Like food, music is seasonal. For me, Nick Drake is forever the sound of spring, while Echo & the Bunnymen should not be played unless a chill marks the air. Autumn calls for R.E.M., and—while it's a highly uncool thing to admit, at least in some stodgy circles—the ripe, laughing tone of Jerry Garcia's guitar wafting over The Grateful Dead's rubbery groove has always felt like summer to me.
To those of us who might describe ourselves as former Deadheads, recalling those times is akin to remembering one's days as a cult member, before we quit voluntarily or were rescued. Although I was deeply fascinated by the music and showed up at every concert I could attend fully prepared to have my mind blown, I was never a true Dead freak to the exclusion of all else. But I spent a lot of time with true Dead freaks: There was Jimmy Lee, who famously slapped the hand of his girlfriend as she reached to eject one of his treasured live Dead cassettes before the applause had completely died down. The ne'er-do-well son of a canned seafood magnate, Johnny Sebasco smashed the windows of his father's house when the old man refused to underwrite Johnny's ride on the Dead's '81 summer tour.
I was at least Deadhead enough to scribble set lists in microprint on my ticket stubs, to debate whether Bob sang "left his dead ass there by the side of the road" or "left his dead ass dead by the side of the road" in "Me and My Uncle," and to regret missing the third night of the band's five-night stand at the Garden because, as legend has it, Night No. 3 was the best by far.
As a junior in college, I still carried the torch, remaining blissfully allegiant not just to the band but to its idea. When a young, acerbic English professor made a derisive aside about the Dead during a class discussion that touched on the counterculture, I opined that the Dead's fan base were more than fans, they were a community. "Right you are," he responded in the same tone he used when extrapolating on Pynchon or Cheever. "A community of idiots."
Maybe he was right, but every summer the weather turns and that community of idiots taps me on the shoulder. I rejoin them for a little while, suddenly wanting nothing more than to listen to several 15-minute takes on "Eyes of the World." I'll head over to archive.org and dive deep into a newly uploaded audience tape of a 1987 concert with "the best 'Brown Eyed Women' ever." Sometimes I'll dig out my hard drive for all 32 Europe '72 performances and check out, say, the May 18 show at Kongressaal Deutsches Museum in Munich, where they played "Sittin' on Top of the World." That's a relative rarity, if you didn't know.
After a few weeks, I've generally had my fill. When you've marinated in them for a few weeks, the flavors become overfamiliar; the flubbed notes and time-wrecked vocals take their toll. Besides, there's a new record by the Liars out that deserves my proper attention, so once again, it's back to the future.