Jul 30, 2012

April 1971: Recording the Live Album


(Recorded live at The Manhattan Civic Centre, Bill Graham's fabled Fillmore East, and at Winterland, San Francisco - Spring & Summer '71)

The new Grateful Dead album was recorded 'on the road', and is their first album to include material recorded live on both the East & West coasts. It is the 'best' of some sixty hours of tape, and the recording, over-dubbing, mixing, album art-work are all the product of the Dead and their immediate family.

The Manhattan Civic Centre in New York City was the first East coast gig to be recorded live for the album. The Centre is a four-thousand-capacity poorly-ventilated fifty-year-old monument to some past era's civic pride, immediately opposite the largest precinct station in Manhattan. For both of the nights that the Dead played there in concert it was packed to way beyond any legal or realistic capacity by the diligent efforts of ticket scalpers, ticket forgers, and the cop on the back door, who seemed as if he wanted to let everyone and anyone in for nothing. An hour before the music was due to begin, nothing could be seen of the stage through the mass of people who surrounded it on every side.

The New Riders of the Purple Sage played each of the concerts that were recorded immediately prior to the DEAD, and took the edge off the evening, with their layed-back approach, encouraging people to stay cool, get high, and dig that the music was being recorded, and could they please not stand on the stage and stomp in time 'cos it was playing havoc with the microphones. Though not credited on the album, their paving the way for the Dead and setting the scene for the music that followed them, played an important part in the overall success of the recording, allowing the Dead to play to an audience that had already achieved a groovy ambience before their music began.

In the hour that it took to get everything set for the Dead to begin, everyone breathed a little. Cops removed jackets and caps - one even removed his shoes and wiggled his toes a little. Garcia sat absent-mindedly charging at neck-breaking speed thru endless variations and varieties of scales on an un-plugged guitar; grinning, rapping, toking, and in the stifling atmosphere drinking hot, sweet coffee. Weir combed his hair. Phil Lesh bravely attempted to explain the intricacies of the sixteen-track to a blond newspaper reporter who seemed to have a hard time getting a portable sony tape-recorder together enough to catch their conversation. Ramrod & Jackson and Sonny Heard laboured on stage between the bodies - this amp over here, and this one over there, and mind me boots mates, they cost a hundred and fifty at Nudies and I think they're pretty sharp, don't you? Yellow leather boots with maruhana leaves clinging in green right up the legs get placed on top of Weir's amps. The last microphone lead gets untangled, too-obtrusive bodies get moved to the side of the stage, and finally the drummer gets nailed down (his drums!) and we're all set. Pigpen strolls thru the back door, one minute too late - and reaches for the organ as Howie Stein introduces the band. Pandemonium! Two nights of mildly-hysterical New York binge, ninety-five degrees, and everyone wasted before the music's even begun.

Somehow the concert gets advertised as a marathon (whose bright idea was that?) and all the audience is equipped with sleeping bags and tooth-brushes - everyone's ready to boogy 'til daylight, believing the band will play right thru, or at least until everyone drops from sheer exhaustion. The Dead play for four hours non-stop. Hard sweating music, with everyone breathing down their necks 'cos there's no place else to catch any air.

The control booth is little larger than a closet stuck between the stage and the back door. The back-door cop (who doesn't want to be a cop at all - at least on this night) keeps sticking his head round the door and trying to fathom what the hell these freaks are doing. The freaks (blissfully ignorant) toke on, and record the music. After four hours Garcia, dripping in sweat, explains that everyone's had it. Worn out. The audience hits the street tired, confused, happy and high. Garbage knee-deep at the end, naked freaks strolling in the happiness. The emotional armageddon of New York - nobody knows what the tapes are like - nobody cares too much. Tomorrow another night in the same place, and the same scene.

Incredibly, even more crowded. How many people can this place hold! It becomes like the marathon, as advertised. The marathon of heat, and holding up in all the jostling, push-shove, mind-your-elbows, I-only-want-room-to-breathe, New York zaniness. At the end of the second night even the floor is wet from perspiration - the very garbage glistens. And when it's all done people hit the street in the same way. The New York air! Fresh air! Who'd ever believe it would be a joy to breathe that city's atmosphere - but the Dead & freaks alike hang at the back door gasping in the springtime of two o'clock in the morning, Manhattan, and over in the precinct station two cops having a hard time getting a drunk to walk up the steps and be booked like a bad guy should. Everyone smiles. The freaks go home and wait for the next time - the Dead leave the sardine-can and strike out for three weeks on the road, before returning to the Fillmore East, for a last shot before going home.

Boston and a good two nights in the Music Hall. Old friends in a groovy city and trying to keep Phil from going to play space-war on the MIT computers 'cos we haven't got time man, and we're going to Pensylnania? Pennsylvania-piddling. First this side of the state in a gymnasium at some anonymous college (is this place run by the Hamish?) and then in to Pittsburgh where we play to two thousand heads in the middle of a bus strike and a snow storm that leaves twelve thousand empty seats and everyone pissed off. Back on the bus. You're on the bus or you're off the bus. Where is the damned bus. Flitting between Holiday Inns and up tight campuses in a Greyhound bus with a straight driver who's doing his best to be groovy but this all here's a bit much. And didn't we fuckin' drive past here yesterday godamit, and Weir telling shaggy-dog stories over the intercom and everyone hollerin' shut the fuck up! And stops at small grocery stores where we buy thirty-three beef sandwiches (twenty-one with everything etc) and two cases of beer, and no-one knows where the hell Pennsylvania is at, those guys don't even stock Doctor Pepper down there. And it all wears thin. Even with some of the old ladies along to cheer things up no-one knows how we got there. And as soon as it all becomes a bummer, just as quickly it ends. We change plans whilst we're making them, and fly to Bangor Maine, where we've never been, and there's gotta be some freaks up there. And then, inexplicably, to Durham North Carolina, the truck driver (Slow Jo) cruising thru two thousand miles in forty-eight hours with two gigs, three girl friends, and no sleep. No magic. No highs. The dour dampening down struggle of getting it on (one more time) without sleep or a break, and I tell you man I'm ill, and I think I'll make it, but if the agent was only here man, if only the agent were here, we'd tell him man, by God we'd let him know what we think of his little act. And then New York City - where we recognise people, and the Fillmore East is almost home.

Bob and Betty establish the recording-booth under the stage. The equipment crew struggle for the last time with three tons of shit that feels like forty, and the road-manager's back at the hotel spewing his heart out and sure he's gonna die behind all the changing plans. Everyone's dead on their feet, but incredibly, ready to play!

The Fillmore becomes a transformed world of tye-dye sheets & flashing green and red lights and meters peering thru the half-gloom, and the sixteen track squatting ready to catch every nuance. Everything trim, and snug. A home away from home. A good place to get high in, and the misery becomes less and less and forgetting too many dumb miles to all those other places soon forgotten the band plays its way to that next airplane ride that'll cruise us all to California and home in Marin county, where a man can hang out and get high in some kind of comfort.

Each night becomes a struggle towards that final escape, and the audience (knowing that the Fillmore is to close) picks up on all the elements of desperation that seem to typify the close of a major tour. Hard to play out, to really cook, especially after so many up-tight places, each with its own peculiarity that it laid on you, and that now sweep around in everyone's personal ozone like mini-memories to disturb both concentration and expression.

But here is almost home. The band sleeps all day, and evenings are spent at the Fillmore. The big apple. The Grateful Dead doing their uptown for all New York, with interviews and out-of-mind telephones that never stop ringing, and pretty girls with tired faces who can't imagine why it is that they never turn this particular band on. (It worked with all the other ones!) And our friends. The few islands of sanity in the midst of it all. They're taking photos, rolling joints, trying to keep out of the way of people taking care of business. And the road-manager's smuggling in Hells Angels thru the back door, whilst equipment guys smuggle in ladies thru the front, and everyone's tripping on the light show, and then Bill Graham's saying thank you to everyone, and back to the hotel for one last fling and it's the 9:15 flight from JFK and we're all going home. Nobody says a thing. Everyone sleeps on the plane.

The album covers all that - and more. It breathes Hunter's lyrics and the craft of the Grateful Dead as musicians. It tells of all the struggles and hardships of the road - perhaps somewhere in the music it tells of the difference between east and west. Most of all it gives a beautifully recorded slice of one month in the life of the Grateful Dead's music, sounding as it sounded four months ago on hot summer's evenings in New York City, somewhere 'out there' on the road, where nobody knew if it was gonna be good until we got home and listened to it all again, and we knew we had a record on our hands.


("Grateful Dead LP Story," promo letter by Sam Cutler, issued September 24 1971)

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