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.

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