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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Into The Eighties

Grateful Dead crowd May 1982

I don’t know if it has something to do with the way I built my collection of Grateful Dead tapes, but I am endlessly impressed with how great the band was in the early 80’s. Of all the eras that I listen to, this one seems to be able to wow me more often than others after so many years of listening. I think it has something to do with the fact that I built up hundreds and hundreds of hours of tapes before ever going after shows from the 80’s at all. In some ways, that caused me to encounter the 80’s Dead as something of a new band when I finally took the plunge.

I think it also has to do with the relative obscurity of the early 80’s Dead music. Not that the music can’t be found, but that there are very few dates that ring out as historic events from the 80’s, while the 70’s produced all kinds of classic dates (Europe ’72, Watkins Glen, Englishtown ’77, playing at the pyramids in Egypt in 1978, etc..). Someone not in our obsessive compulsive little world of collecting wouldn’t generally think of 1983 when they think of the Dead. They think 710 Haight Ashbury in the Summer of Love, or 70’s classic rock or something. In the 80’s there are all these amazing musical journeys quietly sitting in nondescript corners of nondescript years. Somehow, this makes the good stuff all the more satisfying to me, adding to the pleasure to be found there.

My tape collecting started off with a focus on the early 70’s and 60’s. Early on, I met what for me became a natural road block with the 10/21/78 show. I was so underwhelmed by that tape that it soured me to anything from 1978 or after. Also, I was finding it hard to fully fall in love with 1977 like every other Deadhead and their brother. Oh, I dappled into the 80’s (as I described in the 02/21-22/82 review – when I found Rango Keshavan’s webpage nothing stopped me from doing a four show trade for copies of his 82 masters), but for the most part my world centered around 1973 and the few years that circled it in each direction.

When I did finally recognize that I must be missing something - from the high regard given the early 80’s by many folks in my trading circle - I force-fed my way into the decade. Trusting my trading partners’ recommendations, I probably gathered a dozen shows (20 plus tapes) or more within the span of a week, all from the period of ’81 to ’84 (I know coming into possession of a dozen shows over a week means nearly nothing now – we can download that in a day now. But it was a lot of deck spinning, bubble mailers, and trips to the post office back in the late 90’s) . Included in that first batch was 08/28/81, which, of them all, had the a most piercing impact on me, as did some 1984 shows. There was something about the actual sound of the band from this time period that oozed Grateful Dead-ness to me. I can’t really place why. It sounded very different from the 70’s (let alone the 60’s), but portrayed something that spoke the very language of the Dead all the same.

Even now – in fact, maybe more so now that back when I was heavily collecting – I catch a special thrill off of really good early 80’s shows. Maybe it's because historically I don't expect these shows to impress me like, say, 1974. While the songs and power of Grateful Dead lyrics provided an unmistakable continuity between the decades, the Dead were absolutely an ever-changing band as each time period came and went. While it was not part of their own design, when the band was *on* in the 80’s, they sounded like a more mature, polished, and developed group of musicians than they ever did in the two previous decades. This is not to say that they were *better* in the early 80’s, which is why you didn’t catch me using that word. :-) It is more about how they seemed to have honed their craft in ways they hadn’t in earlier years. There might have been more fat to trim from show to show (although, one could argue that there was a ton of needless music played in the first sets from 1972 to 1974), but time and time again the early 80’s can reward even the most jaded fan.

In the online Grateful Dead community, we have the ability to rub shoulders with young and old ‘heads alike. And it’s interesting to hear how a number of older heads tend to discredit much of what happened after the 1974 retirement, or perhaps post-1977. To many, shows in later years (i.e after 1974 and sometimes even earlier, as discussed in Primal Dead - The Early Years) completely paled to what came before. The Dead had sold out, given up, disappeared. The disco Dead of the late 70’s were enough to cause some to consider walking out on the band. Strong sentiments, which somehow the passage of time brings into different perspective. For most folks, all eras of the Dead have something to offer, and it is hard to understand how some older fans could dismiss vast amounts of the archive – “after Pigpen, it was over!” . Personally, I can tell you that if it happened after 1984, I am hardly interested. And shows in the 90’s? It’s really hard for me to embrace them as I do the earlier decades. So I’m as jaded as the next guy. I often wonder if the late 80’s and 90’s are waiting out there for me to show up. Will I someday fall in love with the later years as I eventually did with the early 80’s?

I guess the point is that it is worth allowing yourself to meander into as many corners of the Grateful Dead’s musical history as you can. There is always something special just around some corner. For me, the early 80’s have been an ever opening flower of delight that I found tucked in the back of a garden I once thought ended at 1979.

8 comments:

  1. I love the late 70s and early 80s, definitely some of my favorites in there but I also love the mid-70s. Hell, I love it all! :)

    I enjoy the shows you post. Thanks for the great blog.

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  2. That's the greatest thing about the Dead, you never could tell when they would reel back the years and absolutely melt the stage in a way that only they could do. You will find much to love in most any era but as the years go on you have to get a little searching to find the diamonds but as you found, they are there. They became safer, more comfortable with routine, and the chance at a magical show suffered cause of it. They created a system out of what was once an unmanageable beast. I suppose they had to in order to continue at that pace. I can't imagine how hard, how much pressure they were on to create constant magic. They needed a framework for repeatable joy. They said they got more consistent as time went on. More good-to-even shows and less of the complete failures. There is the rub, that risk. I myself would have loved to see them performing "without a net" of their self imposed system more. For me, that magic was when they somehow fused Stranger->Eyes or Bird Song->Comes a Time->Deal. Take a chance, find an unknown theme, communicate in a way you've not tried. Open up with Eyes at Giants in 91. Yes, those are the moments! Yet more times than not, they chose the safe bet to get us off and, at the show, it usually did. Even in that safety, that comfort zone there was a chance at magic. Perhaps they could find it more themselves in that space. Even something so conventional as an insane concoction of China->Rider could be found in many 80's\90's gigs.

    When I started collecting, I was also keen on the IT eras. And those stand the test of time for a reason, but for me, nostalgia brings me back to the 80s\90's. I, much like you, stood to investigate that which many found to be awful eras. People would say, 1984, terrible, and they are right (Garica looked awful), but then again, there is Augusta. I'll take that Dew or 87's MSG Dew over many from pre-77. Or how about a random 81 show in some dumb venue in the midwest: 12-5-81. They were on fire that night and thankfully we have the tapes. Jim Wise, thank you so much! They didn't take the chance to shine as often and sometimes it wasn't always as precise as we would have liked, but the 80's and 90's remind us that there is a thread, something uniquely grateful dead, they're own magic, that can't be found anywhere else but by them.

    Garcia, especially, became well worn with age, showing an air of grace and a passion, if not a wisdom in his playing and, even more so, his singing. At the end, worn down, beaten by himself, his passion is something that I cling to more and more. 10-1-94's So Many Roads is note for note perfect. It's not a mind-melter, its something more passionate, more personal, more human, than anything they might have previously done. How many Stella Blue's from 94 are there where that was the moment in the show. They were a different band, a more mature band, searching for something more emotional in their music.

    Perhaps its time to put on some spring 1990 or that MSG 90 and recall that, given the chance, they could produce magic and god did the audience ever respond.

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  3. It's funny to read the above anon poster, as I came here to recommend you check out Summer 91--the June 17 Eyes opener in particular. Anon and I are clearly on the same wavelength.

    There are a lot of good moments in Spring and Summer '89, too. I'm partial to the 3-28-89 Atlanta show.

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  4. Interesting, thoughtful post. Almost all of the high-double-digits shows I saw were in the 80s, and I saw some great shit, but also lots of standard-issue stuff. They were consistently pretty good and fairly often great in those years. Bottom line: fewer chances and risks were being taken; this meant both fewer misses and fewer peaks. But a whole lot of fun!

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  5. It may be odd to comment on a previous comment - but I find the idea that Dead shows got "more consistent" over time to be a strange one.... "More good shows, less failures" hardly seems to apply to the '80s when measured against the '70s, or the '60s. But we hear different things. They did get more sunk into a particular format, for sure - but even earlier years were carefully formatted, especially from '72 on. '69 pretty much saw the end of the nonstop-wild-magic-trip shows. What I do sense more, especially in mid-69 thru '71, is 'let's play whatever we feel like', so there were many unpredictable shows, and non-magical nights....of course the Dead had a smaller audience then, so they didn't have to grit their teeth and stick to the usual setlist for the sake of "the show". But in Keith's early years, good grief, they were as consistent as could be.
    Anyway -- I'm not a Brent-era person but I do think there's some good stuff in the early '80s, especially in 1981 -- though 10/15/83 may be my favorite '80s show.

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  6. I seem to have very little 80s and 90s shows.
    Thanks to your blog, I'll be changing that now.

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  7. Great comments, all! Thank you for so thoughtfully responding, and providing some recommendations. My first show was in the Spring of 89, and I fully know the potential for magic across the later years. For whatever reason, I never found myself building out my tape collection from the end portion of the Dead's career.

    It's funny to sometimes recognize the "non-magic" shows from the early 70s on are really only lackluster because we can compare them to other real standouts. I'm thinking, for example, of the front end of September 72, compared to the back end.

    If you think about it, even in the "play whatever we feel like" mode, the band could still pull off great stuff. We just become jaded due to knowing the band's true potential.

    Glad to have you all along. We will continue to explore...

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  8. Caleb said -- though 10/15/83 may be my favorite '80s show.

    10/15/83 Hartford was my first show. I was mesmerized before the show even started, just looking at their larger-than-life stage setup. My only exposure to the Dead prior to the show was the Terrapin Station album, and a bootleg of 12-31-80.
    I recall, vividly, during Space, watching people swaying along with the hypnotic improvisation when, suddenly, the whole place erupted - people were hugging each other, crying, screaming... "What just happened?" I thought. The band launched into St. Stephen and the arena, for the rest of the show, was completely blissed out. I remember humming the song in my head as we walked back to our car (I'd never heard it before, but it was pretty instantly memorable.) Maybe a year later, having saturated myself with as much GD music as I could acquire, I recall thinking "I saw St. Stephen at my first show! And I didn't even really know it at the time!" Still, I was thankful, and I was hooked. '84 was fun, since I was still a newbie, though Jerry looked ghastly. '85 was the greatest fun I had - Saratoga Springs, Hershey Park, Merriwether Post Pavillion. I'll be thankful as long as I live that I got to experience the band up close in those times. Thank you forever, Grateful Dead.

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