Blair’s Golden Road Blog — IWAAJ, Or Was It?
“It Was All About Jerry.” If you’ve prowled Deadnet Central or other Grateful Dead message boards/sites through the years, chances are you’ve encountered “IWAAJ.” During what has become known in Dead Head circles as “The Days Between” (Garcia’s August 1st birthday through the day of his death, August 9th), I seem to see that abbreviation pop up in discussions even more, as folks weigh in and ponder Jerry’s passing and his impact, etc. But year-round, fans drop “IWAAJ” into online conversations in a variety of situations, perhaps most often as final punctuation in discussions about the relative merits of post-Garcia bands—as if that abbreviation, in and of itself, explains why RatDog or Furthur or any other group doesn’t possess that fully magical Grateful Dead X-factor; i.e. because Jerry is not part of it.
Well, duh! There’s no question that Garcia was the dominant creative force in the Grateful Dead. As an improvising guitarist without peer, passionate singer, chief songwriter, de facto spokesman for the group and possessor of an incredible mind and wit, Jerry left shoes impossible to fill. He is the major reason I spent 25 years and untold treasure going to see him at every opportunity, and why I have scribbled more than a million words (literally) about his exploits. I echo the sentiment of the bumper sticker I see occasionally: “I MISS JERRY EVERY DAY.”
But I don’t believe IWAAJ. One song into my first Grateful Dead show back in 1970, it was abundantly clear that there was a very special chemistry going on within the band and that each player was an integral and original part of the group’s overall sound. I had never heard another bass player like Phil Lesh, nor a so-called “rhythm guitarist” like Bob Weir. What the drummers were doing behind them was unlike the standard rock rhythms most bands trotted out. It was deeper and more complex. As I saw the band more often (13 times in those first two years), my appreciation of the uniqueness of each of the players and his contributions to the overall gestalt grew exponentially. And while that was happening, I was also learning that the Grateful Dead’s following was an audience unlike any other in music and that the atmosphere the band and crowd created together was its own wonderful thing. As the years went by, the specialness of the Dead audience (compared with other bands’ fans) and its bond with the band became even more apparent.
One reason Dead Heads are so obsessed about sound is because it was not AAJ. I clearly recall griping after some shows (especially at Winterland) that the band played great but I couldn’t really hear Phil as well as I’d like, or noting that Healy had Weir turned down way too low at many shows in the early ’80s. (Alas, the tapes confirm that assessment.) Sit on the extreme right or left of a hall during the later Healy era and you risked either being deafened by Brent or losing him for the most part. I always wanted to hear every instrument clearly and balanced, not just Jerry, and I certainly wasn’t alone in that sentiment.
When other players in the band had “off” nights, a spectacular night by Jerry helped but usually could not completely elevate a show to true greatness — all parts had to be in sync and moving smoothly for that to happen. Conversely, having everyone in the band playing really well except Jerry — as happened so often during the more disturbing portions of 1994 and 1995 — didn’t really do it, either. But I give the guys major points for heroically trying not to let his diminished capacity drag the music completely down. At a lot of those shows, it was AAEE — “All About Everyone Else.”
So, now we’re 16 years into the post-Garcia era, and there are still many folks who have no interest in hearing the ex-Dead members playing together, or they’ve checked it out and been disappointed (by its lack of Jerry-ness!). My feeling, though, is that so much of the Grateful Dead’s essence and Garcia’s spirit is ingrained in each of the surviving players, and within the songs themselves, that it isn’t at all hard for me to accept those players in new combinations reinterpreting this music I love, sometimes in radical ways. In the early days after Jerry died, it was the original Missing Man Formation lineup of Vince Welnick, Steve Kimock, Bobby Vega and Prairie Prince that first showed me I could feel that Grateful Dead spark again—that it didn’t take Jerry being there to get me off. So I’ve always tried to be open to whatever new lineups of players have come down the pike investigating and exploring the Dead’s musically egalitarian methodology (everyone is important!) and seemingly boundless repertoire. (It’s too bad it took Jerry’s death for us to hear everything from “The Eleven” to “Viola Lee Blues” to “The Golden Road” to “Mountains of the Moon” splendidly reinvented for modern times.)
All of the guys in the band are still playing fantastically well and seem to be dedicated to constantly reinvigorating the Dead canon. I’ve left shows by The Other Ones, The Dead, the Mickey Hart Band, Phil Lesh & Friends, RatDog, Furthur and other Dead-connected groups positively glowing, and that’s all the proof I need to believe that great as he was, and as much as I loved him, it was not AAJ — for me. And the crowds by and large remain a source of joy and inspiration, as well.
God, I miss Garcia! But I’m so happy that those he left behind didn’t just fold up the tent, close shop—whatever the appropriate metaphor is—and leave their shared history behind. The evolution continues, without Jerry, and it’s still putting smiles on faces and offering, to quote a recent Phil-Hunter tune, an invitation to the dance.
“Uncle John’s Band” asked, “Will you come with me? Won’t you come with me?” Yup, I will! Wherever it goes.
How ’bout you?
It's always about the band. Or rather, the music that they make collectively. And for many/most folks, attraction to music is attraction to melody. In the case of a rock band, it has come to be that instrumentally, it's usually the lead guitarist carrying the bulk of the melody load. And if the lead guitarist also is a lead singer, and a primary songwriter to boot...well a pile of our listening attention gets focused there. So it was with Jerry and thus it was and is all about Jerry, whether he wanted it to be or not. Or at least mostly about him...hard to pretend otherwise, despite the the alchemy that can occur when you've got a group of amazing, like-minded musicians working their magic toward a common goal.
The post-Jerry lineups fit two loose categories: the Ratdog/Phil & Friends/Rhythm Devils/7 Walkers bucket, wherein Dead members create their own bands with their unique focus on the music that they personally want to make; and the Other Ones/Dead/Furthur slot, which fall closer to making the statement that goes something like: "We are still the Grateful Dead, and as we've replaced other band members in the past, we're replacing the lead guitarist now." Thankfully, not under the Grateful Dead name -- imagine the fireworks around THAT one for a moment.
The former category has tended to be less controversial than the latter: you either liked Ratdog, for instance, or you didn't, but there was less of a sense that you were dealing with a "fake Jerry" anywhere in the mix. These "self contained" bands were/are more like Jerry's various side projects as they related to the Grateful Dead -- in no way attempts to substitute for the Dead, just other bands with this or that member at the helm. At least for me.
On the other hand, how much you did or didn't enjoy the bands in the second group often centered on how you felt about the replacement Jerry...and for many, there was and is no one worthy to replace him. For some, there was no reason to even try.
Until the bands in the "Jerry replacement" category develop an identity of their own, as it appears Furthur is intent on doing (none of the others even took reasonable shot at it, IMO), it's always going to be all about Jerry.
For myself, I've been fence-sitting regarding Furthur. I saw them last week and had something of a breakthrough...during one very fine "Morning Dew," I suddenly saw John K as the lead guitarist and singer for a band called Furthur, and not a replacement for Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead. Which I don't think is a bad thing, and I don't think that I've moved to the Dark Side as a result. I like the band, no more equivocation.
We'll always have what Jerry has given us. As much as we'd love to have more, we still have a big whole pile of it. And in one form or another, his legacy lives on in the music being made today in his absence.
So, damn, it IS still all about Jerry. I can live with that AND like Furthur. And, you know, all the music that I like that isn't about Jerry at all.
Since I'm one of the people over on DNC that uses this term a lot, and probably got Blair to write the blog, let me just clarify to all of you what I mean, perhaps you'll think just a little better of me (seeing some of the comments, I see some people think they're Deader than Thou and can define what others feel or not feel because of some internet statements they make). I was kind of hoping my original post on this subject would have explained it fairly well, which Blair kindly posted here, but anyway, let me try again.
IWAAJ doesn't mean to me, never did, that the GD was ONLY about Jerry.
IWAAJ doesn't mean to me that I, or others who feel the way I do, worship the guy. I would never want my life or my kids life to ever take many of the destructive and irresponsible avenues that Jerry's life took. I loved the guys music, and found great joy in it, and continue to. Doesn't mean I worship him, or Miles Davis, or Ravi Shankar, or Bob Dylan, or John Lennon, or etc... I love music, and Jerry played some damn good music that I consider myself blessed to have been able to experience.
IWAAJ doesn't mean because, you have decided to take a definition about what I am saying and ignore a lot of the rest that I've written about, that you are "Deader than me" and I haven't experienced the magic. Without being able to subjectively prove to you that I have, just take my word for it, with the over 100 GD shows I've seen and the countless hours I've listened to the GD, I have. Thanks for being concerned about it though.
IWAAJ doesn't mean I think that the GD would have been the GD without Phil or Bob or Bill. I don't, actually. But, who knows? It's a thought experiment. The only point on the side that they might have been is that they remained the GD when other members came and went, but the band obviously changed a ton. Each member, as they came, left, and sometimes came back in, changed the sound tremendously. The sound of the GD were always about who was in the group, when Pig was there, he was a huge influence, when TC was there, he added his wonderful little runs, when Keith was there and Mickey wasn't, the band went into a very different realm. When Mickey came back, it changed. When Brent came back, he totally changed the band, IMO. Bruce added a great flavor, and Vince changed the sound too. Obviously, it's about everyone in the band, moreso than most other bands, because it was a democracy.
IWAAJ does not mean that IWATJGB. The GD was far better than the JGB, though I loved the JGB and do listen to them often enough. But, the GD were more of Jerry's peers, they weren't playing a background tapestry for Jerry to weave in, their tapestry was intervowen directly with JG's. A lot of that comes from having played together for so long, and under the conditions that they did (Acid Tests).
However, FROM the evidence that is present, when Jerry was on, the band was incredible, and when Jerry was off, they were mostly not. I do think in the later years, the rest of the members tried to uphold the music to the best of their abilities, but even Phil has said that the X Factor wasn't happening after the early 90s. As Jerry was checking out, the X factor checked out for Phil. Bill said the reason he didn't want to continue was that the only reason he was doing it was to play with Jerry. Bob said in an interview when a particular GD release was coming out, that the current band (The Dead) were unable to reach the subtle moments that the GD were able to reach (this was with Phil, Bob, Mickey and Bill in the same band).
No Jerry, no *Grateful* Dead. Even the band knows this. They agreed to not use the GD name ever again. Thus, the Other Ones, The Dead, and Furthur. Perhaps the same would have been made with Phil, Bob, and Bill. However, it wasn't made with the others, though they had a huge influence on the sound and direction of the band.
I've seen all the incarnations of the post bands. I've enjoyed many at the shows. But when I go back to listen to them, I don't get compelled to ever hear it again. Perhaps a few shows I find intersting to hear again now and then. But not at the level I am compelled to listen to many of the GD shows I personally saw, or didn't see, for that matter. I can experience the "X factor" from those shows upon many listens. Some of my favorites are many shows from the 1967-1970 era, when I was just a young child, but yet, I get the X factor from them in spades. I'm currently drooling over the release of the E'72 box set because of the X factor that's ensconched in them. Then there's some of the shows I've been to, especially if I recorded them, because I'm right back where I stood there and it's totally transportive.
So, that elusive X Factor is, I guess, what I'm talking about. I've loved many post GD shows I';ve seen. And some, well, not so much. There were GD shows, not so much. But, there's something not there. That, is the music and voice of my favorite musician I've ever seen (at least in the music of the western culture), and that is Jerry Garcia.
Thanks for reading.
Jerry was kinda big in our lives...
it's funny how worked up some of us get regarding this topic.
I really love your post. Thanks.
By the way, the next time you're transfixed by one of Jerry's beautiful, silvery, illuminatingly sublime guitar solos and you're tapping your feet?....
Yep, that would be the rhythm section accompanying him.
Nope, i believe this to be wholeheartedly true.
You cannot possibly believe, hand on heart, that all that shining beauty; those moments of incredible revelation and elevation. Those soaring highs, those sweeping currents of transcendent bliss that penetrate and pierce our minds and keep us forever returning to the Grateful Dead; the songs, the lyrics, the solos, the swirling vortices of rhythm, the improvisatory explosions, the GROUP MIND that we consider so important can all be down to one man.
It is the whole band.
Now i made it quite clear that Jerry was and remains an integral part of the Dead's appeal. The Dead's music. The Dead's MAGIC.
If it was Jerry that you mainly focused on and brought you to ecstatic highs; that got you through those dark nights of the soul when the world around you turned cold, mean and meaningless then that is beautiful. It would be impertinent and dare i say downright churlish to dismiss that, condemn it and disparage.
But lets quit with the sycophancy. It cannot be down to one man alone. When the music is touching you deeply you are listening to the GRATEFUL DEAD. It is ALL of them.
i LOVE Jerry's playing. I LOVE his voice. I LOVE his sense of humour.
But deep down blairj, if you truly and honestly believe that it WAS all about Jerry only... then you too are showing an incredible amount of disrespect to the other members too. And in which case, what was the point of your blog?
Dude, you have no idea what you're talking about. I don't need you (or people like you) telling me what i feel or don't feel. Many of the points in your blog are good ones, but this one is NOT.
Don't tell me what what i'm talking about.
Oh, hang on; now i'm telling you what you can and what you can't say.....
get the picture?
that's how it is with jonapi Blair. Mixed in with the pearls of wisdom, pranksterisms and out and out hilarity( I am still laughing at his David Hasselhof gag) there is the occasional big smelly offensive stinkbomb. He's the Frankie Boyle of Deadnet.......entertaining us from the edge and crossing the line from time to time just to see what will happen. I say let him stay but give him one of those 'may cause offense' stickers!
Greetings from (probably) the only deadhead in Turkmenistan currently raving to 10 June 73, where Jerry is simply everywhere!
jonapi writes: "If you think it was all about Jerry you are an idiot. You are into the Dead because of the scene or the partying. The music obviously did not truly touch you. You are only lying to yourself."
Dude, you have no idea what you're talking about. We don't need other people (like you) telling us what we feel or don't feel. Many of your other points are good ones, but this one is NOT.
I'm with rango ..only when Jerry is there do the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, does my soul get moved, do I get blown away into the strangest of places, do tears fill my eyes. Just one note can do it...one fucking note....turning somersaults at the edge of the universe, on the borders of dark and light.
Long live Phil, Bob, Billy, Mickey and their bands but they can't do that.Thank goodness there is enough recorded Jerry to keep me going for a lifetime. I might feel different if the other guys came to Europe for some live shows, but for recorded music why settle for anything less than the best?