Forty Years Upon Our Heads
Illustration by Tucker Chase
A Recent 'from beyond' Rap with Jerry Garcia1.
by Jesse Jarnow
"It's pretty far out," Jerry Garcia said recently of his decade so far in the afterlife. Well, what did you expect him to say?
"It's actually more far out than even I expected. There's really no way to describe it in Judeo-Christian terms. It's more like being in touch with an alien intelligence -- which is actually what I thought was happening for a while.
"I wasn't entirely unprepared," the man once known as Captain Trips chortles, his unrepentant smoker's laugh undiluted by 10 years separated from his body. Our connection is surprisingly clear and Garcia -- no pun intended -- is in good spirits.
The Grateful Dead would have been 40 last year. Or maybe -- if you count the incarnations that have toured since Garcia's death in August 1995 at the Serenity Knolls rehab clinic in Northern California -- they are 40 now.
The remaining band members are in one of their tender periods: bassist Phil Lesh plays with various lineups under the 'Phil and Friends' moniker (lately starring the newly hippiefied Ryan Adams or the always hippiefied Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes), guitarist Bob Weir tours regularly with Ratdog, drummer Mickey Hart most recently collaborated with tasteless L.A. electro-jammers Particle on a project dubbed 'Hydra.' Recently, they squabbled publicly over the fate of their legendary tape vault.
A decade after the band's demise, meanwhile, it is the path of the Deadheads -- the fans that anthropologist Joseph Campbell once called "the most recently developed tribe on the planet" -- that might be more relevant. As they mutated from a lean, progressive fusion quintet to a sluggish, ossified stadium behemoth, the Dead's tours became an indelible part of the American landscape, a rite of passage as cherished as it was ridiculed. "Though we took less acid over the years, that fundamental chaos of the Acid Tests never went away entirely," Garcia ruminates on the season spent as the house band for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, 40 years ago this December.
"That's sort of how I see the Grateful Dead continuing to exist in -- what is it? -- 2006. Or continuing to not exist." He laughs again, always knowingly, and one remembers why so many worshipped him as a guru. "But, yeah, the Grateful Dead is like acid -- it's there if you need it, but it's not always necessary to access that space. Unless you want to."
"I think we were basically a myth to a lot of people, even when we were around. I mean, what was it like to see us in one of those stadiums? That was never my idea of the Grateful Dead. But I was just the fat guy with the beard. I was never the Grateful Dead."
"I certainly never cared about becoming that. I wasn't particularly upset about it, because it happened so gradually. I didn't have time to be, man! There were so many things that were more important than caring about that. Shit, I'd sooner go talk to a wino than go to an awards ceremony or a business meeting." "To me, the Grateful Dead were a conduit of weirdness. I was way into comic books and old science fiction serials and movies. Phil was into Ives and Stockhausen. Serious shit. All of that -- the Beats and [Neal] Cassady and [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti -- was just as important to us as all the folk music and blues were. All I wanted to do was make this weird music, and to facilitate my life such that I could continue to do that."
He pauses, possibly pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, if he even has a nose to wear them on anymore. Then he chuckles again.
"From what I can tell, the Grateful Dead experience is one of the most normal things in America these days. What the fuck happened, man?"
To find out, I must go to New Jersey.
Ironically, the keyboardist for the Dark Star Orchestra -- a Grateful Dead cover band who play vintage setlists in their entirety and who have enjoyed robust popularity -- died about a month before I boarded a New Jersey Transit bus to Teaneck to see them at Mexicali Blues (named for one of Weir's cowboy songs). It is not the ha-ha kind of irony, because Scott Larned was -- according to my friend who knew him -- a sweet guy. "Scotty," she calls him.
Larned's specialty, though, were renditions of songs by Brent Mydland -- the third Dead keyboardist to meet an untimely end -- who occupied the stool from 1979 through his morphine/cocaine speedball death in 1990. In other words: the '80's. His improvisational talents notwithstanding, I have never liked Brent songs. I think they are, generally speaking, unjustifiable pieces of synth-driven, faux-blues moose shit.
And -- woe is me -- the Dark Star Orchestra will almost assuredly be passing on them, which is a bleakly fine excuse to finally go check them out. With guest guitarist Steve Kimock on board, they'll hopefully focus on the exploratory years of the early '70's, the ones which ultimately validate the Dead's frequently comical existence. After all, how do you pay tribute to a dude who was paying tribute to a dude?
Just as Mydland was temporarily replaced by marquee-name Deadhead pop star Bruce Hornsby, Larned is being temporarily replaced by Rob Barraco, an excellent '70's-weaned keyboardist for Long Island Dead staples the Zen Tricksters, until he was drafted by Lesh for duty in his Friends outfit, and -- eventually -- the Dead themselves. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's mythical Macando, Deadland moves in circles.
Mexicali Blues is seriously packed. I elbow through the logjam, trying to find my friend and feeling like a Big City prick. Nobody is remotely upset by this. They smile at me blissfully while the DSO jam out on "Bertha."
"People would sooner pay $10 to see four guys pretending to be KISS than $5 to see four guys playing original songs nobody had ever heard before," Chuck Klosterman observed in his hilariously insightful "Appetite For Replication." "And club owners understand money."
The Dark Star Orchestra are, on some levels, enormously successful at what they do. They have sold out Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom, a venue that even the Dead's own Bob Weir occasionally has trouble filling. Without (overtly) dressing like him, the DSO's rendition of Weir has even mastered his original's space-shot gaze, pooches his lips similarly, and kinda looks like him. When I find my friend, I ask her if he always looked like Weir, or if his skull changed shape later. She's not sure.
At setbreak, we drift outside, into the crowd of Deadheads in their requisite bootleg shirts, Dead references plugged into pop culture iconography. The DSO's own logo is an example of this folkloric Deadhead tradition: a Days Inn logo and motto ("we'll leave the light on for you") altered to become the DSO Inn ("we'll leave the Lovelight on for you") (in reference to the Bobby "Blue" Bland showstopper sung by Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, keyboardist/vocalist, 1965-1972).
The appeal of watching the DSO is not just that one is hearing Grateful Dead music being jammed well, but that one is hearing musicians converse in the original language, like Vatican holymen speaking in Latin. They are geeks of the highest caliber.
It is one of the DSO's "elective" nights, where they play an original setlist. They're not phoning it in, but they're not being ambitious, either. I spend the first half of the second set standing in the second row. "Get weird!" I scream. As they finally do, veering obliquely left from "New Speedway Boogie," the Dead's reaction to Altamont, into the "Spanish Jam," my friend tells me that our ride back to Brooklyn -- who has to work in the morning -- is leaving.
"Spanish Jam" is morphing into "The Other One" -- one of my favorites -- as we exit the side door and hop in the waiting SUV. Our driver is a rabid DSO-head, the back seat littered with his bootleg collection. He is pumping the DSO's take on a jazzy '73 gig. I fall into its trance as we roll through industrial Jersey.
It is hard to tell if our ride represents the end of line for Deadheads, or a mutation that will carry them into whatever comes next, but -- either way -- I am barreling down the West Side Highway listening to a bootleg of a cover band, and kind of even enjoying it.
Stepping onto Court Street, the air snaps me back to reality, and I watch the SUV disappear into the Brooklyn night. The Deadheads were never the gypsies they pretended to be, more often college students on holiday or straight businessmen escaping for a spell. But they were exotics in their own way, uniquely American, and now going away.
"We don't get many new tunes up here, man," Garcia says. "Just fragments, really. It's fine, though. It's a different sense of music. It's like you get everything at once, this grid of intense patterns, and -- occasionally -- you notice something new.
"The rest is just reports -- information transfers, kind of -- every now and then, when new people show up, their accumulated knowledge and all. And you have to correlate what you've heard with what you're picking up."
Garcia's voice is sunny, his endlessly optimistic California lilt hardly dimmed. "It all seems like music to me. Constantly. And surprisingly harmonious! But that could just be my experience of the afterlife. It's possible that other entities are receiving different information. Or receiving the same information through whatever means are most appropriate to them. I'm not sure."
So, who's kicking out the jams? Is Garcia digging what he's hearing? String Cheese Incident? Widespread Panic? The Dave Matthews Band? Umphrey's McGee?
"Aw, man," Garcia groans, "I don't wanna be a cop. I mean, I probably couldn't tell you who's doing what, but -- yeah -- I have a general sense of what's going on. But music -- at least the kind that the Grateful Dead played with electric guitars and drums and whatnot -- really seems to have metastasized. I guess that had happened by the time I checked out -- hip-hop and techno -- but I never really noticed.
"But we tried to keep up. That was real important to us. I always hated being called a hippie. I was a guitarist, for Christ's sake! That's what I cared about. One of the things that acid gave me was this really personal sense of time -- that there was no difference between life now and life then, or even life in the future. All those creepy old folk songs -- maidens drowning and anthropomorphic frogs -- well, that strangeness existed long before LSD. It's trippy stuff, but what was the word for it before 'trippy'? I've always wondered how they described it. I wanted to be part of that continuum, and find a contemporary expression of it.
"Some of those old albums, we were experimenting like hell in the studio, real John Cage-type shit, just tearing our hair out trying to get more tracks to sound weirder and weirder. Even when we made the music simpler, we tried to push, at least in terms of technology. We were on a sound system trip for a while, just bigger and louder and clearer. And they were! But it's draining, man, it really is."
"After a while, I just stopped paying attention. See, that technology, that was all really interesting to me, but -- after a while -- the idea that we were financing it, well, it just got mired down in all that bullshit. I never wanted to design fucking neckties, and I never wanted to run a company. Fuck that. I'd rather do anything but that. And I did -- which, I admit, wasn't the best decision I ever made."
Jerry Garcia became a heroin addict in 1977 when he began smoking a form known as "The Persian," and remained addicted for more or less the rest of his life. "There's a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman," Bob Dylan said upon Garcia's death, "a lot universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated, hypnotic, and subtle. There's no way to convey the loss."
But, heartbreakingly, there is a way to hear it: on the Deadhead's meticulously catalogued bootlegs, and the Dead's own Dick's Picks archival series. Like a sketchbook of an artist sinking into an opiate delirium, Garcia's clear, bell-like lines blur, his voice (and his confidence in it) gradually disintegrating. With a few exceptions, I cannot really listen to Grateful Dead music recorded after 1980 without becoming manifestly uncomfortable.
"I just kept playing and playing." Garcia says. "What was the rational for stopping and rehearsing when it was already the best thing going on in my life? I tuned out and stopped writing -- fuck, big deal, Ray Charles stopped writing, too -- but I never stopped playing."
"It's free because it's yours," promised the Diggers, the Robin Hood-like conscience of the Haight-Ashbury, who distributed food, clothing, and philosophy to the masses who swarmed into the neighborhood in 1967. While the Dead never gave themselves entirely away, the Diggers' kernel lay at their moral center.
"Once we're done with it, it's theirs," Garcia famously said, in reference to the band's laissez faire attitude towards those who taped their concerts. But the idea applied across the board. Before punk, before hip-hop, Deadheads were making bootlegs, cobbling together fanzines, mashing up incongruous pop images on bumper stickers and tee-shirts, and looking for ways to bolster their community.
Like the military, who must often adapt gear to alien terrain, Deadheads have long been on technology's front lines. Tapers -- the resourceful obsessives who once lugged reel-to-reels to the Fillmore to capture the band in their prime -- were early converts to digital technology. And, of all people, Deadheads were among the first settlers of cyberspace (and, for that matter, it was Dead lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow who even called it cyberspace to begin with, borrowing from William Gibson's Neuromancer).
Paul Martin, at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence lab, founded a newsgroup for university-based 'heads in the '70's, net.music.gdead (yes, net.music) became one of the first Usenet groups in '79, the WELL (the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) was a Bay Area hub of centralized cyber-activity by the mid-'80s, and Furthur -- a music-sharing program named for Ken Kesey's bus -- was the direct forerunner of BitTorrent, the killer app currently claiming the majority of the internet's traffic. Likewise, their music remains the most popular feature of archive.org, the internet's public library.
It was the Deadhead's compulsiveness that, in many ways, laid the architecture for the kind of obsessive fan devotion rampant on the net. DeadBase -- a 600-page bound catalogue of Dead setlists -- once embodied the idea of totally arcane information. Now, one doesn't blink an eye when discovering a webpage crammed with obscure statistics about (say) Wilco or Sting or anybody, really.
As the Deadheads themselves disappear, though, their DNA is strong in the cultural genepool, even as it is being legislated against. In Free Culture, Lawrence Lessig argues that the notion of a mutable public domain -- the kind unconsciously embraced by Deadheads for decades -- lies at the heart of American tradition. It is a national methodology free to rely on appropriation, mutation, and unfettered word of mouth.
"When we started letting people tape [Dead] concerts," Barlow said in August, "we thought that it would probably harm us in some way, but our feeling was, well, 'what the hell?' Besides, it's bad karma to mess with a Deadhead. It's too easy."
"So, we let it happen, with the sense that there would be some loss for us. And precisely the opposite occurred. In a sense, we invented viral marketing by accident, and became a big a deal as we were in very large part because of that policy."
Draconian copyright laws, Lessig says, are eroding the free tradition. Just as Walt Disney built an empire on parodies like Steamboat Willie, the Deadheads laid a community with a free exchange of supposedly copyrighted goods. And the Dead flourished for it. Like mushroom freaks unconsciously preparing for the Mothership, the Dead were a model for how a band might survive following the collapse of the record industry some quarter century before it actually collapsed (minus the heroin, of course).
Recently, though, even that has come into question. With the remaining Dead members no longer actively generating revenue for the organization at large, the band -- depending on who you believe -- ordered all of their shows yanked from the deliciously full catalog on archive.org.
"It made a lot of sense to have things out there for free in digital format, as long as you were selling an experience in physicality," Barlow said. "But, when you're not, when you've got digital-for-money versus digital-for-free, then you've got a problem. This is a painful truth for me."
When the plug was pulled in late November, the net erupted. "It's as if the goose who laid the golden egg and had decided to commit suicide so that he could get more golden eggs," Barlow ranted on BoingBoing.net. At the opposite end of the spectrum was Barlow's old songwriting partner, Bob Weir, who groused on the radio that "the 'information wants to be free, man'... those folks-- this is not information, this music. It's kind of value-added information. Some people prefer to call it 'art.'" It is as succinct a summary of the culturally pervasive argument as one is likely to find.
The Dead, who had long operated by their own particular brand of anarchy, were deciding to regulate. With the very notion of copying music further politicized by the Sony's DRM scandal, the Dead -- for a brief moment -- were suddenly relevant again. The mainstream media picked up on the story, the New York Times running three pieces on three consecutive days. A compromise was reached -- archive.org could have mp3s of audience-made recordings, but could only stream soundboard tapes -- but the damage had been done. The Dead had regulated.
But that leaves the Deadheads marginalized -- or, at least, normalized -- and the Dead themselves running their organization with (depending on your perspective) more or less hypnocracy -- the lysergic philosophy espoused by Hunter's St. Dilbert -- than ever before. Which is to say, same as it ever was.
As copyright constricts around Deadland, though, interviews with presumably trademarked likenesses of deceased rock stars -- or other expressions of how an artist lives on after his death -- might become tougher and tougher to conduct in public forums. Go ahead and try to score a one-on-one with Lennon these days and see how far you get.
"Remember, the thread of light, the line of energy, that runs from the God source to you is and always will be fully functioning and complete," Garcia's oversoul told Wendy Weir -- Bob Weir's sister -- in September 1995, one month after Garcia's corporeal death. "You are one with All That Is. You are ONE." Weir published their communications in 1999's In the Spirit: Conversations with the Spirit of Jerry Garcia.
"Yeah," Garcia says sheepishly. "Those first few months here, whew. I didn't know what the fuck was going on! I was tripping my face off! Not that all that stuff is inaccurate, but I was raving."
"Yeah, man: 360-degree vision, balls of light, and something like 35 life and death cycles a minute. The whole nine yards. I guess it's standard. For a while, dying just felt like the fear of dying. There's a nice cosmic irony to that, I think. It never really settled down, but I got used to it. It kind of just feels like life did."
He mock shouts. "You hear that kids? Death is an illusion. Say, that's kinda fun."
I tell him that people are accusing the Dead of going corporate.
"That's bullshit, man," he says. "People have been accusing us of that for years. They even put it on the cover of Rolling Stone in the '70s. 'The Wide World of the Corporate Dead' or something. What do they expect? I haven't talked to those guys in a while, but -- yeah -- I can see how they'd fuck it up." Garcia laughs. "I know we would've if I was around, and I'm sure it's no easier now."
"There was a lot of thought put into not thinking about it, you know?" Garcia says. "When we're done with it, it's theirs. Well, sure, take it. But that doesn't mean it's not still ours, too. Ambiguity can be a real valuable tool. In some ways, that's what we needed to steer the ship, and certainly what we were better at: ideas, as opposed to practicalities. Now they've gotta deal with practicalities. I'm just glad I checked out before it came to that. So long, suckers!"
And the Deadheads?
"Aw, they'll get over us," Garcia cracks. "I don't mean that in a bad way, you understand. I understood the Deadheads, I think," Garcia assesses. "I was one, after all. I mean, not literally, but I like to think that -- if I was doing my job right -- they were getting into it for the same reasons I did. And I know that if I hadn't found the Dead, I would've found something else. Not that I would have been as successful, but I'd have been happy."
I saw the Grateful Dead twice in the early 1990's. In what I recognized as an appropriate symbol even at the age of 15, the crowd was louder than the band. And the band wasn't very good. But I became a Deadhead anyway, falling deeply in love with their older music. I continue to trade Dead recordings with my friend who I discovered the band with in high school. In that way, the Grateful Dead might survive. Separated from the baggage of their scene, the Dead created -- like any other band -- an emotional/musical thing that (just as much as the Beatles) was an effect. I listen to them -- and Garcia's incredibly sweet vocals and guitar -- often.
As unbearably corny as they are on one level, a show by the Dark Star Orchestra is a guaranteed gathering of the disintegrated tribe. My friend followed the band for several days. She showed me her photos, of crash pads and idyllic backyard clam bakes. They are real people, and the death of Scott Larned had just as much meaning to DSO-heads as the death of Brent Mydland did to Dead freaks in the early 1990's, if not more, given that Larned veritably founded the DSO and Mydland only joined the Dead later on.
But, for most -- myself included -- the Dark Star Orchestra and their ilk will remain an anachronism, and the Dead will live on via their recordings, which -- instead of being decorated with hand-drawn tape labels -- will be just another entry on my iPod. With nearly 100 live releases in their catalogue, one can even amass a decent live show collection without dipping into the murky waters of fandom at all.
"They'll be fine," Garcia asserts. "Not just the Deadheads. Don't underestimate kids. You can't stop them from having fun, and that's really what's going to have to eventually save it. We found acid, but they'll find their own way to fuck with the straights, if the internet isn't it already. Just wait."
"Anyway," Garcia laughs, "I should probably get going."
"That's a good question," he laughs. "You don't get to talk to people that often. Whaddya wanna talk about?"
Well, um, free culture?
"Say what? Like the Diggers? You got the wrong guy, man."
"Yeah, I should get going."
Why me? I ask, before he does.
Garcia giggles. "I thought I was dialing Hunter!" And the line goes dead.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com
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