WHAT WILL BE THE ANSWER TO THE ANSWER THEN?
The Gagaku are coming.
Two weeks ago, some days after the Grateful Dead had paid a brief visit to England, the Gagaku gave a concert to a half-filled Royal Albert Hall. The tickets were marked 'The Gagaku': not the name of five young rock stars from West Hampstead, but a literal transplant from the Japanese, meaning 'elegant music'. The concert was in fact given by the dancers and musicians of the Imperial Court of Japan: slowly, precisely and with disciplined elegance, they performed a number of instrumental pieces written for percussion (bells, gongs, cymbals and drums) and stringed instruments (lute and harp), and played the accompanying music for three shortened dance pieces. Squatting silently behind their instruments they played quiet, light, structured music, softly controlling and redirecting the dynamics of the Hall. The dancers too, ceremoniously dressed in early court costume, pushed the air about with their simple movements, telling a silent story with each stamp of the foot, each turn of the wrist. Their music was high and light, embellished with cross-patterns, and given depth with the doomy thud of the 'bass' drums.
After two hours they finished, breaking into smiles at the five-minute ovation, and showing their first signs of indiscipline as they bowed to all sides of their square green mat. The applause continued, and so the musicians walked back to their instruments and sat down behind them, as if to play an encore. But they waited for a few seconds, collected their karma, and walked calmly from the stage, calmly out of sight.
That moment, and many others, has a parallel in the performances and moods of the Grateful Dead. The San Francisco band came and went; played one gig and left again for the States; they came as a disciplined collective unit with a naturally-developed karma, the result of years of working, living, learning and playing together; they made their statement, a more refined, intense statement than any other electrified band in the world; they knew the exact meaning and relevance of each note and movement; they were modest and surprised at their reception; they too energized the very air around them; their music is as pure and true, and their performance was an expression of their total belief, their whole existence.
The band now numbers six playing members, including the pallid, subdued Pigpen, who in effect does as little as the others allow him to, but the family is, of course, much larger. Of any band, even those on the West Coast round San Francisco, these are the people who have held out longest and strongest against the realities and pressures of existence in Amerika. There have been moments of crisis and indecision - Bob Weir and Mickey Hart have nearly left at more than one stage - and continued economic inefficiency, but they have reached a stage in their evolvement, after five years together, which no external force or change could break down. From the days even before Ken Kesey's Acid Tests and their three-month spell with Owsley Stanley III they have been totally committed to one another as members of a large though well-defined community, with the aim of bringing all those around them to what Garcia sees as 'a place where you can feel good.'
A collective, a body, needs a leader, a head. For the Dead that is the function of Jerry Garcia, a benign acid-beaten warhorse, 'dripping with music'. As the I Ching elucidates, the lake on top of the mountain feeds and nourishes the body below it, and at the same tims draws its strength and support from the mountain. So is Garcia the leader, but only through the unspoken and total support of the others. He is only part of the Grateful Dead, their font, their lake and their catalyst.
As Michael Lydon points out, the Grateful Dead as a total is an ultimate paradox within the frenetic medium cultivated by the rock machine, most noticeable in the early days of San Francisco: when superstars were demanded, the Dead remained and still remain 'just people', albeit within a large and mythical community. They were superceded as an SF band, even when they were the Warlocks, by the Great Society, the Airplane and the Charlatans. But Garcia himself has been around for some years. During the fifties his penchant moved from rock to folk, and into purists' country music, making a name for himself in New York as an incredible bluegrass banjo player before returning to the west coast in 1964 to start up Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions with Pigpen (Ron McKernan) and Bob Weir. Three total dropouts, of varying ages and backgrounds (Weir was only seventeen), they were unable to get gigs until they made the transition to an electric rock band when a local music store owner offered to supply them with equipment. They were joined on drums by Bill Sommers, as Kreutzman was identified on his fake ID, the only one of the four with previous rock and roll experience. Mickey Hart, previously a straight jazz drummer, joined later after jamming with Kreutzman. They went through 'Alligator' for two hours. If it works like that, then it is your music, and you join the Dead family. Phil Lesh eventually took over on bass. Garcia had known him for some time; he had played violin in his early years, then became a 'Kenton-style jazz trumpeter', but never before played bass. They performed for the first time as a full five-piece band during July 1965 in a club at Fremont. For a while they played as a straightforward rock band, getting louder and stranger as the months rolled past, and as they went through the days of Kesey's Acid Tests. Then 'in the late days of the Acid Tests, we were looking for a name. We'd abandoned the Warlocks, it didn't fit anymore. One day we were all over at Phil's house smoking DMT. He had a big Oxford dictionary, opened it, and there was 'grateful dead', those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, y'know, like everything else on the page went blank, diffuse, just sorta oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD, big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, 'How about Grateful Dead?' and that was it.' (Rolling Stone, August 23, 1969)
Later, after their ride on Owsley's magic bus, they moved back down to San Francisco, eventually stopping off at the legendary 710 Ashbury. They became an economic communal, musical centre of blistering energy with the continual problem of combining all those facets. Managed by Rock Skully and Danny Rifkin, they played mostly for free, and were confronted more and more often with the double reality of surviving and seeing what they had experienced with Kesey during the Acid Tests being turned into commercial 'head' products: posters, psychedelic light-shows and the 'underground' products of record companies. In 1967 they formed the Great Northwestern Tour with Quicksilver and Jerry Abrams' Headlights, taking care of all arrangements for themselves, and returning to San Francisco to set up the Carousel Ballroom with the Airplane. The concept was perfect, but the administration and business was more than they could handle, and by early 1968 Bill Graham moved in to take up the lease when the Carousel and all its energy was at its lowest ebb, renaming the place The Fillmore West. The Dead's financial crises continued: last summer the band was $60,000 in debt, a figure that will never be entirely eaten away. The situation should improve: now managed in a business-like manner by John MacIntyre, they are in the flush of their most relevant album, Live Dead, which should bring the true meaning of the Dead's concerts to a number of record-players. None of their other albums have lost less of the essential feeling of the Dead in the transition from one medium to another, but then, their records never sell well.
The first album, The Grateful Dead, was virtually a live set too. It was recorded in 1966, soon after signing their contract with Warners, with which they have never been entirely happy. They went straight into the studios with no idea what recording was about, but knowing exactly what was going to be laid down, and they had a producer. 'We went in and did everything they told us to, played our songs and sang, and we took a lot of speed y'know, and got it on. So that album was never a realistic picture.' Maybe the methods were new and strange to them, and the final outcome something beyond their ultimate control, but elements of their current live performance were already apparent. The time came for them to use that experience: 'After that we went on this thing of 'well, let's approach record-making as though we were writing a novel or painting a picture, and try for a completely finished thing, y'know, 'the long-play record'. You put it on and you listen to it all the way through, you hallucinate various ways, and there's a lot to it. That has never been anything that great numbers of people have liked.'
Anthem of the Sun, recorded in four studios and at 18 gigs between September 1967 and the end of March '68, was their first structured approach. They began with David Hassinger as their producer, moved him out halfway through, and Garcia and Lesh mixed the results. On one of the first and few albums to have no tracks, each side is an entity, moving through crashing, delicate changes, and wound round Garcia's simple melodies. 'Alligator' is still an improvisational stepping-stone in concert, moving out from a thunderous liquid opening, bouncing huge balls of sound across the stage, juggling them around into a finally-interlocking jigsaw of fire and air, toying with the elements. Kreutzman takes the basic rhythm away, staring fixedly at Hart, who stares back, a wild-eyed percussionist, forcing unreal nuances from a cowbell or wood-blocks. Garcia comes in, effortless and easy, never any sign of strain. He has no need to pull the guitar through that sound, no need to try and jerk the notes out of the ground, so he picks and chooses from the adimensional chessboard that the drummers and Lesh lay out. His solos are not [sic]; they are delicate, head-splitting bursts of energy running across that chessboard in an endless, cheerful search for the moment that he finds so often. No other white guitarist has managed to so evolve his music to the point where he creates a totally new medium for his instrument.
The third set, Aoxomoxoa, was released last year with Rick Griffin's skull/sun-seed phallus leering out of the cover. Robert Hunter, the lyrical collaborator with Garcia and Lesh, and always something of an extramural figure, had begun to write words that held out on their own against the throbbing black angel of the music. Either simple and easy:
Saint Stephen with a rose
In and out of the garden he goes
Country garden in the wind and the rain
Wherever he goes the people all complain
or lines that flash out of the instrumental background: 'One man gathers what another man spills'. At about the same time he wrote the poetry for the long winding passage of 'Dark Star':
Dark Star crashes
Pouring its light into ashes
The forces tend from the axis
For faults in the cloud of delusion
Shall we go
You and I, while we can...
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds...
In formless reflections of matter
Fast and dissolving
In ice-petal flowers revolving
Lady in velvet
Recedes in the nights of goodbye
Shall we go
You and I, while we can...
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds...
Like no other album until Working Man's Dead, the songs here stand firmly as strong individual cuts - no flashing moments of euphoria, but a good studio album, and the basis of extended live movements. 'Saint Stephen' is the best example. On Live Dead the cut lasts nearly seven minutes, but in fact has the necessary elements for an hour's playing.
The double live album was written and recorded some eighteen months ago, but is itself an acid-test for their raga-like improvisation. Garcia explained it: 'This is the rough form, and within this form we can improvise endlessly. You take a few rough forms, y'know, they're sketchy outlines, vehicles for improvisation. We have that and we have very heavily structured things that are much more formal. That becomes more like classical music, where you can compare it in terms of other performances of the same material. On the new album, which we did in ten days, it was very short for us, really a miracle, it came out as a pretty good example of the more formal things. They aren't really; they aren't heavily arranged or anything like that, but they're specifically songs. They have specific ways they go. We don't organise instrumental passages particularly, but the vocals and stuff will be more formal: we'll have specific lines people sing. They're formal in that sense. They're songs, complete. It's much closer to the centre than any of our previous records. That is to say, it's more likely that more people can hear it and get behind it. We still satisfied ourselves artistically: we enjoyed making it, we enjoy listening to it, it's good. It's another side, that's the way I see it.'
The Dead played their first gig outside the continent of North America at the Holly Wood Festival; the first chance to see the band, and to feel their full effect.
The coach set off early for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The Dead and their entourage gathered between eight-thirty and nine in the glowing Whitsunday morning. The sky had been bright and cloudless since the first joint at six-thirty, as if the elements had already decided to give us every possibility of getting musically and spiritually high in the best conditions. Garcia rolls out of the hotel grinning as ever, like some grizzly bear just finishing the last big meal of the winter: he was ready for the day. Weir is pale and thin, and Pigpen sits on his own, grunting periodically to himself. Sam Cutler, who looks as if the task of taking care of the Dead's day-to-day practicalities is a harrowing and exhausting trip, manages at last to get all the right people into the coach. Ah. No Mickey Hart. He just knocked himself around with the exigencies of a night in the hotel. Another night in another hotel. He arrives eventually, bandy-legged, cheerfully clutching his balls, English chick silently in tow. She never said a word for the whole trip; you don't become an extra member of this group just by balling the drummer one night. She'll have to wait till they come back a few times.
Off at nine or just after, a five-hour journey ahead. And the first two hours are devoted to the joint-rolling industry: thick and thin and fast they come, and the M1 floats past. Looking out of the front and side windows of the bus becomes more like sitting in the front row of the Cinerama: the road and fields rush past as we sit transfixed in our seats. Cutler gives a rundown on our time, 'We'll be there in an hour or so', Weir and Lesh shout at each other like kids, Garcia is digging the country, and Pigpen, evil little eyes hardly flickering under his battered cord hat, grunts periodically to himself. He seems ill, yellow, pasty-faced, and always the passenger. TC is along too, not to play, but because he, as much as Pig, will always be part of the family. He sits quietly and inwardly content, those huge moustaches making his bottom jaw disappear. One expects nothing from him except the occasional mouth-full-of-hair guffaw, but even that he keeps to himself.
The obligatory stop at the Blue Boar, so Cutler can show off a unique and endemic part of the English rock scene, is full of confusion. It's midday on a hot Sunday and one of the world's most respected bands is three hours from a debut in front of an unknown audience, very stoned and faced with a tiny choice of greasy plastic food. That choice becomes difficult and irrelevant. We eat the nearest thing to hand, score a few Marvel Comix, and get back on the road. We pull round the corner to see the Holly Wood fields right after two o'clock; there it is, a grassy, natural bowl, perhaps only a third full, but still thousands upon thousands are standing, sitting, walking about, rolling, pissing, waiting. None of them have ever seen the Dead before, and the Dead have never seen any of them either. The activity in the bus steps up. This is why we're here. Garcia admits he is nervous. He is nervous! He added later 'It's hard to know what to play for; whether you're playing for a critical musical audience, or an uncritical pop audience that's used to a whole different thing, or playing for a group of freaks. Each scene is subtly different, so we didn't know where it was going to be at in relation to ourselves and the audience.'
The coach is too wide for the dusty farm lane. We get out and walk the last hundred yards, staggering bleary-eyed past the smiling country police outside the enclosure. Bleary-eyed at two in the afternoon. It hasn't even begun yet. The spiritual warmth of Quintessence floats over the hill. After them the hot blast of Colloseum, and then the band that will take the stage, mutter 'OK, we're the Grateful Dead' and take off, taking off a few hundred heads with them. Out comes this year's purple pills and third-eye drops, quietly for those who look for it, and a few BBC2 cameramen who weren't expecting Owsley's output to be quite so good. But it is.
The monitoring system screwed up for the previous bands, but along with their old, battered equipment Ramrod the Quippie and the other Dead handlers fixed their own monitors to form a complete shell of sound. It wasn't perfect: 'all you could hear were the least hearable frequencies, super-low things, and stuff coming out really weird', but by four-thirty they were ready to try it out.
For the first hour or so they gave quick glimpses of all their strengths: Hart and Kreutzman battling out the percussion, Lesh somehow, unbelievably holding them together, Weir driving down and crisply cutting up the second guitar, Pig pigging his way through 'Good Lovin'' and 'Hard to Handle', and then Garcia. Garcia with a halo of flapping black hair and a week's beard, his eyes laughing wisely behind his round yellow glasses, knowing that every note he played changed the direction of our thoughts, our moods, our meaning. He waited until the exact moment, then stepped in front of the sound-shell, grinned, calmly lashing our sensibilities, taking them where they had never dared go before, to places they never realised had existed. He controlled and energised this monstrous delicate beast, it was entirely his whim, and we went with it as the audience opened up, relaxed and allowed it to happen.
During 'Dark Star' we lost reality and soared. Above the canopy over the stage, at an exact ninety degrees to the scaffolding, and at a height of perhaps thirty or forty thousand feet, a silver dart crossed the sky, blazing a double white trail. It split the air in two, cracked the sphere, the brilliant blue crumbled. Nothing. Empty. Void. It was as if Captain Trips had been waiting for that moment, expecting it to happen. He picked up the pieces and carefully reassembled them the way he wanted, each note a truer, whiter, blacker high. They moved into the thunderous, crashing, bouncing earthquake of 'St Stephen', and softly into 'Turn On Your Lovelight'. Pigpen moved round the front to add his demonic presence to Garcia's blinding white-hot guitar. We were up, straining to be with them, carried up, out of our bodies, clapping in time for five minutes or an hour with hands that were no longer ours. It began to work: our energy was theirs, and theirs ours. We were exhausted, giving all we could; they paced themselves, giving and taking in equal amounts. How could it stop? why should it stop? what happens now?
After three hours they left the stage, but the music and the mood continued, as we staggered about, high and high and speechless. What happens now? After a hundred huge explosions in three hours or twenty-three years, what happens now? Do you pull out the plugs and go quietly, bemused, back to London or Manchester or Birmingham, or do you give the crowd more. That crowd. They didn't all go the same way: within an hour they chant and stomp and rave for Free and Mungo Jerry, like an insatiable Roman audience watching their favorite gladiators and lions chew themselves to bits, they swallow everything that is offered them, and they swallow it whole.
Backstage the feeling is different. That's enough. Nobody needs more, nobody wants more. Is there any more? The trippers and the non-trippers smile and nod, speechless. Outside in the car-park is Steve Winwood, due to close the concert in four hours time. He wanders round with a chick with bright green streaks in her hair, helplessly holding a guitar. 'What are you going to do Stevie?' Almost in tears, he replies 'I don't know man. I don't know.'
Later that week, in the few hours before he flew back to the States, Jerry Garcia talked about the gig: 'I don't think we played well. I think it was getting good; it was starting to get good; we were getting used to the sound of it, and the feeling of it, and the people were starting to get enthusiastic. The way I feel, it was our function in that festival to loosen the audience somewhat, so everybody who followed had a good audience. When we came on it was kinda like, we didn't know them and they didn't know us. But anyway, I didn't feel that we played well, I really didn't.
'We're going through some transitions. Our music is not what it was: it's continually changing. What we've been doing in the States lately is having like 'an evening with the Grateful Dead'. We start off with acoustic music with Bobby and I playing guitars, light drums and very quiet electric bass. Pigpen plays the organ. Then we have a band we've been travelling with, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, where I play pedal steel, not guitar, Mickey plays drums and three of our friends from the coast, musicians that we've known for a long time, are fronting the band. So we start off with acoustic music and then The New Riders of the Purple Sage - it's like very snappy electric country-rock; it's kinda hard to describe - and then we come on with the electric Dead, so it keeps us all really interesting, and it's six hours of this whole development thing. By the end of the night it's very high. We weren't able to do that this time, we couldn't bring it all over.
'The English audience is something new, but we know how to pace ourselves. We've been doing it for five years. You either pace yourselves or you have heart attacks. Something like that...you get strung out on speed... In a festival situation it's kinda hard to get it on. You can't compete with the outdoors.'
For the last three years rumours have circulated round London that the Grateful Dead were due to arrive in England for the first time, often to play a gig in Hyde Park. They were never realised, and the rumour that they were to play at the Holly Wood festival was at first met with hardened cynicism, and then slight disbelief. But they arrived this time, explaining how near they had come to making it earlier... 'We all got shots and passports and packed and then, 'Oh...we're not going...' Garcia jokingly complained of the 'cultural shock and all' that ultimately reminded him that 'American cities don't seem civilised, they seem more like incredible, horrible accidents.'
There was a time when the Dead played as many free gigs as paid ones, but for many reasons, not the least being that they were continually burnt by over-sharp promoters and loused-up PA systems that didn't come up to the meticulous standards on which they have always insisted. They now do one free concert for about every five to a fee. But their commitment and their guidance has never been questioned on the West Coast. Captain Trips is an inspiration as well as a natural spokesman: 'If somebody has an idea, if I have an idea, for changing the country, there is no idea which will include it all. The way it's going to have to happen is for people to use what's there. Ultimately I keep hoping that whatever group of people that's running the country, which may or may not be the government, will begin to understand that unless somebody does something real soon it's all going to to go to pieces in one way or another, either ecologically or just a complete breakdown...like ecology is a reality in the States where so much is polluted and poisoned and ruined it's incredible. A hundred miles from Los Angeles, thirteen hundred feet above sea-level, there's Ponderosa Pines, which are three hundred years old. Sturdy trees. And they're all dying because of the smog from Los Angeles. The way it is in America nobody moves really towards any kind of constructive action until it gets so bad that people are dying from it. That's what it takes, and as soon as people are falling down on the streets and dying from poisoned air then they'll probably do something about it, but [until] then it will be talk. That's kinda like the limbo that all activity in the United States is into. It's on the level of talking about it, trying to talk about it, and ultimately the talk gets to be talk about talk, and definitions about definitions, endlessly fine circles where nothing happens.
'Just before we came over we did a tour of colleges in the States, this was before they closed them all down. Just during the strike we were at MIT in Boston when the Kent students were shot, and now the college people are trying to find more ways of approaching the public. So far all the activity has been like closed units, they haven't really affected the mainstream of American life at all. But now the college students were so appalled at students being shot down on the campus they have started to go out into the streets and talk to people and make an effort to change. The kind of change, however, ultimately has to do with the people who are in power, and those people have no ears to hear by. They are in a whole different world. And politics is such an awful thing in the United States that no smart person, none of the intelligent people are going for it at all. So the people who decide to be politicians are not very bright, they are people who want to be politicians. Nixon is a good example. He's President largely because he's the guy who wanted to be President. Nobody else wants the job. It's appalling, it really is. It symbolises to me a kinda wakening. Something will be done because it's just intolerable, it can't go on the way it is. Way too weird for everybody, and the economy is falling to pieces. I think all these things will eventually turn the tide, but a lot of chaos is to be expected one way or the other.'
'Music has a new relation to society. It's become very important in all kinds of new ways, and it certainly commands more attention than politics on the whole. Relating that music is also a new thing for each situation. Each situation is different and my approach to it is to try and have as many kinds of music available to us as musicians, to be able to play the right thing in any given situation. You can't really plan something like that with a band. There has to be a progression, it has to be getting more interesting, and the musicians have to be interested in the music. That's the basic requirement, and I think with us we're finding our own way. We can't compare ourselves to anybody else particularly, because our development is our own. I feel good when we're developing, and I feel bad when we're not, and that's our cycle where things are on a developmental upswing and then there's a plateau where everything is working at a new level, and then there's a decline. It's kinda entropy: we decline and everybody's bored and angry...'I hate playing the same tunes'...then a couple of months will come in, they'll be a bunch of new people and we'll rehearse for a couple months, and we'll be starting on the next climb up. Having had the previous steps as a basis, after a while a sort of rhythm, a pace, starts to manifest itself in terms of working on music, working in front of audiences, doing recordings and so forth. It's very physiological. When we play well it gets so far out at times. You transcend all the shit: the people are looking at it, and the band is looking back at the people. If you notice, when we were playing there were certain points that were high, pretty high, and starting to do something. Then it would go down, and then go up again. On a good night and a good show it's all high. There's nothing like it; it's the whole reason for playing in this context; there is no finer high; no drug gets you so high; nothing else that I know of. It's like completely surpassing form, you forget who you are, you forget what you are doing, and it's just music, with everybody participating. That's when there's something happening that's special, and about one time in every five it'll be that good. It's a good average. It used to be much lower, but it's slowly been building up. It's like love, and that's the place I think music should be. I don't think it should be business, it should be something else. I don't think it should be bullshit or call itself religion, but I think music has the possibility of getting a lot of people to a spiritually good place, or a place where you can feel good. That thing is more valuable than anything, that experience, and that's what I'm after if anything.'
(by Dick Lawson, from the UK magazine Friends, June 12 1970)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com
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[Excerpt from a Pigpen obituary, 1973.]
The first time we saw the Dead in England was so very many years after they had started off as the Warlocks, the house band for Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. It was at the appropriately named Hollywood Festival, just near Keele, back there in May 1970.
And there was smoke and alternative stimulants all the livelong day. The sun warmed us all and the pilgrimage came to its head at 4:00. The Grateful Dead, on their first appearance outside America, moved onto the stage, monitors and brightly tie-died speakers dwarfed by their numbers. They played for three hours solid.
Workingman's Dead still hadn't hit the shops and when they gave out with 'Casey Jones' the people just loved it. And 'Dark Star' — the ultimate Dead classic — for maybe an hour. And halfway through, Garcia just goes into one of those infinitely complex riffs all up there on the high notes twisting and swirling around and suddenly he stops, jumps out to his mike and explains the whole thing: 'We're the Dead'. And it's six in the evening and the band are still sliding along and Pigpen launches off into his organ with 'Somebody to Love' and we are all standing up and then tapping along and someone times the whole thing and nobody even thought of cutting out that rhythmic clapping along for around an hour and a quarter. Of course when it all ended and the band quit the stage some absurd DJ started a shout of 'More'. His banalities remained mercifully solitary. There was no more, and no-one else needed it.
(from "Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan: As Long As He's Been Doin' It Right," by Jonathon Green, from the International Times, March 22 1973)