Feb 22, 2022
Feb 17, 2022
WE USED TO PLAY FOR SILVER, NOW WE PLAY FOR LIFE
FRIDAY, AUGUST 2
It's 2 p.m., and the road crew is still hard at work.
To the left of the stage is a trailer rig the size of a large interstate truck, empty. The sound equipment is up, the lights are hung, and electronic checks are being run through. The sun is shining and one gets the feeling that perhaps the Dead can pull it off; maybe, just maybe, this will be a good crowd and a good show, two factors that of late have been absent from Jersey City.
The Dead are winding up a tour that's taken them up and down the East Coast, most recently Boston and Washington, D.C. Tonight, they will do one show at Roosevelt Stadium, then a day's rest and two shows in Philadelphia. It's been a year since the band last ventured into the metropolitan area and they are slightly apprehensive, but eager to do well, with a new album and a new sound system under their belts.
It's that same old Yin and Yang at work. The New York area has been the scene of some very fine, very smooth shows; yet at the same time, nowhere else has the Dead encountered such demanding, disruptive, and plain rude audiences. And it is that very fact that draws the Dead here again and again; when the audience is right it can be so right as to bring out the very best in the band. This is precisely what they hope for today; tired and weary from close to 60 days on the road, they are running on the sheer energy of each concert and, with a little luck, these last few days could just project them into that plane that they, and they alone, work with so well.
At three o'clock the Jersey City Police reports heavy traffic on Routes 1 and 9 heading towards the stadium. Five hours before the concert is scheduled to begin, the stadium parking lot is already full and the playing field is three quarters covered with people. The band relaxes in their hotel. They are worn from last night's birthday party for Garcia. Held at Dingbat's, a fashionable New York club, it went on way into the early morning, finally ending when the rising sun proved a little too much for weary red eyes. They won't arrive backstage until an hour or so before the show is to begin.
Outside the stadium, the usual hawkers are hard at work. Selling anything from tee shirts bearing familiar Grateful Dead logos to bootleg records to extra tickets, they are upstaged only by the concert-goers themselves, who, to look at them, give the appearance of a crowd going to a Grand Funk Railroad or Led Zeppelin concert. There are empty liquor bottles strewn everywhere and heads nod and bodies weave and shuffle through the entrances. One boy, apparently concerned that alcohol will not be allowed inside, is desperately trying to stuff six bottles of beer in his shirt, in his boots, and under his hat, hoping to appear inconspicuous to the security people at the gate. The truth is the security people aren't saying anything about bottles being brought into the concert, but no one bothers to tell this kid that, and finally, after abandoning any hope of concealing all six bottles, he announces to his friend, "That's cool, man, I'll just drink them before I go in!" And he proceeds to twist open a bottle and start.
Needless to say, the Deadheads (that ever growing number of persons who follow the band from plateau to plateau, often travelling hundreds of miles just to see them) are worried. The crowd is far from a "Dead" crowd and more than likely is made up of those persons who have picked up on the group from the second live album Skull and Roses and into the Europe '72 album. These, then, are the people moved to yell requests and various other remarks to the band while performing, thereby breaking the First Cardinal Rule of the Grateful Dead: the Dead, unlike most other rock groups, don't set about at the beginning of each concert with a set "show" in mind. Rather, they depend on a goodly amount of interplay between themselves and the audience to generate the energy that provides the nucleus for their performance. Faced with an alien audience - those who expect only "Casey Jones" and "Truckin'" and scream and yell until those songs are played - they are likely to play short and sweet, then retreat, determined never to play for that particular audience again. But, the Dead people refuse to be pessimistic about the crowd. After all, the boys have managed to pull off some minor miracles in the past, and, perhaps, there are enough Dead freaks here to make up for everybody else. One redheaded guy, with a full pack on his back and twinkling mescaline eyes, speaks for everyone: "Don't worry, man," he says to his friend who is comparing stories with another guy about the previous Monday's concert in D.C., "just ignore these people and let the boys set the tone. It will be all right." His friend looks up, smiles, then shakes his head as he points to a slumped figure in front of him. It is a mopheaded girl, who looks no more than sixteen, vomiting into her own lap, too stoned to move.
Backstage, close to 6:30 p.m., three large, gleaming black limousines pull up and the Dead, along with Rock Scully (their manager) and assorted close friends and business associates, step out. The stage is elevated a good 30 feet so that "backstage" actually encompasses a huge area, big enough for three stationary trailers (not unlike those seen on construction sites), about five portable johns, and, of course, Montezuma's Kitchen. Garcia and Weir head for one of the trailers while Lesh and Kreutzmann head for the food. Keith and Donna Godchaux and baby have wandered off somewhere. Montezuma's Kitchen is not unique with the Dead. It is used with any group or performer who does a show at Roosevelt. What is unique and outrageous is the vast array and amount of food. This is no cheap, plastic sandwich shop; the food is of the highest quality and palatable to even the most discreet tastes. The dishes include individual sirloin steaks, topped with mushrooms and onions, crisp tossed salad, and corn on the cob. Or, if you're not a steak and salad man, perhaps the curried shrimp or meatball sandwiches will do. There is plenty for all and enough beer to wash it all down. The Dead insist on Heineken and Heineken only; one roadie told me that 30 cases was not unusual for a show of this size. This is all part of the fortune the rock world has reaped; no more grassmat hotels and warmed-over second-hand "three-guesses-what-it-is" meals. The touring has been honed to a fine art, complete with the best champagne. Kreutzmann eats and jokes with some friends, each one with a glass full of the bubbly - Moet Chandon a Epernay Cuvee Dom Perignon. The price - close to $30 a bottle.
The mood is a gay one, marred only by the ever increasing dark clouds in the sky. By 7 o'clock the sky has turned from bright blue, to cloudy gray, to a deep, dark impending black. Rain looks imminent and the road crew doesn't waste a second. Large plastic sheets are drawn over the drums, the piano, the amplifiers. The sound system, reaching about 30 feet into the air, is covered with one gigantic sheet made of what appears to be a muslin of some sort. Three or four men hang from scaffolding high above the audience tacking up the muslin and covering the lights. It's an efficient system. Within a half-hour everything is covered and reasonably protected. Suddenly there is a huge flash of lightning and rain begins to fall. At first just a drizzle so that in the crowd, as well as backstage, there is a feeling that the show could go on, once the rain stops and things dry up. But now the wind has picked up and there is distant thunder accompanied by great flashes of lightning. The rain is falling hard and though the audience is still in a cheerful mood, the wet is methodically splashing their spirits. No announcements have come from the stage as yet and people are starting to wonder just what is going on. Lesh appears onstage and makes a short statement that they will wait until 9 o'clock to make a decision; his appearance brightens some faces, but by now the field has already taken on a muddy consistency close to pudding and most people have abandoned any hopes of staying dry. Makeshift hats, tents, and umbrellas do little to protect in what has now become a driving rain.
Backstage, there is much confusion and a hasty meeting is called in one of the trailers with the Dead, Scully, and John Scher. There is a big decision involved here. To cancel the show would mean the loss of countless dollars for Scher, and an acceptable rain date would have to be arranged. The crew would have to dismantle all the equipment, pack it, run it to Philadelphia for two days, and then break down and head back to Jersey City to start all over again. It is a momentous task but it can be done, with the right amount of sympathy and cocaine thrown in for good measure. But, as in any large set-up, things move slow and slovenly, and by 9:30 still no decision. Things are getting strange in the audience. All that alcohol, pot, and chemicals coming to a head and no music! Those rowdier elements of our beloved generation, true to form, have begun throwing things at the stage and occasionally at each other. The mood is not getting any better. Most Dead people have left already. Knowing their boys as they do, they feel sure the show will be cancelled, and if not, they just couldn't stand to see them play in this atmosphere. That old East Coast syndrome again; granted, even the most patient of people are annoyed at the seeming lack of organization and good sense of the promoters (by now it has been raining steadily for two hours with no end in sight; it's pretty obvious to anyone that no show can go on tonight), yet do we always have to make such fools of ourselves? The now half-empty playing field is a sea of drained strewn bottles and thick with garbage and just plain crap. Like some crazy, futuristic science-fiction movie, there is not an inch of ground that isn't blanketed in junk. The rains continue to fall and a sizeable amount of people still wait for some kind of word on the outcome of the show.
Finally, close to 10 o'clock, it comes; the show is cancelled until the following Tuesday and a brief apology is made for the long wait in the wet. The lights go up and thousands of soaked, chilled people begin their long trek home through virtually immovable traffic on the one road that leads out of the stadium. About half an hour later, the limousines are readied and the Dead and family move out to the hotel. In the stark glare of the huge overhead lights and the strange silence of the emptied stadium, the equipment people start in on what will be an all night task, breaking down the set and packing it for the trip to Philadelphia. There is a fierce, rumbling noise as a huge tractor-trailer carrying one of the Dead's specially-designed stages (there are two so that as one goes down, one goes up at the next stop on the tour) starts up. With careful, sure maneuvering, it is eased out of the stadium and heads for the Turnpike, going south. Next stop, Philadelphia.
If there is any one good reason for not going to Philadelphia, it is the Jersey Turnpike. In many opinions, it is the ugliest freeway in the country; from six to twelve straight, black asphalt lanes covering about 150 miles, crowded with trucks and patrolled by the notorious New Jersey State Police. It was not much more than a year ago or so, heading out of D.C. for New York, that Garcia himself was stopped (routine check, don't you know) and busted - some grass and a bit of cocaine, nothing that the legal echelons of the Dead shouldn't handle, but still it's the idea of the bust that fires the soul. Today is Sunday, a beautiful day, and the Turnpike is too busy to bother with a few carloads of longhairs. The ride is uneventful and after a few hardy pulls on some handrolled cigarettes, it is downright pleasant.
This evening's concert is being held at the Civic Center, located on the outskirts of the city. It is a fairly large, concrete structure with room for ten thousand people. The show is indoors and there are no seats on the floor; makeshift bleachers line the sides. The Dead are particularly anxious to play well here. The last few times in the city they played at the Spectrum, a kind of huge indoor stadium, and last year particularly, they came away disappointed with the sound and the management. But the Civic Center looks good.
Close to three o'clock, there is a large crowd outside waiting for the doors to open. The mood is a good one. For some unknown reason the crowd here seems to be much more of a "Dead" crowd than Jersey City, and even when it starts to rain, people seem to be happy, anticipating the night's festivities. The doors will open at five and in the meantime people smoke, talk quietly, and wait. There is something in the air; that gentle magic touch of the Grateful Dead and their people.
Inside, everything is just about ready. A few minor details still need attention, a few lights anchored and some worn speakers replaced, but the major work is long since done. The equipment people have been here since Saturday and the entire set-up is a carefully thought-out, rehearsed process. These are professionals; the top men (Ramrod, Winslow, Heard, Kidd, Jackson) have been with them since the early days, when the group lived on 710 Ashbury Street not far from the Haight and very close to insanity. That same house where in 1967 on a hot summer day the now-famous bust came down; the Dead's first taste of the media and Scully's statement to the press on the pursuit of happiness. These guys know their jobs and the equipment goes up and comes down like a well-oiled machine. Why, the only reason things are a little sloppy this tour is because they are working with a brand new sound system.
Aha - the new system. The title "sound system" brings to mind piles of amplifiers and speakers surrounding a band so the vocals and instruments can be heard clearly. To label the Dead's system simply a "sound system" would be as preposterous as referring to Dylan as a pretty good songwriter. The entire concept of the system has probably been tossed from head to head, on paper and off, for a good five years. The skill and genius involved in just conceiving it is admirable, but to actually set out to build it is quite a feat. The cost thus far has been close to a million dollars and technically, at the present time, it consists of 26,400 McIntosh watts, and something like 480 speakers stacked in a square 30 feet high by, say, 40 feet wide. The electronics involved in running this thing are incredible. The boards through which it is all unscrambled look amazingly like the instrument panels of a spaceship in a grade B Saturday matinee movie. But what makes this system so remarkable is its capabilities. Each member of the group can independently mix his own sound, so he can not only determine the tone, quality, and volume of his own instrument, but also affect the overall sound of the band going out to the audience. It is also capable of some fantastic electronic wizardry producing what can only be described as space language/music. Add to this Lesh's new bass, complete with a computer tie-in and moog built into the body, and you have some new and interesting possibilities. It is an impressive venture and, as the equipment people are apt to say, only in the embryonic stage. At the Civic Center, during the sound check, it worked well. Throughout the hall, the sound was even, loud but nowhere near overbearing, and clear as a bell... As the bugs slowly get worked out, it could prove to be THE new sound system of the rock world.
I know of no other group so involved in their art as to spend countless amounts of thought, time, energy, and money (it is well known that just a scant year or so ago, the Dead finally worked their way out of the claws of Warner Brothers and realized a long time dream: their own company, Grateful Dead Records, thereby making them financially independent). These people approach their music as any master does, exploring the varieties and, most important, constantly searching for the best possible medium in which to present it. As a master craftsman labors over his work, cutting and shaping it, then upon completion, starting again on another piece, always searching for THE piece of work, so the Dead are consistently shaping and forming their art, trying for that one step further (and here I think it is important to mention that when one speaks of the Dead other than specifically mentioning the musicians, he is referring to maybe forty or fifty people ranging from roadies to artists to managers to just plain family all working as a team).
At five o'clock precisely, the large glass doors are flung open. The crowd, which has now swollen to a few thousand, lets out a huge, gay roar and, besides a few crushed bodies, are surprisingly polite to each other. Though it is tight by the ticket gate, no one seems to be too concerned. But, once through the doors, it is quite a different story. There is a mad scrambling of persons for the front of the hall, directly in front of the stage, but there seems to be enough room for everyone and those veteran Deadheads, knowing the squeeze at the front, lay back and wait, aware that when the time comes they'll be exactly where they should be. So far, so good. The Center is large enough so there is plenty of room to sit and stretch. People roll joints, munch on fruit, and just enjoy themselves. There is a noticeable lack of alcohol. Even though beer is being sold inside the Center, this is a far cry from Jersey City. Everywhere you look there is that gentle smile and gleam in the eye that always precedes a Dead concert. There is no doubt - this is a Dead crowd and the word trickles backstage; the energy is beginning to flow. Commander Cody plays over the sound system and already people are swaying softly back and forth, as though they were a grove of willows rocked by the breeze. This is the first good Dead crowd I've seen since California; Kesey or Cassady would not feel out of place here. Ah, sweet, sweet Philly, tonight you're in for a treat.
Onstage, Ben Haller (the Dead's light man, nicknamed appropriately Benny Deelights) is making some last minute adjustments, testing the large spots that will light the stage from about a 30-degree angle and a height of 60 feet. He too has been caught up in this contagious ambience. He is all smiles as he turns to one of his assistants and nods his head as if to say, "I can feel it tonight, man. Nothing can go wrong." It's that kind of night; backstage old friends party with one another and new friends get to know each other. There is a kind of nervous energy running throughout the whole place. Suddenly, Lesh is walking about, sporting a full beard and crazy sailor hat, and calls Ramrod over for a brief moment. There's a lot of smiles and nodding of heads between them and, in a second, seemingly coming from nowhere, the whole band is milling about. The sound people, those technicians whose job it is to see that the whole system runs smoothly, get ready. Headphones are put on and the intercom system, linking the light people to the master board and the master board to the monitors, etc., is given a final check. Haller orders the house lights dimmed and a loud cheer fills the darkening hall. The spots go up and the band steps up on stage. This is greeted by an even louder cheer and the group smiles back; these are their people.
Weir and Garcia tune up, fiddling with the sound and tone of their guitars. Kreutzmann is adjusting himself, talking to one of the roadies who is raising one of the tom-toms. Godchaux runs a scale on the piano, then turns to the shining dials on his amplifiers and makes an imperceptible adjustment. Donna is not onstage but close at hand, sitting in an old wooden rocker off on the left. Lesh stands ready, bass in hand, looking like some kind of music gun pointed towards the audience. He hits a note, then another, and the sounds rock the auditorium. All the preliminaries done, there is a sudden silence. The audience is on its toes, all attention, all energy focused on these six figures. Garcia smiles, throws a look at Kreutzmann, and Boom! Here we go.
The first song is "Bertha," but a new, different "Bertha." The beat is staccato, almost funky, and the music alternately builds and falls. Into the second verse and the band is really working, relaxed and flowing. The music drifts from band to audience and back again. People are dancing and jumping about, one guy looks at his friend and says, "Woo, are they high tonight!! I can't believe the way they're doing Bertha!" His friend agrees, or so it seems, the guy's so into the song that I watch as the joint he's rolled so carefully burns to an ash and finally falls to the ground. Now Garcia takes a lead, starting slow then rising until he's reached a ringing, clear note that he takes with him into a flurry of music. Lesh is with him all the way, hitting ones so powerful that it seems like the entire place is rocking to his bass. Out of the lead like a steaming locomotive, they hold this intensity, toying with some quick improvisations till they reach the end, a collective bang of a chord. They are very high tonight, the crowd is giving them back every inch of electricity they give out; the whole place is aglow with energy. And this is only the first song!
Weir takes over as they go into "Mexicali Blues," a Weir/Barlow composition, about one man's joust with the fellinas and the federales down South of the Border. Musically, it is a simple song, giving each band member plenty of room to roam. Garcia runs up and down the fingerboard, letting off a constant flow of notes that sound like electric Spanish guitar. The piano is laying down a very fine rhythm with some twiddling of the left hand on the upper registers. The sound is excellent, with no one instrument overbearing and a clear, sharp tone to the overall sound. Lesh looks happy. His new bass, a conglomerate of knobs and dials, is working perfectly.
Listening to the group as they go into "Scarlet Begonias" and watching Garcia, resplendent in a tie-dye tee shirt and long Anthem of the Sun sideburns (the beard, along with the slight belly, have disappeared), one is reminded of the late sixties, the newness and excitement of that time. For a moment, the aftermath, the cheap wine, the seconals, the quaaludes, they have no meaning. For a moment, the openness and downright beauty of those times are brought out, as though a screen had been dropped on the stage and a silent film of the old "be ins" and flower children was being run. This is the seed that has been sown, then, very much like what man has done to this planet, crushed and exploited. The downs and the alcohol are a fitting, yet very sad, culmination of it all. But here, tonight, for the Grateful Dead and their people, that aftermath never came.
From "Scarlet Begonias" the band goes into a beautiful jam. How best to describe it? Perhaps a fusion of jazz and rock, but beyond that, say jazz with a touch of the later-acid days, the music spinning and twisting, now full and lush, suddenly, silent and still. The group picks off of each other, flying in an array of different directions. Weir finds a lick and everybody follows building in intensity; Garcia grabs a note and sustains it till it seems to hang in the thick marijuana smoke air. Godchaux is with him and Boom! Lesh hits a note that sends the whole place reeling. A barely perceptible nod of the head from Lesh and like a fierce wave crashing then subsiding, the music hits a peak, then whoosh, it changes to a slow, wavering sea of sound which gradually fades softer and softer, each note picked and pulled apart until the near silence jells into a new song. The magic of the Dead. That tightness, that consciousness, perception that enables them to pick up on the waves of energy in the air and in the minds and follow these flows into song after song, piece of music after piece of music.
As the concert goes on, it is obvious that tonight they have it, tonight is one of those nights that have led people to say over and over again, "There is nothing like a Dead concert." Like the old days of the Fillmore, the sheer joy and wildness created by the music surrounds everyone and lifts them up, high, higher and higher. On the left of the stage, Heard and Haller, old veterans of the concert scene who have worked probably hundreds of Dead shows, are both clapping their hands, smiling, totally caught up in the music. It is a good sight to see; backstage is a sea of laughter and dancing and sudden "yah-hoos" yelled out into the air, not really directed at anyone, but more just a rush of goodness from deep, deep inside. The boys are really moving now. The jams become more and more extended, and everyone is pushing for that new sound, that new piece of music that hasn't been played yet. Covered by a silk scrim, the sound system with its hundreds of lights and knobs and dials seems to be a gigantic instrument panel where the course is set, the fuel injected, and the rest left to the pilot and the crew.
Now, amongst all these new cosmic toys comes Phil Lesh and the Magic Bass. Like a perfect lotus flower ever unfolding to new sprays and petals, so the band has gone through different helmsmen. Both Garcia and Weir have had their turn at the wheel, navigating their ship through countless storms as well as beautiful, peaceful isles and enchanting mistresses. And now they turn the wheel over to Phillip. With the ferocity of a young Leonard Bernstein and cool determination, he takes the controls. All this new electronic machinery is his forte, he is a student of electronic music and loves all these pulsating gadgets, and they respond to his loving touch. Like the wizard's apprentice in Fantasia (complete with a full, thick beard and some crazy kind of hat) throwing bolts and flashes of light here and there, he conducts the band. A slight nod, a fierce rumbling of notes and a quick change of rhythm; all this and more met by great grins and shows of encouragement from the rest of the boys. Phil is in his heaven. He has all his toys at his hands now and with them brings yet another aspect into the Dead, the immersion into electronics. And, of course, they tread these waters like they've been swimming in them for years. As Lesh has said, "No matter how advanced I make my instrument, it is still a bass guitar in a rock and roll band." True, yet the key to music is to find the infinite in the simple, the celestial in the mundane. The highest Buddha or Zen master does little else than chop wood or carry water all day, but in these simple acts he feels the power of the universe, the constant All. It is the realization that this power is everywhere that makes a simple act divine. So Lesh, so the Dead work for that splash of space within the simplest note, the unbelievable varieties in that one note - the numbers of different tones, different feels, sustainment or a quick flash; these all come together to make each piece, each sound, a whole unto itself.
Donna lets out a yell that probably woke up some poor old couple somewhere in North Philadelphia and the band goes back into "Playing in the Band." Weir joins her as they both belt out the chorus a number of times till the music suddenly drops to a low, spacey moan, then stops altogether. The lights go down, then up, and Weir shouts into the mikes, "We're gonna take a short break, be right back." Intermission and the house lights go on, revealing people still weaving and turning to the music and some folks just standing there, lost in the void of silence. Most people just turn to each other with a sigh or smile, there is nothing to say - it's all in the eyes.
One of the strangest things about this intermission is that ten minutes after the lights have gone up, they are turned down again and Lesh comes out with his bass and nothing or no one else. After ten years of experimenting and working, his bass is now capable of producing sounds and waves that before were limited to a keyboard synthesizer. Actually, the bass has a synthesizer built into it along with some kind of computer tie-in, giving Lesh the freedom to play with this gigantic sound system and the massive doses of electricity inside it. Lesh starts in and the atmosphere becomes very, very spacey; sudden eerie pitches followed by what seems to be a series of explosions but - better - sounds like a spaceship being launched. Soon, the whole place seems to be floating, drifting through space, passing from galaxy to galaxy, on further and further. Only an occasional meteorite shower or sun whorl is with us now, but Captain Lesh is an able pilot, twenty minutes into the flight we land comfortably. With a loud burst of noise, the landing gears are locked in place and all is silent. Everywhere I look people are standing rocking back and forth on their heels, or sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed and bodies slowly swaying. There is something here, some waves of energy, some force. Suddenly it all makes sense; the new album, The Grateful Dead at the Mars Hotel; indeed, Mars it is. And it's not such a bad place at that.
Now, coming out of this incredible first set and our space voyage (much thanks to Phil), the second half of the show is everything superb and more. "Ship of Fools" and "Loose Lucy" - both from the new album - are done with an extra touch of care. The band is amazingly tight, working off the constant hail of vibrations from the floor. From one song to the next, they weave a tapestry of sound, and notes that rise, fall, flutter and glide. The piano here, a bass run there, this is the good ol' Grateful Dead, and nothing can stop them. They do all of "Weather Report Suite" and towards the end of the song the music becomes softer and softer, with Weir throwing out an occasional lick and Lesh right on his heels. The entire mood has been so stilled by now that all you can hear is a quiet patter of sound. A slight smile from Garcia and they go into "Wharf Rat." This is it, then; the Dead are among friends and the whole show is a symphony of sound, slowly rolling from one song to another. The band is so good, they seem to have improved, although many people would think that impossible. But, a master realizes there is always that next step, that next plateau on the way to the peak of the mountain.
After a magnificent "Sugar Magnolia," after five and a half hours on the stage, the boys (and Donna, of course, who with Bob Weir is working the crowd into a fever, singing over and over, "Sunshine, daydream, sunshine daydream") hit a ringing chord and it's all over. The crowd is ecstatic, everywhere people are smiling and singing; big glowing eyes and warm, gentle hearts. Lesh and Kreutzmann are drinking beers, worn and tired but feeling so good. A job well done. Now comes the inevitable encore, but even this can't faze them. In a parting gesture, a "thank you" from the Dead to their friends, they step on stage, obviously thoroughly drained but also so high; Garcia smiles, turns to Weir, and they go into "Casey Jones."
That does it; the whole Center moves with that indescribable wave of shared awareness, of camaraderie, of just plain happiness. The show ends, the hall is bathed in overhead lights, and people just drift out and very slowly go to their cars. Couples hold each other and kiss; some persons just sit, too high to move. Everyone has that look on their face as if they know that tonight they were part of something very special. The old Deadheads, who had inadvertently become separated at the start of the show, greet each other and one turns to the other and says, "I know, man, I know. There's nothing to say." In truth, it has all been said already.
The next night, Monday, is another show and the entire mood just flows from Sunday to Monday. The word has been spread about Sunday's show and the crowd, along with the Dead Family, are in very high spirits. The concert is excellent, with just the right amount of surprises and a few new songs thrown in for good measure. At the close of the show, Garcia yells into the mike: "You people are too much!!! Thanks for everything." And the band goes offstage fully satiated and with a special feeling in their minds about the Civic Center. These past few nights have been very, very rewarding; the audience and the auditorium itself pushed the Dead up into that outer space where they perform so well. Philadelphia will become one of their favorite spots on the East Coast.
Now comes the hard work. It is very late Monday night, actually early Tuesday morning, and everything has to be broken down, packed, and shipped back to Jersey City, since it all has to be erected again at Roosevelt Stadium. No easy job, but this road crew is still up from these two fabulous nights and, along with a good dose of cocaine, have enough energy left to move things right along. The band rests back at the hotel; a few stragglers attempt to party it up but everybody is exhausted and tomorrow is a very busy day. It is so quiet and still by 3 a.m. that the hotel's manager, forewarned about the craziness of the Dead, can't believe it. But, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, he shuts off the red neon sign advertising vacancy and drifts off to sleep. By the time he awakens, the entire entourage will be packed and ready to go.
Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me, Other times I can barely see,
Lately it occurs to me What a long strange trip it's been.
The important thing is to take things as they come and, naturally, they will come as you like it. This is probably one of the main underlying beliefs of the Dead, and it seems quite apropos tonight. The difference in atmosphere both backstage and in the stadium after Philadelphia is immense. Coming in to the stadium off the strength of those two nights, the crews can do no wrong. Everything is in control; the equipment people have been working furiously to get the system and the lights hung. Now, growing towards 6 o'clock, it's all finished and the crew can relax. The rain date seems to have weeded the crowd a bit. There is not as many crazy, drunken people, although the first place I look I see some guy, dressed in faded blue jeans, wearing an Alice Cooper tee-shirt, out cold, with a pint bottle of Southern Comfort slowly slipping from his left hand. But as we move towards the front of the stage, things are a lot better. People are sitting about, some standing, other rolling joints, or just talking. There is a lot less alcohol in evidence, partly because John Scher has given the order to his employees that no glass or metal containers are to be allowed in the stadium. This seems to work, or help a little bit, anyway, although outside the stadium there are still some enterprising youths stuffing bottles under their shirts, in their socks, and just about everywhere they can. Yet, inside, you can catch fleeting conversations about the Philadelphia shows and, in general, this seems much more like a Dead crowd than last Friday. The people seem to know that tonight, coming off those incredible highs from the two previous shows, tonight will be a treat.
Philly was very close to perfection, but what was more important, the old feel was there, Deadheads everywhere. The news has spread northward and the band and everyone else concerned agree tonight could be one fine show. And all this in Jersey City, no less.
You can't help but notice the Hells Angels all around the backstage area; they do make themselves prominent. These are the Angels out of New York, friends of the Dead who, about three years ago in Manhattan, held a very special party with the Dead performing to apologize for what had become the horror of Altamont. The Angels are great fans of the Dead and catch them whenever they can. At this moment, Kreutzmann sits with a beer in his hand and his lady by his side, listening to an Angel. This guy is too much - long, thick black hair held back by a scarf, one large gold earring, and a tattoo that seems to be a snake eating itself. The ever present beer can is in his hand, and naturally the jacket emblazoned with the Hells Angels' seal. He is talking fast, Kreutzmann is laughing and suddenly, as if to put a final punctuation on the story, the guy pulls out a shiny steel switchblade. He seems to get a kick out of it (later I see him show Godchaux a giant pair of brass knuckles) and fakes a slice to his woman's cheek before he puts it back from wherever it came.
Here and there such nonsense goes on, prompting Scully to remark, "Haven't seen madness like this since the old Fillmore!" Everyone seems to agree, there is something building here, the culmination to come on stage when the Dead begin what should be a strange and exciting night. The energy is so contagious that by 7 o'clock (the concert is scheduled for eight) the group has retreated to one of their trailers for a huddle amidst all kinds of laughter and smiles. All of a sudden, catching a few of the crew by surprise, they start up the stairs that lead to the stage. The mood is so high, that they couldn't sit there anymore and so have decided to start a little earlier. It is still light out and so for a brief second as they hit the stage, no one seems to notice. But, as Lesh tests his bass, the whole audience lets out a huge roar. They are ready and so are the Dead.
From the start of the show, from that first note, it is obvious that the vibrations, all that energy from the last few days, fueling this night, are very high indeed. The tightness of the group is everywhere, with extra effort being put down by everyone. This is the last night of the tour, after this it's home for some well-deserved rest. Tonight is everything the first two nights were and more. The jams are magnificent; Garcia is flying wildly and Weir and Lesh are with him all the way. Godchaux is playing off of the solid foundations laid down by everyone else, even the singing (perhaps the Dead's weakest point) is excellent. The sound system works like a charm, even outside the overall sound is precise and sharp.
By the second set there is magic and mystery everywhere. After some crazy backstage partying with the Angels, the Dead come back onstage grinning like Cheshire Cats, and launch into "Uncle John's Band," and, if that's not enough, they follow this with "Black Peter." Onstage is a madhouse of the good ol' acid trips festivals. Wild, almost Bohemian-like characters dance and jump about, caught up in the waves and waves of music being put out. Majestic women with long flowing dresses and silk shirts and colored scarves twist and turn to the music, creating patterns of electricity. Garcia catches the movements of one such lady and takes her into a flurry of music, hitting a crescendo with an unbelievable jam which Lesh takes into another jam. And on and on, the Dead are squeezing everything, every note, every nuance, out of themselves into the crowd and the crowd grabs it, plays with it, then sends it right back.
The whole night goes on like this, till, near midnight, there is a large bang, followed by another as fireworks are set off throughout the stadium. To the left and the light of the bleachers, high up towards the top of the stadium, there is a simultaneous loud whoosh as hundreds of fireworks, pre-set, are lit. They brightly burn to reveal THE GRATEFUL DEAD, along with the individual names of the band all shining in crackling red, white and blue. Into "Truckin'" with a collection of music so that they actually incorporate three songs within the structure of "Truckin'." Finally, worn, sweating, but high as a kite, they finish with "U.S. Blues." The place goes wild as the gigantic stadium lights go up; people stare at each other in wonder. Most people just look at each other and shake their heads in disbelief. A show this high, this much from the Dead - and in Jersey City! It was a night of wonders.
Backstage, the Dead and the clan feel much the same. There is a lot of hearty congratulations going on and everyone seems pleased. Garcia smiles and walks back to the trailer, exhausted but truly satisfied. Lesh is running around, too much energy to sit still, and the rest of the group have very conveniently disappeared. The limousines sit outside the large, fenced-in area, ready to go, though they won't be needed for a good half hour. The whole place slowly unwinds and the equipment people just as slowly start in on the breaking down of the set. But this time it's with a bit more enthusiasm than usual; this is the last night for awhile, anyway, the tour is over. Finally, as the stadium falls quiet and the last person works his way out of the huge entrance gates, the Dead are ready to go. Now, it's back to the hotel and then up early for a flight back to the coast. All in all, there is a general agreement that this was a good tour. The band agrees that there seems to be fewer and fewer "quaalude boogiers" (Weir's term) in the audience. New York has calmed down a bit, both Wake of the Flood and Mars Hotel are selling well, but, better still, they seem to be reaching the Dead people and not the massive audience that was attracted to the rock of the Europe '72 album. The new system works well and there is much hard work ahead, including another European tour in the near future.
But perhaps the nicest part of the summer's tour was the overall feeling of contentment among the Dead freaks. As an old friend of mine, who has followed them with me I guess a good seven years said, walking out of Roosevelt with a big grin on his face and a friendly slap on the back, "There just ain't nothin' like it. The Good ol' Grateful Dead."
Indeed, welcome home, boys. It's good to have you back.
(by Jay Saporita, from the Aquarian, August 28, 1974)
Reprinted in the Dick's Picks 31 booklet.
Feb 10, 2022
There's not a PA system in the conventional sense because it requires no mixing console. In case you don't know, there's normally a guy somewhere in the audience twiddling knobs and levelling things up to what he thinks is a really nice sound (but which is often bloody awful!).
Feb 4, 2022
Whatever happened to the Cosmic Dream? Part 45 (13th Hexagram)
Take a nice guy like David Crosby.
Y'all must know David – he of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the group who sang something along the lines of "Run, run/C'mon go look 'n' see/Everybody's sayin' the music's for free" when their albums were always the most expensive on the market.
The group who sang self-righteous anthems about getting it together and saving the world when, most of the time, their bloated egos wouldn't even allow them to stand on the same stage together.
Yeah, well, apart from blowing vast sums of cash on yachts and tasty little mansions in Laurel Canyon, making it cool in 1970 to have a receding hairline and look like Buffalo Bill with gout, and – oh yeah – penning the occasional minor-chord ditty about the ocean or about some chick with flaxen hair constantly tippy-toeing around fields of wheat frequented by peacocks and other such exotic species of animal life, ole Dave was something of what we used to call a "counter culture spokesman".
Like, this pancho would talk about anything.
He used to ramble on for hours about how he just couldn't believe that the release of "Sergeant Pepper" hadn't stopped the Vietnamese war – wouldn't be surprised if he still does.
And then there were his raps about "the magic bands". The Jefferson Airplane was a magic band – obviously, so were Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But the real magic band for this buckeroo was The Grateful Dead. Tell it like it is, Dave...
"Magic is doin' it so well that you get it up beyond mechanic levels. Magic is making people feel good and stuff. Magic is, if you're high on psychedelics, having a great big love beast crawl out of your amplifiers and eat the audience. I don't know what it is, man. Like, they're magic. Something happens when the Dead get it on that don't happen when Percy Faith gets it on."
Hmmm, this "magic" stuff is interesting, but let's hear from a more reflective, eloquent source as to the precise nature of these miraculous fandangoes. Michael Lydon of Rolling Stone, if you please:
"Some balances last longer than others, moments of realisation that seem to sum up many moments, and then a solid 'yes, that is the way it is' flows out, and the crowd begins to move. Each time it is Jerry (Garcia) who leads them out, his guitar singing and dancing joy. And his joy finds new levels and the work of exploration begins again.
"Jerry often talks of music as coming from a place and creating a place, a place where strife is gone, where the struggle to understand ends, and knowledge is as evident as light. However hard it is to get there, once there, you want to cry tears of ease and never leave.
"It is not a new place: those who seek it hard enough can find it, like the poet Lucretius who found it about 2500 years ago:
"...All terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void in empty space
...I feel a more than mortal pleasure in all this."
"And Jerry, melodies glowing from him in endless arabesques, leads it away again, the crowd and himself ecstatic rats to some Pied Piper."
Holy Sapphire bullets of pure love, Batman, this celestial holocaust of musical thunder sounds like a fairly weighty brew, no?
The answer is yes, of course. It was, it did, and everyone who was there "came" or at least pretended to "come" anyway. That's perhaps why an honest look back on The Grateful Dead is such a tough task to undertake:
On the one hand there's The Grateful Dead as a pseudo-cosmic phenomenon, and then there's The Grateful Dead as "a rock music band". Also there are all the ecstatic retchings expounded on the band's supposedly numerous virtues, as well as the merciless vitriolic cynicism.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, I suppose, lies the true worth of The Grateful Dead.
It's strange though, when you look back to the very first murmurings that appeared to emanate from the West Coast concerning this bunch of mangy dead-beats who played psychedelic rhythm 'n' blues and looked like a cross between The Pretty Things and a pack of redundant Hells Angels.
The first promo photo is still a classic: the whole band are straddled out on the Haight-Ashbury strip looking like some punk combo gone drastically to seed, in rancid snot-stained denims. Bob Weir appears kinda psychotic, his eye-balls bent like Syd Barrett or Billy the Kid, Pigpen is malevolently obese, and Garcia contents himself by looking like some hoodlum squirrel.
At this point of course, there was a great deal of interest in the whole West Coast San Francisco Sound schtick. The Jefferson Airplane were the darlings of the movement. The Grateful Dead were the black sheep. It's not surprising really when one considers the first album, released in the summer of '67 and titled simply "The Grateful Dead".
Actually, examined in retrospect, it isn't nearly as bad as it once sounded – a kind of tinny second-rate jug-band-turned-punk-rocker-sound with Garcia's trebley "stinging" guitar just about making up for an organ sound so dire that even Question Mark and the Mysterions would have rejected it as unuseable.
Tracks like 'The Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion', 'Beat It On Down The Line', and 'Cold Rain And Snow' sprint along like some not-unappealing bastardisation of the Tex-Mex sound a la The Sir Douglas Quintet's 'She's About a Mover' and hootenanny rock, at a hair-raising pace (Garcia later confessed that the band had been taking a type of speed especially prescribed for slimmers throughout the session). There was also the token 12-minute improvisation jam around 'Viola Lee Blues'.
It was duly observed, however, that "The Grateful Dead" was no "Surrealistic Pillow" or "Da Capo", and also it didn't help much that it had been released on Warner Bros., a record company affiliated at that point almost totally with M.O.R. artistes like Petula Clark and Rod McKuen.
To compound the dubious nature of their Haight Ashbury notoriety, live musical escapades outside their home environment weren't greeted with quite the same ecstatic response as those which seemingly always graced the Dead's public appearance before the natives of San Francisco.
Their performance at the '67 Monterey Festival was reportedly none too inspiring, causing Peter Townshend for one, after giving unsolicited rave reviews to the likes of The Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, to dismiss the Dead as "a load of old rope".
Still, the Dead legend was definitely well under construction, starting from the band's heavily ethnic connection with the Kesey-Cassady Acid Test antics, right through to their then-flourishing reputation as the premier hip self-supporting rock commune on the West Coast.
B.B.C. camera teams were sent down to 710 Ashbury to film the band, festooned in beads, toking up and talking the usual stoned bilge about love and awareness we'd all duped ourselves into joyously taking for the acorn gospel back in those days.
But, hey, aren't we jumping the gun a little bit here?
In the middle of the year 1968, the Dead released a second album called "Anthem Of The Sun" and this is when a lot of people started to take notice. Maybe it was the fact that the Dead had, in the words of manager Rock Scully, "gone to Mexico for a while to get their heads together", or that a second drummer, a rather evil-looking character named Mickey Hart, had been added to make the rhythm section sound according to Garcia like the "thunder of galloping horses".
Recorded in four studios and utilising tapes from no less than eighteen live performances, "Anthem Of The Sun" was a grandiose project unfortunately landed with an atrocious "mix" that left it hamstrung as more of an intriguing experiment than an innovative success.
Side one consisted of a suite dedicated to Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac's old buddy, featuring thoroughly pretentious, psychedelisied "you're-either-on-the-bus-or-you're-not-on-the-bus" lyrics, while the band swooped hither and thither, earnestly spinning out quasi-jazz-tinged motifs and frantic jamming, interspersed with the occasional nod to electronic music by throwing in a touch of Varese here and there.
Side two had the Dead vamping it up on a kazoo burlesque called 'Alligator', before lighting into more hectic territory with an intense shambling jam featuring some mighty Garcia guitar. The whole sheebang was kissed off with a section of utterly redundant feed-back.
Way back then, if you wanted to believe desperately enough or maybe had the right inner chemical balance, Anthem Of The Sun was the album to save the world. Now it amounts, at least to the ears of this once-believer, to the sum of its individual parts and no more – like the Airplane's similarly experimental "After Bathing at Baxter's", a muddled, but quaintly grandiose, acid curio.
The third album "Aoxamaxoa" was equally a questionable success.
Again landed with a lousy mix (a re-mixed version of the album has recently been released), it was the first Dead effort to spotlight the obtuse mysticism that more or less comprised the content of Robert Hunter's lyrics. Hunter, an old buddy of Garcia's from the jug-band days, was an absolute master of the art of penning finely-sculpted verse which appeared to bear mighty import to the cosmic workings of the universe, without really making any sense. Like his words for 'St. Stephen', the best track on the album and a supposed allegory of sorts, utilising beautifully-wrought imagery, but signifying nothing: "Can you answer/Yes, I can sir/What will be the answer to the answer then?" I see.
Likewise, the title "Aoxamaxoa" itself was a mystic palindrome which meant absolutely nothing, but was just the sort of thing of which anyone could waffle over the cosmic consequences for a couple of paragraphs.
Or even the consequences of the band's names could be ruminated on. Michael Lydon again:
"The image still resonates for the Dead; they are or desire to become, the grateful dead. Grateful Dead may mean whatever you like it to mean, life-in-death, ego-death, reincarnation, the joy of the mystic vision... It doesn't matter how you read it, for the Dead, as people, musicians, and a group, are in that place where the meaning of a name or event can be as infinite as the imagination, and yet mean precisely what they are and no more."
Now what exactly does all that aforequoted quasi-mystical hokum add up to, man? Does it even matter? reply obligatory hordes of wide-eyed Dead freaks.
It certainly didn't back when the more discerning rock idealist, bereft of The Beatle Dream, his hopes for Woodstock Nation dashed by the ensuing Altamont round-up, looked to the Dead as the band who had all the answers. Lydon's huge piece on the Dead (August 23, 1969) painted an irresistible picture of the band as cocaine-cowboy-cosmic voyageurs – Mark Twain meets the I-Ching, complete with ying-yang fuel-tanks to keep the show on course in the search for the music of the spheres.
Fanaticism concerning the Grateful Dead's utter righteousness was so unquestioned by both the British and American underground that they sometimes escaped any of the blame meted out to those responsible for the Altamont calamity. Sure, blame it on the Stones, even though it was the Stones and the Dead who were prime movers behind dragging in the Oakland Angels in the first place.
Anyway, a month or so after Altamont, Warner Bros, released "Live Dead", a double-album showcasing the band in their best environment, pumping out that cosmic stew to the salivating masses of the Winterland Ballroom and beyond.
The fabled 'Dark Star' was present in all its 25-minute glory – lazy, crystalline psychedelia – "Shall we go, you and I while we can?/Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds" – with "Tubular Bells", the best acid muzak ever.
A rather sloppy 'St. Stephen' subsequently stumbles into 'The Eleven' – more obscure Hunter mysticism which suddenly surges clumsily into "the cosmic jam section", Messrs. Kreutzman and Hart dallying in all manner of exotic time signatures, while Garcia and Lesh noodle around until – Eureka! The magical connection is fused: The Big "G" turning fretboard cart-wheels over some of Lesh's most intriguing bass figures.
The set, naturally, ends with ritualistic spasms of boring old feed-back.
This, we were duly informed, was "the essence of The Grateful Dead" on four sides of greasy black vinyl. "The Dead are exploring areas of music that most groups don't even know exist... If you want to know what rock music may well sound like in ten years time, listen to Live Dead."
Also sprach New York rock critic Lenny Kaye.
Again, looked at in retrospect, "Live Dead" has its moments – but listening to the whole thing over again today, so much has been lost. The dynamics are always a little too sluggish, the sound just too murky.
After "Live Dead", the band hit on what is generally considered to be their most fruitful period to date.
1970 saw the release of two fine studio albums – "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty". It seemed at the time that the Dead and The Band were in competition as to who was the quintessential American band.
The Band injected a stoic, craftsman-like quality into everything they recorded, while the Dead were trying for the Mark Twain whimsical outlaw free-spirit gambit.
"Workingman's Dead" is still a very good album – 'Uncle John's Band' is the Dead out-crooning CSNY at their own brand of cosmic soufflé, admirably embellished by Hunter's delightfully corny lyrics: "I got me a silver mine/And I call it Beggar's Tomb/I got me a violin and I bade you call the tune/Anybody's choice/I can hear your voice/Whoa-Hoa/All I want to know is/How does the song go?" Get your instant spiritual epiphanies here, folks.
There were other good songs – I always wanted to hear Rod Stewart sing 'High Time' – and of course there was 'Casey Jones' which scooped those decadent Rolling Stones by possessing the first direct reference to cocaine.
"American Beauty" was better, featuring the great 'Box Of Rain' – "A Box of Rain will ease the pain/And love will see you through/Believe it if you need to/Or leave it if you dare."
Beautiful nonsense, plus the Creedence-styled shug-a-lug 'Sugar Magnolia', more doleful Garcia chansons, and the self-congatulatory autobiographical 'Truckin''.
These two, by the way, are the only Dead albums actually worth owning.
After 1970, the Dead's output started to deteriorate with distressing rapidity.
A live double-album was released in 1971 and left many marginally dissatisfied. There were too many non-original work-outs – a boring 'Me And Bobby McGee', a dire version of Merle Haggard's 'Mama Tried' etc. The "cosmic jam" on side two was more than half taken up with a tedious drum-solo, while the album finished with a very weary rendition of 'Not Fade Away' (Quicksilver were the only West Coast ensemble to really get to grips with the Bo Diddley beat).
However, that was nothing compared to "Europe '72" which must be the great cosmic daze of all time, and was the first Dead album to truly incur the wrath of rock critics en masse.
Suddenly The Grateful Dead were no longer the great white hope – their five-hour sets were yawned off and their albums dismissed as bonafide turkeys.
Meanwhile the band split with Warner Bros. (who in turn released "A History Of The Grateful Dead Vol. 1" which was unique only in that it contained the worst versions of 'Smokestack Lightnin'' and 'Wake Up Little Suzie' ever recorded) and formed their own record company, an admirable self-contained project which has obviously borne fruit because the consequent album release "Wake Of The Flood" has sold mightily in the States.
"Wake Of The Flood" is a depressing work for a number of reasons.
First, the band seem to have fallen into the trap, unwittingly erected by George Harrison, of singing about a spanking new positivism while sounding utterly miserable. Thus lines like "Wake up this morning/To discover/You are the eyes of the world" are rendered in such a way that one is inevitably led to the conclusion that the recording took place at an embalming ceremony, a track like 'Here Comes Sunshine' sounds like some K-Tel mutation of The Beatles 'Baby You're A Rich Man' played at 16 rpm, and Garcia's vocals are so weak it sounds like he died before the album was recorded and the rest of the band had to get in touch with him via an ouija board in order to get his voice on the track.
Even comparative young-blood Bobby "Ace" Weir, whose appealing Johnny Appleseed earnestness is the only sympathetic characteristic the band possess at present (Weir's solo "Ace" is the best product to come from the Dead stable since "American Beauty"), sounds miserable on his 'Weather Report Suite'.
When they were functioning actively, the Dead always had a loose, tired feel. Now they sound positively funereal and it's all too easy to pour scorn on all the nonsense they've been involved in and condemn them totally, thus comfortably severing ourselves from any embarrassment in one specious gesture.
However, the fact remains that the Dead provided us with a great rock fantasy at a time when it was needed. Looking over the various curiosities – garnered from the Dead's high-ecstacy-count period – the Rolling Stone raves, the freewheeling mysterioso, the albums themselves (even though they've lost their basic magic in the passing of time) – still hold glimpses of a crazy, irresistible charm even if none of those albums has the power of a "Crown Of Creation" or of Moby Grape's first powerhouse effort.
The Dead never could rock out too well, but... sheesh, those stories!
Hey, Uncle Jerry, tell us about that time you and Owsley and Cassady...
(by Nick Kent, from the New Musical Express, April 27, 1974)
* * *
THE EXHUMATION OF THE DEAD
They've been slagged, slated, abused, and misused – most often in these very pages.
But Hell hath no Fury like a Dead fan scorned, and so MICK FARREN comes, not to bury the Dead but to praise them. And so the NME hippie appeasement page presents....
Way back in 1970 I lived with a certain David Goodman. Every morning, round about noon, I'd be lying in bed and "St. Stephen" by the Grateful Dead would come pumping through the wall and I'd know the day had started. I'd stagger out into the living room, and he'd be sitting, with a blue polka dot dressing gown wrapped round his not inconsiderable bulk, rolling the breakfast joint. By the time we'd turned over the album and run through "Turn On Your Love Light", we were both mellowed out sufficiently to face the wicked world outside.
Those morning interludes kind of summed up the Grateful Dead for me. They were solid, stoned, freewheeling and a little untogether.
In some ways it also spotlights their current problem. At the height of their popularity, when Garcia's name was being bandied about as the world's greatest guitar player, they were very close to us all. They were the very antithesis of rock and roll glamour. They weren't conspicuous consumers of anything except drugs. They got busted the same as everybody else, and they screwed up the same as everybody else.
They were a bunch of regular stoned freaks; the only thing that separated them from the rest of the herd was their ability to weave long meandering boogies that sounded good if you were straight, and even better if you were stoned. Occasionally they even came out with small gems of vocal philosophy that were among the most accurate that ever came out of rock and roll. Among all the thousands of words that came out of the Altamont fiasco, the Dead's 'New Speedway Boogie' was one of the most constructive pieces of observation.
Even back in 1970 the clouds had been forming on the horizon for quite a long time. It seemed that as things became progressively more confused, the Grateful Dead went their way, and a good many of us went ours. We all reacted to the tightening grip of urban desperation in different ways. The Dead retreated, with their wives, old ladies, children and retainers, into the hills of San Raphael, in California's rock and roll suburb of Marin County.
Those of us who were less lucky, and still had to live with the city's pressure, forsook their blue jean cowboy boot funk and clutched at the dangerously esoteric thrills of Bowie, Cooper and the whole procession of terminal mutants.
Not, of course, that the Dead always enjoyed such protected isolation. In many ways, they were one of the most genuine of the West Coast's street bands. In the early 'sixties they were at the hub of the San Francisco break-out. It wasn't just the human be-in and flower power summer of 1967. They were very much a part of the creative explosion of a few years before. Culturally they bridged the gap between the hipsters, beats and Bay area poets of the 'fifties and the hippies. They were the link between Lenny Bruce, Neal Cassidy and Gary Snyder, and the Woodstock gang of the next generation.
Those early years, sporadically documented in 'The Dead Book' by Hank Harrison*, must have been some of the most exciting times of the last couple of decades. The mind wrenching revelation of lysergic acid had just hit the California intellectual community with the force of a limited nuclear strike. Ken Kesey was propagating it and Owsley Stanley III was manufacturing it. The Acid Test was on the road and the Grateful Dead were the spearhead sonic shock troops.
Coupled with the San Francisco Mime Troupe (then managed by a certain Bill Graham), the Diggers, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and even the notorious Hell's Angels, they instigated the concept of rock and roll street parties, Golden Gate Park concerts, and the whole gamut of the rolling psychedelic circus.
This small tight community didn't last very long. The great trek to San Francisco began in 1966 and grew to flood proportions by the summer of 1967. Alienated kids from all over the US flocked to the Bay area looking for a paisley Utopia. The majority found mainly poverty and methedrine. As the dream faded, a lot of the bands who had so blithely propagated the floral myth retreated behind a barrier of obscurantism and dedicated themselves to making a buck. The Dead remained in their chaotic home on Ashbury Street, put out their energy, and dealt with the situation as best they could.
But of course, not all their efforts were purely altruistic. They toured; they signed a deal with Warner Brothers; played San Francisco rock halls, the Avalon and the original Fillmore; and recorded their first, rather flawed, album. The Dead survived in a totally haphazard manner. At any given time, their operation supported up to fifty people. Their original managers, Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin, operated in an environment of mammoth fantasy and astronomical debts.
In 1968 they even turned their attention towards Europe. They dispatched an advance party to check out the viability of a UK tour. Where most bands would have just sent a manager, the Dead sent out a collection of a dozen or more assorted freaks: Scully, Rifkin, artists, astrologers, cooks, concubines, and the ever-present Hell's Angels. They were initially offered hospitality and a base at the Apple offices. Unfortunately George Harrison freaked at their California ways and ordered them out. The Dead's advance guard were distributed round households all over London. Needless to say, the tour didn't materialise.
Back home, however, things were beginning to happen. The Dead, in their early recordings, suffered from the curse of all independently minded bands. They had to learn recording techniques as they went, and their first three albums, despite a good deal of progress, all exhibit their trial and error mistakes. Their first live album, the double "Live Dead", exhibited them as they really were and, for the first time, they achieved the kind of international sales that compared with the magnitude of their legend. At last they transcended the label of the great hippy band, and began to be recognised as musicians. It was the start of the Garcia cult.
It was also the start of a massive reorganisation. They had a new manager, John McIntyre, who was determined to put the Dead on a secure financial footing and clear up the mess that had been created by erratic hippie business efficiency.
Not that McIntyre is a crewcut Allen Klein. He is a determined, long-haired Nordic blond, who could easily play Moorcock's Elric, if Hollywood ever decided to film the Stormbringer saga. He took over management of the Dead in 1969 and by 1971 they were out of debt. It was the era of "Uncle John's Band". Not only did McIntyre solve their fiscal problems, but his arrival also seemed to cure the Dead's notorious lousy-one-day-inspired-the-next attitude to playing.
It was an intense period of creativity and hard work. It produced their finest studio album, "Workingman's Dead", possibly one of the greatest musical studies of working class America since the days of Woody Guthrie and Jimmy Rodgers.
They also made a fleeting British trial run to the Hollywood festival, and a year later a full-scale tour of Europe that took the Continent and the UK by storm. They were the darlings of the underground establishment, American Beauty and the second live album were the hippies' fave rave, and everyone seemed to be trying to sell them coke. At the cold, damp Bickershaw festival they played for six solid hours, and Garcia was elevated to the pedestal that had so recently been vacated by Eric Clapton.
After the tour, Garcia produced his rather patchy solo album that fluctuated between flashes of brilliance and long hauls of cosmic tedium, and Bobby Weir came out with the more even and workmanlike "Ace". Then they made the major miscalculation of a triple live album of the European tour. The public was surfeited, and got bored. Lurex and mascara raised its ugly head, and the Grateful Dead were suddenly last year's thing.
Up in the hills of San Raphael nobody seemed too worried. For the first time in their lives the Dead were materially secure. Garcia played with everyone from Commander Cody to David Crosby, and the rest of the band relaxed in the bosoms of their families and worked on "In the Wake of the Flood". The album was badly received, and the Dead seemed solidly out of favour. They had obviously changed direction and their erstwhile supporters neither understood the change nor welcomed it.
Rumours abounded. One of the favourites was that they had joined up with the guru. Garcia's subsequent drug bust, with a glove compartment stash of a quantity and variety that equalled anything from their vintage years as lords of multiple drug abuse, seemed to put the lie to that.
It seems a little insensitive to pry too deeply into the effect of Pigpen finally drinking himself to death on the work of the band. In a family as tight as the Dead it couldn't have failed to be painful and far-reaching. There seemed to be a virtual halt to their work. Little came out of San Raphael apart from a series of vintage live tapes. For almost a year they seemed to hang in a kind of creative limbo.
Now with almost no warning we have a Dead album, "Mars Hotel", a Garcia album, and one on the way from Robert Hunter. Something is obviously stirring in the hills of old Marin. The question is what? There's no mistaking that it isn't the old raunchy, risk-taking Grateful Dead we were once so hot for.
The Dead have never been leaders. Their songs were observations rather than battle hymns. Even at their funkiest they still managed to retain a trace of contemplative reserve.
On Mars Hotel the reserve has fanned out into a kind of front porch relaxation. It's a record of a bunch of good old boys playing in the shade. Each one has written some tunes and they play them. It's that simple, only this is 1974 and these are electric rock and roll musicians who have been in each other's hands for ten years.
And then you have Garcia who takes it a stage further. He sits on his porch and plays his favourite tunes, everyone from the Stones to Ed Thigpen. Nothing is urgent any more. They're off the train. There's British weirdoes and New York faggots playing pharmaceutical Russian roulette. The Dead don't have to try any more.
The problem they are solving is how to relax into maturity and still keep your rock and roll. It's a similar problem to the one Dylan tackles on "Planet Waves". The mind wrenching adventures are, for the most part, behind both Dylan and the Dead. He's found his way out of Mobile, and they know their back's that strong. It's not the struggle of youth, it's the adaptation to maturity after running through a world that believed only the young were beautiful.
It's like Lennon said, "I don't want to be jumping round on a stage singing 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' when I'm thirty." Neither, it would seem, do Dylan or the Dead. Maybe now and again, just to get away from the old lady and the kids, but certainly not all the time. Lennon experiments with being an L.A. nightclub rowdy drunk. Dylan and the Dead sit on the metaphorical front porch and play rock and roll that don't make them sweat too much.
From the perspective of warp factor seven teenage jive bombing, these experiments may not be of the ultimate priority, but some of us are coming up to it, and if we stay lucky a few of us might get there. When that happens both "Mars Hotel" and "Planet Waves" could be comfortingly relevant.
* The Dead Book – Hank Harrison – published Links (import) £2.50
(by Mick Farren, from the New Musical Express, August 3, 1974)