Jul 30, 2012

October 1971: Ralph Gleason Looks Back


Well, it's only five years give or take a few months since the San Francisco Music Renaissance revitalized and forever changed the course of American popular music, and this month is officially Grateful Dead Month.
Officially that is, by fiat of Warner Brothers Record company, though the day may come when it will be the Congress of Washington, not Warners, that so decrees.
Record companies do this sort of thing periodically, just as they send out T-shirts, chewing gum, plastic buttons and any other thing they can think of to draw attention to an artist. It's a harmless exercise in Parkinson's Law as Adapted to the Record Business: gimmicks expand numerically to fill the time of those available to play with them.
But I really think that something more important, even if it was never in the mind of the Warner Brothers' executive who dreamed up the tribute to the Grateful Dead, is implied in October being Grateful Dead month nationally in the recording world.

San Francisco Scene
The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane sum up the whole San Francisco Scene, as it's been called. Both exist today as important, successful and highly profitable recording groups five years after they first surfaced.
RCA Victor has just financed the Airplane in its own record company, Grunt. Warner Brothers has put out a double package Dead album and declared the month a tribute to the band, with posters and stickers and lord knows what else.
The Dead, possibly even more than the Airplane, have always symbolized the long haired, hippie costumed, communal living, fearless dedication to personal living style and the group effort in music.
They have lived on Marin county ranches on and off since the early Haight days, when they inhabited that Victorian relic on Ashbury from which Bob Weir threw his water-filled balloon at a cop and got busted. The Grateful Dead got busted more than anybody over the years. And not only here.

Power of Music
But the Dead also performed a vital function in the early days of the Haight. Before Alioto's stormtrooper sweepout of the Haight took place, it was basically the Dead's understanding of the power of music to quiet masses of people that kept several Haight Street Sunday frolics from developing into trouble.
Their name even crept out into the world of straight life pop music when they were mentioned in a piece of bubblegum music (the Cowsills' version of "Hair") as a kind of symbol of hippiedom.
But the Dead, like their running mates down the years, the Airplane, really were symbols. They have played for everyone, aided innumerable causes without becoming political themselves, and have helped establish the whole concept of San Francisco rock as superior music with a series of really excellent Warner Brother albums.

Rock Conscience
I don't think their importance musically or sociologically can be overestimated. And Jerry Garcia, their lead guitarist, is not only one of the most important musicians ever to develop in the Bay Area in terms of his own influence on other instrumentalists and bands, but also one of the most important spiritual spokesmen. He has been a sort of conscience of the rock scene for a long time, and his validation of something counts for a great deal.
Along with the Airplane, the Dead really originated the concept of free music in the parks which has spread all over the world now and is a standard part of young people's life style.
With the Airplane, the Dead operated the Carousel Ballroom on Market Street. They were better musicians than they were businessmen, and the ballroom was finally taken over by Bill Graham and became Fillmore West. But while the bands ran it, it was by all odds the grooviest indoor place to hear music that has existed here in recent years.

Fugazi Hall Gathering
When the Dead signed with Warner Brothers and made their first album, it was released with considerable fanfare including a huge party at Fugazi Hall. That was a gathering which should have been preserved on film, believe me.
At that time, the executives of the record business were still trying to dress like vice presidents of banks. They all came up from Warner Brothers for the party and they were in blue suits with white shirts and ties and short hair.
Inside the hall, there was a big spread of free food and the crowd at the table was lined up according to cultural symbols. On one side, the Warner Brothers executives and their local representatives. On the other, the representatives of the various Grateful Dead splinter groups.
The fascination with which the record company people looked at that array of Haight Street fashion was incredible. They had simply not seen anything like it. It was quite dramatic, to say the least.

The Big Change
Nowadays, after four years, the record company executives who come up from Los Angeles periodically for the promotion parties that are still given, are all doing their best to look like owners of poster companies or Polk Street clothing stores. You can't find a blue suit anymore anywhere but in court. And the last time anybody had short hair at a rock music promotion party was when Michael Bloomfield got his locks shorn and turned up at the Family Dog.
Sometimes I think we overlook the tremendous changes that really have occurred in recent years in clothes, in language, in music, in fact in almost everything in our culture. And in all of this, the Grateful Dead has had an important role.
At the beginning, the Dead were considered an uncommercial band and the Airplane a hot commercial property. There was a time when the booking agency couldn't get gigs for the Dead in what one of its executives referred to as "Iron Butterfly territory," meaning the great Midwest where first the Iron Butterfly and now Grand Funk Railroad reigned supreme.

'Uncle John's Band'
But having a hit record changed all of that. "Uncle John's Band" and Bob and Betty Mathews recording got them on the Top 40 stations all over the country and it brought them the audience they needed, and now the Grateful Dead are one of the strongest box office attractions among American groups.
The interesting thing about it, of course, is that it has made no perceivable alteration in the Dead's music. They are just as determinedly individualistic today as they were in the beginning, and even though "Truckin'" followed "Uncle John" to the charts and even though their albums are now part of everybody's rock pile, the Grateful Dead just go on about their business in their own way.

(by Ralph Gleason, from the SF Examiner & Chronicle, October 17 1971)

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