Originally posted October 29, 2010.
In my top 25, I outline the music I have listened to most regularly over many decades. Music in our house is played upon awakening and continues until we go to bed. That means that in any given week, we play a lot of music. The list includes artists I am likely to play while I am working and others Debbie and I are likely to play in the evening. This week’s pick certainly doesn’t fall into the latter category—Debbie generally does not find them tolerable..
To make the list, an artist must not only have a substantial catalog, but also, in most cases, have held my interest for years. There was a period in the ’50s when Bo, Chuck, Bill Haley, and Little Richard dominated my turntable., but because this hasn’t been the case for decades, none of these artists appears on my list. My pick for #21, the Grateful Dead, is unusual in that even though they’ve been around for ages, I only started listening to them recently.
I can appreciate how Debbie and others may have little interest in a group that began its 30-year run as a ragtag contingent of not very good musicians. The original Dead back in the mid-’60s featured Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on vocals and keyboards. “Strained” is too kind a word to describe Pig’s contributions. In the early days, Phil Lesh was just getting started on the bass, Jerry Garcia was still running on his bluegrass groove, Bobby Weir was a clueless punk with strictly limited guitar skills, and super rhythm drummer Mickey Hart had yet to make an appearance. For my money, only Bill Kreutzmann came out of the gates swinging.
From their inauspicious beginning, I didn’t get the Dead and stayed clear of them for years. It was not until a year ago that I finally began to pay attention to their work. Since then, I have spent a good part of every day and a pile of money catching up on all the Dead music I have missed. I would be remiss in not noting a fair amount of off-key playing, forgotten lyrics, mind wandering, and dropped beat efforts. Discipline, form and focus just never found their way into the Dead‘s repertoire. One can only imagine how a long history of abusive mind-expanding enhancers might addle the brains. So the music of the Dead includes the good, the truly great, and the sloppy.
With the alcohol-induced final departure of Pigpen in 1973, all things musical began to look up for the Dead. By then Mickey had formed a strong bond with the more conventional Billy to produce a powerhouse backbeat. Phil had morphed into one of the most original bass players on the American music scene. Jerry Garcia had become a distinctive and dominant guitar voice and a unique, if somewhat thin, lead vocal. Bobby Weir had no place to go but up as rhythm guitar and second lead vocal, and up he climbed. Finally, the keyboard chair was filled first by the capable Keith Godchaux (RIP 1980), then Brent Mydland (RIP 1990), and finally Vince Welnick (RIP 1996). All made substantial contributions to a cohesive group effort. Also making a distinctive contribution on background vocals during her husband’s tenure with the band was Donna Godchaux. Her time with the Dead helped to form a distinctive sound for the group that was absent without her.
Not surprising, never in their 30-year history were the Dead much of a studio band. Getting everyone to show up on time, deal with “the suits” at the record labels, and focus enough to assemble an album of three-minute tunes was usually not in the cards. From day one, the Dead was a stretching-out jam band best heard live. Few bands have as extensive a live music catalog (I’d mention the Dick’s Picks series of discs available from Rhino).
Over the last year I have assembled a substantial collection of Dead records and CDs, as well as books. The long tenure of the group and its evolution from basically a garage band to a finely tuned (if you can call it that) contingent is an amazing story. I recently spent time comparing some of my other top-rated self-contained musical outfits to the Dead. This musical experiment matched the power of the Dead against Weather Report, the Allman Brothers, and the Band. I was initially prepared to rank the Dead behind all the other contenders. After repeated listening, I ended up with the Dead on top—despite my slight bias against them going into the musical face-off.
The end of the road for America’s greatest rock ’n’ roll jam band arrived without notice with the passing of Jerry Garcia on August 9, 1995. I distinctly remember where Debbie and I were when we got the news. I’m sad to have missed out on the Dead in their heyday, never having seen so much as a single Dead concert. Never in my five decades of being immersed in music have I missed out on a great group for so long. If you feel about the Dead as I originally did, I hope my introduction here will help motivate you to give them a listen. To get started, pick up the two-CD, one-DVD package Crimson, White & Indigo and the July 1987 two-CD set Truckin’ up to Buffalo featuring “Bertha” and “Cold Rain and Snow.” Enjoy!