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Good Old Grateful Dead

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"Play the blues!" shouts someone in a phony halfswoon.

"Fuck you, man," Mickey shouts back, "go hear a blues band if you want that, go dig Mike Bloomfield."

Another punch in the mouth, but the moment is there, and the audience's stunned silence just makes the opening gong of "Dark Star" more ominous. In that silence music begins, steady and pulsing. Jerry as always, takes the lead, feeling his way for melodies like paths up the mountain. Jerry, says Phil, is the heart of the Dead, its central sun; while they all connect to each other, the strongest bonds are to him. Standing there, eyes closed, chin bobbing forward, his guitar in close under his arm, he seems pure energy, a quality like but distinct from sexuality, which, while radiating itself outward unceasingly and unselfishly, is as unceasingly and unselfishly replenished by those whose strengths have been awakened by his.

He finds a way, a few high twinging notes that are in themselves a song, and then the others are there too, and suddenly the music is not notes or a tune, but what those seven people are exactly: the music is an aural holograph of the Grateful Dead. All their fibres, nuances, histories, desires, beings are clear. Jerry and his questing, Phil the loyal comrade, Tom drifting beside them both on a cloud, Pig staying stubbornly down to earth; Mickey working out furious complexities trying to understand how Bill is so simple, and Bob succumbing inevitably to Jerry and Phil and joining them. And that is just the beginning, because at each note, at each phrase the balances change, each testing, feeding, mocking, and finally driving each other on, further and further on.

Some balances last longer than others, moments of realization that seem to sum up many moments, and then a solid groove of 'yes, that is the way it is,' flows out, and the crowd begins to move. Each time it is Jerry who leads them out, his guitar singing and dancing joy. And his joy finds new levels and the work of exploration begins again.

Jerry often talks of music as coming from a place and creating a place, a place where strife is gone, where the struggle to understand ends, and knowledge is as evident as light. That is the place they are in at Springer's. However hard it is to get there, once there, you want to cry tears of ease and never leave. It is not a new place; those who seek it hard enough can find it, like the poet Lucretius who found it about 2500 years ago:

... all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers on the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void in empty space...
I feel a more than mortal pleasure in all this.

The music goes fast and slow, driving and serene, loud and soft. Mickey switches from gong to drums to claves to handclapping to xylophone to a tin slide whistle. Then Bob grabs that away and steps to to mike and blows the whistle as hard as he can, flicking away insanely high and screeching notes. The band digs it, and lays down a building rhythm. The crowd begins to pant, shake, and then suddenly right on the exact moment with the band, the crowd, the band, everything in the whole goddam place begins to scream. Not scream like at the Beatles, but scream like beasts, twisting their faces, trying out every possible animal yowl that lies deep in their hearts.

And Jerry, melodies flowing from him in endless arabesques, leads it away again, the crowd and him-self ecstatic rats to some Pied Piper. The tune changes from "Dark Star" to "St. Stephen," the song with a beat like bouncing boulders, and out of the din comes Jerry's wavering voice, "Another man gathers what another man spills," and everyone knows that means that there's nothing to fear, brothers will help each other with their loads, and suddenly there is peace in the hall. Phil, Bob, and Bill form a trio and play a new and quiet song before Mickey's sudden roll opens it out to the group, and "St. Stephen" crashes to an end with the cannon shot and clouds of sulphurous smoke.

Out of the fire and brimstone emerges the Pig singing "Lovelight," and everyone is through the mind and down into the body. Pigpen doesn't sing; Pigpen never sings. He is just Pig being Pig doing "Lovelight," spitting out of the side of his mouth between phrases, starting the clapping, telling everybody to get their hands out of their pockets and into somebody else's pocket, and like laughter, the band comes in with rock-it-to-'em choruses. The crowd is jumping up and down in witness by this time, and one couple falls on stage, their bodies and tongues entwined in mad ritual embrace. They don't make love, but in acting it out, they perform for and with the crowd, and so everyone is acting out sexual unison with Pigpen as the master of ceremonies. The place, one body, built in music, fucks until it comes, the cannon goes off one final time, and Mickey leaps to the gong bashing it with a mallet set afire by the cannon, and it makes a trail of flame and then sparks when it hits the gong, the gong itself radiating waves of sonic energy. Bill flails at the drums, Phil keeps playing the same figure over and over, faster and faster, and Jerry and Bob build up to one note just below the tonic, hold it until, with one ultimate chord, it all comes home. The crowd erupts in cheers, as the band, sodden with sweat, stumble off the stage.

"We'll be back, folks," says Jerry, "we'll be back after a break."

Bob laughs as he hears Jerry's announcement. "It's really something when you have to lie to get off the stage."

Because it's over, gone, wiped out. They gather by the equipment van, and all but Tom, still cool and unruffled, are steaming in the chill night air. The moon has gone down, the stars are out, and there is nothing more to be done that night at all.

This story is from the August 23, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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