THE GRATEFUL DEAD
For six months now I've put off writing about The Grateful Dead. For a variety of reasons. When I first started writing about music, for a paper called Avatar which is no longer with us, its editor told me that he was not particularly interested in the quality of music. "I mean, take Lothar and the Hand People - Now, their music may not be that good, but they're really nice people. What we care about is the scene." His criteria for the success of a group - and are these criteria so unlike Gloria Stavers' at 16 Magazine, or so unlike, although we may not care to admit it, our own? - were entirely extra-, super-, or non-musical.
It's hard to write about The Dead and divorce their musical accomplishments from their socio-cultural and/or quasi-spiritual significance. They and most of their audience would no doubt resist such a separation. The Dead mean so much more than their music! Maybe this is why Jerry Garcia has had speaking roles in both Woodstock and Gimme Shelter although his band plays in neither. After all, the best article on The Dead I've ever read, Michael Lydon's in Stone a year or so ago, wasn't about the group's music at all. As the embodiment of whatever it was that San Francisco meant, The Dead loomed large before their records were popular, and they continue to figure importantly more as symbols than as musicians.
But when music is justified on non-musical grounds, problems can arise. Such justification makes judgment and criticism impossible and all of us too susceptible to hype. We can look pretty foolish as we flit from one fleeting enthusiasm to the next, from Dylan to The Doors, from The ISB to BS&T, rhapsodizing each in turn and then, after our inevitable disenchantment, condemning each for failing to live up to promises it never made.
Our non-musical expectations demand at once too much and too little. They can burden music with a relevance or a spirituality which no musician, not even Dylan, can consistently achieve. And at the same time they allow much that is mediocre to flourish. Most of Pharaoh Sanders, for example, has done, with the exception of Tauhid, strikes me as pretty cruddy. He seems to me a very redundant musician whose range of expression is extremely limited. His ideas are too frequently borrowed, most often from his mentor, John Coltrane. But because Pharaoh's music claims to be part and parcel of the Godhead, it becomes Cosmic Crud, some sort of Primal Piss, as I believe Nick Tosches called it in this magazine. But is crud anything more than crud, even when it is capitalized?
The sad truth is that music which pretends to be more than music often garners an audience where better music doesn't. Surely one of the reasons why Coltrane has always been more popular than Ornette Coleman, musical considerations apart, is that Coltrane was Ohnedaruth, a pseudo-deity of sorts, whereas Ornette has always been just plain old Ornette. What makes this sad is that it would seem to indicate that we don't really like music all that much. We always want it to be something more than music, and thereby inflict upon our ears much that is something less than music. Too much of Dylan fits this description.
I've been reluctant to write about The Dead because, when you get right down to it, much of their output isn't all that great. To admit this is like coming out against grass or sex or, in an earlier era, against Motherhood. So much of what The Dead stand for is so admirable that to criticize their music seems churlish, the ego trip of a writer with a small soul. And who wants to be The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?
Much of my problem with The Dead stems from their two most recent albums, the countryish ones. I enjoy them tremendously and play them more often than any of their others. But as background music. I don't listen to them with the same intensity I do their second album, Anthem of the Sun. I can't leaf through a magazine while Anthem is on, whereas I can't focus all my faculties on Workingman's Dead or American Beauty, which seem more fun, but somehow less interesting. Is this a valid criticism of The Dead? I haven't made up my mind. Because if the criticism is allowed to stand, it dismisses much of the superficial music I enjoy (The Hollies and Turtles, for instance). Rock then becomes something more self-conscious and serious than we might want it to be. But if, on the other hand, fun is all that rock should be, many of us are left with nagging dissatisfactions, and writing about rock in critical terms can never progress beyond the standards of American Bandstand. I like it - I give it an 85.
Should rock be more than just music, and should it be more than just fun? You tell me. Too many writers have ignored these questions and written with either flippant subjectivity or with an unexamined yet questionable assumption of objective standards. And yet, these questions matter, and not simply in order to satisfy a pedantic urge for consistency. We may be able to get along quite well without answering them. But so much music today exists in a state of tension between these alternatives that to fail to recognize them is often to fail to understand the music itself.
These questions have been immediately relevant to The Dead. Their development may be divided, roughly, into three periods: 1) the blues rock of their first album and the recent releases on Sunflower, an MGM subsidiary, of old live performances; 2) the experimental eclecticism of Anthem, Aoxomoxoa, and Live Dead; and 3) the country folky sound of Workingman's and American Beauty. These periods may be described in terms of the ways in which each answered these questions to The Dead's satisfaction.
The pivotal musician here is Tom Constanten, a dedicated keyboard artist. On Anthem he worked with prepared piano, something which to my knowledge no one else in rock has done. (Prepared piano is a piano the sounds of which have been altered by the positioning of metal and wooden objects - nuts and bolts, usually - among the instrument's strings. John Cage, among other "serious" composers, has utilized this procedure.) Constanten came when The Dead were a blues rock band no more and left when The Dead became what they are today. With Constanten came Mickey Hart as a second drummer. A large share of the credit for the success of The Dead's middle period must go to Hart and the way he interacted with The Dead's original drummer, Bill Kreutzmann. Now their sophisticated rhythms are superfluous. In the new, simpler format Hart has nothing to do.
The point is that during their second period The Dead were committed to a music that was more than fun, to a music of experiment and originality. If experiment and originality have any place in rock, the first side of Anthem is one of rock's foremost accomplishments. It is a triumphant synthesis of heterogeneous musical forms - blues, country, jazz, electronic music - within a coherent structure which is satisfying both musically and emotionally. Composed as it is of tapes spliced together from live and studio performances over a period of seven months, the perfect mesh of Anthem is also a technical feat of the first order.
One of my troubles with the later Dead is that I realize that someone else could have done this. That the Buffalo Springfield could have written and recorded "Box of Rain" and it would sound precisely the same. That the Flying Burrito Brothers could have done "High Time." Now, this may not be a legitimate criticism, but no one else could have created and executed Anthem. Not The Beatles, who on their white album showed that they could only juxtapose, not synthesize. The Beatles did a blues and then they did a ballad and then they did something else. Unlike "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," Anthem never stops; it flows. The white album is a crazy quilt; Anthem, side one anyway, is Joseph's beautiful coat of many colors. (The second side of Abbey Road, since the forms it yokes together are not that disparate, would be a Glen Plaid sportcoat.) Or, to use the terms in the way Coleridge meant them, The Beatles were fanciful, The Dead imaginative. Furthermore, implicit in The Beatles' parodistic stance was a disrespect for the musical forms it employed. The Beatles had fun at the expense of music. Time called them "cheeky and irreverent." But The Dead enriched and enhanced the music they took up on Anthem. It was more than just fun.
The problem with Aoxomoxoa, which followed Anthem, is that too much of it is less than fun. Like the eight-and-a-half minute electronically distorted recitative, "What's Become of the Baby?" On Anthem The Dead somehow never ceased to be delightful, but experimentation can neglect the pleasure principle. And when it is mindless, it can also disregard the most rudimentary necessities of form. Which is why "Dark Star," which consumes twenty-three minutes of Live Dead, rarely transcends doodling. Mere spontaneous experiment, doing one's thing without the reflection and forethought which shaped Anthem, can be less interesting than competent plagiarism.
For whatever reasons, The Dead have abandoned the direction of Anthem. Constanten left and Hart might just as well have (and as of this writing has disappeared from The Dead's live performances and seems to have left the group). And The Dead have profited financially from the shift. Workingman's was their first album to succeed commercially. They may have been hungry, they may have been tired, they may have been convinced that they were doing the right thing in returning to a less sophisticated approach. They cannot be criticized for having done so unless one is confident that he knows what rock is and should be.
But if The Dead have done the right thing, rock may be a more diminished music than we supposed. It may be incapable of wholly satisfying a person. A common bond unites those who get their albums in their mailboxes: boredom. Almost every talented rock writer has jumped ship cursing at least once, and some have never returned. It's almost impossible to sustain one's enthusiasm.
A significant phenomenon among rock writers has been an increasing interest, naive and uninformed in many instances but genuine nonetheless, in jazz. Not because jazz is "better" than rock, but because it may speak to a part of one which fifteen or twenty new rock albums a week usually leave unsatisfied. Because a writer, as opposed to a listener, is condemned to thought, and because rock may offer him very little to think about.
And yet at the same time the glory of rock, like the glory of Rosemary Clooney to her generation, has been that it can give you the blessed opportunity not to think. Maybe rock writing has run into critical problems because it shouldn't be written about critically. Perhaps all that should be written is the gossip and Gloria Stavers was right all along. Gloria Stavers and The Grateful Dead.
(by Ken Emerson, from Fusion, 25 June 1971)