Blair’s Golden Road Blog: On Ravi Shankar and the Dead
By Blair Jackson
It might not be obvious, but the great Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, who passed away at the age of 92 on Dec. 11, had a profound effect on the Grateful Dead, both directly and through his influence on other musicians whom the Dead respected and learned from.
Many people incorrectly believe that Shankar’s first serious contribution to Western music was when George Harrison plunked out that primitive but effective sitar part on The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” in 1965. Harrison’s admitted inadequacy on the instrument (which he had found on the set of Help! earlier in the year), convinced him to search out Shankar for some actual lessons on the instrument, and led George to integrate sitar into a pair of Beatles tracks in ’66-’67—“Love You To” (on Revolver) and “Within You Without You” (on Sgt. Pepper). Harrison invited Shankar to play the famous Concert for Bangla Desh benefit in 1971, and to open for him on George’s remarkable 1974 Dark Horse tour (which I was fortunate enough to see at Madison Square Garden). George also produced a 1974 album called Shankar Family and Friends on his Dark Horse label.
There’s no question that Shankar’s association with The Beatles helped popularize Indian classical music all over the world. It’s why Shankar was invited to play at Monterey Pop in ’67 and Woodstock in ’69. He was a hero in the ’60s counterculture, yet he openly frowned on the hippies’ use of drugs and their libertine mores.
But Shankar was already a popular and influential figure in America long before the first meandering acid-fueled “raga-rock” guitar solo was played. Shankar started playing concerts with some regularity in the U.S. in the mid-’50s, and in 1956 the jazz-oriented World Pacific label put out an album called Three Ragas, which was quite successful for an “ethnic” recording of Indian classical music. It wasn’t long before Shankar began collaborating with various Western musicians, from violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin to jazz players such as bassist Gary Peacock and saxophonist Bud Shank (on a 1961 album called Improvisations). His music was embraced by the Beat community—many of whom turned to Eastern religions and Asian cultures for inspiration—and also the folk music world: In the early ’60s, guitarists such as John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull brought Shankar’s influence into their original instrumentals.
However, no one did more to fuse Indian music concepts with modern jazz than saxophonist John Coltrane. Inspired by Shankar (and then others), Coltrane studied the raga form, as well as the different modes, scales and the use of drone elements in Indian music. In 1961, he recorded a tune called “India” on his Live at the Village Vanguard album, and as the ’60s progressed, the influence became even stronger ("A Love Supreme" used two basses to create a drone underpinning) as Coltrane also explored Hinduism and the spiritual foundation of Indian classical music. “I collect the records [Shankar’s] made,” Coltrane told one interviewer. “I’m certain that if I recorded with him, I’d increase my possibilities ten-fold, because I’m familiar with what he does and I understand and appreciate his work.”
Coltrane and Shankar met for the first time in 1964, and over the next couple of years the Indian master musician taught the sax titan much about ragas and tala (rhythm) systems. In 1965, Coltrane cut an album called Om (after Hinduism’s most sacred chanted syllable), and that year he named his second son Ravi (who is an excellent sax player today). He and Shankar were supposed to meet again in late 1967 and possibly create some music together, but Coltrane died in July before that could happen.
Garcia’s folk crowd in the years before he started playing electric music was definitely familiar with Ravi Shankar, and David Nelson told me that during the first acid trip that he, Jerry and several friends took in mid-’65, they listened to a Ravi Shankar record at some point. Jerry and Phil were both serious fans of Coltrane, too, and said that the saxophonist’s early and mid-’60s Indian-influenced explorations had a huge impact on the Dead as the group became increasingly adventurous and more skilled.
Ravi Shankar at Monterey Pop, 6/18/67.
With the exception of “Viola Lee Blues,” which usually contained a long jam that built methodically in a way that was reminiscent of some ragas (before going completely wild and crazy), the Dead’s music didn’t show much overt Indian influence. Hewing much closer to Indian sources in ’66 and ’67 were such songs as “The End” by The Doors, the Butterfield Blues Band’s epic “East-West” and Jefferson Airplane’s extended versions of Donovan’s “Fat Angel”— guitarist Jorma Kaukonen had studied Indian music a bit on his own and brilliantly blended elements of it into his style. With the Dead, the nods to Shankar and late-period Coltrane were more subtle, stitched into the group DNA with shimmering psychedelic thread.
After the arrival of Mickey Hart in the fall of ’67, however, the Dead consciously worked on Indian musical concepts for the first time as a band. After Phil turned Mickey onto an album that featured solo pieces by Shankar’s incomparable tabla player Alla Rakha, Mickey became obsessed with Indian music and in December 1967 arranged to meet Alla Rakha in New York City while the Dead were in town working on Anthem of the Sun and playing a few gigs.
In just one session throwing around musical ideas with Alla Rahka, Mickey learned the rudiments of Indian music’s complicated subdivisions of time, and he brought back his newfound wisdom to Dead rehearsals in January 1968. With the band suddenly investigating unconventional time signatures and rhythms, their music took off in startling new directions. “The Eleven” is one piece that came out of those rehearsals, but the group’s disciplined explorations of this new musical terrain spilled over into other songs and jams, too.
Later in ’68, Mickey hooked up with another tabla master, Pandit Shankar Ghosh, a rhythm instructor at the Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin County (founded by sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, with whom Ghosh often toured). Ghosh provided more formal training in Indian classical traditions, and shared the stage with Mickey at least once at a Dead concert—9/20/68 at Berkeley Community Theatre. (In the mid-’70s, Mickey formed the Diga Rhythm Band with Alla Rakha’s tabla-playing son, Zakir Hussain, who has been part of innumerable Mickey Hart projects since.)
Ravi Shankar enriched music in so many ways. One could even argue that he was the original “world music” artist—a genius in his own tradition, but also always looking to expand the boundaries of music by sharing his knowledge and engaging with musicians from other cultures. For a lot of us rock ’n’ roll kids, perhaps the most enduring image of Shankar (and Alla Rakha) comes from the film Monterey Pop. The virtuosos start their raga slowly and then confidently build up speed, complexity and intensity until they hit a blindingly fast crescendo that leaves the crowd of hippies breathless and amazed.
Nearly half a century later it is still completely mind-blowing.
That's funny I always heard that George Harrison's 1974 Dark Horse tour was a disaster! Problem #1 was that George lost his voice thanks to laryngitis. The latygnitis is evident on the album, and it continued to plague him during the tour. I've heard recordings of some of the shows and he did sound really hoarse at times.
Sad but true, the critics disliked the tour because because of George's persistent fascintation with Indian mysticism and music.
I believe there was a rather large portion of Indian songs during the show, and the critics were not impressed. One critic called Harrison "sophmoric, preachy and dull."
Consequently, George Harrison refused to tour again, which was a shame.
A great collaboration that has not been mentioned is the Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass album Passages, which over the years has provided me with great sounds, moods and inspiration. This is well worth seeking out if you have never heard it.
I have long pondered the influence of Miles on the dead. Phil's comments abput how Miles electric band had all the freedom they were after, with the control they lacked (or something like that in his autobiography) is quite interesting. Is it a coincidence that "jazzy" elements enter the Dead's sound world soon after those shows where Miles opened for them? The jamming arounf a note, etc and so forth may well come via both Miles and Coltrane and the post Kind of Blue modal explorations, and modal jazz does bear comparision with certain styles of Indian improvisation. Ravi was front and center in introducing this all to the West, and certainly to rock audiences and performers. Ajother line of influence for those based on the west coast may have been Charles Lloyd, who also played on assorted Bill G. shows. All interesting and understuided stuff, more reason to make it out to the arcjive sme day!
I agree that it's all kind of vague; like I said, I think the influence wasn't that overt, just as Coltrane's influence isn't so obvious but it's one both Jerry and Phil (and Billy) spoke of. If anything, I'd say the raga form, with it's many variations within a piece, pointed at possibilities in jazz to Coltrane and to rock musicians. For instance, a '69 "Dark Star" likely won't have anything that sounds "Indian," but the way some of those versions unfold and rise and fall and go in different directions, or jam around a single note for a spell, points to some influence to me. I'm a huge fan of Miles' Indian stuff--on "Big Fun," for example ("Lonely Fire"!)--but didn't mention it because it came after the Dead's most formative years...
for your thoughtful comments on the passing of Ravi Shankar, and his influence on the Dead, and popular music in the late '60s. While it would be great to have firmer evidence of influence (what Shankar pieces were the Dead familiar with, for example, this does make a difference as "Classical Indian Music" is as varied as Western Classical Music, with assorted styles and rules). The connection through Coltrane, and Coltrane's more general influence in the dissemination of Indian musical forms, is also a somewhat vexing issues. While you mention quite correctly pieces such as India (and the two basses on the alternative take of a section of A Love Supreme), influences via the jazz world, from a slightly later period, are perhaps more direct and obvious. These would be Don Cherry on the one hand, and Miles Davis on the other. As early as Nov 1, 1969 Davis was recording with electric sitar (Khalil Balakrishna), and Don Cherry was, a couple of year later, engaged with assorted aspects of Indian Music, both w.r.t. his own playing and numerous collaborations (most notably with Collin Walcott. The very early Bud Shank collaboration may well have been known to the Dead, as it was very much a "West Coast" phenomena, that album, I mean. There is room for more research here! In fact, one may need to go back to Ellington.... Time to get my grad-students onto it!
but i am glad i have a cd of his Monterey performance.
i listened to it on the way to work on the morning i found out about his passing.
thank you, Ravi!
That Ravi Shankar had a "profound" effect on the Grateful Dead. Mickey Hart is omnivorous when it comes to exploring sound around the world. That he would soak up Shankar and others of the Indian tradition would not be surprising but it does not provide evidence of a profound effect. If it did then every single thing Mickey Hart studied would have had a profound effect on the Grateful Dead. Phil turned Mickey on to another Indian musician who is not Shankar. This is not evidence that Shankar had a profound effect on the Grateful Dead.
I would say that Ravi Shankar had a very minor impact on the Grateful Dead, certainly less than the Gyuto Tantric Choir which was also a very minor effect on the Dead. I don't think Viola Lee Blues or The Eleven were the result of inspiration derived from Ravi Shankar. I think these tunes were the result of the effect of LSD on their music.
None of this is to say that Ravi Shankar was not a tremendous master within his own tradition -- he certainly was. He was also a great ambassador of imparting his tradition on the entire world, wherever people took the time to listen. I was blown away by his performance at Monterrey and have avidly listened to all great masters of his tradition ever since.
RIP Ravi, come back soon and grace us with your presence.
The music of both provide us an entry to another reality. The transformative spiritual experience. I saw Ravi Shankar in the 80's in Iowa City, stunning. So many others that he influenced besides the ones that you mentioned; The Byrds, John McLaughlin, Big Brother The Allman Brothers, Santana, Donavan, Shawn Phillips, Oregon, Derek Trucks, Phillip Glass, even Miles, the list is endless. So much of our music. Thanks for mentioning the fingerstyle guitar players. Ravi Shankar's music brings peace and joy to our beings. I am listening to his healing sounds tonight in memory of him and to help cope with the incredible tragedy of todays shootings in Connecticut. Nice piece Blair, in honor of his talented and wise man. Peace