By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
One more negative remark about hippies or the Grateful Dead and you punk-rock bullies will have petunias shoved down your throats. Yea, though I’m a full-blooded Hippie-American and original citizen of Woodstock Nation, I shall no longer take guff from the black-clad nihilists who’ve heaped scorn on my tie-dyed sisters and brothers ever since that faux-angry young man changed his name from Lydon to Rotten and back again. Fuck you, punks. No, I will not give the peace sign to those ayatollahs-with-Mohawks who’ve whined about the Grateful Dead’s lack of rockingness and who worshiped those one-joke Joeys called the Ramones after they dumbed their way down onto the scene. The Dead were certainly capable of sucking, but they usually sucked while attempting (albeit failing) to transcend their limitations. When the Dead did transcend — which was often — they assumed their rightful place in the pantheon of American musical greats.
Now the Dead have graced their grateful fans with a five-CD box set featuring live recordings, demos and outtakes of varying quality that rise to the peaks and languish in the depressing valleys like any, say, six-and-a-half-hour hallucinogenic trip, which makes one wonder whether compilation producers and über-Deadheads David Gans, Blair Jackson and Steve Silberman conspired to mimic the emotional roller-coaster ride of certain illegal cerebral vacations. Nah, that wouldn’t make sense, since they probably dug everything in this elegantly packaged box, seeing as how they chose the selections. Yet that roller-coaster concept does suggest how to experience the usually brilliant, only rarely god-awful music contained herein.
Disc 1 kicks off with a few cuts by the Warlocks, which was what the band was called prior to being the Dead. The Warlocks were a pretty damn good garage band, and if they had never learned to actually play their instruments and been reborn as the Dead, they might’ve ended up on a Nuggets compilation and been revered by the Ramones. “Can’t Come Down,” a Warlocks-era demo recorded under the nom de temps of the Emergency Crew, is one of those paeans to the “do your own thing” ethic that was all the rage in the mid-’60s, as well as not so obliquely referring to that Lucy-in-the-sky stuff the band was regularly nourished on back then. But the constant gigging and rehearsing, from the Fillmore to the Avalon Ballroom and benefits and Acid Tests and jam sessions and backyard brain-barbecues for naked and Owsley-eyed tribespeople, sharpened the 1966-67 Grateful Dead’s chops, and the proof is in the superlative “Dark Star/China Cat Sunflower/The Eleven” from ’68. They had evolved into the finest psychedelic band on the planet, capable of reproducing acid-specific effects and translating them into music. Guitarist Jerry Garcia easily switched from a fearsome, hellfire muscularity (which waned as he got older and smack became his dope du jour) to a fuzz-toned liquidity, which can send a sober person into flashback-land if one pays attention.
What the anti-Dead hearing-impaired don’t get is that most of the band’s “jamming” was not masturbatory noodling like much ’70s jazz-fusion. These guys only rarely jerked off, preferring an orgiastic conversation between players. They are listening closely to each other, teasing, cracking musical jokes. You can hear Garcia playing off rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, who throws the ball to bassist Phil Lesh, who’s laying down a countermelody as well as anchoring the tempo with drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and vice versa, and in any and all combinations thereof conceivable by mere mortals. Even the late, great Pigpen, the band’s resident blues-hound and vocalist-organist-harpist, was in on the Hydra-headed ongoing rap and riffed appropriately. “That’s It for the Other One” on Disc 2 is a precision-drilled psychedelic suite from ’69 and a thrilling romp in which the “conversation” gets faster and louder and more complex, much like one of Beat legend/Kesey pal Neal Cassady’s multidirectional yap-a-thons, which makes sense, ’cuz Cowboy Neal’s name-checked in the lyrics. This cut doesn’t merely rock, o punkier-than-thou types — it fucking stomps.
By 1970 the band had returned to its folkie roots and produced their two greatest studio albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. This side of the Dead is nicely represented here by the Workingman’s outtake “Mason’s Children” and an astonishing live version of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.” Of the many flaws the Dead were guilty of, one of the most glaring was their inability to sing in tune outside a studio. But the vocals on the Haggard cut soar in perfect harmony and add to the chilling emotional tale of a man on death row going to meet his maker.
I’d like to point out that, in my opinion, guitar god Jerry Garcia was also one of the two most underrated singers of the 20th century, the other being Bob Dylan. Admittedly, he was terribly inconsistent (terrible inconsistency being a Dead hallmark), but when Jer was hittin’ the notes, there were few vocalists of comparable emotional intensity. I’m talking Billie Holiday territory, which statement I acknowledge will engender as many irate letters as my criticism of punk rock. But it’s the knowing frailty of Garcia’s vocal instrument, as well as his supra-intelligent phrasing, that begs comparisons to Lady Day (listen to “Eyes of the World” from ’74 or “Stella Blue” from ’78, both on Disc 3).
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