Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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They're Grateful for the 'Dead'

Howard Stein made the announcement at his Yes/Mark-Almond show on February 19. Getting the newest dope before the ads hit the media is the kind of thing that makes an audience feel like a subculture. That feeling is good for promoters, but Stein didn't need the help, for his tidings were truly joyous brothers and sisters--after four bleak months, the Grateful Dead would return on March 21. Computerized tickets for six nights at the 3,400-capacity Academy of Music were scheduled to go on sale three days after the announcement.

Yeah sure, Howard. By the second day, Dead freaks had managed somehow to buy half the tickets. The next day, two hours after the ads appeared, the rest were gone.

The Rolling Stones is decadent. The Band doesn't boogie. The Faces are little guys. Grand Funk Railroad is passing crudity.

The Grateful Dead is the finest band in the land.

It began in Palo Alto, hanging with Ken Kesey during the Acid Test days, a core of five.

Jerry Garcia, lead guitar, Mexican-American Army dropout from the Mission district, bluegrass head.

Bob Weir, second guitar, scion of a wealthy San Francisco bay-area family, novice musician.

Phil Lesh, bass, Berkeleyite who studies with Darius Mulhaud, learned his instrument within a few weeks.

Rob McKernan a/k/a Pigpen, scion of a white rhythm-and-blues disc jokey, rhythm-and-blues fanatic.

Bill Kreutzmann, drums, so young that in his early publicity he used a pseudonym to match his I.D.

Club tapes from that period indicate only one interesting musician (Garcia) and no interesting vocalists, but the tidings from the Haight were unequivocal--the Grateful Dead was the finest band in the land.

It probably was, too. Rock and roll has never been about musical expertise. Its power is rooted in music, but transcends it, and the Dead has always been into transcendence. The citizen-kings of San Francisco's free concert domain, they achieved what every great rock and roll band must achieve: Gestalt, spiritual unity within a balanced public presence.

If Jerry Garcia was Captain Trips, his cosmic grin a beacon for every freak west of the Rockies, Pigpen was always Pigpen, an earthbound Ringo figure who undercut--and yes, transcended--his limitations as a blues vocalist with simple unpretension.

If Weir was fresh and callow, Lesh was worldly and a trifle mean.

As for Kreutzmann, he was the hidden flywheel, the working-class hero of the band's microcosmic subculture. Even today, he is most often referred to as Bill the Drummer.

The Dead's gestalt embodied the fundamental Americanness of the so-called counter culture, and so did its music. Picking from the melting pot of a collective heritage they then improvised on the pieces. Down-home boys and galaxy trippers, they combined black blues and bluegrass mountain highs, climaxing with long space jams off the tightest, most commercial soul-dance hits. Their devotion to their craft was fierce--they never stopped playing and the people never stopped dancing.

As they interacted with each other and with the audience, the shifting mix of blues and psychedelia and country music and rock and roll evolved continually, always in the direction of organic, inclusive maturity.

New personnel influenced this evolution: Pianist Tom Constanten moved them toward electronic and aleatory music, and Mickey Hart, a jazz drummer with training in Oriental percussion, worked with Kreutzmann to open up their rhythms, and then parted, leaving the band transformed forever.

One year they decided they ought to learn vocal projection, and suddenly Weir was an explosive rockabilly singer and even Lesh was participating in some tight harmonies. They did an acoustic set for a while; they toured with the New Riders of Purple Sage, featuring Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar. And a poet named Robert Hunter teamed with Garcia to write songs as subtle and evocative as any in the music.

Truckin', got my chips cashed in
Truckin', like the doo-dah man
Together, more or less in line
We just keep truckin' on.

Until the past two years, the Dead was in constant financial trouble. It earned good (not fabulous) money, but the business advisers were less than reliable and the band supported a large entourage. It toured tirelessly, however, and everywhere ex-folkies and bikers and superhip high schoolers and old rock and rollers--the gamut of the counterculture--redefined themselves as Dead freaks.

Dead freaks are like no other rock fans: Their passion for the band is equaled only by their passion for their own autonomy. A Dead freak will travel hundreds and even thousands of miles for a concert, and if he can't buy a ticket he will cadge one, or sneak past security, or stand with his ear to the door. Dead freaks spend a lot of time on their feet, boogieing to the music or edging their way through the mobbed front rows and aisles towards energy central. The choruses of the more popular songs rise from the crowd in a great shout. Not even Sly Stone excites such ecstatic participation.

The heaviest concentration of Dead freaks is no longer in San Francisco but right here in New York. The Dead could sell out Madison Square Garden at will, but decline, because they don't believe good vibes can survive such a vast impersonal hall. So it plays six nights (at prices a dollar or so less than it might demand) at the old Academy of Music, itself as funky as a Dead freak. There are Dead freaks who will attend every show.


Last Tuesday, opening night. The Dead hasn't performed anywhere in two months. To an extent, it is the usual rock concert scene: hubbub in the rear, repose up front, couples necking on the sugar-sticky carpets, the odor of cannabis. Yet everything is more intense, especially the odor.

Announced for eight, the music begins at around nine, right on schedule. The song is Garcia's "Bertha." Downstairs, the madmen in the front rows demonstrate reverse domino theory. They stand and boogie, and the people behind them follow. Weir sings the next song, a strange, angular country tune and the newest of the Dead newcomers, Keith Godchaux, who was almost inaudible when the Dead played the Felt Forum in late November, contributes a wonderful solo, a lot of Floyd Cramer and a little John Cage. He obviously belongs.

Old-time Dead freaks, having followed their heroes through the most recondite abstractions, distrust the band's burgeoning audience, linking it with the almost folk-pleasant recent Hunter-Garcia songs. This is obviously mostly cultishness; the Dead dug its pretty new material, and if a few diehards didn't, that was their failing. Yet the band did appear to be slipping into a kind of rut an adoring audience permits, touring so much that the repertoire stopped expanding at the usual breathtaking rate.

The two-month layoff changed that. More than half the first set is unfamiliar, but it is clear that the Dead has taken another of its great leaps forward. For one thing, Weir was composing. One of the new songs sounds like a big Ray Price country ballad; it fits perfectly into the band's Gestalt. Pigpen had composed his own boogie-woogie, with Godchaux adding a masterful solo. And Garcia is better than ever.

If Mahavishnu John McLaughlin shows signs of becoming rock's Charlie Parker, Garcia is already its Lester Young and then some, a facile, fluid melodist whose solos are the focus of the band's music.

And like the whole band, he keeps betting better--older and wiser and funnier and more ambitious. The audience was a little confused by the new material, but appeared ready to learn. "Rock and roll!" somebody importuned from the balcony, only to hear someone yell, "Grateful Dead!" As a favor, the set closed with a crowd-pleaser, "Casey Jones." Everyone was up.

Backstage, Garcia entertains his usual coterie, but sooner than usual he is ready to go again.

"Hey, can we play?" He wiggles his fingers. "Wake up, stupid, we got another crack at it."

N'day, Mar. 24, 1972