THE DEAD AFTER A DECADE: 'ALLAH' MEANS BUSINESS
The event was officially billed as a free concert sponsored by the Haight-Ashbury People's Ballroom, with music by the Jefferson Starship and Jerry Garcia and Friends. But for the estimated 50,000 people who flocked to Golden Gate Park's Lindley Meadows on September 28th (including a smattering who flew in from as far away as New York), it was a nearly perfect flashback to the Sixties, a Sunday afternoon with the latest incarnations of the Jefferson Airplane and surprise -- the good ol' Grateful Dead in their first public performance in nearly a year.
Chilly, overcast weather never had a chance to dampen enthusiasm as the Starship mounted the stage to a standing hometown ovation and for the next two hours kicked ass in a manner that only months of roadwork, a Number One album and a vacation in Hawaii can make possible. "Don't anyone go away!" a beaming Paul Kantner shouted over the applause following a "Volunteers" encore, "The Grateful Dead are comin' on!" And half an hour later, after a well-orchestrated equipment change, they did.
Bassist Phil Lesh was the first to plug in and face the audience. "Hi! Long time no see!" The crowd roared approval. And when he was joined by guitarist Bob Weir, one on-the-scene photographer was impressed enough to yell, "Aw look, it's the fuckin' Bobbsey twins!" Elsewhere onstage, pianist Keith Godchaux breathed into cupped hands to keep them warm, while his vocalist/arranger wife Donna smiled with the anticipation of singing some of the newer Dead songs. Behind them drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann checked snare tunings with tentative rim shots. Then a leather-jacketed Jerry Garcia stepped forward and sent a trademark guitar riff sailing all the way out to Seventh Avenue, marking the start of a satisfying two-hour concert. Earlier Weir had joked to friends that "San Francisco was about to hear the rustiest band in show business" and that "the audience would probably end up holding torches and pitchforks." By the set's end, however, he was euphoric.
The concert also coincided with the beginning of the Dead's second decade as a musical entity, business enterprise and, significantly, near legendary social institution. The Dead's extended family, perhaps 200 in all, has survived a peculiar saga. Somehow the "karass" has managed to play out most of the variations on the themes of growth, change, jealousy, loyalty and loves won and lost, and still emerge with its collective sense of humor and vision intact. Today its principals live quietly in affluent hillside homes tucked away in woodsy, secluded niches around Marin County. To a man -- and one woman -- they're still mavericks, but life now is a trifle less insane.
In Mill Valley the afternoon following the park concert, Garcia, dressed as usual in a t-shirt, jeans and Puma track sneakers, paused to consider what it feels like going into the second ten years:
"It feels pretty purposeful, much more so than our first ten. Before, if we ever had any guiding philosophy, it was just to go with it. Instead of making decisions, we just let it happen. And what it culminated in, professionally, was hugeness -- the Oakland Coliseum-sized places and all those monster rooms. So the first real decision we made was not to go on with it 'cuz it isn't really what we want. We'll still gig together in the future as the occasions arise, depending on how things strike us -- as long as we don't have to willfully step back into our old roles. Now that we've all formed little bands, each of us can individually start that climb again. Because really, there's no place else to go from here if you're a musician. But at least we're going back to the comfortable part of it, little theaters and clubs that are on a human level."
Surprisingly, this decision comes when the Dead are on the verge of enjoying their biggest recorded success with Blues for Allah. The album is quiet, introspective and distinctive. It blends jazz and atonal improvisation with melodic passages and clearly phrased voicings, establishing its own identity and yet echoing previous Dead albums. "It's the first of our albums that's really grown on me," Lesh commented. "I've always been happy with our albums but I've rarely listened to them after they're finished. This one's different. It indicates a new point of departure for our music. We wanted to free ourselves from our own clichés, to search for new tonalities, new structures and modalities. I think we succeeded. We'll still play a lot of our old stuff, of course, but we're all pleased with the new areas to explore."
This suggests that the Dead will still play together. "We'll definitely be getting together for a few months at a time to do concerts," Lesh said. "I sure don't want to stop playing with those guys."
Still, the shift away from fulltime touring did lead to the closing of two Dead-supported enterprises: the booking agency, Out of Town Tours, and the travel agency, Fly by Night (motto: "Here today, gone tomorrow.") But though the Dead's collective profile has been less visible this year, there's been no letup in activity. Jerry Garcia is rehearsing with an as-yet-unnamed group that includes bassist John Kahn, drummer Ronnie Tutt and keyboard ace Nicky Hopkins. Bill Kreutzmann has joined Keith and Donna Godchaux's jazz and R&B band (currently called Keith & Donna, though manager John McIntire is tempted to rename it the Godchaux-Kreutzmann Band "just to make it more interesting"). Phil Lesh has teamed up with MIT trained composer Ned Lagin to create Seastones, a venture into "bioelectric music" (one Round Records LP out so far). Bob Weir has been gigging for several months around California with Kingfish, a rock and blues band featuring ex-New Riders bassist David Torbert, and will soon enter the studio to begin a solo album. And finally, there's Mickey Hart's innovative Diga Rhythm Band, a high-energy percussion ensemble showcasing tabir master Zakir Hassain.
In June there was the sale to United Artists of world distribution rights to both Grateful Dead Records (a band owned label created in July '73 solely to distribute Dead albums) and Round Records (a second label founded in January '74 to handle solo albums by members of the band as well as other artists). "We were never strong enough to do the distribution and promotion correctly because we just didn't have the product flow one needs," explained Ron Rakow, the irrepressible president of both companies and the Dead's longtime adviser on matters financially transcendental. "Blues for Allah came out 14 months after the one before [Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel], and it's hard to get independent distributors to really go to work for you on that basis. So we sold to UA. I can't reveal figures, but we got a good advance and complete artistic freedom."
According to Round Records general manager Greg Nelson, UA's involvement has already made a difference. "Most Dead albums sell phenomenally for about four weeks after release because of the group's fanatic following, but by the time the albums get to the teens on the charts they suddenly drop off. But Blues for Allah is already in the Record World Top Ten and may have a hit single in "The Music Never Stops." This LP could do much better than Wake of the Flood, which sold around 450,000 copies." Then, too, Nelson added, the distribution deal was timely because the Dead needed the cash. "We'd put up some real nice debts recently, mainly because of two movies in which we've become involved."
The movies, both Dead-financed, feature-length documentaries, appear promising. Rakow said, "We put up the money for a film about the New York Hell's Angels called Angel Forever, Forever Angel, directed by Leon Gast. The film's almost finished and it's superb -- scary -- transcendental, in fact. The other one we're more involved in -- a film of the Dead's final five days at Winterland last October. Phil Lesh titles it 'The Grateful Dead, Zits and All' but so far everyone else just calls it 'The Dead Movie.'
"We used as many as nine crews, each with a cameraman, an assistant cameraman, a sound man, a loader and a runner," Rakow continued. "Together with supervisory personnel we hired 46 people on 11 days notice. But by the third night we were all a unit. We loved working together. And good cinematographers like Al Maysles and Kevin Keating. And Don Lenzer -- he shot a lot of Janis and Woodstock. I knew it was gonna be good when Lenzer went up to Phil as he was tuning his bass. Somehow Don's camera motor registered on the amp through Phil's bass pickup, and the two guys started this raving, screaming dance together. Phil's personality, which is incredibly bizarre, came tumbling out at this joyous expression of new weirdness."
And then there's the obvious question: Did the crew get dosed at any point? Editor Emily Rakow replied, "Sure, it was probably inevitable by the last night. But as stoned as those guys were they sure shot straight." Since the Winterland finale, a full-time staff of four editors has worked in the Mill Valley "film house" of the Dead's production company, appropriately named Round Reels. Thus far 125 hours of raw footage have been meticulously screened, matched to a soundtrack and cataloged. Out of this total, a 24-minute presentation print has been assembled, with directing editor Garcia making sure the film is cut precisely on the beat ("I'm very picky about that shit"). From the looks of the teaser, "The Dead Movie" has the makings of a two-and-a-half-hour genre classic -- if not of rock movies then certainly of the Grateful Dead's in-concert gestalt.
Past manager Mclntire sees possibilities. "The movie is starting to look like something you can get high to go to. To sit back and really kick in. Instead of just the screen and the audience, there'll be two audiences -- on the screen and in the theatre."
Though a final print will not be ready until next spring (together with a two-album soundtrack), Weir is no less enthusiastic: "There's a whole dynamic side of the film that doesn't appear in the teaser because it was edited to create a constant hysteria, but there are lulls and dips and slow numbers and stuff. We were all into making it really count since it was the last time we'd be playing for a while."
It's a risky project, as Garcia readily acknowledges. "This is our first movie and we're feeling our way around in the dark. We'd like to finish the film owning it rather than selling pieces of it, so we haven't started its distribution yet. But the total investment will probably end up being maybe six- or seven-hundred-thousand dollars. Which is high for us but low for making movies."
If there is any one objective that emerges from the welter of purposeful activity -- of documentaries, distribution deals, solo albums and new bands -- it's the Grateful Dead's eventual liberation from the economic necessity of always having to be the Grateful Dead. "I think we've got a chance," Weir remarked, "of establishing ourselves to the point where the Grateful Dead will be self-sustaining for as long as we're into it. We'll be able to keep going and to fulfill ourselves as a group. Maybe by the time we're old and gray, people will still be listening to us."
For his part, "Cash Flow" Ron Rakow is not about to wait that long: "With everyone out making a living on his own, the Dead will achieve the status of being patronized by its members. And that's when I think they're gonna do their furthest out stuff yet. We're already working on some killer idea -- flying ballrooms and holographic reproduction. Really out there. We're even looking at a concert structure that Buckminster Fuller is doing some design work on right now. I can't give you details but it's gonna be sensational, really transcendental."
(by John Grissim, from Rolling Stone, November 6 1975)