Sunday, July 19, 2015

LOVE THE DEAD


Grateful Dead's American Beauty LP from 1970. You heard me right. I bought this album secondhand at Collector's Corner in 1988 (in its old split-level uber-retail outlet on Swanson Street, where it was a promised land of new and secondhand vinyl, CDs [then still a new-fangled gimmick - esepcially so for me, as I didn't even own a CD player until December 1989] and VHS rentals [one could borrow highly coveted Flipside and Target video cassettes there - now let me please escape this double-parentheses nightmare]) when I was but a 16-year-old spud hell-bent on ruining my brain with hardcore and SST-damaged noise. Along with Black Sabbath, Creedence, Hawkwind, Roky and Neil Young, Grateful Dead was an obvious pre-punk forebear to explore in the Solid State Transmitters universe, and these side routes into rock's back pages was a highly educational and rewarding thing indeed.


Of course, The Dead are a double-edged sword: there are pros and cons which one could debate forever - and people have been doing so for 50 years now - and while I acknowledge the negatives associated with the band, I would also contend that some such negative strikes against the band are either irrelevant or based on a misunderstanding of what the band is/was all about. Let's make a couple of things clear:

* The Dead were a live band. Most of their studio recordings are tepid-to-awful, and just about any studio endeavours they engaged in after the mid 1970s are not worth hearing. Their best studio album of the psychedelic ouvre is 1968's Anthem Of The Sun, but the other two fantastic studio albums definitely worth grabbing are about as psychedelic as a pair of dirty old socks: American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. These are unashamed country-rock albums, very much in the same vein as The Band's output from the same period, or the classic sounds of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo/Gilded Palace Of Sin, and you can either take that as a recommendation or a sign you should stop reading this blog entry right about... now.

* They are one of - if not the most - heavily documented live bands in the history of music, so you have a wealth of available live shows to listen to. Spotify - yes, the streaming service coming straight from Satan's anus - has a plethora of live shows available to listen to (more than you'd ever want to listen to, in fact) - and just about any of them from approx. 1969 - 1978 are worth the trouble. For me, this is the band at its best. There's a zillion different versions of their best tunes ('Dark Star', 'Playing In The Band', 'Turn On Your Lovelight', et al) where they really get to stretch out, as well as more outre feedback/percussive-oriented numbers which demonstrate where their rep as outward-bound musical 'heads' springs from. Use this as a guide: if their version of any song from this era is over 20 minutes long, it's probably worth hearing. If it's over 30 minutes in length, it's definitely worth hearing. The Dead are a band who were better the more they musically waffled. The shorter/tighter material is their weakest.

* The best widely available Dead album remains Live/Dead. Well, I should perhaps clarify that by saying that for me it's a dead heat between that and American Beauty, but the Dead album you'll probably want to listen to is the 2LP live epic from 1969 (released in 1970) known as Live/Dead, as it is indeed an excellent document of the band during their musically ambitious ballroom bong-hit phase when the lights were beginning to dim on psychedelia.

* Don't judge the band on their fans nor the occassionally annoying personalities which make up the Dead. And don't judge the band by its frequent fashion faux pas from the 1980s onwards. Look at any footage of the group playing live in the '80s: the music might've still been good, but the visuals made your retinas want to cease and desist: Bob Weir in a LaCoste shirt with a Sensible Haircut, complete with tennis shorts and gym sneakers looking like he just hightailed to the stage from a Republican Party BBQ/tennis match; Phil Lesh with tie-dyed t-shirt tucked in to cut-off denim shorts, librarian glasses and a headless bass FFS(!); and Jerry Garcia just being Jerry: opium-soaked noodling on the sidelines, complete with a Hawaiian shirt, on the verge of nodding off at any moment. And the fans?? Don't get me started. Don't think of even getting yourself started. Sure, the Meat Puppets, Henry Kaiser, Greg Ginn and Lee Renaldo smoked a bowl or ten to the band's extensive catalogue in their time, but other mouth-breathers laying claim to the musical legacy of the Dead include the likes of John Mayer, Dave Matthews, Phish and the band's nth wheel, AOR stalwart Bruce Hornsby. But always remember: plenty of great bands have and will continue to inspire a lot of muck. And I haven't even mentioned the zillion anonymous stoned yoyos who'd follow the band around the world to every damn show they played, but I figured I didn't have to. There's a part of me which unashamedly admires the dedication to the band and the 'alternative lifestyle' many of these fans partook in for decades, but the music fan side of me just has me thinking they should broaden their musical pallette and stop treating an alleged rock band as a cult. But hey: live the life you love, love the life you live.

These points don't sum up much of anything: just a series of vaguely-related rants and collected thoughts on the band. One thing I can say: the Dead weren't jerks. Watching a recent documentary on Bob Weir, he appears to be completely unaffected by his fame and obvious wealth, still living in the same hippie-ranch he bought in 1971. The band toured with Ornette Coleman in the late '80s, giving him wide exposure relatively late in his career, and even donated a chunk of change to Sun Ra and his Arkestra when he hit hard times. And American Beauty? It's the sweet, sweet sound of mellow country-rock, a point in time when the band's straight approach to studio recording totally worked. It even made an impact on my 16-year-old brain: I soon purchased a Grateful Dead t-shirt (the same one John Nolan would wear when playing live with Bored!, natch). That shirt fell apart 15 years ago, but that same copy of the LP remains. Playing it today on this crisp and sunny winter day, I can still testify that it's a recording well worth acquiring.

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