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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It All Rolls Into One

The Grateful Dead’s music has carved a permanent spot in hearts of many people. For those of us deeply immersed in hundreds, let alone thousands of hours of their music, we tend to gain an ability to listen to more than the song or jam at hand coming out of the speakers. It is true that the experience of this band’s music is quite different than just any other rock and roll act. Not only is there generally far more live music circulating from the Dead than most other bands of the era, but their music is far more varied, explorative, and just plain evolving over time. This all gives way to a more granular listening experience.

After collecting and listening to a lot of Dead music, we start finding ourselves able to hear the sound of whole tours while listening to mere songs. You start being able to connect many unseen dots. An example of this is how I’m always going on about the Summer 1973 shows and their special flavor. They aren’t just 1973, they are Summer ’73. This level of listening is everywhere, evident from most any tour to tour, season to season, or even year to year perspective. Another example would be how, after listening to all this stuff, you can “hear” the way 1979 became the literal musical bridge between what we call 70’s Dead and 80’s Dead. There comes a point where simply listening to nearly any song from ‘79 affords you the ability to catch certain tell tale elements that live exactly in between the things we know to be more 70’s and/or 80’s like. 1976 Playin’s do the same thing tying 1974 to 1977. It’s all in there, and it’s a whole different level of music appreciation and enjoyment.

We come to actually hear the passage of time. By immersion, we gain a certain extrasensory perception: hearing into the past and future all within one moment. It’s this sort of perception that guides a tape collector more deeply into nooks and crannies of the Dead’s musical history. It’s this perception that sparks conversations at what we might think of as the graduate level of Dead tape collecting. And there’s really only one way to get into that class – Listening. Listening a lot. The course work is for the truly obsessive, to be sure. Luckily, the entire reading list is stored online at the grand communal library of

And then there’s even more. With this deeper level of perception, comes an ability to hear into the living heart of the music’s actual energy itself – let’s call it the nearly personified muse of the Grateful Dead. This living muse used the band as a vehicle of physical expression over its 30 year history. In no uncertain terms, the music absolutely played this band.

Where do you hear this muse? Where does one recognize that there might well have been something at play that lived slightly above the talents and experimentation of the members of the band? You hear it in the deeply connective tissues created by certain musical themes that fuse the years together. There are certain themes, or maybe better put, musical vehicles, that string themselves all the way through the Dead’s many changing musical faces over the decades. I’ve touched on this once or twice so far, talking about the similarities between New Potato Caboose, Cryptical Envelopment, and Bird Song, in the reviews of 09/07/73, and 08/04/74.

This classic theme of musical expression often explored by the Grateful Dead is something I can only describe as a buoyant march of joy. It’s a theme that can be found pouring out of the Cryptical Envelopment that bookends what we commonly call Other One from Anthem Of The Sun, placing its origin as early as late 1967. A few years after its introduction, it finds itself returning squarely in the driver’s seat of the song Truckin’. And throughout the band’s history of music, the theme continued to blossom, finding a deep rooted home in the grooves of Franklin’s Tower and even Eyes Of The World.

It wasn’t until I was digging back into 11/05/79 that this last fact struck me - how this theme was a glue between not only such early jam structures as Cryptical evolving into Truckin’, but that it also found roots in Eyes and Franklin’s years later. I had always thought of these as somehow different altogether, that the Eyes and Franklin’s themes were born in the early-mid 70’s and represented a whole new evolutionary leap of sorts. But looking back now, I can see that I referenced this theme almost without noticing it while exploring a passage in my review of 06/04/77:

“Then like an army of troops cresting over a hill in the distance, the triumphant march of Franklin’s appears out of the mist.”

It’s a theme overflowing with happiness and safety - high stepping barefoot soldiers, smiling broadly as the pennants snapping in the breeze sing their own song harmonizing with the wind rustling through the trees on all sides; the gold-green of the grass laughing its way into the undertone rainbow colors that adorn the troop’s uniforms as they flow in step down the hill toward victory. Everybody’s playing in this heart of gold band.

So, the more I see (hear) this archetypical muse theme rearing its head across the years, the more I know it’s really there, acting out its own will through the band. The muse is far more timeless than the passing musical history of the band. To the muse there is no Primal 60’s Dead, no Mid-70’s, no Early 80’s. The muse isn’t as bound as we are to our measures of time. The Dead’s music was only a passing expression of its creativity, rather than 3000-odd nights of shows played over 30 years.

The more deeply you get into listening to the Grateful Dead’s music, the more you can see it from something of a stellar distance. Experiencing the subtle musical migration over a week of shows, or a month, year, or decade, enables the viewer to perceive the totality of the music more acutely, and fit the pieces together into a more singular expression. With this nearly 360 degree vision, it starts to become one long show, with far fewer songs being played than one would guess from a look at the Dead’s full repertoire. It comes down to these muse-like themes. I’ve stumbled upon a handful of these themes through many years of my own listening: the Viola Lee/Cumberland/Bluegrass theme, Cryptical/Truckin’/New Potato/Bird Song, Other One/Deal, Dark Star itself, the Cowboy Song theme. There may be a few more (I don’t see Scarlet>Fire on that list), and I’ll try to explore each of them in more detail over time.

In the end, it appears that it was the expressive musical energy itself which picked up this band in the mid-sixties and strummed its own song. All of the variations over the years are merely the wonderful swirl of resonating notes and vibrating strings from a few beautiful chords played on a far more grand instrument than can be easily seen with the eyes and ears alone.



  1. My bandana's off to you, sir. Nice, very nice piece.
    I got into the Dead's music via serious jazz, and I suspect the recurring muse-theme idea applies as well to the musical careers of people like Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker, Chas. Mingus, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, et al. It comes from a commitment to improvising as a group night after night after night. There is time to nurture and develop ideas that begin as audacious risks. There are times when I'm listening to a Garcia solo or a Miles solo (I think there are many obvious and subtle comparisons to be made between those two musicians...oh, to be a fly on the wall when they got high together backstage at the Fillmore in 1970!)...there are times when I just have to grin and shake my head: wow! never heard it quite like that before! And yet, as your title sez, it all rolls into one.
    Nice piece.

  2. Mona, Sven, thank you both.

    I completely agree with the jazz connection. In fact, after writing the post, I was struck while listening to the second Meter's album, Look-Ka Py Py by how there are even larger musical muse undercurrents that used whole legions of musicians to express themselves - Be Bop, Motown, Funk, etc... To a degree, all of these genres exhibit the same broad stroking undertones as the muse that played the Dead.

  3. all of these genres exhibit the same broad stroking undertones as the muse that played the Dead
    Indeed--and it should be added that the GD are nearly unique in that their music drew explicitly from all of these other genres/sources.

  4. Swen, Icepetal;

    reading your comments makes me reach down to my inner feelings and understand why I like to listen to improvised music. Thank you, Mauro


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