Reporting Live from Deadland

by David Gans

I'm dancing with my notebook in my hand at the Shoreline Amphitheater on Friday, June 15, 1990. I've been avoiding this Folio article for two months, but now, awash in this music and collective consciousness, I know what I want to say. I get a lot of good thinking done at Grateful Dead shows.

Of the three dozen people in my row, I know about 12 by name and another 12 are nodding acquaintances from my eighteen years of attending these concerts. The number of people I know is unremarkable, given my job, but the number of my acquaintances who know each other is phenomenal. This is a reserved-seat show, so the number of strangers is a little higher than normal; last week at Cal Expo in Sacramento I probably could have told you the names of three quarters of the people within a hundred feet of me.

Following an excellent one-hour opening set and a 45-minute interval full of visiting and shopping and eating, the second set opened with "Scarlet Begonias," a brisk song with a powerhouse rhythm track, provocative lyrics and jazzy tonality. It's a great dancing song and a great jamming song. I was at the Cow Palace in 1974 when they played it for the first time, and I was at Winterland in March 1977 when they plunked "Fire on the Mountain" full-grown into the middle of the Scarlet Begonias jam; the two songs have been inseparable for the most part ever since. I wasn't in Portland when "Fire on the Mountain" and Mt. St. Helens erupted simultaneously, but the story is often told by those who were.

Not far from me I see a feature writer from the Examiner, probably not here on assignment but rather, as always, for the sheer boogie magic of the Dead's music. He has written eloquently and accurately about the Dead many times - like me, and other professionals in the crowd, he likes to put his day job together with his fun wherever possible.

In the spot where drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are usually left alone onstage with their huge array of world percussion instruments and digital sampling devices, guitarist Jerry Garcia stays out there with them for a while. This is unusual and exciting! I am one of the Deadheads who really loves it when they do something entirely new. Others of my acquaintance experience the music more viscerally, less concerned with the intellectual nuances; this music appeals to people who dance, people who play (I'd wager that a quarter of the men in attendance are guitar players or otherwise involved in hands-on musicianship; I'm not sure about the women), people who listen intently to the lyrics and to the sequence of songs, etc. Right around now I'd say I'm a listener who is learning to be a dancer.

Now the drummers have left the stage and Garcia, Bob Weir (guitar) and Phil Lesh (bass) are involved in an unstructured improvisation. It's a mordant concoction of mutated samples, recordings of real instruments which are manipulated using ultra-modern digital technology and triggered by the "real" instruments. Jerry's "flute" becomes a sort of trumpet that twangs like a sitar. Some Transylvanian pipe organ moods are interposed, and then the drummers and keyboardist Brent Mydland return to the stage and the beat begins to sift itself into the breathless 12/8 of "The Other One." This is the Dead's most durable vehicle, in the repertoire since 1967, and it has never once failed to satisfy. This is scary/joyful music, with heart-pounding urgency in every beat: "Escaping through the lily field, I came across an empty space," Weir sings. "It trembled and exploded, left a bus stop in its place/The bus come by and I got on, that's when it all began..." -- the Dead at their most thrilling, pumping out energy and emotion and conviction.

Now they're easing out of the jam, winding down into one of Garcia's rueful ballads. Tonight it's "Wharf Rat," a story within a story, with two narrators - one a little deeper in the Slough of Despond than the other, probably, but little is said of the first speaker's circumstances. That is the source of much of lyricist Robert Hunter's power: his songs are rich in detail and characterization but also sketchy, leaving large unpainted spaces for the beholder to interpolate ideas from his own mental landscape. In "Wharf Rat," we are given to ponder the similarities and differences between these two narrators in the face of the bleakness and redemption at the song's climax.

We ride out on a grand, arching Jerry Garcia guitar solo - no mutant instruments here - and then the band shifts smartly into a moderate-tempo reading of Chuck Berry's "Around and Around." This song fell out of the rotation for a few years and recently returned with a nicely indeterminate set of ending possibilities. The last time I heard them do this song they tacked on a crisp instrumental coda; tonight Weir brings the chord progression back with a smoky, intimate beat, but before long they've brought it all the way back up, rocking the fullness. It's a great way to end the set, a novel musical extension brilliantly played. To top it off, they add a James Brown-style false ending and take it through one more time.

The encore is "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," the second Bob Dylan song of the evening (the first was "Desolation Row," one of those bitter, big-screen ballads with a little something for every occasion). The Dead's repertoire includes many Dylan songs; "When I Paint My Masterpiece" has been a favorite lately, like last week when it was the perfect accompaniment to a gorgeous sunset over Sacramento. The story of the sunset will accompany the tapes of the show from Deadhead to Deadhead across the country and around the world.

A couple in their seventies, one of several such pairs I know who attend most of the Dead shows in the bay area, are in the row in front of me. Behind me is Sharon, who I rarely see at shows but with whom I work every year at the Bammies. She is visiting with Michael, a friend of an old friend of mine. I didn't know they knew each other, but nothing surprises me about the friendships and connections in this community.

The Grateful Dead scene - at concerts and between tours - teems with energy, intrigue, commitment, crime, obituaries, recipes, literature, childbirth and - most of all - music. It is music that binds the lives of these thousands to the fortunes of some hundreds of workers and entrepreneurs and to the inspiration of half a dozen musicians and their respective collaborators. My friends took me to my first Grateful Dead concert in March 1972, and it was the music that brought me back again and again. I have been attending - in the company of many of those same friends - more than half of my life. I long ago lost track of how many Grateful Dead concerts I've attended, but it's well over 300 by now. Along the way I have wandered from the upper reaches of Winterland to a comfortable spot by the onstage monitor mixer, with many stops in between. The relationship between the band and crew and the Deadheads is sometimes pretty strange, and since I prefer to identify myself as a member of the audience that's usually where I hang out. I'm happiest these days in that audio sweet spot between the stage and the sound board, but I usually don't pay the dues to get there so I often watch from reasonable seats in the "Phil Zone" (stage right). I used to sit stock still, listening with my musician's head, but not any more. Now I try to keep moving through the fiery bubble of it, solving riddles and posing thoughts as I wander among the various elements: the music, the lyrics, the onstage interactions, the audience, my companions, and my internal dialogs on a variety of subjects. I've gotten some of my best ideas at Dead shows, cried some of my best tears, solved some of my knottiest problems, received some of my most productive inspirations.

It is a privilege to serve the Deadhead community across America and a strong hit of genuine freedom to do so on KPFA every week (after an unsettling year in commercial syndication, I brought the program to public/community radio where diversity is acceptable and ratings are not the primary measure of success). I respectfully submit that the Deadheads are a mindful lot and a worthwhile addition to the cultural mix of the station.

I take the freedom of KPFA very seriously, I must add. I am required by political necessity to bleep the word "fucker" from "Wharf Rat"; in a world that is capable of punching such random holes in the fabric of liberty, we all have a lot of defending and celebrating to do. The Deadheads are for the most part a white, well-educated and well-heeled lot, but that does not exempt us from the shadow of oppression that creeps across the landscape. I sincerely hope that we are able to spend the lion's share of our time here celebrating rather than defending the truth and fun of American life.

I know there are more significant things I could be doing in this world, but I have the privilege of working closely with the music of the Grateful Dead. I have been speaking this musical language nearly as long as I have been hearing it, and my hands-on knowledge of its workings informs my appreciation of the music as listening matter. I put the Dead's best foot forward on the radio every week; with apologies to the late Joseph Campbell and Madge the manicurist, I'm not just following my bliss, I'm soaking in it!

This article first appeared in the July/August 1990 KPFA Folio

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