Blair’s Golden Road Blog - "Dark Star crashes..."
By Blair Jackson
In my last blog, about audience tapes, I casually mentioned that the “Dark Star” from the 1/10/79 Nassau concert was my favorite of all the post-hiatus (i.e. post-’74) versions. This led to a few people respectfully disagreeing with that position in emails to me. One pledged allegiance to the 7/13/84 Greek Theater encore version, two advocated for the 10/26/89 Miami meltdown, and the fourth listed both 12/31/78 (closing of Winterland, just 10 days before the Nassau version) and 10/31/91 (featuring Ken Kesey and Quicksilver’s Gary Duncan, following Bill Graham’s death).
I like all those other versions to varying degrees (I saw the Greek one live, so it has a special place in my heart), but each of them is so different from the others. More than any other song in the Dead canon, “Dark Star” was so mutable, one version to the next, one era to the next. So, what one person likes in a “Dark Star” another might not. It’s not like “Scarlet” > “Fire” or “Jack Straw” or “Shakedown Street” where most of us would probably agree on what the best versions are. Do you like your “Dark Star” flowy and dreamy? Spacey and dissonant? Based strongly around the main theme, or exploring odd tangents?
As I have noted, I am a child of Live Dead. It’s the album that got me into the Dead in late ’69/early ’70, before I saw my first show in March ’70. For me, the “Dark Star” on Live Dead (from 2/27/69, I learned many years later) defined the song for me, and as a result I’ve always had a soft spot for the churning ’69 versions, which can be fairly similar (there are particular riffs and mini-jams they hit in many of them), but which have a certain momentum that I really love. Most of them never break down all the way rhythmically or dissolve into abstract noise. Most are complete unto themselves, with both verses—though the 11/8/69 Fillmore West version captured on Dick’s Picks 16 brilliantly carves up “Dark Star” with inserts of “The Other One” and a proto-“Uncle John’s Band” jam. The short and fast early ones from 1968 don’t do much for me, but by the fall of that year the song is well on its way to becoming the fantastic, elastic, trans-dimensional space vehicle that blasted off in the winter of ’69.
By the time I saw my first couple of live versions of “Dark Star,” it had already morphed considerably from the Live Dead template. Listen to ones from 1970 and you often find that following the first verse, the song would essentially stop, and out of the nothingness might come feedback, gong flourishes, random guitar blips, bleeps and volume-knob fluctuations, and assorted craziness. Rhythm and melody would soon be re-established and other touchstone jams usually would emerge, such as the so-called “Feeling Groovy” jam and what follows it on the legendary 2/13/70 (Dick’s Picks 4) version.
The addition of Keith Godchaux’s piano to the mix beginning in the fall of ’71 marks the next major shift in the song’s evolution, and I know many Dead Heads cherish the multitude of versions played from late ’71 through ’74 above all others. Of course that encompasses the 11 played during the Europe ’72 tour, each unique in its own way, and all riveting. (My personal taste leans toward the more rhythmic, less cacophonous excursions— Bickershaw and Rotterdam being my E72 favorites these days.) I love what the piano added to “Dark Star” during this era, and the quintet as a whole had a confidence and swing that drove the song to so many cool spaces. I never get tired of the “Dark Star” from Dick’s Picks 36 (9/21/72 Philly) nor the one from Dick’s Picks 28 (2/26/73 Lincoln, Neb.). And when I and 5,000 others had our minds blown by the “Dark Star” > “Morning Dew” on 10/18/74 (Winterland), none of us suspected that “Dark Star” was about to go on a hiatus that would far exceed the band’s own break.
I’ve never heard a good explanation of why the Dead didn’t play “Dark Star” when they returned to the road in 1976. Can you imagine what the versions they might have come up with in that peak year of ’77? Whoa! They brought it back for that final night at Winterland in 78, doled out two in January ’79, and then just two—12/31/81 Oakland and the ’84 Greek one—until it was revived in earnest in the fall of ’89 (released versions include the reintroduction in Hampton, Va., 10/9/89, on the Formerly the Warlocks box set and the one from the Meadowlands in Jersey, 10/16/89, on Nightfall of Diamonds).
No doubt Garcia’s fascination with the many new timbres and textures he could get out of his guitar because of his electronic MIDI setup was a major factor in his decision to bring “Dark Star” back—it became a natural playground for his sonic experiments. But I’m not sure Jerry ever committed to most of the ’89-’94 versions (it turned up at 31 shows in that period) with the same intensity and purposefulness he brought to “Dark Star” in the late ’60s/early ’70s. That may be in part because in those earlier days there was no formalized “drums” and “space” segment, so “Dark Star,” “The Other One” (and, on occasion, “Playing in the Band”) became the places they could get free-form and weird. On a lot of the late versions, they would play a relatively brief jam around the familiar “Dark Star” theme, and then it would quickly degenerate into “space”—and that “space” usually wasn’t much different from their regular nightly mid-second-set forays. So, in that way, “Dark Star” lost some of the luster it had in earlier eras. Also, I always felt Jerry was vaguely uncomfortable singing it later on; I couldn’t tell you why.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it was totally thrilling that they revived “Dark Star.” It was always sheer bliss to hear that familiar opening (live or on tape), experience that moment with the crowd, or find the band coming back to it later in the set, if only briefly, or simply playing around the theme and not singing the words, as they did a few times during the Bruce Hornsby era (6/17/91, anyone?). Bruce loved to tease “Dark Star,” and most of the full-on versions he was a part of were very cool. The times Branford Marsalis joined the Dead for “Dark Star” (3/29/90 at Nassau, 12/31/90 in Oakland) were truly dynamic, and nearly every version in the modern era had at least some transcendent moments.
This far down the line from the end of the Grateful Dead, I still find it instantly transporting to hear that riff played by Furthur or Phil & Friends or anyone who tackles it. It always means we’re going some place unexpected.
Do you have favorite eras and versions of “Dark Star”? How about post-Jerry? Or do you believe, as some do, that “Dark Star” was/is overrated?
Blair and anyone else who, like me, considers "Happy trails" to be a true classic should check out last year's "Anthology box 1966-1970" from Cleopatra Records and also "Lost gold and silver" from Collectors' Choice (1999). Both have some amazing versions of tunes from "Happy trails".
...has always been and forever will be one of my favorite post-Dead show albums. Second only to "Live Dead" among the psychedelic albums released by SF bands DURING the 60s... Still timeless!
This was my first show and I camped with three beautiful girls from art school for three spectacular days with all the comforts of acid and pot and cheap wine. We parked our butts in front of Phil's stack in front of the stage. At 19, life did not get any better than this and was a spiritually transcendent day for me. The vibes were clearly visible between my group, the boys and the rest of the audience.This was the day I got on bus. Do I actually remember the Dark Star played that day? Hell no! But it was and remains my favorite version.
On our 3 hour drive back to Chicago after the show, we listened to the "Happy Trails" 8 track tape by Quicksilver loop over and over and over. Took me several hours to realize that it was not the longest album in history.
I snatched up the Live/Dead album on my first opportunity and wore that one and its replacement out.
8/27/72 and 11/7/71 are and have been my favorite Dark Stars. The first one I saw live was 9/26/91 and for obvious reasons, is a sentimental favorite. The one I saw at Deer Creek on 6/21/93 or so, on the other hand, was like a wisp of nothingness, a Dark Star in name only, with no meat whatsoever, kind of like Garcia's long slow fade out over those last few years...
The second recorded version of "Dark Star" I came across was on the now extremely valuable trible album "Glastonbury Fayre". This extraordinary effort with posters, booklets and a silver pyramid, released in 1972, was a labour of love from the counter culture. The Dead, although they never played at Glastonbury, donated Empire Pool, Wembley set from April 8th 1972.
This for many, many years was the only other version I was familiar with, and although it never eclipsed the "Live Dead" version, it still holds a place in my heart. Perhaps not least for the spirit in which it materialised; as part of a long lost free festival vibe
If it hasn't happened by now, it never will.
This would be the most opportune time to release it (40 years later), but don't count on it.
Think of it as the Chicago Cubs of Grateful Dead shows in need of release.
I don't know what the story is. Seems like it's gotta come out someday, but if it was coming out this summer I think we would have heard by now...
Blair, what is the status of releasing the soundtrack and/or video of 8/27/72. I get the feeling that all the production work is done on it. Seems in this day and age the pressing and releasing would be a somewhat minor investment.
Am I doing my math right in thinking that this year will be the 40th anniversary of that show??? :-)
...For some reason I totally spaced mentioning the 8/27/72 Veneta version, even though I love it (of course). It just slipped my mind when I was writing the blog post! (Too many "Dark Stars" in my head!) If you've read the "Taper's Compendium, Vol. 1," or subscribed to "Dupree's Diamond News" back in the day, you know that the esteemed John Dwork held that show and that "Dark Star" above all others. I don't QUITE agree (I tend not to be so absolutist about things), but I certainly appreciate his enthusiasm and well-reasoned argument! And it IS totally AWESOME!
1972-08-27 is an outstanding version that you don't mention in your blog post (fantastic post btw). Jerry goes some really weird places in the second half. He had quite a talent for finding unusual scales that fit with the music and this version is a good example of that. Really love it.
My favorite is 1970-02-13 however. I save it for special occasions. It's very spiritual. Perfect for camping under starry skies at night. That sort of thing. Listen to it only about 1-2 times a year.
I was just listening to the 1970-11-08 version btw. It's a standard late-'70 version, which is to say well-played, with a monster feedback section after the first verse. Goes on for a few minutes at least. I hope that some day soundboards from April-November 1970 finally surface. One can at least dream.