Friday, February 27, 2015

Largehearted Boy Playlist for NO SIMPLE HIGHWAY

Largehearted Boy asked me to assemble a playlist to accompany No Simple Highway. Turns out that wasn't so easy, but here's what I came up with.

How to assemble a soundtrack for a cultural history of the Grateful Dead? Fill it with my favorite Dead songs, collect their most revered jams, or try to represent the various music streams that fed their huge repertoire? I could even feature the music that Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh spun at KMPX while that San Francisco radio station was pioneering free-format rock programming in the mid-1960s.

I finally decided to produce a soundtrack that highlights the Dead's origins. Well before the band existed, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were listening avidly to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which Folkways Records released in 1952. That idiosyncratic collection was a portal to what Greil Marcus called the Old, Weird America—a shadow world of obscure heroes, rogues, doomed love affairs, suicides, murderous exploits, and half-forgotten legends.

In that spirit, then, I begin with Noah Lewis's "New Minglewood Blues," which Smith included in his anthology, and which the Dead recorded and performed many times in concert. Lewis's song was only twelve years older than Garcia, but by the time he heard it, it already sounded ancient, not to mention very weird and very American.

As a youth, Garcia heard fiddler Scotty Stoneman stretch out a bluegrass number for twenty minutes during a live performance. That was the first time Garcia recalled getting high from music; he later said his hands hurt from applauding so much. I've included Stoneman's "Talkin' Fiddlin' Blues" to mark that turning point in Garcia's musical journey. From then on, the experience of total rapture he sought would require improvisation rather than recital.

Meanwhile, Garcia's fellow folkie, Robert Hunter, was reading James Joyce and trying to write fiction. That is, until he heard Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (1966) and realized rock music could be a fit vehicle for his literary aspirations. Thus, I include "Visions of Johanna." Dylan was another Harry Smith fan; later, he and Hunter would collaborate on Together Through Life (2009).

By the mid-1960s, the Dead were part of a vibrant San Francisco scene that included Jefferson Airplane. When they recruited Grace Slick from The Great Society, she brought along two songs, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," a touchstone for the San Francisco counterculture. Like the older San Francisco artists who introduced the teenaged Garcia to bohemianism, the local bands were highly collaborative. Garcia contributed to the Airplane's debut album, Surrealistic Pillow, and coined the title. The Dead also benefited indirectly from their commercial success. Aided by San Francisco music impresario Tom Donahue, Warner Bros. signed the Dead to their first record deal.

One of Hunter's early lyrics was "Dark Star," which became the Dead's most famous (and protean) jam. Many bands, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones, were going psychedelic; with this song, the Dead went galactic. And where Jefferson Airplane alluded to Lewis Carroll, Hunter raised the literary stakes by echoing T.S. Eliot. Hunter would soon cast himself as a western writer, but there was nothing especially western about this lyric, except that it featured a frontier—the final one, space.

The Dead's early, more experimental music didn't sell many albums. But they also had other challenges. In October 1967, most of them were arrested for drug possession in their home at 710 Ashbury. The following year, they moved to bucolic Marin County, where they hung out with David Crosby and his folkie friends. Meanwhile, Garcia taught himself to play pedal steel and provided the opening riff for "Teach Your Children." That song appeared on Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969), a huge critical and commercial success. Both bands appeared at Woodstock that summer. Insofar as the event drew on the contemporary urge to "get back to the garden," Woodstock was a powerful expression of the back-to-the-land movement at its peak.

The Dead's next album, Workingman's Dead, tapped that same back-to-the-land urge. It was packed with soulful acoustic music and vocal harmonies, and when the executives at Warner Bros. heard "Uncle John's Band," they also heard the cash registers ringing. The Dead toured Canada that summer on the so-called Festival Express and returned to the Bay Area to record American Beauty. Those two albums gave the Dead their first taste of commercial success and something to tour behind.

American Beauty included "Truckin'," another popular single. This one tapped the American fascination with the open road, which the band inherited from Jack Kerouac and On the Road. As their touring machine grew in the 1970s, more and more fans began to follow their annual migrations. Those tours modeled a new form of American wanderlust and expanded the social space for the expression and transmission of countercultural values.

On one of their live albums in the 1970s, the Dead included "Brown-Eyed Women." Set somewhere in Appalachia, the song details the challenges of moonshiners during the Great Depression. Hunter's lyric would have been right at home in Smith's anthology. Garcia once said that he related more to Dylan's lyrics, but that Hunter had the ability to evoke a whole world in a song. This one is a good example.

The Dead's touring machine rumbled through the 1970s, when critics wrote them off as a nostalgic act. After a creatively slack period in the early 1980s, the most serious challenge to their enterprise was Garcia's diabetic coma in 1986. When he pulled through and resumed touring, the Dead scored their first top-ten single with "Touch of Grey," which was accompanied by a creative music video. Hunter's lyric can be read as a complex response to the Age of Reagan, but mostly the song is an anthem to survival—Garcia's, the Dead's, and the Dead Head community's. When the band changed the chorus from "I will survive" to "We will survive," they gave their fans something to celebrate. They would survive Reagan, scourge of the hippies, as well as his militarized war on drugs.

The Dead disbanded when Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995. But the music lives on, largely through the continuous reinterpretation of the Dead songbook. Countless bands have covered the Dead, but I chose Los Lobos' version of "Bertha" as a token of that type. (I especially like the unlikely combination of an East Los Angeles bar band and San Francisco hippies.) The Dead's legacy will continue as long as new artists are drawn to their music. And as the overwhelming response to the Soldier Field shows in July demonstrates, the community is still going strong.



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