With the recent 50th Anniversary celebrations, a new documentary showing on Amazon Prime, and the remaining core of the band selling out arenas across the US, Grateful Dead‘s stock has never been higher. The strangest of bands in that they are cultural cornerstones of the hippy movement, and form an integral part of musical history, they nonetheless remain a cult band. They are a band who, whilst they have connected with thousands upon thousands of people, playing the biggest stadiums, are also likely to raise a puzzled frown whenever someone is asked to recall some songs of theirs. In fact, ask the average music fan on the street and it is highly likely that they will be able to name just one song, generally ‘Truckin’. Even hardcore music listeners may struggle to find there way past a secondary ‘Dark Star’ or the American Beauty album. The band are and always will be an enigma.
One of the defining reasons for this is that in general they have shunned the usual album/single route and built their reputation on their live shows. Indeed, such is the reputation of their show, they not only allowed tapers in to bootleg them throughout their career, but also enabled a thriving tape trade to happen. Building on these recordings, the seminal Dicks Picks shows presented a more official route to hear them, laying the bedrock for what would be a cottage industry in releases. That the cottage industry now relates to millions of dollars, with some releases going for many bucks on release, people may argue that their hippy routes have been sold out, but in reality they simply cashed in their pension. If the product sells then why not make some money…after all, they sure as hell didn’t back in the day. It’s also useful that many of their fans are now high rollers of capitalism and willing to shell out on umpteen releases of an obscure run of shows from 1977. Apple Corp was built on the music of The Dead. Innovation and experimentation became commodity.
The hippy ethos aside, and in a later feature we shall explore the relationship between band and fans, as this forms an essential part of understanding what The Dead are about, one question that is always asked is….”Where do I start?”. Where, out of the countless releases do you get a foothold into this extraordinary universe? How indeed, do you become one of the fabled Deadheads? Should I even bother? Well, in answer to the last question…yes, definitely. To the others, why not start with the following guide. A taster, like a blot of acid tingling on your tongue, it will entice and draw you in before the main course. First a disclaimer….this is not meant for the hardened Deadhead, we shall go further into the mysterious power of the live show further down the line. This is for the beginner.
‘Box Of Rain’ (American Beauty)
Whilst The Dead were not really known for their studio albums, and the majority of this list will focus on “moments” rather than full length releases, it would be churlish to deny that American Beauty is not the gateway drug for many. Coming at the start of their imperial ’72 phase when they morphed from psychedelic travellers into a band steeped in the traditions of their countries past, the album built on previous release Workingmans Dead (another worthy listen) and its inspiration drawn from The Band. A more commercial affair than its predecessor, it contains amongst its many treasures, the beautiful ‘Box Of Rain’, a song from bass player Phil Lesh for his then dying father. Coming off the back of the successful Workingmans album, a release which finally cheered the bigwigs of Warner Bros up, ‘Box of Rain’ carried on that tradition of songs which could be delivered to a wider public, and even gain a modicum of success out of the Dead’s cult following. It was also the last song ever played at what would turn out to be the final Grateful Dead concert, which makes it the perfect place for us to start.
‘Dark Star’ (Live Dead)
Now you have eased yourself in with some of their more accessible fare (and we will return to that era later), it is now time to gain context into why The Dead are so revered within the San Francisco hippy scene. Whilst American Beauty may seem like classic Americana, this is only part of the story, and to understand the journey you need to return to the beginning. Of course, to go right back would be to witness their birth as a jugband blues band, a place for the hardcore fan. We want to visit that moment when they were at the height of their psychedelic explorations and where else but the mysterious, enigmatic ‘Dark Star’. Settle down for a 30 minute journey into the heart of The Dead, as the Owsley acid kicked in and the love-in begins. A human love-in of epic proportions, The Dead were the symbolic centre of the Haight Asbury scene, the drugs, the music, the attitude, they embodied it all. Never more so than on ‘Dark Star.’
Fans will carp forever over which is the best version of ‘Dark Star’, and to provide context the song is essentially a few lines of lyrics surrounded by at least 20 to 30 minutes of exploratory noodling. Never the same twice, there are longer versions but this is the one that has introduced many a music fan to freedom that The Dead’s music provides.
‘The Other One’ (Anthem Of The Sun)
For those with a keen eye of what’s on Netflix, you may well have noticed a documentary called The Other One which looks at the story of The Dead through the eyes of youngest member Bob Weir. Taking the role of the spar against Jerry Garcia, Weir continues to be the leading figure in keeping the music of the band going. ‘The Other One’ is also the name of part of a suite which opens up the Anthem Of The Sun album. It’s featured here as it forms a prominent part of the ethos of the band and how they work.
Set to two tempos of 4/4 and 6/8 laid on top, the music is the brainchild of drummer Mickey Hart who brought in world rhythms and unusual signatures to the songs. This allowed the band to spread out the jams into elongated sequences, often going so far out as to forget which song they were actually supposed to be playing. We’ve featured the album version here but it is really the myriad of live versions which demonstrate how the band became such a force on the gig circuit. Free your mind to the undulating rhythms as Garcia takes on another fluid trail of lysergically enhanced music through his guitar. But it’s important to realise, that outside of Garcia, there was a band who were working together as a symbiotic union, each in tune with where they wanted to head next. By appreciating this, you are then ready to appreciate some of the finer points of The Dead as we progress.
In amongst the numerous live shows and albums, Grateful Dead members also found time to work on solo releases. Perhaps one of the more famous ones is this rather sweet tune taken from Jerry Garcia’s first solo album. Unsurprisingly for a song written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and featuring the playing of Dead members, there was little to discern between the early solo songs and the Dead’s music of the time. The infamous tour of Europe in ’72 became a breeding ground for not just Garcia’s solo music, but also Bob Weir’s too.
‘Sugaree’ is a song which is recognisably Garcia. His mellow vocals lead us into his unique style of guitar playing, whilst it slowly builds into a gorgeous little ballad, offering a respite from the more trippier moments. The Dead show could be an at times meandering and bewildering experience. ‘Sugaree’ served to offer a moment of brief simplicity before the flower bloomed once again.
‘China Cat Sunflower’/’I Know You Rider’ (Sunshine Daydream)
You’re not going to fall too far down the Grateful Dead hole before you stumble across this little twosome and along with the accompanying DVD of the gig at Veneta, you have the very essence of the Dead. Two songs of simple nature, joined together by a jam, building to a moment of peak intensity, it’s very nature is the acid trip unfolding as the nursery rhyme lilt of ‘China Cat Sunflower’ slowly leads you in and up. As Garcia’s guitar gets ever more ecstatic and the chorus of “sunshine daydream!” erupts, its over to the elliptical jam. More will be said about the jam next but appreciate the way it naturally finds its way (never in the same way twice) to the glorious trad arrangement of ‘I Know You Rider’. This is the Dead in full flow, a staple of the live shows and usually the point where the band have finally shaken off those earlier searches, and hit peak flow. That’s how the band work you see, each night they ease themselves into the show, finding each others musical point, then linking together as the jams unfold. China Cat/Rider is that special moment where anything is possible.
‘Scarlet Begonias’/’Fire On The Mountain’/’Estimated Prophet’ (Cornell ’77)
By now you should have some idea of how the jam ethic works within The Dead universe, and this always leads to the live “sequences”, those moments in the live show where they start linking the songs together. There are many “classic” jams stemming from the songs, and ever since the early days the band have sought to find that spot in-between the songs. It’s the moment when they can experiment and find new ways of working the songs. Some may call it noodling, but that is to miss the point. It is a key theme of what the band are about and to hear them link two or three songs in a row can be one of the best trips ever.
We’ll look at an earlier example later but for a later version from ’77, why not try out the perfection of Scarlet/Fire/Prophet. A sequence of three songs, it formed an integral part of the Dead set in the second half of their lifetime. It also demonstrates there ability to shift music styles with a distinct undertone of reggae seeping through this suite. Indeed, so strong was the reggae that Black Uhuru and Burning Spear eventually covered ‘Estimated Prophet’ themselves.
Here it’s an epiphany, a culmination of jamming built out of the three songs. Each time would be different but each time the result would be the same of elation from the audience as the perhaps a recognition of the zealot in the song is reflected within their Deadhead tendencies. This is a time where the parking lots were starting to fill with travelling fans, some holding one finger aloft to try and bag a ticket, others selling their wares. It was a time when to be a Deadhead was a way of life, a way of innocence built on the hippy dream. That would turn sour in later years but in ’77 it changed the relationship between band and fan. The Scarlet/Fire/Prophet suite seems to encapsulate all this.
‘Terrapin Station’ (Terrapin Station)
We’ve touched on how the Dead have changed styles over the years and from psychedelic rock, through folk and classic Americana, touching on reggae and even disco/funk (usually on the ever present version of ‘Dancing In The Street’, a song they always insisted on playing for interminable amounts of time!). Nothing quite prepares you for ‘Terrapin Station’ though, which can only really be described as prog rock. Taking up one side of the album of the same name, it also marks another point where the band crossed over into a wider audience. Quite how is a mystery, although the amusing album art of tortoises may well have played a part. Well OK, it was a commercial peak for the band, at least until ‘Touch Of Grey’ turned them into MTV stars (yes, you heard that right).
Terrapin is anything but commercial though. It’s orchestral flourished and cod reggae beats entangled with Garcia’s guitar. It’s a conundrum but one that continues to delight, no matter how many plays. It could have been ridiculous, but this is The Dead, they left ridiculous behind years ago. Terrapin is a beast which needs to be appreciated for what it is, the Dead at their most over the top fantastical, and having fun.
‘Jack Straw’/’Bertha’ (Europe ’72)
Although not often played in sequence, we are including these two songs here as they form a key part of any Dead set. Outside of the meandering explorations and jams, there was a lyricism to the band which underlined their musical freedom. Although not a part of the band, Robert Hunter would be an integral part of the story as the chief lyric writer and during the period of Workingmans Dead, through the Europe 72 and Skull And Bones live shows, to Wake Up The Flood he was the purveyor of some of the most quintessential American songs. Steeped in the lore of the country, the band may have placed themselves as psychedelic cowboys, but what strikes through is the relationship between the music and the lyrics. Hunter’s tales of down and outs struck a nerve with the hangover of the hippy dream, as the hopes of a new freedom were dashed by drug raids and ultimately death. Their mascot and mad man drummer Pigpen was still with them during this period but in retrospect its difficult to not see the fall that would come. Here, as Bob Weir lifts the lyrics up into a combative stance, we have the rock and roll outlaw, the cowboy, the American anti-hero, and somehow that just seemed to encapsulate Pigpen. More on him later, here we remember The Dead for their songs, sometimes a part that gets missed amongst the myth.
By now you will have been privy to many parts of The Dead and may be getting a feel for what they are all about. It’s important to remember that this selection only forms a small part of their story, and whilst these songs may be the most recognizable in that they have formed the core of the live show throughout their journey, there are many more roads to explore. No two shows are the same, and even on their studio releases there are glorious moments waiting to be rediscovered. For now we take a left turn into something completely different, but nonetheless essential to the story. Drums/Space is not an actual song in itself although you will find it on many of the live releases. It is the moment during the Dead show when the talents of Bill Kreutsmann and Mickey Hart take over to open up the doors of perception. It’s an exploratory section built around drums which is never the same twice. This opens up into Space, a period of intense noodling and meandering jams, often incorporating “the beam”, an 8 foot length of aluminum I-beam, strung with 13 bass strings.
There are many versions of Drums/Space and some will simply deter the straggler. Reputedly incorporated into the set so as to allow time for other members to re-dose themselves with whatever drug they were on at the time, it’s become a moment of unification between audience and band as they seek to explore whatever space they are in at the time. It’s music to take drugs to.
‘St Stephen’/’Not Fade Away’/’St Stephen’ (Cornell ’77)
Back to the jams and one of the more popular moments of the early Dead show was Aoxomoxoa track ‘St Stephen’. Live, it became one of the first sequences as it morphed into ‘The Eleven’, then back again. Here we are going for the later version which incorporated ‘Not Fade Away’ as it’s middle section. ‘St Stephen’ would become a rarity after the early years although perversely ‘Not Fade Away’ would feature quite regularly. When they were joined, magic happened and was treated with reverence by the Deadhead.
It may seem strange to talk of a song being treated with reverence but that is what happened with many of these songs. ‘St Stephen’ in particular took on another meaning for many, and with its lurching rhythm and exploratory sections, it can be seen as perhaps the defining sound of The Dead. By combining with ‘Not Fade Away’, it recognises that behind all the psychedelics is a band in thrall to blues and rock and roll. ‘Not Fade Away’ provides a moment for the band to provide their own reverence to the music that influenced them. Audience, band and music all as one, and there-in lie the key to understanding. You don’t just listen to Grateful Dead, you live it and breathe it too. There can be no half measures, it is all or nothing. It becomes sustenance. There is a running joke that people loved the Dead and then the drugs wore off. Its amusing and drugs certainly play a huge part in the story. That ingredient is simply superfluous to it all though, it is all about the music and the relationships we have with each other. That is why Jerry Garcia is still revered to this day, he found a way to tap into the unity of the hippy ideal and bottle it within his music.
‘Truckin” (American Beauty)
As an encore it would be foolish not to throw in this little nugget from American Beauty. Probably there most recognised song, and one which became a radio hit in America, it’s the story of the Dead on the road. Basically a re-run of Route 66, each stop on the journey mythologised, and serving as a nod of respect to their fans, many who would follow them around from show to show. It’s almost an anomaly within the Dead catalogue in that it is simply a celebration of the realities of life, rather than a celebration of an ideal of life. It’s a moment of clarity, perhaps highlighted by that now classic line “what a long strange trip it’s been”. It’s a line which would come to eulogise the band, forever to be brought up every time a new feature is written about them. It even forms part of the title of the new documentary from Martin Scorsese. One line, from an almost throw-away song, becoming the symbol of everything the Dead meant to people. It’s perfect.
‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ (Live Dead)
Choosing a song to end on is a difficult choice and one the band changed throughout the years. ‘Playing With The Band’ is a reasonable choice, summing up the fun filled relationship, or ‘One More Saturday Night’, a song of yearning for the party to go on. It’s feels only right that we give it to Ron “Pigpen” McKernan though, that totem of self destruction and vitality who defined the early Dead sound, and in particular his performance during ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’.
Many people passed through the story of The Dead, and each played a vital part in the band. Pigpen was special though, he encompassed that outlaw image, and unusually for a Dead member, actually eschewed the imbibing of lysergic drugs, choosing instead to live an alcohol fueled life. This would eventually lead to his death, and some fans will say the death of the band. The reality is, the band carried on for many many years after with more and more success, but there always seemed to be that missing cog. That part of the band which brought in soul and fire. Pigpen would throw himself completely into preacher mode during ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’, often dragging the song out to over half an hour. Time was irrelevant, this was music for the moment, and as the audience (and band) tripped the light fantastic, Pigpen delivered his sermon of love, peace and understanding. His heart beat loud and became the blood that fueled the band. Our journey has taken us right back to their primal roots, where anything was possible. The spirit of Pigpen would forever stay with the band, moving the ever onward in the search for the muse. A long strange trip indeed.
And there you have it…a gateway if you like. This is in no way the full story and fans will argue over what should have been included. Even now there are songs which are essential to the story which should have been mentioned. They’re out there, waiting to be discovered. Turn on, tune in, and drop out to the sounds of The Dead. Enjoy the trip.