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.

Dude, Garcia Looked Right At Me—I’m Awesome!

Damn, who's he looking at now?

Long ago, a hundred bad haircuts into my Jurassic past, I regularly attended Grateful Dead concerts. I went to a lot of them, because for me and a zillion other fervid fans, the Dead could get us off, riding a mass-mind and bouncing-body electric-rhythm rocket, unlike any other band. When the the Dead were crackling, they had the audience bonded in an escalating excitement of communal glee. Sure, it might have been the acid, but I actually was courageous enough to occasionally attend Dead concerts where I didn’t take acid, and that you-had-to-be-there effect was still pronounced: a shared sense of good times and collective conviviality that seems completely corny when I try to describe it now.

One of the amusing side notes of being among the ragged clowns that tagged after the Dead train was that during one of Jerry Garcia’s piquant, extended guitar noodlings, there would invariably be among the crowd of bliss kittens a guy who would turn, a Saul at Damascus look in his eyes, and gush to whomever was listening, “Jerry, looked right at me! We connected, man! Did you see it?” And for the rest of the concert, the fellow touched by the divine was just a little higher than anyone else, if that was possible. I directly heard variants of that statement many times, and read the same long years later in concert reviews online, when one of the faithful described the moment that lifted him. (And note: this was always a man that staked this claim—the women seemed content to merely twirl in the tantalizing twists of sound.)

Though I always played on the periphery of the true believers, and was caught up many times in the glow of the groove, I never could climb to the top of that ladder, where Garcia’s gown glimmered—my articles of faith always needed editing. I’ve always marveled at the faith that people have, in a God described to them from pages written lifetimes ago, faith in the depth of their abilities, however limited or constrained by evidence, faith in the certainty that Garcia looked right at them, man. As far as I can remember, I’ve been uncomfortable, or perhaps jealous of, deep expressions of faith and certainty in people and in movements, because there seems so much contingency and randomness in life. And because faith seemed so exclusionary of fact. But that’s the nature of faith, isn’t it?

Keeping the Faith (or Trying to Locate It)
This is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve been particularly lacking in conviction lately, about my writing, and about my place among the faithful and faithless, which is one reason why I haven’t been posting. I’ve become accustomed to the stints of mild depression I’ve experienced for many years, watching them and waiting them out, because they do always lift, though some phases last longer than others. It’s easy to get indulgent with our pains—”No, I couldn’t possibly write that essay today, I’m in a bad mood.” Bad moods can be useful delaying tactics.

Sometimes, when you are deep in your own head, that sense of “what’s the use of writing” can seem like all you’ve got. But the pain of writing disappointment is nothing compared to real emotional pain. A few days ago I was listening to a radio broadcast of interviews with wounded vets who were learning how to ride bicycles after their limbs had been blown off. All of them were expressing such an eagerness to move forward with the difficult therapy and complex equipment that would bring them back to the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Suffering does unite us, but hearing of suffering that seems leagues beyond your own serves as a good reality check. Those soldiers had faith they’d ride the bikes again; they were committed to doing the work to make it happen. It’s a different kind of faith than the intangible one I struggled with as an altar boy, trying to discern just when and how a little bit of flour could be transformed into the body of Christ by a priest’s declaration. I was always more interested in trying some of the sacramental wine.

Sharing the Feeling (the Stains Are Extra)
I said earlier that suffering unites us, but as Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My own way has been to be stuck, faithless in my head, but it’s time to get on the bike, get the kinks out, try and write without too much judgment.

But before the ride, one more concert story: I was at a Hot Tuna concert in L.A. back in my salad days. There was a break between sets where people were milling about in that hive-like concert way. I was sitting down on the floor, a ways from the stage. For some reason, my eyes lit on a fellow who was a fair distance away, wobbling and lurching about like he was very drunk. I idly watched him making a circuitous route through the crowd, probably keeping my eyes on him for several minutes. His wanderings finally took him to a spot directly in front of me, whereupon he unloaded a rich stream of vomit on the floor, with a fair amount landing on my pants. It wasn’t pleasant at the time, but the memory always makes me laugh, because I contrast it with the other concert experience of “Jerry looked at me!”

At least Jerry didn’t vomit on me. Keep the faith.