- The Grateful Dead Movie
I first saw The Grateful Dead Movie long before I ever smoked pot or dropped acid (though, oddly, after I’d already seen the Dead, Jerry ‘n’ all, twice). I don’t think I fully understood it (or the Dead) at the time, though I don’t think that had to do with any of the previous. My friend and I rented a slightly stretched VHS of it from the local video palace — a copy which, in retrospect, had likely well served the stoner community of our Long Island town for a good decade before we got our paws on it.
By the time we fired it up in the living room of my house, Garcia had been dead for probably a year or so. But there we were: two budding latter-day Deadheads, semi-socially inept dorks whose brains were turned-the-fuck-on by the strange, deep music the Grateful Dead made in the early 1970s. And. perhaps more than any other film – with the possible exception of the oft-bootlegged/never released documentary about the Dead’s legendary August ’72 gig in Veneta, Oregon – The Grateful Dead Movie comes the closest to capturing the Grateful Dead at their fully blossomed and operational peak. Shot at San Francisco’s Winterland in October 1974, it is unquestionably the finest piece of Grateful Dead video product currently available for mass purchase. Anybody who considers himself a Deadhead and owns a DVD player would be well-advised to send his parents an email right now telling ‘em exactly what he wants for Christmas.
The Movie itself is steeped in lore. Co-directed by Garcia and released in 1977, it was the touchstone for all sortsa shit that was going down in the Dead universe at the time of its release (see Dennis McNally’s nearly definitive volume on the band, and peep Garcia’s future ‘Black Widow,’ Deborah Koons’, name in the credit). But fuck all that lore, ‘cause the Movie documents its own: the fact that the shows were the last before the Dead’s own year-and-a-half Hiatus, the band’s teeth-gnashing determination (a mix of ‘Peruvian marching powder,’ as someone tactfully put it, and the fact that roadies were dropping puddles of acid on everybody’s wrists as they walked onstage), the Wall of Sound (the legendary speaker system the Dead toured with in ’74 that many observers claim is still the best PA they’ve ever heard) (though most were likely tripping their nuts off), and that’s not to mention the Deadheads themselves. And the guy standing behind the band onstage (surely also tripping) BLOWING FIREBALLS INTO THE AIR. Ye Gods. FIRE!
And, really, fuck all that, too. It fried our little Long Island brains right there in our skulls, it did, ‘cause – sorry (not really) for the italics here – this is the Grateful Dead in 1974. Is. Present tense. Right there in your living room. The music is other-worldly: aggressive, spacy fusion. The ‘Eyes of the World’ sequence is stunning, with the band blazing across the oddly timed pre-Hiatus ending. Garcia’s tender vocal on ‘Stella Blue’ (and even more tender guitar playing) is simply one of the best performances ever captured on film. Though there are other things going on (a cool animation sequence, interviews with ‘heads), the Dead are always at the center, and the film crew that Garcia ‘conjured up’ (good phrase, I think it’s McNally’s) are on-point, in close up. Though it might seem excessive to non-Heads, it is a pure revelation to anybody who only knows peak Dead from the tapes.
For that matter, the really ill shit is on the bonus disc: 95 minutes of uncut Grateful Dead. ‘Weather Report Suite.’ ‘The Other One > Spanish Jam > Mind Left Body Jam > The Other One.’ ‘Dark Star,’ man. Christ. It’s mixed in 5.1, too, so you can hear every last nuance in Bill Kreutzmann’s one-man free-dance drumming (‘playing like a young God,’ as somebody else later described it), all the strange chords unleashed by Bobby Weir, all the subtle grand piano colorations from Keith Godchaux, all the monstrous lead bass from Phil Lesh, and – yeah – every single ounce of Jerry Garcia at the height of his powers. The band churns out melodic ideas at a breakneck speed, acting and reacting, jamming and listening, floating between consonance and dissonance, getting funky and getting abstract, bringing it down and being gnarly. It’s the kind of Grateful Dead you can and should play for people who don’t get it yet. If they still don’t get it, they probably won’t ever.
Frankly, I’m getting a little worked up over here, ‘cause The Grateful Dead Movie is all you need. You can take those Brent-era multi-cam stadium shows and shove ‘em under the bed with the analogs. You’re not gonna be needing them anymore. At least, I’m not. (To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, I could go on like this for a while. I’m not proud. Or tired.)
When we finished watching the movie, the tape ran out. I can’t remember if we stopped it, or if it stopped itself at the end and rewound. Either way, the TV set itself to a blue screen and we didn’t notice. We talked and talked and talked, trying to assimilate what we’d just seen with every other bit of knowledge we had about the Dead scene, mostly gleaned from back issues of Dupree’s Diamond News and Steve Silberman and David Shenk’s indispensible Skeleton Key. And we talked some more. At some point, my dad came downstairs, looked at the blue screen, looked at us, raised his eyebrows, and laughed. I think he knew.