COME HEAR UNCLE JOHN'S BAND...
Some people say that the only good freak is a Dead freak. Murph's a Grateful Dead freak - he thinks they're the best rock-and-roll band in the world - and when he heard that the Dead were going to play at Boston University on November 21st, he started making plans. He arranged to get his tickets as soon as the box office opened (the concert was sold out in a day) and when the 21st finally came, Murph was at the door of B.U.'s Sargent Gymnasium, with food and friends, at one in the afternoon, ready for the 8 p.m. concert. Seating was first-come first-served, and Murph planned to be first. Meanwhile, Frank was a couple of miles up Storrow Drive at Soldier's Field, selling his and Murph's Yale-game tickets to a desperate alumnus. By 1:30, Frank had joined Murph in line at B.U.
Some people also say that there are Grateful Dead fans who'll show withdrawal symptoms if they're kept from their Dead albums for more than twenty-four hours. The Dead have always been associated with drugs and with drug use. But their music, once a primary source of San Francisco's out-pouring of acid-rock, has moved beyond that stage, and their message, their intensity, and their meaning, don't depend on - or even necessarily suggest - a drug enhanced consciousness.
The Dead have always had a relatively small following, strongest in San Francisco, and fanning out across the country from there. You can measure the following of most bands by the number of records they sell, the price of tickets to their concerts, and their position in the current Superstar-Supergroup standings. The Dead's following has to be reckoned by different standards, by quality and degree rather than by numbers and standings: by the amount of late-night wear on the grooves of their albums, by the frustration of those who can't get into Dead concerts, and by the intensity of devotion Dead followers show toward the band and their music.
Their following is perhaps the most musically involved and sophisticated of all rock followings. Instead of stimulating the frenzied abjection-to-heroes that marks the success of many bands, the Dead have stimulated a response of unusually deep respect; it begins as respect for the individual musical talents of each member of the band, deepens as greater respect for the Dead as a performing ensemble, extends into respect for the Dead's own devotion to their music as art despite the financial enticements of the rock-music industry that has grown up around them, and becomes, in its most elemental form, a respect for (and perhaps a longing to take part in) the way of life and the way of thinking that lies enticingly and invisibly behind the music of the Grateful Dead. Many rock musicians (and their promoters) try hard to associate themselves with some metaphysical power; the Dead suggest that connection without trying.
Their music, however different listeners interpret it, calls out such strong feelings that some Dead fans - many of the oldest and most involved ones, who tend to see themselves as an inner circle of real understanders - resent those who, in the Dionysian tradition of rock, are carried away by the music to the point of clapping, singing, and screaming while the Dead play. That, the old fans feel, is a superficial reaction to the Dead that destroys the close feeling between band and audience they're used to.
By 7 p.m., when the doors to the Sargent Gym opened, there was a broad line of ticketholders stretching up the block and around the corner. Murph and Frank got in. The gym began to fill; first-comers went right up to the stage; the crowd spread over the gym floor from front to back, and reached up into the bleachers along the walls.
The Grateful Dead grew up as a band in the center of a diffuse, many-sided movement that, taken as a whole, has been called the San Francisco hip scene. Jerry Garcia ("Captain Trips" or "the Guru," now 31 years old) started out in Palo Alto, California, with Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Band. In 1964, with two of the jug-band members and two others, he formed the Warlocks, a loud rock-and-roll band that soon became the Grateful Dead. They played at many of the first large rock dances in the Bay Area; they played the Acid Test, high-power blowouts set up by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters; and they played the Trips Festival, a three-day benefit managed by Bill Graham that signaled the big rush of San Francisco rock concerts. With the financial backing and electrical genius of Owsley the acid chemist, they developed themselves into the fountain-head of a new kind of music: acid rock.
They lived on Ashbury Street in San Francisco, played six or seven hours a day, and grew. Other bands grew with them in similar directions, but while other bands faltered and broke up or became popular successes and set off on the big-money concert circuit, the Dead stayed close to home and worked on their music. They were the source, but their style found outlets in many places. (Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test gives them their due: "...the sound of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album and the high-vibrato sounds of the Jefferson Airplane, the Mothers of Invention, and many other groups - the mothers of it all were the Grateful Dead...")
The B.U. concert was to have begun at 8:00. By 9:00 a grotesque chimpanzee act, an unsuccessful warm-up for an audience that needed no warm-ups, had left the stage. The music started, but it wasn't the Dead; David Nelson, a short, blonde-whiskered man, stood stage-front with his guitar; Marmaduke played along and sang, and Jerry Garcia sat at the side playing the pedal-steel guitar. This was Nelson's band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage (named for a Zane Grey novel), a Western-Rock hybrid band that is a sideline for Garcia and one of the Dead's sub-groups. Before the Riders could start a second song, the fire doors at the back of the stage were forced open by a crowd of ticketless Dead seekers who had broken past the police outside to get into the gym; they sprinted into the audience to get away from the guards at the doors. Police grappled with the gate-crashers; the atmosphere of a street fight shot through the area near the stage; finally the police got the door closed, and the Riders turned back to the audience to finish their set.
After their last song, Nelson and Marmaduke left the stage quickly; the Dead's bass and rhythm guitarists, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, wandered on stage and began to tune up by their microphones: the band's two drummers, Bob Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, were in place and Ron McKernon ("Pigpen") nosed around at the back of the stage. The Grateful Dead were finally ready, and they moved into "Casey Jones," from Working-man's Dead.
One conclusion that can come from listening to the Dead in concert or on recordings is that they are continually ecstatic when they're playing together - not frenziedly ecstatic, not necessarily beamishly, outwardly ecstatic, but nonetheless in a state of continual ecstasy. Their intense pleasure comes through in their music, in the way they combine. What the source of this ecstasy is, what the cause is in the musicians, is open to question. Murph asserts that one of the drummers is up on cocaine most of the time. Another fan who has lived with the latest Dead album, American Beauty, since its November release, suspects that the Dead, in the course of their earlier experiences and perhaps as a result of earlier drug use, have reached a level of consciousness and understanding that is legitimately higher than the level maintained by most people, a level which, if you tried to put it on the Reich scale, would be up around Consciousness V or VI. The ecstasy helps to create the music, and the music expresses the ecstasy.
Unlike many of their contemporaries in rock music, the Dead play without putting on a show of themselves. The music is enough; the music is what is important, and the Dead play with the rare confidence of men who have found their place in the world. If, after having been picked up by bright-eyed reporters and scavenging trend-setters, after having been beaten lifeless and ground up into a pasty, ready-to-serve-easy-to-digest product, after having been mashed between the gums of force-fed consumers and spat out in a tasteless wad of words, if after going through all this the phrase "doing your own thing" can still have any meaning, then it has meaning in the style of the Grateful Dead.
Sitting at their drums at either side of the rear-stage in Sargent Gym, just in front of a wall of amplifiers, Kreutzmann and Hart played easily for "Casey Jones." Kreutzmann was originally the only drummer for the band. One version of the story of Hart's ascension to the Dead, a version that's part of the large oral tradition around the band, describes it as a sudden event: "Hart was a friend of Kreutzmann's, the older drummer. He came over and played - he came up on stage at the Fillmore West and played 'Alligator' for two hours - finished - and Garcia just went over and embraced him. Nobody said anything, and he was part of the band from then on."
When (as they did a couple of times during the B.U. concert) the guitarists step back to their amplifiers for a drink of Budweiser and let their chords fade out, Kreutzmann and Hart take over and demonstrate one reason why one band has two drummers. They turn on their stools to face each other, their eyes lock naturally, and they shift into perfect synchronization; their arms rise and fall in high elastic curves, each man playing his motions off the motions of the other a tiny part of a second before the sound plays off the sound; the drum duet passes from a fast, steady rhythm to a less pronounced beat, made with fewer strikes of wood on skin, but steady by implied rhythm, open to complex variations within itself.
It's a long duet, long enough to allow the drummers to go through many changes, but it doesn't drag; it's not an interlude in a song, but an important part of it, a part that has no notes, only beats. The noteless music gets faster, more and more abstract, more and more supported by the rhythm in the listeners' minds that is added to the sounds coming in through their ears, until the music peaks, and with a nod to the rest of the band from both drummers, the drums roll out a lead-in, and the Dead play together again.
Of all the Dead, bass-player Phil Lesh is the most musically experienced. He started out as a violinist, played trumpet in the San Mateo College Jazz Band, composed electronic music, and one day picked up the electric-bass under Garcia's instruction; two weeks later he played his first concert with the Dead. On stage, he moves to and fro from stage-front to his amplifier at the back, looking cheerful, at times excited by the music. On his left, Bob Weir - tall, serious-looking - looks down at his rhythm guitar, occasionally peering across the stage from under his eyebrows to the other guitarists.
Ron McKernon, Hell's-Angelic in his goatee and leather jacket, a very tough-looking honcho, pokes about the stage, beating a huge, glittering tambourine when the music calls for it. He looks neglected a lot of the time; one Dead follower claims that McKernon seldom plays the keyboards anymore because of arthritis in his hands. But when the time comes for a Pigpen song, he's standing up to the microphone singing hard and well, and blowing strong blues-harp-solos.
At the left-hand side of the stage, Garcia, heavy and round-cheeked, smiling benignly, almost maternally, looks calmly happy, interested in what is going on around him; all the while his fingers run through the strings on his guitar, releasing fast notes with easy precision, controlling the pitch, volume, thickness, sharpness and shape of each note. When the Dead had just brought out their first album, Garcia talked to San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph Gleason about the way he was developing his music:
"It's a matter now that we have this new thing, these electric sounds, it's a question of how can you use them in such a way that they're music rather than racket? Because the point is fine. I've been using the feedback stuff instead of playing lines or for producing a layer of sound which is the thing that happens most naturally. I've been using it by like striking a string and bringing up my volume knob so that there is no attack on the beginning of the note. The note just starts to come out of the air... I've already played the string, turned up the volume, the feedback starts. And I stop the string at a rhythmic interval. So that I have...if I were to draw a picture of the tone, it would be just about the reverse of what a guitar tone normally is, where you have a heavy attack and then a slow decay. Because it's the other way around, it decays in and attacks off. So I use it as a rhythmic device more than anything else. But you know, the more it happens, the more I know about it and the more ideas I get for it and so forth. It's just a matter of playing more."
Since the release of their first album, the Dead have developed innovatively and very steadily; they've recorded four more studio albums - Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa, Workingman's Dead, and their most recent, American Beauty, and have brought out two "live" albums, Vintage Dead and Live Dead.
As the hours passed, the B.U. concert gained momentum easily, the music apparently giving off energy in one way or another to the crowd, who let the music move them, unable to listen without letting motion spill out of their bodies, without clapping and flashing their hands in the air and dancing. "The great thing about the Dead," explained one disciple, "is...like, you can have these wicked cosmic thoughts and dance at the same time. Really spiritual and really sensual."
By 12:30, the Dead were reaching the limits of their power - several hours of nearly non-stop music at the end of a long tour can do that. They paused briefly after one piece, and started in quickly on "Uncle John's Band," a calm, beautifully harmonized song from Workingman's Dead. It was the best saved for last, and it meant the end of the concert was close at hand. The crowd appreciated the song noisily; when it was over, the audience clapped wildly, shouting for more, stomping, clapping in unison, but the Dead were tired, and there was to be no more. The calls for more music continued, good-naturedly, hoping but not really demanding because, after all, if the Dead have done all they want then they are through: it is their music, they must have reasons for stopping now instead of at some other time; no one can tell them to do more. Tired, probably a little repelled by the loud appreciations from the crowd, the Dead unplugged and left.
(by William Becket, from the Harvard Crimson, January 7 1971)