The task of writing about the Grateful Dead phenomenon has fallen mainly either to Deadheads, who obviously lack objectivity, or to rock critics, who love to scratch their heads elaborately over the question of why a cult would grow up around this band's pleasant if somewhat forgettable music. This question misses the point. Why, after all, would a cult grow up around a didactic TV space opera of the mid-'60s, a failed drag musical of the '70s, any professional sports team or stupidly literal interpretations of the Bible?
The fact is that such cults do mysteriously arise in our society. The Dead's, being one of the most passionate and well-defined, makes a strong subject. But not for the rock critic--for the sociologist.
It's with this sort of sensibility that director Andrew Behar has made his surprisingly enjoyable documentary portrait Tie-Died: Rock 'n Roll's Most Deadicated Fans. Shot over about two months of the Dead's '94 tour, Tie-Died stays in the parking lot--the film contains nary a note of the Dead's music, nor a frame of concert footage.
"That was completely intentional," says Behar, talking by phone from New York. "It really isn't about the Dead at all. . . . I wanted to make a film about the Deadheads; I wasn't that interested in the Dead. I felt like that subject had really been well-covered. But the subject of the Deadheads had never really been touched." Not that there's any shortage of music in the film. "My God, there's so much music in the Deadlot, it's amazing," says Behar. "And there's some pretty good musicians out there, too. I mean, we put some pretty raunchy stuff in the movie, but some of it is good."
Behar wasn't a Deadhead when he was contacted about making a Deadhead film. (The project came about because of his previous documentary Painting the Town.) Visiting a Dead show in Miami to get a feel for the project, in less than half an hour, he said, "I was sitting in a drum circle, and I felt like, my God, I've found my lost tribe. Here were all these wonderful, gentle people who are all the words about I'd heard about the '60s. All those clichs were actualized."
In spite of these cheerleaderish sentiments, Behar manages to keep his film bracingly clear-eyed. As he puts it: "This is not a recruiting film. I show the dark side. I tried to stay really objective, and really invisible. Those were my two goals."
He succeeded. Tie-Died shows us everyone from the wholehearted and starry-eyed to the naysayers, like the vendor who sleeps with a weapon because, he says, the crowds take on a more sinister aspect in the middle of the night. Several Heads, sounding like weary campaigners, remark that this will be their last tour. We're shown a group of Wharf Rats--Heads who are off drugs and now insist that sobriety enhances the music for them. Behar even shows us a Mohawked punker complaining bitterly that the Deadheads turned up their noses at him, a reaction no different than anyone else's would have been.
Even when the film is at its most affectionate, Behar--not always consciously, perhaps--keeps it alive to the irony of the Deadheads supposing themselves to be nonconformist. It's quite funny to hear them talk about resisting "Babylon" (their term for mainstream society) and then, when asked what their favorite food is, name Taco Bell and McDonald's and Froot Loops and Chee-tos.
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It's even funnier when we hear a Deadhead, who's burned God knows how many gallons of gas following tours over God knows how many miles of the U.S. interstate system, solemnly assert, "You can't become a part of the concrete jungle."
But as just another, fully incorporated subculture of the concrete jungle, the Deadheads do come across, in Behar's film, as nice-enough folks. What emerges most clearly is their great need for a sense of community and family. Says Behar, "We had a screening at Sundance for about 700 Deadheads, and afterwards, they were coming up to me saying, 'Man, thank you for making this film. If I can just get my parents to see it, maybe they'll understand what I'm about.' "There's more to it than kids going out and getting stoned, but that's all people think it is."
Far less important than these social factors is the music itself. In the film, a compiler of a computer "Deadbase" mentions that in a poll of Deadheads about the most important influences of their lives, "love" and "friends" place first and second, the Grateful Dead come in, he says, "a surprising third." When one guy is asked what his favorite Grateful Dead song is, he admits, "I don't know the name of it." Zane Kesey, son of author and Dead aficionado Ken Kesey, recalls that, growing up around the band, "I always thought it was one song they were playing, and that they were making it up as they went."
Tie-Died runs less than 90 minutes, so the bill is filled out by director Peter Shapiro's ten-minute film of Zane's old man, A Conversation With Ken Kesey.