Book Review: This Is All a Dream We Dreamed – An Oral History of the Grateful Dead

Dream we dreamedLots of books have been published this year as part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead. As a long-time Deadhead, I’ve read most of them. Some of them are quite good, such as So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead, and some are just annoying, such as drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s memoir Deal.

It’s hard to tell the story differently from what came before, and since authors Blair Jackson and David Gans had each already written about the band, they found an interesting way to add to the history. This Is All a Dream We Dreamed (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is an oral history, or a collection of excerpts of interviews with band members, family members, crew, promoters, and fans. Organized in chronological order, these excerpts – sometimes just one sentence, sometimes as much as two pages – combine to tell the story of the Grateful Dead.

It can be a bit annoying to read a book constructed like this; it’s like a French nouveau roman where you encounter fragments of a story and have to piece them together in your mind. But Jackson and Gans know the band so well that they were able to organize these excerpts in a way that they all hang together, slowly building up a picture of the Grateful Dead. If you’re not familiar with the band, you might find yourself lost at times, as there’s a lot of background information that we Deadheads already know, and that the book leaves out. There are gaps, bits of the story that no-one has told in interviews. But if you are a Deadhead, you’ll find this an entertaining read, as you hear about the band’s history from those who made it.

The cast of characters is quite long, and it’s a good idea to read the Who’s Who at the beginning of the book, and refer back to it from time to time. In addition to the members of the Grateful Dead, interviewees include other musicians, recording engineers and producers, promoters, family members, artists, members of the Grateful Dead’s office staff, and a handful of fans and tapers. Jackson and Gans didn’t record all these interviews for the book; most come from previously published or unpublished interviews.

As with all books about the Grateful Dead, there’s much more about the early days than the later days. When you get to the halfway point of this book, you’re at the point where the Dead took their hiatus after the “final” run of shows at Winterland in October, 1974. As the years combine, there is less and less to say about the Grateful Dead, other than about how the music stagnated, how Jerry’s health declined, and how the band started playing larger venues, until they became a stadium band, very different from their early days. At the end, as many people went to Dead concerts to hang out in the parking lots, causing consternation from local law enforcement officials. After a while, the Grateful Dead were persona non grata in many cities, because of the circus that followed them around.

I have less interest in the Grateful Dead’s performances after about 1978 – after keyboardist Keith Godchaux left the band – and I think that for many Deadheads, unless they only discovered the band in the 1980s, that’s a pretty common opinion. The Dead fell into a routine from the 1980s on, playing mostly safe music, with an obligatory Drums > Space segment in their shows which were often just phoned in. Partly because of Jerry’s drug habit, and also because of the inertia of the band being such a big concert draw, there was little inventiveness in the last 15 years. This was especially the case after Jerry Garcia went into a diabetic coma in 1986, and had to re-learn to play guitar. But the band could still play some great shows at times, as the recent 30 Trips Around the Sun box set has shown. There were some periods, short runs, when the Dead was on again. But there is little discussion of this aspect of the band’s history in the book.

Any story of the Grateful Dead is a story of a band that had about 15 great years, and 15 years of coasting. This book tends to ignore much of the negative in those later years, and that’s okay. The real legend of the Grateful Dead started with the Acid Tests in 1965 and ended with that final show on October 20, 1974. After the band returned to performing in 1976, they were at their peak through the amazing year of 1977, and then things started changing.

This collection of interview excerpts, skillfully organized by Jackson and Gans, gives an interesting look at the Grateful Dead throughout their history. If you’re a Deadhead, you’ll want to read this book.

Happy Birthday Pigpen (the One from the Grateful Dead)

He only played with the band for about seven years, but Ron McKernan, or Pigpen, was the frontman of the Grateful Dead in its early days, and was responsible for a lot of the band’s hard R&B sound.

pigpen

(Photo from Dead.net.)

Whether it was Turn On Your Love Light, Good Lovin’, Smokestack Lightnin’, or In the Midnight Hour, Pigpen’s long, improvised raps were high points of early Grateful Dead shows.

Pig drank too much, and died from it, but he’s remembered in lots of recordings, especially those in 1969-1971. He would have been 70 years old today.

Book Notes: DeadBase 50, the Complete Grateful Dead Database on Paper

Before the internet, there was DeadBase. Not the internet in general, just for Grateful Dead fans and tape traders. DeadBase was first published in 1987, and it contained setlists, lists of dates when each song was played, discographies, and “reviews” of shows that you might have been able to get when trading. I bought my first copy of DeadBase in the mid-1990s, when I started trading tapes, before I shifted to CDs a few years later, and DeadBase was one of the essential tools to know what to look for.

Deadbase 2

Now, DeadBase 50 brings things full circle, with this final edition of the book that covers the Grateful Dead from their first shows in 1965 through the Fare Thee Well shows of July, 2015. Compiled by John W. Scott, Stu Nixon, and Mike Dolgushkin, and with the contributions from hundreds of other contributors, this 992 page book weighs in at 2.5 kg, and costs $90.

DeadBase 50 is full of tables and stats (2,314 shows, 36,534 songs, 484 different songs), with setlists not only for the Dead, but also for each band member’s solo careers. Here’s a spread showing the Europe 72 shows, among others:

Deadbase 1

As you can see, DeadBase 50 is glorious plain text. It’s a book for obsessives. But sometimes, if you’re a Grateful Dead collector, you’ll want to check something in the book.

DeadBase 50 is a bit of a hybrid. It contains the entire 1996 DeadBase XI edition of the book (578 pages), fronted with 400 pages of updates. This makes it a bit unwieldy; you really need to check both sections of the book if you’re looking for a specific song or show, and it would have been a lot better if all the new content had been integrated with the old. It’s also got full updates to GarciaBase, WeirBase, along with new sections containing information about Phil and Friends, Ned Lagin, and Further.

So the organization isn’t great, but that’s okay. Part of the fun of a book like this is the browsing. You look up your favorite songs, then check the dates they were played, and check in your collection to see which show you might want to listen to. Or you flip through some of the concert reviews, provided by a small army of Deadheads, to find a show you remember hearing, or to check out one you’ve never spun.

Get DeadBase 50 if only to have a reminder of the old days, when tape trading depended on a paper database. Or to have a book to flip through from time to time to check out the many great shows the Dead and its members played. It’s a bit anachronistic to buy such a big book these days, when there are websites that contain some of this information, but it brings back memories.

Grateful Dead Announce Fare Thee Well Audio and Video Box Set

603497886852 dead ftw cd blurayYou knew it was going to happen. With the Grateful Dead’s final three shows, in July, it was obvious that they would be releasing the audio, and probably the video. I expected them to announce it after the shows, but, today, the Grateful Dead announced Fare The Well, a box set containing 12 CDs and 7 DVDs or Blu-Ray discs. It’s not cheap; at $175 or $190, depending on the videos, it’s a pretty steep price for three shows, but it will have complete videos of all three concerts.

Let’s be honest. These won’t be the best Grateful Dead concerts ever, but they are historic. This is going to be a number, limited edition of 20,000 (they clearly think they’ll sell more of this set than the 30 Trips Around the Sun set), and it’s due to ship in November.

If you just want a shorter version, they’re doing that too, for $55: 4 CDs and 2 DVDs. And there’s a Best Of disc at $20.

Anyway, Deadheads, you know what to do…

Book Notes: Deal, by Grateful Dead Drummer Bill Kreutzmann

DealBill Kreutzmann, one of the Grateful Dead’s two drummers, has written a book about his experiences with the band, and about his life in general, called Deal. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Among the many books about the band, this is certainly one you can skip over.

Now that we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead, lots of books are being published. Bill Kreutzmann, founding member of the Grateful Dead, and one of the band’s two drummers – but the only one who’s been with the band throughout their entire history – tells his story here. It’s not a history of the Grateful Dead; Kreutzmann makes it clear that there are plenty of other books that have told that store. (One recent book that tells it well is So Many Roads.)

This book tells how Kreutzmann started drumming, how he met the other members of the band – Jerry first – and how he got high. A lot. Very high. He was, like, so wasted… Kreutzmann always looked like the straightest member of the band; he was probably the one who did the most drugs after Jerry, judging from his story. Acid, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, and painkillers. Kreutzmann has been all around the world.

The tone of the book is annoying. Co-written with Benjy Eisen, this book reads like Kreutzmann is telling his tale orally. And that’s fine at times, but sometimes it just sounds trite. It’s full of anecdotes that might sound interesting if you’re drinking a few beers and reminiscing, but in the context of a book, sound trivial.

There are some interesting admissions, and a lot of bitterness. Bill didn’t want Mickey Hart to come back with the Grateful Dead after his “hiatus.” On October 20, 1974, when Mickey sat in with the band at their last Hinterland show before the band’s “retirement,” Kreutzmann was very much agains Hart returning, as he was later when the band got back to work.

Kreutzmann also explains that he didn’t like Brent’s songs very much, and he tells how many of the band’s recording sessions were uninteresting and unfocussed. He talks about how uninspired the band was in its final years, even though they were selling out stadiums, and paints a bleak picture of those times.

Most of the book covers the period up until around 1980, the period that most Deadheads consider the good years. And there’s lots of interesting information, but there’s not much that hasn’t been told.

If you’ve read other books about the Grateful Dead, you’ll probably find that this one has little to offer. If you haven’t read any, then check out the recent One recent book that tells it well is So Many Roads, or any of the many books about the band that have been written. There’s a lot to say about the Grateful Dead, and Bill Kreutzmann doesn’t really say much.

Book Notes: So Many Roads, the Life and Times of the Grateful Dead

So many roadsAs we approach the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead, a number of new books are being published, telling the tale of this band and its adventures over thirty years of performing, and another twenty of post-Dead music. So Many Roads, by David Browne (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), takes an interesting approach: rather than try and be a thorough biography of the band, it examines eleven key dates in the band’s history, using each one as a starting point to tell part of the Dead’s story.

Early chapters cover the periods when the band members first met, or when they were recording specific albums, such as Workingman’s Dead, and some later chapters focus on important concerts, such as 9/3/77 at Englishtown, NJ, and 10/31/80, at Radio City Music Hall, in New York (one that I attended). This approach allows Browne to tell much of the story of the Grateful Dead, without getting bogged down in too many details. Naturally, none of these chapters only talks about a specific day, but covers the months or years prior to that day as well. But the dates chosen work well as landmarks along the highway that the Grateful Dead followed for thirty years.

Browne’s prose is smooth and entertaining, and the book is a quick read. But it’s not light reading; he covers the vicissitudes of the band’s history, many of which are well known, along with the high points. He pulls no punches talking about Jerry Garcia’s drug problem, and other issues in the band’s organization, nor is the book a hagiography of any of the band’s members. As historians know, no single source tells a full story, and this book is an excellent addition to the growing library of books about the Grateful Dead that, together, tell a much broader tale.

Off all the recent books about the band, this is certainly the most interesting, and the one I’d recommend to anyone interested in a general overview of the Grateful Dead.

New Big Grateful Dead Box Set Explores the Band’s 30 Years of Performing

30 trips around the worldYou knew it had to happen. As the Grateful Dead celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, the ever-ingenious people at their organization had to come up with a big box set, something even bigger than the 2011 Europe ’72 box set. And they have.

30 Trips Around the Sun, to be released in September, is the biggest box set the Dead have released; perhaps the biggest rock box set ever. It contains 30 unreleased live concerts, one from each year of the band’s performance history. Starting in 1966 – there are no tapes from 1965 – this 80-disc set covers concerts from all around the world.

It’s not cheap, however. Limited to 6,500 copies, it is selling for $700. There’s also a 1,000-unit USB version, which contains MP3 files and high-resolution 24/96 files, at the same price. Here’s what the Grateful Dead website says:

We are more than pleased to announce the Grateful Dead’s most ambitious release ever: 30 TRIPS AROUND THE SUN. Available as both an 80-disc boxed set and a custom lightning-bolt USB drive, the collection includes 30 unreleased live shows, one for each year the band was together from 1966 to 1995, along with one track from their earliest recording sessions in 1965. Packed with over 73 hours of music, both the boxed set and the USB drive will be individually numbered limited editions.

The 80-disc boxed set is individually numbered and limited to 6,500 copies, a nod to the band’s formation in 1965. Along with the CDs, it also includes a gold-colored 7-inch vinyl single which bookends the band’s career. The A-side is “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)” from the band’s earliest recording session in 1965 with the B-side of the last song the band ever performed together live, “Box Of Rain” recorded during their final encore at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 9, 1995.

The box also comes with a 288-page book that features an extensive, career-spanning essay written by Nick Meriwether, who oversees the Dead archives at the University of California, Santa Cruz, along with special remembrances of the band submitted by fans. Also included is a scroll that offers a visual representation of how the band’s live repertoire has evolved through the years.

Here are the dates of the 30 concerts in the set:

1966 – 7/3, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA
1967 – 11/10, Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA
1968 – 10/20, Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA
1969 – 2/22, The Dream Bowl, Vallejo, CA
1970 – 4/15, Winterland, San Francisco, CA
1971 – 3/18, Fox Theater, St. Louis, MO
1972 – 9/24, Palace Theater, Waterbury, CT
1973 – 11/14, San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego, CA
1974 – 9/18, Parc des Expositions, Dijon, France
1975 – 9/28, Lindley Meadows, Golden gate Park, San Francisco, CA
1976 – 10/3, Cobo Arena, Detroit, MI
1977 – 4/25, Capitol Theater, Passaic, NJ
1978 – 5/14, Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI
1979 – 10/27, Cape Cod Coliseum, South Yarmouth, MA
1980 – 11/28, Lakeland Civic Center, Lakeland, FL
1981 – 5/16, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
1982 – 7/31, Manor Downs, Austin, TX
1983 – 10/21, The Centrum, Worchester, MA
1984 – 10/12, Augusta Civic Center, Augusta, ME
1985 – 6/24, River Bend Music Center, Cincinnati, OH
1986 – 5/3, Cal Expo Amphitheater, Sacramento, CA
1987 – 9/18, Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY
1988 – 7/3, Oxford Plains Speedway, Oxford, ME
1989 – 10/26, Miami Arena, Miami, FL
1990 – 10/27, Zenith, Paris, France
1991 – 9/10, Madison Square Garden, NY, NY
1992 – 3/20, Copps Coliseum, Ontario, Canada
1993 – 3/27, Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY
1994 – 10/1, Boston Garden, Boston, MA
1995 – 2/21, Delta Center, Salt Lake City, UT

To be fair, I’m not a fan of the later period of the Grateful Dead, but I won’t miss out on this set. I’ve ordered mine, and I expect it to be sold out very, very quickly. So if you want one, act now; you won’t get another chance (except on eBay).

Here’s a preview from the 9/18/87 Madison Square Garden show; the great Morning Dew:

The Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound

A few months ago, I wrote an article explaining how noise-canceling headphones work, and, in it, I referenced the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound, their huge sound system. I mentioned it because, since all the speakers were behind the musicians, it required noise-canceling microphones to prevent feedback.

Wall of sound

A reader was kind enough to send me a document he got from the Grateful Dead organization back in 1974, explaining how the Wall of Sound was set up, and how everything functioned. I’d like to share this document, because it is very interesting, offering a detailed explanation of the Wall of Sound.

First, here’s a schematic of the Wall of Sound, showing which instrument each column of speakers was for. (Download a larger version of the image.)

Wall of sound web

The document begins discussing “THE GRATEFUL DEAD’S SOUND SYSTEM, HOLLYWOOD BOWL – JULY 1974.” It says:

“Recently there have been major changes in the Dead’s sound system, bringing it a step closer to the ancient ideal of the perfect sound system. This is a technical report; from the standpoint of the ideas on sound reproduction incorporated into its design, and with a description of its sub-systems.”

If you’re a recording engineer or audio geek, you’ll find this all very enlightening. If you’re just a fan, you may still find it interesting, since it determined how important the Dead – and, notably, Owsley Stanley – considered their sound, but also led to the Dead’s hiatus from late 1974 to mid-1976. The Wall of Sound was so unwieldy that it required a huge, expensive crew, and lots of trucks. The Dead was spending a fortune on this sound system, requiring more concerts in bigger venues, but still not leaving much profit. So they eventually called a halt to it.

You can see the Wall of Sound in the Grateful Dead Movie (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which was recorded during the band’s pre-hiatus run at Winterland in October, 1974. You see the trucks that are carrying the equipment, and you see some pre-concert footage showing the road crew setting it up. It was a monster, and, according to those who heard it, offered near-perfect sound, even several hundred feet away.

So, download a PDF of this document and read for yourself what the Wall of Sound was all about.

The 10 (Plus 4) Best Grateful Dead Songs

Dead 50th

The Grateful Dead will be celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary this year, notably with a few “reunion” concerts at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the location of the last ever Dead show, July 9, 1995. Singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia has been gone since that summer, but in addition to the surviving band members – Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman – the Dead will consist of Trey Anastasio (guitar), Jeff Chimenti (keyboards), and Bruce Hornsby (piano).

I’ve been a Deadhead since my teen years; I “got on the bus,” as Deadheads say, in 1977, seeing the band for the first time at New York’s Palladium Theater. I used to trade tapes, then CDs, and have most of the band’s official releases of their live concerts.

I thought it would be interesting to create a list of the Dead’s 10 best songs for those unfamiliar with the band. But I couldn’t just choose ten; there are four essential songs that simply cannot be omitted. So I list them separately to leave room for ten other great songs.

I’ve not included Amazon links for the various albums I mention, and not all the songs I mention are best heard on a specific album. If you want to discover most of these songs, the excellent Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack is perhaps the best way to check out the Dead. It’s got five CDs chock full of great music, from one of their most fecund periods. Sunshine Daydream (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) contains one of the Dead’s best concerts, 8/27/72, Veneta, Oregon, and has a partial film of the day. And One from the Vault (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) has the 8/13/75 show, from the Great American Music Hall, which contains the three-song combo I mention below, but also one of the rare performances of Blues for Allah. After that, you’re on your own.

Read more

Book Review: No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, by Peter Richardson

No simple highwayDeadology – or the study of the Grateful Dead – is a burgeoning industry. As the 50th anniversary of the band’s creation arrives this year, a number of new books about them are being published. No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, by Peter Richardson (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), differs from most of the existing books about the Dead by situating the band in the broader political and social context of their time.

Most books about the Grateful Dead – and about any popular musician – tend to be a series of anecdotes. There are plenty of good such books about the Grateful Dead, and one could say that the field doesn’t need any more. But this book is different. Written not by a band member or insider, No Simple Highway is the first “scholarly” history of the band.

Don’t let that term scare you away; the book isn’t boring at all, it’s quite well written and very interesting. But the author’s approach is that of someone who, while he grew up in San Francisco, didn’t really pay attention to the Dead until recently. Richardson looks at the band as a social phenomenon, rather than writing about the music and the people who make it. He spends a long time at the beginning of the book outlining the context of the period in which the Dead were formed, and then discusses how the counterculture that was active in San Francisco helped spawn this type of band. He examines the groups that were around the Grateful Dead – the Merry Pranksters, the Diggers, and others – that helped extend the Dead’s ethos. And he discusses the effect of acid and other recreational drugs on the society that the Dead was a part of.

In essence, only about half of this book is about the Grateful Dead; the rest discusses political and social issues. This isn’t a bad thing; quite the contrary. It’s good to see how the Dead were part of their time – this band couldn’t have existed as they did if they were formed in a different decade – and how they remained outside many of the social currents throughout their career.

Richardson looks at the defining events in the history of the Dead, from the festivals they played (or didn’t play), to the social events that rocked California, such as the Manson murders and the Jim Jones mass suicide. He spends a lot of time discussing both Nixon and Reagan, and highlighting how these presidents, and their policies, had a strong effect on the Dead and the people who followed them, through the “war on drugs,” as well as through other policies.

Richardson charts the Dead’s trajectory through their first decade or so, and then gives a sketchy overview of the band’s career. It’s fair to say that after about 1978, the Grateful Dead didn’t innovate much, and through the 80s and 90s were pretty much a concert machine, with little good new music. But there is probably more to say than to simply discuss Jerry Garcia’s health problems during that period.

As a scholar, Richardson remains on the sidelines, only discussing his attendance at a Furthur show with some “age-appropriate psychoactivity” at the very end of the book. As such, he misses the whole point of the Grateful Dead. He tries to explain the band’s importance like a sociologist, and even breaks his book into three sections, “Ecstasy,” “Mobility,” and “Community.” But these sections don’t really fit with the periods they cover. They seem like a scholarly attempt to define something that is ineffable, and he never explains why “there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” He gives a lot of facts, and facts are useful, but it seems odd to read a book that treats the Grateful Dead as an object of cultural research, while some of its members are still alive and playing music. The passage from a living cultural entity to one that is studied in universities is strange, and is likely to lead to more books of this type, attempting to “explain” the Grateful Dead, whereas all we need to understand this band is a few tapes and a stereo.

Update: in response to a question posed in a comment, here are the books about the Grateful Dead that I’ve found to be the most interesting:

Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia, by Robert Greenfield (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, by Dennis McNally (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Garcia: An American Life, by Blair Jackson (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead, by Phil Lesh (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Conversations with the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book, by David Gans (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

And a book to be published soon could be interesting: Deal, by Bill Kreutzmann (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)