Entertainment July/August 2012

A Long, Strange Trip

How a new 14-DVD box set turned me on to the Dead

It’s on Wednesday that I feel, for the first time and with a perverse sense of relief, the great sadness of Jerry Garcia. The disc is called Dead Ahead, and it features an October 1980 show at Radio City Music Hall. Garcia is gray-faced, with gray in his beard, and the lilting, tilting almost-reggae of “Fire on the Mountain” (lyrics by the Dead laureate Robert Hunter) becomes—rather magnificently—not just a study in but an enactment of complete artistic burnout/befrazzlement. You’re playin’ cold music on the barroom floor / Drowned in your laughter and dead to the core … Garcia’s voice is plaintive and pure, his guitar-playing still almost obsessively pretty, but this must be the undertow, the downside, the shadow of the Dead. Improvisation has its hazards, in life as in art. And having cultivated over 15 years a unique state of exposure to the music, and to everything that goes with the music (“The existential reality,” he said once, “is note to note”), Garcia is paying the price: Almost ablaze still you don’t feel the heat / It takes all you got just to stay on the beat … Intolerably sad, yes, but it makes me feel better about the Dead and their people. I knew there had to be a low in there somewhere. Drug-tingles and swoopy dancing will only get you so far. To make the big-time connection, the one that lasts, you must confess to brokenness.

On Thursday, I get turned off. The disc is called View From the Vault III. It’s 1990, we’re at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in California, and the song is “Touch of Grey,” a mid-paced, potbellied rocker (and late hit for the Dead) that turns on an easy-breezy refrain of “It’s alright …” Bob Weir is wearing distressingly tiny shorts. Garcia, large and unhealthy-looking, nods and smiles through a drizzle of expiring neurons: Draw the curtains, I don’t care, ’cause / It’s alright Bounce, bounce go the Hacky Sacks in the parking lot: some of them haven’t touched the ground for six months. Now the infamous “Drums” has begun, and Mickey Hart—from deep in his mad-professor laboratory of percussion—is gleefully forcing horrible electrified sounds out of a large metal loop. Zinnngg … zungggg … bit-dit-dit … Appalled, I recoil into crude binary thinking: I must have the first four Ramones albums now, all at once, as a matter of neurological necessity.

It’s now Friday, and, feeling somewhat burned by the late-era indulgences of Thursday, I’ve looped back shakily to 1974, to a disc of bonus material from The Grateful Dead Movie. The band is at Winterland, harmonizing with rugged sweetness, with telepathic lightness, through “I Know You Rider.” And for a second I seem to get it, the strange, demanding liberty of this sound, its perpetual and chemically sustained availability to the thing, whatever the thing might be. I am stirred. Have I glimpsed the rim of Dead satori, or has my head merely gone soft? Three men are singing this song, traditionally a woman’s blues ballad heaving with sex and regret, and it’s become one of the Dead’s mutability cantos: I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train / I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train / I’d shine my light through the cool Colorado rain How moving these lines are. Pristine, disembodied, American. And open-ended, like the Dead.

Presented by

James Parker

Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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