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Dead Reckoning

Searching for signs of life with The Dead

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Mention the Grateful Dead to people, and you'll usually get an instantaneous response. Your cultural conservatives will usually hit upon the drug angle, dismissing the group as an Acid Test anomaly that happened to click with other habituates of hallucinogens. Mention the band to a music critic, and you'll find yourself answering to complaints of "noodling" (especially by the band's late guitarist/songwriter Jerry Garcia), uneven shows, and the band's exhaustive touring schedule. Mention the Dead to still others, and all they can talk about are the "Deadheads," the band's (some might say hopelessly) devoted group of followers.

To be fair, all of the above criticisms have some merit. But the Grateful Dead were always closer to Kerouac than they were to Kesey, Zen-inspired wanderers concerned more with the act of creation than the document thereof -- to hear the band tell it, the drugs and "noodling" were simply another way of scratching at the Big Mystery. And like a Zen koan, the Dead are also what they were not. Jerry Garcia and Co. took great pains to explain that the "audience" and crew and band were one entity. As Garcia once said, "playing in a studio is like making a ship in a bottle. Playing on stage is like standing on the deck of a ship in a raging storm." Garcia preferred the idea of the live-show-as-storm, and if occasionally that storm never materialized, he felt it was still a chance worth taking.

On the eve of this week's Dead show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, the band -- former Grateful Dead members Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, along with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti -- have regrouped with two new guitarists, Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring. CL sat down with the Grateful Dead's former historian and publicist, Dennis McNally, the author of two critically acclaimed and exhaustive biographies: A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of The Grateful Dead, and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. (In fact, it was a shared love of the Beat ex-pat that brought Jerry Garcia and McNally together in the first place.)

To try and get a take on the fundamental differences between the "new" Dead and the Grateful Dead, I first asked McNally what musical differences he has noticed between the old Dead and the living variety.

"The essential thing that makes The Dead (such a unique entity) is that the band is significantly larger than "just' the band on stage," McNally says. "And I don't think that's necessarily changed. Obviously, there are different people on the stage, and that's going to change the music that comes out of them. What made Jerry unique was his capacity -- which lots of critics have dismissed as "noodling' -- for going down really strange corridors in following the music. Sometimes it would be a diversion, and sometimes it would be Valhalla. I think Jimmy really has a pretty acute understanding about what the Grateful Dead experience is about, as does Warren. With all the flaws in the 90s Dead, that philosophical thing never changed -- play the music that comes through you, that comes through the audience."

McNally, while something of a confidante of the band, is nonetheless unafraid to give a "warts and all" take on the band's music. That was something that ruffled the feathers of more than a few fans and critics when A Long Strange Trip first came out -- though the band was said to greatly appreciate the evenhanded take. A liberal on the drug issue, McNally posits that drug usage was less a problem than the emotions that led to their eventual abuse.

"Jerry was deeply affected by (former keyboardist) Brent Mydland's death, and it distracted him greatly," McNally says. "Brent had a deep self-esteem problem. Over the years, as he grew more and more as a musician, he grew in his status in the band, and (yet) it was never enough. It was an unbridgeable hole in his heart. It was maddening to Jerry (to lose him). But it wasn't just that -- it was that and a lot of things in (Jerry's) life. They were all emotionally constricted, really, and they took a lot of damage from Brent's death. It hurt. The stage was the only place they communicated on any emotional level. It was like -- just my opinion, of course -- a marriage of 30 years. And how many people after 30 years process every emotional development? And really work hard to stay in touch like that? You find where you overlap, and that becomes your comfort zone. And their comfort zone was on stage."

Of course, the news that the Dead -- both Grateful and otherwise -- are a "live band" should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever heard their recorded output. Outside of perhaps five records -- 1968's Anthem of the Sun, 1970's American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, 1975's Blues for Allah, and 1987's In The Dark -- the band's relationship with recording studios was ambivalent at best. With that in mind, and no radio play or record companies to worry about, just how much life is left in The Dead?

"I think they'll go on as long as they can, as long as it's still fun," says McNally. "And all the feedback I get suggests it still is. As we grew up with rock music -- "hope I die before I get old,' and all that -- it was a young man's music. Led Zep and the Stones and the like made music largely about and/or preoccupied with sex. The Dead were never just a "rock band.' They could rock, but they had a load of stuff that was never necessarily youth-based. When you see (jazz great) Charles Lloyd playing saxophone at 70, you don't think it's weird that he's playing at such an age -- you marvel at his craft. In every generation, there are certain people for whom the Dead's blend of jazz-style improvisation -- real improvisation, where you're not relying on a rhythm guitarist to play chords to keep it all together -- rings true. Nobody really did it before them in the rock world, in my opinion. There are a lot of jam bands now, but everyone in the Dead was improvising differently every single night. I don't know how many rock groups you can say that about.

"(But) the fact is that the Grateful Dead are not a rock band, and never were. They are sui generis. They were and are a unique American string band. And they've taken a pounding from critics over the years for not playing by rock rules."

Not playing by the rules? Another koan in the book of The Dead. After all, breaking rules is about as "rock and roll" as it gets.

The Dead will play the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on Wednesday, August 18, at 6pm. Tickets for the show are $39 and $49, available by calling 704-522-6500.

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