Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On Coming to Terms With the Dead

You know, there was a time in my life where I just didn't appreciate the Grateful Dead. I know there's a lot of folks who still don't and never will, forget the sales pitch. Like Guinness, like lime-flavored tortilla chips, like poetry, not for everyone.

These days, the Dead goes down with me as easy as a Vanilla Coke. Sometimes I guzzle everything Garcia, Weir and company pour into my ears with sheer gluttony. Other times their music is like a sharp Irish whiskey; I take it all in with discipline instead of tossing it down in a rush since you can get right toasted if you're too greedy with it. A good hint is to mix up another band or two in-between Grateful Dead listening sessions so as not to suffer a hangover from sensory overload. The Dead really are much to absorb.

When "Touch of Grey" from In the Dark came out in 1987, I was a rigid metal snob and scoffed at those laidback hairballs rattling noncommittally about just getting by. I'd been raised with pragmatic values where I didn't relate to merely getting by in life. I was taught to work, to bust ass and to make connections. Of course, the more I got to know my mother, a closet hippie, I realized there was a layer beneath the practicality, one that jived with what the Dead were saying in that pokey 'n poppy pillow nuzzler.

At age 41 and with quite a bit more life mileage upon me, I more than relate to "Touch of Grey" now. It's not just the fact my follicles are starting to dash beneath the black. I've seen enough chaos and disorder on a personal level where I'm nearly numb to all the harshness that comes in front of me on a routine basis. A soldier, a cop, a drug dealer or a mortician has a bigger claim to witnessing nastier business, but the older I get, the wearier and more intolerant I get of the daily grind. It's pretty damned depressing and every day presents the opportunity to get down or to rise up. The Dead's In the Dark album is hardly one of their finest achievements, but it has its moments and "Touch of Grey" has now become more to me than just that silly but cool video where the Grateful Dead turn into skeletal marionettes onstage and continue the tune, just getting by, just surviving. I get it now. Really, the older you get, the better you relate, particularly to something far separate from your own generation.

As a teenager and college student, I used to mock younger Deadheads as I did the farmer kids who loved Rush, Led Zeppelin and Lynard Skynard. All were bands I refused to listen to out of a dumb prejudice against sects of kids who I knew hated me because I was a metal grit. For awhile, I felt the same about U2, Bruce Springsteen, Tears for Fears and Genesis, all favorites of the popular, beautiful Gen X children. All of those artists fill my shelves now. Kids are so stupid sometimes--at the very least, their primary guilt is their lack of empathy for one another.

I later turned to Rush, Zeppelin, Skynard, Bad Company and the Allmans, bands I'd scoffed for lame reasons. All amazing bands worthy of their stature and I'm glad I came around. Perhaps the Grateful Dead remained the final threshold where my immature reasoning process separated me from unbelievable music. The Dead were a notorious pot band. Their followers were resolute, proud pot smokers. At the time, I was a straight edge metalhead. Dope fiends tripping to the Dead and my scant few minutes sampling the band automatically pushed me into a bad judgment call. Thankfully, I later came to see the light.

American Beauty, The Grateful Dead, Workingman's Dead, Wake of the Flood, Anthem for the Sun, Aoxamoxoa, From the Mars Hotel, Blues for Allah, Live Dead, Skull and Roses (offically Grateful Dead), all important rock albums I now stake my rep as a rock journalist on. Even my wife finds irony in that statement for all the times I dismissed the Dead when we were dating. I'm sure she was grateful (pun intended) for the break away from the Dead since she'd had many past Deadhead boyfriends. By the time those albums started filtering into my collection, I'm sure she must've thought I'd gone mental as much as she probably groaned to herself. Sport that she is, she recently put Workingman's Dead on in the car for me during a gruelling traffic jam just to keep me from corking off with our kid in the backseat.

What I've come to really admire about the Grateful Dead is what a terrific live act they are. Once you hear the studio tracks and then the extended, improvised live jams, it's a complete revelation. You understand why Deadheads trailed after them from venue to venue. Part of the experience was a collective nirvana passed between band and audience. Pot and acid were certainly a part of the trip, but considering the Grateful Dead's music is founded more in blues, rock, jazz and country instead of pure psychedelics, it really, really is more about the music.

The moral of this story, of course, is to give every bit of music out there a chance. I condemn today's pop music, but I dig Pink, Lady Gaga and that new John Mayer tune is truly outta sight. I'm still more an underground and fringe kind of listener, but I know great music when I hear it. Once you have the Grateful Dead catalog spread before you, it will be more than just a summertime fling. Soon you'll start scoping out Deadheads to talk a little truckin' music with them. It's more intense than Bob Marley aficianados, since more of Marley's fans toke and joke to his music along with the Steve Miller Band. Even today, Miller's greatest hits comp and Marley's Legend are mandatory college party music. Yes, I own both and play them religiously. Great music is great music. Still, you will almost never find the Dead's Terrapin Station at a prototype collegiate shindig.

It was said to me by a friend that Deadheads often stop each other on the street and ask for live bootleg recommendations since there are thousands of them in circulation. The Dead and their followers are truly a tribal society and it's not just because Mickey Hart is submerged in world music projects and Bob Weir has his own communal band and fans surrounding Ratdog. There is vitality, variation and a footloose submission to the vibe with the Grateful Dead's music where "Viola Lee Blues" and "Black Peter" won't clock in at the same time whenever they're played.

And I still think it's a kick that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are obvious Deadheads. Only Deadheads could pliably pull off naming a bumbling chowderbrain vigilante Casey Jones. In Eastman and Laird's world, Casey Jones probably has done his share of flying high on cocaine in private, but you gotta love that hockey face's heart...

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