GARCIA: MASTER OF THE DEAD
Jerry Garcia phones SOUNDS from the States
It looks as though the Grateful Dead really are going to make it to England this time.
It's been a long wait since their last (and only) gig on English soil, at the Hollywood Festival at Newcastle-under-Lyme - a wait of nearly three years. Curiously all the talk then was of Mungo Jerry's incredible crowd-stirring, rather than of the Dead.
But it's said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in the intervening three years the Dead's legendary reputation has continued to grow. Which is, on the fact of it, surprising.
Their centrality in the West Coast music scene has made them a sort of touchstone for all American bands, particularly at the outset when the tales of long, euphoric sets started to filter through, and this was confirmed by their earlier album releases with continuous, complex but flowing pieces, "Anthem of the Sun" and "Aoxomoxoa".
Since then the music has evolved into [a] slightly subdued, relaxed country vein with R. and B. overtones - not surprisingly, as this is the point from which they started.
Jerry Garcia in particular has taken to playing a pedal steel, which is moving out of its original country music habitat and is being used increasingly by rock and roll bands, much to the disgust of the real Nashville cats, who do not believe that steel can be used for rock and roll and don't rate Garcia highly on the instrument anyway.
The Dead, it hardly needs adding, don't record IN Nashville, but San Francisco. So they really have no greater claim to authenticity or originality than, say, our own Brinsley Schwarz.
But on the principle that the grass is greener, English fans have faithfully bought Dead albums and found them pretty easy to live with.
The latest development - in common with other well-established permanent bands - has been for individual members to do solo projects.
This has resulted in Jerry Garcia making an album with organist Howard Wales, which featured him playing some funky, striding guitar, and his own solo album which sounds so like the Dead that it made you wonder whether the rest of the band was really necessary.
The latest project is Bob Weir's solo album, which has just been completed and - surprise! - features the Grateful Dead...this is the background to the Dead's impending European trip, mooted for so long that a faint air of incredulity still surrounds the confirmed dates.
Taking the Grateful Dead and entourage out of the country demands great organisational skill, as Jerry Garcia pointed out when he phoned from L.A. last week:
"It's an incredible undertaking. In addition to all the usual gear, guitars and amps and so on, we're going to bring a sixteen-track with us and we hope to come back with another album. There are really huge problems in logistics and communications though. Also the way the whole scene happens is a non-decision-making basis - it takes a long time for everyone to decide that they really want to go anywhere."
Was this the reason that only now were we getting to see the Dead play a full-scale tour, discounting the flying visit in 1969?
"The timings have always been unfortunate before, when we were all involved in other things. It's an amazing decision for us to leave the country, but we're looking forward to making a lot of contacts on the British leg of the trip - people we've been in touch with but never really got acquainted with."
Much of the Dead's reputation as a leading band has been earned for their long live sets, and several of their albums have been recorded in performance, notably their latest, "Grateful Dead", and "Live/Dead", so recording a live album in England and Europe seems a logical extension of what's already been happening.
But the studio albums have an altogether different feel. What exactly was happening in their music? "We still do the long sets, but it's difficult to describe what's happening.
"We have a new pianist, Keith Godchaux, and gradually that's started to create effects."
So it looks like you'll just have to wait and find out. Meanwhile, what about the solo records?
"Well, all that's a long time ago - we were working on the Howard Wales record over a year ago, and we were doing my solo record last summer.
"There's an enormous delay between completion and release. The latest thing we have been working on is Bob Weir's solo album, which we expect to have with us when we come."
But as it features the complete band as well, surely the distinction between another Dead album and a solo album was really pretty fine?
"It's his because it has all his songs and because he's the guiding inspiration behind it. It features him solely - our role is just that of studio musicians."
In that respect the Weir solo album will be more of a "natural" album, like recent studio efforts. Garcia's recent solo epic was more of a manufactured record and uses many of the techniques pioneered on "Anthem of the Sun."
"I played everything on it, but it was less of a personal thing than an experiment - I was using sixteen-track as an instrument."
What was all this business about dealers, cards, the wheel, that occur in the music and on the cover-art and give the album its slightly fatalistic streak?
"Well, it's sort of the idea of the Cosmic Wheel, the Wheel of Fate. The fact was that I made the record to pay back the loan that Warner Brothers made me to buy a house, so it was my own wheeling and dealing as well, in a way."
Did he inherit some of the techniques from his experiences with "Anthem"? "Yeah...my own album is a continuation of that spirit, though not so artful and somewhat limited. We wanted 'Anthem' to be our own record without producers and engineers and all that other stuff.
"We knew what we wanted to arrive at. Technically it's about the most complex record ever made. We fired the producer while we were working on the basic tracks, and we spent eight months in the studio assembling it and putting it on eight-track and putting together different musical pieces for it.
"We just about played it as we were mixing it, that's why it's got that homogeneous quality - it's a musical assemblage. Since then we've been learning how to achieve that on a musical level."
A final comment on the tour plans? "I'm really excited about it, though we don't have any firm plans. Whatever tentative plans we do have are bound to be modified. That's the reason we never got over there yet. This time it's going to be different...we've got the tickets in our pockets."
(by Martin Hayman, from Sounds magazine, April 1, 1972)
Thanks to Simon Phillips.