Tuesday, November 27, 2012
November 26, 2012 Issue
Nick Paumgarten’s “Deadhead,” in this week’s issue, is a glorious, compelling, highly original exploration of the Grateful Dead’s “transformation, over time, from living thing to library.” I think it’s likely to become a classic for its remarkable description of Deadhead obsession with the band’s vast recorded legacy. The absorbing opening section is about the recovery of a batch of old Dead tapes called Betty Boards (“tapes made by Betty Cantor-Jackson, a longtime recording engineer for the Grateful Dead”) from a barn in Petaluma, California. The second section is a series of Paumgarten’s early “Grateful Dead” memories, including a recollection of attending his first Dead concert (“In the pavilion, the tapers had set up a cityscape of microphone stands, like minarets, and through them there was the sight of Jerry Garcia, fat and hunched, virtually immobile in a haze of his own cigarette smoke”). The writing in the second section is bravura; Garcia comes alive on the page (“But he played in long, convoluted paragraphs and snappy banjo blurts. Torrents of melody poured out of his stubby, tarred hands, chiming and snarling into the night”). The piece moves from strength to strength. It consists of fourteen unnumbered sections, each one a different facet of the world of tapeheads and geeks “who approach the band’s body of work with the intensity and the attention to detail that one might bring to birding, baseball, or the Talmud.” Section 11, in which Paumgarten and the Dead’s current archivist, David Lemieux, are driving from Burbank to the Bay Area, is my favorite. It contains a number of inspired sentences, including this arresting beauty: “The jam finished with a piano flourish, and I gave Lemieux a look of holy smokes, which he returned with one of that’s my girl, as though the choice flattered him.” “Deadhead” is a masterpiece. Reading it is bliss!