It works because the Dead are, like few bands, a group tried and true. Five have been performing together for four years; Tom, though he only joined the group full time last year because of an Air Force hitch, has been with them from the beginning. Mickey, a jazz drummer leading the straight life until two years ago, joined because Dead music was his music. After meeting Bill and jamming with him twice, he asked to join a set at the Straight Theatre. "We played 'Aligator' for two hours, man, and my mind was blown. When we finished and the crowd went wild, Jerry came over and embraced me, and I embraced him, and it's been like that ever since."
The Dead have had endless personal crises; Pigpen and Bob Weir have particularly resisted the others. Pig because he is not primarily a musician, and Bob because of an oddly stubborn pride. Yet they have always been a fellowship; "our crises come and go in ways that seem more governed by the stars than by personalities," says Bob. A year ago Bob and Pigpen were on the verge of leaving. Now the Dead, says Phil, "have passed the point where breaking up exists as a possible solution to any problem. The Dead, we all know, is bigger than all of us." Subsets of the seven, with names like "Bobby Ace and the Cards from the Bottom" and "Mickey Hart and the Hearbeats," have done a few gigs and several of the Dead are inveterate jammers, but these separate experiences always loosen and enrich the larger groups, and the Dead continue.
In life as well as music; as with the magic, life for the Dead has to be music, and vice versa. When the Acid Tests stopped in the spring of 1966 and Kesey went to Mexico, the Dead got off the bus and started their own (metaphorical) bus. For three months they lived with Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the media's and legend's "Acid King," on the northern edge of Watts in LA, as he built them a huge and complex sound system. The system was no good, say some, adding that Owsley did the group nothing but harm. Owsley was weird all right, "insistent about his trip," says Bob, keeping nothing but meat and milk to eat, forbidding all vegetables as poisons, talking like a TV set you couldn't turn off, and wired into a logic that was always bizarre and often perversely paranoid if not downright evil. But what others thought or think of Owsley has never affected the Dead; he is Owsley, and they follow their own changes with him, everything from hatred to awe to laughing at him as absurd. If you're going further, your wagon is hitched to a star; other people's opinions on the trip's validity are like flies to be brushed aside.
Their life too is without any idiom but their own. They returned to San Francisco in June, 1966 and after a few stops moved into 710 Ashbury, in the middle of the Haight. It was the first time they actually lived in the city as a group, and they became an institution. "Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy said, but the happy family at 710 was different from most, a sliding assortment of madmen who came and went in mysterious tidal patterns, staying for days or weeks or just mellow afternoons on the steps bordered with nasturtiums. A strange black wing decorated an upper window, and occasional passersby would be jolted by sonic blasts from deep in the house's entralia. Like the Psychedelic Shop, the Panhandle, the Oracle office, or 1090 Pine St. in the early Family Dog days, it was another bus, an energy center as well as a model, a Brook Farm for new trans-cendentalists.
With all the other groups in the city, they did become a band, an economic entity in an expanding market. They did well; since the demise of Big Brother, they are second only to the Airplane of the San Francisco groups and are one of the biggest draws in the business. But the Dead were always different. Their managers, Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin, were of the family, stoned ten-thumbed inefficiency. While other groups were fighting for recognition, more and bigger gigs, the Dead played mostly for free. Monterey was a godsend of exposure to most groups, but the Dead bitched about it, arguing that it should be free or, if not, the profits should go to the Diggers; refusing to sign releases for the film that became Monterey Pop! and finally organizing a free festival on a nearby campus and stealing banks of amps and speakers for an all night jam (they were, eventually, returned).
But of course they did go; maybe Monterey was an "LA pseudo-hip fraud," but the Dead were a rock band as well as a psychedelic musical commune, and they knew it. The problem was combining the two. The spirit that had energized the early days was changing and becoming harder to sustain. The formlessness was becoming formalized; artifacts; whether posters, clothes, drugs, or even the entire life-style, became more important than the art of their creation.
"The Acid Tests have come down to playing in a hall and having a light show," Jerry says, "You sit down and watch and of course the lights are behind the band so you can see the band and the lights. It's watching television, loud, large television. That form, so rigid, started as a misapprehension anyway. Like Bill Graham, he was at the Trips Festival, and all he saw was a light show and a band. Take the two and you got a formula. It is stuck, man, hasn't blown a new mind in years. What was happening at the Trips Festival was not a rock and roll show and lights, but that other thing, but if you were hustling tickets and trying to get a production on, to put some of the old order to the chaos, you couldn't feel it. It was a sensitive trip, and it's been lost."
Yet in trying to combine their own music-life style with the rock and roll business, they have missed living the best of either. Their dealings with the business world have been disastrous. Money slips through their fingers, bills pile up, instruments are repossessed, and salaries aren't paid. The group is $60,000 in debt, and those debts have meant harm to dozens of innocent people. "I remember times we've said, 'that cat's straight, let's burn him for a bill,'" says Phil Lesh.
They have never gotten along with Warner Brothers, reacting distrustfully to all attempts at guidance. The first record, The Grateful Dead, was a largely unsuccessful attempt to get a live sound in the studio. The second, Anthem of the Sun, was recorded in four studios and at 18 live performances; halfway through they got rid of producer Dave Hassinger and finished it themselves months behind schedule. Aoxomoxoa was delivered as a finished product to Warner's, cover and all; the company did little more than press and distribute it. All the records have fine moments, snatches of lyric Garcia melodies and driving ensemble passages. Aoxomoxoa (more a mystic palindrome than a word, by the way) is in many ways brilliant; precisely mixed by Jerry and Phil, it is a record composition, not a recording of anything, and its flow is obliquely powerful. But none of them are as open and vital as the Dead live, even accounting for the change in medium. "The man in the street isn't ready for our records," says Jerry; but that also means that, fearful of being commercial, the Dead have discarded the value of immediate musical communication in making records; the baby, unfortunately, has gone out with the bath water. A double record album of live performances, though, is planned.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
CULTURE 14 Gonzo Masterpieces
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus