Perhaps no other major band in pop history has been as bad-rapped as the Grateful Dead. Though the band helped redefine the stylistic and cultural possibilities of American rock & roll in the late 1960s — in the process epitomizing psychedelia at its brainiest and brawniest and making possible the fusion of jazz structure and blues sensibility that would later help shape bands like the Allman Brothers — the Dead never really caught the imagination of the mass pop audience. According to the band's adherents, that's because the essence of the Dead wasn't something that could be readily gleaned from the band's studio recordings. Rather, the Dead's magic lay in their live extravaganzas, where the band's improvisational bent melded with its audience's devotion to achieve a communal ecstasy that few other rock & roll performers have equaled. As a result, the Dead have tended to play out their career, and make their meanings, almost entirely in the live moment, in the process attracting a mass cult audience for whom the group functions as the only ongoing force to keep faith with the dreams of community and utopia popularized in the 1960s. But to others, the Dead and their audience represent at best a kind of stasis or shopworn, defeated nostalgia. In other words, what endears the band to its supporters estranges many others.
Deadicated — a tribute album recorded to benefit organizations combating the devastation of the world's tropical rain forests — seeks to rehabilitate the Dead's pop reputation by stripping the group from its own music and turning the band's legacy over to a collection of politically sympathetic modem performers including Suzanne Vega, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Jane's Addiction, Burning Spear and sometime Dead keyboardist Bruce Hornsby. Ironically, the result may be the single most affirmative work of criticism ever assembled about the Dead: an affectionate reminder that at a certain juncture in American history, this band produced some of the loveliest and smartest rock & roll to be found.
Indeed, nearly every artist on Deadicated elected to cover a song from the group's work between 1970 and 1974. This was the period following not only the Dead's emergence from the collapse of the Haight-Ashbury community but also the debacle of the 1969 Altamont concert, which the Dead helped organize and at which a man was stabbed to death as the Rolling Stones performed. In the aftermath of these experiences, the Dead's two songwriting teams — lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and poet Robert Hunter, and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and rancher and author John Barlow — decided to strip their music of its fanciful psychedelic mannerisms and pare it down to simple constructions and plain imagery drawn from the vernacular of blues, folk and country music. More important, they also set out to address the changing nature of the world around them: They had been part of an exciting experiment in human community, and that community was fast turning ugly. Over the course of several albums (including Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, Europe '72 and Weir's and Garcia's first solo LPs), the Dead's writers composed a deeply affecting body of songs about the fragility of community and the high costs of disillusionment — songs that flirted with ageless American myths for the purpose of illuminating modem American troubles.
Granted, the concerns of posthippie rock culture may now seem remote, but the Dead's best music can still prove timely in surprising ways. In the tumult of the early 1970s, a song like Garcia and Hunter's "Ship of Fools" — a beautiful, harrowing song about a community of dreamers lost without a saving direction — could be taken as both a comment on the American temperament in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and as an admission of the band's own half-crazed waywardness in the wake of its collective history of disappointment, drugs and death. In the hands of Elvis Costello on Deadicated, however, "Ship of Fools" reveals new meanings and new passions. Costello sings the song as if he has to feel his way through the mournful contours of its melody in order to escape the surreal madness that the lyrics describe, until finally he hauls himself up to the song's climactic final plea. "Don't lend your hand / To raise no flag / Atop no ship of fools; he sings, in the saddest voice he has yet recorded. In the face of the feverish jingoism that has greeted the Persian Gulf war, the entreaty takes on a brave resonance.
By and large though, Deadicated's performances are hit or miss. For example, the Indigo Girls take the Dead's most enduring anthem, "Uncle John's Band," and expand its possibilities by opening it up to a female chorus — in effect, updating the song's vision of human harmony and social cooperation. Yet for all its intelligence and hopefulness, it lacks the original version's hint of risk, the hard-bitten sense that the delicate community the Dead were trying to construct might fly apart at any time. Similarly, Dwight Yoakam delivers a game, half-Bakersfield-country, half-Memphis-rockabilly version of "Truckin'," the Dead's famed autobiographical mini-epic; but whereas Yoakam seems bemused by the song's litany of drug busts, rip-offs and betrayals, the Dead have always seemed both frightened and elated performing the song.
And the list goes on: Los Lobos turn in a romping, gutbucket version of "Bertha;' and Warren Zevon and David Lindley crank our a roaring rendition of "Casey Jones," but both tracks lack the sense of abandon that made the Dead's originals so rollicking — and so threatening. Suzanne Vega renders a sublime, heartaching version of Garcia-Hunter's "China Doll," then blunts it by segueing into a lusterless reading of Weir-Barlow's "Cassidy." Bruce Hornsby and Midnight Oil turn in too-literal readings of "Jack Straw" and 'Wharf Rat," respectively. In the end, there isn't a genuinely bad cover in the bunch, though only a handful — "Ship of Fools," the Harshed Mellows' "U.S. Blues;' Burning Spear's "Estimated Prophet,". Dr. John's "Deal" and Jane's Addiction's "Ripple" — are inspired or ludicrous enough to surpass the originals.
Which is to say that perhaps what is missing from Deadicated is, after all, the Grateful Dead. For all its lapses, one thing the band has never done is play its own music with too much staidness or reverence. Rather, the Dead have always played their best songs as if running a collective risk — the risk of coming to comic ruin in pursuit of fleeting transcendence — were the only way to make it through life.
Deadicated makes an important point: that the Dead survive and continue to attract a fervent following because the group has something to say about the prospects of self-willed, idealistic community. As a monument to such ideals, the album is a fun tribute and a worthy cause. But even worthier would be an extensive retrospective set that might illustrate once and for all just how effectively the Grateful Dead have made the case for its own music for the last quarter-century and more.