The diehard fans now call them “The Days Between,” after a song written during the group’s final years of existence and never recorded in the studio. It was only played live, the only way most people ever wanted to hear their music.
Jerry Garcia would have been 70 this year; he was born August 1, 1942. And he in all likelihood would have been stepping onto a new stage, his feet planted on a Persian carpet, guitar at the ready. But he died seventeen years ago today, August 9, 1995, itself exactly one month after the Grateful Dead encored with their elegiac songs “Black Muddy River” and “Box of Rain” at what was destined to be their final concert, right here in Chicago at Soldier Field.
It was a full house, and that is something which might surprise people of our generation: for the final decade of their existence, the Grateful Dead was one of the only bands in history to be a guaranteed sell-out at any arena and stadium. They couldn’t play smaller concerts; the demand was far too great. In 1991, for instance, they played NINE shows at Madison Square Garden and turned people away. For those who only know the Dead from the skull and roses, the multi-colored Teddy bears, and the classic video for their only top ten single, “Touch of Grey” (which I ate up as a kid every time it was on VH1), their appeal might be hard to understand. Even harder because the Dead are a very foreboding band to get into. It took me a long while.
But once I did, the love affair became a beautiful one. The Grateful Dead are my go-to background music for times of brainstorming and inspiration. They are my second-favorite band of all time after the Beatles, but while, to borrow an idea from the great critic George Starostin, I barely need to hear the Beatles anymore because every note and harmony is instilled in my soul, the Dead are an infinitely surprising and fascinating band whom I tune into on an almost daily basis and never hear the same thing twice. Most of all, I would argue they are the greatest band in American history.
Quite an encomium, I know, but let me explain.
It’s hard to classify such a thing as purely American music. Our nation was a hybrid of so many backgrounds and ethnicities and cultures contributing bits and pieces to a mix. But in contrast, our music evolved along multiple paths from those same cultures and diverged to create multiple results. Robert Johnson was not Louis Armstrong, and neither man was comparable to Hank Williams, but all were and are distinctly American.
Very few ensembles have tried to bring the myriad of American music together into a cohesive whole. Even fewer have succeeded. None succeeded as much as the Grateful Dead.
Their four founding and lasting members all came from different backgrounds. Garcia himself learned acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, and pedal steel, and spent years trying to make it in the mingling worlds of folk, country, and bluegrass. Bassist Phil Lesh spent high school and college studying composition and collaborated with classmates such as Steve Reich under the tutelage of modern classical master Luciano Berio. Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir immersed himself in the deepest and richest strains of the traditional blues and more soulful R&B, though he had a penchant for good country story-song as well. And drummer Bill Kreutzmann was a veteran of multiple rock and pop cover bands.
The more the Grateful Dead played together, two more qualities emerged in their music. They could write songs which sounded like they had come from decades ago, recorded by the country and blues masters, but with distinct melodies and hooks more than appealing for modern rock and roll audiences. More importantly, the Dead found a shared ethos stemming from the first gigs which brought them notoriety, playing the Acid Tests organized by Ken Kesey: the idea of music as a shared experience between the musicians and the audience. The Grateful Dead’s driving ambition all their days was to serve the audience, to collaborate with them in creating a collective experience with both sides feeding off of each other and pushing each other to new limits. No two performances could thus be the same, and to guarantee this uniqueness, the Dead adopted a jazz vocabulary of improvisation, each member playing off the others and the band uniting to create a spontaneous new sound night after night. This led to a dominating current of unselfishness and unity, so much so that when Kreutzmann met Mickey Hart, who had been banging on a drum since boyhood and knew seemingly every different ethnic style of music in the world–as well as each style’s preferred percussion instruments–it was Kreutzmann who insisted Hart join as a second drummer.*
There was one last element of the Grateful Dead which made them almost mythically American. The Founding Fathers’ dream for a truly republican society free of parties and factions quickly proved to be just that. But the collective, united spirit of the Dead was expressed in their lyrics and philosophy in such a way as to make them, despite their association with the San Francisco counterculture, a truly non-political band. Not that political themes are a flaw in themselves, as any listen to Woody Guthrie will prove, but the risk of topicality and with it a loss of meaning for future generations becomes more prevalent. The Dead, in their quest to offer a new experience every night, realized the paradox that timely songs would detract from the lasting quality of the sound itself. Therefore, songs with social commentary were almost inexistent.(Although among those few, “Throwing Stones” feels increasingly potent with the passing years.) Instead, with the magnificent poet Robert Hunter penning lyrics as their de facto seventh or eighth member, the Dead sang about the people who sought life, liberty, and happiness. Hunter’s words painted a picture of the universe as a world of randomness and the uncontrollable,themes often expressed with his favorite metaphor of gambling…yet the human spirit as one in which every individual was connected to and affected the entire world. It was a vision both egalitarian and celebratory of the species. And when the band needed a little relief, Garcia and Hunter’s tunes had a perfect complement in the lighter, more sexually charged, compositions of Weir and John Perry Barlow…just as Weir’s young, charged, resonant growl complemented Garcia’s sage, medieval bard-recalling twang.
As a final bonus, the Dead celebrated their musical heritage night after night: every show featured a fair share of covers given the inimitable Dead spin, from cowboy ballads to old English folk songs to 1950s rockers to twelve-bar blues standards to plenty of Bob Dylan.
Nothing I have yet described feels inaccessible, so why are the Grateful Dead so foreboding? The easy answer is because it’s almost impossible to know where to start. Their thirteen studio albums were often perfunctory affairs full of failed experiments, the songs inevitably taking on their true life in concert: the two exceptions being the one-two punch from 1970, the sterling country-rock LPs Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. And their live albums…right now there are ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY official Grateful Dead live albums, and almost every concert from their whole career is available for purchase, download, or streaming online. Moreover, the band’s constant search for new sounds meant that every year, at least every other year, their style would make a noticeable shift. So where does one begin?
Here’s my suggestion. Like the best television shows, there is a framework to the Grateful Dead concerts which stays the same while incorporating so many variations. The first set consists of shorter numbers (well, relatively shorter) as the band feels out the groove and the atmosphere…although this should not be mistaken for disorganization, as they always sound unified and in touch. The second set, if not at the very beginning a few songs in, sees them pull out one of their standard numbers which allows them to really stretch out, these songs invariably featuring some of Hunter’s most brilliant lyrics: “Dark Star,” “That’s it for the Other One,” “Playing in the Band,” “Terrapin Station,” and “Scarlet Begonias-Fire on the Mountain,” songs Garcia and Hart wrote four years apart which they quickly discovered sounded like one giant number. Then Kreutzmann and Hart play the least boring (and often exciting) drum features in all of rock, the band noodles with bizarre noisemaking, and they find a groove again for a few final epic numbers, mixing originals and covers, to send the Deadheads home happy.
For example, one of the best Dead concerts I’ve heard recently was a show from that aforementioned Madison Square Garden run, specifically the performance from September 12, 1991 (available on YouTube). The first set is a distinct mix of 80s pop-rock, 70s country grooves, traditional blues and folk, and a little Dylan, closing with Weir and Barlow’s epic “Let it Grow,” all played with passion and dedication. Then comes the second set. They open with Weir’s “Sugar Magnolia,” an eternal fan favorite, but halfway through the song, on a signal from Garcia, the music shifts to their last single, the poppy guitar showcase “Foolish Heart,” which becomes a vehicle for understated but glorious Garcia soloing. “Foolish Heart” becomes “Playing in the Band,” appropriately climaxing with the entire group crafting a rich and complex rhythm…which itself becomes Hunter’s magnum opus, “Terrapin Station,” Garcia telling the story and the entire band riding the final melodic lines into a cacophonous but stunningly tuneful Kreutzmann and Hart drum duet, which becomes all the band just banging, plucking, playing with synthesized sounds and feedback and generating noises which feel like they come from beyond the atmosphere. Then the music grows into a structure, and that structure becomes Garcia and Hunter’s spiritual canto “The Wheel,” itself becoming “Black Peter,” an original folk tune foreshadowing the music of the Civil Wars or Gillian Welch today, itself becoming Chuck Berry’s crescendoed stomp “Around and Around.” And as the final bars play, the group appears to come to a realization, and about seventy-five minutes after they started it, they finish “Sugar Magnolia” to ecstatic cheers…before a final encore with Lesh taking the lead on “Box of Rain.”
Many Dead concerts are reminiscent of that long and winding and rewarding journey…so pick one at random, maybe one with a few songs you recognize, and let the adventure unfold. If you don’t like it, pick one from a different year, a different decade. You might hear something which makes you want to take further travels with the Dead through the roots and branches of America.
Or, alternatively, try Reckoning, their all-acoustic 1981 album, mixing originals and covers almost evenly and covering the full spectrum of their favorite genres. It’s not typical of Dead concerts and thus a bit misleading, but the band’s playing envelopes you with a familial embrace, their voices never more lovely and inviting, and it ends with a magnificent “Ripple,” the Garcia-Hunter song about, well, anything and everything in four Zen-like minutes, the song I want played at my funeral.
Or, maybe, the album “Ripple” and “Box of Rain” and “Sugar Magnolia” first came from, American Beauty. It was still Dead-in-the-studio, but it was good enough for Lindsay Weir.
*The Dead always had piano and keyboards, but the reader may notice I didn’t mention any of them. While the five key members were together for the long haul (although Hart was absent for a few years in the early seventies out of guilt because his father became their manager and ran off with most of the money), the keyboardists were like the tragic real life version of the drummers in Spinal Tap, all of them dying during or just after their tenures ended from addiction or suicide, and despite their proficiency (necessary in this band) they were never as featured as the other members.
And FYI, dedicated Deadheads, I never minded Donna Jean Godchaux’s years as the female back-up singer.