Tuesday, November 24, 2015

WGT Vol. 11: Smile, Smile, Smile

50 Years Dead

Below you'll find the notes for the FINAL official disc in this compilation. Preceding that, the epilogue I wrote to this compilation serves as a reflection. But is the end or beginning? Fear not, devout listeners, a bonus disc next month awaits. 


So there you have it.  I guess this project turned out to be a book, in more ways than one.  The music tells a story, disc by disc, chapter by chapter.  It's chronological, but non-linear.  Flashbacks and flash-forwards.  The first song is from the end, and the last song is from the peak.  In between it moves forward, but bounces back and forth to tell the story.  I'm reminded of the scene in Fear and Loathing at the Matrix in San Francisco, where the young Hunter Thompson played by Johnny Depp encounters the old Hunter Thompson played by Hunter Thompson, and both Hunter Thompson's just act natural and keep moving.  If things start to get weird when listening to this, if you see another version of yourself , just act natural.

I learned a lot about the Dead in the process of making this.  The main thing I learned is that there is much I don't know.  I'm no expert, just a passionate fan.  But this project has made me want to delve deeper, to listen to and compare all those different Dark Stars. 

Aside from the massive amount of quality material the Dead put out, I think this set reveals the personalities behind the instruments.  Jerry was always the sun at the center of the universe, but the rest of the planets and stars were in perfect harmony as well.  Jerry's charisma, wit, and relentless curiosity are undeniable.  And whether he was being interviewed by Letterman or in a stadium with 50,000 other people, he was always the coolest mother-fucker in the room.  His ability to stay cool in a sea of swirling chaos was unparalleled.

I recently watched the Sunshine Daydream video, a recording of a benefit they played in Oregon in 1972.  Naked hippies tripping their faces off surrounding the stage, but Jerry is just hanging back, feeling the groove, totally in control of the whole scene.  Most performers would freak out, turn their amps up to eleven and just play at a blistering pace from go.  Even though Jerry was likely tripping and under the influence of who knows what, he keeps the place from dissolving into mass hysteria.  That's part of the reason Bob Weir appears to be such a jackass, because he had to stand next to Jerry.  Imagine how foolish any of us would've looked standing next to Jerry, trying to play an instrument, and Bob doesn't look so bad after all.  We all would've spazzed out much worse than Bob.  So, you can't really blame Bob for pulling a ripcord and bailing on a jam early, or for having a few songs that weren't entirely transcendent.  He wasn't Jerry Garcia, that's not his fault.

What Bob and the rest of the band did do was provide both excellent support for and contrast to Garcia.  They were not simply competent musicians, but singular artists with a distinct point of view and playing style.  Taken together as a whole, they were so much more than the sum of their parts, they were otherworldly.  At times, like waves crashing into one another, but eventually joining forces to create a tsunami of cosmic destruction.  

I could go on and on with superlatives about each member, the music, the songs, the fans, the scene, the drugs, but what more can be said?  Just listen to the music.  There's a lot of space in between the songs and our minds, and I've tried to interpret it the best I could.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

To close this tale out, let's flashback to that night at the lake house I discussed in the introduction.  Earlier that same evening a few of us were hanging out by the lake, jamming to the Dead as dusk began to settle.  Fireflies were blinking in code, signaling the drug birds to come out to play.  Crickets sang their hypnotic tune, awakening our unconscious from its slumber.  Tiny ripples on the lake gently slapped the shore creating a tidal wave of white noise, as the reflection of trees on the water bounced like the bars of an equalizer in beat with the music.  Eternity took a breath, exhaled the wind, and we’re back in that familiar forgotten place.  A big Jerry ballad came on.  Those were usually my favorite moments of the shows that I saw.  Powerful stuff.  I commented "I can't believe there are some people who don't think Jerry has a good voice."  My friend Dunebuggy quickly replied "Yeah, but do you hang out with those people?"  Laughter ensued.  No answer was needed.  It was understood.

So here's to you, me, enjoying the moment, and enjoying the Dead as much as possible in those moments.

Disc ELEVEN: Smile, Smile, Smile

Now the time has come for closing thoughts, last rites, and an eulogy for the Dead.  We start out with some symbolic pieces from the last few years, revisit some heavenly jams, and flashback through the future's past to a state where time and space are irrelevant.  I suppose William Blake said it best:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Or, as Bill Hicks said:

"Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There's no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."

1.    Liberty – So Many Roads.  A song about the Prankster spirit, seemingly written especially for the Deadheads and the unique path they choose in life far from the mainstream.  And a reminder about the true meaning of freedom in America.  Free to follow your own path, be rebellious, but hopefully being guided by love.  Full of classic lines and images about venturing out into the world, but ultimately finding your way back home.  This song seemed destined to be the follow-up hit to Touch of Grey, but that day never came.  Hunter references New Orleans in the first verse, and Garcia follows suit, giving the song a bit of that Nawlin's funk, filtered through the Grateful Dead bounce, of course.  Hunter recorded the song before the Dead played it, and his liner notes included this quote:

We must all be foolish at times
It is one of the conditions of liberty.>br> --Walt Whitman

2.       So Many Roads – 10/1/94.  Probably the biggest of the later era Jerry tunes.  This song is a walk down memory lane, with Hunter providing a bibliography of the Dead's influences with references to old folk, blues, and rock songs.  Hunter, like Dylan, was so well versed in this language, that he came to inhabit this mythical landscape.  Simple words, names, and phrases symbolic of so much more than just themselves.  The language not only of the unconscious, but a particularly American archetypal path.  And a classic, if unoriginal, Garcia song structure: the big ballad that howls at the end.  It was simple, not groundbreaking, but when Garcia was on, this song was soul-stirring.  He was certainly feeling it in this performance.  Even towards the end, when he would often stumble through the rest of the show, he found the strength to pull off magic in these ballads.  Perhaps it was their cathartic effect that allowed him to connect in such a profound way.  Notably in this version, he changes the lyrics from "So many roads to ease my soul," to "So many roads to heal my soul."  
It is a subtle but meaningful difference.  A man in pain, searching for some relief and redemption.  Towards the end, he may have been tongue twisted with words half-spoken and thoughts unclear, but when he connected, it was better than it had ever been.  He was able to emote from that deep, dark place in such a genuine way, as only someone at the end of their days can.  He had less than a year left to live.  I can struggle to describe it, or you can just listen to him sing.

3.       Lazy River Road – 9/22/93.  This tune treads the same symbolic landscape as So Many Roads, the mythical references abound.  Even at the young age I was when this song came out, it was nostalgic, transporting me back to my youth when everything was joyful, full of mystery and wonder.  Beautiful lyrics about the importance and power of relationships, Julie and I used the final verse on our wedding program:
Thread the needle
right through the eye
The thread that runs so true
All the others I let pass by
I only wanted you
Never cared much for careless love
but how your bright eyes glowed
Way down
down along
Lazy River Road
Sax man David Murray sits in on this version of the song.  For kind of a folky tune, strangely it works.

4.       He's Gone – Beautiful Jams.  An awesome tune, so many classic lines, it lumbers along to a slow build-up.  Did any band ever do a song like this?  And in a stadium setting to such a captivated audience?  So uniquely Grateful Dead, no one else could pull this off.  This is just a beautiful jam at the end of the tune, hence the inclusion on the collection from which this track is derived.  Obviously it is included here at the end of the compilation for a reason.  The end of the jam hints at several possible destinations: Bruce seems to be teasing Stella Blue, Phil's bubbling bass hints at Crazy Fingers, while Jerry is clearly feeling Going Down the Road.  Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile…

5.       And We Bid You Goodnight Jam – Jamming at the Edge.  Back on stage for the encore, with the audience chanting Not Fade Away, the band goes into the instrumental version of this tune that often ended Goin' Down the Road.  Beautiful stuff here fans. 

6.       Nobody's Fault But Mine – Jerry Ballads.  I saw B.B. King just a few years ago for the first time.  He must've been at least 85.  Towards the end of the show he played Key to the Highway.  When he sang the refrain, and when I leave this town, I won't be coming back no more, it had a certain poignancy for obvious reasons.  Jerry knew what he was singing in Nobody's Fault but Mine. Whatever his demons were, he was aware of them.  The Dead only performed this song 17 times, first in 1966.  It was played eight times in '73 and '74, and then would just pop up every few years.  This version features some excellent blues playing from Jerry, with that crisp acoustic tone he got out of Lightning Bolt.  I always felt that Jerry was stylistically similar to B.B. King when playing the blues.  Both were string benders who could make their guitars weep bittersweet tears.  Much different from screechers like Buddy Guy, rippers like Stevie Ray, whalers like Duane Allman, or crushers like Hubert Sumlin.  Jerry and B.B. squeezed a lot of emotion out of those strings, sending chills right up your spine.

7.       Jerry Garcia Interview – Tom Snyder Show.  Just a quick little snippet.  The fat man speaks.

8.       Chuck Berry & Weir on Ketamine – 2/21/92.  Just a bit of studio banter from the boys during a rehearsal.  At this point they were all in their late 40's or early 50's, so it's fun to hear them still joking around, and telling tales of altered consciousness.  Jerry, Phil, and Bob dominate the conversation, and their personalities really come out.

9.       Whiskey in the Jar – So Many Roads.  Another late era studio jam with some banter.  Jerry had likely rediscovered this tune while working up old material with David Grisman, as they recorded and played some in Jerry's last several years.  It's a special moment, the band is clearly feeling it, and they jump right in.  A moment that shows not only where they were from, but where they were going, how the past continued to inform their future.  Part of the reason why the Dead's music sounds so timeless is that it grew out of and respected American musical traditions.  The Dead weren't really a typical rock n' roll band; their music was just never really that fast.  They were an electric American band, updating the American songbook with amplified music.  Although as they discuss on this track, this is actually an Irish song.  "A folk song." "But a cool one."

10.   Jam After Let it Grow – Beautiful Jams.  Recorded in Berlin on 10/20/90, not long after Brent had died, with Vince, and featuring Bruce.  As I stated before, Let it Grow is not one of my favorite tunes, but it could lead to some interesting jams, as is the case here.  Bruce is really stretching it out, Vince adds some new age atmospherics, Jerry's ears perk up, and the music unfolds.  It feels like a heavenly jam to me, very reflective and bittersweet.  Seemed fitting to include this on the final disc.

11.   Jam out of Terrapin – So Many Roads.  The musical fractal I mentioned earlier continues to spiral through eternity.  Sometimes the Dead played music that felt like it was just out there in the cosmos waiting for them to tap into.  This is one of those times.  Terrapin is always being jammed out; you just have to tune yourself into the right frequency to hear this rare and different tune. 

12.   Transilence>
13.   The Speed of Space>
14.   Dark Matter Problem/Every Leaf is Turning – Greyfolded.  In putting this compilation together, Dark Star was the monkey on my back.  The holy grail of Grateful Dead songs, yet there is no definitive version, other than possibly the Live Dead recording which everyone already knows.  Each version varies so much, from show to show, era to era.  Each version is so long, at least in a normal state of consciousness.  I couldn't pick just one.  You could easily do eleven discs of nothing but Dark Star and still not really scratch the surface of the song.  I've already included several snippets of Dark Star jams throughout this collection.  These three tracks are from the Greyfolded CD's.  Using over 100 different versions of Dark Star from 1968 to 1993, producer John Oswald combined them into just shy of two hours of continuous music.  You might hear several different tracks of Jerry playing simultaneously with drum tracks from one show, bass tracks from another, etc.  Tracks from 1970 overlapping tracks from 1990.  At times it's totally insane, but it not only works, it's intensely psychedelic.  Dark Star, more than any other song, defined what the Grateful Dead were all about.  Jerry described his conceptualization of the Dead as being like a bluegrass band; the instruments having a conversation with one another.  He also described the members of the Dead as being "pathologically anti-authoritarian."  No one member was gonna tell anyone else how they should be playing, and everyone made a conscious determined effort to sound unique.  Everyone did their own thing, and at times they would clash up against each other creating a tension.  But eventually, they would synch up, dancing around one another, picking each other's pockets, stealing each other's lines, and finishing each other's jokes, then turn around and do it all over again.  Much like the previous Jam out of Terrapin, Dark Star is a tune that is always out there, being played.  If your mind is in the right place, you'll hear it.  And it's part of the fabric of all Grateful Dead songs, as you'll hear on this track as it drifts in and out of so many of them, like a flashback through the entire catalogue.  What more can be said about this song?  If there was a god, this would be his theme song, and his name would be Jerry Garcia. 

15.   Morning Dew – 6/18/74.  From the same show as the first two tunes on disc 5.  Morning Dew seemed to be a fitting end to this story.  A tale of nuclear war, the end of existence.  Or in this case, the end of the Dead.  Played as an encore at this show, surely a rarity.  Starting the song off from a complete stop, it takes the band a few bars to lock in and get on the same page, but it smokes from there on out.  There are better versions, most notably Cornell '77, and MSG '90, but you've probably heard those before, and I'd put this one in the top 20.  Also one of the few songs to be played throughout the entire history of the band.  Recorded for the first album, and played right up to the end.  This song covers a lot of moods, from the sublime to the ferocious.  I remember lying in bed, trying to go to sleep after dropping acid when I was 16, listening to Europe '72.  Fortunately, the amazing guitar interplay between Bob and Jerry was just too stimulating.  It seemed to go on for an eternity, leading to so many interesting places, and building up to the most shattering peak in any song I had heard before or since.  This version also delivers the goods.  After the song is over, Jerry has the last word. 
I guess it doesn't matter, anyway