How Listening to the Grateful Dead Helped Me Learn to Appreciate 20th Century Classical Music

I’ve been listening to The Grateful Dead for more than 40 years, and their music never ceases to satisfy me. Most people, when they think of the Grateful Dead, know a few of their later songs, such as Touch of Gray, which was a hit in the MTV era. But when you dig into their music, especially their early years, you can see how diverse the band was. They played rock, blues, roadhouse R&B (especially while Pigpen was alive), jazzy tunes, and crazy improvisations.

It’s this latter part of the band’s repertoire that is the most astounding. From night to night, they’d belt out cowboy songs, psychedelic tunes, and play a Chuck Berry song or two, but they’d also slip into mind-bending improvisations. Right now, I’m listening to their concert of April 2, 1973, which contains are three extended improvisations.

The first is in Playing in the Band, a song the band started playing live in 1968, that was finally recorded on Bob Weir’s first solo album Ace in 1972. It was one of the two major vehicles for extended jams in those years, the other being the band’s signature song Dark Star. The second improvisation in this concert is merely labeled “Jam” on the recently released recording (Dave’s Picks vol. 21). It’s an 11-minute improvisation sandwiched between two songs, Sunshine and Me and Bobby McGee. And the third is part of the extended performance of Eyes of the World, from the record the band would release later that year, Wake of the Flood. This song always featured long improvisations, yet more restrained than some of the others.

Dead jam

The Dead’s jams were unique. Sometimes, they would act as simple bridges between two songs that they often played as a pair: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, or Not Fade Away > Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. Sometimes they were part of specific songs, such as Dark Star or Playing in the Band. And sometimes they were just in between two random songs, as in this 1973 concert.

They would often start as the band ended the lyrics and slowly morphed from the original tune and chord structure into a free-form exploration of themes and rhythms. They were sometimes loud and rocky, sometimes mellow and psychedelic, but often they drifted far from what rock music generally was. They could be atonal, polyrhythmic, almost random sounding, but, at least in the early years, the band maintained a direction.

So what does this have to do with contemporary classical music? Listen to a jam like the one on April 2, 1973 and you may want to press the Next button, but if you’re curious you’ll hear melodies and structures that might tempt you to seek out more music of the kind. Few other rock bands would venture into this territory, but when I started listening to 20th century classical music in my late teens, I was not turned off by the atonality and strange rhythms I heard, as many people might be. I welcomed the incongruity of this music, and tried to understand it.

(It’s worth noting that Phil Less, the band’s bass player, was interested in avant-garde music, studying with Luciano Berio at Mills College in 1962; one of his classmates was Steve Reich. I don’t think Lesh – who had never played the bass until the day that Jerry Garcia told him he would be their bass player – led the band in that direction, but that all of them, especially Garcia, were open to all forms of music.)

I’m not a fan of aimless contemporary classical music; in fact, much of this type of music, especially the formulaic serialism and random compositions that become dominant in the 1950s and 1960s, annoys me. But I love listening to Charles Ives, Toru Takemitsu, or Einojuhani Rautavaara, all of whom, to some extent, feature atonality in their music. One of my favorite pieces of music is Ives’ Concord Sonata, at times a harshly atonal piece of piano music; I probably would not have appreciated that work without having heard the Dead and their improvisations first.

The Dead had a short window of interesting improvisation. Around 1978, their jams became codified around drum solos, leading to the common track listing seen on concerts from that time until the end of the band’s career: Drums > Space. “Space” was what their musical explorations became, aimless improvisations that followed self-absorbed drum solos. The band would let the two drummers play with their toys for a while, then come back on stage and phone it in, sounding like a ghost of their former selves. There were still jams within songs, but these remained melodic improvisations, more jazz than free-form. But these Drums > Space segments mostly sounded anemic. (To be fair, for a few years, there was still some interesting music in them, at times.)

From the late 1960s to around 1978, the Grateful Dead treated their audience, every night, to a cloud of improvised sound that went beyond the confines of any genre. Some of those listeners used this music as a launching point for exploring other types of music. And we’re forever in debt to the band for opening our minds.