THE LEGEND OF THE DEAD
Although the Grateful Dead are a rock band, they've almost been turned into an institution, a way of life over the years since they came together in the mid sixties.
The Dead's drummer is a young man named Bill Kreutzman, who's been Gratefully dead now for six years. "The Dead is just some kind of contact that we try to make with an audience of people," he began explaining before he stopped to think. "When you're inside it's a hard thing to say."
I'd been hearing the legend of The Dead for a few years before meeting them. At first it'd been a name which was lumped together with Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Seeds, Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield and Love and sent to England in a package marked Flower Power. Then Tom Wolfe immortalised them in his fine report on the birth of acid culture The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The Kool Aid was a soft drink to which the acid was added at a giant rock ball where the Dead provided the Electric. Garcia's current 'old lady' is one of the book's heroines — Mountain Girl.
The rest of the Dead's importance had been revealed and explained to me by young Californians to whom they've been father figures of some sort. The Airplane and The Dead seemed to form two-thirds of an earthly trinity who'd come along to replace the Holy Trinity. It's never really been what they've said that's made them so important to many young Americans, but...you know man...it's like...The Dead! The medium becomes the message!
For this reason it's very hard to talk to the band about what 'they're saying'. "We're not preachers" they kept telling me. Then on the other hand they'd emphasise, "we just play rock 'n' roll." Both Bob Weir and Jerry explained that as musicians they really had no qualifications to expound theories on spiritual and moral issues. They would have agreed that a factory-hand has just as much right to express his views to the world as has a labourer who happens to work with a machine called a guitar. "Apparently for some reason, people think that musicians have some authority," said Bob. "It's just the way it's come about. They must think that as his playing makes me feel good then his talking must make me feel good too. I think that if I was left to my wits as a politician, I'd fail drastically — we all would. All we really do is play."
When they actually take to the boards the last statement begins to show its truth. The only words that seem to matter are those which are projected on the screen behind them — Welcome To The Grateful Dead. Then the music begins to pound out. Garcia's guitar soars high and the legend becomes life. When they played at Wembley recently, it seemed as though people were applauding the mythology rather than the reality. The music never seemed to get off the ground, and the crowd reacted mostly to the pure fast rock numbers which were few and far between. It was an evening of anticlimaxes, but the crowd seemed to be enjoying a collective orgasm. Again, it was the fact that the Dead were more than a group. They were the message without words.
Bill explained the beginnings of the band: "I've been in the Dead for around six years now. Me and Jerry were both teaching in a music store in Palo Alto and we just got together as a group. Our first gigs were in small pizza bars in the area. We were playing rock 'n' roll mostly I suppose." Although they've 'come a long way' since those days, both Jerry and Bill still frequent the small bars and play their music there. "I like the small bars where you get no response at all," said Jerry chuckling. "It frees you tremendously when no-one cares what you're playing. I go there to satisfy a kind of perverse curiosity. I like those bar scenes!"
As the band grew up and entered the publicised era of their lives, they all moved into the same house in San Francisco — 710 Ashbury. It became one of the most famous homes on the West Coast, but now things are different. "It didn't fall apart, it just grew apart," explained Bill. "A lot of us got small ranches and things. Instead of going out and feeling the concrete under our feet, we wanted to be able to take a gun and shoot tin cans from our back doors. A lot of us had learned a lot and had grown up."
One subject that seems to go hand in hand with any mention of Grateful Dead Culture is acid. When in England the hotel room was buzzing with the mention of the magic chemical, and an official-looking hash pipe was passed around constantly. The Dead's lyricist, Bob Hunter, was one of the first people to experiment with LSD during a hospital experiment before it was registered as a dangerous drug. Around the same time the whole of the band took part in some of the original West Coast 'happenings', where acid was the latest thing to hit the avant-garde.
Bob Weir was careful to explain that they never tried to play or record while tripping out. "One thing acid may do for a musician," he explained, "is that he may drop his inhibitions and it will help stimulate his creativity. I don't know whether it has anything to do with the music, but I think it does enhance the player's enjoyment of what he's doing." Although Bob felt that someone on a trip may well feel he's reaching great heights of musical creativity, a recording of the event when played back to the player would only prove that the feeling was totally subjective. Similar experiments with artists have come up with the same result.
Later on in our conversation Bob happened to make mention of what he termed 'psychedelic derelicts' — people who'd been permanently damaged by acid. As he and the Dead appear to encourage the use of a drug that has damaged so many, and are idolised by the same people, I asked him what he felt when he came across these 'derelicts'. "I'm sorry to see it," he said. "I try to set an example of some sort of temperance. I believe that as a group we exhibit a certain amount of temperance." I suggested that one man's temperance might be another man's damage, and he agreed. Fortunately the members of the Grateful Dead are a strong set of personalities and have been able to control their use of psychedelics. There's no room in the record business for a derelict.
At one time it seemed as though acid was looked upon as the new Messiah — coming to us in an age of spiritual emptiness to 'feed our heads' and thereby change the world. John Lennon, who now openly supports the I.R.A. was singing All You Need Is Love. Something went wrong in between though. "Yes, something did go wrong," admitted Bob. "I think it can be partly attributed to the U.S. clampdown on marijuana. When this happened people began dealing meths and smack. It took up less space, anyway, and was much harder to police." As to the Grateful Dead's position in all this: "The only thing worth doing is playing music — not preaching drugs. I would caution anyone who was considering dope to be careful in any case."
Playing music: "If there's such a thing as religion in my life it's playing," said Bob. "We try to have the most diverse range of music possible. The soft rock era is not over for us, nor did it really begin. It's always been there." The Dead began getting into softer sounds around the same time that Crosby, Stills and Nash put out their superb first album. Garcia and Stills and Nash and Weir and Crosby are interchangeable members of the L.A. music scene and play regularly on each other's albums. "It more or less boils down to physical proximity," said Bob. The fact that the Dead softened up after C,S&N's first album was through direct influence. "What happened there," explained Bob, "is that Crosby and Stills were hanging in and around San Francisco and we were amazed how they sung together.
"Because of that we realised we'd been neglecting one side of our music and that was singing in harmony together. So we decided to develop our vocal harmonies and that whole side of our presentation." These developments became two albums: Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. On these ventures, Garcia was often to forsake his familiar lead guitar sound for the unique countrified sound of his ZB custom pedal steel guitar. However, for the Dead this was just one gear that their music had to be driven in for a while. There's no real direction but just a progression through the many moods that music is able to express. Bill put it this way: "We want to try and drive this car with 10,000 gears and so far we've only used about twenty. That's twenty different styles of music."
Every concert that they perform is recorded so that the band can all listen to and criticise their own music. "This is not done on 16-track but on 2-track stereo." Bill told me. "Then we listen to the tapes and scrutinise what we've been playing. Sometimes we surprise ourselves at what we've played!" Bill drew a parallel with what they're doing to American football teams who watch instant replays so that they can improve their performances. "We listen to see how we can correct ourselves. Maybe we listen and the whole feeling of our performance has been wrong. It never hurts us to play it back. Not only do we learn about playing, but also about recording techniques."
The Grateful Dead's criterion for a performance? "If it gets you off when you play it back — that's good," said Bill. "That's really what the Dead are about — good old ‘getting it off.’" Plenty of people got off on their music at the Empire Pool, Wembley and the scenes they created were not far removed from those a few weeks earlier when T. Rex was the attraction.
(by Steve Turner, from Beat Instrumental, June 1972)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com