The other night while I was preparing to cook chili, I was listening to Anthem of the Sun, a 1968 album by the Grateful Dead. The spaciness of the five-song, 38 minute album offered an interesting counterpoint to chopping the green peppers, slicing the garlic, dicing the onion. Only when the beef was browning and I sipped my iced tea did I notice that the last cut, "Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)," a live tune that features mostly improvised words by the late great keyboard player Pigpen, was losing my attention after about eight minutes. But it had been so long since I listened to Anthem, and have so many dozens of better Grateful Dead albums and concerts to listen to, that I figured I might never have a chance to get to the end of this nine and a half minute track, from the Rhino/Warner Bros. 50th anniversary edition remastered (2018) again.
Anthem is a real relic, the Dead's second studio album in which they were continuing to futilely adapt their live sound to the studio. They didn't nail it until 1970, when they did it twice, with the near-perfection of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, also the pinnacle of productivity and quality of the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songwriting team.
I too am I relic, since I still love, have always loved, the much-scorned 1967 debut studio album, Grateful Dead, in which five of the eight songs are under three minutes, to appease radio programmers. In light of what came after, it's a little ridiculous to hear "New, New Minglewood Blues" at the radio sweet spot two minutes, 37 seconds. (If you've got some old 45s, or albums from the pre-Beatles era, check how many tracks are listed at 2:37.) The opening song, "The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)" takes longer to say than play, about 2 minutes and 12 seconds, but it would've been a great radio single. It's the Pigpen organ jump that gives the track it's great kick. It was Pigpen (Ron McKernan) that made the Dead more of a blues band for its first few albums. Though his death from a congenital biliary cirrhosis in 1973 might have been preordained, his heavy drinking could not have helped the problem.
The Grateful Dead were huge on Long Island when I was a teen and when I returned to work for Newsday. The radio station WLIR-FM, which became renowned in the 1980s with a change of call letter and format to WDRE ("Dare to Be Different"), had a format heavy on Grateful Dead and Southern rock. After My Father's Place, the most popular club in the Village of Roslyn was called U.S. Blues, a tip of the Uncle Sam hat to the Dead song of that name.
Many of my young Deadhead readers thought I hated their band. I did not. There were times, early in my career, that I had to review Dead concerts on deadline, with copy in by midnight. It was the many letters from disappointed readers who thought correctly that the review seemed based on half a show, before the intermission, that convinced my editors that there would be no harm in having me stay for the entire show; I could file my review the next morning, for the following day's newspaper. The stress of having to write a review in 45 minutes and literally phone it into the copy desk made for some unforced errors: Calling "Tennessee Jed" simply "Tennessee," or referring to "Deal" as "Don't Let That Deal Go Down," exposed me to their mockery, and as a reader, I would probably feel the same way.
The lack of nuanced thinking is typical of the most passionate devotees of any artist. During the course of a sometimes four hour show, there were often many high points, and a few low points. True Deadheads thought I was desecrating a religious ceremony, but there was one guy who had my back: Jerry Garcia, "Captain Trips" himself, guitarist extraordinaire, and undisputed face of the band.
The feature story I wrote was based on an interview I did with Garcia in early 1980, before a Jerry Garcia Band performance at Hempstead's Calderone Theater. Once Long Island's premiere first-run movie theater, seating nearly 3,000, it was renovated and for a few years was a perfect mid-sized concert hall. But our conversation was not as much about his touring band, but about the Dead's perennial inability to find a comfort zone in a recording studio, as well as the band's sometimes erratic nature.
He called Dead concerts "organized chaos," and he did not disagree when I said, having seen nearly a dozen Dead concerts even by that time, that it could be four hours of bliss and inspiration, or filled with patches that were aimless and boring. But by 1980, all that incessant road work had brought stability to the night-after-night concert grind.
"The Dead hardly has awful shows anymore," Garcia told me then. "Our 'awful' is now totally professional. Our worst has gotten a lot better since we've become more competent. I used to feel suicidal about a bad show in the old days. Now it's not as tough on me emotionally. But the highs are harder to get to. We're dealing with low-yield, extremely precious material. That's the fuel, the expectation we'll have one of those special nights."
Note how a conversation with Garcia can go from rational to spectral within a sentence. The conversation was like that all along, and especially entertaining because, like a benign psychedelic experience, you never knew what surprise might be around the corner. Garcia was a serious thinker. Even as early as 1980, he thought it was interesting that the Dead's concert following had grown massive. "It surprises me," he said. And he speculated that, "there's something appealing about people honestly trying to play music as well as they can."
A fine, rational conversation point. But the metaphysical side of the conversation was just getting started.
"There's a need in human experience to be exposed to special effort whether in the form of music or sports," he said. "Bill Walton [the basketball star] is a tremendous Deadhead. What he goes for as an athlete, we go for as a concert band. You're dealing with a 'here and now' situation that's not necessarily going to repeat itself. It's the magic of transcending one's own ability, achieving a magic modality. A Dead concert is an experience that borders on the mystical more than on conventional cause and effect. We're anxious to know more about it."
Ever since Tom Wolfe wrote about the Grateful Dead as the house band and avid participants in Ken Kesey's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests," the Dead were the sound and face of the psychedelic movement since their formation in 1965. Exploring the human mind was a kind of Garcia hobby, and he studied the brain and its capabilities with the diligence of a neuroscientist. "I check everything," he told me. "From neurotransmitters to DNA and RNA research, anything I can penetrate. But there's nothing I can put a handle on, for describing what we do. It's like psychedelics: What is it about the relationship between the mind and reality––what is all this?," a gesture that took in both the hotel room and the universe.
The continued use of mind-expanding drugs––their scientific study banned for so long by narrow minded puritans, now in 2022 just beginning to be looked at again for their possible use in treating depression, addiction, and anxiety among the terminally ill––was part of Garcia's toolkit.
LSD was long associated with the Dead, and with good reason, but Garcia's personal attitude had changed since the band's sound designer Augustus Owsley Stanley III, aka Owsley, or the Bear, manufactured LSD starting in 1965. (My first trip, in 1966 when it was still legal, was very pure, a liquid measure of 250 mg in a sealed small bottle manufactured by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, where LSD had been invented.)
"My preference now is to organic psychedelics," Garcia said with the casual tone of a guy who was trying to eat less meat and add more fish and grain to his diet. "I prefer mushrooms to laboratory drugs. I'd be doing it because I'm interested in the mind. Free access has been limited by illegality. A lot has been discovered in the how and why, what's happening in the mind. I feel like there really is a sense to life, organizationally. Whatever's happening with humans, there's a sense to it, there are reasons."
The article about Garcia did not entirely earn me the goodwill of the teenagers who had so much invested in the band. I was often invited to speak at high schools and libraries about my job. At one school, I was warned that the Deadheads wanted to talk to me. I said, bring it on. Great Neck North High School's Deadhead welcoming committee was not exactly Sonny Barger and the posse of Hell's Angels that used to ride with the band.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Very cool. I saw some transcendent Dead shows, and I saw one that was a dud.