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Published: 2001/10/25
by Jesse Jarnow

THE FOURTH FLOOR: A strange trip to see ‘Grateful Dawg’

THE FOURTH FLOOR: A strange trip to see "Grateful Dawg"

"But… I could be anybody," Sam said in surprise.

"No you couldn't, sir," the guardsman replied.

1. In This Lobby

I fully expected Waring Hudsucker to fall on me, his mass spiking me into
the ground like a gluttonous mallet. It was that kind of building: an
awesome vaulted entryway that made one look up at the falling rain and up
and up as the building disappeared into itself in some sort of architectural
paradox, a temple to high finance and holy corporate plundering. Revolving
doors big enough for two or more gave way to a gigantic obsidian-coated
lobby, each nook filled with some specially tailored piece of committee
commissioned art.

It was okay. I belonged. I had a pass: a dispatch from a mysterious uptown
office ("Falco Ink") cordially requesting my presence at a screening of
Gillian Grisman's film "Grateful Dawg". I'd had to call an automated phone
service to confirm it. Letter of introduction or no, I still felt woefully
out of place in the clean digs of the Sony Building on Madison Avenue. The
sheet had instructed us to proceed to the building's seventh floor. Inside
the elevator, though, there were no choices, just a button labeled "SL" (Sky
Lobby, as we learned). There, without words or lists, the guard gave us
tickets, directed us across the entryway, down a hallway, past giant marble
staircases, to another bank of elevators.

We were put out in another lobby, more staircases heading to who knows
where, filled with plush leather couches, a gigantic television with speaker
system, courtesy phones, and movie posters. Oddly enough, I realized, it was
only through watching movies that I was prepared for this sort of situation,
and only through movies that I could really grasp the kinds of stories that
went on in the building. Being nighttime, the building was mostly deserted.

Before we went in, we were handed program notes for the film — a large,
thick booklet the size and shape of a CD insert. In fact, the small volume
even had the same cover as the film's soundtrack, sent out to various press
outlets a month previous. The pages here contained far more information than
anything presented to the consumer. One hardly needed to see the movie. If I
wasn't already a fan of the numerous recordings of Jerry Garcia and David
Grisman, the book alone would have given me ample ammo to simply leave.
Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have, though. The evening was far too
weird to abandon.

The screening room – and let's get this perfectly goddamn straight: it was a
screening room and most assuredly not a movie theater – was almost
entirely empty. The seats were wide and thick, like first class seats on a
plane; an out and out luxury compared to the economy class one gets at the
multiplex. Lining the rear of the theater was a row of black couches. They
scared me, and I stuck it out with the cheap seats (though fully one half of
the six-person press-and-friends audience hung in the back). I wondered if
we would be brought cocktails or fuzzy slippers.

2. The Curtains Part

There was no musak and no coming attractions. The curtains parted (yes,
there were curtains, too) and the speakers crackled to life, revealing Jerry
Garcia and David Grisman onstage at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco
about to launch into the title track from the film. It quickly became
obvious that Gillian Grisman – the mandolinist's daughter and the film's
director – was working with limited footage.

The movie's opening number cut between several performances, Grisman's
tee-shirt changing and Garcia's standard black attire remaining constant.
Pastoral footage dots many other numbers, as if there weren't enough
archival shots to go around. Often, Grisman takes the Ken Burns approach and
uses continuing montages of photographs. Again, though, there don't seem to
be enough, as photographs get repeated over the course of the film.

The music – made by the duo along with David Grisman Quintet percussionist
Joe Craven and bassist Jim Kerwin – was wonderful throughout. But the music
certainly wasn't the central attraction. One can easily get that on any of
the six fine Acoustic Disc releases spotlighting the collaboration. The
attraction of the movie, the intent, was an exploration of the musical
relationship between Garcia and Grisman. That is pretty much all. The words
"Grateful Dead" are uttered, perhaps, three times throughout the film, and
the word "heroin" certainly never comes up.

Ordinarily, the fact that the film was directed by one of the primary
subject's daughters would be hugely bothersome. So far as the film went, it
actually added a charming innocence that grew out of the situation.
Grisman's Dawg Studios are located in his Mill Valley home. As such, the
film is very much from the perspective of the Grisman family. While, to
them, Garcia still clearly had the stigma of being Jerry, he was
also simply a strange, white-bearded man who showed up at their house every
now and again. At least, this is how he is presented on film. The
explorations of his character, his personality, rarely venture further than
the doors back into the outside world.

There are hints of darkness, to be sure. Legendary fiddler Vassar Clements
(who played with the duo in Old & In The Way) said he often wondered if
Garcia would make it to the next verse. Watching the live footage of Garcia
play is utterly disconcerting, especially if one has heard any of the
Garcia/Grisman recordings, where Garcia seems to be singing his heart out in
a way he rarely did only rarely with The Grateful Dead. He stands alarmingly
stock still, an economy of motion in molasses-like action. His arms barely
move and his mouth hardly opens. Yet, somehow, that voice comes
pouring out.

This is only underscored by the inclusion of Justin Kreutzmann's video for
the Garcia/Grisman rendition of The Thrill Is Gone, shot soon after
the first album's release in 1989. The duo are dressed up in hot club suits
and fedoras. Garcia acts, emoting along with the songs exactly the way one
expected him to all along, looking as if he is actually investing something
into the music. As soon as the film cuts back to the live footage, one
begins to wonder why Garcia doesn't simply topple over.

Where the film does well documenting the relationship between the pair, it
doesn't remotely scratch the surface of either of the musicians' respective
musical histories. Grisman's own rich past with his Quintet is entirely
ignored, as are the melange of influences woven into Garcia's playing. The
film is dotted with occasionally illuminating, though generally horrendously
gratuitous comments about the two from the well-respected likes of Ronnie
McCoury, Bela Fleck, and others.

It is for these reasons that it will likely be foreboding to outsiders. To
those who know nothing of Garcia, he will remain an enigma that everybody
seems to care about. To those who know nothing of Grisman, he will remain
simply a guy who got to play with Garcia. To those who know both, the film
will make for a nice family portrait of the two, the film being peppered
with home video footage of the two puttering around the Grisman household,
dogs scampering about.

3. And Out

After the credits rolled, a voice came over the speakers, like an addendum.
For a folksy soundbyte moment, it was calm. "Hug your children," it said. I
thought it was Garcia, adding to the familial vibe, before realizing that it
was actually George W. Bush coming from an accidentally cross-wired radio.
The lights faded up and we went back downstairs. Out front, my friend
realized he'd left his umbrella upstairs.

On the way back up the first elevator, we studied the arcane markings on the
walls, like codes for the Freemasons or the Illuminati. The whole building
smacked of religion, in a way too obscene to even comprehend. The
relationship of the structure – physical and corporate – to the music is
likewise terribly convoluted. The fact that home videos of two friends
playing music together in a living room could be funneled through an
industrial-strength publicity machine is either one terrific prank or a
horrific perversion. More than likely, not entirely unlike Scientology, it's
both.

In the second elevator, we read the floor-by-floor chart of the building and
noticed that the fourth floor was conspicuously absent from the list.
Likewise, it's button was missing from the console.

"Excuse me," I asked the guardsman. "What's on the fourth floor?"

"You can't do there," he said quickly. "That's off limits."

"No, no, I just wanna know what's there," I replied.

"Oh," he said, and paused. "I'm not sure."

Jesse Jarnow wishes he were on
Avery Island.

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