The Grateful Dead played hard to get - and it worked. They had little interest in money and mainstream acceptance. The band’s repertoire was a marketer’s nightmare and even now the group confounds the uninitiated because of decisions made decades ago -- decisions to play obscure folk and country music, improvise for hours at a time, and play to its own gallery.
Millions didn’t know what to expect and went elsewhere. The core fan base, built largely on constant touring, grew exponentially. It only goes to show that one person’s endless noodling is someone else’s intriguing labyrinth of sound.
For a group that spanned a multidecade career, many think ’72 was its best. Someone once called Dead shows “the place where I got my best thinking done.” Here’s a good place to start - the official Dead free music streaming service.
Psychedelia was the foreground; country, blues, and jazz the background. Choose a popular group from ‘72 that played any of those styles, whether it’s Pink Floyd or the Beatles playing psychedelia, Merle Haggard or the Byrds playing country rock, the Rolling Stones riffing on the blues, or Weather Report or Miles Davis playing jazz fusion. These elements were present in the Dead, the combination a unique mixmaster of American music.
Most rock musicians don’t have the chops to attempt this, but it’s the Dead’s stock and trade. Imagine Pink Floyd at center stage running through a 30-minute Money that had different contours every night. Or the Stones settling into a 40-minute Tumbling Dice. Not likely.
Jimi Hendrix begs comparison. He liked playing live and didn’t mind stretching out, but it was a short career by any standard, nowhere near the Dead’s 30-year life. Miles Davis played to the same audiences, but the shows stayed generally at about an hour, well short of the typical 2-3 hour Dead show.
Studio recordings were secondary to playing live. Those performances, sometimes uneven and unfocused, but ultimately clocking in at more than 3,000 in its career, possessed an edgy creativity. These are the snowflakes of rock. The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium was written by obsessives and features reviews of every live show it could find; volume 1 helps make sense of the early ‘70s.
The Dead’s instrumentation wasn’t far removed from other rock groups of the time – guitars, bass, drums (more often than not, there were two drummers pounding away), keyboards, and vocals. The difference, easily distinguished at the bottom, was the classical education of bassist Phil Lesh, who studied with Luciano Berio, worshipped John Cage, and soaked up Ravi Shankar and early ‘60s John Coltrane. He rarely sounds like he’s playing the same song as the rest of the group, yet each lope and loop fits neatly and surprisingly in.
Guitarist Jerry Garcia started as a folkie, veered into bluegrass, strolled easily into country music, and the leap to Chuck Berry was forgone. Playing was what he did best and, at his best, his spider-web sound has the ring of freedom. He is the keystone to the group and should be celebrated every bit as much as Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young or Coltrane.
Calling the Dead a jazz band may seem a stretch, but switch the palette from horns to electric guitars and it’s barely a step. Improvisation was the band’s musical lifeblood, the key to its acceptance by its fans and to its live shows. In later years Ornette Coleman and Branford Marsalis would play onstage with the group and neither had to adjust their direction much to fit in. Few in the audience would have made their way to a show by either, yet all applauded their inclusion by the Dead.
America was its stomping ground, though it occasionally made the trek to Britain and the Continent, converting some, as it did in ‘72. It all would have been lost without its habit of taping itself nearly every night and by the obsessive and sanctioned taping of shows by fans. After Garcia's death, the vaults of fans and band opened and there's plentyof the era captured and available for a fee, although the tradition of free downloads seems to be at an end - see footnote story.
I ducked into a café in The Hague about two years ago. I got into a conversation with the barmaid about music. She had plenty of CDs on the shelf behind her, loved Larry Coryell. and had a decent knowledge of jazz and pop from the past 30 years. I mentioned the Grateful Dead and she went blank.
“That’s just too American of a thing,” she said. “I don’t know much about them.”
The Dead played Britain and Europe in ’72, and came back occasionally over the next two decades. But, beyond that, seeing the band regularly remained essentially an American experience, purely due to geography. To recapture what you may have missed, or perhaps heard live, that year visit here and here.
Pliable writes - When Lee Landenberger contacted me saying that my article The Year is '72 should have included The Grateful Dead I couldn't disagree. So I invited Lee to write a piece on the Dead, which is precisely what he did above. Thanks Lee, a really valuable contribution which helps fill out the musical history of a fantastic year. Lee can be contacted at - ddewitt4 at bellsouth dot net
There is a topical side-story linked to the hot topic of file downloading. As this article was in the final stages of preparation the story broke that the Dead (the business) had asked the operators of the most popular download site for their concert recordings to limit access to listening only. The full story is here on the New York Times web site and there is also a follow up which suggest maybe a change of mind, both stories are free but you will need to register. Here are the first few paragraphs with acknowledgement to the NYT:
Deadheads Outraged Over Web Crackdown
By Jeff Leeds November 30, 2005
The Grateful Dead, the business, is testing the loyalty of longtime fans ofthe Grateful Dead, the pioneering jam band, by cracking down on anindependently run Web site that made thousands of recordings of its live concerts available for free downloading.
The band recently asked the operators of the popular Live Music Archive (archive.org ) to make the concert recordings - a staple of Grateful Deadfandom - available only for listening online, the band's spokesman, DennisMcNally, said yesterday. In the meantime, the files that previously had beenfreely downloaded were taken down from the site last week.
Dissent has been building rapidly, however, as the band's fans - known asDeadheads - have discovered the recordings are, at least for the timebeing, not available. Already, fans have started an online petition, at www.petitiononline.com/gdm/petition.html , threatening to boycott the band'srecordings and merchandise if the decision is not reversed. In particular,fans have expressed outrage that the shift covers not only the semiofficial"soundboard" recordings made by technicians at the band's performances, butalso recordings made by audience members.
To the fans, the move signals a profound philosophical shift for a band thathad been famous for encouraging fans to record and trade live-concert tapes.The band even cordoned off a special area at its shows, usually near thesound board, for "tapers" - a practice now followed by many younger jambands. But more broadly, it suggests that a touchstone of baby-boomercounterculture - the recording made by and shared, sometimes via mail,among hard-core fans - may be subverted in a digital era when music filescan be instantly transmitted worldwide.
And in a subsequent development a Guardian article reports on 2nd December: "Shocked by the backlash, the band yesterday relented and allowed the downloads to be put back up." What goes around comes around...
Image credits -
Lead and final poster - Bob Masse
Jerry Garcia - Wikipaedia via Tocatchinfo
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Follow An Overgrown Story to the rest of the story of The year is '72, plus check out Chanticleer rocks with Sound in Spirit.