[This is the unedited version of an article that appeared on the Talkhouse website. Thanks to Michael Azerrad.]
I should introduce this article with a disclaimer, which will clarify as the piece draws to it’s conclusion. I think despite my best efforts this article is going to be more fun for people who are familiar with the Dead, their many flaws and occasional transcendent charms. The Grateful Dead were nothing if not polarizing. . .during their long career and certainly after. There were their often grotesque fans – mucking up beloved city parking lots and downtown ghost towns during the Dead’s many US tours. There were the band’s unremarkable albums – even their most beloved feel phoned in. Of course – there are mountains of bad taste to wade through. . .and life is too short. I would say the Grateful Dead are a phenomenon, even a holdover from the United State’s great tradition of utopian communities. They made music sure – and some of it was incredible. . .but perhaps they also embody something awkward, something free – and yes – something deeply flawed and aspirational.
Perhaps Bill Kreutzmann is the least recognizable member of the Dead. . .definitely a cypher once we step into the MACH 2 dual drummer version of the Dead after the release of 1975’s Blues for Allah. At this point Mickey Hart’s giant personality and omnivorous percussion appetites start to build and eclipse Kreutzmann’s presence. Kreutzmann never really gets his due – well because for one: Jerry is Jerry is The Grateful Dead. . .the only reason many of us are there if we’re going to be brutally honest with ourselves. But also because Kreutzmann’s voice as a drummer is subsumed by the two drummer band. . .and that’s probably what most people remember about the Dead. Phil Lesh of course studied with Stockhausen and the cursed keyboard seat held a number of bright moments (Keith Godchaux, Pigpen. . .I don’t know) and Bob Weir wrote a couple keepers. . .but Kreutzmann? I have always admired his drumming – when there was only one drummer in the band. But even with that – I never had a sense of who he was as a person. . .or even a musician in a philosophical sense.
OK maybe you’re not a Deadhead – or maybe you’re a casual fan who doesn’t get into the Sportscenter-style roster jockeying approach to fandom. I would not call myself a Deadhead b/c really – in terms of the scale of the stuff – I don’t know much at all. For a while I was someone who found the Dead little more than a curiosity. I spent four years at a high school where The Grateful Dead were a pivot on which all things counter-cultural moved – which will reveal quickly that my high school years (87-91) were pretty staid, reactionary and enthralled in a past that we’d never recapture. The Dead were the sacrament to a cult of casual stoners. . .they were an emblem that represented something that was free and unmoored – but the Dead were also pretty safe, and an institution – mainstream in their own way. And the music! Well – a lot of the times it made no sense to me. It was terrible for so much of the time. The Bob Weir cowboy songs, Jerry’s Midi nightmares of the 80s, the spongy drumming, bad keyboard timbres, the strangled vocals and just plain fraud being perpetrated were easy enough to see through. It’s all a sham really – especially if you’re 15 years old and you’re learning that everything is doublespeak and lies. If you spend any time on the Sirius/XM Grateful Dead station – all of the band’s incredible weaknesses will be on display most of the time. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy afoot to display the most flaccid, uninspired elements of the band to anyone curious enough to tune in.
And yet. . .
I think someone played me some earlier tapes – perhaps some tapes from the late 60s – Live Dead. . .Dark Star. . .The Other One. . .Mountains on the Moon. . .some odd live tapes that seemed to elevate with telepathic interplay. . .there’s real magic being made – moment to moment.
Some people actually look to me as a Deadhead and ask me sincerely, “So what albums should I listen to?” or even if they are slightly more in tune, “What shows should I listen to?” I used to do this as well. I would approach my bonafide Deadhead friends and be like, “Can you send me some shows where it’s really gnarly, super out there, Jerry on speed. . .like Live Dead. . .raw. . .?” I would get responses. . .I might get some tapes, some CDR comps, some links to archive.org. . .and they were always disappointing. I mean even the shit I LOVE is disappointing. Even Dark Star from Live Dead sometimes sounds weak to me.
But then I started to realize – The Grateful Dead are not about ANY OF THAT. They aren’t about some flawless SHOW. . .though there are better shows than others. They are definitely NOT about albums. . .and when my friends tell me they prefer the albums to ANY LIVE SHOW THAT ANYONE HAS EVER PLAYED THEM. . .I find it sad. I’m not patronizing them – I’m just thinking – well – the Dead are not about any of that. They are actually about MOMENTS. . .and this is their primacy and their biggest flaw. Some of these moments are of uncanny telepathic communication. . .lightning strikes really – which as we know – are quite rare. But on the whole they had terrible taste so these strikes are never gonna happen when Bobby sings f’in Mexicali Blues. Seriously. . .that’s some aficionado, high level “I’ve acquired a taste for this Sardinian maggot cheese” kind of thing.
Speaking of Mexicali and Bob Weir’s “cowboy song” tendency I’m gonna digress for a moment – but at their 8/27/72 Veneta, Oregon show which was also made into a film called Sunshine Daydream (more below about this). . .they reach this incredibly obtuse, abstract and harmonically complex moment 31 minutes into Dark Star. It’s transcendent and alien. . .it’s really remarkable. . .and then after about a minute of this they start playing “El Paso,” a terrible Marty Robins cover. It’s blasphemy. It’s poisonous. It’s horrifying. It’s profanity.
But that’s the Dead! Them’s “the boys!”
So why why why would I ever recommend that someone who’s uninitiated ever delve into this nightmare? Why do I need other people to share my love of Jerry? Well – I’m over it. I don’t care if you don’t like the Dead – b/c I really can’t help you. I’m not a proselytizer. I’m not in the saving souls business.
Right now I’m telling people to watch Sunshine Daydream – an excellent version – the DVD rip is on youtube. . .watch it and listen. And if you aren’t moved then forget it – there’s nothing to see here. Of course this even goes against my earlier stance of, “Well I just like the late 60s and then I’m done” – b/c it’s not true anymore. I realize that Jerry’s technique got A LOT better in the early-mid 70s. . .and so I’m just lost. I don’t know which end is up anymore. Soon I’ll be talking about that OTHER PEAK in the 80s and you should just shoot me.
Of course the other thing happening is that maybe you’re a musician and at first you might try to play what the Dead are serving up. Maybe you cover a few tunes – China Cat Sunflower for instance or Eyes of the World . . .and you find just can’t play the songs. If you try to actually voice ONE NOTE that Jerry plays, or comp a chord like Weir or play a bass line like Phil Lesh. . .it’s very much out of your reach as a musician and will likely be FOREVER. So hate all you want – they made more.
So OK – let’s quickly address the book at hand b/c ostensibly I’m talking about it. It’s a good book. It’s not a great book and it’s not a bad book. It’s well constructed and edited well on the whole. It’s honest. . .it’s revealing. . .and at times it’s moving. But this is a book for the Heads, the converted and the curious. A lot of the stages of the Dead’s career are covered here. . .we get nice details from all their early SF and California headquarters, their early records, those early shows, when they fired Mickey Hart the first time, when Mickey came back to the band, their trip to Egypt in 1978. . .etc. . .and there’s also commentary about most of the controversial periods of their career – some insight – or often times NOT – but still. . .Kreutzmann was there from the begining and I really can’t remember reading any opinion from him – or even a comment. So that in an of itself is amazing. This book also focusses an even amount of energy on all eras of the band. We get a lot of 80s and 90s info – which is lacking in other books because frankly the music from those periods is challenged. I was introduced to this incredible video for instance.
What’s lovely about the book and in it’s own way surprising is that Kreutzmann claims that he was the original Deadhead! There’s a great passage where he talks about seeing Jerry play banjo for the first time:
“It was an amazing night. He had the whole place totally under his spell. I sat right in front of him spellbound. Right then, I became the first Deadhead because I said, “I’m going to follow this guy forever.” I really did say that to myself, and I’d never said that about anything or anybody before.”
I think those of us who are touched can relate.
Bill Kreutzmann voices a lot of opinions about the Dead and their music that are surprising in their frankness. To BK, the band is all about Jerry’s songs and Robert Hunter’s lyrics. He says outright that he felt that some of Bob Weir’s songs kind of trudged along. He thought “Lost Sailor” was kinda stupid, he thought the cowboy songs were silly but fun to play, he didn’t really think that singer Donna Godchaux ever fit into the band, he thought Vince Welnick was mediocre, he was outraged when Mickey Hart came back to the band. . .on and on. In a way – he’s kind of like your average Head. I think if you took a poll – a lot of people who love the Dead might agree with many of these assessments. I recognized a lot of his opinions as my own. . .
There are some odd ticks in the narrative of the book. . .like whenever he mentions that someone has died it’s followed by “darn it.” But maybe if you knew Kreutzmann you’d be laughing b/c maybe he talks just like this! I don’t know. . .I’ve never met him.
I admire his drumming – especially from the period where he was the sole drummer in the Dead. . .he had to carry the entire package. . .and he’s often lively, tight and interesting. The book doesn’t really get into too much technical drumming stuff – that’s fine. But once again – we get a sense that even though the Dead protected the stage from the insanity of their business and the money that was pouring in – they did not protect the stage from drugs. . .and those peaks, those beautiful moments we’re seeking, started fading out. We see why they were fewer and far between and then we’re taken through the tragedy of Jerry’s death in 1995. During the final years of the band they weren’t even talking to each other! They would finish a tour and they wouldn’t even say goodbye to each other. You can hear this in the music.
But more than anything this book allows you to clarify the mystery of the Dead. . .what went right, what went wrong and why. It’s good to have his voice out there – it’s a surprise and a pleasure. . .not unlike some of those 60s and 70s shows.