GOLD: 50 Years of The Grateful Dead

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The Grateful Dead – The Grateful Dead

Released March 17th, 1967 on Warner Bros. Records

Originally, the blitzed-out script at the top of the album cover read “In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is drawn by the Grateful Dead.”  It’s a piece of a much longer quote from the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, and it’s not where the band got their name from. Jerry Garcia was playing a game involving a dictionary; it fell open to a certain place and the word divide across the crack read “grateful dead”.  It’s a much less mystical origin story but the band was always a lot less mystical than anyone seems to want to mythologize.  The old acidheads can argue on about the magic power of togetherness and the importance of drug culture; the Dead wanted to have a good time, and that was their great power.  They wanted to have a good time and therefore so did you.  As such, their debut reflects this desire. “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” sounds really mystical and sublime, but the song is a party song through and through, right down to the directives in the second verse and the “hey heys” that mark out the chorus.  “Beat It On Down The Line” is definitive proof that the Dead are at their heart a dance band, and the inclusion of strutting blues standard “Good Morning Little School Girl” doesn’t do anything to dispel this notion.  The entire album is a hint to the sort of chooglin boogie the Dead would trade in throughout their career, underneath all of the tie-dye, patchouli-scented, patchwork panted, VW bus-driving, crunchy, groovy, granular, granola-munching fan mythology.  This being the early days, the band is still finding it’s footing on their debut; everything is a bit too “psychedelicized”, if that makes sense.  It’s a pure product of San Francisco, 1967, Summer of Love and the flow of LSD – bluesy, but more freewheeling, like Janis Joplin’s Big Brother if they were actually really good musicians.  At the same time, there are better blues albums from the time – pick any Cream album – and as such it was much bigger in San Francisco proper, among people who’d actually seen them live, than on any national scale.

 

To be honest, it’s impressive that the recordings are as down-to-earth as they are.  The band named themselves while smoking DMT and played their first gig at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests.  Their initial recording spaces, rehearsal house, and equipment were bankrolled by Owsley Stanley, the man who made all of Ken Kesey’s LSD.  It was also the West Coast in 1967 and as such the sheer amount of marijuana being consumed at the time in addition to all of the other drugs could have driven the band completely off the rails into art-drone trash.  As such, it’s a testament to just how utterly great the Dead are that they managed to turn in such a tight record, even if it didn’t adequately capture the band’s captivating live performances.  The real classics here are “Morning Dew”, which features a high, keening squiggle and some stately chords that probably sound thrilling at twilight (the recent National cover on their broad-minded tribute album was also stellar, incidentally) and “Viola Lee Blues”, which shows off the lengthy jamming that the Dead were even then known for.

By the way, does anyone else catch a sort of Star-Burns vibe from Jerry on the album cover?

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – “Wig Out At Jagbags”

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“We were raised on Tennyson and venison and the Grateful Dead”

Stephen Malkmus’ latest outing with
his Jicks melds two disparate eras
together: the slacker-punk ideals of
the 1990s that his old band Pavement
helped to create, and the rambling
stoner-rock of the 1970s, namely the
Grateful Dead. Indeed, the Dead are
name-checked in “Lariat” and their
spirit becomes obvious by the time you
get down to “Cinnamon and Lesbians”.
There’s a free-wheeling vibe to the
album that is charming and tempered
well by the squalling guitar that is
laced throughout. Taken alongside
last year’s Deerhunter outing (another
album comfortingly anchored in
Seventies stoner rock) one wonders if
the Dead are finally due for their
indie embrace. The original hippies
are beginning the Long Great Dropoff
and if any band was ripe for a
reclaimation of legacy it would be one
obsessed with its own indulgence.

That’s not to say that Wig Out at
Jagbags is that sea-change album, but
it does point in a certain direction.
Malkmus, though, can’t help but be
rooted in slacker-indie rock. He’s put
out more albums with the Jicks than he
had with Pavement, and his new band
takes on new ideas and directions that
his old band’s oddly conservative
experimentalism would never have
allowed for, but the ghost of Crooked
Rain, Crooked Rain still lingers. It
finds it’s own cool groove, though,
and ends up being much more fun for
it.

Score:  B+

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYC5JASqWnI] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UfRAEmUizA] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEH3ubfMw3M]