Sunday, July 11, 2010

SONG #127: Bird Song

The Grateful Dead, Veneta OR 8-27-72 (Bootleg)

It was just a matter of time...

Q:  What do Deadheads say when the drugs wear off?
A: This band sucks!!

There might not be another band with whom I have a more complicated relationship than The Grateful Dead.  If you're a music nut like me, then you've had to decide how you feel about this band, certainly one of the most influential of the last forty years, even if you hate them.  Here are some usual reactions to the question "How do you feel about the Grateful Dead?"--

Group A:  The Dead are one of the greatest bands of all time, breaking down barriers in terms of live performance and rock improvisation, and led by one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century in Jerry "Captain Trips" Garcia. 

Group B:  The Dead are historically interesting for helping to usher in a new kind of rock performance, and the story of psychedelic rock can't be told without them, but the music itself is fairly pedestrian and dated, and they stopped mattering in 1971.

Group C:  The Dead are a bunch of lucky poseurs.  

Group D:  I prefer Kraftwerk.

I have to admit that I fluctuate wildly through the first three of these camps.  There are times when the Dead is on the stereo, and I'm loving it-- I'm smiling and following along and totally understanding the Dead cult's obsession.  Then there are times when I find them completely harmless, but a little cliched, like a glass of Kool-Aid.  I don't object, but it would never be my first choice.  And then there are moments when I'm looking around and wondering if everyone else can hear what I do-- I have seen the Dead absolutely fall on their collective stolen face in such a shocking way that I can't believe that people would ever pay to see them again.

I've had over half-a-dozen distinct moments with the Dead, and perhaps that's why my response to the band is so varied.

1)  When I was twelve years old, Rodney Harris (a classmate of mine and cooler than me by a factor of about 700) lends me his copy of Live/Dead to listen to.  I had only heard of the band at that point, and what I had gathered was that they were an acid-drenched freakout band who would blow my mind with their otherworldly jamming.  They had just come and played the Cap Centre, and Rodney went with his older, cooler friends and came back raving about it.  I take home Live/Dead and put on Side One, the 23 minute version of "Dark Star," expecting my hair to be blown back.  I didn't know it at the time, but I was expecting Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis.  Instead, a gentle, almost pastoral jam slowly evolves over the first ten minutes.  It sounds to me like music that hobbits would dance to.  What the hell?!  I flip over the album, and get the next track, "St. Stephen," and it's better, but to my 7th grade ears, too slow, even at the end when the band starts to rock out.  Plus, what are these lyrics about?  "In and out of the garden he goes?"  Again, it conjures a picture for me of the midget lute players in "The Safety Dance" video more than anything.  

I give it back to Rodney totally disappointed.  I don't get it at all, and spend the next year listening to London Calling.

Baseball equivalent: Strikeout.

2)  The Dead come to RFK stadium in 1986 with Dylan backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in a superconcert mini-tour.  

I go with my boys Chris and Mike, and we are DESPERATE for it to be an epic show.  Instead, it's a total mess.  The PA is dreadful, and we spend the entire 2 1/2 hour Dylan set playing "Guess that tune."  I am a HUGE Dylan and Petty fan, and I can't figure out what songs they are playing half the time, especially Dylan, who is so nasal in his singing in 1986 that every word sounds like "Hehhhhhhhhuh."  Then the Dead come out and stink it up.  These were the last two shows Garcia played before lapsing into a diabetic coma that almost killed him.  He has admitted that he was terrible on that tour.  All I can remember is them playing "Iko Iko" for what seemed like two hours.  (Looking back on the setlist, it's a night dominated by Bob Weir songs, never a good sign that Jerry is feeling well).  On the way home, Chris and I try to put on a brave face and convince ourselves that our 20 bucks (a FORTUNE for me in 1986) was well-spent.  Mike is more honest; "I thought it sucked."  Mike was right-- I've listened to tapes of both Dylan and the Dead's sets from 7/6 and 7/7/86, and no one should be very proud.

Two outs, no one on.

3) Summer of 1987-- a bunch of us drive up to Philadelphia to watch the Dead as Dylan's backing band at JFK Stadium.  

THIS time, I get it-- the Dead's set sounds terrific (we are much closer, and the PA is much stronger, and I have consumed a considerable quality of grain alcohol punch (lesson here kids: don't glug from a friendly Deadhead's "juice" bottle until you know all the ingredients)) and a bunch of better-chosen songs are much more fun.  Hilariously, though the Dead change their setlist every night, 33% of the set is the same as the year before, but this time you can actually hear the music.  I remember "Jack Straw" and "Terrapin Station" as particular highlights-- we have a GREAT time.  Dylan's set is much more fun, too-- he is pretty terrible, but at least he is endearingly terrible, and by that point we are in the first three rows, and I swear that during "Simple Twist Of Fate," as I was singing along, he changes the words, looks under the lights right at me, and winks.  I leave that night with a much more open mind about the whole Dead thing.  I even buy a 2 for 1 cassette of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty for the car the next day.

Score a single for the Dead.

4)  My college roommate Mark turns out to be a huge Deadhead.  He falls in love with a particular bootleg-- the Dead in the fall of 1977 at a tiny college in Toronto (considered by big time Deadheads as the band's greatest year post-heyday).  He listens to it every day for months, and I can't help but grow attached to it as well.  I come to know the little twists and turns in the versions so well that they sound like the "right" versions to me, even now.  The fact that the band's shows are so readily available appeals to the collector in me, and I start dipping my toe in the live tape water.  By the end of college, I have worked my way through the band's catalog (though at this point, a lot of their records are still out of print) have a dozen shows that I enjoy listening to, and even though the concerts I went to in those years were weak, I definitely have developed a serious soft spot for the band.

Men on the corners.

5)  I move to the Bay Area, and come to realize just how important the Dead are to SF culture.  There's nothing like the energy at a Bay Area Dead show-- I see them at Shoreline near the end of the band's first run in 1994, and I've NEVER seen a crowd react to a band's first number in the same way.  I actually find it a little frightening-- the entire ampitheatre is a jam-packed sea of moving bodies at dusk; it looks to me like the end of the world for a few minutes.  Sadly, the band are TERRIBLE that night.  Garcia is reading lyrics from a teleprompter and playing a Midi guitar that makes it sound like he's playing a flute most of the night.  On purpose.  On the other side of things, my roommate at the time, Charley, is a HUGE Deadhead, famous enough to have a book on the band dedicated to him.  He has thousands of hours of tapes and hundreds of Deadhead friends.  EVERYWHERE we go, he knows ten people.  It is impossible not to be a little enthralled by it all.  Moreover, the introduction of the Dick's Picks series means that there are hundreds of fabulous-sounding hours of Dead to check out.  I start to fall hard for a bunch of songs and performances, especially from 1969-1973.

Let's call it a walk-- bases loaded.

6)  Another full disclosure moment: I've now collaborated and played with Phil Lesh on three benefit shows, and he's not just a terrific guy, but just as good a bass player as Deadheads claim that he is.  

Here's a clip from our Blood On The Tracks show: that's my arm playing keys on the left, and Phil coming in and out of view on the right (and the mighty Brad Brooks on vocals).

I'm plenty arrogant about my own bass playing, and I've learned a ton watching Phil up close in the last five years.  Music flows out of him, and he picks things up quickly and with total originality.  I actually think that his Phil Lesh and Friends band is the best thing any of the band members have done since Garcia's death.  Plus, he's a great dad, his autobiography was really well-written and provided a ton of insight into the band, and at 70, he still has the energy for a four hour show.  We should all be so lucky.  Phil pretty much represents everything that Dead would like to represent.  

Single, scores two runs.

7)  For all of the Dead's positive influence on Bay Area life, the scene surrounding the band is as sad as it gets.  The detritus that was caught up in the band's wake wanders the streets of every neighborhood around here-- sixty year-old, strung out acid and cocaine casualties are a permanent fixture of any Bay Area neighborhood.  It's sad and pathetic and an equally important part of the history of the summer of love.  The psychedelic love days of Haight-Ashbury lasted a few months-- the hangover is now about 43 years old.  Filthy homeless-by-choice teenagers still flock to Haight Street.  Burnouts come to our benefit shows and tell me how great I was at Winterland in '78.  When I tell them I was eight years old at the time, they say "Weren't we all, man..."  Go watch The Grateful Dead Movie, recorded in 1974 at the last five shows the band did before they semi-retired for a few years.  The music scenes are fine, but the backstage footage is simply horrifying.  My favorite shot is a bunch of stoned, inner circle folks taking shockingly deep hits from an medusa-style nitrous tank in the band's dressing rooms.  The clip is about 45 seconds long, and you can watch these folks destroy the final forty years of their lives right in front of you.  It's a sickening indictment of the Dead's world (and 70s rock culture in general)-- it's like watching drug porn.  Simply stomach-churning.

Strikeout, argue the call with the ump, get thrown out of the game.

So there you go-- in the right mood and with the right tape, the Dead and I are totally simpatico.  Catch me in a cynical mood and put on a late-80s audience tape, and I'm gonna get grouchy really quickly.

For those of you who are true believers wondering where I get off bring negative, and for those of you who want to know what I possibly could like about the Dead, I point you to "Bird Song" from Ken Kesey's farm in August of 1972.  

To you Deadheads-- I'm a practiced listener.  I've got all the essential shows, and I could easily engage in a "best Dark Star" or "most overrated Bettyboard" conversation.  To you skeptics-- it is true that you have to have an open mind about hearing the "right" performance of these songs.  "Bird Song" from 8-27-72 is a great place to start any Dead conversation.

This song is one of my favorites, though the band didn't play it as much as I would have liked, and never recorded a studio version.  It has everything I love about the Dead, though.  First, the lyrics are short and ethereal enough not to annoy.  In fact, I think they fit the music like a glove, and they're actually a fascinating alternate version of "Help Me" (see my last blog).  This song has the same "love of freedom" thing as its undercurrent.  Is it celebrating nature or wings or rootlessness?  Or all three?

Though I love Garcia's vocal delivery, creaks and all, it's the music that matters here.  This song has the groove that the band was born to play.  It lopes and dips and weaves.  It creates enough of a rhythm to be danceable, but it's completely elastic, slowing down and speeding up as it sees fit.  Over it, Garcia and Lesh counterpoint one another for over ten minutes, while Weir holds things down with his totally bizarro rhythm guitar playing (I'm not a huge Weir fan, but on songs like this, he's the secret ingredient).  The guitar riff is downright jazzy, and the chords set up Garcia for the playing he does best-- his ebuillient, major-pentatonic solos that keep searching for the happiest note.  On the other end of the scale, Lesh finds every alternate note for the root that he can without sacrificing the groove.  He's on fire here start to finish.

And here's the essential thing-- of course it's ragged in places, and there are bum notes, but NO OTHER BAND SOUNDS LIKE THIS.  You could play five seconds of the middle of this song, and anyone who listens to a lot of music could identify it as the Dead.  From about the four minute to the eight minute mark, the band displays without flinching all of its adventurousness and ability to listen to one another and fearlessness about losing control of the song.  Check out Garcia's work on the highest frets at around six minutes.  I think it's great and completely endearing.  And the hell of it is that four nights later the song probably was a ten car pileup.

If you want consistency, professionalism and reliability, the Dead will let you down every time.  If you like your edges frayed and well-loved and worn, though, I think you'll like this.  If you get hooked, be prepared to jump down a very long, varied and complicated rabbit hole.

So what am I, after all that?  I'm guess I'm a Deadhead who can admit when the emperor has no clothes.

LINK:    (Part 1)   
   (Part 2)


  1. Great post. I am ever trying to find the redeeming qualities, but it has been hard for me. All I remember is my initial reaction when I saw them in Philly in 1988. Two drummers and no beat?

    I also remember this conversation I had with a good pal from college who was a big deadhead.

    Me: I assume you all get high every weekend and then have group sex.

    Him: No. We mostly get high and listen to the dead.

    Me: Good lord, really? What is the point of listening to those endless, boring songs and NOT having group sex?

    The lack of group sex still strikes me as a MAJOR impediment to the whole deadhead thing.

  2. As someone who was raised by a (white) woman who went to black Panther meetings in the late 60's and a man who tried to get to Woodstock but his van broke down, I have always been told and therefore, believed, that the Grateful Dead were a bunch of "posers", but after reading your post, I am willing to give them a semi-serious listen.

  3. Wow... I think you pretty much summed up my thoughts towards this band/institution/corporation.

    Bi-yearly I go through a Dead phase. It's a pact I have with myself. I'm in one now. Pretty much only 1970-77 with my favorite year being 1972. I think for a short run that year they could lay claim to being one of the best bands on the planet, especially when they hit the East Coast and particularly the show at the Philadelphia Spectrum that year. The version of Bird Song from that show is pretty spot on. Lots of great Black Throated Winds and Jack Straws and Brown Eyed Womens from that year also.

    When one gets into a Dead phase it's more like mining than casual listening. Constantly testing out which Scarlet into Fire jam is the best. Which Terrapin solo is Jerry nailing the best. What show do the drummers not ruin... That kind of thing.

    There's something comforting about the Dead. On one hand they can be the sloppiest band ever with the worst rhythm section ever... freaking Mickey Hart? In a word? Subpar.

    On the other hand, they've had some jams that reached musical islands that would have made Ferdinand Magellan's musical loving cousin proud. It takes great nuts to even contemplate going where they went musically some nights.

    So, that's what you have to deal with the Dead. They're like a sports team. They made the playoffs some seasons - 1973, 1978. Missed the playoffs entirely in others - 1995 and 1983 come to mind but made the World Series arguably in 1968, 1972. They lost in the Championship series in 1977, although that would have been a championship year if it were not for DJ Godchaux's torrid campaign to best Yoko and Linda McCartney for worst vocalist of all time.

    And sadly in other years, if the team were in the English Premier League, they would have been in line for relegation. You have to be patient with the Dead.

    However, I think most of the work Jerry did with JGB is pretty solid. Better drummer, more pocket feel made for some great moments. That sounds like another blog entirely. Keep up the good work.

  4. Love the continuation of the sports metaphor! Have to share a Mickey Hart story now-- Ben and I were at a party back in 1992 talking to two gals, and Ben derided the Dead. One of the women, obviously perturbed, said, "Well, at the very least you have to acknowledge the genius of Mickey Hart." Since then, saying that something reveals "The Genius Of Mickey Hart" is an insult between us.

  5. I am about to revel in "The Genius of Mickey Hart" next week when The Rhythm Devils come to Tucson. He's bringing Bill Kreutzmann, who's always been one of my favs. Loved those Branson benefits, too. Up close and personal with Phil Lesh - life was good.

  6. The other great thing about the genius of Mickey Hart woman was that Jeff and I were on a double date and it was his date who loved Mickey Hart. Needless to say I could not control myself from launching into a full throated assault on Mickey Hart, gravely damaging Jeff's romantic hopes for the evening. With that said, I'm pretty sure what I said was pretty funny, so I think it all worked out ok in the long run.

  7. Ben's Integrity 1, Jeff's Frustrated Libido 0.

  8. It could be worse, you could have gone on a second date with a woman misguided enough to think that Mickey Hart is a genius.

  9. Ok, so I am a latecomer to these procedings. Great work Jeff. The posts are enjoyable. Long, but enjoyable. I have to admit, there have been some that I have skimmed. While there have been many that I have wanted to comment on, I figured that the Grateful Dead would be the most appropriate. After all, one of my fonder memories goes something like this. 2:45 a.m., Berkley Hall, Sophmore Year. You and Gilman are customs people (dumb name). We stumble in to your shared suite. The room is lit by a string of Christmas lights. "%/8/77" we shout out over and over. A chant of sorts, ragged. There are the muffled sounds of protestation mixed with distinctly female, yet indistinct, uttterances. "New Minglewood Blues" starts playing. Euphoria. Victory. We passed out before the second chorus. Awesome.
    To me that is the Dead. It's like getting drunk and expecting a good time to follow. It doesn't, always. Sometimes it's shitty, sometimes it's boring and forgettable. And then there are those times that keep us going back.
    One of the great, unmentioned things about my job is that I get to listen to music in the OR. For the most part this is 10-14 hours, 3+ days per week of music listening. I happen to have come to love the sheer unpredictability of shuffle and 160 gb of music (almost completely random, and yet there are those periods where it goes from the Band the Weight to Aretha doing that to Happy Mondays, well you get the picture). Anyhow, just the other day this other surgeon, a huge man like Hagrid from Harry Potter but more rabbinical, sits down next to me and says "so you going to Further tomorrow?" Weird. He's a neurosurgeon. He also hates Mickey Hart.