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).
Now, having dispensed accolades, it must be said that the set does occasionally point to the Dead’s weaknesses. The late keyboardist Brent Mydland always sounded like the Lost Doobie Brother to me. His version of the Neville Brothers’ “Hey Pocky Way” is a good example of why many people thought poor Brent had landed in the wrong band: overwrought vocals, too many synth fills, nothing you couldn’t hear at the Holiday Inn lounge on a Saturday night (even so, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” Mydland and John Perry Barlow’s ’88 homage to alcoholism, is a damn good song). In general, the band started to lumber and lose spunk in the ’80s and, especially, the ’90s. While the producers have found generally first-rate performances, one can still hear the band getting older, losing interest or both. I sometimes think it was the uncritical adulation of the Deadheads that drove Jerry to Persian heroin. The latter-day Dead too often took a rote road, which just might have bored a genius like Garcia to death.
The last few tracks on Disc 5, most destined for a never-to-materialize studio album, are truly first-rate. “Lazy River Road,” “Days Between” and “So Many Roads” are classic Garcia, at work with his longtime lyricist Robert Hunter, touching on failed dreams and wistful memories, and steeped in Americana. The ability to write and perform new songs that sounded a hundred years old was one of the great legacies of the Dead, and one reason why they are so revered by the likes of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith.
As with the Dead, Phish are insanely eclectic, have about 8 million songs in their repertoire, play for hours, improvise, and share much of the same tie-dyed, peripatetic and rabid fan base. Hampton Comes Alive is a six-CD box set that documents two evenings of performances by Phish at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia, in November 1998. Phish don’t have the emotional depth of the Dead or the uncanny ability to re-create Dead-on lysergic imagery, but they’re excellent musicians, funny as hell, and wonderful songwriters (“The Divided Sky” and “Wilson,” among others, are fabulous tunes). Most importantly, like the Dead, they have that sense of awe and joy and wow that the punk-rock poseurs lack.
. . . I apologize for that remark about shoving petunias down anyone’s throat. It’s the 21st century, dear readers. The black-leathered violence of punk rock is as old as James Dean’s bones in a graveyard in Indiana. It’s time as a species to stop acting like perpetually pissed-off teenagers in arrested development and allow ourselves to revel in states of wide-eyed, childlike wonder. It may be the only thing that will save us.
THE GRATEFUL DEAD | So Many Roads (1965–1995) | Grateful Dead/Arista
PHISH | Hampton Comes Alive | Elektra