There’s much to be said for the Grateful Dead. And it’s all good.
The best word is the group is still on the scene, setting a pace in rock, and in a sense, liberating the music so that it can go in new and different directions, changing with the changing times.
The other words are more concrete – news about the group’s latest album, a tentative movie, a country-western sub-group, “New Riders of the Purple Sage,” and Grateful Dead statements on the world in general and rock music in particular.
The new album is a two-record Warner-Reprise production called Live Dead. It’s the group's fourth and the best so far – best, because the recording quality is superb and it was recorded “live.” “They said you couldn’t record the essence of the Dead,” Jon MacIntire, the group’s road manager, explained. “But this album does it.
“The other albums got a lot of musical things across, particularly Anthem of the Sun. Aoxomoxoa did a different thing, but Live Dead really shows the group as it is. It’s as close as you can come to the Dead without actually being on stage with them.”
Listeners seem to agree. MacIntire noted the album sold better than the others, 30,000 one recent week (a sizable figure for an avant-garde rock group like the Dead). Songs for a fifth album are being taped this month. Its release date will depend on the markets, yet to be submitted art work, and other factors – perhaps coming out by early or mid-summer.
“Recording is different,” MacIntire added. “There’s a lot more work involved in making an album than in getting down there and just recording it – a lot more chores to be done But we enjoy it. The people who follow the Grateful Dead know they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t enjoy it – or consider it worth doing.”
The lack of an audience somewhat hinders a group like the Dead in recording, but not much. Bob Weir, guitarist-vocalist, pointed out even when there is no actual audience, there is the feeling there must be one somewhere. “There’s no music that’s ever played that’s not for people – even if you can’t see them there,” Weir said. “So when we’re playing and there’s nobody around us, we’re either playing for ourselves or some future audience.”
Their upcoming movie is Zechariah, described as a kind of fantasy cowboy flick with a plot line closely resembling Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Costuming has been completed for the Dead; filming may begin in April, either in Mexico or in the old back lots of MGM.
Zechariah was written by screen veteran Joe Massot (“a good flowing script,” former actor MacIntire reported), and will be produced by George England, known for his productions of Shoes of the Fisherman and The Ugly American among others.
“If it’s done as we originally heard about it,” MacIntire said, “the movie really won’t be a western, but will be an interesting piece of surrealism. For example, when the Dead ride in on their horses they’re wearing holsters with electric guitars shoved in them and electric amplifiers strapped on the backs of the horses.
“The movie’s star (Ginger Baker) is Zechariah – the Dead have their segment of the picture when Zechariah interacts with them, lusts after the kind of lives they live and wants to be a part of them. We’re really looking forward to filming it.”
The recently released album was recorded approximately a year ago. There is an emerging country-western flavor to the Dead’s music however, which isn’t that clear in the album, primarily because the country-western aspect is a fairly recent development.
For the Dead, it started about the time leader Jerry Garcia got one of the finest pedal steel guitars (“a tailor-made, beautiful instrument”) and began playing it with the Dead, doing a few originals and old standards having country-western connotations.
But the new development is Garcia, old friends John Dawson and David Nelson, and fellow Grateful Dead musicians Phil Lesh, bassist, and Mickey Hart on drums. They’re known as the “New Riders of the Purple Sage.”
The New Riders recently cut a demonstration tape for Warner-Reprise and the present schedule often finds the Dead playing on weekends, the “New Riders” on weekdays.
“They’re going all around to various beer houses and country and western, folk oriented, collegiate type places,” MacIntire said. “But the ideal is to book them into hard-core country redneck places where they can get the feed-back they need from the people who really know country-western music and know it intuitively.”
Although Garcia no longer plays the pedal steel guitar with the Dead (saving it for the “New Riders” material), the presence of the country-western influence is notable in new Grateful Dead music. The fine, really tremendous hard-driving rock sounds are still present, but some melodies, words and harmonies seem simpler, purer, reflecting the new influence.
Audiences have heard the Grateful Dead for about five years now. The group’s followers can trace them from beginning days with “Mother Macready’s” through the times they were known as the “Warlocks” into the first acid tests and up to the present. They have been successful, but in some ways they wonder if it’s been success with a capital “S.”
“We’re not all that successful,” Garcia said, “yet we are very successful. Our records are not tremendously big sellers, but we’ve got a reputation for being musically good – and we’ve influenced a lot of groups.
“And we’ve also got a following – an enlightened minority that speak the same language we do. They hear our music and we can specifically communicate with them.”
Lesh lovingly referred to them as the “Grateful Dead freaks.”
Whoever they are, they’re special – and usually a little older, at least not teenyboppers. They primarily are in San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago, and they do more than listen to the Dead. They also watch what the Dead are doing. They watch how the Dead’s “family” (which now has grown to approximately 50 persons) moves along, where everyone is living.
The Grateful Dead enjoy their music – and they find the freedom they need as individuals within the confines of the group.
Constanten (“T.C.”) explained: “It’s that way because we have agreed to cooperate. That was the idea we started with – that we had a band, not just a bunch of soloists, but a band playing music together.
“There have been kind of agreements as to who plays which role musically in relation to the others. The agreements have been defined not only by what instrument one plays, but how he plays it and what he does with it…the agreements are tacit and verbal.
“Of course, it isn’t that rigid. What we’ll do is get together – everybody will start to add to a piece whatever it is they hear in it. That will be going on for a dozen or so performances and then it will settle into something that is sort of like a mood…
“We can get bored with it. Then we’ll resurrect it much later and it will have undergone a transformation just because we’ve undergone a transformation.”
And the role of the individual musician?
“I personally feel the musician has a role of a fiddler, a jester, an entertainer,” Weir said – starting off a conversation that found the musician as prophet, reporter, free agent and on and on and on…
“He’s also a communicator,” Garcia added.
“Sometimes you can look into the audience and see a particular face and it’s saying something to you… Sometimes you see someone’s soul there. Not long ago, some cat jumped up on the stage and picked up the microphone and threw it into the crowd. It was part of the running play of violence that is close to us all the time – it’s like that play of violence got up on the stage with us.”
“Rock music should be spreading the news – having fun,” McKiernan added.
And Constanten noted: “Rock music comments on what’s happening right then with a striking applicability to what it has to see. A really good song says the truth to you in any of a billion circumstances… It’s sort of the voice of a square dance caller not saying, ‘do-si-do and dance around the table,’ but saying all the changes people go through…”
And protest songs?
“Protest songs are awfully dated,” Constanten answered. “As I listen back to them, they seem almost irrelevant. Protest music, white music, black music – this color thing is like an irrelevant trip. We are for earth music – expressing a larger concern for the whole world.”
“Protest means dissent,” Garcia noted. “Dissent means disharmony. Disharmony means nothing gets done. You don’t have to go protesting in music. Be the best you can with your music – the best rubs off.
“The big thing now is ‘Danger, danger, poison earth’ – and things are getting out of control. That’s the only thing important happening.”
Lesh added: “We’re really interested in an Earth People’s Park Plan to get land where people can live in an ecological sane manner – and free. Five years ago it was a social problem, but this ecological problem is way more important because if it isn’t solved, there won’t be any tomorrows…
“We’re lending ourselves to create a reality out of this idea. The people in our community – people who are planet minded, earth minded – got to us. We’re giving our energies, our comments, playing benefits for it – although sometimes it’s more fun to get in the skull sessions about it.
“Yes, we’re helping. It’s got to be that way. Today, California; tomorrow…?”
(by David Harris, from Circus, March 1970)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com