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?
That was my 3rd show and boy was I taken for a ride. Through the years, that show hasn't gotten the attention/respect I always thought it deserved. Many of my friends preferred 1/20/79 more. I think that Dark Star is quite good but 1/10/79 is better. I also think the transition from Wharf Rat into St. Stephen is amazing.
Moving the conversation to modern times, I highly recommend giving the Furthur Dark Star from Atlanta 4/3/11 a listen. This is a self contained 2 verse monster. As with Viola Lee, I think there is a potential advantage to the improvisational energy by putting all the focus on the song itself and not on the upcoming transition.
I think PalmerE has put down most of those early ones that our generation grew up with - especially with the torch bearer from 2-27-69 Live Dead. But I'd like to add a couple that still "make a straight person hallucinate" (as one reviewer put it) which came before 2-27-69. I'd like to point out the ones from 10-12-68 and 2-22-69.
Peace and catch you guys up above sometime.
The day before Blair Jackson posted this blog about the song Dark Star, I had actually listened to the release "Grayfolded" for the first time in several years. Perhaps that is the ultimate Dark Star, all 103.32 minutes of it.
Out of the nearly 50 shows I attended between '84 and '95, I saw a Dark Star with first verse vocals only once at Copps Coliseum 3/22/92, and without vocals, or otherwise known as "Dark Star Jam" twice, Chicago 6/22/91 and Richfield Coliseum 9/6/91.
I don't know if it's been mentioned yet, but the bonus disc that came with the 2011 Road Trips Subscription has a nice Dark Star from the December 6, 1973 show in Cleveland. It's also one of the longest.
Winterland, 10/18/74 is personal because I was there (also 10/16 and 10/20). The most transcendent music I ever heard anywhere.
I generally prefer 1969 versions (a bit before my time). T.C. seems to me to be an integral part of the mood. I also really like 1970 versions. Jerry goes very far out.
That said, Mr. Pid hits the nail right on the head: Is there a bad, or even indifferent version to be found? I haven't heard it yet.
It's the line- This far down the line from the end of the Grateful Dead. And so it goes, the Mona Lisa doesn't end just because the painter finished.
Dark star crashes (note a)
Pouring its light into ashes
The forces tear loose from the axis
For faults in the clouds of delusion
Shall we go, you and I, while we can?
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds
In formless reflections of matter
Glass hand dissolving
To ice petal flowers revolving
Lady in velvet
Recedes in the nights of goodbye
Shall we go, you and I, while we can
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?
The only Dark Star that matters is the one your listening to at that moment.
If you really love Dark Star . . .
Come to Long Beach, Ca on a Friday Night
To The Golden Sails Hotel and see
Cubensis in the PCH Club for $10
they play a real deal Dark Star
and most of the other songs are good, too.
Hey Henry, Watch Out For That Dark Star !
2/13/70 heavy handed? I might agree- after the vocals & space- the jam seems a bit "heavy-handed" to me, too. But the pre-vocals jam and the space.... some of the most lyrical, quiet, beautiful, Dead ever. But we are both in total agreement on 9/19/70!!!
The "Live Dead" version is the gold standard, period. Personally, what really makes a Dark Star are the silences, the notes not played, which brings me to the aforementioned 2/13/70. I know I'm blaspheming here but I think that performance is heavy handed. Never really warmed up to it. Check out the 9/19/70 as a prime example of the subtlety that a Dark Star needs to convey that emptyness of space. Incredible! Don't listen to this one in the car. Another good one is 12/11/72 but I was there and may be unqualified to judge. Beyond '74 I just don't care. I vaguely remembe a Garcia interview where he said he didn't know people got so excited about it. Just a couple of verses and improv. Yeah, well.
That's it. End of discussion. There are what, maybe 10 different jams before the drums and second verse? This one takes you places. Put in some good ear buds and close your eyes. You will be transported.
Does anyone remember the free "Mikel" flyers that would circulate at shows in the early 80's? I got one back then that had a list of "best Dark Stars", according to a european "Dead Head extraordinaire". Over the years, I made an effort to track down everything on that list and I must say it is still my most trusted list of the "best of the best". Whoever made it - well, he or she and I have very similar taste. The list, as I remember it, went something like: 2/27/69, 4/22/69, 6/14/69, 2/13/70, 5/24/70, 6/24/70, 9/19/70, 2/18/71, 4/28/71, 7/31/71, 11/7/71, 12/5/71, 3/23/72, all of Europe '72, of course, but especially 4/8/72, 4/14/72, 5/4/72, 5/7/72, 5/11/72, 8/27/72, 6/10/73, 8/1/73, 9/11/73, 11/11/73, 12/6/73, and 6/23/74.
The hardest for me to track down was 7/31/71, so I was delighted it was finally released as a Road Trips. It was worth the wait! Most are justly famous, but a few are underrated, I think. 4/28/71 doesn't show up on many people's lists- I think maybe some think it is famous because of TC's appearance- but really it is an amazing version. The Felt Forum 12/5/71- man, you can really feel Europe '72 right around the corner. 3/23/72!!! This sounds to me like the very first Europe '72 Dark Star- Hey, maybe the first 'E72 Star was played in America! (patriotic feelings.....) I don't understand why 5/4/72 isn't talked about more- to me, it is every bit as magical as 4/8/72, 4/14/72 or 5/11/72. And, not on the list but a personal favorite is Long Beach 12/15/72. I remember reading that Dick Latvala said he didn't think that one was anything too special--this maybe the only thing Dick and I disagree on- the entire 12/15/72 show is out of this world to my ears:)
But I love them all, from any year. It was the Dead at their best.