Friday, August 19, 2005

Uncle Sam’s Band
Why The Grateful Dead was a true American band

A little over 3 years ago, I happened to be listening to FM radio wondering if I'd hear something by the Grateful Dead as their frontman Jerry Garcia had just died. After a lot of inane babble and mindless songs, the DJ mentioned Jerry Garcia. He said that he owned 2 ties that Garcia had designed and hadn't his female host noticed that he'd worn one to work just the day before? Then he guffawed and the song that followed wasn't even by the Grateful Dead.

This is symptomatic of how the Grateful Dead have often been seen - as a hep fashion statement. Appearing to like them meant you had a cooler side. This is especially true in India where their music is acknowledged more as a fitting accompaniment to Scotch Whisky or hashish rather than what they really were - one of the most accomplished bands in the history of popular music.

A band that lasts 30 years, as the Grateful Dead did ('65-'95), cannot be anything less than a phenomenon. They've left some excellent original songs behind but their real contribution to popular culture was their live shows. Meandering and improvisational, their performances borrowed more from jazz traditions than rock 'n roll. Sometimes they fell on their faces, when they were off-time and affected, but more often than not, Jerry Garcia's and Bob Weir's guitars would touch dizzy melodic heights while Bill Kreutzmann's and Mickey Hart's double drumming and Phil Lesh's bass, spurred them on. Almost till the end, 98% of their income came from the concerts they gave. Grateful Dead fans spanned generations and transcended cultural barriers. Collectively called Deadheads, many of the fans travelled city to city, state to state, sometimes even country to country, to watch their beloved band play and even capture the concerts on their own recording instruments. Despite the band folding up in 1995 due to Garcia's death, the Deadheads stay as well-networked as before, with the same unique sense of community and well-being. A lot of them attend solo concerts of other band members such as Bob Weir.

Grateful Dead were nothing if not an American band. Their music reflected all the changes from glorious hippiedom in the '60s to the selfish yuppieness of the '80s . The songs resonated with the mood swings and change-of-hearts of the American people through the most vital part of their cultural history. They proved more than anyone else that musical sophistication and naiveté could be two sides of the same coin.

The recording studio was not the band's favourite place in the world. They produced just 13 studio albums in 30 years. Most of them were uneven yet with indisputable high points. Anthem Of The Sun ('68) was too experimental; Aoxomoxoa ('69) was tuneful but inconsistent; Blues For Allah ('75) was full of jazz riffs and often too eclectic (but with some fabulously groovy moments like "Franklin's Tower"); Terrapin Station ('77) was interesting but sometimes over the top; Shakedown Street ('78) and Go To Heaven ('80) were their nod to disco and straight rock 'n roll and a lot of it worked; In The Dark ('87) was their best-selling, only hit album with some marvelous songs like the opener "Touch Of Grey" - with concerns of ageing; Built To Last ('89) was catchy but weak. There were some terrific live albums in between, none better than the all-electric Dead Set and the all-acoustic Reckoning (both'80).

But the Grateful Dead's claim to all-time greatness lies in the music they recorded and released in the year 1970. In that one year, through the 18 songs in the 2 albums they did, their place in musical history was secured. These two albums of genius were Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. The first was a response to the withering hippie dream and the unrest in American society at that time. The album opened with the autobiographical "Uncle John's Band" - a lovely, gentle, beautifully harmonised song that demonstrated the focus the band seemed to have found. "New Speedway Boogie" was about a brutal murder at a Rolling Stones concert in 1969 - an event that had come to symbolise the end of the '60s idealism. The breezy "Cumberland Blues", the moody "Black Peter" and the witty "Casey Jones" all demonstrated the band's diversifying musical roots.

Then came American Beauty - a collection of mellower, calmer songs where the songwriting was even stronger, the playing was tight and masterful. The serene gem "Box Of Rain" opened this superb album that was labeled as the peak of hippie country-rock music. Garcia's pedal-steel guitaring and the band's thoughtful arrangements gave the tracks a timeless, undefinable quality that sound fresh to this day. The classy catchiness of "Friend Of The Devil", "Sugar Magnolia" and "Till The Morning Comes", the hymn-like quality in "Brokedown Palace" and "Attics Of My Life", the absolutely ethereal "Ripple" and the quintessential road-song "Truckin" are all up there with the greatest songs ever written. All the lyrics in these 2 albums were written by folk singer/poet Robert Hunter. Almost 20 years later, he was to reveal that Jerry Garcia's deeply-felt singing in American Beauty was possibly also the result of his mother's death in an automobile accident, just before the album was recorded. Though the songs were quiet, gentle, often joyful - there was a strange sad quality to them, and great pathos in Jerry's voice. As Hunter put it - "There's no emotion more appealing than the bittersweet when it's truly, truly spoken."

These two fantastic albums are both available in India on CD. Most of their other albums are available on cassette. A good alternative to buying the later albums is to get the recently -released 2 CD set The Arista Years which picks out their best songs from '75-'95. To initiate yourself to the Grateful Dead magic, you could pick up Skeletons From The Closet (in cassette or CD) - a competent compilation from the early period.

It's sad that Jerry Garcia passed away at just 53. With him died one of the world's most enduring and legendary bands. Strangely, the last song performed by the Grateful Dead at their last concert (they wouldn't have known it then) was the beautiful "Black Muddy River" (from In The Dark). The song is about going on despite life's disappointments and heartbreaks, and if you listen closely to the words, it sounds like Jerry Garcia is saying goodbye to the world. Equally eerie is the last track in Grateful Dead's last studio album (Built To Last). The song is called "Standing On The Moon" and it describes how the earth looks from the heavens. Both these albums are available in India. That FM DJ could have played either one that day.

November 1998


Blogger retroauro said...

Here is a link to their live shows.They, as you would expect have given permission to allow their music to be distributed.You can catch them at their meandering best here.Lots of music here.

11:34 PM  

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