Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Finding the Spirit of ’67
by Blair Jackson
For the past week-plus, I spent my brisk, daily, hour-long walks around Lake Merritt here in Oakland digging the three mid-February Phil & Friends concerts from the unfortunately named 1st Bank Center in Denver. The shows were fantastic! I had worried that having three lead guitarists—Warren Haynes, John Scofield and Jackie Greene—might make for too thick a stew. And yes, there’s a lot going on pretty much all the time. But somehow it works. Even when it is a cacophonous roar of wailing guitars, it’s a fine mess (as Oliver Hardy used to say).
Warren and Jackie are two of my favorite singers of Garcia’s songs, and they did not disappoint, as they tackled everything from “The Golden Road,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “He’s Gone” (all by Jackie) to “Stella Blue,” “Wharf Rat,” “Althea” and “Candyman” (Warren). And what a selection of cover songs—“I Am the Walrus” and “She Said, She Said” by The Beatles, The Who’s “Magic Bus,” the old blues "Rollin' and Tumblin'," Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-heeled Boys,” even Clapton’s “Layla”—the last a perfect showcase for all that guitar firepower and Warren’s passionate vocals. Man, I would love to see that band!
After I had finished listening to that truly wondrous 2/18/12 Phil & Friends show, which opens with “The Golden Road” into a magnificently gnarly “Viola Lee Blues,” I put on the Grateful Dead’s 3/18/67 Winterland show. I’ve been on a ’60s jag of late, listening compulsively to ’66-’68 Dead in preparation for a book I’m writing (it’s a long way off, but thanks for asking). That Winterland concert is probably the best we have from the first half of ’67. It’s the day after their first album was released, and just the third time they’d played that 5,000-capacity venue, which must have seemed so cavernous to a band accustomed to the much smaller Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom. There’s raw excitement in all the songs they play, which are all cover tunes except for “The Golden Road” and “Cream Puff War” (neither of which would make it to the summer of ’67). There’s a long, spellbinding “Viola Lee Blues” and a harrowing “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” which unfortunately cuts on the tape before its conclusion. Damn!
I love all those tunes, but never got to hear any of them played by the Grateful Dead, except for one version of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” when it came back in 1989. Even though I first saw the Dead in the spring of ’70, I never saw “The Eleven,” “Cosmic Charlie,” “New Potato Caboose,” “Caution,” “Born Cross-Eyed,” “Alligator,” “Mountains of the Moon” or “Doin’ That Rag.” After catching a few versions of “St. Stephen” at my first shows, I heard only one less-than-great one (10/31/83) for the rest of my Dead days.
I was always disappointed by Garcia’s aversion to playing most songs from the Dead’s early days. Certainly I understand why he found tunes such as “Cosmic Charlie” and “Doin’ That Rag” a bit forbidding—the first because it’s difficult to sing (as he said in interviews), the second because it is so lyrically opaque. In the ’80s he said he thought “Cream Puff War” was embarrassing, and flatly stated he would never play “Golden Road” again because “it belonged too much to that moment.” But, “Mountains of the Moon”? Why ignore “Attics of My Life” for 17 years? As for “Dark Star,” Jerry’s classic cop-out during the fallow years when that song was being ignored—explained to Dead.net’s own Mary Eisenhart in her superb 1987 BAM magazine interview— was: “Really, ‘Dark Star’ is a little of everything we do, all the time. So what happened to ‘Dark Star’ was, it went into everything. Everything's got a little ‘Dark Star’ in it.” With all due respect, Jer, no it doesn’t.
It’s sad that it took Garcia’s death for us to finally get to hear some of these great songs live. I’m convinced the latter-day Dead could have killed on “Viola Lee Blues,” but for whatever reasons they wouldn’t play it. Too redolent of the still-formative ’67 GD? It’s just a blues tune; a jumping off point for adventurous extrapolations. But thanks to Phil & Friends and Furthur, thousands of people who never got to hear it from ’66-’70 are privileged to experience it now, and it is almost always interesting, exciting and experimental in ways that are completely different than it was during its first era. “Mountains of the Moon” has become a launchpad for some of the most inspired improvisations Phil’s bands have come up with. You see, Jerry was actually quite conservative—rigid even— when it came to his song arrangements, and it is practically unimaginable he would have taken that song in the fascinating directions Phil has.
“The Golden Road” may be lyrically and spiritually rooted in 1967, but the way it’s been played the last few years—as a joyous anthem that celebrates that time and this time—makes it relevant and a gas to hear and dance to. The Dead never jammed it out the way Furthur and Phil & Friends do; it’s like a new song. “Dark Star” may, as Jerry told Mary, be “a minimal tune,” but it is also a portal to unlimited possibilities and it has flourished in recent years in the hands of many a band that recognizes its value as both a way station and a stepping stone. “St. Stephen” remains one of the truly glorious touchstones of the entire Dead canon—not dated at all; just classic—and “The Eleven” is always a dynamite groove that elevates everyone. How marvelous that we get to enjoy that practically orgasmic moment when the pre-“Eleven” jam finally kicks into 11/4 and hits that next level!
I love that Phil and Bob have embraced the murky deep end and forgotten spaces of the Dead’s incredibly rich repertoire. “What’s Become of the Baby?” Still not very good, but I appreciate the effort. “Blues for Allah”? Nailed it that first time in Calaveras. “King Solomon's Marbles”? Yeah, baby! A winner everytime. The list goes on, and the plethora of brilliant and creative and cool versions of Dead tunes that have come into the Dead Covers Project reaffirms my belief that these songs will grow with all of us forever.
Untold thousands of players who aren’t weighed down by ’60s baggage are finding exhilarating new avenues to explore and investing the songs with the distinctive radiance and energy of this time. Right about now, this world could use a little dose of 1967.Above: Kelley and Mouse’s poster advertising the Dead’s original fan club, 1967.
Very interesting historical perspective. One thing i would add as a footnote is that when they brought back "Black-Throated Wind" on the spring '90 East Coast tour, it had MANY different lyrics; it had nearly been re-written top to bottom. But the new approach didn't stick. Ya don't mess with the classics...
You forgot to mention the Nassau Dark Star in early 1979, but otherwise got the history correct. Also, Lazy Lightning>Supplication croaked in 1984 on Halloween at the Berkeley Community Theatre in 1984. Just small mistakes. Thanks for taking the time to write that.
It is always very hard to glean the reasons behind the basically aesthetic choices of artists w.r.t. their own oeuvre. To my ears, jettisoning much of the early era songs does make some sort of sense (don't get me wrong, I LOVE THEM!). There are a number of reasons that suggest themselves:
1.influence of acid in a certain experimental context, both socially and musically. Some of those early songs, and the Dead's approach to them are deeply rooted in that particular world. Of course they could be played in other ways (and some were) but perhaps their very essence, to the band at least, would have been denuded.
2. Changing approaches to ensemble playing/improvising. Many of the early songs are not easily played in open improv contexts, or modal settings.
3. Perhaps they simply were not happy with their sound w.r.t. many of these songs when they did bring them back. Here I generally agree. It is not that they could not play the song form (the blues is the blues is the.....) but in comparison with the earlier versions many of the late versions sound, well, lame (again, to me....and perhaps particularly to Jerry....) Why might this be so? Well, you needn't move immediately to claims of lesser musical talent (although one might want to argue this!), but that the expressive and semantic content of these early songs were no longer in sympathy with the bands headspace. Again you could play them, but they would become different songs altogether. (Think about what it took for Dancin' to return a complete rearrangement, which worked wonderfully, but.... was it ever Harpur's College??) Bla, bla, bla, could go on, but a point related to other things happening on the site at the moment. For me, I rather hear OTHER non-dead related bands (and non simply cover bands) play these early songs. Then the reinterpretations are not judged against a backdrop of the bands own earlier practices. I don't find myself thinking things like "Damm, Bobby used to have such a nice tone on this tune, to voice the chords in interesting ways, to dance in and around Jerry and Phil's lines, but now, just on the beat chunks that don't egg Jerry to new places", etc. and so forth (yes, as always, the usual "others may disagree")." Ok, time to go.....and listen to some Dead! Peace to all. My vote for the song that kept its power and interest the longest through the Dead's long strange trip, whose changes made sense and kept interest--Wharf Rat (there is a question for another post, perhaps).
Attics for me is a beautifully executed highlight on many late period shows.
I would like to highlight the comments of Unkle Sam and Grateful Prof.. Both have points that are extremely valid. Then Fluffanutter comes from another realm! Fantastic!
My 2 cents worth is that when the old songs came back, for whatever reason and whatever period of time, they were worthy. If they didn't come back, then, for many of the reasons sited already, there was no justification to do so.
Let's look at some of the great comebacks (and there were comebacks within the comebacks -- Like Help>Slip getting reintroduced in 1983 after seven years and then dieing again in 1985, only to be resurrected in Hampton Roads in the epic 1989 shows):
Dark Star: Played in a one-off comeback on 78/79 New Years, Shea's in Buffalo in early 79. Again on New Years in 81/82. Again in 84 at the Greek for an encore after a shooting star was witnessed. The true comeback was during the Hampton Roads shows when they were billed as The Warlocks. There were some very good versions during this era but none to match the 45 minute versions in the early 70s
Dupree Diamond Blues (Veneta, 1982): As the encore, this came out of nowhere and was truly inspired by Jerry. It became a staple of the first set for the rest of the 80s.
Cosmic Charlie: This is a really good example of a song that was not played well when it was originally introduced in 1969 (or around that time) due to the immaturity of the band. But wow! When it got played with Donna on key in 1976 it was truly awesome... check out the Coliseum Arena show from 1976.
Death Don't Have No Mercy: The opposite. This song was a MONSTER in the 60s and early 70s and when it came back less than a handful of times there were only one or two that stood out, Shoreline being the best, IMHO.
St. Stephen: Ohhh to have been in Hartford or MSG in 1983. I missed it but on really good auds and sbds you can heart the ecstatic rush of the crowd. Hartford was the best and MCCC didn't deserve to be the last, though Phil did have the final word on snuffing out this definitive tune.
Black Throated Wind: A favorite of mine. Thoroughly enjoyed hearing every version from E72. Don't know why it went away but was so glad when Bobby brought it back in 1991. It was not shabby. It cooked.
Loose Lucy: Came back in 1991 after an 17 year hiatus. There were some very good versions played, but none to match the original intensity from the 73-74 versions.
Here Comes Sunshine: It was certainly a trip to hear this again in 1992 but IMHO it should not have come back.
Attics Of My Life: A very difficult tune to get the vocals right. The boys are to be credited for every effort to do so but, again, should have been left to rest.
Supplication: Came back in a one off, I believe, at the Shoreline in 1994. They had many opportunities after 1983 to bring back both parts (Lazy Lightning was it's lifelong partner) but they could never pull it off in a jam or just standing alone. Don't know what the problem was there.
Unbroken Chain: Last on my list because of Mary E's comments and others in this thread about people making stuff up, and, when you hear this song, it will be the end time for days of Grateful Dead. My own personal experience at Providence in 1979, when I was a newbie, and yelling for Unbroken Chain from the first row, is that another young head turned to me and very gravely said: "They will never, ever, ever, ever play this song live in concert." He was so passionate when he said it that his comment just sort of hung there in space. It was like even the band stopped in time and then restarted. It was my weirdest moment EVER at a Grateful Dead concert. The truth, as we now know in hindsight, is that it was never played live in concert until 3/19/95. It was played something like ten times until 7/9/95 and it did indeed signal the death knell of the Grateful Dead. Should it have been brought out? Absolutely. It was fated. Was it good musically? No, it was to be endured. But the studio version is killer when you're peaking!
This is just a short list of Grateful Dead tunes that got resurrected off the top of my head. There were many other covers, such as Dylan's Train To Cry, that are in this category. I'm sure I missed a few other Dead songs as well. This idea of the comeback was a quintessential part of being a Deadhead. The more you remembered (and had it right), the more you were truly a Deadhead. I'm not claiming to be an old-school, dead-to-the-core head. I have to thank Deadbase for giving me the dates.
I hope somebody enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. It took me over an hour to write this post. happy trails everyone, keep posting!
Another time, another (counter) culture. Maybe that is why some of the songs from that era fell from grace in later years. Much "hippy trippy" stuff from those heady years didn't really stand the test of time. That said, many of the Dead's contributions to that period fared better those of other bands. Also it was the band's formative years and maybe they found that some of their early material didn't fit in with the direction they went in. However, the '60's was a more exciting and exploratory time than any of the decades that followed (remember the '80's - I'm trying to forget 'em!) and in my opinion, the Dead were never more exciting or exploratory that they were in that period. Prove it to all the doubters David - give us some prime/primal '67 to remind our jaded senses what it was all about.
...is another person's gold. Twas ever thus in the Grateful Dead world.
Was just like a lot of their songs ...sometimes it rocked sometimes it didn't. I liked it ...was tight musically, and delivered with tongue in cheek irony.
Lucy In The Sky...now that I would trade for almost anything else including some of the Deads rubbish from the 60s we are discussing here.
My having seen both Tom Petty and The Clash do it SO convincingly and with SO much passion made the Dead's version sound pretty wimpy. I love the song. A true classic. But frankly, there were times it sounded like Jerry just wanted to rush through it's 2 minutes and 50 seconds or whatever and get the hell out of Dodge...
we were young and full of spirit, there were a lot of us too, a group mind thing that hasn't happened since, we wanted the world and we wanted it now. Sounds like a great subject for a book Blair, there were big changes during those years, and the music hasn't ever been matched, think about the sounds of those days, Pink Floyd's first, Sgt. Pepper's, Majical Mystery tour, the Dead's first, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, Arthur Lee's Love, Airplane's pillow and Baxter's, Steppenwolf, Cream, Hendrix, Procol Harem, too many to list. Add a little LSD and what was happening with the war and the draft and equal rights, man, you've got your work cut out for you. I say bring back all those old tunes, the world needs them. By the way, I thought Jerry's version of I Fought the Law was great, and after the small riot in Orlando in April 94 where we all got gassed leaving the venue, it was like a warning.