Platonic Dead and Contextual Novelties: The Golden Road (1965-1973)
"The Golden Road (1965-1973)"
Rhino Records 74401
Tracing a complete path through the Grateful Dead canon is an impossibility.
Or so it would seem. Witness the tone of any of the debates that accompany
new releases from the Vault. They usually hover around the question of
whether or not a given show represents the Grateful Dead of that particular
period in the best light possible. Even straight-up arguments about the best
ever Dark Star imply that the music is aspiring to a higher standard
than a one-time only performance.
Any possible release only contains a fragment of the story. Even "So Many
Roads", the downright incredible five-CD box released in 1999, played
low-status to the scores of live tapes by only using excerpts, giving the
listener the distinct feeling that he – and the Dead – were always in some
kind of musical transit, never grounded, never arriving at the ideal for
which the band was obviously striving.
And so the debate stood until recently: no one would ever be able to
actually get ahold of what the Grateful goddamn Dead were all about. The
strangest solution – presented on "The Golden Road (1965-1973)" turned out
to be the correct one: just present all of their albums straight in a row, a
previously unthinkable answer to just about everybody involved. After all,
the Grateful Dead's official releases were always, shall we say, subpar.
"Anthem of the Sun" and "Aoxomoxoa" were (and are) charming, but they never
really captured the wide-open chutzpah of the Grateful Dead experience.
The Grateful Dead's studio records were the band's purest dilutions (and,
occasionally, delusions) of what they were: idealized versions of what they
were trying to accomplish as a band. Any album "mixed for the
hallucinations", as Jerry Garcia once described "Anthem of the Sun", is
bound to falter somewhere along the line. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre
would follow his philosophical tracts with novels intended to illustrate
their ideas in "real-life" practice. And therein lies the trick: during
their years on Warner Brothers Records, the band quietly released four live
albums, one documenting each year between 1969 and 1972. Well, perhaps not
"quietly". "Live/Dead" certainly had its moments of pure raunch. In the
grand scheme of things, though, one rarely thinks about the Dead's official
live output as a product of their Warner years.
The makings of a Grateful Dead show were simultaneously monumental and
incidental — the latter in preparation, the former (occasionally) in
practice. The live records are directly and unconsciously honest in a way
that the studio sides cannot be. They cannot lie. They don't lie — at least
not in major ways. There may be a few overdubs here and there on "Europe
'72", or a slice and a dice through certain performances, but the spirit is
there. Putting these discs next to the studio albums is what creates the
composite picture: what the Grateful Dead wanted to be belly to belly with
what they actually were.
The discs are crisply remastered. And there's the usual bonus material, none
of which is monumental. With the exception of the massive 25-minute Viola
Lee Blues tacked on to the end of "The Grateful Dead", and a hearty
Good Lovin’ sequence at the end of "Europe '72", most of the new
stuff is hardly heady listening. The most revelatory stuff comes with the
two-CD "Birth of the Dead", compiled by official Dead historian/publicist
Dennis McNally along with Lou Tambakos. It is fascinating, even exciting in
places, but rarely thrilling. They are contextual novelties. Unlike the
unearthed beauty encased in "So Many Roads", this is rarely illuminating.
Live versions of, say, Cumberland Blues and Easy Wind
accompanying "Workingman's Dead" do prove a point, but hardly make
the disc special.
The liner notes, though extensive, are not so as thorough as the wonderful
essays packaged with "So Many Roads". If Dennis McNally's essay, "The Dead
at Warner Bros.", is any hint of his long-awaited tome on the band (due out
next year), his book will be a joyride written with humor and passion well
intact. The liner notes for the individual albums, written by the usual
cadre of Dead scholars, aren't as in-depth as one might like. And it is
nearly a sin that the perfectly in-jokey liner notes to "Europe '72" have
been entirely supplanted. That said, coincidentally or not, they have been
replaced by the best writing to come with the set (and some of the best
writing about the Dead, period) by Steve Silberman, who captures the Dead's
intellectual anarchy in full swing. One can almost feel himself in a rental
car with Garcia, Lesh, Mountain Girl, and Alan Trist as they roam England;
or with Robert Hunter, as he visits the romantically beautiful sites that
had long populated his imagination.
"The Golden Road" is complete. It's not just a road map, it's the road. The
feeling I get holding the set in my hands (a thoroughly weighty affair),
flipping through the liner notes for the individual albums, is one of
totality. Part of that comes, I suspect, with the fact that this is the
first time I am owning many of these releases on CD (or at all, in some
cases). This leads to the burning question: is any of this necessary? The
answer is a qualified "yes", at least from an aesthetic point of view.
Whether or not it's necessary for a head to shill out $135 for it is
something else to consider, especially considering that most people devoted
enough to the Dead to buy a box set probably own the original releases.
Hopefully, the Dead organization will see fit to release these discs
individually in the coming years.