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 (the Greek one is the only one of those I saw 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?
PS - unless ya'll don't want to release anything from October '72 so soon after the release of Veneta, any day now. I could understand that :-)
Good call Cornbred, on the 10-18-72 Dark Star. I would also respectfully submit 10-28-72.
Future release: anything from October '72...(purty puhlease...)
How about 10 12 68 avalon my 5th birthday this ones so cool and i would love a cd of this one.
lol at the "Bart Starr passes"
I read a book about VL and the Packers a few months ago. Oh to be as effective as VL. The thing of it is, is, I am a teacher, and he was a coach. He could dump those who didn't perform. I have to differentiate my instruction.
7/18/72 Dark Star is AWESOME!
Thanks Blair, just the inspiration I needed for my day off. Can't play my guitar since I sliced my finger last week. I'm on my fourth Star of the day, so many great choices. Wasn't lucky enough to see any of the amazing 70's but was there on 12.31.90 with Branford. No doubt the highlight of the night for me, New Year's Eve with my future wife and the boys. One of my all time faves is the 2.18.71 Capitol, I can never tire of the jam after Wharf Rat, beautiful indeed.
Too young to have ever seen any of the 60' or 70's versions, but still vividly recall the eruption of the crowd on 10-9-89 when Jerry struck those first few notes at Hampton Warlocks show . . . an eruption rivaled only by Jerry's first few notes of Stephen at Hartford 10-15-83.
After that, I agree w/ Blair, the tune just never regained its former luster. Oh well, nothin' last forever -- even dark stars crash ;-)
Would it be too much to say that this song really defines "The Grateful Dead"? I think not. This is the one that brings you to the source, Not every time, not always all the way, but forever going in the right direction.
I definitely feel there was a qualitative difference in the TC/Keith versions as opposed to the Brent ones, It wasn't really the keys that made the difference but rather the era in which it was played, Not taking anything away from 12/31/78 thru 10/89, those Stars served as a bridge to the ersatz Stars if 89-94.
My favorite for all time will forever be 4/28/71 at The Fillmore East.
pre date 1973.
IMHO. Of course :-) Though it's a fact :->>
Not sure if anyone mentioned this one. MSG(Home of the NY Rangers) Bruce on piano and Branford on sax. Both verses played. If my memory is correct(I was there and have heard the tapes but it has been a while) they actually played the second verse after space and then went back into space(surprise surprise). Have to say i feel fortunate to have seen this show.
I was also at the Giants show and still have the vision in my head when they were toying with it just before Truckin. Jerry looking at Bruce, Bobby looking at Jerry, Jerry looking at Bobby and then Truckin emerges. Great show and smiles all around.
LETS GO RANGERS!!!!!!
Dark Star had a natural arch of development from its beginnings up to the hiatus; after that the results were definitely mixed. Personally, I like the 1972 versions the best, they really have a free, jazzy, loose but tight feel that they never really achieved again. I think my favorite is the one from DP11 - absolutely beautiful and amazing. But there are so many great versions from 69-74 it's hard to narrow it down to just one year or one performance. I think there were a number of reasons they put it to bed after they came back - their playing in general starting in 1976 was less free-form, more song-oriented and tighter, and they started to have a more formalized Drums/Space section of their shows, so it made sense to dump Dark Star from that point of view. Also I think they kind of grew out of it, as something of a relic of their early psychedelic days. They had kind of said all they could say with it, and they realized they were never going to plumb those depths or soar to those heights again so they didn't bother. However, you could still catch glimpses of the former glory on versions like 12/31/78. I actually think this is one of the songs they could have permanently put to rest and didn't need to revive in the later era. I think most Deadheads had this notion that they wanted to hear Dark Star but when the band finally revived it there was no way it was going to live up to expectations. I think many songs from their repertoire were put to rest for good reason and never should have been brought back. Also in the late era there tended to be too much noodling around with MIDI effects and not enough songs, and too many forgotten lyrics and blown chord changes and not enough emphasis on tight performance, and then in the midst of all that they would play an extremely mediocre Dark Star and it's kind of like just adding more of an aural mess on top an already messy situation. For example, I find myself listening to the first set of Nightfall of Diamonds fairly often, but I don't listen to the Dark Star as much because frankly I don't think it's all that good. I think if Jerry was an obstacle to bringing a lot of those old songs back like fans wanted it's because he knew they'd outgrown them and they would never sound as good as they did in their heyday.