Beyond Description – The Grateful Dead
Grateful Deadland is still tiny. An old college/tour friend just moved in next door. She was excited because a picture she took ended up on the cover of the paperbook edition of Tiger In A Trance, Max Ludington’s 2003 novel about life on ’80s Dead tour (and beyond). I’d meant to read to when it came out, but the free copy from my friend gave me further incentive to do so — as did the arrival, within the same week, of Beyond Description, the new 12-disc Dead box set from Rhino Records that collects the band’s studio albums from 1973’s Wake of the Flood through 1989’s In the Dark. (The fact that Grateful Dead music has been one of the only things holding me together since the election certainly pushed me along, too.)
Tiger In A Trance is very good, if very depressing. Since it says it right there on the back cover, it won’t be giving anything away to say that the novel’s protagonist becomes a heroin addict over the course of the book. It kinda makes for a completely appropriate bummer of a companion (alternate liner notes?) to Beyond Description, which captures the years that Jerry Garcia himself slid into junkiedom, a fact invoked by Ludington with astonishing subtlety. There are three major works here: 1975’s Blues For Allah, Jerry Garcia’s "Terrapin Station" suite from the 1977 album of the same name, and 1980’s acoustic live disc Reckoning. Past this trinity, the material ranges from blooming awful (1979’s Go To Heaven) to improbable grace (1987’s In the Dark).
While 1973's Wake of the Flood and 1974’s From the Mars Hotel are basically adequately recorded footnotes to the Dead’s monstrous performances from the period, shown on a killer ’73 "Eyes of the World" bonus cut on the former, 1975’s Blues For Allah is probably the last beginning-to-end perfect Dead studio album. This is how yer supposed to spend a year off the road. Birthed from extensive studio jamming (presented officially for the first time here, praise St. Dilbert!), Blues For Allah is the Dead at their dense, spectacular best. The bonus tracks are groove with fusion to spare, and the title track is a successfully sublime experiment in psychedelic ambient dynamics.
Garcia's next musical project, and his own last overly ambitious undertaking, was 1977's "Terrapin Station" suite. Though semi-ludicrously featuring a full choir, orchestra, and alla that dinosaur rock bullshit, the sheer sweep of Hunter's lyrics and Garcia's multi-part composition carry the song (though not necessarily the album). Reckoning, meanwhile, captures the Dead’s second and final extended foray into acoustic music, a genuine classic that lands magically somewhere between a raucous hootenanny and a campfire singalong with a bottle of red wine (and has moreless defined acoustic hippie music ever since). A bonus disc offers the remaining tunes from the ’80 Dead’s acoustic repertoire, as well as alternate versions of many Reckoning numbers, though doesn’t really shed any new light on the period.
So only about a quarter of this box set holds up. Where's the rest?
"Sucking softly on the resin-damp joint, I felt an affinity for all of it, the whole big dumb American movie," Ludington writes early, in the book's idealistically beautiful early sections, neatly nailing the Deadhead mentality. "I loved it as the small-town son gone to the city loves the prairie home he can never really return to. And like that son I knew something the people back home seemed ignorant of: that the place I had moved to was as much a part of America as their little hamlet."
That's where the other nine discs are. They ebb and flow with the secret history of the Grateful Dead, arcane landmarks retaining mystery through Deadheads' basically oral tradition: Cornell '77, dude (represented with a smoking disco "Dancin' In The Streets" bonus cut on Shakedown Street), the Pyramids, man (the sizzling Egyptian percussion piece "Ollin Arageed" with Hamza El-Din). As soon as the Dead make their entrance on the latter, it instantly sounds like them — not because they are musically domineering, but because they were a part of the Dead’s rhythms to begin with.
There is no one history of the Grateful Dead, especially in retrospect. There were too many people who listened to them too intently. The great stuff is genuinely agreed upon, I think. It's the other material that's more up for debate. "C.C. Rider" happens to be my personal bathroom/check the mail/go to the fridge song on the bonus disc of Dead Set, though I can see how somebody might split at the first strains of Bobby Weir’s discofied "Lazy Lightnin’" (despite Garcia’s blazing runs). Deadheads have their own internal topographies of Grateful Deadland. And, often, the mere fact of transporting one’s self there for the duration of a disc’s length is reward enough.
Ludington transports, as well, in a much more immediate and visceral way, capturing the Dead experience almost better than the Dead consciously could. The years Jason Burke, Ludington's narrator, follows the Dead aren't represented on Beyond Description, ‘cause the band wasn’t recording (though the basic template for their mid-1980s performances is offered by Dead Set). What’s most frightening about Tiger In A Trance is the humane face Ludington gives heroin addiction. I don't understand what Jerry Garcia went through because the experience of being Jerry Garcia is so far removed from who I am. Jason Burke, on the other hand, is intensely familiar to me, as I imagine he would be to most any Deadhead.
His decline, step by step by step, from childhood to tour to heroin addiction is made so logically that it reflects undulating blackness behind the Dead's later catalogue, giving creepily physical shape to what I perceive as being signs of Garcia's slip. All those steps (projections, mind you, as I think every Deadhead probably makes about the visible effects of Garcia's drug use) are spelled out here: his reliance on plodding mid-tempo rhythms (Shakedown Street’s "Stagger Lee"), his lack of new material (only two new originals on Go To Heaven).The Grateful Dead's flaws were laid remarkably bare in the recording studio. As such, as a picture of the complete experience of the Grateful Dead, Beyond Description is quietly remarkable. There are lots of jewels to discover amidst the shit (or marbles in the oatmeal, in deference to Weird Al), though, and – generally speaking – the bonus tracks bulge. Most of the material will likely (sometime soon) be released as single-disc reissues. If you’re thinking of buying Beyond Description this holiday season, I’d be remiss as a Deadhead not to recommend purchasing the Grateful Dead Movie double DVD set instead. It’s much better music. But, hell, if the thought of purchasing Beyond Description even crossed your mind, you’re probably a Deadhead anyway, and will want both, if you’re not already turning off the Blues For Allah outtakes and about to fire up the animation sequence from the Dead Movie.