Sunday, September 03, 2006


....well, I'll just tell the story. It starts in the early 1990s, when Nirvana and the Beastie Boys were cool. Oh yeah, and punk was cool too, like Rollins Band, and Spin Magazine. I was about 20 years old straight outta Nebraska and I liked noisy guitar improv music because Thurston Moore and yes, even Mike Patton liked it. So I'm getting into Derek Bailey and Eugene Chadbourne and whaddayaknow, it all just sounds like more gnarly punk music to me, real punk music. I wanted to learn more, and I would even go to the Bennett-Martin Public Library (in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska) just to scour back issues of Guitar Player magazine, looking for interviews with all these hardcore guitarists -- every few issues there'd be something on a weirdo like Chadbourne or Fred Frith or whoever.

In fact, I was at the library one momentuous day checking out a way-old GP i-view with Henry Kaiser, in which he enthusiastically recommended the song "Dark Star" by the Grateful Dead as a prime example of high-level post-rock improvisational music, specifically the version on the Live Dead album. I'm sure I was a little skeptical, but I have always been willing to upend a prejudice, and duly made a note to give this song a chance. Next time I was over at my buddy Eric's apartment, checking out his roommate's CDs, we noticed a copy of Live Dead, so I put on "Dark Star," and by gosh, everyone there loved it. Kaiser had been right. Super-intense, quiet and beautiful but also often ugly and scary, a constant commingling between the heavy and the light, the good trip and the bad trip. It was acid rock, but it also sounded like one of the few true heirs to the deep extended 1960s works of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which was and will always be some of my favorite music of all time.

I bought my own CD of Live Dead within the week, and from that evening on, I changed my tune a little regarding the Dead. Whenever anyone would get on the subject of how much the Dead sucked, I would say, "Yeah, totally, but their song 'Dark Star' is awesome." Every single time this happened the response was, "Oh yeah? I've never heard it, but they still totally suck." I'm telling you, when people don't like the Dead, they really DON'T LIKE the Dead. And they've hardly heard any Dead, because why would they if they don't like it. Typical all-American logic: if it's 10 percent true, then it has to be 100 percent true.

Not that I had become a Deadhead either. In fact, though I was a proud owner of Live Dead, I barely listened to it over the next couple years, and I had no intention of getting anything else by the band. But then, on another momentuous day, I embarked upon what would be a six-year career delivering pizza. Naturally, a bunch of true Deadheads worked there, people who often wore actual tie-dye T-shirts, were stoned almost all the time, and drove great distances to attend things like the Furthur Festival, some indeed in VW buses. There was a lot of talk about the Grateful Dead Hour (every Wednesday night on KZUM, see, and when Jerry died most of them enthusiastically viewed Phish as an acceptable substitute. (What were they thinking??) Yes, I thought their aesthetic was a little annoying, and rootlessly nostalgic, but the point of my story is that they were the first people I'd gotten to know that collected Dead shows. And at this time (1995-2001) it was still mostly on cassettes.

Hanging out with these folks may have made me realize how far I was from being a full-on Deadhead, but it also got me talking about "Dark Star" again, and how much I loved the Live Dead version. Even though that was the only one I had heard, I started joking with them that I didn't collect shows, I just collected Dark Stars. Fellow delivery driver Luke the Freak called my bluff, and handed me a tape he had made off of the Grateful Dead Hour. "This is one of the best Dark Stars ever, from Missoula, Montana, 1974. And they go from that into an amazing 'China Doll.' It'll break your heart, man." I didn't care about no "China Doll," whatever that was, but I definitely wanted to hear the "Dark Star," so I popped the tape in on my next run. And holy shit. This was one of the best "Dark Stars" ever, impossibly mellow, bubbling and fluttering like a quiet moment in a dark-era Miles Davis jam. When I got back to the store I gave Luke the thumbs up and used the word "fluttering" to describe the mystic quality of the improvisation. "Yeah, fluttering along in a heroin daze" was his response, even though I now know that Garcia didn't start using the stuff until 1977. A few delivery runs later, I finally got to the end of "Dark Star" and that segue into "China Doll" that Luke was raving about, and not only was he right on, but this segue is the moment my appreciation of the Dead segued into a recognition of a singular group musical genius. Whether they were playing "Dark Star" or something else entirely, such as an exquisitely sad and slow ballad like "China Doll," they operated on many, many levels, and the happy hippie good-times rock & roll level that so many of my peers despised was just one such level. (TO BE CONTINUED!!!)


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