Let Us Now Praise the Dead –
The Grateful Dead got their start in 1965 in the Bay area. They are on tour this summer again, 45 years after they got their start as the Warlocks in 1964. The survivors – Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman, Mickey Hart – were joined on this summer’s tour for the second time by Allman Brother’s member Warren Haynes, and by keyboardist Jeff Chimenti of Ratdog, who is the permanent keyboardist now. Former core members Jerry Garcia and Rod ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, lyricists Robert Hunter and John Barlow, and keyboard players Keith Godchaux, Tom Constanten, and Vince Melnick, along with female vocalist Donna Godchaux, were all inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as members of the Grateful Dead. People like Stanley Owsley, the creator of LSD, was their soundman for many years. They are the most long-running rock act in the U.S. The only acts that have been around longer are doing an ‘oldies’ style show at casinos. I don't think I go out on a limb when I say they are the best live rock band - ever.
Let us examine what the Dead have done to music.
They came out of a scene in San Francisco that was not controlled by corporate music interests. It was the product of an artistic community of musicians and the cultural impact of the unique times and a unique place – San Francisco. Other bands like the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Country Joe & The Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape and Janis Joplin/Big Brother came out of that same organic scene. In fact, at Monterey, they and the other San Francisco bands faced off with the more commercial groups from Los Angeles. The Dead played free shows and benefits constantly. They fought and succeeded in controlling their studio sound from record one. They are one of the main historical links between the Beat Generation of the 50’s and the counter-culture of the 60’s –working with Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsburg at “Acid Tests” – and traveling with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on the ‘bus.’ Their style of music is an amalgamation of blues, country, folk, bluegrass, rhythm & blues, 50’s rock, electronica and jazz into a peculiarly American style. First called ‘psychedelic’, they became the originator of the ‘jam band’ scene, which has spawned imitators like Phish, Widespread Panic and festivals like Bonnaroo and ‘10,000 Lakes’ across the U.S. In effect, they encompass almost every popular U.S. musical style. Their use of drugs to enhance music creativity and collectivity is almost unique, but also predictably destructive.
The Dead started out as a cover band, and continue to play covers of Rolling Stones, Dylan and the Beatles, along with blues, country and 50’s covers. They make each cover song their own, which is why they can get away with it. Listen to Pigpen singing “King Bee” and compare it to Jagger, and you will see McKernan rips the throat out of the song, while Jagger sounds like a mincing boy. They are the best cover band in the country, and in this process, show their respect to other musicians, and to popular music’s traditions.
The Dead are the most recorded live group in history, playing more than 2,350 concerts, including three at the Great Pyramids in Giza. They encouraged their live shows by allowing music tapers, not discouraging them, and not suing people who recorded them ‘illicitly.’ They were the first group to sell soundboard CDs to fans after each show. Until recently they sold their own tickets so that people did not have to go through Ticketmaster – a conglomeration of thieves. They are followed by both young and old at live concerts, not just elderly fans in wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. Their fan base is, to put it mildly, very dedicated. Very few bands have such numbers of people who drive from one concert to another. Concerts range up to 3+ hours normally, so that the audience gets their money’s worth. Marijuana is a standard item at concerts, shared by many, and hence the band plays a non-public role in efforts for the legalization of this, and other, drugs. A Dead concert is a sort of semi-religious event, heightened by the marijuana as communion, much as peyote is used in Native American Church. People dance for nearly the whole 3 hours, so it has something of the nature of an ecstatic St. Vitus dance. They like outdoor arenas due to the clear sound outside. Essentially, the heart of the Dead sound is jazz improvisation, by every musician, not just one. Set lists vary from night to night, and songs are played as themes, not copies. So one song can have many versions, segueing into each other, which stretches the music out. This is the heart of their jazz approach, and one reason people like Wynton Marsalis play with them.
Garcia started as a bluegrass player, Lesh as a classical musician, Pig Pen as a blues man, and Kreutzmann as a jazz drummer – incorporating their styles at the very beginning. No other band has two such accomplished drummers as Kreutzmann and Hart – making the Dead sound heavily rhythmic and intricate. Hart himself has become a top ‘world music’ drummer. Every concert includes a 15-20 minutes “drums & space” set allowing these two to stretch out, which includes an electronic section that the other members come in on.
Since day one, sound quality and instrument quality was a number one concern. They were tired of the low quality PA systems offered bands. Their interest in giving the audience the best sound possible lead to the Wall of Sound – a massive distortion-free sound system with 7 separate instrument systems - being developed by Oswley and Alembic Studios. The Dead recorded their albums on 4 and 8 track systems long before any other band, including the Beatles. They even went independent for awhile, putting out their own albums. Their staff was large, and paid well – until they could no longer support so many people. Graphically, the Dead still rely on striking graphics and light shows at their concerts. No other band has so many ‘logos,’ symbols and emblematic/thematic visuals – strutting bears, skulls alone, and crossed with roses, terrapins, Uncle Sam as a skeleton, and others. Most music acts pay little attention to artwork – but the Dead, and the San Francisco sound they came out of – revered visuals.
The Dead have done it their own way from the beginning, not following the clichés of the music business. They came out of a collective music scene, and the way the band toured and played was an extension of that collectivity. Which is why so many musicians have been part of the band. They represent the best of American popular music creativity and artistic freedom. So let us praise the Dead. They are growing old, and will one day no longer be able to play. They are the great American ‘rock’ band. Period.
And you cannot buy them at MayDay books.
Red Frog – 6/7/2009