UGLY RUMORS FROM THE DEAD
In 1966, in conjunction with the Merry Pranksters and the electric kool-aid acid tests, a band was formed which could express musically what people were experiencing en masse. The band was the Grateful Dead, and its acid-rock sound reflected the development of a west-coast counter culture – marathon concerts fueled by seemingly unquenchable human emotion; relentless, inspired, unpolished jams by imaginative musicians who knew each other so well that the overall sensation imparted by the music was, in fact, largely a product of the group’s oneness; and a relatively small, extremely fanatical following of “Dead Heads”, as much moved by the music as was the band itself.
As years went by, the band became more technically proficient. Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia improved his whiny, unstructured guitar work to the point where he became one of the best American rock ‘n’ roll guitarists; Bob Weir, second guitarist, improved his vocal prowess to the point where he became an extremely capable singer; and Phil Lesh became one of the steadiest bassists around. The Dead’s sound changed, becoming less regional and more widely appreciated. With this appreciation came far more revenue than they had ever before accumulated, which revealed itself in the form of an amazing assemblage of audio equipment, enabling the Dead to have more control over their live sound; it must be realized that one of the Dead’s greatest assets is the ability to exert complete control over their music and, eventually in the course of a 5 or 6 hour concert, their audience.
Perhaps, though, the Dead reached their musical peak during the American tour following release of the Europe ’72 album, for there was a price to be paid for popularity. With recognition came less exclusive attendance at concerts; a new breed of listener emerged who merely liked vibrations. Bowing to the external pressure thus created, a conspicuous metamorphosis occurred in the Dead’s music – it became aimed at pleasing most everyone, not just a few. This evolution manifests itself splendidly in the comparison between the first Dead album, The Grateful Dead, and Wake of the Flood. One listen to each and it is apparent that the energy and improvisation is in the first album, whereas more generally listenable music has been recorded on Wake of the Flood. When Ron McKernan (Pig Pen), the organist-harmonicist who was the Dead’s most blatant link with the drug culture, died of a liver disease in 1973, the final tie was severed. Today, a pianist (Keith Godchaux) and a female vocalist (Donna Godchaux) along with Billy Kreutzmann, the drummer since the Dead’s inception, compose the remainder of the group along with Garcia, Weir, and Lesh.
From the Mars Hotel is the Grateful Dead’s latest album, released this summer. It is an ambitious effort in that it is the third album recorded since the addition of the Godchauxs (the first two were, chronologically, Europe ’72 and Wake of the Flood), and the second album recorded since Pig Pen’s death and the formation of Grateful Dead Records (what money can buy); obviously the attempt is made to achieve the ideal blend of the new Grateful Dead sound with that which is their heritage.
On the album covers, “Ugly Rumors” is disguised magnificently, reminiscent of the ambiguous “American Beauty”-“American Reality” cover of the American Beauty album, and of the more recent cover of Wake of the Flood, in which the portrayed cloud, turned sideways, reveals itself to be a distorted skull, the Dead’s trademark. Musically, the album is generally enjoyable: “Loose Lucy,” ending side one, is an outstanding tune, utilizing Garcia’s exceptional guitar lead and vocals in a manner not unlike vintage Dead. Here also the piano and background female vocals are well employed. “Pride of Cucamonga” and “Unbroken Chain” are the first songs written and sung by Phil Lesh since “Box of Rain” on American Beauty. The latter song is unlike anything ever recorded by the Dead and is particularly interesting in that it marks the first time that the Dead have experimented with the use of a synthesizer; this appears to be the direction Lesh wants the band to go, since of late he has been playing the synthesizer between sets at Grateful Dead concerts. The song leading off side two, “Scarlet Begonias”, is a good, fast paced, Garcia styled number marred only by its conclusion, which features Donna moaning incessantly; occasionally it may be heard on pop AM stations, signifying the more popular, commercial appeal of the Dead these days (previously only “Truckin’” received any AM air time at all).
Inasmuch as it has become standard procedure for the Dead to include one (1) Bob Weir composition per album, it is not surprising that is true for From the Mars Hotel also – “Money” is that contribution. Strained by anachronistic lyrics and an aura also atypical of Dead sound, “Money” is nevertheless a good cut, with Weir singing the type of song he performs best, supported well by the rest of the band, most noticeably Donna. The following song on the album, “Ship of Fools,” is all Jerry Garcia, and, as such, is a moving number much like “Row Jimmy” from Wake of the Flood, Unfortunately, in recent years, the Dead have taken to playing slower and/or more spacey numbers at the expense of abandoning their old energetic sound (contrast the latest concert rendition of “Bertha” with the rendition recorded on the second Live Dead album). Yet “U.S. Blues” (the big single from From the Mars Hotel), an attempt to recapture the past energetics while retaining popular appeal, fails in this endeavor, sounding like “token” Grateful Dead material augmented by Robert Hunter’s inane lyrics.
In all, then, this new Dead album is listenable, sporadically excellent, occasionally disappointing. Yet Dead heads of yore, while probably enjoying this album, will undoubtedly remain partially unsated, since this is certainly not entirely the acid oriented, emotionally charged rock which had been the trademark of the band (oh, to hear “St. Stephen” live just one more time...); indeed while the differences may be subtle, and many may believe them to be improvements, the latest Grateful Dead sound is somehow lacking those qualities which enabled the band to have a major influence on a select few. Rather it appears that horizons (markets?) have expanded and a lessened influence on the many is now desired, at the expense of the almost legendary, tight cultism which once presided over Grateful Dead concerts and albums.
(by Mitchell Lazar, from the MIT Tech, October 15, 1974)