The Grateful Dead has always only held very limited appeal to me. A great jam band? OK; if you saw them live amid the communal haze and under some mind-altering influence then it probably holds up. Yet so many of the studio recordings have such little sensibility for how recordings are made. Believe it or not, records must actually be purposefully produced and not simply document a session. Why? Because recordings are an artifice by their very nature, and to create a listening experience that rises above mere documentary requires an accounting of esthetic, texture, dimensionality and more to provide for transcendent listening in private spaces. Are the recordings purposeful as to their exposé of its rough-hewn methodology? Undoubtedly. And maybe that’s the disconnect. Do we want that type of authenticity, or don’t we really want to reconstitute the magic of the live amalgam that is their music *and* their atmosphere—which includes the communal bonding and the mind alterations?
1970’s Workingman’s Dead and some tracks from American Beauty are all that I keep in my collection because it actually sounds pretty good—it has a lot of heart, no pretense, and captures what is now a nostalgia for the roots feeling of the time. And the dismal truth is it’s so many miles away from the horrid Shakedown Street less than a decade later that it’s embarrassing to think it’s the same band (but if you account for the drugs and booze then maybe not).
And this New Yorker article explains very clearly why that is.
Here’s only a brief excerpt from a generously crafted and evenly circumspect essay on The Dead by a lifelong fan, Nick Paumgarten:
“What’s to hate? Even the fanatic can admit to a few things. The Dead were musically self-indulgent, and yet, to some ears, harmonically shallow. They played one- and two-chord jams that went on for twenty or thirty minutes. One live version of “Dark Star,” a modal vamp based on the A mixolydian scale, with two short verses and no bridge, clocked in at forty-eight minutes…. Even their straightforward songs could go on for ten or twelve minutes. Pop-craft buffs, punkers, and anyone steeped in the orthodoxy of concision tend to plug their ears to the noodling, while jazz buffs often find it unsophisticated and aimless. The Dead’s sense of time was not always crisp. It’s been said that the two drummers, in the eighties, sounded like sneakers in a dryer…. They could be sloppy, unrehearsed. They forgot lyrics, sang out of key, delivered rank harmonies, missed notes, blew takeoffs and landings, and laid down clams by the dozen. Their lyrics were often fruity—hippie poetry about roses and bells and dew. They resisted irony. They were apolitical. They bombed at the big gigs. They unleashed those multicolored dancing bears.”