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Feels Good To Watch a Big Man Dance Part I: An introduction

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I’ve had a couple of people ask me over the last couple of months to tell some stories about my time in the proto-jamband scene. Since it doesn’t look like I have anything else to talk about, I guess I might as well.

Before I get into that, a little introduction into nomenclature. You’ll notice the phrase “proto-jamband” above. Before I’ve refereed to this period as the early jamband scene or the jamband scene before it became the jamband scene, or similar titles. I’ve settled on the name proto-jamband scene because in many ways it was a different scene. For one, it was more nebulous then what it would become down the road. There is a sense of anarchy in any scene when it is first starting to form. Anyone can be anything. One day the guy you’re chatting with over email is just another fan. The next day, they’re a professional music writer or big time promoter or they’ve started their own band. It is a crazy time in any scene and it was a crazy time in our little scene to.

If I had to put a point on when the proto-jamband scene became the full blown jamband scene, I guess I’d probably give the date of Aug 9th, 2005, the day Jerry died. As with any such date, there are arguments to be made about its validity. Evidence can be given to show that the jamband scene already existed at that point. Other evidence can be given that it occurred later. I’ve chosen Jerry’s death because of it’s relationship to the scene and how it effected the scene over all.

One way to see this is to look at the history of the scene up until that point. There was kind of a tug of war relationship between The Dead and the proto-jamband scene. Yeah, a lot of us were deadheads. (I personally didn’t accept that title until June of ’97, having never actually seen the Dead play with Jerry. I didn’t “get it” until I saw The Other Ones first tour.) At the same time, many of us, at least in the circles that I hung around in, were a little reluctant to advertise the fact. There really wasn’t any denial going on, but we wanted to be our own thing. And a lot of people wanted to just write us off as a bunch of spoiled suburban kids trying to relive our parent’s youth.

You could compare our relationship to the Dead to the one a teenager has with their parents. We were trying to become something that was uniquely our own thing. Influenced by what they and the other 60s band’s were doing, but something different at the same time. No matter what any kid says, deep down, chances are they still love their parents. And we still recognized the fact that many of us enjoyed the Dead and we all understood the debt we owed to them, but we still felt the need to put distance between us and them, publicly if not personally.

After Jerry died and the Dead stopped touring, things loosened up a bit. As the shadow of the Dead dimmed just a little bit, it became easier for us to acknowledge publicly the debt that we owed them. Eventually, the post-Dead projects would even come to be incorporated into the idea of a jamband scene in some people’s eyes. There are various reasons for this, not least of which is the influence of deadheads who were looking for new bands to follow. Another reason though was that with Jerry’s death, we were finally allowed to step out front and be our own people. And not just a bunch of kids pretending to be something that we weren’t.

And that isn’t to say that we all were deadheads or would become deadheads down the road. Early “desert island top five albums of all time” threads on rec.music.phish or various email lists were just as likely to turn up entries for Nirvana, Pavement, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, or various other punk/post punk/indie bands as they were to turn up references to 60s groups. We were a diverse group of people and our record collections showed that.

Another way to see why I chose Jerry’s death is to look at what happened to the scene afterwards. Some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met had been heads for a long time when Jerry died. The fact of the matter though is that there was a lot of crap on Dead tour as well. There were a lot of people who were just looking for an excuse to do a lot of drugs and live as selfish a life as possible. Because of the size and economics of Dead tour, most of these people rarely ventured away from the Dead scene before 95. The Dead provided them with the vehicle they needed to live their small little self centered lives and so they rarely ventured beyond those boundaries. When Jerry died though, and the Dead stopped touring, they needed a new place to hang out. Unfortunately, Phish became the band that a lot of these people latched onto. Later, especially when Phish took their first hiatus, these undesirables filtered into the larger scene. In the process they chased away a lot of good people, made life harder for everyone, and changed the scene forever.

I’ve met folks who think of these people as the typical jamband fan. It breaks my heart when I come across this. I really can’t speak for what the scene is like these days, but through out most of the 90s, it was everything but these people. For most of the 90s, the scene was devoted to people who saw music as more then just a sound track for a night out, but who loved it with all their hearts and saw amazing possibilities in it.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Dancing In The Streets talks about the collective joy that is possible when a large group of people come together to celebrate and toss off the preconceptions of normal existence. When I have talked about this book to people who were involved in the proto-jamband scene, they understand immediately what it is that she is talking about. We’ve been there.

In the following installments of this tale I’ll try to express what it was that transfixed us back then. Hopefully I’ll be able to give you a taste. I know I won’t be able to show you what it was really like. Unfortunately, only we can know that because we were the only ones who were there.

The following story is my story. It is the scene as I saw it. I’ll do what I can to introduce a little objectivity into things, but I can’t give you an unbiased history. For seven or eight years, this was my life. Acknowledging that it was time for me to leave the scene was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. As you’ll soon see, this scene created the person in front of you. If you’re interested in hearing the tale, grab a seat.

Written by Matt

May 22nd, 2007 at 10:01 pm

Posted in A history,jamband