Grateful Dead

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Every now and then I fall into a Grateful Dead state of mind, and I’m in one now.

Shortly after graduating from high school I came upon the Grateful Dead’s debut album, loved it, and bought most of their albums, studio or live, over the next ten or so years as they came out.

I’ve spent a lot of time acquiring and recording music. By the 1980s I had a lot of vinyl albums, and when my cousin acquired a cassette deck I borrowed it and began recording all the albums I had. I’d recorded about 90 tapes when my cousin suggested I get my own deck, and I had to agree it was a sensible idea. Grateful Dead albums were among my first projects.

Last week I watched (for only the second time) a video called Anthem to Beauty about the Dead’s early experiments in recording. Anthem to the Sun was their second album. On their first they had recorded material they’d been playing in concerts, going along with the usual recording routine. With Anthem they began figuring out how to do it themselves.

Not every experiment worked, and they ran up a huge debt to their record company because they spent so much time in the studio, but they eventually came up with a really nice album.

I’m probably unusual in having become a fan without attending a lot of concerts. I only saw two, and wasn’t that impressed with either. But I did like the albums, studio as well as live. Members of the Dead expressed frustration in interviews about their studio albums, but I thought they were good to great through Terrapin Station. After that I thought the studio recordings did lose something.

Last week I also watched (again) The Other One, a movie about Bob Weir, the Dead’s OTHER guitarist (and songwriter). He was the kid brother of everyone in the band, having started the jugband precursor to the Dead with Garcia, whom he had met and jammed with on New Year’s Eve 1963 when he was only sixteen. Garcia was then twenty-one. A year later they became a rock band, met the Merry Pranksters and participated in the Acid Tests. They led busy lives, especially musically, as they expanded their instrumental, vocal, songwriting, and recording chops. Some of the footage in the movie showed the excitement with which the Dead played in those early days. Excitement may have been one of the things they lost for awhile after that. Maybe along with energy. Eventually Garcia’s habit began affecting his performance, and he wasn’t the only one with a habit.

Although I liked all the studio albums of the first few years, there were some I liked better. Wake of the Flood may be the Dead’s most exquisite album. The playing isn’t as loud or distorted as in the past, but the time and arrangements are tight, and their vocals are more in tune and harmonic. The lyrics are arguably better too. I’m not sure how to describe the difference, but they seem more sophisticated, to go along with the playing and the way the songs are structured. That’s only an impression, though, as I can’t really define what I mean. There are a lot of songs to like here, but the one that immediately impressed me is Weather Report Suite, one of their long, full side of an album songs. It starts slowly, but eventually speeds up, featuring a nice solo from Garcia, and another from an unidentified saxophonist.

The other standout studio album (as opposed to live album) from this period (in my opinion) is Terrapin Station. It differed from previous albums in having an outside producer (the Dead usually produced themselves) who used extra musicians (as in a jazz band and orchestra, rather than individuals) on a number of tracks. The outstanding song here is the title song, based on folk songs and tales, which was (according to Robert Hunter and Garcia) produced magically at about the same time: Hunter came up with the lyrics at the same time the musical ideas came to Garcia. That’s the one with the orchestra; it was the last long piece the band would record in the studio, and is arguably the best thing they ever did (or one of them).

Those are only two of the albums I enjoyed, though I liked them more than most. Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and Blues for Allah stand out too, among studio albums, as well as several live ones from this period: Live-Dead, the Grateful Dead, and Europe 72. Their albums began to decline in quality after Terrapin Station in quality, though, I thought. Reportedly, their concerts didn’t, at least not until the eighties, when Garcia’s habit started catching up with him. And he wasn’t the only one doing foolish things.

Early in the Dead’s career Weir would get lost in the long jams. He had to pay close attention to the interaction between Garcia and Lesh (the bass player), and as he says in the movie, be where they were going when they got there, hopefully with a surprise for them.

He begins the movie in which he is the main character by saying that he needed music, and that his accomplishments were due mostly to determination and perseverance rather than talent. I don’t doubt his determination, but don’t think he would have been as attracted to or driven by the music if he hadn’t been talented. That doesn’t mean he would have inevitably succeeded as he did. He became the younger brother to a bunch of musicians further along in development than him. He knew about rock & roll and folk music to begin with. He learned more about those genres, but also about country, bluegrass, blues, rhythm & blues, reggae,  gospel, jazz, classical, avant garde, and world music from the other musicians in the band. The Dead had big ears, as Branford Marsalis remarked, and listened to a wide variety of music, much of which they tried to reproduce for themselves (or at least be influenced by). Each member of the band had come from a different place musically. It was an ideal place to learn, if you had the inclination.

Not being a musician, I hadn’t been aware of the intricacies of Weir’s guitar playing. In the movie he explains that in listening to Bill Evans and John Coltrane’s pianist, McCoy Tyner, he was impressed with their tones and textures, especially those Tyner gave Coltrane to work over, and decided to try to do the same for Garcia. Another musician, who played with Weir later, commented on how many inversions Weir could play on a given chord, playing E’s all over the guitar–different from what almost any rhythm guitarist does. That’s what is meant by playing as a team: in a rock band the lead guitarist is usually the only one that gets to show off. Weir’s approach helped Garcia do so. Garcia commented that he didn’t know anyone who played like Weir, adding he considered that to be a score, since most electric guitar playing is derivative. Most of the members of the band were pretty unique in the way they played.

As those interested know, their road continued bumpy, in large part because of drug problems. They had a renaissance when Garcia cleaned up, but he wasn’t able to stay clean, and everyone seems to have felt the band became more imprisoning than emancipating. With increased popularity in the late eighties and into the nineties they were forced to play stadiums almost exclusively. They employed a lot of people, and their albums didn’t sell enough to pay the bills, but Garcia in particular would have preferred smaller venues where there could be more interaction with the audience.

When Garcia died suddenly, just after his 53rd birthday, it must have been at once saddening and a relief. The band members no longer had to play when they didn’t want to, and could take a long rest. Many of them were ready for that, but Weir was an exception. In the movie he explains that immediately going on the road and staying there was part of his grieving process: he felt he had to go out and play for people to combat the sadness at Garcia’s death: both the audience’s and his own. He also points out in the movie that he really LIKES performing. He estimated the band had performed about 3,000 times, and that he had performed independently about that much again. That may mean he’s been the busiest performer alive.

Garcia’s death seems also to have made him feel a need for family. The band had been his family, especially Garcia, whom he had met first, and who was more the big brother than anyone else. Garcia must have gotten something out of it too, since the relationship lasted thirty-plus years. One thing he got was Weir as his bagman: Weir held his drugs and only gave him the minimum amount needed. Not much fun to have to do, but one way to stay in touch enough to hopefully influence him into better ways. That only worked to some extent, though.

After Garcia’s death Weir belatedly married someone he’d known for quite awhile, and they had children together. He also became friends with his birth father (he had been adopted by the family he grew up with). He’s had a fortunate life of accomplishment, not over yet.

There are a lot of memories when I listen to any of the albums–fifty years worth. I was never a Deadhead, but still enjoyed a lot of the music. I’m still thinking about buying more albums too.

The part I like to remember is that first ten years or so, when they expanded relentlessly. When they ran into trouble and became less inspiring aren’t the memories I enjoy. I’m too much  reminded me of mistakes I’ve made and continue to make.

But they still remind me to be grateful.

J.D. Salinger

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I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and didn’t get it, so I never became a fan, unlike (I guess) most of the rest of the country. I read his other books too, later on. I don’t remember making much of the short stories, rather liking Franny and Zooey, but not enough to reread them.

I lived in the same general area as he did for more than a decade, and drove through Cornish, New Hampshire every now and then, aware that he lived somewhere there, but not being very interested. I certainly had nothing I wanted to say to him, unlike a lot of other people.

Years before that I had picked up a short book by Joyce Maynard, called Looking Back. She wrote about junior high school (at a time when she was only just out of high school herself), which brought back the experience to me, but she had clearly been much more aware of what was going on around her than I had been when I was a student.

Years later, when I was living in New Hampshire, she wrote a column for the local paper, which I read pretty regularly. It was interesting, but I felt there was something wrong there, I can’t say what, because I don’t remember. It wasn’t that she listened to country music when writing a book, though that wouldn’t be my taste. I’m not sure I knew at the time that she had had an affair with Salinger, nor that she had written the book I read while they were together.

Later I read his daughter’s memoir. I didn’t have a LOT of interest in him, but still some curiosity. This morning I watched a movie about him.

I think it would be fair to say he was a strange man, with a number of paradoxical elements. His father was Jewish, his mother wasn’t, he grew up in a Jewish environment, privileged, but not liking it much. He messed up in private schools, was sent to a military school where, according to the movie, he got himself together.

He seems to have decided early that he wanted to write, and began to be published in the early 1940s. He wanted to be published in the New Yorker, and the magazine had accepted one of his stories, but didn’t publish it because of Pearl Harbor. He was upset about that.

He almost immediately tried to enlist in the army, but was initially rejected. He kept trying, and managed to enlist later in 1942. His first experience of combat was on D Day. He told someone later that he carried a manuscript about Holden Caulfield when he hit the beach, because it was necessary to his survival. Obviously he did survive, and it seems that not much later he met Ernest Hemingway (whom, according to the movie, he idolized) in Paris, got him to look at a manuscript, and that Hemingway loved it. The story is told by one of Hemingway’s grandchildren in the movie, so it may be true.

Paradox: after VE day he had a nervous breakdown, and spent time in a hospital in Germany. But he reenlisted to “track down the bad guys”. He had been in Intelligence with his company, which meant that he talked to citizens of each town they came to to find out where the Germans had machine gun nests set up, where clear areas were that ambushes could be set up, and generally anything else useful. He must have had a clearer than usual idea of local life and how it had been affected by German occupation.

His company also entered a camp in Dachau, so he saw many corpses and a few survivors. This must have made an impression on him, quite possibly especially because he was Jewish. Maybe that’s why he wanted to punish those who had done such things. Which makes it quite surprising that he married a young Nazi woman (clearly against regulations) and brought her back to the United States. The marriage didn’t last long. When he divorced her he said she had misled him.

He pursued his writing after the war, got published in the New Yorker as he had hoped, then published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, which was an almost immediate best seller. Many people identified with Holden Caulfield, the young narrator. Friends say that Caulfield was Salinger.  They also testify that he was taken aback by his sudden popularity and loss of privacy, and that he didn’t want to cooperate with the publicity, but wasn’t really a recluse either. He still enjoyed going out to bars and interacting with friends, but didn’t want strangers asking him for things, as he made clear later in New Hampshire, to someone who waited in his driveway to meet him. He had given his work to the public, but said he couldn’t tell anyone how to live.

The latter seems not to have been so true in his private life. After he married his second wife (19 years old to his 34, and with a troubled background) and they had their first child, they settled in New Hampshire and he isolated himself from her and the children much of the time to write. He had apparently been fascinated by her youth and beauty, but didn’t find her so fascinating after she’d given birth. It took some time–she probably lacked confidence–but she eventually divorced him, His daughter Margaret’s memoir (as I recall it) emphasizes that she didn’t feel she could please him. According to the movie, his son disagreed with her portrayal of their family life.

Joyce Maynard’s account of their affair, beginning in the early 1970s is interesting too. He insisted they meditate in the morning after eating uncooked frozen peas (pouring hot water over them to warm them), then writing, for which he donned a jumpsuit. They watched the old movies he liked in the evenings.

She met William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, and Shawn’s longtime lady friend in New York City, and apparently said something gauche. She said Salinger hustled her out of the lunch and bought her an expensive coat.

They broke up, she says, after going to the beach with his son. He and his son played in the water, he came back out, and told her he was really tired, that he wasn’t going to have children anymore. She wanted children, so she said she couldn’t stay with him, and he told her she should leave right away. He took her to the airport and gave her some money.

Later, she found that, just as he had with her, he had written letters to a number of young girls–they were always young–one of whom became his third wife. She also eventually decided to write a memoir of their affair, went to his house to tell him, and had him denounce her for it.

He stayed in New Hampshire the rest of his life, and seems to have been well accepted by people there. People who came to town looking for him found that local people weren’t cooperative. They didn’t want to be part of invading his privacy. One writer interviewed a famous man’s widow on just the other side of the Connecticut river from New Hampshire, and remarked that Salinger lived there. She remarked that he did, and that he had sat in the same chair the writer was then sitting in the previous night. She asked him what he would ask Salinger, told him that Salinger was all right, and was writing, and added, So you don’t need to meet him at all.

Why have so many people been fascinated with Salinger? Was his writing that good? For some I guess it was. I suppose part of the fascination may have been that Salinger didn’t behave like other writers in playing the celebrity game, which he easily could have. New Hampshire probably seems like a distant and foreign place to live to many. Actually, it’s not so different from other states, but may have fewer big cities, especially in that area.

Of course his response to fame was unusual, which didn’t make it wrong. He could have moved to New England just to run away, but he continued writing. The movie said that he had added more stories to the series about the Glass family already published, and possibly more about Holden Caulfield as well. According to the movie, these stories were supposed to start being released in 2015. I haven’t heard anything about that as yet. Was that story inaccurate? It doesn’t really make a lot of difference to me, but it seems curious.

He seems to have been convinced he was meant to be a writer, but what did he actually express? How important was it? I must have been too young when I tried reading him, because his stories made little impression on me. I don’t know if he really fulfilled what he was supposed to do.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

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Author James Baldwin undertook a project in 1979, to tell about the lives of three of his friends who had been assassinated in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. He had only written thirty pages of notes by the time he died eight years later of stomach cancer.

Raoul Peck, Haitian film-maker put together the movie I Am Not Your Negro using Baldwin’s own words (sometimes from TV talk shows, sometimes read by Samuel L. Jackson) to express what he felt about race in America. The result is powerful.

Early in the movie there is footage shot in the South in the early sixties of hate-filled white people carrying signs. One says, Miscegnation is Communism. Another says it is the Antichrist. It’s dolefully ironic that miscegnation (sexual relations between black and white) was initiated by white slaveowners who then blamed black men for wanting to rape white women, thus turning the dynamic inside-out. Black men are still blamed for their sexuality, though, just as women are blamed for tempting Adam to eat the apple. A good myth is hard to give up.

Also early in the film is a black girl walking alone to go to a white high school surrounded by whites carrying signs saying they don’t want to go to school with blacks. They’re jeering and spiting at her too. Baldwin speaks, saying that he saw this footage in France, where he was then living, and besides being enraged was filled with shame, adding, “One of us should have been there with her. ”

It’s hardly surprising he died of cancer. Cancer and heart disease are in part caused by stress, and he had the stress of being both black and gay. A recent article says it’s a shame the movie didn’t address his being gay too, because Baldwin did in his writing. The three of his novels I remember best spoke of homosexuality as well as race. Actually, I don’t think Giovanni’s Room talked about race. So sexuality was very important to Baldwin too. He comments in this movie that black men aren’t allowed to show their sexuality (that may be less true now), and that movie star John Wayne, who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians, had permission, because of his whiteness, not to grow up. It was okay for him to kill Indians. He didn’t have to learn to negotiate with them as equals.

Baldwin met Medgar Evers early in the 1960s and traveled with him as Evers attempted to gather evidence about voting suppression. The sixties weren’t far advanced when he was murdered himself. Baldwin says he was extremely frightened traveling through Mississippi, but also felt he needed to do that as a witness, and that he needed to travel widely as a witness. Eventually he also traveled to Georgia and Alabama where some of the famous Civil Rights protests had been. More footage of police beating defenseless men and women.

Baldwin says he watched Malcolm X and Martin Luther King come from very different positions to eventually drift into almost exactly the same position. Footage is shown of Malcolm X criticizing King for not wanting blacks to fight back when abused by whites. However understandable his feeling, it’s also obvious that taking on whites in a race war in which they would be vastly outnumbered and outgunned would be a self-defeating strategy. King replies to Malcolm X by saying that he sees love as being a powerful force rather than a cowardly surrender. Did Malcolm X come to appreciate that position before he died? Baldwin says he was in London with a friend taking a day off when he learned of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Baldwin came home from France in the later sixties. He said he missed very little about America, but missed his brother, sister, their children, and his mother. He was visiting them in 1968 when his sister was called away from the table. When she returned she said nothing, but he felt something was wrong. Then she said, “Martin Luther King was just killed. Reporters are coming to get your reaction.”

He attended the funeral, and said he tried not to cry, felt that many others were trying not to cry too, and for the same reason: they didn’t know if they could stop.

He felt he had to visit the widows and children of those leaders, also not easy. Perhaps especially because none of the three lived to be as old as forty.

I was vaguely aware of the strife of the sixties, but didn’t really feel it. I had problems of my own taking up my attention. But the sixties shaped my political views. In the 1950s we had had a comic book portraying Rosa Parks taking a white person’s seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refusing to get up. That’s where I first heard of Dr. King.

In 1963 I was with my grandmother while she watched coverage of the March on Washington, and got to see in real time Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What the Civil Rights movement was protesting was so obviously unfair that I didn’t see any alternative to being a liberal. It seemed that all conservatives were racists, a term that has since been used too lightly for too many frivolous reasons. No one in the Civil Rights movement has had the kind of gravitas Dr, King had, which is a shame. He and the other two were murdered because they held up a mirror to show us all what we were, causing panic fear. People comfortable with segregation felt their world was coming apart, and had no answer but violence. After King was killed, many others felt THEIR world was coming apart too. If my heart was in the right place in feeling sympathy for the movement (which is debatable), I did nothing about it, to my shame.

Baldwin didn’t only report his feelings about the movement and the death of his friends (as well as many other more anonymous people), but looked at the larger picture of America, its racism and other forms of injustice. He saw white America being as entangled and imprisoned by racism as black America, and striking out in violent resentment of it. Black Americans never wanted to come here, but neither did whites, he says. Using blacks as slaves made them prisoners too.

The fact is that the American way of life hasn’t made many people happy. Satiated, in some cases, but not happy. That many of us have secure lives that most people in the world can’t even imagine, and yet are fearful of people unlike ourselves is ironic, if not paradoxical. Look at some of the things we lead the world in: numbers of prisoners, people killed by police, consumption of illegal (and legal) drugs. Those things don’t indicate a happy culture. More people have a higher standard of living than any time previous in the world, but they aren’t happy, and their standard of living comes at the price of devastation of other peoples and the waste of natural resources. They, who are WE, prefer fantasy to reality, because experiencing the reality of what WE are complicit in would mean we must experience overpowering guilt and responsibility. Nobody wants that. So we’ll have to pay in another way.

The climactic scene of the movie is footage from the Dick Cavett show. A new guest enters and says he disagrees with what he’s heard Baldwin say, and asks if there isn’t any other way for him to connect than through race? Surely he must feel more connection with a white author than with an illiterate black.

Baldwin answers that the man is invoking an idealistic vision that he has seen no evidence of. Is he to trust not only himself, but his relatives and children to an idea which he’s never seen manifest in real life? The other seems to have nothing to say–or maybe it’s just that I can’t imagine him saying anything to refute Baldwin.

The idea that racism was once a problem, but is no longer, is popular in some circles. When people complain about it, or even try to talk about it, they’re said to be “race-baiting”. I don’t suppose people with this view are even insincere–that they’re aware of. One such person friended me on Facebook during the past year or so, complimenting me on the posts I’d written on this blog, and trying to persuade me of his views. He was nice to me, never being rude when I stated my own views (which he probably saw as liberal cliches), and even defending me from some of his friends. But I couldn’t agree that racism was no longer a problem, nor could I support his candidate for president. I’m not sure if this movie would mean much to him. I’d like to think it could open his eyes, but that might be too much to expect. There are quite a few people who seem pretty sincere in their disagreement with what I believe. And I certainly am not always right.

The movie Raoul Peck has made isn’t perfect. As one writer complained in a recent article, he didn’t address Baldwin’s homosexuality, even though Baldwin wasn’t shy about that. If he had, the movie would probably have been longer, and even more powerful. As the writer pointed out, Baldwin was criminalized in two ways: not only as a black man, but as a gay man. He was doubly an outsider in ways most whites don’t experience, unless they really want to. Most of us want to be accepted, so don’t confront the injustices we see. That’s what is known as white privilege, a term some people are impatient with. They don’t see themselves as privileged. They also don’t think to ask how a black person might see them.

The movie quickly surveys several movies with themes of black vs white. One is the movie in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are handcuffed together after escaping from prison. At the end of the movie they’ve managed to get rid of the cuffs and are running to catch a train and ride in the box car. Poitier climbs onto the train, Curtis clutches at his hand, but can’t hold on, and falls down the hill. Poitier jumps back off the train. This, Baldwin says, is to reassure a white audience that black people still love them, in spite of the way whites have abused blacks. But, says Baldwin, the black audience had a completely different reaction: they said, “Fool, get back on the train!”

Do we want to know how the people we live with, who had a major role in building this country, but got very little out of it, actually feel, or do we prefer a fantasy? The answer to that question may go a long way to determining our future, as Baldwin says.