uniform" gives them a distinctive look – most notably fraternity guys with their baseball cap turned backwards, the shades resting on the brim of the cap, etc… If I am right about Coulter being in a sorority, then she even displays in the interview this very tendency towards hopping on board with the fad. She says, "Truth be told I hated tie-dye, though I finally broke down and would wear tie-dyed Dead shirts to concerts solely as a tribute to my fellow deadheads." She follows this with several other "we were supposed to" statements, which further illustrate an almost BORG-like mentality about the deadhead subculture: "I even love ‘Alabama Getaway,’ which I gather deadheads are supposed to spurn for being ‘commercially successful.’ (Of course, we were also supposed to say, ‘Phil makes the band.’)" I’m sure there were many deadheads who liked this song. Likewise, I’m sure there were many that hated the song based solely on either the music or the lyrics (after all, don’t we all have certain songs that we love and hate?) And what the hell is this statement about Phil? Where did that come from?

So, is it possible to claim that at some point (probably before I even started going to Dead shows) the Dead became the latest fad for Greek culture? Is there any connection between this claim, the appearance on the top-40 charts and MTV of the hit song, 'Touch of Grey,' and the Dead’s rise to the top of the touring world? Please enlighten me on this, as I was not part of the touring scene before 1990. I heard that even through much of the ‘80s, it was a very relaxed atmosphere, and that much of that disappeared when the Dead started selling out football stadiums. Either way, at some point, it seems that the Dead became a de facto band of choice for Greek culture – not that it was the only band they listened to, but it surely became one of the bands that they ALL listened to. Does this mean that frat boys and sorority girls (including Coulter) are not "true" deadheads, but just folks jumping on the latest Greek craze?

{Set break – just a few visceral reactions to parts of her interview}:

Coulter: "Oddly enough, I like the music. No one believes that I never took drugs at Dead shows (except for the massive clouds of passive marijuana smoke) but I went because I really liked the music." WHAT? Oddly enough, she likes the music? As if the rest of those in attendance took drugs to compensate for the fact that they had to listen to the music? This comment alone convinces me that she really is not in tune with other deadheads.

Coulter: "Also there was a big deadhead Christian group that handed out terrific pamphlets at Dead shows. Admittedly, many of them found God staring into a puddle while high on LSD, but whatever the path, they were very serious Christians." This is just FULL of problems. First of all, MANY deadheads were raised Christian – and many still held some kind of faith in god long before they first experimented with drugs. Plus, the ritualistic feeling of Dead shows (as well as the religious experiences to be possibly found through attendance) was an obvious outlet for those seeking to continue some kind of positive communal experience without the rigid structure and often persecuting nature of churches. And, as Gertner points out in Weiner’s Perspectives on the Grateful Dead, there are also many Jewish deadheads. Coulter makes it sound like we were a bunch of godless heathens who just came to shows to take drugs and not listen to the music.

Coulter: "She might not like "Space", but no one who was not on drugs did." Okay, first of all (and correct me if I’m wrong), didn’t the wharf rats meet at the SET BREAK, and not during space? Second of all, I realized this was an interview, but her language almost suggests that however SHE (and her group of friends) felt about space was the agreed-upon feeling for all deadheads. Did she ask others about this? I guess I should not be surprised that someone with strong political leanings speaks, as just one part, on behalf of the WHOLE. I personally saw the Dead drunk, as well as on all kinds of drugs. But, I also saw them several times completely sober – and enjoyed drums and space at each show. All of these brazen statements, as well as others, lead me to strongly dismiss her "credentials" as a deadhead.

{Second Set – deadhead Identity)

So, at the Ratdog show, I was reminded of one of the things that used to bug me about shows: those persons who feel the need to sing EVERY word to EVERY song as loud as they can. Really, guys, (and it’s usually guys), I didn’t pay my hard earned money to hear YOU sing. I came to hear the band. (Keep in mind this is coming from a professional singer as well – so, maybe I’m also slightly judgmental about these guys because they really can’t sing.)

There was one guy in particular at the Ratdog show who not only did this, but he even sang the "sound bytes" of the songs (those lines that EVERYBODY knows and sings together in chorus) in anticipation BEFORE the musicians. It was as if he was saying, "See how well I know this song? I have memorized ALL the words!" Congratulations. You are in a class all your own.

I’ve often felt that people who sing all the words to all the songs were trying to prove something. Let’s face it – at some point in the history of the deadhead subculture, it became really freaking cool to be a deadhead. If you can gain entrance into a really cool group, and show that you can be as cool (and knowledgeable) as anybody in the group, then that must provide a strong feeling of acceptance and security.

Case in point: set lists. I honestly doubt that there was one particular point in deadhead subculture when one particular deadhead decided, "Hey, I wonder how cool I would look if I started referencing shows and set lists… like, ‘Hey man, remember 6/9/79? What a killer Shakedown that was! And into Scarlet – Fire ta boot!!’" No, I believe that this type of "language" evolved on its own, and became the norm of communication for deadheads to share the experience of the show with those who missed out that night. So, in order to be a "deadhead," hadn’t you better learn the lingo? Shouldn’t you get as many bootlegs as possible and be knowledgeable in what songs were played when? It seems like keeping set lists became more a matter of status than of practicality.

Hadn’t you also better go to as many shows as possible? Let’s face it – the number of shows one attended became a benchmark in the community, did it not? Of course, however, it’s not cool to know exactly how many you went to, as if you were counting. Coulter makes damn sure to make it clear that she does not know. (I, for one, do know how many shows I attended. But I’m not telling.)

So, is Coulter a true deadhead? Who is really qualified to say? I don’t believe that I, or anyone for that matter, regardless of how one feels about her, can truly say for sure, as the term "deadhead" is incredibly vague anyway. So I, for one, will say that it is not my place to say whether or not Coulter, or anyone else, is a deadhead. If she enjoys the music, then she should go to shows. I probably wouldn’t have much to say to her, but we ultimately go to listen to the music anyway, right? (Except, of course, for the majority of those in attendance, who go just for the drugs….)

However, Coulter states: "Apart from Al Gore, Al Franken is the most un-deadhead like person I know of who purports to be a deadhead." Even though we cannot say for sure if Coulter is a deadhead, I would say that as we attempt to label that which possibly could never be labeled, that somebody who thinks it is up for them to decide who is or is not a deadhead is, themselves, NOT a deadhead. (Although, by my own logic, I guess that statement makes me NOT a deadhead, right?)

{Encore – Comes a Time}

Perhaps there comes a time when we need to let go of trying to define what a deadhead is. Perhaps it is not up to anyone but the individual to accept or reject that label for themselves.

Coulter says, "There are various groups I get enthusiastic about for awhile, but of all the music I've listened to over the years, the Grateful Dead is the one band I never grow tired of." My good friend Matthew Hise (check out his work!, who was instrumental in turning me on to the Dead, one time categorized a deadhead as someone who can listen to the Dead at ANY given point… someone who will never grow tired of the Dead’s music. If Coulter wants to call herself a deadhead, then that is fine with me.

However, if folks are going to get into the business of whether or not they want to call themselves deadheads, then they need to recognize that they are part of a community that is greater than themselves. And if they want to take part in that community, I submit that they should adopt – and everyone should be encouraged to follow – Jesus’ mandate about praying found in Matthew 6 (which I strongly suggest for everyone to look up and digest), the gist of which is to do it in private, and not to do it openly to be seen by all. I would add to this that if any particular deadhead is an individual of national stature, then they should be very responsible and careful with what they say about the Dead and deadheads – because all it takes is ONE person who is well known to negatively color the minds and influence the opinions of the general public about this most beloved community of ours.

We can expect this from those outside of the community. The danger lies more with those on the inside who act irresponsibly.

You can re-read Coulter’s interview at:


Anonymous ProdigalT said...

I didn't find that overly long at all. Having never been to a Dead show, I'm not sure how qualified I am to agree or disagree with your theses. In all fairness, though Ann Coulter is a total bitch, I think some of her ideas just sound more stupid than they actually are. For example, when she says she "actually liked the music," I think she's not saying that normal people have to be high to enjoy it. On the other hand, the crossover between the Dead and Greek Culture might actually be the marijuana.

These days, smoking cigarettes almost carries a larger stigma than marijuana, and I have more than a few friends who smoke pot but not tobacco. Go to any frat house and notice how many bongs are prominently displayed on the mantle.

I've been to several Phish shows, which are similar in drug culture to the Dead. There were true phanatics who followed them everywhere, knew set lists, and discussed the meanings behind their often nonsensical lyrics and there were people who went mostly for the music; but for a few, going to a Phish show was just a big excuse to get really really high. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does tend to diminish the experience of community and shared experience that goes together with being at a giant concert. Of course, I got plenty high as well, but the concert wasn't an excuse for it.

On a slightly different note, I think it's totally pretentious for people to think that fans are "supposed to" dislike a song for being commerically successful. "Free," Phish's only bona fide hit is a good song - there's a reason songs are successful. It's not my favorite of theirs, but I'm not going to dislike it just because it had some success. Similarly, I hope nobody hates me because I like "Touch of Grey" (not my favorite either, but I don't hit skip when it comes up on shuffle either).

5:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home