What your favorite Dead song says about you.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 29 2009 7:05 AM

Dead Reckoning

What your favorite Grateful Dead song says about you.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The Grateful Dead just won't go away. The surviving members reunited last year to throw their support behind Barack Obama, a blow to the McCain campaign, which had hoped to carry the crucial devil stick demographic. The band, buoyed by its successful foray into politics, went back on tour, performing simply as "the Dead." Its merchandising wing, meanwhile, continues to churn out product. Though most Dead shows can now be listened to online for free, the band has kept on releasing elaborately packaged albums, culled from its "vault" of live recordings. The most recent, To Terrapin, captures what many consider to be one of the Dead's greatest performances: the 1977 show at the Hartford Civic Center.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

No one, I dare say, will make such a claim for the 2009 Hartford show, which unfolded Sunday night at the same venue. After a rousing rendition of "Bertha," the Dead went on to play two perplexing sets, rewarding fans still spry enough for hallucinogenics while straining the good will of the crowd's many graying boomers, whose sensory perceptions were altered, at best, by a Bud Light and a Flomax.

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One wants to salute the Dead for not just playing the old favorites, though that sentiment faded for this fan around the nine-minute mark of the drum-heavy psychedelic dirge "King Solomon's Marbles." Given that the band isn't shying away from some of its more—how to put this?—"challenging" material on this tour, it's a good time to assess where you fall in the spectrum of Deadheadedness. This way, if your friend Larry in accounting mentions that he's got an extra ticket to an upcoming show, you'll know whether to say "Jack Straw from Wichita—I'm in!" or "Sorry, can't get a sitter that night." Herewith, a guide to what kind of fan you are, as revealed by your favorite Dead song. 

"Box of Rain": You're Lawrenceville class of '88, played midfield on the J.V. lacrosse team, and listened to the Dead only because fandom was de facto team policy. You received American Beauty as one of your 1-cent CDs from BMG (not as good a deal as it looked) and found the poignant if a bit hippy-dippy "Box of Rain" the most palatable of the songs on the record.

Yearbook quote: "Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there."

"Terrapin Station": The turtle decals dancing across the bumper of your Volvo 740 wagon—she's still got some pep!—attest to your love of the divisive "Terrapin." For many Dead fans, the "Terrapin" cycle represents an overreach, a seven-part suite complete with a Homeric invocation ("Let my inspiration flow …"), a mysterious love triangle, and liberal use of a rain stick. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter claims he wrote the words and Jerry Garcia the music on the same lightning-lit night … but with neither knowing what the other was up to. "Yeah, right," say most. "Right on!" say you.

Yearbook quote: "The sullen wings of fortune beat like rain. You're back in Terrapin for good or ill again. For good or ill again."

"Tennessee Jed": Before you met your wife, there was this girl named Brianna. Man, you still think about her sometimes. The weird thing is, she wasn't really your type. While you were paddling Vanderbilt freshmen over at the Sigma Chi house, she was hot-boxing in a VW bus with her vegan friend Judy. You hated all that drug stuff, but you were fond of Brianna's liberated approach in the boudoir (actually the back of the VW). Brianna dragged you to a few Dead shows, but you never thought Jerry had anything on Gregg Allman. To get through the experience, you'd double down on the Southern Comfort in the parking lot, then say a small prayer that the set list didn't include "Space."

Yearbook quote: "Drink all day and rock all night."

"Looks Like Rain": You're a girl. You fell in love with Bob Weir the first time you saw him at the Fillmore East—the rakish good looks, the adequate rhythm-guitar playing. You find the bad-cowboy Weir of "Me and My Uncle" very sexy, but it's the lovelorn Weir of "LLR" who swept you off your Birkenstocked feet. "I'll still sing you love songs, written in the letters of your name" is just about the most romantic lyric you can imagine, and you're pretty sure that at the Salt Lake City show in '73, Bob was looking right at you when he sang it. Alas, such a love song would be all but impossible to compose, your name being Zelda Quinn.

Yearbook quote: "My landscape would be empty if you were gone."

"Drums": You're a percussionist. There's really no other explanation.

Yearbook quote: "On the drums on stage right, Mr. Bill Kreutzmann."

"Cosmic Charlie": You know that line in "Scarlet Begonias," the one where Jerry talks about the sky being yellow and the sun being blue? For you, the sky and sun are really like that—have been ever since you dropped that tab of suspect provenance at the Avalon Ballroom show back in '69. Cosmic Charlie remained your favorite track despite the fact that the band retired it in, like, '76. Every now and then, you torture yourself by listening to your tape of the Great "Cosmic Charlie" Fakeout of '94. That night, in Oakland, the band played the opening bars of "Cosmic Charlie" but, just when the first verse would have kicked in, played "Wharf Rat" instead. The gods can be cruel.

Yearbook quote: "Dum dee dum dee doodley doo."

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