Grateful for ‘Grateful Dawg’

by Jesse Fask
Until this movie, I never really understood the appeal of the Grateful Dead. It’s all about friendship and creating art.

I was introduced to the Grateful Dead through my dad’s vinyl records, and he would play their tapes in our station wagon on road trips up I-95 and sing to “Sugaree.”I did not really get it.

I went to three Grateful Dead concerts in the early nineties and began to understand a little better the appeal of the music and the culture. My friends and I would joke about the Deadheads. Still, Dead shows in the nineties seemed like people living in the past.

The parking lot scenes at the Capital Center and RFK Stadium during those Dead shows were always described to me as fantastic, but to me the fusion of aging flower children, frat boys, and neo-hippy teenagers selling veggie burritos didn’t do it for me.

What did do it for me was the music. How the band could just break down a song and rearrange it and then bring it back to that same song, when you’d forgotten what song they’d started out with, to me that was beautiful.

When Jerry Garcia died, I was in college, and I put up a picture of him in my dorm room. It was a magazine cover from Rolling Stone with Garcia’s years of birth and death in parentheses. I was quick to defend myself against charges of being a hippy, what with my long hair and all, and now with the Garcia picture up.

I always explained that I liked the music of the Dead a lot and was not a hippy. But the next school year, the Garcia picture did not go back up.

Fast forward several years. I went to go see “Grateful Dawg” at the Charles Theater last week. I was a little worried, because I have a hard time sitting through slow music-oriented pieces of art. I love music, but music in a movie or jazz club or symphony hall or opera house where you’re expected to just sit and listen to music for long periods of time with no plot or characters—that’s not for me. I guess like many others in my generation, I am easily bored. But I found “Grateful Dawg” to be a very moving film about friendship. Not many films are about people who care about each other who are not lovers or family members. It’s hard to pull off in a mere two hours.

Television has produced some if its best programs around such a premise, though. The appeal of “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” is the friendships. People identify with the characters. Even if characters on those shows aren’t the nicest people, they are real and you can relate to them and they care about each other. They feel like your own friends.

It may seem strange to compare “Grateful Dawg” to these sit-coms. It’s about guys hanging out, in this case David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, long-time friends and fantastic bluegrass musicians.

In the sit-coms, you have great friendships that produce what I would call beautiful art: great, funny writing. In “Grateful Dawg,” the great art that these friends create is their music. You can see it on Garcia and Grisman’s faces as they play. And it is filmed by David Grisman’s daughter, who recognizes this.

Jerry Garcia just comes off as such a nice guy, really cool. I read a lot of stuff about rock stars, and so often they seem arrogant and full of themselves. Not Garcia.

The advantage that “Grateful Dawg” has over most such films is that it is obvious from the beginning of the movie how intimate the friendship is because it’s in every note of their music. (The only exception to this is when the film shows an over-the-top Garcia-Grisman music video where everything is choreographed and the two old friends are dressed in gangster suits—a ridiculous section that does not fit with the rest of the movie.)

The other 75 minutes of the movie is Grisman and Garcia hanging out, and it is beautiful, a testament to the power of a good documentary and a real friendship.

At the end of the film, they discuss the death of Garcia over a Garcia-and-Grisman version of the classic Dead tune “Friend of the Devil.” The death to Garcia really began to mean something to me—and it had nothing to do with the Dead or drugs or hippies or a scene. It had to do with Jerry being a good guy and a good friend, from what I could tell from the film. It was almost enough for me to search for that old picture of Garcia from the Rolling Stone and put it up on my wall. Hopefully, by this point, I’m not too afraid of people thinking I’m a hippy.

Jesse Fask, a Charles Village resident, attends the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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This story was published on December 5, 2001.