I’ve had many friends who were Dead Heads. I once rode on an Amtrak train north of NYC that was full of Dead Heads going to Syracuse, if I remember correctly, for a giant show at the Orange Dome. Beautiful people, but not me.
But I also think that the Dead, and Garcia and Lesh and no doubt others I’m not thinking of now, are great American rockers. Two drums? That’s good. More guitars? Can’t hurt. They did that early in the game.
They were always loud, always rhythmic, but they did move from innovative surrealism to smart social satire, as the years passed. And they got famous for two perfect albums of restrained country rock (Working Class Blues, American Beauty) and exquisitely long live jams that lent themselves to derangement via whatever hallucinogen was nearby.
I think those two albums are close to perfect, and while I write this I wonder why that happened then (and didn’t happen before or after). But for tonight:
Yuck. When I discovered punk, I remember seeing Johnny Rotten had a Pink Floyd t-shirt with “I Hate” before the Pink Floyd words. I figured I’d get a Grateful Dead shirt and write “I’d Be” before Grateful and “If They Were” before Dead. But I never got around to it.
Boring as hell, I did hear the very first Grateful Dead LP once and recall it didn’t sound like the Grateful Dead at all, reminding me of Talking Heads. Meant to get that, but never got around to that either.
I have to admit, my first concert was the Dead at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY. It was March of 1970. I was 14 at the time and very definitely not allowed to go to concerts. The place was right next to the train station, so I could get home by 11:30 from an early show, until the night we missed the train and there wasn’t another until 1:08 AM. That’s another story. The Dead played Turn On Your Love Light for two hours, that was the early show. I had a great time but don’t remember anything about the music. The band Catfish opened, I remember that.
I haven’t seen ’em since, but I can’t bring myself to put ’em down. They played what they wanted to play, how they wanted to play it. They made it, on their own terms, and they never fell to self-parody. Although I’m sure any one of them could put anyone to sleep on any given night, they tried. Give them their due. Robert Christgau got it right when he called them “my favorite folk group.”
I don’t care, this is my kinda country music, almost as much as Sweet Virginia:
Now Sweet Virginia. I was thinking, this belongs in the Stones Top 10. The real slow-smoking shit:
Memo to self: Compile the Stones and Beatles Top 10s.
Sweet Virginia so crushes Ripple, I don’t need to say more. But the Dead could play.
I only saw them live once, but it was an epic day navigating festival seating and parking lot microdot and my only first-hand encounter with Bill Graham (“You’re all animals, you’re cows, get in your pens!”) as he pushed us toward the door.
Good things. Met a great gal during the New Rider’s segment, sitting in front of the stage like it was elementary school. Didn’t get killed. Didn’t get arrested. Had a great time. Sitting in the top row of Nassau Colliseum, after getting swamped by the hordes, watching the crowd ripple while the band played, forward on some sounds, back on others, swaying as it were, made me miss my great gal, who only hours before I’d been kissing.
But still illustrated why this wasn’t folk music, even if the sound was soft.
Setting myself up for more derision here, I went to probably 15-20 Dead shows, some of which were excellent and some less so. Peter’s right, Sweet Virginia does things that Ripple does not; trying to come up with a Dead acoustic blues, best I can do is the early acoustic versions of “I Know You Rider.” More jug band than blues, though. I was also partial to “Brokedown Palace.” Not folk, though, as Peter says.
Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were the Dead’s “coming down” from the acid trip that had been the 60s, when they wanted to get back to their jug-band roots. Garcia was playing pedal steel a lot then; a “cousin-in-law” (Bob Metzger, who played with Leonard Cohen) basically agreed with Garcia’s statement that you really have to devote yourself to it in order to get good at it, and Garcia said he wasn’t getting good enough. American Beauty was their last Warner Brothers record, and the Dead self-produced for a while, then went from Keith Olsen (who produced Fleetwood Mac in the 70s, and did “Terrapin Station”, strings and all) to Lowell George (who did “Shakedown Street” before he died). So that might have been one reason for the mid-seventies changes.
Hard to say whether the Stones or the Dead were affected more by drug use; Garcia is dead and Keith is alive, so probably give that one to the Dead. But the Dead’s live shows, as the saying goes, were like nothing else. Plenty of chances usually taken, and sometimes it paid off. They could certainly rock and roll under the right combination of factors — saw some stellar performances of “Not Fade Away” for example. And they would play anything, which I always enjoyed; hearing them do “Baba O’Riley” or “Visions of Johanna” were a treat.
I think the “folk” label applies more to their sensibility than their music, although their country stuff is folk enough in the broad sense of the word. I never knew they did Baba O’Riley.