How to Keep Your Tribe Alive Even When They’re Dead

Emotional connections, particularly ones along bloodlines or long timelines, make for the strongest loyalties. Even if Uncle Leroy is always nipping at the cooking sherry and his nose hairs now seem to be braided with jungle vines, you remember that he never forgot a birthday, and always had a kind word. And even if your old high school pals are too busy accompanying their kids to clarinet practice (so they can grab their children’s smartphones to see who they’ve been sexting), it’s still a joy to see them on their random free occasion, because these are your old buds, your original peeps—they liked the geek you were back then and cherish the geek you are today. Real connections, often tied by time, are timeless.

Emotional connection is the catalyst for that amazing Amanda Palmer Kickstarter story: If you read any of Palmer’s Kickstarter supporter updates on the band’s appearances, the progress of the recording, or the latest place where she appeared naked, you understood why her fans felt connected: she is personal, she is profane, she is real, and leaves it all out there for her people. People connect with the unsanitized, uncensored phenomenon that she is.

A (Third) Eye-Opening Archive Opening
Which leads me to the event I attended a few days ago, the inaugural opening of the Grateful Dead archives. The University of California at Santa Cruz is now the permanent repository of a boggling array of Dead memorabilia, artifacts and documentation: photographs, recordings, artwork, set lists, and truckloads of marvelous more. The band toured for 30 years, and fed a growing (and glowing) body of fervid fans with an eclectic mix of psychedelic rock, blues, country, jazz and experiential noodling that made every concert unique. Early on, they invited their fans to write to them, and write they did: the archive includes myriad wild missives of colorful (and skillful) illustration and expression. The Deadhead virus mutated, regenerated, spawned and colonized.

So it was interesting to go to the archive event, where a capable jam band, Moonalice, played in the bright sunshine outside the university library, and where pony-tailed gentlemen swayed and long-haired lassies twirled to the music, just like the old days. The fact that much of that hair was thinning, with more than a touch of gray, is part of the point: even though Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the lines of connections from time past kept the Dead’s unique electricity alive. Having gone to many a Dead concert myself, dating back to the early 70s, I sensed the feeling of the crowd. I knew these people. I nodded and smiled to them and they nodded and smiled to me. We shared an emotional connection.

Feed Your Tribe
It’s clear that feeding a tribe, developing a base of enthusiasts for your work can make for so much more than profit and loss. No matter if you push punctuation around for a living or make bacon-flavored popsicles, if your fans feel your actual pulse, if the hand you reach out to them is warm and alive, the product is secondary. As E. M. Forster said, “Only connect.” The rest will follow.

As for the Dead themselves, various incarnations of the band still play on a regular basis, all over the country. And those 30 years of touring didn’t merely produce many a memorable show: the recordings from the thousands of concerts are regularly mined and released as special collections, often as complete concert events. The Dead Net forums are very much alive, with concert-experience conversations—”Dude, the Dark Star they played in the Meadowlands in ’73 was the signature statement”—peppering the boards. And you can still buy tie-dyed t-shirts, though, in a concession to time, now you can buy Skull and Roses-embossed diaper bags. (I hope that doesn’t mean for adult diapers.)

Play on. And on.

6 thoughts on “How to Keep Your Tribe Alive Even When They’re Dead

  1. You’re a geek?

    And that post title has got to be one of your best.

    Who knows what was in the cookies, but I feel like I ate one of ‘em and am getting a secondary high down here in SoCal—because I’m thinking how wonderfully trippy it is that you and I were complete strangers decades ago, whirling (perhaps in parallel) at that Dead concert in the Bay Area, and today, thanks to the Internet, I get to harass you on your blog with impunity.

    Oh, and I dig Amanda “F***ing” Palmer, the woman and her music.

    PS With your writing you feed your fans with moments of the raw and real too.

  2. Wow, I would have really enjoyed going to that event. I’ve mentioned the archive at UCSC on a number of occasions and I’ve been asked “Why Santa Cruz? What does the dead have to do with Santa Cruz?” I don’t know the answer to that, but I did live in a house on Walnut Street back in the 90s and the owner swore up and down that one of the Mary Pranksters lived there back in the 60s and the Grateful Dead hung out there all the time. That’s what I tell them.

  3. Annie, geek I be. It is funny that we were likely time-traveling in the same sphere so many concerts ago—you sure did dress funny then.

    Impunity? No, no, madame—it’s just that my recriminations are subtle. Wait until you try to dot some i’s and cross some t’s—I’ve gotten into the inkwell.

    See you at the next sale on tie-dyed shoes…

  4. Hey Steven, I have heard that one of the Pranksters lived in Santa Cruz; I think it was Lee Quarnstrom, who used to write for some of the old Santa Cruz newspapers, and the Mercury News for a while. I know the Dead spent time in the Cruz, but to what extent I have no idea.

    I’m sure all of your old housemates tried to lick the walls and bannisters of that old house to see if there were any leftovers from the psychedelic days. But of course, you would have been too dignified to have tried any of those shenanigans.

  5. yes, Quarnstrom was one of the Merry Pranksters and had Ken Kesey, Zonker and many others of that group stay at the house behind Shopper’s Corner in S.C. The Dead spent quite a lot of time with them in the earlier days, too, in Zayante and the other place up in the SC mountains. (Can’t remember the name of the town….)

  6. Hey Dee, thanks for the little bite of history. Do you know that from personal experience (were you a Deadhead in this area?), or just from dipping your toes into psychedelic history?

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