Pete's Blog

Good, Old Grateful Dead - 2 out of 3, anyway

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My son introduced me to to a tapers' site called sugarmegs.com that includes a huge amount of concert bootlegs, outtakes, videos, and audience tapes. I'm having a ball with it, listening to wonderful early Little Feat concerts and a Rolling Stones set from the November, 1969 Miami Pop Festival where Jagger is forced to make looong speeches while the guitars are tuned yet again. Needless to say, the site (go to sugarmegs.com and click on the orange banner) is full of shows by the Grateful Dead, Phish, Government Mule, and other "jam" bands. I've stayed away but at one point this week could not keep from investigating whether the Grateful Dead were really as bad as I remember them. Yup. I chose a show at random from the middle 80s in the Oakland Coliseum, a hometown show where they could be expected to try their best. But the stiff, bloated rhythms, ragged, out-of-tune singing and pointless, self-indulgent instrumental workouts were as bad as ever. It was only in the middle of the second set that anything interesting happened at all and it was a tentative attempt at abstraction that would be laughable to anyone who's heard, say, Andrew Hill or Cecil Taylor. But if it's irritating that a group charging top dollar doesn't feel it has to be good for most of the show, then what is the word for the Grateful Dead's use of drugs as a marketing tool? Let's not kid ourselves here. Other groups, good groups, may have made reference to the drugs they were using (not least the Stones) but LSD was the whole point of the Grateful Dead when they got started. You could reasonably expect several of them to be tripping at any given show and in the early days you could reasonably expect to be given LSD at most shows. Hey, people make mistakes. I just like them to admit it when they do. This is especially true of artists, whose work is supposed to make life better for their patrons. When Jerry Garcia died in a rehab center nobody said, "I guess our emphasis on drugs as inspiration was a mistake." They treated it like it was some illness he accidently caught on the road. Lesh's autobiography talks about the Dead providing its fans a "safe place to trip." This may be admirable, but I'd like to hear some reference to the thousands of people now permanently institutionalised. When you throw a party you have to clean up afterwards. And you have to apologize if someone gets hurt.

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