Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Finding the Spirit of ’67
by Blair Jackson
For the past week-plus, I spent my brisk, daily, hour-long walks around Lake Merritt here in Oakland digging the three mid-February Phil & Friends concerts from the unfortunately named 1st Bank Center in Denver. The shows were fantastic! I had worried that having three lead guitarists—Warren Haynes, John Scofield and Jackie Greene—might make for too thick a stew. And yes, there’s a lot going on pretty much all the time. But somehow it works. Even when it is a cacophonous roar of wailing guitars, it’s a fine mess (as Oliver Hardy used to say).
Warren and Jackie are two of my favorite singers of Garcia’s songs, and they did not disappoint, as they tackled everything from “The Golden Road,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “He’s Gone” (all by Jackie) to “Stella Blue,” “Wharf Rat,” “Althea” and “Candyman” (Warren). And what a selection of cover songs—“I Am the Walrus” and “She Said, She Said” by The Beatles, The Who’s “Magic Bus,” the old blues "Rollin' and Tumblin'," Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-heeled Boys,” even Clapton’s “Layla”—the last a perfect showcase for all that guitar firepower and Warren’s passionate vocals. Man, I would love to see that band!
After I had finished listening to that truly wondrous 2/18/12 Phil & Friends show, which opens with “The Golden Road” into a magnificently gnarly “Viola Lee Blues,” I put on the Grateful Dead’s 3/18/67 Winterland show. I’ve been on a ’60s jag of late, listening compulsively to ’66-’68 Dead in preparation for a book I’m writing (it’s a long way off, but thanks for asking). That Winterland concert is probably the best we have from the first half of ’67. It’s the day after their first album was released, and just the third time they’d played that 5,000-capacity venue, which must have seemed so cavernous to a band accustomed to the much smaller Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom. There’s raw excitement in all the songs they play, which are all cover tunes except for “The Golden Road” and “Cream Puff War” (neither of which would make it to the summer of ’67). There’s a long, spellbinding “Viola Lee Blues” and a harrowing “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” which unfortunately cuts on the tape before its conclusion. Damn!
I love all those tunes, but never got to hear any of them played by the Grateful Dead, except for one version of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” when it came back in 1989. Even though I first saw the Dead in the spring of ’70, I never saw “The Eleven,” “Cosmic Charlie,” “New Potato Caboose,” “Caution,” “Born Cross-Eyed,” “Alligator,” “Mountains of the Moon” or “Doin’ That Rag.” After catching a few versions of “St. Stephen” at my first shows, I heard only one less-than-great one (10/31/83) for the rest of my Dead days.
I was always disappointed by Garcia’s aversion to playing most songs from the Dead’s early days. Certainly I understand why he found tunes such as “Cosmic Charlie” and “Doin’ That Rag” a bit forbidding—the first because it’s difficult to sing (as he said in interviews), the second because it is so lyrically opaque. In the ’80s he said he thought “Cream Puff War” was embarrassing, and flatly stated he would never play “Golden Road” again because “it belonged too much to that moment.” But, “Mountains of the Moon”? Why ignore “Attics of My Life” for 17 years? As for “Dark Star,” Jerry’s classic cop-out during the fallow years when that song was being ignored—explained to Dead.net’s own Mary Eisenhart in her superb 1987 BAM magazine interview— was: “Really, ‘Dark Star’ is a little of everything we do, all the time. So what happened to ‘Dark Star’ was, it went into everything. Everything's got a little ‘Dark Star’ in it.” With all due respect, Jer, no it doesn’t.
It’s sad that it took Garcia’s death for us to finally get to hear some of these great songs live. I’m convinced the latter-day Dead could have killed on “Viola Lee Blues,” but for whatever reasons they wouldn’t play it. Too redolent of the still-formative ’67 GD? It’s just a blues tune; a jumping off point for adventurous extrapolations. But thanks to Phil & Friends and Furthur, thousands of people who never got to hear it from ’66-’70 are privileged to experience it now, and it is almost always interesting, exciting and experimental in ways that are completely different than it was during its first era. “Mountains of the Moon” has become a launchpad for some of the most inspired improvisations Phil’s bands have come up with. You see, Jerry was actually quite conservative—rigid even— when it came to his song arrangements, and it is practically unimaginable he would have taken that song in the fascinating directions Phil has.
“The Golden Road” may be lyrically and spiritually rooted in 1967, but the way it’s been played the last few years—as a joyous anthem that celebrates that time and this time—makes it relevant and a gas to hear and dance to. The Dead never jammed it out the way Furthur and Phil & Friends do; it’s like a new song. “Dark Star” may, as Jerry told Mary, be “a minimal tune,” but it is also a portal to unlimited possibilities and it has flourished in recent years in the hands of many a band that recognizes its value as both a way station and a stepping stone. “St. Stephen” remains one of the truly glorious touchstones of the entire Dead canon—not dated at all; just classic—and “The Eleven” is always a dynamite groove that elevates everyone. How marvelous that we get to enjoy that practically orgasmic moment when the pre-“Eleven” jam finally kicks into 11/4 and hits that next level!
I love that Phil and Bob have embraced the murky deep end and forgotten spaces of the Dead’s incredibly rich repertoire. “What’s Become of the Baby?” Still not very good, but I appreciate the effort. “Blues for Allah”? Nailed it that first time in Calaveras. “King Solomon's Marbles”? Yeah, baby! A winner everytime. The list goes on, and the plethora of brilliant and creative and cool versions of Dead tunes that have come into the Dead Covers Project reaffirms my belief that these songs will grow with all of us forever.
Untold thousands of players who aren’t weighed down by ’60s baggage are finding exhilarating new avenues to explore and investing the songs with the distinctive radiance and energy of this time. Right about now, this world could use a little dose of 1967.Above: Kelley and Mouse’s poster advertising the Dead’s original fan club, 1967.
The law of which he sang can be applied to one's
expectations of him.
...Jerry had to squeeze in all those vital versions of "I Fought the Law" ...
My sentiments exactly.
You can't go back and you can't stand still.
And Blair that line about it taking Garcia's death.
To what, hear these "great songs" without Garcia?
Jerry knew what he was doing.
It is always very hard to glean the reasons behind the basically aesthetic choices of artists w.r.t. their own oeuvre. To my ears, jettisoning much of the early era songs does make some sort of sense (don't get me wrong, I LOVE THEM!). There are a number of reasons that suggest themselves:
1.influence of acid in a certain experimental context, both socially and musically. Some of those early songs, and the Dead's approach to them are deeply rooted in that particular world. Of course they could be played in other ways (and some were) but perhaps their very essence, to the band at least, would have been denuded.
2. Changing approaches to ensemble playing/improvising. Many of the early songs are not easily played in open improv contexts, or modal settings.
3. Perhaps they simply were not happy with their sound w.r.t. many of these songs when they did bring them back. Here I generally agree. It is not that they could not play the song form (the blues is the blues is the.....) but in comparison with the earlier versions many of the late versions sound, well, lame (again, to me....and perhaps particularly to Jerry....) Why might this be so? Well, you needn't move immediately to claims of lesser musical talent (although one might want to argue this!), but that the expressive and semantic content of these early songs were no longer in sympathy with the bands headspace. Again you could play them, but they would become different songs altogether. (Think about what it took for Dancin' to return a complete rearrangement, which worked wonderfully, but.... was it ever Harpur's College??) Bla, bla, bla, could go on, but a point related to other things happening on the site at the moment. For me, I rather hear OTHER non-dead related bands (and non simply cover bands) play these early songs. Then the reinterpretations are not judged against a backdrop of the bands own earlier practices. I don't find myself thinking things like "Damm, Bobby used to have such a nice tone on this tune, to voice the chords in interesting ways, to dance in and around Jerry and Phil's lines, but now, just on the beat chunks that don't egg Jerry to new places", etc. and so forth (yes, as always, the usual "others may disagree")." Ok, time to go.....and listen to some Dead! Peace to all. My vote for the song that kept its power and interest the longest through the Dead's long strange trip, whose changes made sense and kept interest--Wharf Rat (there is a question for another post, perhaps).
Songs get played out. As an artist you have to be true to yourself. Faking his way through "St Stephen" or "Cosmic Charlie" in later years to please the fans wasn't his style and that mindset was part of his greatness.
And the fact remains that a lot of those early songs just weren't good songs. Some were embarassing just like Garcia said.
For jamming vehicles, in later years they had plenty of good songs that also gave them room to jam. Why play bad songs and jam on them when you don't have to? (Though I suppose someone could debate that too ...not sure "eternity" will go in the Dead.wall of fame for great songs!)
If songs were good enough they would usually come back. And that gave everyone a big buzz.
(and I say this to everyone in general)
but there was a certain meme (not that that word was in general circulation yet) in the rumor mills, circa early '80s, that when they played "Golden Road" again it would all be over. This notion was obviously the creation of people who had nothing better to do than make stuff up, but as you may have noticed, sitting in line and hanging out in the parking lot waiting for the shows to start, making stuff up and spreading it around was right up there with vending kind veggie burritos as a cultural staple.
The baggage that the songs acquired having absolutely nothing to do with the band was pretty remarkable too.
Which of course influences the chemistry when the songs come back.
I have to say, I rather enjoyed the rescue and revival of Dupree's Diamond Blues In the early 1980's with the full on Wha at Garcia's guitar break.
Then a Bob tune, then back to the new West L.A. Fadeaway blues. Kinda like updating the human condition. Seemed to work fine.
Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa are always my go to pieces when doing an introduction to the band for a young person. Live Dead for when they are ready to take the next step...
Anthem to me should get American Heritage status whatever that may look like.
shwack in nh
mmm.....I've always liked how the Dead moved on from the late 60's stuff. Don't get me wrong- no one loves those songs more than I do, but I think I "get" why they quit playing most of them. The era was just such a special time- it had to be left behind. I'm a hardcore 65-76 Deadhead- my listening habits haven't changed much in 30 + years. About 90% of the Dead I listen to is pre-77 but still my favorite songs from any era are those that were born ( or at least "took off"j) in that era: my fav late 70's- Estimated, Scarlet-Fire, Lazy Lightning-Supplication. My favorite early 80's tune is "Space"!, from then on, the Dylan covers, Bird Song, Cassidy (both really took off in the 80's) Sailor-Saint, Lazy river road, Liberty etc, etc. Most latter-day revivals of the Golden era (65-76) never worked for me. Friend of the Devil is a great exception- I loved all versions all through the years- I've never heard a version I didn't like. Some others- China-Rider, UJB, Let it Grow come to mind. And "Stealin"! I loved the early Dead version but I like the Garcia/Grisman version even better. (Dang, I wish Garcia /Grisman had done "Betty and Dupree"!) Hm- what about PITB and Other one? No doubt, lots of dazzling improvisation on these tunes post 76. But more often than not, a little voice in my head reminds me I could be re-listening to a pre-77 version of those tunes and if I worked hard enough it could even be one I've never heard before....
Blair's article on the GD and MTV was a nice foreshadow to the All The Years Combine release. Let's hope this current article is a hint to the August Dave's Picks. C'est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.
I agree with everything you said, including the remark about "half-assed" attempts at "Unbroken Chain." The GD played that at the last show I ever saw (Shoreline 6/4/95) and I thought it was weak sauce. After the rush of "Wow, they're playing 'Unbroken Chain,' I was like, 'We waited 20 years for this?'" It's never been one of my favorite tunes, but I've gotta say, every time I hear Phil play it, he nails it, and as I've mentioned, I love the instrumental coda that Furthur added...