I have a secret: over the past few weeks while riding the subway with headphones on I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead. And maybe not coincidentally, I haven’t shaved in about two weeks. So as I write this I’m wondering–Are these twin facts somehow related? Do they point to a strange metamorphosis taking place in me through an alchemy of music and listening?
Formed in 1965 in San Francisco, The Grateful Dead was a peculiar kind of rock band that blended blues, folk, psychedelic-rock, bluegrass, jazz, reggae, country, and free improvisation into a trippy whole that sometimes achieved very musical results. Though they sold some 30 million albums over their 30-year career, what they really liked to do was play live, and in that regard the band seemed to have singlehandedly initiated the “jam band” scene.
I was never a Grateful Dead fan and my lack of fandom, is, I guess, altogether unfair since I never even once listened to the group’s music while growing up. Maybe I was a dormant fan who just didn’t know it yet, but I had a sense that their social-sonic world was something you had to be a believer in to truly appreciate; the music didn’t enculturate you, you had to join its cause–such followers of the group are called Deadhead, by the way–almost with a pre-knowledge of what its makers and its scene were all about. Also, Deadheads seemed to hang with other Deadheads and I didn’t know any in the first place. All this to say that for one reason or another the Grateful Dead never entered my musical orbit.
I began thinking about and listening to the Dead recently after reading a very fine article about them by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker. Without being sentimental, the article traces and celebrates the author’s own fandom as he recalls his first experience seeing the Dead perform, describes trading and scrutinizing fan bootleg recordings (or audience tapes) with friends, and hangs out with an archivist who is in charge of the Dead’s vast recorded legacy. Along the way, Paumgarten unpacks the sound and structures of the Dead’s music and explains how, for its devoted fans at least, it has had such enduring appeal. The article raises a question: How does a music become resilient to time’s passing? In the case of the Grateful Dead, their music has lived on mainly through a vast number of live recordings.
Even though I didn’t listen to the Dead, I had long heard that their recordings really don’t do justice to the band anyway; their music was all about a magic conjured in performance. You just had to be there. The Dead had lots of songs to draw on, but what they were famous for was improvising new versions of their material at every concert. Ironically enough, as Paumgarten points out, this group that apparently could only be understood through its performances is best known today for its astonishingly large archive of recorded music which is stored in a climate controlled vault in California. Indeed, having played over 2,300 concerts between 1965 and 1995 “the Dead have more recorded music in circulation than any performing group in history” and there are more than 8,000 Dead recordings on archive.org alone. Many of these recordings are audience tapes–the work of fans who meticulously recorded Dead shows. (The Dead encouraged audience taping as a way to spread the good word.) This “immense body of work”, notes Paumgarten, “invites and sustains obsession, and its variability is in some respects the draw.” Obsessive listening invites new perspectives too. Reflecting on his getting to know the musical details of particular recordings of Dead concerts, Paumgarten says that “the music, on repetition, began to feel like something composed, rather than improvised. It took on a life of its own…”
Another irony of the Dead is that it played a “ragged, improvisational amalgam of old-timey American music” amplified through a most sophisticated sound system known as the Wall Of Sound: 600 speakers with an output of over 25,000 watts. Thus, between its thousands of recordings and its famed sound system, the Dead is as good a locus as any for thinking through the story of technology’s impact on our consumption of music over the last fifty years. Even though they looked like hippies, they were postmoderns who were all about the improvised remix–or what Kevin Kelly calls “recombinant” culture–years before this became a guiding idea of contemporary music.
One of the Grateful Dead’s most famous songs–or platform for acoustic recombinant remixing/improvisation–is “Darkstar.” Released in 1968, the song eventually became the Dead’s most anticipated and hallowed live numbers. There was an aura about this song that fans simply referred to as “It”–perhaps due to the fact that Dead stopped playing the piece for many years and then, in the late 1970s, suddenly resumed playing it again. Structurally, “Dark Star” is, as Paumgarten accurately dissects it, just “a modal vamp based on the A mixolydian scale, with two short verses and no bridge.” The original studio recording of the song clocks in under three minutes. But like the “head” of a jazz tune, the brief song is just a skeleton for the group’s variations. Thus, various live versions of “Dark Star” range anywhere from 11 to 48 minutes (!) If nothing else, “Dark Star” demonstrates a kind of musical minimalism–or a maximal use of minimal materials.
I’ve spent some time listening to two versions of “Dark Star” on Spotify and YouTube. On Spotify I found a 20-minute recording from the 1972 Bickershaw festival in the UK; and on YouTube I found a 10-minute video of a show in Oregon from that same year. On both versions you can hear endlessly melodic bass wandering and rhythm guitar comping, bits on twinkling piano, tumbling and syncopated drumming, and at times soaring lead guitar. Only on the Bickershaw version does the group’s lead singer and guitarist, Jerry Garcia, get around to actually singing those verses!
Listening to this piece and watching the video I find the music has an interesting sense of active stasis that appeals to me. This stasis is perhaps mostly a function of the guitars and bass staying in that A mixolydian mode. (Detractors might call this kind of thing modal “noodling.”) Also, the medium slow tempo (about 70 bpm) remains constant and its languid pace contributes to the feeling that no one–neither the band nor its thousands of fans swaying out in the Oregon fields beyond the stage–is in any big hurry to go anywhere soon. While a lot of popular music has a goal-oriented teleology–verses bring us inexorably towards the choruses, and so on–”Dark Star” is definitely a different, more patient animal. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s so famous?
To their credit, the musicians manage to keep things fairly (though not always) interesting by constantly varying their parts. Most obvious is Garcia’s endless lead guitar soloing. But listen also to the bass which often stays in an unusually high register, almost dovetailing with Garcia’s guitar. (This is contrary to the bass guitar’s customary role of playing mostly low-pitched notes and thus build a solid “foundation” for the song.) Similarly, the rhythm guitar keeps changing its jazz comping-like riffs, and the drummer Bill Kreutzmann never ever plays any kind of steady back beat on beats 2 and 4; instead, he plays a kind of swinging rhythm. In sum, this kind of group level improvisation is almost jazz-like: it has a constant pulse, it swings, and remains resolutely modal.
Listening to different performances of “Dark Star” I heard a number of beautiful if brief moments of group synchrony and groovy musical thinking. In the clip below, you can hear such a moment from 5:59-6:35. For a mere half-minute, a deep space opens up. Maybe that’s because the bass guitar finally stays still for a moment and lets some nice low A notes ring long. Or maybe the reason is something else altogether. Whatever it is, it’s worth listening to.