One of a kind

One of a kind
Adelle Rhoda Roberts

Friday, October 23, 2009

Three to get ready and four to fly...


Dupree said, "Judge well it's well understood,
But you got to admit that sweet jelly's so good."



One of the dumber moves in my life was chasing the Grateful Dead around the country for the better part of three decades. How embarrassing! Frivolously wasted lots of time, money and brain cells. Pushed the fun button until it hurt. But heck, viva la mutation!

I started going to shows on the east coast in 1972, saw my first California shows in 1974 at Santa Barbara and the Cow Palace.  Kept on trucking until Jerry's death in 1995.


Dead tours always seemed to coincide with final's week and family gatherings and other important events in my life that I would often blow off. Like jobs and stuff like that. But I literally saw hundreds of shows, many of them just sublimely good. Like many deadheads I used to dream I was at shows and get whole concerts in my sleep. Some of my oldest and best relationships to this day I owe to my Grateful Dead extended family.

Jerry Garcia was a master musician with full control of his tone, time and his space. This band would fearlessly jump into the void and go where mortals feared to tread. You can't discuss or understand the G.D. phenomenon without taking a detour in time back to Albert Hoffman's famous bicycle ride in 1943. Hoffman was the Swiss chemist who worked for Sandoz and first synthesized LSD. He decided to become the first human guinea pig and started coming on during his bike ride. Toto, we're not in Basel anymore. Assuredly.

Colonel Al Hubbard, CIA operative who allegedly turned over 6000 people on to LSD. They called him the Johnny Appleseed of his epoch.


Fast forward past CIA mind control, MK Ultra and Stanford experiments and you run into new associations forming of intrepid folks who felt the beauty and sought the revelations of what was colloquially known as "tripping". Like minded pirates. Felt like walking on the moon for the first time. The Dead were part of a new vanguard that was tempered by the forge of the notorious acid tests. Such an irony that a drug that was intended to be used for the purposes of warcraft actually led the user down a cobbly path to a promethean fire that may have actually liberated a few people. The dead was a place for magic to happen!

Now I am not an advocate, merely a reporter. Don't think I ever touched the stuff myself. And we all know that certain people could not pass the infamous test and were reduced to drool buckets and spent charcoal. Like Diane Linkletter, kids do the darnedest things! Or they sought and were subsequently captured by narcotics to dull the bright edge. L&P they called it in the late seventies. The persian cocktail, as old warrior Hank from Ank used to refer to it. Pitfalls everywhere on the dead highway but if you played your cards right, you could sometimes fill that inside straight or turn over four bullets. Part of the allure of the Dead experience was that it provided a pretty safe forum for kids to get their psychedelic sea legs. And be the best that they can be.

The Grateful Dead created a new living, breathing mythology, in their own lifetime. That's a very rare thing. And when you build the pantheon, guess who ...? I ran into Mickey Hart one night after a show and he told me that his only religion was the Grateful Dead. And I thought to myself, no doubt ... If you get any rank above cardinal there all always benefits to being part of the religion. Youse guys ain't stupid.

People talk about the Stones being the best Rock and Roll band in the world in their prime. Nothing could touch the Dead when they were rolling. They listened harder than any band I ever heard. And took it to another plane on a nightly basis. If you felt like putting a toe in the water.

It wasn't easy being a deadhead, especially as I got older. Lot of people just wanted to get fucked up. Watched some do serious damage to their machinery. I hated little dancing bears and a lot of what I considered was brutally bad iconography, being an art snob. The late Ed Donohue was the first deadhead to put really great imagery on t-shirts. Wish I had kept some of them. I remember being at a New Year's show where a large and frankly very ugly skeletal statue was paraded around and people were madly cheering. I felt like I was in a sick pagan ritual. Or Berlin. But it was the only playground around for what Sturgeon would call Homo Gestalt in his book More than Human, a forum for people to experience the psychedelic group mind. The dead and their denizens found a way to function with a foot in two worlds. I hear it can be a tricky balancing act.

Try explaining that to your parents. Or boss. Or professor. Or to yourself when you find yourself walking in to a Denny's at 2:00 in the morning after spending a day brain baking on the hot asphalt in stinky bright clothes that would sear the retinas of any unfortunate nearby muggles. With work the next day. We looked almost normal but we had a lot on our minds.

There were times that the band turned me off and I took long sabbaticals. Mostly around Jerry's worst druggy periods. Late 80's early nineties wasn't a lot of fun. For me.

The Grateful Dead had several periods, some that I missed, coming on board around 1970 while listening to Live Dead.  The sixties library was dark star cranial space exploration, in seventy they started getting country and folky with American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. The one drummer period moved quicker around the corners and the band got nimble and jazzy in 73 and 74.  I loved Bob Weir 1970-1974, when he was truly one of the greatest rhythm players in the world, and a master of the cowboy stuff.

The most dangerous job in america surely was being keyboard player for the Grateful Dead. Pigpen died of liver problems, Tom Constanten was lost to Scientology. Keith Godchaux died in a car wreck. Brett Mydland O.D.'d. Vince Wellnick tried suicide. And then succeeded. This mortality batting average is collectively worse than American presidents or high wire trapeze acts. Wouldn't bet a nickel on T.C.'s chances...

My favorite keyboard player, never having the pleasure of catching the Pig, was Keith, by far. His lead piano work was so clean and funky and good. I was listening to a 1973 show on the radio this evening and was astounded by one of his leads. It was worth listening to Donna's Yoko like howling to hear his beautiful accompaniment.


My favorite year for the dead was 1977, both for the shows and the great fraternal scene of deadheads. Winterland was a consistent great party with three thousand of your closest friends.  I won't even begin to talk about the Swing show in 1977, all I know is that it changed many people's lives. Jerry's voice was still great in 77 and he could make it through Crazy Fingers without cracking.

Keith slowed down a lot in late 78 and 79, reportedly got real depressed and sometimes seemingly nodded off on stage.  He and his wife were fired and they brought a new guy in, Brent Mydland. A strange bird with a manson like face that didn't seem to ever blink, his singing and vibe set off danger signs with me. Never got that comfortable with his playing. He did some cool things on a few albums but don't think he had the inner strength to relax and flow that well. His organ playing was not brutal but not exactly sublime - a workmanlike player with a falsetto.  I was what was termed, a Brent Basher. He was, for want of a better term, a buzz kill. His emotional instability rang through like a cosmic nail on a chalkboard.

Imperial Message - Rick Griffin

It wasn't always easy to be a deadhead. After 87, there were a whole bunch of young recruits that would take every drug imaginable and trash hotels. I was embarrassed to leave the hotel at Dominguez Hills after seeing the carnage left behind. Many denizens of the parking lot lacked simple hygiene. The miracle ticket scammers would try to parasitically wind their way from show to show existing merely on fumes, spare change and veggie burritos in the parking lot.  The newbies were taking over and the quality of the experienced changed a little bit.  Of course, that's what they were saying about me when I got on the bus. You should have seen what you just missed.

When Brent went to meet his maker, Bruce Hornsby stepped in. He would play piano and then Vince would play organ. Hornsby was just so brilliant and a pleasure to watch live with his long fingers dancing along down the 88 keys. Immensely talented and from what I saw of him backstage, just a great guy. The dead were pretty ossified by this time and couldn't really play on his improvisational level.

Leslie and I really enjoyed going to Vegas to see the Dead and a great guest artist every august. Santana, Dave Matthews, Traffic, Sting, Steve Miller. Even though it was frigging hot, the Silver Bowl was a gas and it was fun to sit on top and listen to Jerry noodle  while looking out on the vast desert.  Jerry was a monster in Vegas, when he was on, it was hold on to your hats.

The key player for me in determining the strength of a show was surprisingly not Jerry but Weir. If Weir was on, into it and real, the show soared. When he was doing a cheesy elvis impersonation, the shows weren't that good. But there were rarely bad shows, only adequate ones, the band so practiced at inhabiting psychedelic space and playing their asses off.  I was talking to my longtime deadhead buddy Vlad Smythe the other day about some of the great Lazy Lightening/Supplication jams of the mid seventies. They were so good because Weir would step up and match Jerry's energy and proficiency and just rip. Now his ratdog stuff is mostly unlistenable.

Anyway, I listen to the Dead station a lot now on satellite radio. But not too much. When I go into dead overload it gets like what a passenger in my car once said after being tormented by my tapes for hours. They likened it to protracted dental surgery.  Or eating so much of a food you like that you never want another bite. Some of the later stuff like Days Between and Picasso Moon and Throwing Stones seemed so bloated and indulgent to me its hard to stomach. Ditto Trucking and Sugar Magnolia. They've become very hard to listen to.

But it's always a pleasure to hear Keith Godchaux. His playing was sort of New Orleansy and effortless and he could play improvisational piano leads that really complimented the band.  Liked his singing on Wake of the Flood, a really beautiful album. As was Blues for Allah.

Even though I was young and irresponsible, I wouldn't trade those great 1977 shows for anything. Thank you Keith Godchaux.  Most of my blog readers have no idea what I'm talking about or couldn't care less. Follow a rock band around? Get serious. Here's to an extended childhood. There will never be another experience like the Grateful Dead.

freejestercarolina'snofundougmonroejerryg vinniedarpinianerniedonpearsontabathafatalmarkhaldermanbobborip?

22 comments:

grumpy said...

side one of Blues for Allah is amazing; that's it.

Blue Heron said...

What do you mean, that's it? Your record didn't have a b side? It wasn't any good? You weren't in a position to grok it? Grumpy says thumbs down - I'll get the word out.

grumpy said...

it's been a long time, wasn't the b-side one of those excruciating space jams of theirs? i'll have to dig out my moldy vinyl copy...

Blue Heron said...

I won't dignify that...

Sanoguy said...

I am fairly new to iPod. I have not thought of the Dead for quite a while. Your posting here reminded me that I should down load some Dead. I did just that!! Thanks for the reminder!!

Blue Heron said...

Sanoguy, archive.org has some cool downloadable songs in its grateful dead section. Find a nice 1969 Darkstar, a 1977 Help on the way or Eyes of the World and see if you develop a taste.

Anonymous said...

As usual, I don't agree with some of your points. I love you, but I don't always agree with you. Nonetheless, a great read! The Grateful Dead is still the center of my spiritual universe...okay, I'm putting on my Groucho Marx glasses now!

-Vlad Smythe

Blue Heron said...
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Blue Heron said...

I am pretty sure of some of the things you might not agree with, Vlad. My possible hyperbole in saying that the Dead couldn't hang with Hornsby improvisationally, for one. You have to admit he was a little friskier at that point in time.

I won't put words in your mouth and will wait to hear from you. Perhaps I paint too dark a picture... Maybe it was just my circle that were the fucked up ones.

Love, Zeppo

Anonymous said...

Dear Robert, I have just made it through your latest "bloated" (to use your own word) rambling about one of the greatest spiritual, mystical, musical experiences the world has ever seen. I agreed with some points, Keith when on was great 72-73-74 and some 77. Hornsby was the next greatest and way beyond them (except Jerry) by the time he came aboard. 1977 was the year as far as I am concerned. But you start your whole epitaph with "one of the dumber things I ever did..............." Is dumb, traveling to places you would have never seen if not for them ? (ie: Mt. St. Helen's eruption, summer solstice in Alaska, 49 states visited, the Fox Theatre in Atlanta), meeting many lovely ladies (a new one each night) and exploring carnal pleasures in our teen-age years ? Is dumb, exploring the far (and I mean far) reaches of our psychies ? To me, this was the true learning of my life. I once said I left college because it was interfering with my education. Well that education was in a Grateful Dead experience more often than not.

Though at times "it all melts into a dream", my only regret when it comes to the Grateful Dead, is not the lousy shows but not going half-way around the world to see them at the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt when I had the opportunity to do so.

Thanks for your words (who's next Madonna ?)
Love ya - FFL

Blue Heron said...
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Blue Heron said...

FFL - you are right as usual. I know that we have known each other for about 35 years and without the dead it would have never happened. Think we met at a Boston Music Hall show. It was an expensive hobby but had some interesting "spiritual" returns. It was a phenomenon that is hard to explain. Certified masters of having fun.

Love,

Robert

Anonymous said...

I only went to one show with Robert. He tried so hard to get me to love the dead, but I was too young, too stupid, and too scared to appreciate. Still, I always bragged that my brother was a dead head before the term was coined. Still pretty enthusiastic.

Blue Heron said...
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Blue Heron said...

Wow, brother Buzz. First time commenter on the blog! Remember when I told you that I would stay up with you that first time, only to fall asleep...and wake up to see you doing swan dives down the stairway, laughing like a madman...Took you to Winterland, didn't I? Your great line that night was "it's amazing, the girls are really so unattractive - and they just don't care."

Blue Heron said...
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Anonymous said...

I think Bob Weir was cute. I liked Jerry Garcia. He was the lead guitar player. Phil Lesh, Bill the drummer and Pigpen were just average musicians. I slept with them all, except Donna.

Dakota Freedom
Clear Light Commune
Acadia Calif.

Blue Heron said...

Dakota, back away from the strychnine, sailor. Phil Lesh is the greatest rock bass player ever - right up there with Jaco. He and Bill the drummer are both tremendous players. Are you from Arcata or Arcadia? Or are you too lame to know the difference? Glad you could add something so substantive to the conversation...

Blue Heron said...
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island guy said...

Glad to hear a nice word about Keith. I started attending shows about when he joined the band and it was hard to say something good about him without getting shouted down by the long time fans. I don't remember hearing you ever sticking up for him - but then I don't remember quite a few things until I get reminded about them, then and now. When Donna actually hit the right note in the chord (or one of those wrong notes that hurts so good) I thought she added a lot to the vocals. When she missed (or maybe just found a chord that doesn't work in the rock and roll universe) it was pretty bad. Maybe I identified because of that great Swing show. I'm sure glad I didn't go chat with the Berdoo chapter of the Hell's Angels that night like I meant to do at one point in the evening.....

Blue Heron said...

You know, the Hells Angels weren't that bad in 1977 at the Swing. It was the following year at the Swing in 1978 that they were swinging the pool sticks onstage and freaking everyone out. A very mediocre show, if my memory serves me right. Don't know how receptive they would have been to your message of peace and love.

Heresiarch said...

I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it's an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio