Tuesday, January 13, 2015

We'll Get There, Vol. 1: Good Grief

50 Years Dead

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead, I'm going to resurrect something I put together a few years back and shared with a some stoners. Maybe a last ditch effort to resuscitate this blog too. I'll try to put up a new disc each month. If you dig the Dead, you'll dig this. If you don't, fuck off. 

I've always wanted a compilation that I felt did true justice to the legacy of the Grateful Dead. Over the past several years, various compilations have been released, both official and those created by fans. They all have their plusses and minuses, but as far as I could tell, the main thing lacking was my perspective. I could be politically correct and say that the Dead were such a diverse band, and reality being what it is, therefore all opinions hold equal water. But we all know that's bullshit, so here's the best Grateful Dead compilation of them all. You're welcome.  

The Process
The impetus for this compilation was another set put together by a fan: a 26 disc collection entitled Good Old Grateful Dead. Solid stuff, no doubt. But also kind of a mixed bag. The sound quality was inconsistent. Many of the song choices were questionable. For example, there are at least two versions of Lazy Lightning>Supplication. Is even one version needed? But the strengths of this compilation are its breadth and the way it was ordered: chronological. I used this compilation as the initial basis for my collection.

In addition to chronology, I had two other goals for this compilation: no repeats of songs, and to make a definitive statement on the Dead as succinctly as possible. All three goals proved to be a challenge. In order to have a flow through the discs, and to fit as many essential tracks on each disc as possible, chronology had to be sacrificed some. I tried to group tracks from the same era together though. Other times the chronology is intentionally jumbled for effect and contrast, as at the beginning and end of the compilation. Three songs ended up getting repeated, and each for good reason, I believe. I'll explain more about the reason for this in the liner notes. Regarding the final goal, the compilation started out as eight discs, then expanded to nine, and I believe I've finally settled on 11, for a total of about 14 hours and 20 minutes of music. I guess considering all the music the Dead made over the course of their career, that is pretty concise.

I gradually began to whittle off songs from the Good Old compilation that I did not see as essential. I also replaced those with inferior sound quality, and searched my collection and the internet for superior performances of certain songs. The process of looking for one song or performance would always lead to discovering other songs and shows. The more I searched, the more I found, and the more this compilation took on a life of its own.

Three other compilations served as significant source material for the first draft of this compilation: The fan created Garcia Tapes, an instrumental compilation of jam snippets called Jamming at the Edge of Magic, and the officially released box set So Many Roads. The Garcia Tapes is an excellent 8 disc collection of all Jerry material, compiled by a fan, including both the Dead and many of his side projects over the years. All excellent sound quality and performances, but the focus of this set is clearly different than what I was aiming for, as it is almost exclusively "Jerry songs."

So Many Roads also has a number of excellent tracks, but as a whole it is a very frustrating and ultimately failed attempt to represent the Dead. First of all at only 5 discs there is no way the Dead's entire career could be properly represented in such a short span of time. Second, the compilation seems to be pulled in too many different directions, trying to satisfy all but ends up pleasing no one. I'd wager album sales were a primary force in what ended up on this set, as there is a little bit of what everyone likes about the Dead included, from the rarities to the jams to the songs. But I'm sure both the hardcore collector and Touch-heads were left wondering why so many great tunes were left off in favor of limp renditions of Hey Pocky Way and appropriately unreleased studio outtakes like Believe it or Not and Gentleman Start Your Engines. Still, it’s the Dead, so of course there are many great tracks, and a few of those have been included here.

The first round of creating this set left me with 8 solid discs of jam packed material. Largely chronological, the discs told a story of the progression of the band from beginning to end. Each disc had a cohesion and flow to it as well. I loved the set, a great listen from start to finish, but still had the nagging feeling that something was missing.

The main chapter missing from the story seemed to be Pigpen, who was underrepresented in the first draft. At some point, likely a late night YouTube session, I stumbled across a bad ass version of the Dead doing Mannish Boy with Pig on leads vocals.  More on this track in the liner notes, but it had to be included. And from there, the doors just blew off the whole thing, adding more and more until it expanded to the current 11 discs.

One additional fan compilation was used in this next draft: Beautiful Jams volumes 1 & 2. The name pretty much says it all; it's an all instrumental compilation of jams throughout the years, from a minute to several minutes in length for each track. Tracks from this compilation as well as Jamming at the Edge worked nicely to not only represent the great jams over the years, but serve as transitions from one track to another, balancing out the songs, and giving the set a nice flow.

There were several more times I thought I was done editing, only to find one more song, superior performance, or better sound quality. Other times the sequencing of the discs needed reshuffling. One change often lead to several more.

Even when finishing up these liner notes I continued to listen and dig deeper. I found another excellent fan compilation called Jerry Ballads. Its eight discs of soundboard recordings of various ballads throughout the entire history of the band. Excellent performances. I had to swap a few versions out, and add a few songs.

Creating this thing will never end. I've only hit the tip of the iceberg, I just have to accept that, and get this draft done. So it goes. But for now, it'll do. For this draft, eleven amazing discs. The Eleven, if you will. Each disc has at least 79 minutes worth of music, most with just seconds of extra space to spare.

Somewhere in the process of putting this together, I told some friends I was making this, and they expressed interest in getting a copy. I had put so much effort into it, might as well share the love. Then I decided there should be some sort of explanation accompanying the music, describing what I was going for, why songs were chosen and what not. Writing this was probably as intensive as putting the music together, but also very rewarding. It really helped me understand the band, their music, and personalities better. It solidified my preferences, and articulated the qualities about the band I feel are most significant. I hope you'll agree.

It was a labor of love putting this together. And by labor I mean getting buzzed and noodle dancing in my chair while engaging in my favorite activity: listening to the Dead. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it.

The Title
After completing the first draft, I didn't have a title yet, inspiration hadn't struck. While on a trip with college buddies at a lake house outside of Atlanta I took the first draft on a test drive. There I found the needed chemical enhancement to tap into the essence of the Dead I was trying to define.

Watching the 3rd disc of the Closing of Winterland DVD while winding down from an eventful day of tripping balls, it came to me. The set opens with the magnum opus, Dark Star. Though I've heard the song seemingly infinite times, there was something profoundly different this time. First of all, the band is clearly drugged to the gills, who knows what chemical cocktail they've got coursing through their veins. Maybe I could relate. As a very tripped out Jerry Garcia begins to sing the opening verse, the camera pulls into a close up of just his face. And he's staring straight into you singing:

Dark star crashes
pouring its light

into ashes

Reason tatters
the forces tear loose
from the axis

Searchlight casting
for faults in the
clouds of delusion


And it's like a psychedelic invocation, conjuring up the spirits from the nether worlds. That close-up of Jerry's face, singing the words while he's tripping. Things are starting to get weird. Rather than continue to go into such great detail, try it out yourself. Although the first two sets are uneven, the 3rd set is the best video recording of the Dead released thus far.

Skipping ahead a little further in the set and the Dead are jamming out to St. Stephen, the psychedelic call to arms. They're messing around in an instrumental section of the song between verses, and Jerry just keeps taking it further and further.  They could easily go into the next section of the song at any second, but there's Jerry, head down, shit eating grin on his face, having the time of his life. He seemed to be saying, in that weasely voice of his "this is cool, what's the rush, let's hang out here for a while, we'll get there." And so they keep on playing with that melody for a while longer. The intensity builds up to an ecstasy. The crowd is going bonkers. The arena is going to fucking explode. Then bam!, they slide into the next part of the song. That playfulness I believe is the primary defining characteristic of the Dead, and I've tried to capture that spirit here.

In addition to that playfulness, I've tried to capture all my favorite moments from listening to the Dead for 20 some years. The love of the songs, the jams, the personalities, the rockers, the ballads, the darkness, the light, and everything in between and beyond. As it would be impossible to include all the great songs, I believe all the essential ones are here. Some great ones had to be left off. Sorry if your favorite didn't make the cut, but you can make your own compilation. Of those that are included, they're all excellent versions. I can't make any claims that they're the "best version of all time," as I've simply not listened that extensively, but they are all amazing. I'm sure you'll agree.   

Liner Notes
Before reading the details on the tracks below, I'd recommend listening to the entire compilation at least once, to allow yourself to be surprised by what you hear.  Then come back and read this to learn a bit more about the songs. Here's Volume 1.

Disc One: Good Grief
This disc represents the first five or so years of the band. While it may seem an impossibility to sum up that span on one disc, I think it does the job nicely. All the essential songs are included, and other notable moments from this era are well represented in other places, namely Live Dead and Anthem of the Sun. The Dead's repertoire was somewhat limited in the early days. Also, for the first few years, the jamming was kind of a speeded up garage rock psychedelia and faux-blues. Not really my cup of tea. The jamming quickly progressed, but for the most part involved some combination of the same songs. Certainly an era worth sinking your teeth in more deeply, but not for the casual fan.

1.       Good Grief Jam – From the Jamming at the Edge compilation. The band teased Cosmic Charlie coming out of space on 2/27/94, much to the delight and agony of the crowd, as they never went into the long since retired song. So the set actually starts with something from the end of their career, which in a way made sense to me, to show how the beginning was tied to the end. Stylistically interesting, as Jerry finger-picks the melody with that crystalline, almost acoustic tone he got out of his last guitar, Lightning Bolt. My belief is that Jerry's preference for this tone and playing style was due collaborations with David Grisman and re-emersion in folk and bluegrass during this era. Going back to his roots at the end.

2.       Cosmic Charlie – This is an alternate version of the song from Aoxomoxoa. Cool vocal track. One of the few studio tracks included, and the Dead are clearly having fun using the studio as an instrument. Who said they were only a live band?

3.       The Barbed Wire Whipping Post Party – Another Aoxomoxoa outtake. This is the Dead at their weirdest, recreating the sound collages of the Acid Tests, multi-layered vocal and sound effect tracks weaving in and out. Sounds like a demented party, clearly everyone is on drugs. Much more enjoyable song if you're also on drugs while you listen to it.

4.       We Bid You Goodnight – From the Garcia Tapes.  Clearly the thing to do would be to put this track at the end of the compilation, right? And that is initially what I did. So did the Garcia Tapes and Good Old compilations. But what if this song wasn't played at the end? How would the song be received in a different context? We Bid You Goodnight plays off the weirdness that just proceeded in the Whipping Post Party quite nicely. You've just been blasted to outer space, and here's some nice gospel to help with your landing. Safe travels.

5.       That's It for the Other One – So Many Roads box set. This is raw, rocking, and ferociously mind-bending. You can tell from the early stage banter that Garciais clearly twisted.  Doesn't sound like he'll be able to perform. But does he ever. Hard to believe that people in that state of mind could pull this off. But then again, can you imagine a sober person making this music either? This is the best version of this song I've ever heard, and from the run of shows that produced Live Dead. “Beyond the pale” indeed.  I would encourage you to Google the definition and origin of that phrase. Very fitting.

6.       Mountains of the Moon – Garcia Tapes. The first Hunter-Garcia ballad, I believe, and much different from those that would follow. This one is all psychedelic, subtle and sublime. The music, floating acoustic guitar, moody bass, and haunting farfisa organ, are a perfect match for the mysterious bittersweet vocals and lyrics. A shame the song was played for a short period of time, but as you will hear later in the compilation, clearly Garcia would move on stylistically from the esoteric to the more soulful and personal ballads. Can't complain about that.

7.       Beautiful Jam – So Many Roads box set. I think the title pretty much sums it up. It flows out of the first ever version of Wharf Rat, born in the middle of a Dark Star sandwich.

8.       St. Stephen>
9.       The Eleven – Good Ole Grateful Dead. The classic combo, played as well as it's ever been played. The early versions of St. Stephen stuck pretty close to the script, and this one follows suit. For those of you that don't know, St. Stephen was the first martyr for Christianity. But seeing as they weren't a particularly religious band, you'll have to decide to take the lyrics literally or metaphorically. What the lyrics to The Eleven are about is anyone's guess. The song itself is pure ecstasy, with its bright, soaring melody, rhythms getting whipped around, stretching time, then condensing it. Breaking it down, then building it back up again.

10.   Mannish Boy – 12/15/71. The first time the band played the tune, in the middle of a King Bee/Lovelight blues sandwich. They would only play the song once more, while supporting Bo Diddley a few months later. This version features Pigpen on lead vocals. Cool to hear the Dead ripping some straight up Chicago blues, with particularly nice lead guitar and barroom piano. Shame they didn't do this one a few more times, seems they're really feeling it.

11.   Not Fade Away>Darkness Jam>China Cat Jam>Not Fade Away – 9/19/70. A raucous take on Not Fade Away, starting with some primal drumming, the guitars come crashing in, Bobby really leaning into the vocals, and then holding his own nicely against Jerry on the guitar. Almost an Allman-esque duel, you can hear Jerry hinting at Donovan's There is a Mountain. Jerry teased this tune on a number of occasions, the first time being about four months before the Allman Brothers formed, significant of course because the Allamn's turned the tune into Mountain Jam. So did the Dead technically play Mountain Jam first? Well, if you do enough acid, reality is non-linear, so it really doesn't matter. Reality is not being pushed forward by the past, rather pulled forward by the future. But I digress. Jerry then leads the band through a more lyrical passage, another jam performed about four times over the course of a year known as "Darkness," based on the Youngblood's tune Darkness, Darkness. The Youngbloods of course wrote the 60's classic Get Together.  Darkness, Darkness has been covered by a number of artists from the era, including Robert Plant and Eric Burdon. This jam quickly gives way to some spontaneous riffing on China Cat. The Dead played with the China Cat melody in a number of jams from this era. The song itself had still failed to really click, and even fell out of rotation for a while. But luckily they knew they had something unique and kept messing with it. And before you can blink an eye, you're not sure if you hallucinated the China Cat and Jerry is dancing around Mountain Jam again before the whole band slams back into Not Fade Away to close it out. Some of the finest playing of the era.  For more info on Darkness, China Cat, and other common Dead jams, check out this essay, and much of the other fine writing over at Grateful Dead Guide blog. 

12.   Uncle John's Band – Workingman's Dead. It seemed appropriate to close a disc filled with psychedelic goop with one of the Dead's most beautiful songs. While the song was always fun live, none match the perfection of the studio version: the melody, rhythm, vocals, and lyrics, all in perfect unison. From the youthful chaos of the first several years, this song points to the progression on the subsequent disc as the band continues to mature. Although they had hit creative peaks and planted their flag on the psychedelic mountaintop, the evolution continued. What separated them from so many other bands of the era, who kept treading the same terrain over and over, was that the Dead maintained their identity as intergalactic travelers but found new planets to explore and conquer.

Check back later for the next super installment!