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Published: 1998/10/15
by Chris Bertolet

"Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will…"

Most Deadheads know that Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics to “New Speedway Boogie” in the wake of the 1969 Altamont Music Festival tragedy- a mini-riot during the Stones’ set that sent several fans to the hospital and one to the morgue. The fatal stabbing was a counterculture flash-point; it shattered the fragile illusion of hippie bliss, and sent conservative critics into a frothy litany of we-told-you-so’s.

Blame has a way of finding men of stature like water finds low ground, and pretty soon the Grateful Dead found themselves ass-deep in a flood of recrimination over the deaths at Altamont. Sometimes, I imagine maybe even the band felt like they’d asked for it- after all, they were the Grateful Dead. They hired the Hell’s Angels to control the crowd (akin to hiring Nietzsche as a birthday clown), and paid them in beer . Of course, the confluence of events and personalities that sparked the riot was far more complex than it appeared on the surface, and Hunter made that point eloquently in song.

“New Speedway” didn’t end at Altamont. Like all of Hunter’s best work, its words and its themes are timeless- they point to the future as astutely as they do the present and past. And they don’t just indict the folks who wagged their fingers at the Grateful Dead and their flock. They indict the flock. They serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of clinging to old and comfortable ways, of letting our feet gather moss. Of getting stuck in normal.

“Now I don’t know what I been told, in the heat of the sun a man died of cold”

As long as gravity is an immutable law, the jam band universe will spin around the Grateful Dead. The Dead had mass and energy to burn, and so spawned other life-sustaining bodies. These bodies fell into their own unique orbits around their sun, gathering to absorb its light and warmth while developing topographies and hues of their own. Today, hundreds of touring acts claim the Grateful Dead as their star of origin, and each of those planets claims its own plane. Some especially dynamic planets, the Allmans, Phish, etc., have even spun off to form their own self-sustaining systems.

Problem is, the jam band universe is getting to be a crowded space. Orbits are finite, and sharing one is a shaky proposition. Even in open space, cosmic bodies need inertia, mass and velocity, to stay in rotation. If mass is the aggregate craft of the players on the stage, then velocity is the creativity of those players, or the flow of new ideas.

After all, chops are chops. But if new ideas cease, the body falls out of orbit, crashes, and burns…regardless of mass. No more evolution, no more revolution.

Ask the Spin Doctors.

“Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you got nothing new to say…”

If you don’t believe too many jam bands sound alike, check out the summer festival circuit. You’ll see a bumper crop of technical wizards, dozens of musicians with killer chops. But even if you pay attention, you’ll hear precious few original ideas.

Even more discouraging is the lack of lyrical and emotional range that most of these artists exhibit. If “alternative” music is stuck in a grim rut of bogus self-pity, then improvisational rock has whirled itself into a blur of velvety escapism. Fact is, there’s a whole lot of gooey, weightless dreck out there masquerading as poetry. And while I do appreciate Tom Marshall’s knack for the absurd non-sequitor, Phish’s orbit is taken, thank you very much.

Even some of the most entertaining acts in jam rock today are underachieving on this score. Phish — well, they’ve always said nothing, but they’ve said nothing on purpose, and that counts for something. Leftover Salmon can jam like a house on fire, but let’s be honest, they’re a little too infatuated with pot for a bunch of grown men. Then there’s String Cheese Incident, a band so crammed with prodigious musicians that it defies logic. But one minute they’re exploring the reaches, telling stories, speaking volumes without speaking, and the next, they’re compromising the music with some pseudo-metaphysical lyrical throwaway like “spinning around a wheel of light.” A case of words limiting music.

It was the juicy dualities, textures and flavors in Hunter’s own experience that make his poems ring so true today. Ditto Pete Townsend, John Lennon, and other songwriters of depth whose songs explore the breadth of the human experience. I hope our favorite jam bands can plumb a little deeper into their own experience, and take us to those places.

Their longevity may depend on it.

“If you please, don’t back up the track, this train’s got to run today…”

Once or twice in a lifetime a Miles Davis comes along, someone with such a unique and momentous vision that he changes the way we perceive music. Someone who seems to draw music not from other musicians, but from the ether. I know that’s too rigid a standard.

And I know that influences can be a beautiful thing. The Dead certainly drew from a fine pedigree, and even some of the best acts in improvisational music today wear their influences on their sleeve. But the most potent music makers always have one foot in front of them, taking the next step into uncharted territory. Galactic might have been nursed on the Meters, but they’ve been weaned, and they’ve graduated to an intoxicating mix of old-school Funk and brand new spunk. No moss on those feet.

My point is not to slander the “jam band” genre, if there even is such an animal. My point is this — if you’re a fan, discern. Follow your ass and follow your heart, then vote with your ticket dollars. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing a jam band because there’s no one else in town and the movies at the cineplex suck. You’ll appreciate shows more when you see fewer. And if you’re a musician, innovate. If you care enough about improvisational music to make it in the first place, you have an obligation to keep moving, or get the hell out of the way.

In the end, if you’ve got nothing new to say, is it worth saying anything at all?

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Chris Bertolet is a professional writer. He lives in Los Angeles with wife Jenn and cat Tom.

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