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?