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.


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