Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Memories of a Dead Head

I realise that science administration may not be everyone's favourite topic, so today I want to talk about the Grateful Dead instead. I can reveal that at the tender age of 17 or thereabouts, I became an officially certified Dead Head, the name given to fans of this rock band. It all started when my cousins in Delhi got hold of a couple of albums of the Dead, as they are known to their fans. I quickly became a convert. So much so, that eventually (with consent) I pinched my cousins' long-playing record of "American Beauty", one of the Dead's seminal albums, and still have it in my possession. It plays rather well, even though I vividly remember their dog once jumping on it while it was playing on their turntable.

Rock music has long been one of my passions though it has steadily become a guilty pleasure as I grow older. In 2003 I attended the Rolling Stones concert in Bombay and was relieved that everyone there was in their forties/fifties, as I was. With hindsight I can see now that it was the entire combination of power chords, pounding rhythms, exploration of meaning with an anti-establishment attitude, and (occasionally but importantly) brilliant poetry that attracted me to rock music, and still does.

Still, rock music is one topic and the Grateful Dead are quite another. One wonders if they even qualify as a rock band. Some of their albums (like American Beauty mentioned above) are described on Wikipedia as "folk rock and country music". And yet, if it wasn't for the Dead, I wouldn't be caught dead listening to country music! So what is it about them, exactly?

They lack much of the obvious appeal of rock bands -- they are nothing much to look at, they did not dress up or perform stunts on stage, they have few hit songs and never sought commercial success. They don't use power chords or pounding rhythms very much - quite the opposite, in fact. The Dead were always a "Zen" thing. With a very light rhythm and bass section and a singer (the late Jerry Garcia) who always sounded as if he had a bad cold, the only obvious redeeming feature was Garcia's amazing lead guitar -- melodic, gentle and sweet as honey. I strongly recommend this live version of "Uncle John's Band" from 1974, a peak period for them. You should be delighted by the incredibly subtle guitar solos sprinkled throughout (particularly if you're a fan of either jazz or Indian classical music). You may also notice Garcia's out-of-tune singing at various points, no doubt related to the massive ingestion of chemicals for which this band was collectively famous. Though I suppose we can't rule out that he also had a cold.

But it was not Garcia alone who made the band what it was. It was an extremely collective effort with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh playing key roles in composition and vocals, along with Ron McKernan in the early days. In fact the first song I remember hearing was the beautiful "Box of Rain", Lesh's outpouring of affection for his terminally ill father:

What do you want me to do,
To do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through.

If there was one thing that rock bands rarely did, and still rarely do, it's write songs for their fathers. So that was very special, right there. But the other song I remember from those days was "Dark Star", a long, rambling spacey blues that was sung (out of tune as usual) by Garcia. It was mostly a vehicle for his guitar playing, but also featured the memorable lines:

Shall we go, you and I
While we can?
Through the transitive nightfall
of diamonds

One has to remember that in those days pretty much everyone was seeing strange things in their mind's eye, but few could put them down quite so compellingly. Much of this was due to their resident poet Robert Hunter, who was a member of the band but didn't perform any instrument other than poetry. You can read the full lyrics of Dark Star here. In the process you will learn another special thing about the Dead: there is an entire website devoted to analysis and interpretation of their lyrics. For this song, one reader has contributed the following gem:

"Each haiku-like verse of "Dark Star" captures an image in transition, and does so in very economical language. The star crashes; reason tatters; searchlights seek; the mirror shatters; a hand turns to a flower; a mysterious lady disappears."

So how did I become an official Dead Head? In 1974 or so, I wrote an airmail letter to an address I found in a magazine. A month later (I know this sounds unreal today) I got a reply from one of their staff saying "We didn't know there are fans in India, that's great! I will put your letter up on the notice board for the band to see". This was followed by a gift of an LP, From the Mars Hotel, which arrived quite warped in the post but I was able to play it after it had settled down for a few days. Sadly I don't seem to have this LP any more, nor the letter.

I did manage to see them live, and can even tell you the exact date and venue: 23 April 1977, or 38 years ago last week, at the Civic Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. I was then doing my Ph.D. in Stony Brook and hitched a ride with other fans to see them. It was not their best concert - there were issues with the sound, and the crowd was rather listless. It included a bunch of Hell's Angels who sat around looking tattooed and mean, as is their habit. And (did I mention?) Garcia sang mostly out of tune. But it was the Dead for sure, and thanks to modern technology I possess the actual recording of the entire concert. This is due to another remarkable quirk of the band. Every concert they ever performed for which "soundboard" recordings exist, only excluding those marketed as live albums, is available for free on a dedicated Grateful Dead section of I recalled the venue and the approximate year and was able to track down the precise concert. It even has the disappearing vocals during "Scarlet Begonias" that I can distinctly remember.

The cosmic-sounding name Grateful Dead arose for its own fascinating reasons and seems to have influenced their work. Among other things it led them to record an album called Blues for Allah and I recall they even performed it in Egypt in the shadow of the pyramids (I remember this story from the old days, but can't find internet evidence about such a concert. Still, do read this excellent article about the title song).

Their lyrics, if not their lifestyle, reflected a keen interest in philosophy and the mystery of life and death. If you saw the video of Uncle John's Band linked above, you may have noticed the lovely thought "Like the morning sun you come, and like the wind you go". Famously, their song about touring, "Truckin'", has the chorus "what a long, strange trip it's been." I'll leave you with the full lyrics of their haunting song Ripple which says what many bands have tried to say, only somewhat better. The concept of "ripple in still water" is borrowed openly and directly from Zen philosophy. Do listen to the original version of the song, which Garcia even managed to sing vaguely in tune:

If my words did glow
With the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played
On the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice
Come through the music?
Would you hold it near
As it were your own?

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

It's a hand-me-down
The thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall, you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

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