Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Grateful Dead Are Rising Again

A little over two years ago, eight rock groups from San Francisco copped some instant hype by appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival--Big Brother & The Holding Co., Country Joe & the Fish, the Electric Flag, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Steve Miller Blues Band. Every one of those groups capitalized on the break with some sort of success trip--hit LPs, top billing, hard-nosed managers, spreads in slick magazines. And in just hose two years, the success trip has shattered six of the eight.

At the beginning its seemed so simple: everyone loved everyone, and everyone dug music. How did it all abort in such egotism and acrimony? In a few cases, shells remain, and no one is discounting Janis Joplin or Mike Bloomfield or dozens of lesser figures as individual performers. But the communal think has collapsed. The only exceptions are Jefferson Airplane, biggest of the groups commercially, which persists and grows amid rumors of dissension, and the Grateful Dead, which has managed to evade success altogether.

In early 1967, when only the Airplane had reached the East in person or on record, the Grateful Dead was the mythic San Francisco band. Organist Rod McKernan, better known as Pigpen, had become a symbol of the Haight by way of posters and photographs in Ramparts, which also featured impressively freaky portraits of guitarist Jerry Garcia (Captain Trips) and bassist Phil Lesh (Reddy Kilowatt). We learned that the Dead functioned as Ken Kesey's house band, that Garcia was San Francisco's guitar guru. One emissary, dispatched to zap the Eastern media, refused to estimate which group was best: "They all have their own thing." Then he added: "But the Dead have a heavier thing."

The reality was a letdown. The Dead was basically a blues band without a blues singer--Pigpen tried but never made it, and Garcia didn't even try. Their record was peculiarly lacking in flash, spectacular only in its evenness, and sold less than any other first album by the big eight. You gotta see 'em live, we were told, but in a bad vibes gig at Howard Solomon's Cafe au Go Go ("Uncle Howie's steam bath," Garcia called it) they showed a dangerous proclivity for boring solos, and a free concert in Tompkins Square didn't sound much better.

The line from San Francisco remained firm, however, and those who stuck with them learned why. It was not so much music then as gestalt: they really did love everyone and they really did transcend showbiz. Merely by being themselves they projected an almost cosmic benevolence. About mid-set Garcia's eternal grin would take on a glow and the magic would begin. But the magic inhered just as much in the way Lesh bounced from drummer Bill Kreutzmann up to the mikes for some close interaction with Garcia or second guitarist Bob Weir; and it inhered, too, in Pigpen's earthbound r&b organ. All that evenness was suddenly revealed as serenity.

By the time the second album, Anthem of the Sun, appeared in early 1968, the Grateful Dead was no longer a blues group. Mickey Hart, a veteran of big-band jazz who had been turned around by the tabla playing of Alla Rakha, had joined as a second percussionist, and keyboard man Tom Constanten was contributing electronic effects. The result was unique not only as rock but as music, with recognizable similarities to jazz, bluegrass and Indian but sounding like none of them. Garcia's endless inventive guitar defined the sound. Other guitarists relied on startling time-shifts and dissonances or tasty comping to build excitement, but Garcia eschewed such theatricality. Often his runs resembled scales or finger exercises. Yet in the end he always got where he wanted to go, it was someplace new, and you were glad to ride with him.

Lesh, who had studied with Darius Milhaud before turning to rock, and Hart, who had learned to play in Oriental meters, also made crucial contributions. Weir and Pigpen did not, and soon it was reported that they were leaving the band. Musically, this made sense, but because the Dead was also a spiritual unit, it was distressing. Then it was revealed that this was a breakup with a difference: two groups would result but the new one, to be called the Pigpen Revue, would tour with the Dead.

It never did happen, partly because the group, which is always in debt no matter how much money it earns, couldn't handle the finances. When the Dead appeared here last February, Tom Constanten was on organ. But Pigpen was on-stage too, banging inaudibly on a set of bongos and singing or blowing mouth-harp sometimes. The Dead wouldn't have been right without Pigpen to root them to the ground,and they knew it. Not only was their music better than ever, so was their gestalt. On their recent Aoxomoxoa (Warner Brothers WS 1790), the last three credits read: "Bill Krutzmann/Percussion; Tom Constanten/Keyboards; Rod McKernan/Pig Pen." He is his own instrument.

All of this is well known to Grateful Dead aficionados, who are common enough around San Francisco but relatively rare elsewhere. The Dead, who appeared at the Pavilion in Flushing Meadow Park earlier this month, have not built a large audience in their appearances here, but they are a steady draw. As Garcia says: "We get hard fans. Once we play the same place three or four times we know we have a core of fans that'll stay with us no matter what we do."

Last month the Dead headlined a Fillmore East bill that was better balanced in crowd appeal than in ability. Many attended for an evening of histrionic blues with the Savoy Brown Blues Band and the Buddy Miles Express. When the Dead set up with Garcia seated at his newest instrument, a pedal steel guitar, and with Weir singing lead on a succession of country songs (including a brilliant Garcia original, "Don't Murder Me," and Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," which elicits new associations when sung by a head), some blues freaks walked out, and one ignoramus started catcalling about "cowboys."

If he only knew. The Dead aren't cowboys, but their style is so eclectic that it doesn't matter, and country did evolve partly from bluegrass, which was Garcia's earliest obsession as a guitarist. The country material gave a homier feel to the show, even though Garcia (whose electric guitar is devoid of fuzz and feedback) played the pedal steel for distortion (most groups use it for tasteful sound effects). The late show, Friday, also included "King Bee," a Pigpen blues from the group's earliest repertoire, with Garcia contributing an exquisite, effortless three-chorus solo--far from his customary mode--that should have convinced the other two groups not to show up the next night. The set ended as usual with Pigpen singing "Love Light" over a tribal jam, complete with dancing in the aisles and on the stage. Most of the audience stood on the seats and screamed for encores. Garcia and Weir responded with a brief acoustic spiritual and were gone. It was the perfect finish, exalted but contained.

That may have been the best set the Dead had ever played in New York. In any case, their weekend at the Fillmore, with more great music Saturday and a free concert in Central Park Sunday afternoon, excited considerable gossip. A month later they returned for an appearance at the Pavilion, a canopied open-air ballroom at the New York State Pavilion of the World's Fair. With little advance publicity, they drew almost 5,000 fans.

The Pavilion is perfect for rock--spacious, airy and far from Manhattan. The spirit of the place infused everyone, and the Dead played one of those titanic sets we'd always dreamed about. It lasted two hours and featured lots of unfamiliar material--some more country songs and a wonderful Pigpen rendition of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle." For that entire time the bulk of the audience stood and listened. Miraculously in this era of concert rock, many people were dancing.

The set ended with three long improvisatory pieces, including "Love Light" and an encore of "Cosmic Charlie," from Aoxomoxoa. The country and soul songs are essentially warm-ups for this, the Dead's true music, which with its fluid meters and incessant innovation--Lesh, content to pluck an elementary pattern on tcountry numbers, has the freest style of any rock bassist--always aims toward spiritual exaltation. But like Ken Kesey, the Dead espouse a mysticism which is not only Occidental but American, even Californian. That is why their music is such a melting pot. If rock is nothing but gut appeal contained within what Mickey Hart calls the "box" of the four-four beat, then the Dead no longer care primarily about making good rock. But if rock is music that makes you dance, then they may make the best rock of all.

The easiest introduction is probably the first side of either of their two most recent albums, though it's better to see them live. At times that has been unlikely opportunity, but the Dead are in an up period right now--by dint of surviving they have prospered. They are expected back at the Pavilion before the close of the season and the new album--title once again, Aoxomoxoa, an otherwise meaningless palindrome--is selling surprisingly well, better than the first.

Now, if they can only shake off that little lawsuit over unpaid studio time . . .

New York Times, July 27, 1969