November 4, 2018

I want to talk to you for a few minutes about licorice.

Last Sunday’s New York Times magazine was all about candy. One of the articles was about the search for a very particular style of licorice from Finland called Salmiakki. In the article, the author, Mark Binelli, cited one of my favorite candy/rock-n-roll crossover quotes, and then took it to the next level:

“Licorice candy has been compared, astutely, to the Grateful Dead, by none other than the Grateful Dead singer, Jerry Garcia, who allowed in an interview: ‘Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.’ To extend Garcia’s simile, albeit imperfectly, that would make salty licorice – salmiakki in Finland, where they consume the most potent flavors – the candy equivalent of a 47-minute version of ‘Dark Star.’ Meaning, for superfans only.”

I tried continuing on with the article (and I really need to, considering next week’s magazine shows up in about 12 hours) but I got caught up in a series of questions and thoughts, each growing out of the previous ones. It started with really wanting to hear a super jammy “Dark Star,” followed by wondering what era of the band would have the best one, then wondering if they could do it justice now with the current line-up, and finally wrapping me up with this question:

If a band who wasn’t the Grateful Dead played an epic 47-minute version of “Dark Star,” would it count?

Not surprisingly, my first reaction was “No, it wouldn’t.” But that’s an answer based out of nostalgia. Think of me what you will, but some of my happiest memories are being at shows where the band was just…ON! Everything from performance to song selection to the atmosphere was just so perfect, it colored how I think all concerts should be. One of the most powerful moments for me musically is still the image of the band, Phil, Bob and Jerry standing back near their amps, everybody – including Bill and Mickey and Vince – just tuning up a little, 2 and 3-second fragments of songs emerging, before they picked a song, started into it and then, as they dropped in to the song, the three of them would step up to the mics, the lights would sweep over the audience, and we’d be off into the music.

But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that the answer could be yes. I could listen to a “Dark Star” from ’69 or ’77 and get into it so much that I could feel transported, but I could never really be there. More importantly, I could be told I’m listening to a recording of the Dead from some show years ago, when in reality it could be some other band, talented enough to pull it off, who recorded it two days ago. Sure, I’d like to think I’ve been to enough shows and heard enough tapes that I could tell them, and especially Garcia’s voice, from a cover band, but I also know that I could lie to myself, because I would want to believe it was them.

It becomes a desire for authenticity, and in searching for it, I think it is something we miss more often than we think. It’s like over planning a party, only to have the best part of it be when everybody ends up in the kitchen. Certainly, there is a material need for authenticity. I buy an authentic Craftsman tool (shut up, I use tools sometimes!) because I know it has a history of dependability. Even then, however, it can become buying a name and the legacy behind it while not getting what you would expect from that same name. if you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who bought a Harley-Davidson when they were partnered up with AMF, the same company that ran bowling alleys and made backyard volleyball sets.

A few years back, I went to see Anders Osborne with a couple of friends. There were two opening acts, the first was a local Irish rock band and the second was a group called Atlas Road Crew. They were from South Carolina, and they played really good, really solid, straight up hard southern rock and roll. Their last song was a cover of “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, and it was awesome! They absolutely blew the place wide open with it, and in that moment, I didn’t find myself thinking “Oh, I shouldn’t be liking this as much as I am.” They owned that song, and that time and place – a club in Brooklyn with two of my best friends – is always what I’ll remember when I think of that song.

The point was driven home for me last night as I watched and listened to Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. Listening to these songs was creating a new memory and moment for me, one I may or may not go back to when I hear the songs in the future, but I realized that, while these moments may also be memorable for the two of them, they aren’t the moments of authenticity for those songs. I have heard REK’s version of how he and Lyle wrote the song “This Old Porch” several times, and hearing Lyle’s side of the story made me realize that if I wanted an authentic moment for this song, that was when it was, back in Texas some 30-odd years ago.

I guess in the end, then, authenticity is what you make of it yourself, a “It’s real to me” ethos. And if I ever do hear that perfect 47-minute “Dark Star” jam, regardless of where it’s happening, my gut tells me that, as the music carries me away, I won’t be thinking of that song and that show, but other shows I’ve been to, other experiences I’ve shared with friends, even conversations I’ve had with friends about the band and their music, and I will be filled with the joy that those memories bring me, the joy I am searching for, the peace of fulfillment and contentment, that I am searching for in the first place when I am creating those moments in my life. That is what I like best in my life.

Far more than I like licorice.

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