Sep 3, 2012

March 21, 1972: Academy Review #2


The Grateful Dead play New York often enough so that one might reasonably expect some of the shine to have rubbed off their local appeal. But watching and listening to them Tuesday night at the start of their sold-out, two-week engagement at the Academy of Music, I realized that the magic glow of the seminal San Francisco rock group was as strong as ever.
A program by the Dead is generally acknowledged to be something more than a concert of music. The group's long-time eminence, its association with the now-dim days of the San Francisco rock-love-good-dope scene, and its continued ability to serve as a kind of larger-than-life mirror image of white middle-class youth, give its programs an extraordinary aura of communication between audience and performers.

It seemed obvious at the Academy of Music that the young listeners viewed the Dead as some sort of corporeal projection of themselves, different perhaps in that the Dead had the technical ability to play instruments but alike in other, more important ways. (Same dress, same sense of Karma, same attitude about various stimulants, same feeling of community.)
The very special focus for these feelings was the guitarist Jerry Garcia. There can be little question that Garcia is one of the finest musicians developed by rock music, even though his roots often seem to trace more to the early jazz of Django Reinhardt than the rock 'n' roll of the late 1950's.
Yet again, the feeling for Garcia extended beyond his musical skills. He played exceptionally well Tuesday night - both better and worse than I've heard him do on other occasions. But virtually every note he played was stimulus for almost cultlike audience reaction: he was the only member of the Dead who stood, always, whether soloing or not, in the center of a dazzling spotlight.
Stripped of external trappings, the Dead's music most often sounds like that of an updated 1940's Harlem jump band - of the sort that guitarist Tiny Grimes used to lead. The rhythm snaps and crackles, the solos are bouncy, blues-based and melodic, and the vocals are less important than the overall flow of the music. It is no accident, I suspect, that words of the 1940's like "truckin'" and "boogieing" are often used to describe the Dead's music.

The difference is that the music of those fine little Harlem jump bands was the starting point and the initial stimulus for the black rhythm and blues music of the late 1940's and 1950's that eventually led to the birth and growth of rock music. The music of the Grateful Dead is on the other end of the same time scale.
Do the Dead then represent the start of yet another cycle in pop music, or are they simply the close of a long cycle? Much as I like their music, I suspect that the innate passivity that underlies it, and that seems to infect the attitude and manner of its listeners, tends to identify this as an ending rather than a beginning. The Grateful Dead may have chosen a more prophetic name than they realized.

(by Don Heckman, from the New York Times, March 23 1972)
Reprinted in the Dick's Picks 30 booklet.


  1. Another interesting Academy article, comparing the Dead to the music of the past. I don't know if the writer knew of Garcia's love of Django, but the comparison is telling. (It's also clear that the idolization of Garcia is well underway!)
    Heckman seems to have been an older writer - he writes of the Dead's young audience in a rather estranged manner - but points out the bond between band & audience. He also describes the music in a very positive way (how often do you ever read that the Dead's rhythm "snaps and crackles"?).

    Often music reviewers are weakest when they philosophize, and I'm not sure what he's getting at in the last paragraph, given that the Dead were one rock band among many. (It reminds me of the "Is Rock Dead?" articles that have been coming out since the '60s.)
    But it's true that by the early '70s, the Dead's improvisational-rock style was unique & uncommon, and for a long time faced a dim future without imitators.

  2. I thought the Tiny Grimes reference was interesting,as he played with Art Taum in the 40's and Jerry himself mentions being influenced by Tatum,also if you listen to some of Grimes music you can hear where Jerry might have picked up some things (from Grimes and other players of that ilk from that time) like the use of many notes in an uncluttered,relaxed fashion during long passages of a solo,and a just crisp,clean succinct statement of ideas.He seems to go off the rails in the last paragraph trying to pigeon-hole or categorize their music and further loses it including it the "pop music"realm.He goes on to misconstrue nuance,understatement and creating in the moment as "innate passivity".There was nothing passive about 1972 GD music.

  3. Many of these reviews have lame conclusions in the last paragraph... After all they were written by journalists in a hurry! So they often wrap up quickly with some non-sequitur.

    But it's interesting that the band & audience struck him as passive. Maybe he was just looking at the surface of things.
    One of the Allman Brothers bandmembers once said, "We make magic happen; the Dead wait for magic to come to them." Another claim of passivity....but perhaps without thinking that the Dead's job is much more challenging - to try to make the magic moments come spontaneously, by accident, rather than planning & rehearsing them.