LIVING THE DEAD
To begin with, the presence of police set a bitter tone for the evening. A burly officer flanked the usher at the entrance of the Music Hall, eyeing suspicious types and confiscating unspeakable amounts of liquor. Smiling benignly at the pile of contraband, one officer quipped, "What do you kids want to bring booze to a wake for? This is the Grateful Dead, don't you know?" Very strange.
The week before the concert Pete Seeger (of all people) wrote a very sagacious piece in the New York Times. He said, in brief, that one of this country's biggest problems is that it survives on a diet of a handful of artists and two hundred million television sets. The increasing mechanization of society, he asserted, has engendered a sense of creative sterility (but surely not impotence) through all strata of comfortable America.
Thus it was with considerable pleasure that I anticipated last week's evening with the Dead. They are, in my view, consummate rock and roll artists. An advised use of the term "artist". The components of the particular musical magic which that band works over its following has long been the subject of zestful speculation. I've often wondered that popular recognition was accorded to the group only following the 1970 release of Workingman's Dead. The finest, and also most innovative body of their work is to be found in the four albums preceding.
The group went through the drug involvement, which has now become a rather trite metaphor for Middle American adolescence. Led by Jerry Garcia, an itinerant Berkeley banjo player, they began expanding on the poems of Robert Hunter, weaving exotic musical tapestries of unprecedented grace. Garcia soared in front of the band with melodic inventions of overpowering purity and beauty. The subtlety of jazz extempore had been wedded to the sexual electricity of rock and roll.
They played with the frenzied amphetamine energy of post-Savio Berkeley. The Dead, along with the Airplane and Quicksilver, beat the rhythms for Kesey, Brautigan and Co., those self-conscious saviors of the Western mind. Yet the music was always theirs alone, and through it all they maintained a musical identity distinct from the political stamp which eventually blotted out any trace of individuality among the so-called Volunteers of America.
From the beginning a rousing dance band, they eventually expanded their style experimenting with pure electrical sound and adding a second drummer into the group. The two drummers were to become a much initiated rock convention, most effectively exploited by Carlos Santana and the late Duane Allman. The Dead throbbed with a will to create and their second album was an endeavor unpretentiously titled Anthem of the Sun. And if you don't think that that work is a genuinely artistic statement--a portrait of the energy source of both nature's world and (excuse the philosophic indulgence) the world of the soul, I'd advise you to listen to it again.
The work is little short of a 20th Century Odyssey, with every conceivable metaphoric cultural transformation. The most striking of which is perhaps from the Homeric balladeer to an eclectic, electric band of gypsies. Listen to the story of Casady, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their transcontinental trip--set into a musical creation of elegant turbulence. Most important, the music. Listen. They don't just play it. They create it. Give birth. And the musical communication involved is ineffably complex.
Live Dead carried this disciplined freedom to its logical conclusion. The group presented four sides of music, each bearing an original composition. The most advanced piece, "Dark Star", is the Dead's crowning achievement. A cogent critique of the work will doubtless be the subject of future music scholarship, yet I hesitate to leave you with a mere assurance that it is an exceedingly far out piece of music.
The melodic ideas of Anthem achieve lyrical fruition in "Dark Star." While Anthem bespeaks the darkest underbelly of the acid experience, "Dark Star" is a polished gem of intergalactic proportions. The Dead has clearly made a significant transition in their relationship with drugs. Merely in poetic terms, consider the relationship of the Sun in the Anthem album to the portrait of a "Dark Star." Contrast the frenetic percussion work of Hart and Kreutzmann on "Caution" and Anthem to the brilliantly subtle and suggestive use of gongs, bells, cymbals on the later effort. Try "Alligator", a piece of unabashed musical sarcasm complete with a three-part kazoo introduction, on which Garcia's guitar solos are mocking and derisive. "Dark Star", however, displays a tone of ethereal coldness and humility. For twenty minutes, Garcia, Wier, Lesh, and Constantine weave in and out of each other, building harmonic bridges over acid rivers designed by mad chemist Stan Owsley. An invitation for the future:
Shall we go, you and I, while we can
Through the transitive night fall of diamonds
Simply as a matter of intellectual speculation, one might postulate a similar development in the work of the Airplane: progressing from the vibrant newness of Surrealistic Pillow to the unrefined energy of Baxter's (sample "A Small Package....") to the fourth dimensional perspective of Crown of Creation with Grace beckoning:
Come with me my friend,
Come on now and take my hand,
You can be my friend,
Soon we'll be in another country.
After Live Dead, however, there was a curious turn in the Dead's style. Tom Constantine, one of the strong forces of musical experiment, left the group. Their next albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, were pleasant indulgences paralleling the post-Woodstock "back to the country" bulls being issued by the Papacy of hip AM radio and sundry rock publications. Indeed, with "Uncle John's Band", the Dead had something distressingly close to a hit. A non sequitur for many.
And there was a concomitant adjustment in the Dead's following. They were now a real popular group, a "people's band." Their shift to a terse country format made the music accessible to everyone, not merely [those] weird enough to sit enraptured by sixty-minute musical explorations of inner space. The bovinization of the Grateful Dead; Nietzsche would love it.
Dead concerts, once a revered institution, underwent similar changes. The fabled rapport between the group and their fans (and Owsley) was no longer in evidence. Jerry Garcia once said, "The perfect Dead concert would be one in which everyone is onstage playing." (That, I would suggest, is much more to the heart of the notion of "Art for the People" than free, passive enjoyment of the creative efforts of a few.) Unfortunately, the People made the band into unreachable objects of adulation. They were heroes of the media, the center of as much creative energy as applause can ever represent. The Social Contract of the Woodstock Generation read: "You create the music and we'll get stoned."
And so I was wondering how the Dead has reacted to it all. I went to the Music Hall eager for some sort of statement from what many consider to be the foremost artistic personalities of our generation. I have always been fascinated by the fact that for some reason (ostensibly because of the political connotations of the art form), rock musicians have never been considered genuine artists--of the same order as a Casals, a Picasso, a Rubinstein, or (God forbid) a Beethoven or a Bach. Yet I would suggest that the work of the Dead compare favorably with the work of any of these. Listen to the early recordings. For the last six years, every concert something else--a musical manifestation of a unique juncture in time and space, with thematic relevance to all others. Not only were they creative, but each (with Pigpen standing at the side guzzling beer or reaching for his harp) a technical virtuoso. And just exactly why can't one be considered a virtuoso on the electric guitar or bass? (Just check out any of Jimi Hendrix's last albums for the word on encompassing the creative possibilities of a particular instrument). They made it up as they went along, and it came out beautiful.
The last four times I've gone to the symphony I've pined in my seat wistfully hoping for an original and not simply creatively interpretive (whatever that means) statement from the orchestra. Could you get into a tape of a jam featuring Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms, just to see what they might have come up with, had they ever gotten it on together?
So when I went to hear what the band (a term used with the greatest affection) had to say this time around, I came away quite disappointed. I was particularly saddened by the degree to which the extraordinarily creative can become alienated from a mindless following. Pete Seeger said it with just a bit more patience. (One wonders exactly how Wagner might have looked at Nietzsche when it was all over.)
The first thing that became apparent was that the New Riders of the Purple Sage have no business on a stage with the Grateful Dead. They are a very neat group within the limitations of tight, well-rehearsed material. But I would be reticent about endeavoring to present any of my own compositions as back-up at a Bob Dylan concert. Unfortunately for Marmaduke et al. (Garcia was sorely missed on pedal steel), when they put their musical cards on the table, they simply did not have the hand. Only once did they attempt to break out of the dreary cowboy framework that shackled their entire presentation, and then they found themselves unable to extend their creative instrumentation beyond the solitary musical idea that constituted their two-minute jam.
The Dead followed them, complete with a new piano player, Keith Godcheaux, who fitted into the band quite comfortably. The crowd was wrecked, on their feet, and screaming with unbounded enthusiasm before the first number. They were here to have a good time regardless of what came out of the performance. There were faint echoes of prepared laughter like the canned hysteria of television comedy. Significantly, the concert hadn't started yet because of a Dead equipment failure. Weir and Lesh took the opportunity to make some condescending remarks to the kids, suggesting helpfully that they might amuse themselves by "scratching each others' butts" during the interlude in the entertainment. The show that ensued can only be described as a nominal discharge of the group's concert responsibilities. They played many of the songs off their recent hit album, as the crowd knew and loved them, just like on the record.
There was little attempt at innovation and an air of bitter resignation hung over the performance (which leads me to believe that had Pigpen been featured in Woodstock doing "Lovelight," the Dead might have become Ten Years After three years earlier). The new material was melodically simple and tendentious, as if the band's creative energy had been applauded out of it. The vocal harmonies were, as always, technically impeccable if not particularly enthusiastic. The mood seemed typified by a new work entitled "Knocking' It Up"; a crassly liberal protest song coming from Hunter. There was a righting persuasiveness in Garcia's delivery of the lyrics.
Gotta make it somehow,
On the dreams you still believe,
Got an Empty Cup,
But still knockin' it up.
Only once did the Dead come to life. Late Wednesday evening they did an "Anthem" which opened onto forty minutes of brilliant musical improvisation. The unruly crowd was awed in silence as Godcheaux and Garcia led the band into a coldly crystalline atonal frame of mind. Winding on through "Me and My Uncle," they eventually ended the piece by returning to "Anthem." A cathartic ooze slid over the hall, exactly the kind of communal satisfaction that follows the successful completion of any artistic whole. Renewal. Too bad that the Dead slipped back into a perfunctory closing of the concert.
The other highlight of the visit was a tape the group had played during the intermission. It featured piercing guitar feedback and cavernous waves of applause. For twenty minutes. Barren of thought, grating, annoying--and after a while maddening. Nietzsche once wrote. "The voice of disappointment: I listened for an echo; but heard nothing but praise."
I'm not sure what to make of Jerry Garcia's reported comment that he dreamt of taking the Dead to sea in a large boat and playing endlessly for their friends. It would be too bad, but I wouldn't blame them.
(by Jim Krauss, from the Harvard Crimson, December 15 1971)