Monday, May 11, 2015

We'll Get There, Vol. 5: High Time

50 Years Dead

Spoiler alert: Mississippi Half-Step did not make the cut on this compilation. I enjoy the song, but it's not a favorite. I just haven't connected with it the way I have connected with other songs. Or I've never had a moment with it, possibly up until recently. I've always wondered why others dig it so much. It's a nice song and all, kind of mellow. The lyrics don't seem to add up to much though, and while the Rio Grand-io refrain is nice, what does it have to do with the rest of the song? 

Rewind to a few weeks back, April 20th, the Stoner Holiday, and I'm driving the streets of Encinitas, CA. Just minding my own business, sober as the pope, running errands, grooving to Dick's Picks 14, from Boston in 1973. On comes Half-Step. At 4:20 into the song, a splice in the audio abruptly occurs. It was jarring, and lasted for what seemed like just a few seconds, although in reality it was closer to 20. Initially, it sounded like the changing of a radio station, guitar strums, and aliens speaking in tongues, or backwards, or what the fuck was that?! I was kind of rattled. Maybe you had to be there. 
Thinking I had stumbled on some kind of Rosetta Stone, I went off on a quest to determine what the hell was going on here. The internet provided no clues, or reports from others who had similar issues with their copies of Dick's Picks 14. Strangely, the audio files I had on my computer did not contain the splice, it was only on the CD's. I'm not sure if the CD's came from that source, but I think they did. Regardless, how did that splice get there? It surely seemed intentional. Was some kind of cosmic joke being played on me? Feeling in the midst of a spiritual emergency, I set to analyze the audio by slowing it down. You can listen for yourself. 
Unfortunately the results were not particularly meaningful. But it did lead me on a path of exploration regarding the song and its origins, which held the profundity I sought. While I still don't quite connect with the song, I appreciate it as a misfits song, and one particularly relevant to Garcia's life story. From the Annotated Grateful Dead page on the song, via Gan's Playing in the Band, Garcia discusses the impact of a friend's death on charting the course of his life: 

"Lost My Boots in Transit, A Pile of Smoking Leather..."

"Events in my life suggested to me that maybe it was going to be my responsibility to keep upping the ante. I was in an automobile accident in 1960 with four other guys...ninety plus miles an hour on a back road. We hit these dividers and went flying, I guess. All I know is that I was sitting in the car and there was this...disturbance...and the next thing I was in a field, far enough away from the car that I couldn't see it.

The car was crumpled like a cigarette pack...and inside it were my shoes. I'd been thrown completely out of my shoes and through the windshield. One guy did die in the group. It was like loosing the golden boy, the one who had the most to offer. For me it was crushing, but I had the feeling that my life had been spared to do something...not to take any bullshit, to either go whole hog or not at all...That was when my life began. Before that I had been living at less than capacity. That event was the slingshot for the rest of my life. It was my second chance, and I got serious."

We go through stages of development in life, and meanings change as our perspectives evolve. The abstract becomes palpable, contradictions lie in balance, rational thought is not quite all it's cracked up to be. If you don't understand what a certain song means yet, don't worry, we'll get there.

Enjoy this round of cosmic slop. Previous volumes echo through eternity, and can be found on the blog. We'll fucking get there. 

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
-Walt Fucking Whitman

Disc Five: High Time

Disc five starts off with a little leftover goodness from '74 before the hiatus in '75, and continues with the next evolution of the Dead's sound.  From '75 on, Mickey is back in the band, and for better and worse this charts a different course for the Dead.  The sound is beefed up, bigger, but more lumbering.  There also seems to be a move away from the mellow country vibe, to space-jazz and arena rock.  Some of the delicacy is lost, but the intensity increases, a possible reflection of what was going on within the band on a personal level.

1.       Bill Graham Introduction – 9/27/69.  Bill Graham was an integral part of the Dead's scene, and his introductions were unique and legendary.  Here's a brief example.

2.       Eyes of the World – 6/18/74.  The first of three tracks from this excellent show, often cited as a favorite among fans.  Trey and some of the guys in Phish have mentioned this as a favorite as well, and you can hear why on this track.  Fluid country-jazz, tight playing, and exploratory.  Possibly not so coincidentally, on the 20th anniversary of this show Phish played what I and many others regard as their greatest show ever at the UIC Pavilion.  Inspiration, move me brightly.

3.       It's a Sin – 6/18/74.  The second track from this show is an instrumental blues jam, played flawlessly; the band digs deep and gets nasty.

4.       High Time – Good Ole Grateful Dead.  I was never a huge fan of this song, but had never heard one from this era.  With Donna on backing vocals, and a more psychedelic sound, this version is really unique and I think stands out from others, which could fall flat.

5.       Blues for Allah outtakes – Same.  Just a funky little instrumental jam from the sessions for Blues for Allah.  Many outtakes from these sessions have leaked out, and they're pretty similar to this, but much longer.  You can hear the band fuckin' around with the sounds and melodies of the songs that would comprise Blues for Allah, but in an embryonic state.  Sonically they were really going for something different with this album, and they took the time to work it out in the studio.

6.       Terrapin Station – Garcia Tapes.  An early version of this tune, another one of the three to be repeated on this compilation.  In the early days, this was more of a folk-prog tune, and is probably the peak of the space-jazz thing they started with Blues for Allah.  Musically, it starts with an entrancing, lilting melody that sucks you in.  Entering the Inspiration portion of the tune, it builds to a triumphant soar, and finally ends up in an other-worldly cosmic sludge during the end jam.  All the way, the music is a perfect match for the lyrics.  Garcia and Hunter's synchronistic writing of this tune has been well documented, so I won't get into that.  Lyrically, the Lady with a Fan portion of the suite is a classic tale, it starts out with very visual imagery: a storyteller sitting around a campfire, conjuring up his muse, and letting the story unfold as the fire glows.  A woman and two suitors. One goes for it, the other takes a pass.  You decide if he was wise.  The storyteller doesn't give an answer, or really give an end to the story, but it leaves you wondering.  Incredibly simple tale, but one we can all relate to.  Archetypal stuff.  The Terrapin Station section of the song is about songwriting and inspiration itself.  That ever elusive thing that's all around us if we just dial in to that rare and different tune.  And what is Terrapin Station?  Some kind of slow moving state of inspiration?  In creating this set, and tapping into the essence of the Dead, as defined by the "We'll Get There" title, I have to wonder if that is what Terrapin is all about.  Reaching for some place or thing, and all the while not realizing that getting there isn't what it's all about.  It's about the journey there, where you are right now.  The journey is the destination.  Inspiration is all around you if you open yourself up to it.

Terrapin - I can't figure out
Terrapin - if it's the end or the beginning
Terrapin - but the train's got its brakes on
and the whistle is screaming: TERRAPIN

7.       Crazy Fingers Jam – Beautiful Jams.  Crazy Fingers is a really cool song.  They took that space-jazz sound, and added some reggae flavor to the mix.  The 70's were when reggae exploded, and Garcia covered a variety of Marley, Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff songs, in addition to reggaefying other tunes like Friend of the Devil.  This jam is from 9/30/76, and features the main theme of the song, and expands on the bright, merry-go-roundesque melody.  It then returns to touch on other key changes in the song.  Particularly enjoyable is the blossoming build-up toward the end.  You'll know it when you hear it.  Just mellow out, light a fatty, and expand your mind, man.  Although the lyrics are not included in this jam snippet, the song treads on some of the same thematic terrain as Terrapin.

8.       Jack-A-Roe – Fallout from the Philzone.  Another classic folk tune to get the Grateful Dead treatment.  Phil wrote in his liner notes that this version was slowed down from how they typically did it, with a nice loping banjo feel.  Couldn't agree more.  This is all about the groove.  Never before have electric guitars sounded so un-rock and roll.

9.       The Wheel – Good Old Grateful Dead.  A cosmic and glorious tune, Garcia's leads channeling Bird.  Lyrically this is a fan favorite, and a message to both the fans and the band:  couldn't you try just a little bit harder, couldn’t you try just a little bit more?  It was also usually both a landing space from and launch pad to some spaced out jams.  Kind of a brief respite in the midst of insanity, some recognizable lyrics to latch onto and make sense of before things get weird again.  Hope you enjoyed it, because now it's time to go a little bit further than you've gone before.   

10.   Wharf Rat – Good Ole Grateful Dead.  This segues right out of The Wheel, a perfect pairing.  Of all the Jerry ballads, in my mind this one takes the cake.  The music is so well composed, beautiful, almost Dark Star-esque in some passages, and intensely dramatic and powerful in others.  The story, and the verses, mirror the music.  This is almost a ballad version of A Day in the Life, like two songs mashed together, but intensely related.  Two different narrators, telling different stories, yet a profound moment of empathy.  The centerpiece of the song being the gospel bridge, with perfect church keyboard accompaniment by Keith, breaking it down for the vocal climax:

But I'll get back
on my feet someday
The good Lord willing
if He says I may
I know that the life I'm
livin's no good
I'll get a new start
live the life I should

      The song finishes off with a jam that finds the band scaling the walls of heaven, busting down the pearly gates.  Dig it!

11.   At a Siding – Jerry Ballads.  Often mislabeled as L'Alhambra (particularly by myself), this is from the Terrapin Station Suite, and appears on the studio version, but was only performed once, on 3/18/77 shortly after Terrapin debuted.  It's a shame they didn't keep on playing it.  It's intense, dramatic, incredibly psychedelic, and as you can hear, very well played.  Who knows why they dropped it from their repertoire?  One can only conclude they melted too many faces the one time it was played, and they had to retire it for the good of the audience.  The show that night is said to have resembled the end scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazi's faces all melt off after the ark is opened.  Poor fuckin' Deadheads, just thought they'd trip balls at a Dead show, not get murdered by Jerry Garcia.  Fuck!