Dark Star Never Stops Shining

My old college buddy Carlos emailed me the other day with an invitation to see The Grateful Dead at the Meadowlands stadium in New Jersey. He said his brother is friendly with Branford Marsalis, who will be sitting in, and tickets could be had.
I want to go but can’t.
I also want the memories this has triggered to stop. It cannot have been this long since the first time I saw the Grateful Dead.
This post chronicles when and where, but first, children, there are things to explain:

  • A Dead show was not a “concert”. A Dead show was kind of like a party where the host just happened to be friends with this musical group and, hey, they decided to bring their equipment and play. It was the most casual no-showbiz happening you can imagine. No, actually, you can’t imagine.
    The Dead had no playlist. Whatever tunes they felt like playing when they felt like playing them is how it went. Cool. And each song was really, really long because they always opened it up for improv. And sometimes, the improv would segue into another tune which, in turn, was also opened up for improv so a half hour of non-stop music could easily go by before a break. Sometimes longer. They no longer do this, but back then, what the band did during breaks in between songs was almost comical: they would huddle together in the center of the stage by the drummers, lighting up cigarettes, tuning their instruments, talking amongst themselves, and then, after awhile they eventually came around to deciding what to play next, broke the huddle, and stepped back to their individual spots.
    Nobody in the audience found this strange in the slightest.
    Hey, the band’s talkin’ things over, that’s all. They need to talk. And tune up. It can’t be all play, play, play, right?

It was late Spring 1970. I was at an all-night party at a friend’s house in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, NY. A guy I was chatting with at the party mentioned that the Dead were playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, just a few blocks away. We just picked up and went – not a lot of girls at the party, I suppose. Tickets at the box office were no problem. The place was half empty!
At that time, Jerry Garcia – in addition to lead guitar and vocals with the Dead – had taken to playing pedal steel guitar with a group called The New Riders of The Purple Sage. Country rock. Pleasant laid-back stuff. We arrived shortly after the New Riders had started their first set. They played for about two hours. At one point a guy in the balcony shouted, “Bring On The Dead!” and almost got punched out. The moron didn’t understand that this was a party and the Riders, like himself, were guests and don’t be rude, asshole, remember this is still Brooklyn.
It was a very long night for Garcia. Two hours with the Riders and then the Dead came on about midnight. Loaded and ready.
The Dead had a reputation as a great band live. And shortly thereafter I understood.
It’s impossible to describe, of course. The sound just lifted you up and took you to places you’d never been. Words can only take you so far. The Dead mostly suck on record, unless it’s a live recording. I still listen to Dark Star from the “Live Dead” album and it still takes me away.
And it lives on. Last week my son, Evan, borrowed my car. When I got it back, “Live Dead” was in the player and “St. Stephen” came on when I turned the key.
Ladyfingers dipped in moonlight, that’s what it was like, yeah.

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3 responses to “Dark Star Never Stops Shining

  1. Hi Richie-
    This is a very poetic, nostalgic walk down memory lane. I was never lucky enough to hear the Dead live. I was in a band, Pandemonium Circus, that did a fair amount of jamming based on the Grateful dead model. We didn’t too many cover tunes of them, however. We mixed up the covers with lots of other band’s tunes, in addition to our own original material. And while this may sound like heresy, I think the better Dead material is the studio recordings. Which is not to say the live ones are bad. Quite the contrary, they too are outstanding. But I believe they are outstanding ( like Live Dead and the European live record) because the group knew the concerts were being recorded for later release. Perhaps this is not true, and I have no facts to base it on. It’s just my gut feeling. In any event, those two records just sound terrific, both audio wise and artistically. I have heard many bootleg Grateful Dead recordings on WBAI radio coming home Saturday nights from gigs, and didn’t think they sounded as good as the commercial releases. But this is just my opinion. I certainly understand if people do not agree.

  2. First, congratulations – you win! You are the first real human being – not an automated pingback or anything – to post to this blog. This, of course, entitles you to nothing but my gratitude.
    Yes, my post is way too harsh on their studio records, you’re right. “Sucked” is way overboard. What the studio records were, at least in the late sixties, early seventies, is unpolished. The mixes were strange. The arrangements off-the-cuff. Hurried. I guess that was part of the charm. Was it intentional? I don’t know.
    Phil Lesh’s entrance at the beginning of “Friend Of The Devil” still cracks me up. If there had been a “real” producer involved in those records, he would have stopped the tape, slammed open the door, and ripped Lesh a new one. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Phil?”
    But that was the Dead, for you. Get Lesh to tone it down; play a few less notes? No way.
    And yeah, the live record from the European tour is excellent.

  3. Richie…sorry to have messed with your mental health, but I gotta say that your post must have been of significant therapeutic value for you. It also set me to thinking about the first time I saw the Dead, and in turn it raised again my regret at having missed the opportunity to have seen them earlier than I ended up doing. My first opportunity to see them was at the Richmond Theater (as I recall it was called) in Cleveland the year we were there. NRPS opened the show, with Garcia on pedal steel—I remember because I listened to the show on the radio instead of going…I still can’t believe it. You and Parker went, as I recall.
    I finally saw them in the spring of ’73 when they made their first visit to Baltimore (and I can’t believe how long ago that was, either). I guess I’ve seen them about a 1/2 dozen times since; 2 of the shows stand out in my memory. One was a show with the Dead and The Band in Jersey City, probably around ’75. My cousin Meir, who had spent a few months with us in Baltimore was headed back home to Israel and we caught the show the night before he left. Chuck and my sister were there also. The other time was at RFK Stadium in ’94…my brother and sister took me for my 40th birthday. That was the last time I saw them; Garcia died the next year. BTW, we managed to get tickets for the show this Wednesday, and I’m pleasantly surprised at my excitement and anticipation.
    One more anecdote…I started listening to them in the late 60’s. There was a group of us kids in the neighborhood who were really into the progressive rock and roll of the day, mainly the Mothers, Fugs, Hendrix and other like bands. Mike Smith discovered the Dead, and I was introduced to them via Anthem of the Sun. It was a record that was a bit hard to get into; inconsistent sound quality, and much of the same deficiencies you mentioned in your post. I don’t think you remember, but I credit you with getting me to rethink them and getting me to see how good they really were. Specifically, you sat me down and had me listen to Johnny B. Goode from the skull and roses album; it was all downhill from there. So, a belated thank you. Ladyfingers dipped in moonlight, indeed.

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