Thursday, June 15, 2017

My Long Strange Trip

I had one of the best record collections in the neighborhood and I had not yet turned 13. Some of my uncle's friends, all ten years older, would come over to hang with me and listen to records they didn't own themselves--King Crimson, Curtis Mayfield, The Hollies--yet, I somehow managed to escape all things Grateful Dead until I was almost 30 years old.

None of us owned any Grateful Dead records and all we knew was what WNEW-FM would play. "Uncle John's Band?" Not bad. "Truckin'?" Not good. "Casey Jones?" Horrible. That was it. From 1974-1994, I turned down endless offers to see the band live, turned off by the scene, but mostly turned off by the Deadheads I met over the years with their goddamned cassettes and proclamations, "5/8/77, maaaannnn!"

I was into harmony. The Beatles, The Left Banke, Todd Rundgren, even the Andrews Sisters. I loved groups that could really sing. I suffered through a few of those aforementioned cassettes, while being held prisoner on a weekend in Vermont, and all of it sounded so hit and miss, both musically and vocally. What the hell was this? Don't they hear themselves?!

Then it happened.

At another one of those punishing weekends in Vermont, I heard something that simply knocked me out. It was energetic, truly ass-kicking. The guitar playing was fiery. The bass and drums were relentless, deep in a pocket. The harmonies, well, it wasn't The Hollies, but they were all right! What the hell is this? "Binghampton, 5/2/70 maaaaaan!"

"Cumberland Blues," Dick's Picks Volume 8, acoustic set, 5/2/70. This is when I realized Jerry Garcia could play his guitar just like a ringin' a bell. I wanted more. (The version up top from 1972, might even be better.)

I continued over the years, slowly. I tried to avoid the places and things I knew would upset me. Anything over 10 minutes, where "they really get it together at around 7:34." Covers of anything I loved--"Dancing In The Street," "El Paso," and that gotdang "Hey Jude" from the Fillmore in '69. (When I die, and if I am in the same place as Linda McCartney, she will get an apology.) I started with the first album.

That first album is unlike anything else by The Grateful Dead, or anyone else for the matter. A garage-y, psychedelic, folk and blues gem! First time I heard "The Golden Road" I thought it was some one hit wonder on the Nuggets box. Might as well have been The Association or The Buckinghams. I was hooked.

Over the next 20 years, I became a fan. I still had my doubts about certain, beloved live performances, but I no longer flinched when someone would ask me to "put on some Dead" at my shop. I finally understood, or at least I thought I did.

I am two acts into the new Amazon documentary "Long Strange Trip." That's only about 95 minutes of film, and I can finally say, I really do understand.

It is very easy to dismiss this band if your only exposure is to what you've pieced together in your mind from all of the negatives. The very thing I resisted all those years ago, is the very thing that has grabbed a hold of me now. It's a whole new ball game listening to the band members tell the story and not the Deadheads. Garcia is beyond lovable. The whole mission statement, if you let it, will move you, especially if you're a musician. It's all about "just seeing" and "why the hell not."

I've made a side career making fun of Bill Kreutzmann, but it was something he said in Act Two, that could have just as easily sent me packing for good twenty years ago, but instead, enlightened me today. He said he never worries about keeping time. "Keeping time is for a marching band." (20 years ago, I would have slapped him silly and I bet many drummers still want to.) But he continued. He plays to feel it, and sometimes, he feels it so much that the band feels it along with him and before you know it, no one remembers what song they began with, but is totally where they are at that moment. (Or something like that.) He says this, and a black and white clip of the band playing "The Eleven" begins. The clip is less than a minute, but I was transfixed. It was everything I loved, when I heard Led Zeppelin do it live, or King Crimson, or Miles Davis. I imagine, if what I saw in that clip was when they "got it together at 7:34," 0:01-7:33 would not be such a hardship. What a payday!

The thrill of building something and finally seeing something that resembles a finished product, only to deconstruct it and start over, say...ten times a night, might not sound like your ideal way of making music. And I would understand completely if your thing is a tight, 3 minute pop tune and you have now high-tailed it out of here. I am all about that tight, 3 minute pop tune. But I have learned to no longer resist what the Grateful Dead had to offer.

I can't be comfortable saying I love music and turning away from the Dead. The Dead love music. The Dead love the blues, country and western, soul, bluegrass, rock music, funk, swing, classical, pop, and of course, psychedelia. They do it all and you'll hear it all, if you give it chance. Stop resisting, at least long enough to watch the first two acts of "Long Strange Trip." Don't worry, you won't get any on you.


Bombshelter Slim said...

In 1969 I bought "Live Dead" and got it right away. Of course, my bias is that they never did anything worthwhile after Pigpen passed... (well, not really, but you know what I mean)

J. Loslo said...

Thanks, Sal. It seems like hating on The Dead is something some people feel compelled to do in order to earn their Cool Kids badges. I'm no Dead Head, never saw them live (although I did see the Jerry Garcia band), and I've never worn tie-dye, but I've enjoyed The Dead for more than forty years. I think Garcia's background as a bluegrass musician served as a kind of point of entry for me.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I heard "Truckin'" as a 'hit' on the radio and thought it sounded like the Beatles, specifically side two of Abbey Road. It knocked me out. The harmonies work. I liked the story. I shoplifted "Europe '72" (3 records $$$).
I can't quite figure out the appeal of "Casey Jones".

They're second album, "Anthem Of The Sun" is unlike anything else and to me an interesting, but unlistenable psychedelic artifact.

Then they had quite a run with "AOXOMOXOA", "Workingmans's Dead", "American Beauty" and "Grateful Dead(Skull and Roses)". Throw in "Garcia" and "Ace", with highlights from "Wake Of The Flood" and "Mars Hotel". They kind of lose me after that.
Actually "Reckonging" (unplugged) is pretty great, too.

Those cassettes are hit and miss to the extreme.

I have a handful of Dick's Picks, and they are also.

I saw them once in Santa barbara, at the County Bowl. I climbed over the fence while Warren Zevon opened with "Werewolves Of London". When the Dead came on I could tell which ant was which in the distance.

Caught Jerry and Merle Saunders at The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach California. It wasn't The Dead and the saxophone was too loud.

Better late than never I always say.

Hold you thumb and forefinger apart the thickness of a dime, and that's how close The Grateful Dead have come to being a Weekend Mix.

Eric said...

The dead was part of childhood/teen soundtrack along with the Allmans and of course earlier The Beatles And The Doors. that all changed when the Ramones television X Blondie Etc all came out I did see the Dead 8 times, they swang
g very hard when Keith and Donna were involved in the band... the last show was on the beach in Ventura and they nailed it they were very crowd friendly and it's an abortion that they're touring right now without Jerry.... One thing that is noted but rarely pointed out is the beauty of it all was that they played completely different sets so you never knew what was going to happen... I was never dead head but still I love them with cherry Garcia

Charlie C. said...

@buzzbabyjesus: Just Do It!

Anonymous said...

For me it has always come down to the great divide: Those of us already on the bus and those who don't know that someday they will be boarding the bus.

The Dead are not going to fade away (sorry) anytime soon. This website provided by my buddy Mike (who was more responsible for turning me into a Deadhead 45 years ago then anyone else) proves it.

I think many fans of the band went through the struggles to discover the magic of the band. You and I clearly did. It's not easy to twist your head around the Dead's music, culture and fans without some serious thought and re-evaluation of your musical values, but it is well worth the effort in the end.

The coming generations will continue to discover the joys of the Dead.

Captain Al

Noam Sane said...

Considering they were schooled in harmony by CS&N back in the day, it's remarkable that they never did get their singing together, at least live. Generally awful.

I had to laugh at your mention of "El Paso" - to hear Bob Weir sing that, you just hold your breath and hope he makes it, he's working so hard. I know he's a big Marty Robbins fan, but he fared better when he did his own version ("Mexicali Blues," which is great, perfect.) Don't get me started on his takes of "Little Red Rooster."

I still recall the time I mocked him on the old NRBQ mailing list. I was non-grata immediately - Deadheads are nothing if not fragile flowers when it comes to criticism (yes, a fair amount of cross-polination between the two groups, surprisingly). But Weir is a remarkable rhythm guitarist, and Garcia wouldn't sound quite the same without Weir's beautiful slashing/ringing guitar work behind his solos.

I think the Terrapin Station suite was a high-water mark, and I'm super-fond of Workingman's rural grunginess. There's a lot of great stuff to be found, no matter how much you've already heard. The 20th century would have been a far duller place without them. But they really, really should have stopped when Jerry passed.

Peter Ames Carlin said...

This is a beautiful essay, Sal. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

I watched the entire "Strange" documentary, and although I am not a Dead scholar, I did find it particularly informative. (Must be me.)

I am, however, a real fan. I (at age 67) truly regret not seeing them more ... and for the same reasons others went to see them: every performance was an attempt to find something, and when "found," to play with it. Interestingly enough, NRBQ, mentioned above, is the other act that seems to understand that when playing music, "playing" is a big part of it.

I liked the Dead's vocals -- they REALLY tried! Deadheads? Hell, I don't know. Who cares?