Music

Grateful Dead, Most Beloved Freak Band on Earth

“It’s really far out, just too fuckin’ neat, man,” said Jerry Garcia. “I mean, we’ve only just started gettin’ into what we can do. There’s no limit… and we’re all feeling good.”

by

Why Is That Hairy Man Grinning?
April 6, 1972

Perhaps when the day March 29 dawned on Necropolis, blessing with preemptive spring warmth and sunshine, there was no con­nection between that sudden burst of life and the fact that as ther­mometers rose in Central Park dark during the night, the final note of “Saturday Night” and seven days of Grateful Dead music was booming like a rainbow surfer’s dream through a synchronated mass of human energy contained by the pulsating walls of the Academy of Music. Matters of cause and effect are li­able to take strange turns in the minds of the faithful when consciousness-expansion passes through town on that good old tried and true Grateful Dead tribulations bandwagon.

At that precise moment in time, the point where Bob Weir struck his last blow into glowing pink air positively reeking with the barnyard scent of the universal tool, guitar falling like some thunderous flashing celestial hammer, stopping frozen at the bottom of its arc, then wheeling back up and away over his head, anything seemed possible; the rush was on the riding wild; the earth was turning and you could feel it, like you had just jumped off a bike at 100 mph and you were standing there, still traveling but suspended, body and brains reeling madly between perfect free-floating connection and scrambled sensory overload… the usual, in fact, the normal Dead-induced high point.

Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist, explains: “In relating to somebody who is seeking more space, the basic thing is being able to open a window, to let them see that there is more space before you can even think about it. I think we’re just a first step in that whole progression and on a good night we can illustrate that there is more space.” (Rolling Stone, February 3, 1972)

How do they do it? Art and science and magic all adding up to advanced expertise in cosmic trickery, fancy-fingered tripping along the road to the grail; random historical accidents bringing them together at the start of the psychedelic revolution, spearheaded by them and Kesey’s Pranksters, Owsley and his acid, Golden Gate Park, Summer of Love, the Acid Tests, the fabled brotherhood of Dead and Angels on the streets of San Francisco, Altamont, multi-colored, multi­-media mind-blowing emporiums of crazy, terrifying, ecstatic new world visitations upon conscience-stricken America. Where are your children, parents? They’re out on an evening with the Grateful Dead, blitzed on acid and changing overnight while you worry about them being raped or something. Everyone who heard them in the halcyon days of hip has his or her tale about the start of something big, about the first night Jerry and his troupe of Cosmic cowboy philosophers hit town.…

Now, after seven “official” albums and six years of music ranging from the incredible atmo­spheric excursions of Anthem of the Sun and Live Dead to the sweetly bubbling torrents of new­-style country-rock that grace American Beauty (a delicate rose of an album, as its title implies), they are stars with money and fame; they sell whole stacks of albums; they’re begin­ning to make “solo” albums­ — Garcia’s is out already, and Bob Weir has one coming under the title of Ace, by all accounts a work liable to impact with the force of 10,000 atom bombs, strings and horns and choruses and all. As yet they have not made it to the cover of Time, or played the Garden or Shea Stadium, but that’s not their style. Who knows, though; one day somebody up there on Madison Avenue may just catch onto what’s been happening in this country for the past six years or so; maybe someone will realize that the Dead are the most beloved freak band on earth.

Their style is self-effacing to the point of invisibility; what really matters is the music and what they can do with that potent tool. Whereas the Stones have an acute understanding of the powers of theatrics, and employ their knowledge to the full, the Dead treat that side of the rock ‘n’ roll life with circumspect caution, draping themselves in the denim of the masses while they blast out music which is both amazingly complex and delightfully, danc­ingly simple. It’s all in the coor­dination of instruments, the ex­quisite rightness of a harmonious blend of two guitars, bass, organ, piano, and drums (groundwork driving by Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums, middle­-ground shifting fill by Weir on guitar, Pigpen on organ, and Keith Godchaux on piano, flights of fancy courtesy of Captain Trips — and now, occasional vocals by Keith’s wife Donna).

 ***

A scene from long ago before the bullets and the onset of grisly reality. A Manhattan party is buzzing to the tune of acid punch; a monstrously fat female scumbag resident, still beautiful unto herself, coils her rolls around a bearskin rug, all but smothering the frail male she clasps to her heaving acid-ripped bosom. “Alli­gator” by the Grateful Dead is flowing from everywhere; Jerry has just finished a flight. The Blob reveals a Truth to her captive companion: “He’s Gandalf, man.” A long pause while the Pig grunts and groans and the alligator slithers in and out of his slime, then a contradiction: “No, no, no, no, man — he’s Bilbo!!!” “Ooooh, OOOOOOH, he’s both, man, he’s Captain fuckin’ Trips!!”

Backstage at the Academy of Music, Jerry Bildalf Trips, the homey dwarf with the lightning at his fingertips, picks organic orange out from between his teeth lost somewhere in a riotous sprouting of wiry locks, and mutters something cryptic about rock ‘n’ roll stars-cum-spiritual leaders; it’s a position he has to acknowledge, but finds difficult at times, especially when he gets to thinking about just who his audience is these days.

The truth of the matter is that when a six-day New York concert sells out in less than that number of hours, the audience is likely to contain an overwhelming majori­ty of Seconal pubelets (this after the commercial success of the Dead’s last three albums and, of course, the explosion of Hip). The teentsy hedonists react to the Dead like so many Pavlov doggies, bouncing their plump butts from first note to last, openly imbibing the most noxious brews available at the cheap end of the druggie market, while the musical mood shifts from easy-rolling country-rock-blues, then into the heaviest rock ‘n’ roll currently available to mankind, and then on and out into the space music stuff — an optional extra on almost any Dead number, usually reserved for the last hour or two when audience heads are open and the band themselves are fully in synch. Jerry is careful with his charges, knowing he can accomplish something beautiful, maybe ease some tensions, transcend some contradictions, cut a few knots and let the Flow take over.

Above all, the Dead are a road band; try as they may, they have not yet been able to really reproduce their amazingly pure live sound on record. Live Dead was badly recorded, too muddy on all but the very best stereo equipment. Anthem of the Sun was similarly flawed but nonetheless brilliant, and Gra­teful Dead, their latest double live album, lacked something al­most undefinable, some fullness that must have been there at the start. With the ultimate live­-recorded work in mind, they are taking a 60-track ABC recording unit (containerized for air travel) with them on their first tour of Europe — that and a permanent traveling sound system which truly boggles the mind. It’s an earthbound spaceship, nothing less, attended with loving devo­tion by a whole itinerant tribe of technician heads. And while that mighty recording mother gobbles up the notes for their next double live album, the European natives will feast their eyes on the Great Garcia t-shirt (still the garb of C.T. despite a visit to Nudie’s meant as a concession to English foppery). The lights will be slewing all over the walls, and those who gave birth to the Stones will come face to face with a phenomenon they still don’t understand. They will.

Besides the sound equation, though, there is the color of the concert experience, the scarlet midnight hour when the theatre of the absurd mingles and warps with joyous inspiration, grisly reality, a whole mess of the most freaky little flashes; Mickey Mouse by R. Crumb all dolled up in tarnished tinsel and old workshirt, while onstage the band plays out fire and rain and sunshine into a hallfull of feelers waving crazily in the dark. Oc­topus feeding time.

***

The Dead played seven nights with one night off; Saturday was their benefit for the New York Hell’s Angels. Then they played as backup band for Bo Diddley, ranged in a grinning line behind Big Bo’s black silk bulk, the best band he’s ever likely to play with. It was party night, and their own set was loose, nothing too strenu­ous. The first night and the last were the musical high points, but Sandy Alexander, president of the New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels, was ecstatic, and why not, indeed? He’d come with his brothers from 3rd Street and all over the USA, riding shotgun to the Angels stagecoach on their gas buffalos. They pulled up to the curb on 14th Street in a ragged but impressive line (what else can you expect in Saturday night traffic — The Wild One?), and after they’d all been filmed by Geraldo’s Hipnews Concession, the Grateful Dead their old buddies went and threw a mon­ster of a party for them. What a fuckin’ night!!!

As the boogie progressed, tasty party mayo splashed all over the green leafy stuff — hard cash for bail money, spark plugs, chrome polish, and all the other expenses of high style Angel living. The Breed never showed up (luckily for them), and the party was cool. No Rolling Stones to slide that little extra manic hysteria in there; no Altamont, no stabbings, just party time, everyone awash in a frothing sea of vile foamy liquids, psychedelic beercans, innocent but potent macrobiotic cookies, weed by the ton, coke by the ounce, speed by the pint, Boone’s Farm strawberry wine.…

“Let’s get it on for the Hell’ Angels of the USA!” yelled Bob Weir into the mike, and while some more impressionable brothers almost swooned away from sheer excitement, the band launched into their first number — “How sweet it is, to be loved by you.…”

WATCH OUT FOR THE FUNNY-LOOKING JUG, they had told me by way of warning, but the intrepid drugger in me took over, and in the twinkle of eye, while the Dead launched in their best-ever “Dark Star” (this being Tuesday night, the last show), a jabbering circle of groupies, writers, chemists, and Angels dissolved into misty dayglo abstracts to the festive tinkle of discarded nitrous oxide cylinders plinking onto the floor boards like so many spent shell cases. If only it had been like this at Verdun; it probably was like this at Da Nang. Is that really an unhorsed knight I see lumbering ducklike in fetid armor? A plastic toy cowboy horseman minus steed? A Viking lost in a time warp? A Roman slave-master? Why, no, nothing of the kind; it’s just an out-of-town Angel reeling away from his turn at the hose playing walking custard pie.

Why is Jerry always off on the sidelines, grinning that hairy grin?

Tuesday night again; two Bronx groupies bump and grind their way past the demure ladies of the Dead tribe, like cheap hookers at a free-school communal dining room. One of the velvet cutie-pies washes Bob Weir in a flood of garlic from a yellow maw, and confides that she used to be topless dancer (and worked her way up?). Weir says “far out.” Just another little vignette of the road, another mote in the old sunbeam. Why is that hairy man grinning?

Tuesday night the Dead play the best set I have ever heard, every note in place, every opportunity for improvisation taken. “Trucking” slid into one of Weir’s new high-power country rockers loaded with melody and texture and sweet sliding riffs; that boy has finally learned to sing, with a vengeance. The Pig rendered sweeping blues, blowing everything from his tiny emaciated frame down into his wailing harp. Jerry took the lead on “You Win Again” from way back, and then it was time for some sensuous pyrotechnics with “Mister Charlie.” “Brokedown Palace” followed, back in the sweet groove, then “Cumberland Mine” with a rip-roaring extension, another new Weir number, “Big Railroad Blues” slamming down the tracks almost like Casey’s train, “El Paso” like Marty Robbins 10 years on and out, a magnificent collage of pieces from Anthem of the Sun, “I Know You Rider,” and then, to top it all off with a true blast of sheer power, “Casey Jones,” roaring the first set to a close. Thunder and lightning could do no more.

By the time they were done with “Wharf Rat,” “Dark Star,” “Sugaree,” “Playing in the Band,” “Not Fade Away,” “Going Down the Road,” and “Saturday Night,” several thousand delirious people had entered orbit, and we’re back where we started. As usual, the second set was much, much heavier than the first, and Tuesday night the boys in the band were on the ball as never before in my five years of Dead experience.

Sitting hunched over on an empty speaker case while the Academy crew sweated to comply to the strenuous demands of the Dead crew seeking perfection (that’s the name of the game, all the way from self-management to guitar-strings), Jerry Garcia pulled on an only-the-tops-special, relaxing before the serious stuff started that first night. “It’s really far out, just too fuckin’ neat, man,” he said with that same huge grin. “I mean, we’ve only just started gettin’ into what we can do. There’s no limit… and we’re all feeling good.” Now, ain’t that good news?

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