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?
because I don't know it, but I've noticed elsewhere that when Jerry's voice is at its worst his playing is often at its most stellar.
10-31-71 is pristine. It just sounds like Jerry is totally locked in for the duration of the song, and putting his whole attention into every note. Perfection. At first listen I wanted a longer more freaky meltdown part of it, but nowadays I find it to be pefect as it is.
Some of the Stars have brief moments that make them for me. 02-13-70 while great all around has a harmonic Jerry hits at the peak point in the post verse Jam, as they are winding up following the spacey part. It tears the junk right out of your skull. In 10-18-72 (which would be a fine release) it is Kieth's flourishes during the Star>Dew transition that make it stand out.
My favorite things though are those 1970 post verse silent bits. On the one from 11-08-70 I can feel the tension in the audience as the weirdness starts to build. Blissful terror almost. I can only imagine what that must have been like of course. 04-24-70 I remember as being a nice 1970 version as well. Like 11-08-70, a listenable but imperfect audience recording. I know most all of the second half of 1970 is missing from the vault, but if there are any gems in hiding it would make a great Dave's Picks (hint hint).
I haven't instensely heard any post retirement stars recently, but I think I remember likeing 01-20-79 a lot.
Yes your right blair about miami.I would still love to hear the multi track of that monster space out.
Why hasn't this been released yet?
It's impossible for me to pick one favorite Dark Star, but I can narrow it down to 4 versions...
2/27/69 - Live Dead version
2/13/70 - Who wouldn't list this as a favorite?
5/11/72 - Rotterdam is the show from the E72 box I keep coming back to the most, though every Dark Star from this tour is essential listening.
3/29/90 - My personal favorite version currently. I love the be-bop jazz groove they go into at around the 12 minute mark.
There is something in each one. the 10/31/71 was a revelation when that came out. Europe 72 versions are my favorites by far. the later period ones are nice treats, even that one from Starlake 92 that is like 48 seconds long. :)
The Greek version in '84....not surprised they didn't stick with it. Nothing new happened, was no different really than the Estimated and Bird Songs of that era.
The Dead's spacy yearnings were best served by Keith's presence. Although I agree completely with Blair's take on TC's importance to the epochal 69'sound, it wasn't until I heard a 72' Dark Star than I knew I would be studying this band's effect on my psyche like a religion for the rest of my days. When I think back on my initial exposure to the Grateful Dead, I fondly remember the 'Dead Hour' with the 7/26/72 Dark Star>Comes A Time from the Paramount Theater in Portland, Oregon that I became a true believer. If I had just stuck with 'Skeletons' as my initial foray, then I would have never put Hendrix and Zeppelin on the back burner and dedicated every iota of my musical fancies to the 'boys'. The acid angle is extremely important (although I know T.C. abstained) to what the Dead's sound means to me. With the importance of John Coltrane firmly entrenched from their inception, once Miles and 'Bitches Brew' took over the Fillmore in 1970, the ripe, glistening seed of something completely original was awaiting a complementary voice to accompany Garcias foray into the ether of the Acid Rock sound. By 1970, country-rock had replaced the acid underpinnings of the 'Rock' sound, and it would have been understandable for this aspect of the genre to be assimilated completely into the fabric of the sound. But it took Keith completely matching Jerry's fluid chromatic runs in 'Playin, Truckin, Dark Star, and the Other One' to completely make the Grateful Dead as the weird entity we have come to love... It wasn't just Keith' jazz chops, it was his pairing of melodic ideas that melded so well with Garcia's continuation of the development of his sound...Basically, what i'm saying is that the placement of Keith's acid-jazz runs on the aforementioned examples was so integral to what the band was about, that it is almost irrelevant what the other fine players contributed, without Keith cementing the Deads sonic acid explorations, they would be a more traditional Rock and Roll outfit...
....Jerry sounds like he's gargling razor blades when he croaks that Miami "Dark Star."
There's a very strange "Dark Star" on this new Garth Hudson "The Sea to the North--Collector's Edition" which arrived in my mailbox a couple of days ago. It sort of cuts into a jam in progress and ambles around for a few minutes (5:41 total) and has a couple of the lyric fragments from the song sort of spoken. Odd and not particularly successful in my view...
Anybody remember that essay that was going around many years ago analyzing various "Dark Star"s? Was it by Jim Wise or one of the other old guard experts? I seem to recall it broke down a bunch versions and gave names to some of the jams, etc....
Id have to say the miami 89 version crossed the cosmos and was so loud and trippin there were ghosts ufos dead people monsters people from the future devils and angels and rod serling gave us all a ride home through a worm hole.You can bet this ones commin out soon multi track.Peace.
I always liked the one CSNY did. It's so different than the others! lol
Here's a cool page on some good Dark Stars.
It's not a best-of-list, though 6-14-69 has always been high on my list.
8-27-72 used to be the reigning champ on my list, but i think i have officially listened to it too many times - making it too predictable for my tastes. Almost like a drug, taking it too many times, you start to not feel it as good. But then there's that once in a blue moon, it will hit you strong when it's been awhile.
What I really like is discovering a Dark Star that's virgin to my ears.