LISTEN TO THE DEAD
Originally published in Arthur No. 18 (Sept 2005)
Okay, so a lot of people in Arthur have been coming out of the Deadhead closet lately [cf. “Uncle Skullfucker’s Band”, Arthur No. 11]. Someone, maybe Bastet, maybe someone else, should put out a mix CD or two of some of the Dead’s material that might be most likely to impress the contemporary drone/noise/psych/improv and/or free(k) folk scene(s). I have enjoyed a very small percentage of the G.D. that I have heard, and have been unwilling to delve through the catalog in search of the gems. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and would like to hear a carefully selected mix made by discerning ears. Example: Garcia solo piece on Zabriskie Point soundtrack.
There are over 2,800 Grateful Dead shows available for free download at archive.org, and depending on who you talk to at least a half-dozen studio albums worth checking out. That’s a lot of music to sort through, even if you can get your hands on most of it without laying down any cash. We convened a conclave of reconstructed Deadheads in order to help you and any other greenhorn seekers of the Dead find your way around. The Knights present for this meeting were:
Geologist, a member of Animal Collective, that incredible international post-hippie string band.
N. Shineywater, of Alabama’s creamiest slow-folk practitioners, Brightblack Morning Light. It is worth nothing that Brightblack’s cover of “Brokedown Palace” with Will Oldham on vocals makes us weep.
Ethan Miller, of the mighty Comets on Fire.
Daniel Chamberlin, a contributing editor at Arthur, and the author of “Uncle Skullfucker’s Band” (Arthur No. 11) about life as a closet Deadhead.
Denise DiVitto & Brant Bjork: Owner-operators of Duna Records, which releases records by Mr. Bjork (co-founder of Kyuss) and other worthy artists. Two mellow souls who hang in the desert.
Erik Davis, Arthur contributor, native Californian and the author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information.
Barry Smolin, the host of the essential “The Music Never Stops” Dead showcase on Los Angeles’s KPFK, 90.7 FM.
Michael Simmons, a contributing editor to Arthur.
The Seth Man, a/k/a The Seth Man, editor of FUZ and author of “The Book of Seth” on Julian Cope’s website.
GEOLOGIST (Animal Collective)
The birth of my father was a mistake; an unplanned pregnancy in the 1950s. As a result, his brothers, and my cousins, are much older. During the ’80s, my cousin Adam was my idol. I was in grade school, he was in high school and later went to college in Athens, GA. The guy was all about “rock & roll.” He had Live…Like A Suicide by Guns N’ Roses on vinyl in 1986. He predicted the worldwide stardom of REM and the B-52’s as far back as I can remember. But his first musical love was, and as far as I know, still is The Grateful Dead. By the end of the ’80s he had been to over 100 shows.
As I got older and began to hunger for more music than what was being fed to me on MTV, I of course turned to him. Like any true Deadhead, my cousin immediately pushed me towards their live material. His Dead collection was just a box of tapes with dates written on them; I don’t really remember seeing any albums. It is to this aspect of the Dead’s output that I would direct any new fan. I listen to the ’66-’74 era, pretty much exclusively. An easy place to start is the live albums released during this period, specifically Live/Dead (from ’69) and Europe ’72. The former has my all-time favorite Dead jam, “Dark Star” into “St. Stephen,” and the latter contains my second favorite, “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider” (affectionately known to Dead fans as “China Rider”). In addition, there is a killer CD release of a Fillmore East show from 2/11/69, which has some of the same tunes. And for 1974, the Winterland shows from February of that year totally rule, even though you have to endure the awful background singing of Donna Godchaux.
I certainly don’t mean to discount the worth of their studio albums, because there is no denying the greatness of Anthem Of The Sun, Aoxomoxoa and American Beauty. I love them all and listen to them frequently, but I still lean towards the live stuff. The reason for this is simply “good times.” I recently got into an argument at a bar about whether or not you can give credit to someone for nothing more than “good times.” I say you totally can. Why not? Isn’t that pretty much what most of us want on a day-to-day basis? I was fortunate enough to see the Dead on one of their last tours in 1994. I was 15 years old, and had moved from Philly to Baltimore, where I was in the early stages of becoming best friends with the dudes I still consider my closest friends in the world. At the time, however, I dearly missed my old friends from middle school. They managed to get tickets to the Dead show at the Philly Spectrum, and my parents, being the wonderful folks they are, let me skip school for three days and hop on the train to catch the show. Jerry may have been old and forgotten some lyrics here and there, but man, good times were had by all. I’ve never since been in an environment as positive as that concert. As people who are passionate about music, especially music that is outside of the mainstream, we sometimes get caught up in our own brand of snobbery. But when I catch myself acting like a dick, I try and think back to that night wandering around the burrito stands and hacky-sack circles in that parking lot. If people continue to care about the music we make and continue to come see us play, I really hope our parking lots will look and feel like that one day. Good times.
N. SHINEYWATER (Brightblack Morning Light)
Early-era Dead songs resonate with me, so I would maybe dig a collection of songs featuring Pig Pen. The first recording I heard by Grateful Dead also served as a successful backdrop to a good time. It involved my native Alabama woods, an old Jeep chasing another old Jeep through the mud, and the constant doobie. The friend of mine who was driving the jeep let The Dead’s American Beauty repeat over and over … Somehow a very long early-version of the song “Dark Star” appeared on the homemade cassette, and when this came on we had just taken a doobie break. One friendly sister starting throwing mud at me so I threw mud back at her and the next thing I saw was this dancing grey mud flying and hitting smiling bodies of friends.
One time this same Jeep-friend has to drive across the country in a new Ford van. He happened to know he was going to be using reefer along the way. The van had only one sticker, plain in style, that read, “GOOD OL” really large, followed very small by “GRATEFUL DEAD.” It wasn’t the kind with little orange bears; it was red, white and blue. He chose this plain sticker to avoid attracting the Man. Yet he knew that he wanted to share his love of Grateful Dead music. It was a risk he didn’t mind taking.
Later in life he led a Greenpeace effort to successfully lower himself and a few others over the side of the Mitsubishi building in Oregon with banners that read, “BOYCOTT MITSUBISHI, MITSUBISHI DESTROYS RAINFORESTS.” The last I heard of him he became a river guide.
ETHAN MILLER (Comets On Fire)
First off, I also loved that article by Daniel Chamberlin in the July 2004 Arthur also and found it very inspiring to try and track down the more extreme avant-garde Dead stuff that the author of that piece talks about being fooled that it was Dead C. or Sonic Youth or whatever.
I came to love the Dead after I got into underground and extreme/experimental music However, I never did go down that online bootleg-trading path to seek that shit out. And to this day I have heard a ton of Dead and never heard anything that I mistook for Fushitsusha, ya know? A funny thing about Deadheads (by that I mean even avid fans that don’t go to the concerts) is that I think a lot of times the explosions, the feedback and the edges of the earth exploring that they hear are all in the eye of the beholder. Whereas Sun Ra or Keiji Haino make the pushing of boundaries and the assaults on the senses an obvious and fundamental thing and bring the abnormal and danger and deconstruction into a bound and constructed world to be presented, there is something about the Dead which is off in its own little world –you have to go there to dig the presentation, and partly that’s because once they had that weird huge traveling built-in fan base it was so intense that they could completely ignore musical trends, sudden radical changes in their sound of their albums wasn’t even reactionary to what was going on around them musically. When you engage with The Grateful Dead music you engage on their terms and step inside of their huge complex bubble. And in that way and within that realm their music means many different things to different folks – including a great outlaw philosophy and devious and experimental heart. And those not willing to engage on their terms I think just fucking hate the shit.
In my band, myself and Ben Flashman love the Dead. Utrillo loves only the melodic, earthy “song” albums not the “jam” albums so much. Noel Harmonson and Ben Chasny seem to hate the Dead with every ounce of their musical being. Chasny says they are “a rock band without balls” and Noel just sort of snuffs and smokes a cigarette real hard while turning red and staring out the window of the van when I try to put them on in the van on tour. And these are dudes that are into Crosby, Stills & Nash or Mamas and the Papas or Moby Grape all the way. But again, the Dead brings out a weird reaction in people – usually an enchantment spell is cast or you feel like someone just shit in the almost empty beer you’re sipping on.
My first advice is that after you’ve checked out the Dead and don’t like what you’ve heard so far but want to hear what makes lovers of the avant-garde and experimental set like them is: Don’t even bother. Those fuckers have been brainwashed and enchanted like all Dead fans.
My second advice to you if you don’t feel like you’ve given them a fair chance and are bound and determined to go on, is to get these three albums and check them out:
American Beauty – the distillation of all they could do with harmony and the three to five minute “song.”
Live/Dead – I’m sure real Deadheads would laugh at this recommendation claiming that oh, there is a way cooler version of “Dark Star” on 14 different shows from the ’86 pass through the East Coast, but this album shows their improvisational majesty or at least a pretty solid idea of what you’re in for if you go down that online-bootleg-file-sharing road.
Anthem of the Sun – This is as close as I’ve heard the Dead sound to experimental music as we speak of it today – huge walls of sounds, tape loops, harsh noise and silence utilized to confusing extents and serenity and melody engulfed and destroyed by devious musical gremlins.
If you don’t dig any of these three records then personally I just think you don’t like the Grateful Dead and there is no use in fuckin’ diggin’ any deeper. If that doesnt draw you in I dont think anything will sound good to you by then, no matter how experimental they get on the boots.
But you could always ask Chamberlin for recommendations –he obviously has already done a lot of work in finding the deep and out-there shit by them.
The Dead archive at Archive.org is a truly astounding work of geekery, canniness, and devotion. Where superior tapes have drop-outs, lesser sources have been seamlessly spliced in. My advice is simple: hone in on shows in 1969 and 1973-74, read the comments after the shows to learn the canon and download the longer songs. That said, while I have loved this stuff forever, I believe the usual reasons for disliking it are generally accurate and indefensible. Jerry’s famous comment about licorice comes to mind: “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
DUNA RECORDS STAFF (Denise DiVitto and Brant Bjork)
They were the most magical live band ever and really nailed a complete conceptual feel all the way down to every last piece of artwork. Unfortunately, the Dead were never really able to capture that level of enchantment in a studio recording. Part of it may be that you can’t mass-package mushrooms and tabs of acid, but in my opinion, you just couldn’t package the vibe they had.
What we would recommend however, besides random bootlegs, are two recently released DVDs: The Grateful Dead Movie and The Closing of Winterland. They’re really the closest thing you can get to going back in time to be seduced by a smiley bearded man, wearing an old black T-shirt and having eyes so sparkly and beautiful, you couldn’t help but feel the love within.
Barry Smolin: A great place to start is Rare Cuts & Oddities, a collection of rehearsal and studio stuff from 1966. This is rip-roaring weird-ass proto-garage-punk shit, a huge surprise to anybody who thinks of the GD as some kind of bloated swamp dinosaur. Garcia at his wildest. You can hear the young bluegrass banjo player learning how to be a rock and roll guitar god. All very clunky and wonderful.
Michael Simmons: I adore Rare Cuts & Oddities. It’s the period that if the Warlocks had broken up and never become Dead, they would’ve ended up on Nuggets and revered by the Ramones.
The Seth Man: As a non-Deadhead music lover drawn to the more unique strands and aspects of rock music, it’s definitely the work of the late-‘60s Dead septet comprised of Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Pigpen and Tom Constanten that hit the mark hardest.The original seven-piece produced three albums: Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa and Live/Dead. And they are by turns loose, experimental and are pinnacle releases of West Coast ’60s psychedelia, period. They get short shrift just because they’re Dead albums and because they’re not as obscure as the Chocolate Watchband or something but they’d be every bit as legendary had they’d broken up after these three albums.
Anthem is a run-on sentence that is chapters in length, as several goofball LSD improvisations are barely contained by the boundaries of their own song titles as they delve into delicate folk corners, weave through polyrhythmic texturing and culminate into an earsplitting feedback final. Sewed together from over a baker’s dozen studio and live performances, Anthem of the Sun is an erratic and enigmatic ride full of ebb, flow and everything including the kitchen sink.
Were it not for three tracks Aoxomoxoa could be viewed as an obvious prelude to their next studio album, the country-tinged Workingman’s Dead. But since “Rosemary” is so beautiful and elegaic an acoustic piece, “Mountains of the Moon” a late night astral projective set to harpsichord and the elongated “What’s Become of the Baby” is so scary, so epic, so weird…it can’t. Listen to these three in the dark, and you will be moved.
Simmons: Aoxomoxoa is the single album I’d recommend Arthurians as a starter. Dripping with trippy, it contains gems like “Mountains of the Moon” and for sheer weirdness, there’s “What’s Become of the Baby?,” a barely tonal Jerry solo vocal (no instruments) with a funneled-through-a-tube, compressed sound.
The Seth Man: Live/Dead begins with “Dark Star” and for this one improvisation alone, Live/Dead is essential listening (just so you know, a section of it was used in the film Zabriskie Point) as is the ending “Feedback” improvisation. “Exploration” not “noodling” is the word that comes to mind.
Simmons: “Dark Star” is the Dead in wall-melting form. I prefer the late ‘60s GD to early-mid ‘70s because they still had a grungy edge at the earlier time, whereas Europe ‘72 (a brilliant album tho’ it be) shows signs of the slickness the band devolved into. Dig Garcia’s guitar solo on Live/Dead’s “Dark Star.” It’s nasty. He lost that edge as he got older and enveloped in opiated haze.
The Seth Man: Also check out Jerry Garcia’s first solo album, Garcia (as opposed to his second one of the same title.) The front cover features a photo collage (possibly of highly stylized US flag?) that contains a patch of blue sky, a woman’s nude torso, a set of four dials, a 10 of Diamonds playing card, and a hand with a severed middle finger (apparently, Garcia’s own.) Don’t be put off by the album’s opener “Deal,” for the following track “Bird Song” is beautiful. The rest of side one is some material The Dead would perform in live sets in the early ‘70s, but side two is almost entirely taken up with experimental instrumentals the like of which are very un-Dead sounding and very psychedelic.
Simmons: In terms of avant-sound sculptures, there’s Phil Lesh/Ned Lagin’s 1970s Seastones, which I remember digging a long time ago. And I don’t recall hearing any of the Acid Test stuff from mid-’60s, but I’m sure there was some weird-ass free-rock.
Smolin: The Seastones stuff was performed live between sets at a bunch of Dead shows in 1974, most famously at Roosevelt Stadium on 8/6/74, one of the most highly regarded Dead shows ever. The Dead stuff from that day is captured on Dick’s Picks 31, though the Lesh/Lagin stuff isn’t included in the official release. Many of the shows circa ’72-’74 contain some of the most avant-garde music ever created by a rock band, but you also have to wade through a good share of lame ballads and cowboy covers to find the freakiness within. Of course, pretty much every” Dark Star” from 1969-1974 is worth a listen. The 1989 release Infrared Roses, a collection of some of the “Space” segments from latter-day Dead shows, has some cool meanderings.
Simmons: 1970’s Workingman’s Dead is usually explained as the Dead’s return to their folk roots, but keep in mind it’s a weird folk that has as much in common with the Incredible String Band as it does with country music.
SIDEBAR NO. 1: A Dead Mix by The Seth Man
“Born Cross-Eyed” (from Anthem of the Sun)/”Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)” (Anthem)/”Rosemary” (from Aoxomoxoa)/”Mountains Of The Moon” (Aoxomoxoa)/”What’s Become Of the Baby” (Aoxomoxoa)/”Dark Star” (from Live/Dead)/”Feedback” (Live/Dead ) / “Bird Song” (Garcia) / “Late For Supper” (Garcia) / “Spidergawd” (Garcia) / “Eep Hour” (Garcia) / “An Odd Little Place” (Garcia) / “The Wheel” (Garcia)
If that doesn’t work for you, perhaps the title track on East/West by the Butterfield Blues Band or “A Beacon From Mars” by Kaleidoscope (US not UK) might. East/West got the ENTIRE ball rollin’ in a big way, and without it, I would hazard a guess that West Coast jamming might have sounded very different, indeed. There’s a 1996 compilation on Winner Records called East-West Live with three different versions of “East-West” from 1966-1967. It’s some of the earliest and best improvisational psychedelic rock music extant.
SIDEBAR NO. 2 Uncle Skullfucker’s Picks, or Daniel Chamberlin’s Top Five Dead Live
1) February 14, 1968 at the Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, CA + October 12, 1968 at the Avalon Ballroom, SF,CA.
The hippies seem to have control of San Francisco and the Grateful Dead is blowing people’s minds with nearly every show. Do not be intimidated by the inclusion of a song called “New Potato Caboose” in the second set: It is a silly name for a psychedelic masterpiece and this is some of the most expansive acid rock that ever was. As heavy and choogly as Acid Mothers Temple, as delicate and pretty as The Byrds and as scuzzy and fried as Royal Trux. On top of that, they dedicate a monstrous “Cryptical Envelopment” to the recently deceased Neal Cassady. I mean, fucking Neal Cassady was friends with these guys. Do you think you’re too cool to like the Grateful Dead? You are wrong.
October 12, 1968 at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco is more of the same, just more intensely focused. It’s a single-disc set described by one poster to Archive.org as follows: “It is RAW, fluid, HEAVY, TRIBAL- some of the most powerfully transformative music EVER played on planet Earth!!!!! Listen to this one LOUD and involuntary headbanging will have your neck stiff in the morning. HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!!!!”
2) May 15, 1970 at the Fillmore East, New York, NY
If you’re after the cosmic Americana vibe of the Dead, this massive show has it in spades. 1970 was the year of both American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead and the folky, acid-fried cowboy vibe was in full effect, especially for this date’s two CSNY-aping acoustic sets. Lots of vocal harmonies and finger-picking on songs about sex, the Devil, miners and funerals. They played this show – and many shows from this era – with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a country music offshoot of the Dead that was sort of like a super-stoned version of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Be warned: If you don’t like the Dead … Woo boy, you are gonna hate the New Riders. You’ll also miss out on Jerry Garcia’s amazing pedal-steel solos that melt my ears every time. Like a lot of shows from this period, this starts with an acoustic set, proceeds to an hour or so of NRPS and then launches into a meltdown of electric Dead. This is quite similar to Vol. 8, from the Dick’s Pick’s series, 5/2/70 in Binghamton, NY. That show is also very good – it gets high scores in the Deadbase surveys of Dead tapers – but I like the electric set from this date much more.
3) May 8, 1977 at Barton Hall, Ithaca, NY
Next to February 13 and 14 in 1970, this show is widely held as the Dead’s finest performance. Detractors allege that this is because this was one of the few high-quality live Dead recordings available throughout much of the ’80s, making it – in the words of one hater – “as common as patchouli” at Deadhead shindigs. Be that as it may, it’s also some of the juiciest psychedelic music I’ve ever heard, though there are a few heavy doses of the cheese that would characterize a lot of their post-’77 output. Watch for the incredible guitar solo on “Loser,” and an absolutely lysergic “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire On The Mountain” jam. (Efficiently known as “Scaret Fire” to the initiated, this is the LSD-friendly set-piece that took the place of “Dark Star” for a time.) This is the recording where I realized good they were live, the first time I subjected myself to three straight hours of Dead, and the first time I caught myself mentally describing Garcia’s solos as “rapturous,” “ego-free” and “orange.” Most of the shows from early May of ’77 are of similarly high quality . . . despite the unfortunate inclusion of awful latter-day selections such as “Lazy Lightnin’.”
4) May 14, 1974 at the Adams Field House, University of Montana.
This is the first Dead show that I came upon on my own, not through taper recommendations or Deadbase surveys. I first downloaded it because of the location: I love the idea of the Dead playing their freaked-out country music in such a rugged, Western setting. Happily, I found inside one of the best reggae-tempo versions of “Row Jimmy” and a 20-minute version of “Playing In the Band” that is almost Miles-Davis perfect until Donna Godchaux crashes in with her out-of-tune Janis Joplin parody. Top it off with the coolest, most mellow “Dark Star” that fades into such a quiet … tingly … gentle place and then WHAM! Just fucking clobbers you with a fuzzed-out meltdown so noisy that I bug outta my chair every time sure that my speakers have been done-in for good.
5) John Oswald’s Grayfolded
If you want Dead music free from all the hippie-trippy country-time cornball stuff that is actually the essence of what makes them such a weird and wonderful band, then you want Grayfolded. John “Plunderphonics” Oswald went into the Dead vaults and came out with like, literally, every recording of “Dark Star.” He cut and pasted scores of these recordings into an epic, two-hour version of the song that opens with “layered tuning sections combining at least one hundred members of the Grateful Dead” and crescendos with what sounds like a dozen Jerrys time-stretched into a chorus of “Daaaaaaark Star crashes.” It’s cutting-age sampling technology that is a little bit Four Tet and a little bit Teo Macero that results in an incredibly complex guitar-dominated landscape.