The Annals of Improvisation:

David Gans and the Grateful Dead Hour

By Steve Silberman

The Grateful Dead may be the most successful touring rock and roll band in history, but that doesn't mean they're understood. Sure, the fans know that the Dead have produced - 70-80 nights a year for 30 years - music of such uncompromising intensity and boundary-stretching esprit that they make sense of Frank Zappa's assertion that "rock and roll is the only religion left with any juice in it." Sure, the fact that everybody from Branford Marsalis to Neil Young to Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan has jammed with them would indicate that musicians consider the Dead worthy allies for an assault on Unexplored Musical Territory. But newspaper reporters have a penchant for pigeonholing what the Dead do - as if the Dead hadn't always been fleet mercury, recklessly evolving steps ahead of any category. Like Miles Davis, or Duke Ellington, or anyone whose art outlasts their fame.

The Duke metaphor is not a bad one. Like the Dead, Duke cultivated a band which could play anything: Latin, blues, be-bop, abstract - but always cooking. Like the members of the great Ellington units, the individual Grateful Dead could have been prized soloists, and each defines his instrument; identifiable after a bar or two, no matter what mode they're in.

They're not soloists, however, but members of a brazen collaborative experiment that has outlasted any other rock and roll band, period. Which partly explains the musical telepathy they've practically trademarked. Of course, when they got together 30 years ago, there weren't that many other rock bands in the world, so they just did what they had the hankering, and the training and chops, to do: mix up bluegrass, old-timey ballads, the Beatles, R & B, classic blues, free jazz, Indian talas, and Stockhausen in a nuclear reactor (without-a-net improvisation) and see what boiled out. Luckily, the better part of their vast output has been committed to tape.

Tapes of the Grateful Dead, caught at their moments of most passionate inspiration, is what David Gans plays on his show, the Grateful Dead Hour. You don't have to tell Deadheads about it - they know, and keep the Maxell and TDK people just tickled with the volume of cassettes snatched up to tape the broadcasts in the 75 or so spots of civilization where Gans' show is aired weekly. You don't have to tell Dick Latvala, the archivist of the Dead's own vault, who said, "It's the greatest stuff you can get. I'm proud of him. I wish something like that was around when I started collecting tapes."

And you don't have to tell all the Deadheads in cyberspace - the "NetHeads" and WELL-heads who not only listen to the show, but consider Gans to be the foremost Dead authority online. Deadheads colonized the Internet and are migrating Web-ward, and Gans is one of the most articulate exponents of unsentimentally humane perspectives on the new frontier. The Grateful Dead Hour is not only a font of great live music, it's a forum for what Wired magazine calls "idees fortes" - ideas of magnitude that shape culture.

There's a game I like to play with non-Deadheads. I'll put on a tape of, say, the Dead trading long lines with a Nubian tar player, then a late-'60s roadhouse blues, a sailor's lament by Jerry Garcia with the Black Mountain Boys, then a cover of Dylan's "Visions of Johanna," then Mickey Hart's soundtrack to Apocalypse Now, a Hank Williams number, then a psychedelic epic falling into a rabbit hole of prepared piano. After awhile, they usually ask what radio station it is. "It's the Dead," I'll say. "That was all the Dead?"

That's why the Grateful Dead Hour is anything but one-note. I'd feel sorry for anyone else who had to make a weekly radio show out of a single band's oeuvre. With the Dead, you'd use up all nine lives listening to half of it. That allows Gans the luxury of skimming the creme de la creme from the Dead's legendary Vault, and his well never runs dry. For a decade, Gans has beamed into the heartland the sort of take-no-prisoners improvisational pyromania that makes young listeners decide they want to pick up an instrument yesterday. And Gans serves his audience (and the band) well, by selecting the moments when the Muse makes her grand entrance in splendor, not the streches when she's tapping her foot waiting for a bus down to the gig. Like a map of Tibet, the Grateful Dead Hour is all peaks.

That doesn't mean everyone will like the Grateful Dead Hour. Some people prefer the kind of radio where the pimple-cream spots fade imperceptibly into the programming. That's not Gans' gig. Taking an example from the Dead, who aren't afraid to bust a sweat to make every night a unique event, Gans crafts his sets, interviews, and outrageously funny and inventive audio collages to surprise and enlighten. There's something about the Dead that slips away from the grasping fingers of categorization and commercialization (despite their Fortune magazine success). The truth, say Zen Buddhists, is like an avocado pit - pithy and slippery. Gans has just the right mixture of Crazy Wisdom and that uncommon sense Jewish grandmothers call "shmarts" to keep the edge of his commentary as sharp as the state-of-the-art digital production tools he uses.

In the end, it's all that music, quickened by what Allen Ginsberg called "art's primordial majesty."

I've often reflected that when future historians excavate our time, they're going to stumble into a miraculous cave called the Grateful Dead, and marvel at the bristling fur and piercing eyes recorded on the illuminated walls. I hope they have the well-preserved archives of the Grateful Dead Hour to show them what it was like to ride out into the wild American night for the Hunt.

Steve Silberman is co-author of Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads (Doubleday, 1994) and co-host of the Well's "Deadlit" conference. You can order an autographed copy of Skeleton Key by calling 1-800-321-9578.

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