To be perfectly honest about it, I never "got" the Grateful Dead. I mean, I recognized the greatness of Jerry Garcia's work as a guitarist and, frankly, I love a good instrumental jam session. How many copies of the Allman Brothers Band classic "At Fillmore East" do you own?
But I understand the group's importance in the history of American rock 'n' roll and I have read my share of dreamy articles about the legendary multi-generation congregation of Deadheads who follow them from gig to gig, packing portable microphones and recording units to create live recordings -- with the band's blessing.
In terms of religion, I also understand that, as with many things '60s, these tribal gatherings are frequently described as having a "spiritual" quality (Hello Ira) due to the unique brew of music, a strong sense of community and the presence of, well, other things in the atmosphere.
Still, I cannot quite get myself to accept the very specific religious language used in a recent New York Times piece about the band's Fare Thee Well tour and its significance to the folks with their tape machines. The lede sets the stage for the key paragraphs:
CHICAGO -- Between his first Grateful Dead show in 1988, at the age of 15, and the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, William Walker saw the band about 130 times, a modest number in the Deadhead universe. But Mr. Walker has experienced many, many more of the band’s concerts through his passion for live audience taping, collecting thousands of cassettes and terabytes-worth of digital audio, while also contributing his own recordings to the seemingly endless archive.
And then the key images:
Officially approved for noncommercial recording by the Grateful Dead since the early 1980s, tapers are a subculture within a subculture -- spreaders of audio sacrament among a famously evangelical following. While the band never matched the record sales of its classic-rock peers, the Dead thrived as a freewheeling live act thanks in part to a word-of-mouth trade network of concert recordings, a system it passed down to its spiritual children such as Phish and Widespread Panic.
First, there is the "audio sacrament" image, which -- yes -- some members of ancient churches are going to find offensive. In this case, I think that main point is that these tapes represent a kind of living, dancing body of "tradition" that linked together the decades of Deadhead life. The songs and the jams -- complete with liturgical dance -- combine into a kind of ritual that is in some way "spiritual."
Got that. But is the word "sacramental" accurate?
And the we have yet another seemingly bizarre use of the word "evangelical" -- combine with that "sacramental" thing. A GetReligion reader or two thought that this provided yet another example of the press not understanding this religious term.
But let me speak up for the Times team, this time around. Yes, for real.
Note that, in this case, "evangelical" is not a noun. With that in mind, click here and go to the bottom of the long list of adjective definitions for this notoriously vague religious term. See this one?
5. marked by ardent or zealous enthusiasm for a cause.
It's like saying that someone read his Batman comics with evangelical zeal, or taught people to play golf with an evangelical passion.
Is it the writer of this piece being a bit too cute, attaching these loaded religious terms to the final days of the Dead? Perhaps. But, at least in this use of "evangelical," the word can be made to fit. Imagine that.