Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Dead Heads Pay Their Dues

A Grateful Dead concert at the Felt Forum is postflower America reveling in its contradictions, but Dominique was reminded of the Soviet Union, where the queue has not withered away, and elbowing ahead of your comrades is a national pastime. As we pushed on in toward our complimentary third-row seats, the crowd got heavier, and so did the contradictions. The cross section of Dead heads--heavy music proles and suburban folkies and old rock and rollers--is a confusing combination of our fabled new community and the nightmare mob of Ortega y Gasset. Half the audience avoids the crush, but the remainder presses forward, packing the aisles and the front rows, and everyone is up and boogieing. To boogie, you just stand and move to the music, relating to your brothers and sisters no matter how stoned you are because your brothers and sisters are sweating and boogieing on all sides. It isn't a dance, and not just because there isn't room at a concert--even in seatless halls the floor is always tight up front. Folks do dance with each other in back, but for most the exhilaration of the boogie increases exponentially with the proximity of the musicians, and if Jerry beams his cosmic grin down at someone, he/she will not shriek like a twelve-year-old chickie at the TAMI Show but just boogie harder.

The dismay of the mass-culture theorists and their politely raised offspring is understandable--too many people in too little space, all competing to get to the fore of the hero-worshiping swarm, ignoring the hard-earned wisdom of the fire laws and damaging property that they and their sibling consumers will pay for in the end. Many of the boogiers are usurpers who buy cheap seats and confidently move up or just sneak in to begin with. Despite the love-and-community rhetoric and sacramental joint-passing, the boogiers do discriminate against the weak and the short and the timid--a few always pass out, many more get sick, and eventually someone will die--and a boogieing biker is almost as likely to knock your head off at a Dead concert as anywhere else. Yet when we finally reached our seats, we had no trouble claiming them, and the wallet and cigarettes that Dominique had unknowingly dropped at the other end of the row were passed down a minute later. A girl standing in front of us started to bum out but revived when an orange miraculously materialized. Regulars greeted other regulars, remembered from previous boogies, and compared this event with a downer in Boston or a fabulous night in Arizona.

A lot of people avoid live rock because they can't stand the crowds. In a medium-sized hall where the music can be felt in back, that smacks of the old aristocratic bullshit to me. Rock and roll developed as it did because it was a mass art, and if it can bring us together in a celebration, that's good--club intimacy and living-room privacy are fine, but in the end I am proboogie. The Dead, who played four nights at the Felt Forum instead of filling Madison Square Garden and who arranged a special live broadcast on WNEW-FM to accommodate those who couldn't make it, demonstrate that despite the contradictions, live performances are still a viable form. Ideally, the band radiates fun while a hip, property-oriented tough like Bill Graham, who produced the series, does the work. Someone has to pay, I guess, but anyone clever enough to get past Graham deserves to boogie as much as this reporter. A lot of hassle might be avoided if reserved seats were eliminated--the fanatics should be in front, first-come-first-serve. The risks and the contradictions are real, but the principle seems to be that a good time involves a few dues. That doesn't seem like such a bad principle to me.

Village Voice, Dec. 1971
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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