To begin with, the presence of police set a bitter tone for the evening. A dose burly officer flanked the usher at the entrance of the Music Hall, eyeing suspicious types and confiscating unspeakable amounts of liquor. Smiling benignly at the pile of contraband, one officer quipped, "What do you kids want to bring booze to a wake for? This is the Grateful Dead, don't you know?" Very strange.
The week before the concert Pete Seeger (of all people) wrote a very sagacious piece in the New York Times. He said, in brief, that one of this country's biggest problems is that it survives on a diet of a handful of artists and two hundred million television sets. The increasing mechanization of society, he asserted, has engendered a sense of creative sterility (but surely not impotence) through all strata of comfortable America.
Thus it was with considerable pleasure that I anticipated last week's evening with the Dead. They are, in my view, consummate rock and roll artists. An advised use of the term "artist". The components of the particular musical magic which that band works over its following has long been the subject of zestful speculation. I've often wondered that popular recognition was accorded to the group only following the 1970 release of Workingman's Dead. The finest, and also most innovative body of their work is to be found in the four albums preceding.
The group went through the drug involvement, which has now become a rather trite metaphor for Middle American adolescence. Led by Jerry Garcia, an itinerant Berkeley banjo player, they began expanding on the poems of Robert Hunter, weaving exotic musical tapestries of unprecedented grace. Garcia soared in front of the band with melodic inventions of overpowering purity and beauty. The subtlety of jazz extempore had been wedded to the sexual electricity of rock and roll.
They played with the frenzied amphetamine energy of post-Savio Berkeley. The Dead, along with the Airplane and Quicksilver, beat the rhythms for Kesey, Brautigan and Co., those self-conscious saviors of the Western mind. Yet the music was always theirs alone, and through it all they maintained a musical identity distinct from the political stamp which eventually blotted out any trace of individuality among the so-called Volunteers of America.
From the beginning a rousing dance band, they eventually expanded their style experimenting with pure electrical sound and adding a second drummer into the group. The two drummers were to become a much initiated rock convention, most effectively exploited by Carlos Santana and the late Duane Allman. The Dead throbbed with a will to create and their second album was an endeavor unpretentiously titled Anthem of the Sun. And if you don't think that that work is a genuinely artistic statement--a portrait of the energy source of both nature's world and (excuse the philosophic indulgence) the world of the soul I'd advise you to listen to it again.
The work is little short of a 20th Century Odyssey, with every conceivable metaphoric cultural transformation. The most striking of which is perhaps from the Homeric balladeer to an eclectic, electric band of gypsies. Listen to the story of Casady, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their transcontinental trip--set into a musical creation of elegant turbulence. Most important, the music, Listen. They don't just play it. They create it. Give birth. And the musical communication involved is ineffably complex.
Live Dead carried this disciplined freedom to its logical conclusion. The group presented four sides of music, each bearing an original composition. The most advanced piece, "Dark Star", is the Dead's crowning achievement. A cogent critique of the work will doubtless be the subject of future music scholarship, yet I hesitate to leave you with a mere assurance that it is an exceedingly far out piece of music.
The melodic ideas of Anthem achieve lyrical fruition in "Dark Star." While Anthem bespeaks the darkest underbelly of the acid experience, "Dark Star" is a polished gem of intergalactic proportions. The Dead has clearly made a significant transition in their relationship with drugs. Merely in poetic terms, consider the relationship of the Sun in the Anthem album to the portrait of a "Dark Star." Contrast the frenetic percussion work of Hart and Kreutzmann on "Caution" and Anthem to the brilliantly subtle and suggestive use of gongs, bells, cymbals on the later effort. Try "Alligator", a piece of unabashed musical sarcasm complete with a three-part kazoo introduction, on which Garcia's guitar solos are mocking and derisive. "Dark Star", however, displays a tone of ethereal coldness and humility. For twenty minutes, Garcia, Wier, Lesh, and Constantine weave in and out of each other, building harmonic bridges over acid rivers designed by mad chemist Stan Owsley. An invitation for the future:
Shall we go, you and I, while we can
Through the transitive night fall of diamonds
Simply as a matter of intellectual speculation, one might postulate a similar development in the work of the Airplane: progressing from the vibrant newness of Surrealistic Pillow to the unrefined energy of Baxter's (sample "A Small Package....") to the fourth dimensional perspective of Crown of Creation with Grace beckoning:
Come with me my friend,
Come on now and take my hand,
You can be my friend,
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