ON TOUR WITH THE DEAD
The Capitol Theatre is hungry. They've only been running rock shows out in Portchester for a few weeks, and the big crowds aren't coming in yet. So they really went out of their way to pull the press out to see the Grateful Dead.
We passed up the free press bus and drove out in time to catch the Dead's first set. We walked in on an incredible scene. They might have sold three quarters of the downstairs' seats, but you couldn't tell, because everyone was jammed up against the stage waving their hands in the air. It was a scene out of the concerts at the old Village Theatre and the Anderson, before Bill Graham hit New York to put everybody in a numbered seat and enforce the smoking regulations.
The crowd was young, with a lot of short hair and new clothes in evidence. But these were adolescents, not fakes. They hadn't dressed up to make the scene for the night, this was what they wanted. And here it was at last in Westchester.
The scene seemed to bring back memories for the Dead. They played old rock and roll songs like "Good Love" and revived "Viola Lee Blues" for the first time in two years. The band really responded to the kids. They don't dig audiences that sit in their seats. They hate the concept of performing for an audience. They want to make something happen with an audience. It was.
The Dead are a unique band. They were in San Francisco at the beginning of it all, playing at the Trips Festivals and the Acid Tests. They gave free concerts and festivals in the streets and parks. Yet while the other groups made the transition from live to recorded music, or allowed themselves to be hyped and produced by "experts," the Dead just kept playing. They managed to produce a yearly album, but it was only a faint reflection, bought by the faithful to bring back those live moments. And this set was definitely one of those moments.
The band's sound is constantly changing. Their ever-increasing instrumental complexity was most noticeable on "Viola Lee Blues." The opening bass line was the same, but little else. They completely outdid the recorded version, once so noted for its extended instrumental break. The most noticeable difference, though, was in the vocals. The Dead have never been noted as vocalists, and often attempts at harmonies have approached disaster. Not so tonight. Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir produced tight, exciting harmonies on song after song, and Pigpen was perfect on "Death Don't Have No Mercy in This Land."
So after that first set we found Sam Cutler, road manager for the Stones' American tour, who now performs the same function for the Dead. He carefully warned us that "the boys" were tripping. "You're cool guys, just rap to 'em. Go in and rap to 'em on whatever."
So he led us backstage, past Pigpen sleeping on a couch, to an office and presented Mickey Hart with a flourish. "I here provide you with one of the craziest cowboys west of the...west of the..." and unable to think of anything we were west of, he left us.
And we began:
"The group's changed a lot since last summer."
"A lot more vocal harmony."
"Correct. We've been influenced, you see. We've been tampered with."
"What influenced you?"
"Well, Steve Stills came in and stayed with me for about two months, and we hung out together. And Crosby, and they were hanging out with us. So, you know, we were sittin' around singing and getting together and getting the harmonies better. So I guess that's why we're sounding better vocally."
Hart was completely relaxed, leaning against the edge of a table, occasionally eating a piece of chicken left over from the press party. He had no interest in talking about the group's history, their recent New Orleans bust, or similar stock interview questions. Before we realized what had happened, he had shifted the conversation to what we were trying to do with our magazine. Sam Cutler popped in periodically to make sure we weren't bothering him.
"How are things going with the interviewers? What are they doing that's interesting?"
"They're standing there entertaining me."
We finally got Mickey back to himself and his drumming. For him, the interplay of the two drummers is "the highest you can get." It's always a tenuous thing, threatening to break. With most groups it's too many people playing too much.
Mickey went on, "That's always the thing, even with two drummers that are subtle in the ways of music."
"It can turn into a noise fest."
"Yeah, it does that too, you know." He hesitated. "I haven't seen any two drummers that have ever been natural."
"Buddy Rich and Max Roach."
"But I'm talking about electric music. Drumming for electric music is a lot different than drumming for a big band or jazz, you know, just because the nature of the instruments is set. So drummers, now - because I really look for it and I see them starting up all around the country - they're trying it out because they know it's the place to go. And they just come and they just go."
"Yeah, it's the place to go..."
"Yeah, right, but you've got to get your own - it just has to happen. It has to be a magic. You have to be a combination that goes beyond technique, way beyond technique..."
"You can't program it."
"Oh no, nothing is programmed. We don't rehearse anything especially because we don't want that to happen. I mean, nothing is arranged - if it doesn't happen then, it's not happening. I mean it should be happening when you play it and it should be made, it should be conceived, and it should be brought. It should be an experience, and you can't plan an experience and make it virile and vital."
"You don't want to perform at an audience."
"It should be a happening, man, a happening. It should be everybody getting together..."
"Some sort of reaction of the audience and the band, instead of you performing to the audience."
"Right, it's not like that, man. I mean it is like that sometimes, but it doesn't always have to be like that. That's how you change form - by letting things submerge. All the subtleties become very important when we play them, and that's the only thing with respect to the form. A performance doesn't let anything happen, you just keep playing the same thing, only better."
Mickey thinks that rock shows have lost their vitality. He still looks back to the beginning. "There was this big thing called the Trips Festival. It had echo delays and people rapping and actually writing on a piece of paper and having it thrown upon the wall, you know, somebody's writing it, and we're singing it as they're writing it."
Somehow the Dead blame Bill Graham - this became formalized into the standard concert format of a rock band with a light show behind it. "Light shows were really wild when they first started, but now their techniques have... Most light shows are really old hat."
"Where do you think things are going?"
"Well, I don't know, basically they're using a lot of laser beams now."
"In light shows?"
"No, they aren't in light shows, but they will..."
"Burn a hole in a stone wall?"
"No, that's not really true." Hart got more involved. "I think simulating the actual sound with waves of energy and colors..."
"Like an oscilloscope?"
"Yeah, actually getting the real color of the music..."
"Hooking up the instruments to the light show?"
"Right, getting more, getting higher."
The girl behind the desk interrupted, "I'm cold. Could you possibly close the window?"
Mickey, who was closest, struggled to get through the containers of left-over food from the press party. "I can't get back there."
"Oh, you can't, all right."
Mickey finally got under the window. "I can't reach that."
"Do you want a chair?"
He picked up a long cardboard roll and pushed the window shut. "Ahhh."
"How do you feel being addressed by the general public as a rock and roll star?"
"I don't understand the question."
"Don't you find that a lot of people come up to you and treat you strangely because they consider you a rock and roll star?"
"No, not too many people are into that. And those people that are, I usually don't talk to. No, I just don't have anything to do with them and pretty soon they wonder why, or I tell 'em that's not where it's at. It doesn't make you play better music."
"Well, a lot of kids are into this trip, if it's on records and it's at the Fillmore, then it's a star. And you can't talk to a star the way you talk to normal people."
"Yeah, well that happens in some places, you know, and that's all over now. Most places, it's all over. They know the star syndrome is just a bunch of shit."
"Yeah, like it's left over from Elvis Presley and..."
"Yeah, Elvis Presley and the great Colonel...throwbacks, man."
"Don't the record companies still push this sort of thing?"
"I really dig your ad where an old-time barker says, 'See the Grateful Dead roll over and play live.' So many other ads you hear are so bad."
"Yeah, it's a real pisser." He began parodying ads. "The best in the wurrrld! The most! Farowwwt!"
"But there are ads that really do that seriously."
"Oh, yeah, I know. Everybody's really serious about it."
"Were you happy with the last album? Did you think it captured the live sound?"
"No... No, I don't think they've got it down yet. Our best sounds have not been recorded yet. We just haven't - I mean, something always happens, like someone always forgets to push the button on the machine, or the tapes blot out, or it's feedback. Some kind of magic, you know. The sounds haven't been recorded."
"Do you care how your albums do - what position they are on the charts, stuff like that?"
"To some extent, you know, knowing that we don't - knowing who we are. No, I don't care. I know that we don't sell records. That's just a part of us that isn't us. We don't make records, we just play music."
"Have you recorded any of your new stuff yet?"
"Well yeah, we just finished an album the other day."
"When will it be out?"
"Now that's something I don't know."
"Is it mixed and all that?"
"It might be completely mixed." He paused. "It might need just one more song."
"Is it a studio album?"
Mickey seemed bored. "Yeah, it's a studio album."
"How do you work in the studio? Do you just go in and whatever pops into your minds..."
"No, this time we had songs. Jerry wrote a bunch of songs and he played 'em for us, and we rehearsed 'em a few times, and we went into the studio and cut 'em."
"Do you all sit in different little boxes in the studio, or do you work the way you do on stage?"
"Sometimes we get together, and sometimes we're in boxes. I don't like the studio, myself. Recorded music and live music are two different kinds of music. They're definitely not the same."
"Do you have any interest in using the studio to do things you can't do on stage or do you just want to capture the live sound?"
"Right at this particular time we're interested in the live sound. We might get interested in the studio someday. We're just playing now for the people. We don't have any time off."
"Is that financial, or do you just like to tour?"
"Financial. We'd like some time off just to play together, we like to invent new stuff."
Somebody opened the office door. The noise from Catfish forced us to shout. "You don't like to just keep doing the stuff from your repertoire?"
"That isn't the way we like to think of it."
"Well, in the course of a tour do you invent totally new numbers?"
"Totally new numbers, no. We have improvised sections, like 20 minutes, 30 minutes. That's not much structure, really."
"How long have you been playing 'Good Love'?"
"About six months ago we started. We played it a long time ago. We revive it from time to time. Like 'Viola Lee Blues,' it's the second time we've played it in two years. We played it last night and tonight. The second time."
"Was tonight an especially good time?"
"It was all right. It was a little staggery, you know. I didn't, uh - maybe some people did." He paused. "I liked it..."
"Yeah, it was really something."
"it wasn't you know, it wasn't a super set."
Sam Cutler popped into the office again. "Mickey, what are you up to?"
"Are we ready to play?"
"In about ten minutes."
"I'll see you fellows. I've got to warm up. Go on upstairs if you want to see anybody else."
So we wandered upstairs and found Jerry Garcia talking to a photographer at the back of a narrow dressing room. The groupies were so tightly packed in on the floor that we couldn't get to him. He was in the middle of a long rap about corner cutting at record companies. Sam Cutler's head appeared, and he signalled. Jerry looked relieved as he picked up his guitar. "Wow, I got to stop rapping and start playing."
We moved back down the stairs with the gang of groupies and photographers surrounding Garcia. Backstage the band began to get themselves together.
"Do you feel good?"
"I feel great, I feel great, grand..."
"All right, let's get musical - I wanna hear something."
One of the band sang a fanfare, and off they went for the second set.
This audience was older, more typical of rock concerts, but they reacted the same way. The front of the stage was jammed tight with bodies, and behind them people were dancing on the seats. The ushers had given up, and both cigarettes and dope were freely smoked.
The crowd couldn't control its response. Whenever a number ended, they broke into wild whistling, clapping, and yelling. Whenever the Dead huddled to decide on the next number, they yelled out requests and began clapping rhythmically not out of rudeness, but out of energy that had to find an outlet.
We went backstage again and found complete chaos. About fifty other people from the press were in the wings dancing. The girls tried to outmaneuver each other to get to a point where the audience could see them. Finally we ducked into the office. One of the band's handlers was talking with Sam Cutler. "So like the reception to the live album was the first positive reception the record industry has given to a Grateful Dead album..."
Cutler interrupted. "The live album is the first one that was ever fuckin' produced in any sense for a start, man. By normal, you know, by conceived ideas of what producing a record is - by record industry ideas, that is. That's the first album that they could see production techniques used which they could understand. This is what matters. They were embraced by them, because this one, in record industry terms, man, is explicable and simple. Right? You know, close, tight harmonies, snappy, kind of individualistic..."
The other guy broke in. "That's why it's the best album. That's the last place we were, and we are definitely - although we are not at this point ready to make the top - our production techniques, I consider not up to that perception..."
"But they are well on the way..."
He continued, "But they are well on their way to that, and we need to punch every step of the way. The way the live album was first created was - it was decided that there was something that had to happen. There was something and that's what we ended up with..."
Cutler interrupted again. "I want to say that [ ] not the next album, but the one after that. Well, apparently this album is one. I want to see the third one. Listen man, this live album is valuable, you know, the improvement - but I want to see the kind of impact The Band had with their first album, shooting off into space somewhere."
We finally got in a question, "How's the album that was just recorded?"
Cutler began emoting. "How is it? It's incredible, unbelievable..."
"What sort of stuff is on it?"
"The greatest rock and roll music in the world. I don't know what you call it, it's very..."
"It's what you would expect of the Grateful Dead."
He continued, "It's them out there, you know, it's going on outside."
So we went back outside, where the Dead were calming the crowd with a long acoustic piece. I wondered about the conflict between Mickey's statements and Cutler's. The Dead have always had problems getting themselves together as "professionals." In the past, all their affairs have been handled by members of their family. This has led to all sorts of problems. Performances have gone to pieces because managers were so into their own trips that they couldn't get things set up properly.
Similarly, the band has had to endure unnecessary hassles because the people who should have insulated them were too far gone to do their job. With Cutler around, this seems to have changed. In spite of the crowd backstage, everything was handled smoothly.
The Dead could obviously use the respite increased record sales would give them. Yet they have always resisted being "produced." There is a conflict between hit albums and the Dead's concept of music.
But there was no conflict out on the stage. Jerry Garcia was facing Bob Weir. They were both sitting on folding chairs with their acoustic guitars. They finished a long piece that had strained the audience almost to breaking point. They smiled, and went into "Wake Up Little Suzie." The crowd went wild. From that they went electric again with "Cosmic Charlie." The excitement kept building.
When the audience heard the first bars of "Saint Stephen," they went insane. The intersection between audience and music was complete. When they reached "Lady fingers dipped in moonlight..." they slowed it much more than on the records, and the tension began to subside. Then the band shifted into "Not Fade Away." Suddenly all the tension was back. And they held it for 20 minutes, shifting back and forth from "Saint Stephen" to "Not Fade Away." You can only emote: "unbelievable, incredible..."
They were all elated when they came off. They didn't want to go back on, what more could they do? But for the audience, the tension was still unbearable, they had to be released.
So the band went back out without their instruments. "Lay down, my dear brothers, lay down and take your rest..." It was very ragged the first time through and the crowd couldn't handle it. They still wanted the electricity. But the Dead just kept singing over and over again. The crowd clapped along, raucously at first, but gradually the song took effect. With each repetition the harmony became surer, and finally: "I bid you good night, good night, good night."
They were completely drained. It was after 3:00 and the set had lasted well over two hours. They were even too tired to attempt to dodge the mob backstage. We watched one would-be groupie go from one member to another, "Good-bye, see you the next time you're around New York." And then we wandered off. We were drained too.
(by Harry Jackson, from Zygote, unknown date but possibly July 22 1970)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com