HONOUR THE DEAD
This year will go down in rock and roll at least as one when the more legendary American talents finally flowered abroad.
Steve Miller has made it to Britain at long last. Captain Beefheart, who had played here before only briefly (and disastrously), wound up a triumphant tour in Newcastle last week. And now the Grateful Dead: two months of European dates, and behind them a couple of shows at Wembley's massive Empire Pool - a chance for them to show their paces more fully than at that one Hollywood festival appearance two years ago.
The return of the Dead and the re-emergence of Beefheart - both with trumpet fanfares this time - is another stage in the de-mystification of rock and roll, signalling the difficulty these days of remaining at cult level. A good thing, too. As Jerry Garcia himself notes, there may be a tendency to homogeneity, to everything becoming one music, but what that means really is that everything becomes all music.
Out of an obscure jug band whose principals were Garcia, Bobby Weir, and Pigpen, the Grateful Dead has grown in nine years to become America's best-loved group, with its chief spokesman, Garcia, as the paternal head of the U.S. music scene, doling out good vibes in all directions.
The Grateful Dead is now not just a band but an American institution. They're the successful survivors of the acid/flower power days, a dependable landmark in the shifting sands of American politics, culture, and lifestyle.
Above all, their name has been as synonymous with the drug culture as Owsley's. In the past at least, it's been acid that has quickened The Dead, certainly stimulating their performances and records in the early days of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and related San Franciscan scenes. But one of their main achievements has been to prove that in the long run the energy behind their music has been more real than chemical.
The truest definition of psychedelic music is music that's heard while under the influence of LSD. It's easy to assume, but wrong, that what the Dead have attempted is to duplicate musically the acid experience. For nobody, says Garcia, would be able to listen to it. "Can you imagine what it was like to have a whole band completely stoned out of their heads on acid, and it's out of tune and the timing is all peculiar. That's not what we're trying to do."
Garcia, joined by Weir the rhythm guitarist, is talking in one of the two small London hotel suites booked for the Dead and their entourage. It's said that 40 or so people travel with the band wherever they go, and all the communicating rooms are certainly buzzing with the sound of Americans and the occasional lone English voice of an interviewer.
There are Americans lounging in chairs, hunched against walls, lying on floors, and sprawled across beds. Garcia and Weir sit round a table, the former smiling agreeably through a beard as shaggy as bear's fur, the other - long hair tied at the back, his face as studious as a college boy - blowing thick smoke rings that wreathe and hover in the already dense atmosphere.
Weir, now the subject has been broached, is referring back to the days of the San Francisco Acid Tests, before LSD was declared illegal, and when participants would pay a buck to commune with the cosmos while listening/playing music. Acid, he reflected, generated an excitement that made the music sound better at the time than it perhaps really did, because at that time at any rate they were only just learning how to play.
Out of that old acid scene, remarked Garcia, "consciousness" had changed entirely: "Consider how many long-haired people there are for one - that's the most superficial thing - and consider how many people there are that take drugs of any sort. The US has changed entirely in six years, and it's because that whole first psychedelic thing meant 'here's this new consciousness, this new freedom, and it's here in yourself.'
"I think we're beginning to develop new capacities just in order to be able to save the world from our trips - you know, pollution, etc - if for nothing else. Just for survival. The biological news is that in 100 years from now life on earth is finished, so what has to happen is this organism has to adapt real quick and develop new capacities to stem this flow, to maybe head it off somehow. In this scheme of things, politics and all those things belong to the past. They're meaningless, going down the drain.
"There aren't going to be any power centres in that sense anymore. Politics is a dying system. That's why it's kicking and hollering so loud. The reason that Nixon is president is because that's what he wanted, but for anybody in the US right now the idea of being president is not an interesting prospect. The idea of being a politician doesn't appeal to any young person.
"I've spoken to a coupla people over here, and I've found out for example that the framework of America they're speaking to me about is like Jerry Rubin's, Abbie Hoffman's, framework, and those things, man, are misguided and misleading. They're so far wrong, in fact, that none of those guys are into them anymore. Abbie Hoffman isn't into politics now, and Jerry Rubin is playing in John Lennon's group. They know that those things are bankrupt, that nobody can believe them. They're not soulful, they're not communicative, they're not real."
The point about music in this situation, he goes on, is that people can trust it. Though it's been obscured by the financial aspect, it has a real, true function in people's lives. He cites, for example, the fact that in medieval times and before, music was supported by the church because of its spiritual connotations, it had a function. And in primitive societies it was part of magic: "I think those are more the real functions of what music is in a good, solid, working society. It's music that gets you high. If you're a shepherd it makes it easier to bring your sheep in. That's what I'd like to see happen. That's my dream. To see music re-established in its proper relationship to the rest of society. It's got so many day-to-day functions: music you can work with, music for celebration, and so forth."
Garcia and his band, however, seem less dreamers, more pragmatists. Or, as he puts it, "We're just geared for doing stuff, and then we hash it out later." Almost every aspect of what they do, adds Weir, is virtually "a mindless effort."
Despite the large numbers involved, therefore, no one person organises the Grateful Dead entity. There's no boss. There are business managers, accountants, road managers, and so on, but nobody operates in the usual rockbiz vacuum. Together they are one organism that flops along. "It's got batwings and three elephant legs, it's cross-eyed and breathes fire, and that's us," laughs Garcia.
So what do all those many people do? "I'd be at a loss really to say," replies Weir. "I can't begin to remember all the roles the people have to fill."
Certainly, the group is the power drive, however. They've got the goody. But then if everybody doesn't have a nice job, points out Garcia, something is wrong. The ethic is, don't do something you don't want to do.
This extempore attitude is reflected in their records, naturally. They don't like to labor their music. If a track is not working out in the studio, then they go on to another and then backtrack. The cuts are usually done in a few takes. Their first album, for instance, "The Grateful Dead," which was made in 1966 in LA on three track, was rushed through. They just went in and played what they were doing onstage. The reason their next two albums, "Anthem of the Sun" and "Aoxomoxoa," took something like eight months was because they realized they had to gain experience of making records. Successive albums have been less monumental in construction.
"Workingman's Dead" has been their transitional album. Before they made that they were highly conscious of the process of recording. This was the one where for the first time they felt really relaxed in the studio and sounded like themselves. Moreover, it represented a changeover from heavy blues and hard rock to vocal harmony.
At that time, explains Garcia, they were just becoming more of a singing band. "Crosby and those guys were hanging around a lot and nothing turns you onto singing more than three guys who really can sing good. They would start singing a song and we'd start watching."
Since then, as well, The Dead, along with a considerable number of American bands who played essentially rock, have included country music as a main influence. Garcia says they started out with a certain amount of country-type material. Later on they decided they'd embrace the country and western approach to recording, which was a pretty basic rather than a complex, psychedelic way of making records:
"We thought, wow! why don't we try making a simple record (that's "Workingman's Dead"). But really, the only thing country about that record is "Dire Wolf." It's got pedal steel on it. The way I thought of even that song was like a folk song, rather than a country and western number."
In fact, what has happened in the late sixties, of course, is a cross-fertilisation between rock and country. The C and W stars are still the old Nashville types, but they're employing more and more longhairs for their bands as increasing numbers of rock and rollers head off towards country music.
Garcia digs a lot of country musicians, generally the ones that like going out and playing: "There are certain musicians, like George Jones, who bears the same sort of relationship to country music in terms of his integrity as B.B. King does to the blues. Area Code are a good example of the current synthesis. You can hear a lotta rock and roll in their music. But those guys are professional back-up musicians in Nashville. They're basically career studio musicians, not experienced performers, and they're used to being professional and competent rather than getting high and blowing everyone's minds. It's just a difference in ethos. Like, a country audience just goes wild when a band plays tight and clean."
Garcia believes that rock and roll has moved toward a country sound in recent years because many of its audience are becoming older and getting into more of a regular life, a life that has seasons and changes and more or less consistent emotions: "Country music, or that sound, is the kind you can live with day to day. It doesn't require that you listen to it with great concentration, for example. You can just sorta be around. I think that's something."
"Not to mention," interrupted Weir, "the fact that a lotta rock and roll musicians evolved out of being folk musicians, which is that far" - he spread his fingers a short distance apart - "away from being country musicians, and a lot of 'em even evolved from being country players. It was always around."
All of a sudden somebody, like Dylan, got to be successful putting out country music: "So it was soon, 'hey, we can pull good ole country music into our act!'" Garcia laughed. "Too much. It's like an old friend, see. And then I think a lotta white guys felt weird about playing the blues because they were taking blues audiences away from the guys who really understood the blues, who meant the blues. I've gone through those kinda changes myself. I've tried not to be in any one bag overmuch, if I could help it. I've tried to be whoever I am, but I've been conscious at times of feelings like 'whatever can I say about the blues that Albert or B.B. King doesn't say? What real contribution can I make?' Now I play a good percentage of studio sessions with black players and it's like I have a voice of my own in that world of music, which is groovy. It means that I haven't been just another blues guitarist."
Garcia has sessioned in various contexts outside the Dead, of course. He has recorded with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, an assembly of himself and friends of The Dead, which arose out of his casual pedal steel playing in a San Franciscan coffee house with one of these friends, Marma-Duke (John Dawson).
And then there's his album with Howard Wales, one of the countless Marin County musicians, who used to play organ with a band called AB Sky. It was Garcia who brought Wales together with Alan Douglas, owner of the New York-based Douglas Records, which released the album.
Now there's a solo album emerging from Bob Weir, featuring the Grateful Dead ensemble as a back-up band but with brass and strings as well. Weir wrote the songs with a couple of friends, Robert Hunter, the Dead's lyricist, and a writer named John Barlow. And it's Weir who has written the single they're releasing in Britain, "One More Saturday Night," backed with "Bertha" off their last anthology album.
The point about the Dead is that it's flexible but cohesive enough to accommodate these spin-off activities. Right now, at any rate, it's difficult to think of a band with a greater hold on the public's affections.
Garcia tries to explain it.
"We're not doing it," he says, "not for careers, not for money, not for any of those regular reasons - we're doing it for this other reason, and we know what it is but we don't know what its name is.
"I guess it's like a pretty good trip and there are so few of 'em going on anymore."
(by Michael Watts, from Melody Maker, April 15, 1972)
See also other interviews from the tour:
http://deadsources.blogspot.com/2014/09/spring-1972-weir-kreutzmann-interview.html (Beat Instrumental)