The Grateful Dead is the complete integration of music and musician. The one is of the other, just as it works the other way around.
"You know how the music sounds now?" Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist of the Dead is speaking. "You know how it sounds now? That's the way we're living now. That's a little holograph of our life. That's what we're saying, if we're saying anything."
The new music Garcia refers to is represented by the semi-acoustic work on their last album, "Workingman's Dead." A distinct departure from previous offerings, it features some fine vocal harmonies with the emphasis on songs and away from the long electronic improvisations that were their trademark.
The Dead's legendary loose structure has grown more complex, if no less loose. Garcia is playing pedal steel guitar regularly with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a rollicking country band (as is Dead drummer Mickey Hart). Further, he is about to record an album with local organist Howard Wales in a small combo. This particular night at The Matrix he was to join Merl Saunders, a black keyboard man who has played with Miles Davis among others, in what Garcia calls "the Monday night band."
What this, along with the musical meanderings of other Dead, has done is to broaden the musical perspective of the band immeasurably. Give it more universality, as Garcia tells it.
To him, the music is developed from or by the strong interpersonal relationships within the group. "It's all ideas we've evolved through contact with each other all this time. We've been a little independent structure growing in some direction completely sideways to everybody else."
It is this bond and the music that comes from it that leads to what Garcia terms the "Dead mystique." "The world I live in doesn't have any Grateful Dead. I'm not into the mystique in terms of it coming to me and my being impressed by it. Because it's about me and us."
Though the album has sold moderately well, it is by no means a smash. "Our success is highly over-touted," says Garcia. The Dead are steadily coming out of debt, but are still far more in than out. "Those realities (of money) were never particularly hard to us, that's why we were $80,000 in debt."
The Grateful Dead won their wings, so to speak, at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests (made famous by Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), where they were the band. Today, when the psychedelic revolution seems to have taken a more violent turn, both Weir and Garcia disavow any relationship to the violence. "Violent people are all on the same side," was Garcia's comment.
Violence, he feels, gets all the attention of the media and so it becomes what people believe in. "All the things that were going on in Acid Test days are still going on. Only much farther out and much more subtle. It's for damn sure that no one's going to be talking about it, because that's what happened last time."
Free concerts, something very close and dear to that Dead mystique, have taken on a different perspective for them too. The Grateful Dead may have invented the free concert in the park ideal that eventually led up to Woodstock, but now the situation has gotten out of hand. "That whole free music scene is a completely faulty viewpoint of what's going on in music or what music really is." Garcia is especially articulate about this. "Free, to us, was always a reciprocal trip. We were free to do it or not. When we were free to do it or not, we sometimes chose to do it.
"Now the thing about free music as defined by the Woodstock Nation trip is let's make it free. But music isn't free. Everyone of those musicians who plays music has paid for that fucking music with his life.
"The word free is sadly overworked. Nothing is really free. Money is a symbol of a certain kind of energy exchange that most people are too lame to ever be able to come to in their own terms in some groovy way."
Somewhere about this point the manager of the club called out to Jerry and made a strumming motion with his hand. It was time to go on.
A bit later, the combo was cooking. Bob Weir was leaning back near the wall enjoying the music. Garcia was playing out of every imaginable bag. First sounding like Steve Cropper, playing tight rhythmic chords, and then, almost out of nowhere, a little belch of feedback and some freaky, spaced out run. He was just picking anything and articulating.
(by Joel Selvin, from the Music section, Earth magazine, January 1971)