The Grateful Dead are
OK: singer-songwriter Alex Mandel recalls crushing an icon’s musical tootsies.
BY ALEX MANDEL
Stepping on Jerry
I was driving through the snow-covered Sierra Nevada
mountains near Truckee. A succession of songs
emerged from the shuffle: Bon Iver, Elliot Smith, Iron and Wine, Gary Jules,
Fleet Foxes. It took me a while to register the next song, though it fit right
in. It was “China Doll” by the Grateful Dead. I suddenly recalled the time I
had stepped on Jerry Garcia’s toes.
I went to see a movie in San Rafael with a friend when I was 12, and
we spotted Garcia and his family. For some reason we decided to sit in the row
in front of them. I was wearing my black “Screaming Jerry” t-shirt. I stepped
on a foot stretched under the seats. As I apologized profusely, Garcia said,
“It’s OK man, it’s OK.” I can hear that distinctive, slightly nasally voice
I got to thinking about the Grateful Dead, recalling songs
that I really liked and how much some of these recent bands reminded me of
them. How many Dead songs talked about the Blue Ridge
Mountains, or featured a digression into free-form improvisation
before returning to the tune, or climaxed with a transcendent four-part
harmony? Had the listeners who enjoy these newer acts checked out the Dead’s
music? Or had a critical consensus been formed early on, influenced as often as
not by extra-musical considerations, and never really been examined? I resolved
to write down some notes about what had originally appealed to me about their
music, and how they had influenced my own musical attitudes.
As I reread through the lyrics of the Grateful Dead, I found
many of them unique and compelling. But you don’t need to take my word for
Bob Dylan’s latest studio album features collaborations with
Robert Hunter, best known as the primary lyricist for the Grateful Dead.
(Dylan’s last sustained songwriting collaboration was on “Desire”, more than 30
years ago.) If Hunter’s words are good enough for Dylan, that should say
Very early on, Jerry Garcia recognized he was a musician but
not a lyricist, and enlisted Hunter, a poet and songwriter in his own right.
Garcia’s decision initiated a writing partnership that lasted for decades, and
produced a massive and diverse body of lyrics. (Bob Weir, the band’s other main
songwriter, formed a similarly productive partnership with John Barlow). The
Dead’s songs are populated with saints and prophets, outlaws and gamblers,
storytellers by open fires, talking Devils, and three-time-losers with a last
shot at redemption. In other words, they inhabit a similar territory to the
lyrics of Dylan, Robbie Robertson, or Robert Johnson, or many of the folk songs
you might find in a compilation by the Lomaxes or Harry Smith.
Gateway to American
Years later, the main thing I appreciate about the Dead was
the amount of great music they revealed to me, through their voluminous covers.
Garcia was promiscuous when it came to great songs, and he also had great
Over time, they opened my mind and ears to Country (Merle
Haggard, Johnny Cash, Don Rollins, Hank Williams); Folk (Alan Lomax’s “Sounds
of the South”, Elizabeth Cotton); Blues (Lightin’ Hopkins); Bluegrass (David
Grisman and Tony Rice); and a bunch of great older popular songs, like “Lucky
Old Sun” (my favorite rendering is by Ray Charles). I bought Ornette Coleman’s
“The Shape of Jazz to Come” after Garcia guested on one of Coleman’s albums.
(Free-form improvisation was a central part of the Dead’s shows, and years
later Coleman sat in with them.) One day, after hearing an old bootleg of the
Dead playing the Fillmore with the Beach Boys, I picked up a used Pet Sounds LP
at the Marin City flea market. (The flea market is
now a mall.)
Inspired by these covers, I scoured my parent’s record
collection, discovering treasures like The Band’s “Music From Big Pink”,
Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” and CSNY’s “Déjà Vu” (Garcia played pedal steel
on “Teach Your Children’) – each of which remains one of my favorite albums to
It is hard to think of another band who embraced so many
different genres. Looking back I feel fortunate that they provided me with an
education in the breadth and depth of American popular music.
In Miles Davis memoir, Miles,
he uses compliments sparingly, especially for pop acts. Even Bill Evans’
post-Davis work is damned with faint praise. And yet he writes positively about
his conversations with Garcia and the Dead.
The original music of the Grateful Dead was as diverse as
its influences. Early 6/8 psychedelic largely improvised freak-outs like “The
Other One” in 1968 quickly made way to muted folk-rock gems like “Black Peter”,
“Friend of the Devil” and “Attics of My Life” in 1970 – a dramatic
transformation. (What happened? Perhaps Music
from Big Pink.)
Their early to mid-‘70s output –“Workingman’s Dead”
“American Beauty”, “Wake of the Flood”, “From the Mars Hotel”, “Blues for
Allah”, and Garcia’s solo records, “Reflections” and “Garcia” — contained some
great songs. These are the records that most closely remind me of the recent
wave of largely acoustic acts.
I love the incredibly slow tempos of songs like “Ship of
Fools”, “China Doll”, “Stella Blue”, “Wharf Rat”, and the mixolydian melodies
of “Birdsong”. The Dead had the confidence to perform these long, slow
minor-key dirges about fragility, morbidity and death, sweetened with harmonies
that sometimes fell flat — but when they hit them, they soared.
The Dead’s business model was revolutionary; they provide an
early model of self-sufficiency. They weren’t solicitous of success, didn’t
race off to L.A.
like countless other acts, they remained headquartered in the San Francisco Bay
Area. They started their own record label and their own studio. They built a
direct relationship with their audience. They toured incessantly. They didn’t
rely on major labels, radio play, or press – their albums were regularly
panned. They allowed their fans to tape shows and share their music —
eventually using an early version of the internet – a business model which
seemed radical at the time, but now seems inevitable. They played different
sets every night, and drew from a deep well of originals and covers, which they
rotated over the years, and played differently each time. In short, they did
things that a working band today that wants to try and make a living, and
control their destiny, probably ought to consider.
Recalling the Dead
Perhaps time plays tricks with memory until all that’s left
is the good stuff. I spent hours looking for a single version of “The Other
One” I could recommend, and failed. I realized the version I’d been hearing in
my head – with its perfect combination of Phil Lesh’s syncopated bass fill,
Garcia’s modal improvisations, and a collective climax – might not exist. My
mind had grafted countless bootlegs together to create a personal ideal of the
Who was that 13 year-old in a tie-died shirt and
Birkenstocks lugging a Nakamichi tape deck, a pair of shotgun mics from Radio
Shack, and a 4-pack of Maxell XLII-S cassettes to the Greek Theater? Reenacting
scenes from Carlos Casteneda while backpacking in Desolation Wilderness?
Working his way through the Dead and Dylan songbooks with some acoustic guitars
and a couple of friends? As awkward as some of those memories may be, I can’t –
as Thomas Pynchon memorably wrote in “Slow Learner” – exactly 86 this guy out
of my life, can I?
Turns out, with the calming benefit of distance and time, I
don’t want to. The years I spent listening to the Dead formed a lot of the
musical attitudes I still hold. It marked the foundation of an education in
American music that continues, in various forms, in fits and spurts, to this very
day. And it probably helped me appreciate this latest wave of acts who may as
well have stepped on Jerry Garcia’s toes, whether they realize it or not.
Alex Mandel is the songwriter
in The Echo Falls. The band: Mandel – vocals,
guitar; David Brandt – drums, vibraphone, vocals; David Arend – double bass. Their
self-titled debut album was released on November 17. Details, tour dates, song
samples and more can be found at the group’s MySpace page.