Monday, November 28, 2005

The Day The Music Died

Reprinted w/o permission:
Requiem for the Dead - []


Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like… ?

In a lot of ways, the Grateful Dead were more of an idea than a band. Which is a clumsy way of saying that the fact they played musical instruments really, really well was far less important than the shared intuition that they were actually instruments themselves: master craftsmen in whom a holy fire found its rightful vessel. Which is an elaborate way of saying that the Dead as musicians were greater than the sum of their parts, that it wasn’t just fingers and strings and drumsticks but rather, somehow, a collective of seekers aiming their arrows at the Infinite, just beyond the pale of our usual understanding.

Which is all a lengthy preface to a bleak finale, because the Dead have died, at their own hands. As far as deaths go, it was a quiet and mundane affair. The passing was, in a word, businesslike. And, indeed, no word but that could ever describe their demise, because it is the ultimate negation of their entire journey. It is the darkness at the end of the tunnel.

In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is drawn by the Grateful Dead. So said the long-gone prophets of the Haight-Ashbury. But when the moorings are loosed and both ship and Dead slip faltering and fading into night, what then shall you do?

The musicians have become merchants — the freedoms of yesteryear are sold, souvenir-like, for the comforts of today. Once, the Dead danced at the edge of an abyss that stood at the outward edge of human consciousness, that far side of possibility where our best dreams are glimpsed, maybe even realized. But, while they played, someone was filling that chasm behind them to the very brim with a luxurious padding of dollar bills and, last Tuesday, and perhaps only by default, the Dead fell into the money pit.

The Internet Archive at manifests the (correct) dictum that Information Wants to Be Free. For roughly the past 18 months, the Archive’s Live Music Archive has been home to almost three thousand recordings of Grateful Dead concerts, from its goofy acid-pop beginnings in 1965 to the decayed grandeur of the end-year of 1995, and all the boundless glories in-between. The recordings, most of which were taken from the band’s soundboards, were freely available to all — a stunningly vast repository, a collection open and evolving.

It was a compilation of thirty-years’ worth of moments. And, if we accept the premise that life is but a series of moments, to be performed in as we are able, then the Dead’s long train of action-in-time was more powerful, more awe-inspiring and just more totally fulfilled than almost anything else you could compress into the narrow historical document of a musical recording. It was all there, all free, all open — and just as the Dead wanted it.

Or so we thought. A pretty natural thing to assume, really, given statements such as the one by Jerry Garcia (an avid taper of bluegrass concerts in his younger days) that once the band was through playing the music, it belonged to the fans. Yes, for the past forty years, it would have been a very easy thing to assume that, after the instruments fell silent, the immense musical legacy of the Dead would be free for posterity.

But from that cup no more. On November 22, under orders from some shadowy source within the band’s organization, the Dead’s presence on the Live Music Archive fell silent. All soundboard recordings were removed, a decision that hacked away about two-thirds of all available recordings and more-than-decimated the availability of sources from the band’s most prime years. Audience recordings, often of markedly inferior quality, are now all that remain. And those, like the band’s integrity, are present only in a highly curtailed format.

The day has come which few could have foreseen and which fewer still could have beared contemplate: the day that the Grateful Dead’s music, every note and sound, got locked away, to be heard only for a price. While traditional avenues of obtaining concert recordings remain open (though positively archaic by comparison and, presumably, also now somewhat suspect under new band policy), the Live Music Archive, poised to become the great storehouse of the Dead’s recorded legacy, is now only a sad reminder of what might have been. It is the Great Leap Backward. What once was free will now cost you fifteen to thirty bucks a pop if you want to be 100% legal about it, and precious little will even make the light of day with official sanction. Something is over, and that thing is the Grateful Dead.

A clean, calm, efficient suicide: suffocation-by-choice in a sea of cash. Forty years of freedom met its end in one act of commerce. Finished.

For many, the Dead were the soundtrack to a dream of freedom, and that music just stopped.

Truth is, it didn’t require much effort. The surviving members don’t much play like they used to, at least not with each other. The day-to-day operations of the Grateful Dead organization have been pawned off on hired corporate jockeys who pronounce “music business” with a silent “m-u-s-i-c.” The Dead’s “scene” long ago atrophied from lack of exercise, meaning that there just wasn’t much left for the band to keep in touch with outside of their ever-narrowing world. The band members gradually disappeared behind a faceless conglomerate. And there is no accountability — no address to write to, no sympathetic ear to speak to.

In the absence of connections, rumors abound. Was it Garcia’s harridan of a wife, Deborah Koons, who was responsible? Some particularly avaricious band member who forced the issue? But no truth will penetrate through the layer of lawyers who must have pulled off this heist. Make no mistake — to reclaim what was once freely and gladly given is no more than theft.

With cobwebs strung across their stage, the Dead’s only shot at immortality lies in the thousands of hours of recordings which constitute some of human civilization’s greatest achievements. It is a legacy now gambled away. They wagered that people would pay for it piecemeal and in that they are correct — a handsome profit will surely be made off of people’s genuine hunger to hear this music. But what a price… what a fucking price. Because to put a price sticker and some shrinkwrap on the gift that the band and the audience used to give each other with such willing and joyful abandon is to deny the value of the freedom that underscored and surrounded their entire musical journey. As Bob Dylan said about that other great, dying experiment, the labor union: “Sure was a good idea ’til greed got in the way.”

You lived as heroes and, now, you end your days as a commodity. You have cancelled yourselves out. The cold calculus of commerce has swallowed the better angels of your dream, just as it has taken down so many other seers. Something new is born, and it’s not the Grateful Dead anymore.

The risky thing about frontiers is that they exist to be stamped with imprints of our own making. In 1965, the Dead appeared as prototypes for new ways of living, thinking, and existing — for a different and better way to be. And after the Sixties were over, man — after things like LSD, communal living and liberty-equality-fraternity were said to be no longer tenable, viable or desirable, the Grateful Dead were still standing. And not just standing, but singing, playing and dancing: Pied Pipers of a vision they refused to let die, a sturdy cabin in the American tundra occupied by the Armies of the Right.

The good ol’ Grateful Dead carved out a sizeable homestead on the frontier of human possibility. While it lasted, it was a good place. It was worked and tended in their image and those who had eyes to see, saw that it was good. After Reagan, even after Jerry, it still stood.

But they have grown old now, those who remain. In large part, I can’t even really blame “the boys” for seeking some easy financial solace in their waning years. And, in truth, there wasn’t much left for them to wash their hands of.

Please don’t call this a naive idealization of the past. Look at a picture of them playing in the middle of Haight Street, or of their equipment set up on the grass in Golden Gate Park, or of them playing to a sweaty and rapturous crowd at the Fillmore. Look, but don’t listen, unless you’re a paying customer. And please don’t call this a selfish grasping at things that aren’t my property or my business, as some of you no doubt will. A thing is either free or not free, and a lot of us got shown the difference between the two by the Grateful Dead in better days.

Yeah, better days — that sun will shine again. But, for now, in the mouth of winter, it’s all too clear we’re on our own. I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.

Except that it does.

If there is consolation to be had, it is that, in our best moments, we can hear a music bigger and better than all of us. It is a music of our own making. And there is a time at close of day when even the best craftsmen choose to walk away from their work.

Fare you well, boys.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Vegas was fucking awesome. Jeff Miller and I set off early Friday and slid right in to our ghetto palace without a hitch. We killed a few hours that afternoon by walking the entire length of The Strip and then walked farther to find a lousy overpriced guitar store. On the walk, Jeff dropped his phone at an intersection and a local chased us down to return it(lose #1). He got lucky. His luck would get better.
Our first show of the weekend was billed as "Trey Anastasio" and was set to start at 11:59pm at the Aladdin Theatre. Capacity approximately 4000. The show didn't actually start until 12:45 as the crowd was delayed entrance by a Dave Matthews performance in that same venue earlier that evening. Our seats were near the back and under the brim of the balcony. The sound was lousy under there. I would discover at a moe. performance, later the next night in the same venue, that the sound was much better upstairs.
My thoughts on the Trey Band performance were mixed. I thought the crowd was pretty talkative and not nearly as respectful as I had seen at a Phish show. This was most disruptive during the solo acoustic segment performed in the middle of the set. I felt like Trey was trying to please everyone and in the process may have stretched himself a little too thin. The second half of the show along with the acoustic set that proceeded it were the most inspired portions. I felt the first half was a little slow taking off. I kept wanting to be more impressed and it kept falling a little short during the first few songs. But once Anastasio started to engage his fellow band members, he became more hit and a lot less miss. He gave shout outs to Les Claypool in the audience along with a good friend from high school and finally, Matthews. We had a long walk back to the hotel and Jeff's feet were falling apart. To his credit, he didn't complain about the all weekend and either rode it out quietly or just became numb to the pain. Suit up!
We set out by shuttle bus Saturday mid day heading for the Sam Boyd Stadium that lies on the outskirts of town. We choked down a half a turkey and Swiss sammich each and floated through security on our way to the Jokers Wild Stage to see the Warren Hays led Gov't Mule. We had no problem getting in very close and there was plenty of space for everyone. This familiar feeling would follow us all weekend regardless of the stage we were at or band we were seeing. The Mule wooped our asses with a killer She Said She Said>Tomorrow Never Knows jam late in the set and was one of the highlights of the weekend. We saw about an hour and a half before we took off for the stadium stage where Phil Lesh and Friends were playing. This is where things started to get a little crazy.
I had finally gotten in touch with my friend Leigh who had flown up from Phoenix and he told me he was on the floor dead center on the rail and they had space for us. Jeff stayed back because of his feet as I bolted for the front. Leigh wasn't kidding when he said they were front and center. We were bouncing off of each other with excitement. Joan Osborne was sitting in with the on vocals and that made all the difference in the performance. There were strong vocals and wonderfully tight musicianship in abundance on the stage. Leigh talked the ear off the huge Mafioso type security guard at the foot of the stage. On the floor, I met several of Leigh's friends from Portland(Annie & Stephen, Scott). Scott and I had a brief misunderstanding later that night that was the kind of thing that only happens in Las Vegas. He handled himself like a gentleman and I came off looking like a clown. We laughed about it for the rest of the weekend.
So the Phil show was a complete delight. Being front row made a great show all that much better. They played at least 45 minutes longer than they were supposed to play which chewed up a great portion of the time I had scheduled to see Beck. Jeff and I sang "Nobody's Fault But My Own" along with Beck as we headed for the exit. Leigh's hunger pains were the main catalyst for our departure. The call of the wild was in the air.

part II soon...

Friday, November 04, 2005

Neil On Conan

This has been a fantastic week for Rusties. Neil Young made a rare television appearance with a four night stand on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. He performed a song from his new album each night(and sometimes more) and brought a truck load of soul to the stage. The interview revealed a sense of humor all his own.
Performed a very up beat "Far From Home" with Emmylou Harris, Peggi(his wife), and Astrid(his sister) on back up vocals. I can also spot old friends Spooner Oldham and Ben Keith in the backing band. One of the more original songs from the album and a great start for the week. He's seated during the performance and is wearing all black with a black flat brimmed hat. Band also has horn players and might have even had Jim Keltner on drums. Hard to tell on that one.
Dressed in a fedora and knitted sweater, he rambles through "The Painter". Not my favorite song. Not particularly catchy and the lyrics aren't anything of note. He's written better songs about friends and lovers. Same band as the night before, but the back up singers are 3 men I do not recognize. One kind of looked like Peter Wolf, but I know it wasn't him. Weakest song of the stand.
Back with his flat brimmed hat, black jacket, blue shirt, and the wonderful Emmylou Harris joining him on vocals and acoustic guitar, he plays an excellent new song "This Old Guitar". Emmylou is right up front with Neil tonight and she looks and sounds like a million bucks. Not the most original song in his catalogue, though. I've heard him say he re-writes all his songs, but the main riff sounds a little TOO much like "Harvest Moon" lick for my tastes. Nice song though. A simple ode to his musical companion the acoustic guitar. It's revealed during and interview segment that the Martin Acoustic he's been playing all week once belonged to Hank Sr in the 1940's. There's also a priceless comedy bit during the interview in which it's revealed that Neil has re-tuned all of Conan's guitars to D-modal. Neil returns and lays down a short and bittersweet solo version of "Needle And The Damage Done". It's hard for me to enjoy this song. It makes me sad. Excellent performances and a super rare interview bit.
He's the man in black again tonight. Backed by the Fisk Jubilee singers, his guys/girls are all back singing too, and best of all Spooner Oldham is wearing a bright red Knit sweater while rockin the B-3! The song is "No Wonder" and it's some kind of apocalyptic warning that doesn't strike me as being all that good. He crams the stage full of people perhaps in hopes of distracting the audience from the sub par song. But being a class act all the way, he wraps it up with the soulful poem "When God Made Me". I hate to compare it to John Lennon's "Imagine", but I feel forced to. A song full of wonderful questions and bursting at the seams with heart. A choir backs Neil at the Steinway with Spooner, his wingman, on B-3 and sweater.

This was a real treat for Neil fans. Conan O'Brien's show continues to do wonderful things with musical guests. U2 and Springsteen have also been given showcase performances on the show. Way to go, Coney!
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iPod Song of the Day: "Apeman" by The Kinks