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?
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.
Bobs birthday show was fun as it a Dark Star sandwich. Being there with the opening notes hoping its not a tease was pretty awesome. It was a great vehicle to drop in and out of chord progressions and notes, and also to truly see the lads work some magic. Work as they had to listen more to each other during this jam and you truly could appreciate the risk and pure joy of seeing where it might go. E 72 with a Me and My Uncle nicely tucked in, or another surprise was awesome. Cheers to Gans Lemieux Jackson for keeping the music alive, and for all of us to drop in to various decades.
I strongly agree that the one from Live Dead is a sensational version and for a person that doesn't listen to the Dead it can essentially transform one's mindset of the band. The breath taking version from Steppin' Out from 4/8/72 is what did the the job for me and remains one of my favorites. Other versions I find mind blowing are 2/13/70 , 9/19/70, 11/2/70, 4/14/72, 4/24/72, 5/11/72, 9/21/72 and 11/11/73 but if I had to choose one at the moment I would probably go with 4/22/69 at The Ark.
Bart Starr passes.
Vince takes off his glasses.
We all find our own contact with the beyond in our favorite Dark Stars. Many that stand out for me, as I suspect for others, have to do with the contexts in which we first heard them, what was going on, how they revealed new musical possibilities to one, and new possibilities period. So the first Dark Star I tripped to means a lot to me, as do others. These days I listen to many in the 72-74 period. But earlier ones often do the trick.2/14/70 is a piece of music I consider to be one of very best examples of telepathic improvisation that exists. Every musical gesture sounds inevitable, as if it could not be other than what it is. Every pause is just the right duration, every change in timbre fits perfectly the melodic development. The band does not so much react to each other as become one. There is a large scale horizontal form that develops that is the best example of the view of great music that has it that the whole is contained in every part. This notion of large scale form being developed through minute attention to "the now" is what I find lacking in the post retirement versions. It just becomes a song, or a hanger to drape some deep space around. It bores me, and I find it hard to listen all the way through any of the late versions. I want to like them, the same way at every show we all collectively tried to will be band to play it. Both Phil and Bobby often simply play the melodic line, or riff behind Jerry, who gamely tries in get them to enter into the communal construction of the tune that is, or was, its hallmark, but they are unwilling or unable. Of course it quick devolves into space, since the band gave up, more or less, the sort of group improvisational creation of new melodies long ago. Greek Theatre, Miami, Nassau, whatever, all just noddling to me!
I was at the 6/17/1991 show. It was really cool how they teased Dark Star all night long!! I am on the same side as many others. I don't think that there are any bad versions. I do prefer the '69 versions over the E72 versions. Personal preference, no real reasons. The later versons from '89 on were O.K. relatively speaking, but it seemed more of a novelty. The 10/31/1991 version was really nice, though.
The acid angle is extremely important (although I know T.C. abstained)
Wherever did you get that idea?
No doubt the MSG is a great one, and so is RFK. Those were among the best of the final five years of the song.
I always thought of DS as another world that lives in parallel to our world. Only the GD had access to it. the GD would just open a window for us to get an update on what was happening there at that moment.
I'm extremely partial to the 9/20/90 Dark Star that is broken up by Playin Reprise and precedes what is IMO the best ever Throwing Stones. That one went to some rather dissonant, almost disturbing places.