Grateful for the Dead
by Steve Heilig, January 13, 2011
The Grateful Dead? Those guys and their fanatic, tie-died, permanently stoned followers? The band that made interminable music which a noted poet and writer I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle called “unspeakable, self-indulgent dreck”? The iconic band which spurred a long-running joke: “What did one Deadhead say to the other when they ran out of dope?” — “Hey man, this music really does suck”?
Yes, that band, but please bear with me here.
I don’t recall when I first heard the Grateful Dead, but it must have been when I was about fifteen years old. I still have a vinyl copy of their wonderful 1970 LP “American Beauty” (autographed by their doomed founding bluesman Ron “Pigpen” Mckernen) that I bought used — one of the first albums I ever purchased with my own money. I liked it but that was about all; I wasn’t stimulated to seek out the rest of their albums, which happened with some other bands I really liked. Being from a suburban Southern California beach town, I thought the whole San Francisco sound and scene seemed really cool, even mystically foreign and psychedelic. That scene was already basically extinct by then but I heard echoes of it in records like the Jefferson Airplane’s wild “After Bathing at Baxters” or “Happy Trails” by the Quicksilver Messenger Service. The Dead’s “American Beauty” seemed almost like country music in comparison, albeit with a bit of a halo to it. Mostly we listened to the Stones and Traffic and Genesis and Yes and pre-Stevie Nicks Fleetwood Mac and so on.
Then one night when I had my driver’s license and even a car (a shit-brown Pinto Wagon from my dad’s company), I got, well, turned on. I think it was winter and dark out when I pulled up in front of our house, and turned off the engine. The radio was still on though, and in those days, hip FM disc jocks would play whole sides of new albums by favored bands. This guy said “OK, here’s the new Dead album, ‘Wake of the Flood’” and played side two. By ten seconds in I was hooked — the song “Here Comes Sunshine” had a loping, irresistible beat and melody, the next song “Eyes of the World” was a jazzy, spaced-out hippie dream, and the concluding “Weather Report Suite”, with its many changes and horns and all, was like nothing I’d heard. I sat there entranced through the whole thing. The next day, I rode my bike to the Licorice Pizza record store to pay $2.99 to the beautiful dark-haired clerk who was so nice to me she made me nervous; the LP had a very nice silk-screened cover with a crow on it and I could listen to it all I wanted. The first side was pretty good too.
Now I did have to score more. Their double live album with the skeleton on it was recorded in 1971 and rocked well; the 1968 (already old!) “Anthem of the Sun” was weird even for me but had some very pretty moments; “Workingman’s Dead” was OK too, with the wonderful “Uncle John’s Band” but some lame songs like “Casey Jones” too; the first album sounded terrible. But when I splurged on the 3-LP live “Europe ‘72” set I was a goner. This was the prime stuff, full of rock and twang and space and great singing and playing (turns out that they tinkered with the tapes after to make it sound so good but so what).
When I saw that the band was playing only an hour away at the Universal Amphitheater I knew I had to go. I bought two tickets each for two of the three nights — a real splurge at about $5 per ticket — and invited a different girl I liked to go each night (this was unlike me; I’m not sure what inspired such bravery; I don’t think I ever asked anyone out on a “date” like that again). Those shows were great. I was nervous being with these tall pretty girls whom I’d never kissed (one “older” — 18!) and probably should have gone with a guy pal but I recall enjoying the show and the crowd. On the second night they played a long spaced-out tune I’d never heard, something about a star and mirrors and illusion and such. Weird stuff, my companion (I forget which one) and I agreed on the drive home (still no kiss).
I kept listening to the Dead and the next spring in my senior year saw a notice of an outdoor all-day show they were headlining three hours north at the University of California, Santa Barbara football stadium. I spread the word and a bunch of us got tickets and carpooled up in three cars the night before, sleeping in the field next to the stadium and waking in a crowd of Deadheads. Some pretty girls next to us had a big jar of apple juice and we shared our granola with them. Everyone got in line in the growing heat and ran for the front of the field when the gates opened at 10 am. We ended up pretty close to the stage.
This was when the band had their massive “wall of sound” setup of speakers piled up very high on each side and all around. I’d sent in a reply to a “Dead Heads Unite” notice on the “skull and bones” LP and some funky newsletters had come, telling about this system and how proud they were of it. This day it was malfunctioning a bit, but we sat through the set by one-hit wonder Maria Muldaur (“Midnight at the Oasis”) and some other bands. There may have been something in that apple juice and whatever else we had eaten and drank and smoked; by the time the Dead came on we were fried both inside and out. The band was playing hard and well, starting with the fine song “US Blues” from their new LP “Mars Hotel”, and soon the sound was great but there were some naked fat hairy hippie bodies just in front of me so I wandered off. My close pal Tom wandered away too and the combo of sun and shrooms and music and everything else freaked him out. By the time the show had rocked to a close — the best part was the extended “Star”-like jamming after “Truckin”, and of course the “Sugar Magnolia” rave-out — it was getting dark and lo and behold our cars had been towed away. We had to find our way down into town and ransom them out, in no condition for such dealings, and drive home. But first I had to find Tom and that was even more challenging. But we all got home OK, and I even ended up graduating from that school five years later. I saw the Dead in that same stadium once in 1978; I recall a very drunk and obnoxious Warren Zevon opening, a Harley on stage being revved up during the spaceout section of the Dead’s show, and looking down from the bleachers at a massive sea of hands clapping overhead during the encore of “Sugar Magnolia”).
I lost track of the Dead after that. I heard some of their albums but they didn’t sound too good; I had one very fried roommate for a year who, with his emaciated drugged-out girlfriend, were self-proclaimed Deadheads and they weren’t much of an advertisement for the group either. So years went by and though I knew they were still out there playing, reggae and African music and so on sounded much better. I moved to San Francisco in 1983 and soon heard about Jerry Garcia getting busted with cocaine in his BMW in Golden Gate Park and things like that but that was it.
Then in 1987 the Dead had a hit, “Touch of Grey.” Nice enough song, and as they were playing in town just near my house, I went with an old pal from Santa Barbara. We had a great time and saw some old characters from down south but it was not enough to get me back into any kind of Dead scene. The next year, though, I was doing some work with a great anti-blindness organization called the SEVA Foundation, which the Dead supported and allowed to set up fundraising booths at their concerts. I volunteered at that booth for a few shows, including a March 1988 show at the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland. During my break at that one, I walked around the packed and happy crowd of freaks and straight folks of many persuasions, ending up on the side of the stage next to Bill Graham a few feet from Garcia, who had reportedly had to relearn his instrument after being near-comatose for a time. As the band started their second set, they launched into “Scarlet Begonias” and for the next 20 minutes Garcia reeled off amazing blazing guitar solos through “Fire on the Mountain” and back, even dancing around a bit, and when it was over, the crowd went hysterical, Garcia grinned, and Graham turned to me and shook his head and said, “That’s as good as we’ll ever hear!” I was hooked in again by that one little/giant medley.
So I went back to more shows, indoors and out, just two or three a year, including a memorable one in 1993 with jazz legend Ornette Coleman sitting in. There was also a Mardi Gras show where, during the break, a parade float featuring newly-elected President Bill Clinton — sporting a saxophone in one hand and a reefer in the other — wound through the crowd (I shot a nice photo of that, sent it off to the White House — and then received a signed reply from Clinton saying “I didn’t know the Dead need a horn section.”). And for a time there were shows where a whole cadre of “spinners” from some commune in Mendocino County [Philo, and they were called The Church of Unlimited Devotion, ed.] would show up and twirl in brown robes, hands lifted to the air in ecstasy or something, collapsing to the floor at the conclusion of each song.
Then a last show in March of 1995 where a big group of us sat just behind the band, staring at their new huge light show screens and flowing right along as the fungus kicked in during “The Other One” and on out until Garcia encored with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” But even then, and especially listening back to some of those shows from the late 80s on, it was clear the band was in decline. The keyboardists they used after the death of Keith Godchaux, who favored real acoustic piano and joined after Pigpen died, meshing so well through the 1970s, were skilled but sometimes favored cheesy electronic sounds and sang horribly. Garcia himself sang in a geriatric croak and needed a teleprompter to remember lyrics, which he still muffed. He could still play guitar like really nobody else, though. But he was dead less than six months after that last show we caught. There were impromptu gatherings and campouts and memorials in the streets in my fabled Haight-Ashbury ‘hood for weeks after his death.
And that was that for me, or so I thought. Even though the band had gone downhill years before Garcia died, he was the soul of the group, and it was all over. I’d heard Garcia had wanted to quit the band for years to play bluegrass and solo but the cash juggernaut was just too big; the stress of that may have had more to do with his death than any one bad habit. The band carries on but that’s just sad to me; I would not go near one of their re-grouped shows as it would sully my memory. It’s like the Beatles without Lennon, or Santana without, well, Santana. As former Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten once remarked, “Ninety percent of their songs were there to show off Jerry’s playing.”
Now, however, I find myself some kind of born-again Deadhead. Not that I ever really was one before, but what I most want to hear is live music from their heyday of circa 1969-74. Deadheads argue about when the band was best but if you had to pick an era that was it, and if you had to pick a year…well, I’d pick 1972. They’d been together long enough to be confident in all manner of playing, were down to one drummer which allowed for looser, more improvisatory jamming, had a great keyboard player, and a large repertoire. Some favor earlier, “primal” Dead years in the late 1960s, but even Garcia once remarked that his own playing then was “embarrassing” as he was too often out of tune. You can argue for ’73 or ’74, but after that things were hit-and-miss, with random peaks in, say, 1977 or 1988 or even, when they brought back “Dark Star” after a long hiatus and had skilled jazz hornmen like Branford Marsalis, David Murray, and Coleman sit in, 1989-1991. But the glory years were over a generation ago; how could that music remain so, well, timeless?
One thing that triggered my own relapse was an article in an arty Los Angeles magazine titled Arthur. The author, Daniel Chamberlin, wrote of his semi-reluctant addiction to vintage Dead music. He had been “closeted” about his liking for some of the Dead’s music because to confess such fandom is most uncool among many music lovers, especially those of the younger hipster generation(s). The dead are seen as hopelessly retro and not in a good way. Thus he averred that he’d never worn tie-die (me ‘neither) and never saw the band live, mostly due to being averse to seeming guilty by association. This rang true to me too, as did his spot-on critique of elements of the band’s music and when their peak era occurred.
Chamberlin mentioned a website, archive.org, which had many Dead concerts available for listening and downloading. He named a couple of favorite shows and songs, including a “Dark Star” — the band’s signature song for extended abstract improvisation — from Montana in May, 1974. I didn’t have the computer software or savvy to access that but my old high school pal Dave did, so on his machine we burned that show onto some CDs. Bang! Like a shot of smack to a long-abstinent junkie’s arm, we were off into Dark Star addiction. With a bit of help from Google I found sites that rated the quality of Dark Star versions over the years (the band played it from roughly 1968-74 and then only a few times until 1989) and many of those were easily found on the archive site and on some official Dead releases. The longest one is from Rotterdam in 1972 — the fabled “Europe ‘72” tour, which many, me included, consider the band’s peak — and as a medley goes on for almost an hour. Many others are around half an hour long.
That song was the “psychedelic” epitome of the band, where, as Garcia recalled, “We agreed that anything went” — which meant long jazzy jams, bizarre metallic musique concrete meltdowns, and much more. But many bands attempted such music, with varied and usually silly results. What made the Dead different? I think the key is that they never, or rarely, completely severed their roots in blues, country, folk — American roots music, in other words. They started as a “jug band”, in fact. The legendary founder of “country rock”, the doomed Gram Parsons (former Byrd, Burrito Brother, and solo artist who died in 1973) strove to forge what he called “Cosmic American Music.” His own music was more American — country — than cosmic, but the Dead made this merger like nobody else. At the fabled Veneta, Oregon concert in 1972 (a benefit for an organic yogurt dairy), the Dead would veer from a harrowingly challenging “Star” into Merle Haggard’s prison ode “Sing Me Back Home” — and there were many other examples of such seemingly jarring juxtapositions that worked perfectly well. Their own acid song “China Cat Sunflower” was often wonderfully paired in a medley with the traditional folk/blues song “I Know You Rider” — a friend of mine calls that particular pairing one of the great all-American pieces of music, and I agree. They covered Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and outer space, sometimes in the same sequence. The transitions between such songs could be rough but when they flowed well, those were the moments Dead fans treasured.
It’s kind of a closet thing, and when I confess my feelings for the Dead, I do so with a twinge of embarrassment, even dread. But it’s best to get these things out in the open, sometimes. For both better and worse, they sound like nobody else.