Dick’s Picks, volume XXIV – The Grateful Dead
Postcards of the Hanging: Grateful Dead Perform the Songs of Bob Dylan – The Grateful Dead
Grateful Dead Records 4044
Grateful Dead Records/Arista
Surely, not every Grateful Dead show was perfect. If that was the case, then
they would be something else; another word. Therefore: what are we listening
for? What do we tune out? What do we leave out when we listen to a Dead
show? How about this new Dick’s Picks from 1974? False starts
("Playing In The Band")? Sure. Muffed lyrics ("I Know You Rider")? Uh-huh.
At what point do we reduce so much that there is nothing left?
When we listen to the Dead, we sort it. Somehow. There is no way not to when
dealing with a body of work of such vastness. Somehow, we organize it — by
year, by lineup, by location, by attendance at a given show or even tour.
All of these approaches are ways of getting around, or maybe just chunking,
the Dead's sound.
When I say something like "I dig '72 through '74 Dead" (as I am wont to do),
it is exclusionary to other periods. By distinguishing my tastes as such, I
am also saying "there is something somehow inadequate about the Grateful
Dead from the 1980s – say, Brent Mydland's keyboard sound – yet I
(sometimes) listen to it anyway, and I tune out these inadequacies in favor
of what it is that I actually want to listen to, what it is that actually
affects me, what it is that I allow to affect me".
1. Dick’s Picks, volume XXIV
There is a very small, almost negligible, amount of things that I tune out
of 1974 Grateful Dead. Most of them are merely passing blemishes. I can
eliminate sound problems, for example, by telling myself that it wasn't the
musicians' fault. From there, I can rationalize a few musical missteps (such
as the aforementioned flubbed intro to "Playing In The Band"). Other than
that, not much: the sound is tasteful, the vocal blend is alright despite a
few bum notes, mostly courtesy of Phil Lesh. Most importantly, through all
this, they are the special kind of errors that an enhance a song's
What I do tune out, however, isn't necessarily a feature of '74 Dead any
more than it is a feature of '90s Dead. I tune out "Playing In The Band"
(which opens the second set) — not the jam, just the song. I tune it out
for the same reason that I don't buy it when jambands say they are fusing
long jams with some variation on the phrase "honest-to-God songs". An honest
to God song – at least, the kind they claim to be writing – doesn't have a
jam. It might be said that jamming is used to unfurl the "meaning" coiled in
a song. However, if a song is truly a song, it conveys that meaning
without need for further explication. And that is not to claim that jamming
is unnecessary; it just happens to be how things work out in "Playing In The
Band". There is a lack of urgency inherent in the way the song itself works,
and that grows directly out of the song's construction.
Of course, except for their presence within a few crackling cultural moments
in the late '60s, The Grateful Dead were never known for their abundance of
urgency. In fact, they pretty much made that their forttheir motto: "all
good things, in all good time," as Robert Hunter wrote. The Dead worked this
to their advantage, and even managed to package it from time to time, coach
and coax it within their own work. With rare exception, Jerry Garcia and
Robert Hunter did not write songs, they wrote Grateful Dead songs. Big
From time to time, and quite often in the early '70s, The Dead were capable
of reigning themselves in, able to keep themselves so miraculously directed
that even if the playing lurched itself along at – shall we say – a
relaxed clip, it did so while pointing confidently towards its goal.
"Uncle John's Band", which segues out of "Playing In The Band" has this
feature built directly into it via several musical devices — and this is
precisely why "Uncle John's Band" can function well on the radio, mixed in
amongst the pop of the band's contemporaries. For example, the bar of seven
suddenly, and subtly, condenses things and re-expands them — a small jerk
that keeps things in motion. The value of these things cannot be
underestimated. All of this builds logically towards the coda, which the jam
is then hung from.
The band's improvisations are beautiful here, no doubt. The period produced
some of the unit's finest playing: dark and intricate, bordering on jazz
fusion, and certainly coherently weird in a way that was mostly abandoned
after the mid-'70s. There are many metaphors to describe improvisation —
one might be to compare it to the thought process. What, then, would be the
result of the thoughts? What is the conclusion? The songs, stupid! It stands
to reason that when the band jammed their best, they also played
During a given performance of a Grateful Dead song, the band was playing the
changes of the song, no doubt, but they were also reading it on another
level, inserting a running improvisation into the mix. It is a feature of
their playing that is most obvious during songs sung by Bob Weir. While Weir
sings, Garcia offers a continuous commentary by playing a melodic
counterpoint to Weir's vocal part. The brain creates three-dimensional
images by calculating the differences between the images it receives from
the eyes. The same could be said for music. This is what it means when
somebody describes the Dead as playing three-dimensionally.
The first disc of this set is utterly rewarding for this, with Garcia
playing vividly and clearly throughout, so is Keith Godchaux. Listen to
Garcia's playing under the "woke up high over Albuquerque" line in "Promised
Land". It soars. It's not a matter of chord changes. The chord changes are
there. At their best, it's like The Dead didn't even have to think about
them. Garcia's parts, for example, sketch them out, but play around them so
fluidly that one hardly misses them. Listening to "Promised Land", one hears
this: an insistent hi-hat driven drum beat, Weir's vocals, a tiny bit of
rhythm guitar, and the lines of Garcia, Lesh, and Godchaux darting like
three birds trailing ribbons.
2. Postcards Of The HangingOn the other hand, there's a fair bit that I tune of The Grateful Dead's music of the 1980s and 1990s. I think everybody does. The band's use of MIDI synthesizers might be compared to stagehands in Japanese kabuki theater, in which actors dressed in black scurry across the stage. There is a tacit agreement between the performers and the audience – signaled by the black garb – that these actors are invisible. We are able to suspend our disbelief. The same might be said for the Dead's MIDI triggers: we are aware that what Garcia is playing isn't really, say, a saxophone — but we can, and do, willfully imagine (when we're not feeling cynical, anyway) that it is.
There are lots of things like that in '80s and '90s Dead,. "Style is often
felt to be a form of insincerity," Susan Sontag writes in "On Style".
"Evidence of the artist's intrusion upon his materials, which should be
allowed to deliver themselves in a pure state." In other words, it might be
said that – below the MIDI, below the lethargic playing, below the blown
lyrics – there is a "real" Grateful Dead. All this other stuff is just
meaningless style that can be discarded, tuned out. But, as Sontag
concludes, style and content are really inseparable.
Postcards Of The Hanging is a new compilation, produced by David
Gans, of some of the Dead's performances of songs by Bob Dylan. They are
drawn mostly from the 1980s, when The Dead delved most deeply into Dylan's
songbook. As such, there's some silly stuff in there. It is an unfortunate
side effect of age that the sense of taste diminishes, at least in most
cases; like an artist who is so ridiculously focused on his craft that he
allows his personal hygiene to deteriorate. It might be said for the same
reason that other senses improve. It would only stand to reason that if one
devoted his life to the study of one thing, then his unrelenting focus on
that one thing would serve him well only as far as that thing extended.
The Grateful Dead got smarter as they got older. They also became less
graceful. The songs on Postcards Of The Hanging were all – with the
exception of the Dylan sung (and presumably Dylan-chosen) "Man of Peace" – written between 1965 and 1970, and most are drawn from the three fertile
amphetamine albums released in 1965 and 1966. The Dead were especially
familiar with Dylan's body of work, though didn't deign to really perform it
for a good 20 years or so. For one, they had other stuff to do. The flurry
of Dylan tunes introduced in the late '80s, following the band's
collaboration with Dylan in the summer of 1987, might be seen as a
substitute for new original material, a sign of boredom. More
optimistically, though, it might be said that The Dead weren't ready to
tackle this material.
It's dense stuff, these Dylan lyrics. "Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood /
With his memories in a trunk / Passed this way an hour ago / With his
friend, a jealous monk." Like whoa, Bob. That's some heavy shit,
y'know. I certainly don't get it, at least not to the degree that Dylan
seems to — or Weir seems to, for that matter, or even the whole Grateful
goddamn Dead. We're back at the notion of three-dimensionality. It was years
of refining this idea that allowed – prepared – The Dead to delve
into Dylan's songbook.
By the time they got around to working up "Desolation Row" in 1986, they
were capable of one-upping Dylan, to some degree. Not only could they
convincingly read the songs literally (ie. sing 'em like they understood 'em
completely, a tough feat), but they could do something far more important:
they could convey the songs' sheer emotional content through improvisation.
They could liberate the song's meanings from the confines of linguistic
logic and make the listener feel the meaning. Garcia's playing on
"Ballad of a Thin Man" is quizzical and dark, his musing on "Desolation Row"
is knotty and tumbling.
All of this isn't to undermine the vocal performances here. Again, some
stuff has to be tuned out — Lesh's delivery of "Just Like Tom Thumb's
Blues" ("droll", as the press release tactfully puts it) is charming, but
hardly nuanced, and some of Weir's periodic yawps are a bit grating.
Garcia's versions of "She Belongs To Me" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"
rank among the loveliest recorded by him or any other popular American
vocalist. That's a bold claim, I suppose, but Garcia was one of the best,
and Dylan is the best.
The Dead's prowess as interpreters of song is something that has rarely
been focused on. Reckoning is just about the only live record I can
think of that places any kind of real importance on form over improvisation.
As such, this compilation is perhaps the first to truly highlight that side
of the band. Picking the Dylan tunes as a frame to work within was a pretty
decent way to go about doing it. Dick’s Picks XXIV serves as a good
prep course for Postcards, but so do any of the Dick’s Picks.
In the early 1990s, following his tour with The Dead (which he later claimed
revitalized his musical spirit), Bob Dylan recorded two albums of
traditional folk songs, Good As I Been To You and World Gone
Wrong. In a weird way, taken together, they seem to mark the beginning
of the end of Dylan's life — a simultaneous return to his roots and a sign
of deep, aged wisdom. The choice that Dylan made to offer two discs of other
people's material was not an arbitrary one. It was deeply meaningful. That
was how he would speak. In lieu of the never completed last Grateful Dead
record, Postcards From The Hanging might serve as, perhaps, the most
poetic endpiece to a 30 year career.