In Defense Of: The Grateful Dead

I know. It’s folly to try to defend the most polarizing band in rock. You either love them or you think they’re a bore, can’t sing, couldn’t write a hook to save their lives, and could only be appealing to a member of their cult. To that, I say I’m going in — hold my kool-aid.

I’ve been to two Dead shows in my life; I never shared their tapes. I’m a big fan of the band but I never really considered myself a Deadhead; I primarily know the band through their albums and I actually find most of those are pretty flawed. So, yes — you could count the ways to hate the Grateful Dead if you wanted to. But if you are looking to love this band, there are many ways in.

Wandering Spirit

The Dead were formed in San Francisco in 1964 as The Warlocks, an electrified bluegrass jug band under the leadership of Jerome John Garcia, named after Jerome Kern by his musical parents, but known to everyone as Jerry. Though the hallmark of the early band was a fusion between Jerry’s bluegrass and the heavy blues of singer and keyboardist-harmonica player, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the key ingredient that would define the band is probably the early 60s meeting of Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh. At the time a violinist-turned-trumpet player with an interest only in avant-garde classical music and free jazz, Phil Lesh later agreed to join Jerry’s Warlocks on electric bass, an instrument he had never even touched, but one he would come to pioneer in terms of his melodic, contrapuntal style and his improvised lines, abandoning the traditional timekeeping role of the bass player. With a very young Bob Weir on rhythm guitar and Billy Kreutzmann on drums, the Warlocks would change their name to The Grateful Dead, become the house band for author Ken Kesey’s famous acid tests in 1965 (where legal LSD was distributed among ticket buyers), and begin their legacy as the biggest exponent of the San Francisco “acid rock” movement that included the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish, and other very musical, improvisation-based rock bands that pushed that part of the envelope in the early development of rock

The Dead would go through a lot of phases and styles before their time was up, but they were marked by an adventurous, wandering spirit, a big feature of the group, and a rarity among rock bands.

Songwriting 

I have been in and out of the gravitational sway of the Dead’s music at various points in my life. They have many facets and their ability to pull me in a variety of ways has often been surprising. The first time was merely through the strength and appeal of their songwriting (a recurring feature of their music). When I was about 12 or 13, my camp counselors used to treat us to a dual-acoustic version of “Friend of the Devil” that still rings in my ears. 

Set in what we assume is the Old West, it’s a mythic story of a fugitive on the run who is so tired and lonely that he makes imaginary friends with the Devil just for company. He’s a complete scoundrel, with two wives plus a girlfriend, who is both running and taking his time avoiding the sheriff and his checkered past but the music moves at such a fast clip that he sounds like he’s enjoying his plight. With its simple melody set against a constantly moving bassline with a jaunty rhythm and a clever bridge, it’s just the kind of song that makes a casual bluegrass fan out of anyone with a pulse. When I later found the Dead’s version of “Friend of the Devil” on the American Beauty album, I was not disappointed.

The Studio Albums

Making their reputation as a live act and badly in need of a record producer, the self-produced Grateful Dead had a lot of trouble translating their psychedelic explorations to their studio recordings at the beginning of their career. Obsessed, ambitious, on drugs, and prone to experimenting, (with unfettered access to the latest multitrack technology) the band burned through budgets and the patience of their label heads, rarely coming up with anything eminently listenable.

It wasn’t until their 4th and 5th attempts in the studio that the band found an approach that worked. Rather than cracking the code that would capture all of their wild onstage energy, they pared back their mission, took a minimalist acoustic approach, and concentrated on songwriting and harmonizing. The band released Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty in 1970-71 at the height of the singer-songwriter movement, two albums that would help define that acoustic-based era in rock. For a band mostly known for their live recordings, these two consecutive Grateful Dead albums are understated masterworks of mood and tone. Here’s a tasty sample of the living room sound and quiet intensity they achieved on Workingman’s Dead:

“Uncle John’s Band”

Their refusal to work with an experienced record producer didn’t just yield problems translating their stage sound to vinyl, they lacked a strong hand in the studio to put demands on their songwriting. Compared to their live albums, the Grateful Dead studio albums were and continued to be more of an outlet and less of a featured aspect of the band. Even when they signed with Clive Davis’ Arista Records in 1977 with the agreement that they work with outside producers, the songwriting on their studio albums remained inconsistent and at times, it can best be described as shoddy. I say this as a fan — their studio output is very uneven despite some astonishing peaks.

Studio Albums: Astonishing Peaks

All that said, the twin achievements of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are a testament to the band’s greatness. A part of so many music lovers’ collections, these two albums attain a level of cohesion and consistently high-quality songwriting that the band would never again approach within the confines of a recording studio. Taken with the two live albums that bookend it, the 1969-72 period constitutes the band’s creative high point on record, though there is a wealth of their output to enjoy.

Musicianship

It’s been said that he’s “the only rock guitar player that swings” — Jerry Garcia is simply one of a handful of rock guitar geniuses with an instantly identifiable sound and style of playing but he is not the only great player in the band. Phil Lesh is a true original and a pioneer of the electric bass; it’s always worth keying into what he’s doing, which is never what you’d expect. Bob Weir is known as the rhythm guitarist who knows 12 different ways of playing every chord; a true master of the fretboard, and the real captain of the ship for the band’s group explorations. Joining the band in the early 70s, Keith Godchaux is a superlative piano player (especially in the “barroom” style), one of the very best in rock, providing the perfect foil to Jerry’s stellar lead playing and fleshing out their rootsy American sound, and the band’s other foil, Mickey Hart is a master of color, adding vitality and an exotic edge to their sound and their live shows. Working with Bill Kreutzmann, the dual drumming of the Grateful Dead is a feature of everything they do and always worth a focused listen.

Like any great band, the players in the Grateful Dead put their musicianship to good use by locking together as a unit to frame the song, to support the soloists, and to move as a unit. Beyond their skills as individuals, the band has an uncanny ability to think fast and improvise as a group. Not just extended jamming on the same sets of chords but migrating through entire sections of songs. The long explorations are both a feature and a bug of the Grateful Dead, but when they nail it, there is nothing like it anywhere in music. Here’s what I think of as the ultimate example, from the 1969 Live/Dead album (these two songs segued in the original performance but are broken up on the album to accommodate the length of the sides of a vinyl record). They really get cooking after the first vocal section, around the 7:30 mark:

“Dark Star”
“St. Stephen”

Back to Songwriting

As much artistry as there is in the Grateful Dead, perhaps the greatest virtuoso is their main lyricist, Robert Hunter. I spoke of the many ways the band has pulled me into their sway at various times in my life and I have to say that the lyrics to their songs are what has put me in their camp permanently. Aside from a few Bob Weir songs, none of the band members write lyrics. Instead, with a handful of very notable exceptions, the lyrics are the domain of Robert Hunter, an extraordinary wordsmith that is equal parts poetics, mythos, ethos, wit, originality, and tradition.

“One of rock’s most ambitious and dazzling lyricists.”

– Rolling Stone about Robert Hunter

Hunter’s songs are peopled with ethical criminals, sly dogs, comedians, gamblers, bootleggers, murderers, and silver-tongued devils of every stripe. He’s also capable of writing a song like “Dark Star” that is at once incredibly abstract, yet filled with meaning, emotion, and adventure. “Sugar Magnolia” is a love song immediate, infectious, and danceable just in terms of the lyrics, while “Uncle John’s Band” is an invitation to not just hear the music, but to dream of a life more worth living. He can be formal, casual, poetic, plain-spoken, confessional, and incredibly knowing about life — all there in his lyrical trick bag. Robert Hunter belongs with Dylan, Joni, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed, as one of the great rock and roll poets, but above all, his words are deeply affecting on a personal level. After all of these years, I still find the Grateful Dead, not just listenable, but compelling and enduring in its relevance, more so than a lot of other music I have admired, and I attribute most of that to the timeless wit of their lyrics. If you are looking for a way to love this band, lend an ear to Robert Hunter’s words.

The Live Albums

At this current time, there is no band in recorded history that has put out more live albums than The Dead. There are way too many to navigate now, but by 1972, only five years into their recording career, the Grateful Dead already had two live double albums and a live triple as well. In my opinion, these three collections represent their best work.

I previously mentioned Live/Dead, which is culled from three shows in San Francisco from early 1969. Wanting to defray the cost of their recent unpronounceable, not very listenable studio album Aoxomoxoa, the band decided to fulfill some of their contract with Warner Brothers by recording a live album, a much faster and cheaper proposition than the overproduced indulgent mess they had just completed (Garcia and Lesh actually had to go back and redo the mixes for subsequent pressings two years later, removing layers of overdubs, reverb and delay effects, and untangling other clashing ideas, so unintelligible their LSD-fueled studio experiments proved to be on vinyl).

They managed to get the latest technology up the steps of the Avalon Ballroom and later, the Fillmore West — an Ampex 16-track machine, their technician designed a splitter that would feed both the house mixer and the recorder without signal degradation, and they rolled tape on what would be their first recorded work of brilliance, certainly the best example of the extended group improvisational style that would mark the beginning of their career, and possibly their best work front-to-back of their catalog, the breathtaking Live/Dead album.

After the twin studio successes of 1970-71, they continued to concentrate on pared-down songwriting, hitting a groove with their next two releases, both live albums. 1971’s self-titled live double, known to the faithful as Skull and Roses, because of the cover art, and the next year’s live triple, Europe ‘72. Well, not exactly live albums, both underwent extensive studio overdubs to improve the harmonies and lead vocals. No matter, the results are fantastic (besides, the original performances can be found out there in the sea of live documents the band continues to release).

Essentially acting as the next two Grateful Dead studio albums (most of the live material was never heard before on record), it’s here on these two hybrid-live collections that the band puts the pedal to the metal on their new identity as a concise tight-form, loose-feel songwriting outfit with nice harmonies, great lyrics, and the occasional fantastic solo from Garcia or Godchaux. With a little editing, taken together, these two collections yield what I consider their best work in this style, and if you only know the Grateful Dead through the radio, chances are you’ve never heard any of this stuff:

’71-’72 Hybrid-Live Originals

Jerry’s Singing (yep)

I certainly don’t, nor do I know too many people who swoon over Bob Weir’s vocals. Phil Lesh barely reaches “band mascot” status as a singer (and don’t get me started on Donna). But I often find Jerry Garcia’s voice to be very moving and ideally suited to the sly, witty humanism embedded in Robert Hunter’s lyrics. There’s a note of human compassion in almost every song and Jerry’s fractured, “ragged but right” vocals are the perfect delivery system. Another singer that moves me in a similar fashion is Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and they sound like they could be brothers. I know this is a very personal matter — a lot of people complain about the vocals in the Grateful Dead — but I find them a feature, especially when Jerry takes the lead and Bobby and Phil are singing harmonies. You may have a different reaction, but I dig it.

Stylistic Breadth

My final defense of the Grateful Dead is partially musicological. From the beginning, by fusing Appalachian bluegrass and folk with Delta blues, the mission of the band has been to explore the reaches of American roots music. With the inclusion of classic cowboy songs and the songs of country artists like Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Cash, as well as embracing the early rock and roll of Chuck Berry and the electric blues of Jimmy Reed, it’s probably true that no other band or artist in rock has succeeded more than the Grateful Dead in, not only covering such a wide variety of American music but internalizing the richness of that tradition and informing their own songwriting with that same DNA. Well, maybe Bob Dylan. It’s no accident that Dylan and the Dead had numerous crossovers in their careers. It’s safe to say that if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, you could be a Dead fan too if you aren’t already.

But the music of the Grateful Dead does not stop at the internalizing of tradition. Their music also looks toward the future. Their group improvisation was one of the peaks of the intersection between music and culture in the 60s. Their 70s output from 1973’s Wake of the Flood album onward was increasingly concerned with extended forms, Middle Eastern scales and textures, world music, and the influence of progressive rock culminating with 1977’s side-long “Terrapin Station Medley,” the extended suite that would become a concert staple, and a genuine triumph in their spotty studio output (the rest of the Terrapin Station album is very uneven, as are all of their albums from this point on, in my opinion).

In the 80s, the Dead replaced Keith Godchaux on keyboards with Brent Mydland, the band’s momentum slowed and their mission shifted yet again. Jerry’s drug habits started to catch up with him, displaying some lethargy on stage and gradually succumbing to health problems, slipping temporarily into a diabetic coma in 1986. After his recovery, the band released In the Dark, and scored a Top Ten hit with “Touch of Grey,” and continued touring. By the time that Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the band had clocked an unprecedented 2,318 live concerts and entered the Guinness Book of World Records.

I saw two of those shows, one mid-80s, and another early-90s. By that time, their concerts were a lot more than just a band performance, with a traveling hippie bazaar set up in parking lots (referred to as “Shakedown Street”) along with elaborate tailgate parties, while inside the venue, entire sections of the floor were reserved for “tapers” (whose mic stands and recording equipment were given floor space, their recordings to be shared among the faithful, royalty-free), and “spinners” (a reserved area for dancing, mostly comprised of tie-dyed dervishes who spun through the whole concert). By the mid-80s, it could be said that a Dead show was less about the band and more about the whole cultural experience, but I was there for the music and I was not disappointed. They even played “Terrapin” at one show.

The death of Jerry Garcia marked a turning point for the band, but not the end, which is fitting for this cosmic assemblage. Their wandering spirit will not rest and their music endures. Personally, I am willing to look past their flaws and also to get up and lift the needle on more than a few of their songs, but I continue to find solace and excitement, wisdom, and entertainment in the records they made and the songs they created, which is more than I can say about a lot of the music I have loved in my life. The Grateful Dead were pioneers in their day and their timeless songs remain vibrant and relevant for me, yielding new insights as I gain more experience in the world. Their music has been a comfort in trying times, a soundtrack in the car on so many road trips, and a point of connection with people I meet and come to know through life. They are a band for the open-hearted and have proven to be kryptonite for cynics. Through all of their many flaws, I reserve for them the greatest compliment. There is simply no other band like the Grateful Dead, which is maybe not an airtight defense. But it’s still a good one.

“You do not merely want to be considered the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones that do what you do.”

– Jerry Garcia

Links:
Phil Lesh looks back:
http://www.swaves.com/Back_Issues/April05/Phil%20Lesh.htm  

Goodbye to Shakedown Street:
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/amandachicagolewis/goodbye-to-shakedown-street-the-grateful-deads-traveling-dru

Photo credits:
Flowers Photo by Irina Iriser from Pexels
Abstract Photo by Arya Kratos from Pexels

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