Monday, April 13, 2009


What a long strange trip, indeed. The New York Times published an article a couple days ago settling things forever and silencing all debate by announcing, once and for all, that the greatest Grateful Dead concert--according to Ben Ratlif, anyway, and others he claims to have spoken with--took place on May 8th, 1978. End of story. The journal of record has spoken. The story barely made a beep, and the world of news quickly returned to its tales of war and collapsing economies, mothers killing children, fathers killing mothers, pirates kidnapping sea captains, and seemingly normal people killing huge numbers of random strangers or loved ones before turning their guns upon themselves. Stories about the ungrateful dead, you might say.

1966: at the old place on Ashbury, just before the party spilled into the streets

Of course, all musical lists are suspect; the value of music is felt in the heart of every listener and should not be left to New York Times, the trainspotting music geeks, or even the Nicks--Hornby and Harcourt. And don't leave it to the Deadheads. They're a funny bunch, whichever vintage, and they've been trading thousands of recordings for decades and are simply too close to the thing to see it clearly. (Like the old joke: what do Deadheads say when the dope runs out? "This music sucks!" Well, it doesn't suck, not all of it, but you get my point) It would be like asking an Eskimo (Inuit, sorry) about snowflakes. No, you don't want to commit your life to the damn thing. You, with your short attention span, want an overview.

Anyway, here are some unusual Grateful Dead clips. The opening segment comes from Playboy After Dark, and listening to the skeezy pajama king Hugh Hefner "rap" with Jerry Garcia brings to mind the writer from the Times dissecting Dead shows for relative merit. You don't need to ingest psychedelic drugs to catch a glimpse of Hef as a lizard of the lounge variety, but I'm sure the bandmembers popped their pills anyway and the entire affair has a surreal quality that Thorazine and orange juice might not bring you down from. In fact, you might not be able to shake this hallucination until you escape the Playboy rabbit hole entirely and get a breath of fresh air.

Further on down the line, truckin' in the 1970s

My point (and yes, I had one...) is that you can't really say which concert is best because it's a matter of taste, but even beyond that the band itself changed so much over the years it would be like comparing apples to orange sunshine. The Playboy mansion clip is from 1969--and by that time the Dead had already evolved from being the house band at the Acid Tests hosted by Kesey and the Pranksters. The band that played the Trips Festival at the Longshoreman's Hall in 1966 had already grown less experimental, more polished and professional. By 1972, they were an altogether different group, and the recordings from that tour were released on "Europe 72" remain favorites. Some would argue this was the "best" Dead period. By 1978, they'd mutated again--the show rocked harder, etc, and if you liked that sort of thing you might like that. To all the kids who staggered after them in the 1980s and 1990s the experience was altogether different. The band played the old favorites for adoring kids who weren't even alive when they put out their first album. (a far cry from my first Dead concert in '70 or so. When someone yelled out "St. Stephen!" Garcia barked back, "That was three X*&$* years ago, man!")

The last clip is from April 17th, 1972, at the Tivoli Theatre in Copenhagen. Their hi-jinx are in high gear as you can see from the clown masks. 1972 was a good year. What do you think?

Grateful Dead Update: According the the Washington Post (April 14th, 2009): "The surviving (and formerly feuding) members of the Grateful Dead had a secret impromptu meeting Monday evening with the man they credit with reuniting them: President Obama."

"The president welcomed all the members of The Dead, who are performing tonight at the Verizon Center in Washington, to the Oval Office just before dinner last night. They didn't talk music as much as they did history - history about the Oval Office, and the president's desk."

To read the rest of the story in the Washington Post, click here.

Still Dead: Phil Lesh and Bob Weir lead the latest incarnation of the Dead shown performing here in NYC, March 30th, 2009

Read annotated Grateful Dead lyrics here.

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