NYT Bring Out Your Dead – Grateful Dead Article
Bring Out Your Dead
Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times
From left, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Warren Haynes of the Dead at the Gramercy Theater in Manhattan last month.
NYT – New York Times By BEN RATLIFF
Published: NYT April 10, 2009
I WENT to a Phil Lesh concert in New York last fall, on the third night of a 14-night run. I sat next to a man who looked informed: he listened with familiarity and good humor and a touch of impatience, as if he wanted to fast-forward through certain parts.
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A poster by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley for a 1966 Grateful Dead show in San Francisco.
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The Grateful Dead at its Hartford show in May 1977. From left, Phil Lesh, Donna Jean Godchaux, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia.
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Amalie R. Rothschild, from “Dick’s Picks, Vol. 4”
From left, Jerry Garcia, Mr. Weir, Mr. Kreutzmann, Ron McKernan (called Pigpen), Mr. Lesh and Mickey Hart at the Fillmore East in 1970.
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Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times
An exultant fan at the Gramercy concert.
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Deadheads at a show in 1970.
“Seen any of the other shows?” I asked.
“I’ve been to every show since 1972,” he said. “In the New York area.”
His name was Jimmy . By his definition, “every show” meant every concert by the Grateful Dead, the San Francisco rock band, until the death of Jerry Garcia, its guitarist and singer in 1995, and then every subsequent show by Phil Lesh, the band’s bassist, who has led various touring bands with a sound much in the spirit of the Dead. We got to talking. I asked when he thought the Dead reached its peak, game to try out a half-formed argument for 1975, or thereabouts.
“Well, I agree with the people who say it was May 8, 1977,” he said.
Jimmy was jumping a level on me. There are at least five different levels to how fans talk about the Dead. The basement level concerns the band’s commercially released albums. This is how a lot of interested but inexpert people once talked about the Dead — myself included — in the early 1980s. I had a couple of skunky-sounding audience tapes, tinkling out distant brown scurf from Nassau Coliseum, but I was an unconnected kid. I listened to “Live/Dead,” “Europe ’72,” and “Anthem of the Sun” — all in the racks at Sam Goody.
The next level is periods or eras, the conversation I was prepared for. There was the aggressive, noisy, color-saturated improvising from 1968 to 1970; the gentler and more streamlined songwriting and arranging of ’72 and ’73; the spooky harmonies of 1975; the further mellowing and mild grooves that lay beyond. Next comes the level of the Dead’s best night: Jimmy’s level, one based on years of close listening to noncommercial live recordings, from the band’s own engineers or radio broadcasts or audience tapers. These began circulating in the early ’70s and became commonplace by the mid-1980s, after I had wandered off the trail.
After that comes particular songs within particular performances. (Some will say the “Dark Star” from Veneta, Ore., on Aug. 27, 1972, or the “Dancing in the Street” from Binghamton, N.Y., on May 2, 1970, encapsulates much of what they like about the Grateful Dead.) Beyond that is an area with much thinner air: here involving, say, audience versus soundboard tapes, the mixing biases of different engineers, techniques of customizing early cardioid microphones, and onward into the darkness of obsession.
In any case, once you get to Level 3, you have a sufficiently authoritative understanding of the Dead. Or so I thought.
The Grateful Dead was a 30-year ramble of touring. It continued after Garcia’s death in a kind of post-history: first as the Other Ones, and later simply as the Dead (no “Grateful”), which is the name it will tour under this year. (The band now includes the original members Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, as well as the guitarist Warren Haynes and the keyboardist Jeff Chimenti; the tour begins today at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina.)
It was also an intellectual proposition, in how the band brought new information and states of mind to a century of American music: bluegrass, folk, blues, Motown, Bakersfield country and so on. For me it often works best intellectually; I confess I hear shortcomings even in a lot of good Dead shows — intonation problems, weak singing, calamitous rhythm. I would say I’m more interested in the question of its best night ever than the answer. But that may not be the right question anymore.
THE GRATEFUL DEAD’S live recordings represent a special order of surfeit. Nearly 2,200 Dead shows exist on tape, of the 2,350 or so that the group played. Most of those are available online — either for free streaming on Web sites like archive.org and nugs.net, or for download on iTunes, like the “Dick’s Picks” series and the more recent “Road Trips” archival series, which uses master-tape audio sources. The obvious solution to this terrifying situation, one would imagine, is to delimit the options: to narrow that number down to a very small canon of the best.
The canon of great Dead shows was built over 20-something years of the band’s existence, and is still developing. It was first created by word of mouth — from the demons who started the cult of Dead tape trading in the early ’70s — and later by fanzines and books like “The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium,” three volumes of concert-tape reviews and essays on minutiae. There are also 12 published volumes of “Deadbase,” full notations of Dead performances; much of this information is available online at deadbase.com.
Because of the culture of taping and collecting around the concerts, the audience developed a kind of intellectual equity in the band. And as the fans traded more and more tapes, in the nonmonetary currency of mind-blow, a kind of Darwinian principle set in: the most-passed-around tapes were almost quantifiably the best. If a tape wasn’t that good, its momentum sputtered, and it became obscure.
Deadheads have often been polled about their favorite show, through fanzines and Web sites. The answers have stayed fairly consistent. May 8, 1977, at Barton Hall, Cornell University. The pairing of Feb. 13 and 14, 1970, at the Fillmore East in New York — perhaps the first widely traded shows. The Veneta and Binghamton shows. You’d think the canon would have been displaced as more and more information came along, but it hasn’t, really; it has only widened. I have spoken to young Deadheads who, surprisingly, respect the ancient judgments. “I’ll stick with May 8 because of its historical importance,” said Yona Koch-Feinberg, an 18-year-old from Manhattan. “That’s almost as important as the musical ability of the evening.”
DAVID LEMIEUX has been the tape archivist and CD producer for the Grateful Dead’s official archival releases since 1999. Mr. Lemieux said he has listened to the Cornell concert “virtually weekly” since the late ’80s.
What’s so great about that show? I asked him.
The group had just finished making the studio album “Terrapin Station,” which included a long and intricate suite sharing the album’s title; it was well practiced. Garcia had just completed editing of “The Grateful Dead Movie,” a concert documentary of sorts, and a long and costly ordeal. Perhaps the members felt unburdened and retrospective: the set list made an even sweep of the band’s career up to that point, from the early-repertory “Morning Dew,” with its cathartic but carefully paced five-minute solo by Garcia, to the up-to-date “Estimated Prophet.” (Much has also been made, by those who were there, about the Fátima-esque appearance of snow on that May evening.)
Mr. Lemieux characterizes the recording as the Dead concert one would likely want to pass on to the most people: it pleases the most tastes. But the Cornell tape also reached a critical number of people at a critical moment. Almost 10 years after the concert, a cache of soundboard tapes made by Betty Cantor-Jackson, the Dead’s live recording engineer, were scattered far and wide when her house in Nicasio, Calif., went into foreclosure and her possessions were sold at public auction.
The sound quality of the “Betty Boards,” which began circulating in 1987, was exceptional: so good that for the initiates, it nearly reinvented listening. She made her own stereo mix on a separate feed from the house P.A. mix, strictly for posterity, and she considered the mixes from 1977 among her best. (“I want you to be inside the music,” she once said of her audio ideal. “I don’t want stereos playing at you, I want you to be in there, I want it around you.”) The Cornell show was the first widely circulated tape to sound that good.
Also in 1987 the Dead had a hit single, “Touch of Grey.” Suddenly the band was so popular that it could sell out Giants Stadium in July and return in September for a five-night run at Madison Square Garden. A new excitement about the band, its present and its past, recharged its fan base and grew it enormously.
But the standards by which we judge the Grateful Dead have changed since then. Over the past several years it has become possible to know entire periods with the same detail and definition with which we once saw individual concerts. In some sense we’re rolling back the microscope to get a closer view.
In the late ’80s information access was limited. You had to work for your collection. It wasn’t all online. In 1987 the ability to point to a certain show — a Cornell ’77 or a Fillmore East 1970 — indicated great knowledge. But we can also now say that it indicated a kind of lack of knowledge. Because more and more of us now know, from better and better audio evidence, how the band sounded in the weeks and months around those famous nights.
For example the Dead played a concert 20 days after Cornell, in Hartford, that some, including Gary Lambert, a host of the Grateful Dead Radio show “Tales From the Golden Road” on Sirius XM, consider just as good. (That show, taken from the master tapes engineered by Ms. Cantor-Jackson, has just been released by Rhino in heretofore unbeatable audio as “To Terrapin: Hartford ’77.”) And it played a show in Buffalo one night later, on May 9, which Mr. Lemieux prefers.
“To me the question is: Does Cornell stand up to the rest of the tour?” said Dan Levy, a longtime fan of the band. (He wrote the liner notes for “Road Trips Vol. 2, No. 1,” a recent archival release of some 1990 performances.) “And then, since you can listen to a dozen shows from April and May of ’77, you realize that the next question is: How does one tour compare to another? This is where there’s some new motion in how the band is considered. The kinds of e-mails I’m getting now are saying things like, ‘We really should reconsider 1980.’ ”
IF you ask the elder members of the Grateful Dead’s touring retinue, the best-show question becomes quickly irrelevant. Owsley Stanley, known as Bear, the early LSD chemist and sound engineer for the Dead in the ’60s and ’70s, reacted with a kind of combative pluralism. “All the shows of my era were good,” he said in an e-mail message. “ ‘Best’ is a value judgment reserved for each person.” Then he moved on to received wisdom about shows that he knew intimately, having recorded them himself: “The Fillmore East shows in February of 1970 are seen by many as very special.”
Ms. Cantor-Jackson answered with similar indirectness. “Rumor has it,” she said by e-mail, “the fans’ favorite is a ’77 Cornell gig.” But she also wrote of a performance from July 16, 1970, at the Euphoria Ballroom in San Rafael, Calif., when the Dead was joined by Janis Joplin for the song “Turn On Your Lovelight.”
That show receives a dismal rating in the “Compendium.” But: Ms. Cantor-Jackson was there; San Rafael is her hometown; and Joplin had become important, and would be dead a few months later. Why shouldn’t her memory attach special value to that concert? This is an example of valuing the experience over the artifact: a way of appreciating the Dead that’s slipping away from us, gradually being replaced by a way that’s far less sentimental, far more critical, but curiously, inclusive rather than narrow.
Original members of the band seem interested by the best-show question, but aren’t inclined to think that simplistically. Having lived the 5,000 or 6,000 onstage hours in real time, they tend naturally toward the wide-view mode that the rest of us are only starting to know. I asked Mickey Hart, the drummer, what he thought about Veneta ’72, a winner in a best-show poll on the concert-recording site Lossless Legs, at shnflac.net. (It’s also — ahem — one of my favorites.)
“I don’t remember it,” he said. (To be fair, he was on a hiatus at the time.) He remembers periods, he explained. And bad gigs — Woodstock, for instance. A few free shows in the ’60s and ’70s, when playing felt like an act of generosity. And the band’s all-consuming, six- to eight-hour practice sessions of the mid-’60s, when it was pushing beyond blues and pop.
Since Mr. Hart obviously sees his time with the Dead as a journey, what does he say when someone starts asking him about the specifics of a single night, brandishing dates and concert-hall names?
“I say ‘Yes,’ ” he said. “I always say ‘Yes.’ ”
Mr. Lesh said he thinks along remarkably similar lines. He remembers the free shows, the early years, ’75 to ’77, parts of the late ’80s. He doesn’t remember Cornell ’77. “I haven’t listened to Cornell for a long time,” he said in a telephone interview. Was there any sense of immediate recognition, I asked, right after the band finished a great show?
“We may have walked off and looked at each other and said, ‘Whoa,’ ” he said. “But generally there wasn’t a lot of that. Performing takes a lot out of you. Physical and mental energy. When it’s been a good show, you’re kind of drained. ”
And what does he say to the pinpointers, the best-show-ever-ists?
“I appreciate it, and honor it, and, you know, wail on,” he said. “But it’s an individual thing. Maybe they were there. A lot of people gravitate to the shows that they had seen. Since Jerry’s death I get the feeling that a lot of the Heads need to confirm for themselves that it was as good as they thought it was.”
Maybe that’s the best one can do at the highest level of engagement. Not to try to listen for the best night ever; not even to listen for the best period ever. But to try to figure out why we’re listening at all.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 11, 2009 A picture caption on Page 21 this weekend with the continuation of the cover article about the Grateful Dead misstates the date of the concert shown. The show in Hartford took place in May 1977, not 2007.