What if Timothy McVeigh became a Deadhead instead of a militia nut? What if instead of his grandfather putting a gun in his hand he gave him a cassette of Cornell ‘77? What if Timothy McVeigh sold bumper stickers that read “Keep on Truckin” or “What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been” instead “Fear the Government that Fears Your Gun”, one of the bumper stickers he sold to the ogling masses forming outside the David Koresh’s compound in Waco. What if?
These are some ideas that floated through my head watching the documentary “Oklahoma City”. By the 1990s the Grateful Dead were at the height of their popularity. Back then, the kids at my high school who wore Grateful Dead shirts were typical of fans that plagued the band during that period. They weren’t the idealistic hippies predisposed to Herbert Marcuse and vegetarian cuisine. These kids had a dark edge. They came from rough, working class backgrounds. Their career opportunities were limited. They chewed tobacco and did whatever drugs they could get their hands on. They tattered shoes and ripped flannel shirts with the insulated cotton coming out. They were marginal, desperate types looking for something to belong to, some type of family in an America that left them behind.
Teenagers in America need something to identify with, something to believe in and the Grateful Dead fell right into their laps. The music may have been secondary to the sense of belonging, enhanced by the copious amounts of drugs available at concerts. They gravitated to the Dead in droves even though the music in the 1990s was inessential. The band lost their soulful keyboard player Brent Mydland to overdose in 1990, replacing him the cheesy keyboard stylings of Vince Welnick. Many songs are downright unlistenable. Garcia’s face was haggard, succumbing to years of drugs and bad health.
Often when I listen to the bands 1990s material, I wonder why Garcia didn’t just hang it up. Then I think about those Grateful Dead fans at my high school. The types I’d maybe see at a bonfire party, drunkenly singing off key to “Friend of the Devil” as someone strummed guitar. I think Garcia kept going because without the Grateful Dead, a lot of those fans were lost in that wilderness, left to a dead end job, DUI charges and unpaid bills, with nary a song to sing. I think Jerry Garcia understood the role the Dead played in filling this void for young people.
Maybe it’s naive to think Timothy McVeigh could have become a fan of the Grateful Dead if his circumstances were different. That if he had just hung out with the young fans on the fringes on a 1990s Deadhead culture scraping on fumes, a whole new world would have opened for him and he would have sworn off his enthusiasm for guns and chaos. The question isn’t what if Timothy McVeigh became a Deadhead. The question is how many Timothy McVeighs did Jerry Garcia save?