Wednesday, January 23, 2013

the book of the dead, 10

It surprises me that Here Comes Sunshine is a song I dig and that it’s one of my favorite Grateful Dead tunes. They performed it fairly often throughout 1973 and into '74, but then, from what I can tell, the song was more or less retired before Bruce Hornsby convinced them to bring it back into the live repertoire 17 years later.  It’s not the type of thing I would typically connect with. Performances of the song tended to meander ad infinitum in the Mixolydian mode, the flat 7 encouraging the jams to never fully resolve so much as peter out from pure exhaustion. I’ve got some versions of the song that go on for 18 fucking minutes!  By 1973, rock ‘n roll had obviously evolved quite a bit from the two-minute pleasures of Love Me Do and Little Deuce Coup.  But Here Comes Sunshine has a vibe that wins me over. It helps that it’s a song about gold mining. Get out the pans don’t just stand there dreaming! I’ve often wondered if the line ‘keep the mother rollin’ one more time’ refers to the mother lode, which I know from my days of studying the Wobblies to be a term for the central vein of ore within a grouping of gold or silver deposits. In any case, the song gives us another satisfying taste of Americana. Sure, at times the harmonies could be a little off the mark, and you might find yourself wishing that more care and precision were taken in tuning the guitars. But this is part of the Dead’s rag tag charm, the ability to sound slapdash and perhaps somewhat inattentive in one instance, only to become intense and serious as a heart attack just a few ticks later. When you tour as continuously as the Dead did for so long, with so many people depending on you to give their lives meaning and structure, the energy’s not gonna be there every night. Garcia in particular carried an enormous burden, one he was not altogether comfortable with, and one he had to essentially anesthetize himself against. But even so, there were plenty of nights when it all came together, when the focus was there, and when the band could get lost in the music, the rest be damned. Those were the nights when their playing and overall aura would be downright mesmerizing…

the book of the dead, 9

Come wash the nighttime clean. / Come grow the scorched ground green. / Blow the horn, tap the tambourine.... That might be my favorite Grateful Dead stanza of all, a call to attention, to seize the day, to be ready for all the twists and turns the road ahead will undoubtedly bring. For all my rhapsodizing about the greatness of Robert Hunter’s largely unrecognized contributions to the Dead’s body of work, it’s easy to forget that Weir’s wordsmith, John Barlow, is mighty fine with the pen as well. Hunter comes out of the tradition of the Beats, so there’s often a kind of low-level darkness in his approach.  When the down-on-his-luck gambler in Loser says, ‘I’ve got no chance of losing this time,’ we know he’s doomed.  When the ‘blind and dirty’ hobo in Wharf Rat proclaims that he’ll 'get up and fly away,’ we know it’s a fever dream and that the poor soul is much more likely to end up face down in the gutter. This is what used to be called irony, before that word got transformed into something different so that it now refers to some imprecise melding of sarcasm, self-satisfaction, detachment, inauthenticity… Where Hunter is ironic (in the classic sense) and translucent, Barlow is a realist poet, and even more naturalistic than Hunter.  I woke today / Felt your side of bed / The covers were still warm where you were laying / You were gone / My heart was filled with dread / You might not be sleeping here again…It doesn’t make you work like Hunter’s lyrics do, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t rip my heart in half and leave me curled up in the fetal position on the floor.  Another one that’s illustrative in a different way: ‘There’s mosquitoes on the river / Fish are rising up like birds / It’s been hot for seven weeks now / Too hot to even speak now / Did you hear what I just heard?  Barlow is proof that it doesn’t have to be fragmentary and illusive to leave an enduring impression. His words make you feel like you’re in the song, in a particular time and place, and that the meaning is directly applicable to your life.  I like that.  And when I say that his stuff is more transparent, I don’t know what Cassidy is about specifically. I've always assumed it was about Neal Cassady, the driver for the Merry Pranksters. Lost now on the country miles in his Cadillac. But I've recently discovered that it's only obliquely about Cassady and more directly about Cassidy Law, the daughter of a GD Roadie. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. The song has so many lovely lines, so many chunks of meaning to grab onto and make your own. Fare thee well now, let your life proceed by its own design / Nothing to tell now / Let the words be yours I am done with mine… The studio version of Cassidy, from Weir’s excellent first solo album, Ace, is the best I’ve heard. I think it’s a song made for the studio, where all the intricate 12-string chord changes come out crisp and clear. And - big surprise! - Donna Jean Godchaux’s harmonies are actually on pitch and sound great.  ...Save this one for a pensive rainy Sunday afternoon. It'll take the edge off and soothe your worried mind.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

the book of the dead, 8

Jack Straw is the ultimate Grateful Dead song, an archetypal yin/yang parable of the highest order. It's the story of an outlaw doomed by bloodlust, greed, hubris... What makes the song fascinating from a songwriting point of view is that it features three perspectives, each of which seamlessly melts into the next. The first is that of the song’s namesake, an outlaw doing everything he can to avoid drawing the heat. The second is Jack’s counterpart, the vengeful Shannon, whose fits of renegade wildness make Jack anxious. Anxiety makes men do bad things... And then there’s the third-person omniscient narrator bringing the story to its inevitable denouement: Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down / And dug for him a shallow grave and laid his body down…’  The song is loaded with observations that capture the American frontier in all its awesome vastness. Sun so hot / the clouds so low / the eagles fill the sky. The beauty of the landscape is juxtaposed brilliantly with the ugly depths to which fear can drive the human condition. It's heavy, heady stuff, and very, very good. The earliest versions of the tune I’ve heard date from late 1971, at which point Bob Weir sang both characters. Eventually, Garcia became Shannon, which, when you think about the trajectory of his all-too-short time on earth, seems about right. In any case, the addition of Garcia's vocals makes the song much more impactful. More than any other tune, this is the one that made me a Deadhead. It continues to satisfy on multiple levels…

Friday, January 18, 2013

the book of the dead, 7

Bird Song is as lovely as the title implies and has the added advantage of featuring a riff that is supremely satisfying to play on guitar, either electric or acoustic, if you’re so inclined. Garcia’s first and best solo record deserves more recognition than it’s gotten, perhaps overlooked because of a perception that by 1972 the Grateful Dead had nothing left to say that coudn't be said best on stage.  I guess I shouldn’t generalize. This is really only my perception. But Garcia, along with Weir’s Ace, are the exceptions that prove the rule.  Even the Dead’s often celebrated Wake of the Flood, released the following year, sounds somewhat muted and restrained by comparison with the way the record’s songs sound live.  One thing that’s especially interesting about all these Dead and Dead related records from the 70s is that the spaced-out, hopped-up vibe of 60s Dead has become almost entirely a thing of the past.  Bird Song, for instance, is very good 70s rock, pensive and mellow, but with just enough of a GD-style edge to keep it from veering into soft rock (not that there’s anything wrong with 70s Mellow Gold). Another nice thing about Bird Song is that it’s one of a handful of Dead songs that got better with age. There are performances of the song from the 80s that give me goose bumps, tight as hell but also imaginative and exploratory.  For now, though, here’s the version from Garcia, which is also pretty great.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

the book of the dead, 6

I hear the wind, and I taste the rain. That line has always struck me as being remarkably vivid.  Something about the harshness of tasting the rain gets to me and puts me in touch with the Dead’s peculiar blend of darkness and benevolent humanism. Don’t give it up / You’ve got an empty cup / Only love can fill.  Damn that's good. As disdainful as I am of hippies, sometimes they get the sentiment just right, and my resistance melts away.  I love the way Garcia’s voice rises to a near-falsetto on the word empty... Mountains of the Moon is my favorite GD song, but Comes a Time is a close second.  The best performance of the tune I’ve heard is from Felt Forum, 12/5/71, which I'm shocked to find available on YT!  Technology and the digital age are usually my enemies, but tonight they're my friends...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

the book of the dead, 5

As much as I admire and enjoy hearing Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, there’s a melancholy that hangs over the listening experience for me. Both albums are largely unplugged, all the better to underscore a new rustic direction. The rough-and-tumble 60s are over and the hippies have gone back to the land.  Robert Hunter’s words become increasingly organic and naturalistic, but he remains a remarkable lyricist.  American Beauty is the brighter of the two records, a little more accessible, but Workingman’s is the one that sinks more deeply into your bloodstream over time.  Together they mark a transition to an identity that maintains some continuity with the past but is also something different, more wedded to archetypes of the American West, and more country-flavored as a result.  Candyman is my favorite tune from this period.  The wildness of the 60s may be in the rearview mirror, but this is one of the druggiest songs I can think of.  Garcia’s weepy, sleepy lap steel is like a soft landing from the lysergic odyssey of the previous decade, a passage into some kind of prophylactic downer meant to shield the listener from the postpartum blues... Who is the candyman meant to be?  Is he simply a bringer of good things – love, healing, peace of mind, shelter from the storm?  Perhaps, but why then does he have a murderous streak?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

the book of the dead, 4

If Aoxomoxoa is my favorite GD record, then Mountains of the Moon is my favorite song on my favorite record. Garcia’s singing is poignant and expressive without being at all overdone. I think you can say that this is the song where his voice comes into its own as a distinct new dimension added into the Grateful Dead’s mix of elements.  And, of course, the emotional impact of the singing is inseparable from the words Robert Hunter puts in Garcia’s mouth. It’s surreal poetry, fragmented, hallucinatory, solipsistic. The song’s literal meaning is impossible to glean, but it matters little, and with its repeated (self-?) references to folderol, one suspects that the words were freely associated, less about their meaning than the way they sound together. In other words, you’re free to attach your own narrative or to simply let the words and music conjure up pictures in your mind’s eye. Twenty degrees of solitude, twenty degrees in all / All along the dancing kings and wives assembled in the hall / Lost is the long and loneliest town, fairly Sybil flying / All along the all along the mountains of the moon. (I think that’s how it goes)... I’ve never been a big T.C. fan.  Too often his keyboards sound clumsy and superfluous, but his harpsichord flourishes on Mountains of the Moon are just perfect, turning the song into a dream that’s neither a pleasant reverie nor a nightmare, but rather somewhere in between, though no less vivid in this ambiguity. Ambiguity is good in this case, though there's nothing ambiguous about the chills I get when I watch this performance...

Monday, January 14, 2013

the book of the dead, 3

Aoxomoxoa is my favorite GD record. It’s still a product of the San Francisco psychedelic scene, though it was recorded and released well after said scene had crashed and burned, and so the album has a certain messy and menacing feel. The heaviness of its vibe sticks with you long after you’ve cranked down that ‘ol Victrola and put the wax back into its freaky sleeve. And that’s the thing about the Dead. They have an unmistakable dark side. One might even say that the band’s darkness is their dominant aspect. The most emotionally moving songs tend to be the ones about blind hobos, doomed coal miners, gamblers, ramblers, drifters, grafters... Garcia and Hunter had a gift for capturing the untidy ambiguities of the American experiment and were far too intellectually sophisticated to thoughtlessly bask in the utopian good vibes of the hippie scene. There’s always an added level of seriousness with the Dead, even when they’re being mischievous and playful. I don’t often like explicitly serious music, but the Dead make me think and inspire my imagination, never more so then on Aoxomoxoa.

I think of Cosmic Charlie as being like the Watcher in the Marvel Universe, able to apprehend the full panoramic scope of the 60s, with all their built-in counterfactuals: What if JFK had not been assassinated? What if RFK had not been assassinated? Forks in the road like this are all extremely suggestive, each one heightening the sense that the 60s were one big missed opportunity, but Charlie views them with a kind of fatalistic stoner wisdom, one that expresses itself in elusive riddles. Calliope wail like a seaside zoo / The very last lately inquired about you / It's really very one or two / The first you wanted, the last I knew...

Be warned: This is one of the strangest songs you'll ever hear.  Play it under the wrong conditions or in the wrong frame of mind and you're likely to fall to the floor and curl up into a fetal position, the song's final repeated refrain ringing in your ears. Go on home your mama's calling you...

Friday, January 11, 2013

the book of the dead, 2

My favorite Grateful Dead era is 1967 - 1969, the period during which, in my opinion, their music was at its most primal. Garcia's guitar playing in the late 60s was still quite raw, as if he were still discovering the range of what was possible when you plugged a guitar into an amplifier. I like hearing the process of discovery unfold. I hear it in his outrageously unhinged vibrato, which makes me feel like I'm receiving electro-shock therapy, where the threshold separating pleasure and pain is blurred... Reverend Gary Davis' Death Don't Have No Mercy is a blues tune and I feel about the blues the same way I feel about country music:  For the most part I only like it if it's fused with rock and performed by stoned hippies. I dig Humble Pie, for example, and Savoy Brown, Led Zeppelin and early Fleetwood Mac much more than the poor Delta blues guys they all supposedly stole from.  Add the Dead's cover of Death Don't Have No Mercy to the short list of blues I can tolerate.  I more than tolerate it. The version on Live/Dead posted here might not be their best ever performance of the song, but it's pretty damn good, especially in the way it slowly builds up a head of steam.  Usually by the seventh minute of a song, I've already been checked out for five minutes, but not here. Garcia's singing is still weedy as he hasn't yet learned to use his voice as a subtly expressive instrument, but his emotional intensity more than compensates and makes the tune swing like a motherfucker...

the book of the dead, 1

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years now, so much so that I like to refer to myself as a Born Again Angeleno. As such, I have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to Frisco, which I regard to be a town for pussies, those precious folk who look down their collective nose at L.A., juxtaposing our trashy suburban sprawl with the righteous authenticity of their holy way of life.  At the same time, there’s no point in being overly restrictive in my antipathy, and if there’s one thing that redeems the Bay Area for me it’s the Grateful Dead. It’s hard to even associate the Dead with San Francisco anymore. In my mind, the band is just distinctly American in the best possible sense. Everything about them, from the mythic American tropes that constitute the thematic substance of so much of their music, to the DIY entrepreneurial way in which they handled their business affairs, to the rootless, nomadic drifters who gravitated towards their scene (before the frat boys took over), to the distinct blend of personalities in the band…It’s impossible to imagine an outfit like this emerging anywhere other than the USA. I don’t reach for Grateful Dead music all that often anymore because I’m a big believer in the magic of the recording studio, whereas the Dead have always been about the live experience and letting the music happen in the moment. But there are certain aspects of the Dead that I continue to find irresistible…
-       The wisdom, vulnerability and warm benevolence Garcia conveys with his singing.  In his hands, a song often seems to have two meanings going on at once.  The first is literal; the second is subjective, an expression of the head space Garcia’s in at any given moment.  Listen to him singing China Doll in the mid 80s and you’ll be convinced he’s trying to tell you he’s about to die. And what makes it so intense is that he’s quite right in telling you this!

-       The interplay between the guitars.  I used to tell people that Bob Weir was the better of the two guitarists in the Grateful Dead.  This is, of course, preposterous, but Weir is certainly one of the best rhythm guitarists I’ve ever heard.  It wasn’t always this way. Up until 1971, Weir’s guitar playing was not particularly noticeable.  But in the wake of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, after the music took a rural turn and went in a more countrified direction, Weir found his guitar playing mojo.  From his cover of Papa John Phillips’ Me and My Uncle onwards, his chopping, elastic-wristed (and often weirdly jazzy) chords become indispensible to the band’s sound.

-       Drums: One or two?  My preferences vacillate.  Sometimes I like the Dead better with one drummer, but there’s other times where the bigness of the sound with two drummers is pretty darn great.  Objectively, I think one drummer makes the music hang together a bit more tightly.  But Mickey Hart’s earthiness is endearing.  Either way, the Dead have always had great percussion. Kreutzmann is an excellent rock ‘n roll drummer.  I like the way he looked so much older than the others, always seemed so sweaty and unhealthy, at risk of an imminent heart attack.  He wasn’t flashy, but he had a great drum sound, and drum sound is about 80% of what drumming is all about.

-       Robert Hunter.  In the same spirit of telling folks that Weir was the better of the two guitarists in the band, I also liked to say that Robert Hunter was my favorite member of the Grateful Dead. Garcia’s voice captivates me in large part because of the words Hunter gives him to sing. Hunter is quite a bit younger than the likes of Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, but I see him as contiguous with the Beats, perhaps an heir to their legacy.  Hunter is deeply literate, steeped in the archetypes of the American frontier, and he’s also an unabashed hippie romantic.  As much as I love the guitars and the drums, the Garcia-Hunter tandem is the biggest reason I continue to find the Grateful Dead compelling.

I thought it’d be fun to do a short series on the Grateful Dead, my ten favorite songs.  It’s a bit of a challenge with the Dead because so much of their best stuff is live, and I have no idea of the extent to which it’s available on youtube, so I’ll probably have to stick with officially recorded material, much of which will be studio versions.  The Dead are a different, diminished band in the studio. It’s obvious that the studio, where they presumably had to accept and implement input from  producers, was simply not a comfortable setting for them.  This was true even when the producer was someone they respected, like Lowell George.  On the other hand, the Dead managed to put out a handful of decent studio records. Their self-titled debut, released at the dawn of 1967, is a garage punk classic. Everything about the album oozes amphetamine. The music is played at a much brisker (but also somehow looser) tempo than what they’d typically do on stage, and much of the record sounds vaguely off pitch, as if they were too hopped up to stop and tune their instruments. In lesser hands, these imperfections would seriously detract from the music, but here the blemishes heighten the overall sense of restless rebellion.  My favorite track on the album is the cover of Bonnie Dobson’s folk song of nuclear apocalypse, Morning Dew, a staple of the Dead’s live performances, though rendered on stage in a more stretched-out form. The studio version’s vibe is completely different and, to be honest, much more to my liking.  I’ve heard many versions of the song over the years, from Tom Rose, to Rod Stewart, to Joan Baez, to Judy Collins, but this particular interpretation is by far my favorite.  As the music fades, listen to the anguish in Captain Trips’ voice as he sings, I guess it doesn’t matter anyway – NO! – I guess it doesn’t matter anyway!  It’s great stuff, completely of its time and place but also transcendent and still meaningful almost 50 years hence…