A Panel Discussion on the Grateful Dead
Introduction | Biography | Panel Discussion | Reviews
In the year 2003, the reputation of the Grateful Dead precedes them. Most of us are more familiar with their legend - the jams, the Deadheads, the drugs and the psychedelia - than we are with their music. Though all of TM's writers were alive for the release of the Dead's last studio album (Built to Last, in 1989), none of us were there to experience the Grateful Dead heyday in the late 60s and 70s. Given the resurgence of jambands and alt.country in the 1990s, it's surprising how little of the Grateful Dead's catalogue seeped back into playlists. In the postmodern nineties, we were more likely to see the Dead spoofed than we were to hear their work proper. I knew a great deal about what the Grateful Dead were like, but not much of what they really were. And I knew I wasn't alone.
It's in front of this backdrop that TANGMONKEY.COM's music department turns to the Grateful Dead with fresh, indie hipster eyes. We're not aging hippies, most of us aren't suffering from acid flashbacks, and for music critics, we're woefully ignorant of this canonical rock band. As Rhino and Warner Music unleash a volley of rereleased records by the Grateful Dead, we listened, took notes, and (re)evaluated America's most famous tour-band. [Sean Michaels]
The Grateful Dead began and ended with singer/songwriter Jerry Garcia. It was in Palo Alto, CA, that Garcia assembled The Warlocks in July of 1965. The band was drawn from the local folk and bluegrass scene: Garcia was joined by Bob Weir on guitar, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan on keyboards, Bill Kreutzmann on drums and electronic music composer Phil Lesh on bass. Garcia's friend Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics.
By the end of 1965, The Warlocks had found themselves a patron: the wealthy Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and famed LSD-advocate, recruited Garcia's band to play at the Acid Tests, a series of arty LSD parties for the public. The drug had yet to be criminalized, and in this setting, The Warlocks' warm, jam-driven songs flourished. Taking a phrase from an ancient Egyptian prayer, The Warlocks were reborn as the Grateful Dead, gaining further bankroll courtesy of LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley. The band moved into a communal house in San Francisco's hippie haven Haight-Ashbury, signed to MGM in 1966, and then were dropped soon after.
During 1967's Summer of Love, the Grateful Dead became the toast of the Bay Area, appearing at all of the area's top venues. They released their self-titled debut in March of that year and after a performance at the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival, expanded to include a second drummer, Mickey Hart. Anthem of the Sun was released in 1968, Aoxomoxoa in 1969. Unfortunately, the Grateful Dead were not frugal studio experimenters; they were now in debt to their label for more than $100,000.
In dire financial straits, the Grateful Dead did what most of us do when we owe the Man a few dollars: they released a live record. 1969's Live/Dead was a commercial success, capturing the group's live energy in a way that preceding albums had not. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty followed - studio albums with a revitalizing acoustic focus.
Over the 1970s, the Grateful Dead's live reputation grew, attracting more and more fans to their highly improvised, drug-fuelled shows. The "Deadheads" became the Grateful Dead's tie-dyed retenue, as much a part of the G.D. experience as the music itself. Though Pigpen died of liver failure in 1973, touring continued, shows were bootlegged, the Dead's reputation grew, new albums were squeezed out every couple of years. The releasing schedule trickled out as the band entered the eighties, however - Keith Godchaux, who replaced Pigpen on keys, was killed in a 1980 car-crash. Concerts were the group's principal activity until 1987's In the Dark. Suddenly, the Grateful Dead were in the Top Ten, their video was on MTV rotation, new fans were flocking. The once-mellow crowds were still pot-addled and acid-tripping, but now they had begun to enter conflicts with the police. In an inevitable response to his continued substance abuse, Garcia's health suffered, even as the group toured with Bob Dylan and released their final studio effort, Built to Last (1989). In 1990, the band's third keyboardist, Brent Mydland, ODed, and on August 9th, 1995, Jerry Garcia was found dead in his room at a drug clinic in California. He was 53.
Needless to say, since Garcia's death, there has been no shortage of reissues, remasterings, reunions and retrospectives. The haze hasn't lifted: in one form or another, the Dead live on. [Sean Michaels]
TANGMONKEY.COM's music writers each received a package including one or more of the Grateful Dead rereleases. They listened, took notes, and then shared their thoughts via email. Dusty Dewan, Kevin J, Sean Michaels, and Matthew Pollesel.
What was your prior experience with the Grateful Dead?
Do they sound like you expected?
Is the music any good?
How do you think they have influenced pop music? Which current artists are in their debt?
If they suddenly appeared on the scene today, how would they be received?
Do you think they deserve their current reputation?
What was your prior experience with the Grateful Dead?
Kevin: Other than a certain fondness for their video for "I Will Get By" (those dancing skeletons get me every time), I only had vague mental hippie associations.
Sean: I knew "China Cat Sunflower," which I had studied in a pop music class. It was boring; the song, not the class. It felt very meandering - jammy, I guess - but what made that so unfortunate was that there was no punch in it. It sounded like some men in beards diddling about on organ and guitar. I certainly had never heard anything that would explain the rabid fandom - or anything that suggested there was more to them than their most superficial reputation.
Matthew: Prior to Workingman's Dead, the only thing I'd ever heard by the Dead was an excerpt from their half-hour long "Dark Star", and that was literally just three minutes of a rumbling bass. I knew about the whole community that was around them, but I knew more about all the stuff peripheral to them than about them specifically.
Dusty: My previous experience with the Grateful Dead is that of soul-crushing disappointment. As a young lad, I had built-up in my mind what the Dead would sound like before I had even heard a single one of their songs. All of the visual clues – tie-dye, fantastically demented Filmore posters, the skull-&-lightning-bolt logo and a cautionary episode of Degrassi Jr. High regarding the dangers of LSD – had me expecting something terrifying and heavy, like G n' R & Hendrix on that crazy Willy Wonka boat. What I got instead was "Truckin'" and "Touch of Grey" and the rest of their limp-wrist over-long hippie shit.
Do they sound like you expected?
Sean: The simple answer is 'no'. These songs are more coherent and contained; small, understandable things. I can actually imagine this stuff on the radio alongside The Archies or The Byrds, certainly. Even "China Cat Sunflower" feels like there's more of an order to it, a genuine musical vision. The vocals tie things together really well, lending a great Beatlesy zing.
Matthew: They sounded absolutely nothing like I expected. I was anticipating being bored out of my mind by meandering guitar solos, so I was shocked within the first few seconds of the first song ("Uncle John"s Band") to find that on this album at least, the Dead were nothing like what I'd built them to be in my mind.
Kevin: They sound much different than I was expecting. I really was expecting long guitar solos, and various instrument solos but it was a lot more bluesy and experimental than I thought it would be. I would reckon they were one of the few bands of their era who were really doing something so unique. For that, I do give them credit.
Dusty: Being a little older and having put past preconceptions behind me, I have come to appreciate their sound a little more. I now have the attention span to sit through their longer songs.
Is it any good?
Matthew: Hearing the Dead like this, as a country-rock band, was a huge (and nice) surprise to me. I always like finding there's more to bands than I could have imagined, so discovering that they wrote songs that could be listened to in 100 years, after the whole hippie thing has disappeared, was really cool. I'm probably not going to go out and buy more of their stuff, since I think Workingman's Dead was an aberration in terms of what they put out, but I'll definitely have a much improved opinion of them from now on.
Dusty: Songs like "Born Cross Eyed" and "Alligator" were almost enough to convince me that the Dead were secretly awesome, but the listening experience for the most part felt like a bit of a chore. The Grateful Dead, as far as I can tell, are classic rock with pretension noodling of jazz-fusion-like proportions, minus the technical proficiency.
Kevin: While I did enjoy them more than I thought I did, I don’t think I would put this on again, or listen to them again. Live/Dead reaffirmed my belief that the Grateful Dead are most definitely a live band and even when trying to condense a live concert to tape a lot of it is lost. Perhaps it’s the times we live in, but even with more experimental or avant music, I like to know where I’m going when I start rather than having to take trip only to see where I’ve been once I’ve arrived there.
Sean: I really quite like the instrumental side of things: it's vibrant, inventive, interesting. On the other hand, with a couple of exceptions ("China Cat Sunflower," "Friend of the Devil,") the harmonized vocals remain considerably dated, sleepy, lacking in real emotion or subtlety. I have the same problem with Phish - my folk and rock'n'roll tastes demand singers who sounds like they care. Not just that they can sound pretty together.
From the perspective of what you've heard on these records, how do you think the Grateful Dead have influenced pop music today? Which current artists owe something to Garcia and his crew?
Sean: It sort of depends who heard them. As I wasn't around, I'm not sure whether the proto-punk kids had any exposure to groups like the Grateful Dead - were they as famous as they are now, across the musical spectrum? If we imagine that they were, then some of the Dead's work - I'm thinking about tracks like "What's Become of the Baby," on Aoxomoxoa - must have influenced acts as weird as Zoviet France or the early electronic work of Terry Riley. The 'fun & friendly' acoustic tunes on American Beauty point, unsurprisingly, to Phish - but there's also genuine traces of the Dead's laid-back folk-country in the work of Neil Young, Wilco, the Counting Crows, heck, Sonic Youth. The pop experimentation - the counterpoint, the strange sounds, the adventurous song structures - are really audible in the Flaming Lips or Circulatory System. The live jams included on these records' bonus material also points to genuine jazz fusion - like the Miles Davis' country-livin', white older brother.
Dusty: The fact that awesome music (depending on how far you are willing to trek) can be heard outdoors all summer long, every year, is in some way thanks to the Dead. The Dead’s communal-living and furniture-upholstery-as-clothing mentality seems to have had its influence on the Elephant 6/Orange Twin crowd and Andrew W.K.’s infrequent bathing looks to be inspired by the San Francisco hippie scene. Though lots of modern jam bands are floating around, they don’t share the same spirit of political-rebellion or garner the same rabid fan-base that the Dead attracted.
Kevin: I think the Grateful Dead certainly encouraged experimentation in mainstream pop song structures, as well as completely abandoning traditional structures all together. And no doubt their concerts were the forerunners to current Lollapalooza/All Tommorow’s Parties type events. Other than the obvious mainstream connections like Phish and the Dave Matthews Band, I think bands such as Sonic Youth and Godspeed You! Black Emperor owe a debt to the Grateful Dead who made it okay to experiment along predeteremined borders, as well as releasing songs well in excess of comfortable radio length. Also, the carefully planned chaos of bands like Storm & Stress and U.S. Maple nod toward to the unplanned chaos of the Dead - convincing thousands and thousands that it was cool.
Matthew: Musically, Workingman's Dead isn't very innovative. After all, the Byrds, The Band and Bob Dylan had already done the whole return-to-roots thing by 1970, when the album came out, so just in terms of this album alone, the Dead didn't really help rock or pop progress. The obvious thing to say here is that the Dead helped set the stage for bands like Dave Matthews Band, Phish, and their myriad of lesser imitators, but the fact is Workingman's Dead has nothing on it suggesting that the Dead were a jam band. I can definitely hear the roots of Phish's Farmhouse in songs like "Black Peter," but that was Phish's most musically tight album to date, so such a comparison is misleading. I think that this album is much more of a touchstone for bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks than moe. or something.
If the Grateful Dead suddenly appeared on the scene today, how do you
think they would be received?
Dusty: Given how many bands today are throwbacks to ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the Dead would probably fit in perfectly, perhaps even take the world by storm. NME would hail them as your new favorite band. The Gap would procure their services to help sell colourful scarves. Dreamworks would sign them.
Kevin: If the Grateful Dead arrived on the indie scene today they would probably be despised for the most part and heralded by a small cult following. Because their songs don’t let you know where they are going and because they move from free jams to blues songs in a blink of an eye it would be hard for indie kids to know how to handle them. Sonic Youth are jammy but punk, Don Caballero are crazy but are still a rock band at heart. The Grateful Dead? They are Godspeed without the apocalyptic artifice... without an attitude to pin to them it would be hard for kids to accept them.
Matthew: If they came across as acidhead hippie throwbacks, they'd probably be dismissed almost right away by everyone but the remnants of that community. If they came out with an album like this, though, (Workingman's Dead) I think they'd be hailed by a lot of people as a band who were continuing the work of the country-rock bands from the '60s.
Sean: I think it would be a disaster. The Grateful Dead are so far from garage rock it's not even funny. The indie kids would find them too wussy, the mainstream would find them too wussy, the bluegrass revivalists would shrug their shoulders at the lack of earnestness in the vocal delivery. Maybe they'd be a hit with the retro crowd?
Do you think that the Grateful Dead have been given a rough ride over the past twenty years? Do you think their current image is deserved? Does it leave anything out?
Dusty: While it’s true that the Grateful Dead have been heavily criticized over the years, it didn’t stop them from cultivating a wide and varied fan base. They have done little to dispel their image as hallucinogen-fuel wank-rockers. Whether or not you feel that description is unjustified depends on what you hear in their music.
Sean: Their current reputation ignores the genuine musical experimentation that the Grateful Dead endorsed; they weren't just silly drug-addicts, they were interested in the new directions pop music could take. Like Gram Parsons or The Byrds, the Grateful Dead kept trying things - and the dedication with which they worked (and succeeded) to merge avant garde song-structure and their fans' desire for folksy songs, was absolutely astonishing. They were artists - not artists who particularly resonate for me, but artists nonetheless.
Matthew: The Grateful Dead have received a rough ride for the last few decades, largely because of the type of fan they attracted (and, of course, because a lot of their music was pretty tedious to listen to if you weren't high on something). But, as Workingman's Dead shows, there was more to the band than that. When they forgot about trying to be experimental and psychedelic, and just concentrated on writing good songs, they could be pretty enjoyable to listen to.
Kevin: I don’t think they have been given a rough ride over the past few years since they have cultivated their very image. They have done really nothing at all to shy away from the hippie image/culture and in fact endorse it. It’s their largest fanbase. Nothing wrong with that.
expanded & remastered:
self-titled (1967) - Dusty Dewan [4.5]
Anthem for the Sun (1968) - Dusty Dewan [4.0]
Live/Dead (1969) - Kevin J [4.5]
Aoxomoxoa (1969) - Sean Michaels [3.2]
Workingman's Dead (1970) - Matthew Pollesel [8.3]
American Beauty (1970) - Sean Michaels [8.0]