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Garcia Plays Dylan


When Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead played a series of shows together in the late 80s, the whole thing barely rose to the level of fiasco. What a collection of knuckleheads. The results exemplify the endearing dilemma of the Dead: finding the sound was a process, never fully achieved.

That having been said, Garcia and company, over the years, regularly succeeded in performing Dylan tunes of notable artistry. Crusty old Bob himself probably acknowledges that some renditions of his songs by the Dead, or by the Jerry Garcia Band, are markedly better than Dylan’s own versions, live or recorded.

This affinity intrigues me. It should intrigue you. (Well, to be precise, I suppose it should if you like any Dylan or Dead tunes: a category, I venture, inclusive of all Americans.)

Think of it this way. Certain stylistic obstacles had to be surmounted before folks would embrace whole collections called, “Garcia Plays Dylan.”

Consider what we might call the performance personae. Over the years Dylan often has often exuded indifference, varying in undercurrent from polite to contemptuous, for his crowds; while in contrast, esteem for the Dead often arises foremost from the extending warmth and liveliness of their performances. Far from indifferent or cold to the crowd, Garcia and the boys frequently absorbed energy and character from the audience.

Then there is the fact that the Dead outsourced a huge portion of the composition of their lyrics to Robert Hunter, while Dylan’s supreme and singular concentration on lyrics earned him a Nobel Prize. (Hunter also, interestingly, collaborated with Dylan on the underrated 2009 album Together Through Life, as well as a smattering of other songs, including the fantastic groove opener to 2012’s Tempest, “Duquesne Whistle.”)

Perhaps a satisfactory answer to this minor riddle unfolds out of long interviews in Rolling Stone with that selfsame Robert Hunter, printed back in 2015.

These interviews supply quite a few revelations. We learn that Garcia always thought of the Grateful Dead as a dance band: tight formation, hit the beats: an improv crew that could keep folks on their toes.

“Jerry had written ‘boogie’ on his pedal steel guitar, so he wouldn't forget to boogie.” This despite Jerry’s low opinion of his own pedal steel play (see below).

So that’s right: boogie. The Dead played concerts for people who wanted to party. (And if your only notion of “to party” amounts to dropping acid or snorting cocaine or drinking until you can’t stand up, I suggest you dial that one back. It’s sheer nonsense to suppose that you have to be intoxicated to enjoy this music.)

Anyway, all this crowd-pleasing, we’re given to understand, sat ill with Hunter, himself a crusty son of a gun in the mold of Dylan. In other words, perhaps this supreme lyricist did not share Garcia’s liveshow ebullience.

Ponder, in that light, Garcia’s own statements about his pedal steel guitar play:

Pedal steel was an instrument that was on my mind since back in the days when I was a banjo player. I didn’t want to get that serious about it because I knew it was extremely difficult and that I’d have to spend a lot of time to actually get into it. It’s so difficult, man, and my playing is so mediocre I can’t begin to tell you how embarrassed I am about my playing on the damn thing. Really, it’s lamentable. Oh, I get off on it. It’s really fun, but that doesn’t mean that I can do it well. It’s kind of like standing up on a pair of skates; it makes you happy.

Garcia played an instrument at which, by his own admission, he only rose to the level of mediocrity: why? Because he wanted to boogie.

There’s a studio outtake version of “Catfish John,” a song mostly associated with Jerry Garcia Band, which illustrates the principle. They’re covering an obscure country song. It’s the Dead just having a ton of fun; tight rhythms and funky dance percussion; a song that swings the hips.

Meanwhile, the Dead and JGB played a wide range of Motown classics, dance music if ever there was any. “How Sweet It Is,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Second that Emotion,” “Roadrunner Baby”: these are songs written and played to audiences who came to dance.

Another annoyance for Hunter, and this one has to hit San Franfreako right in the gut: “Jerry also didn’t like songs that had political themes to them, and in retrospect I think this was wise, because a lot of the stuff with political themes from those days sounds pretty callow these days.” Indeed.

So looking back, Hunter grants that Garcia was right in both cases. (1) Party with the crowd and (2) avoid alienating them with vapid political sanctimony.

Ever since about 1964, Dylan, as well, has eschewed callow political themes; and even his earlier “topical” material pulses with enigmatic lyrical content that politics cannot contain. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” sometimes lazily assumed to presage the Commie-funded disarmament movement, could just as easily be interpreted as a kind of soundtrack to Witness, Whittaker Chambers’ incomparable anti-Communist classic. Readers will recall that Chambers was a Soviet spy who repudiated atheistic Communism when, looking upon his child’s ear, he espied for the first time the indelible image of God in man. An earlier moment of spiritual crisis for Chambers came when his wife conceived that child. Soviet spies, you see, were under no-child orders (this is forty years, by the way, before The Americans). But even as atheists, the Chambers could not think of abortion as an option; so they lied to their Soviet handler and received their son with joy.

In the Dylan song, the singer addresses his apocalyptic imagery to “my blue-eyed son.” I cannot speak to the color of Chambers’ son’s eyes, but one of the song’s most vivid lines is: “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it.” Every time I hear that line I think of Whittaker Chambers, who, seeing the deathly wild wolves surrounding a newborn baby, chose life; and thereby set in motion one of the great dramas of the early Cold War, when he courageously exposed the Soviet spy network of which he had so long been a member.

The absence of callow political themes often preserves a great song against the fetters of a narrow conformity to historical context, thus vouchsafing its literary power for generations to come. One need only think of John Lennon’s embarrassing lyrics in “Imagine” to grasp the point. “Callow” would be a generous description for those words.

In conclusion, I’m going to just be honest. I’ve sat on this essay for months, run it by some Deadhead friends, reworked it, never been satisfied: still don’t have a conclusion. So I’ll leave it at that. Bob Dylan and the Dead retain a strange connection, not easily explained but easily enjoyed.

My thanks to my old friend Chris Mozingo for his invaluable help to compose this.

Comments (7)

The Dead were a dance band extraordinaire -- in an era that blew up the existing conception of what it meant to 'dance' or to 'have a party.'

For Garcia, they were always a bluegrass band too; as Garcia's guitar stylings never lost their banjo-esque angularity, and the whole band coalesced around group improvisation (not the acid-informed 'jamming' that most of their peers did, but something akin to the give-and-take of bluegrass. And around that bass of Phil's (which especially in the earlier improvisational days pre-1973 was the most outstanding instrumental feature of all -- more than the 2 drummers, and more than Jerry's playing alone, or Jerry's and Bob's interactions).

The other link between Dylan and the Dead is the Beatles (and marijuana). Forget about the acid, it's the weed at the Dead concerts or at any concert that imbues the collective attitude of "let's dig these sounds and get inside them and see where they take us!" -- not that different from that of jazz audiences. Dylan was reputed to have been the one to turn on the Beatles to weed (and we certainly saw it affect their music immediately on the Rubber Soul and subsequent records), but once again the Dead are connected to the Beatles. Both the aspects of cultural change and consciousness expansion AND the still-abiding orientation to encourage dancing was retained in the Beatles, and in some ways the Dead were the most American manifestation of the social change and musical 'attitude adjustment' caused by the Beatles.

On the other hand, Dylan was an instrumentalist (and indeed vocalist) of rather modest range and flexibilities, and so he always sought out great improvising musicians like a Bloomfield or Garcia et al, to give his music life and breathing space.

In retrospect, and upon research into a million only slightly-overlapping fields, I've come to believe that Dylan wasn't even the writer of a lot of his stuff. Whereas Hunter as lyricist, together with Garcia and Weir too (throw in an honorable mention to Weir's lyrical music Barlow) created a formidable unique and multi-faceted songbook all their own in the Grateful Dead oeuvre.

I've recorded Dark Star already, plan to re-record it in a completely different version later, but meanwhile am preparing to record Weir's "Jack Straw" -- as good a song as anything Dylan ever wrote, IMHO

That was either the best comment on music in this blog's history, or Google's top-line AI "generate a Grateful Dead comment" algorithm.

Heh. Thanks, Eric. I disagree with several things in that, but I love the J.P. Barlow mention.

Just curious: what do you disagree with (other than my remark about Dylan's authorship of some of his)?

Errata: I meant to say "Weir's lyrical MUSE, Barlow"

In light of Dave McGowan and others' researches, we can see the pertinence of your observation that the Dead by design avoided pointed political commentary -- and that in fact most of the 60s rock greats were alike in this. McGowan's point was that this WAS the project behind the corporate sponsorship of otherwise subversive or 'counter-cultural' music trends: deflect a whole generation away from protesting wars in general or Vietnam in particular, or at least trivialize their efforts in that regard.

Friends here in the Bay Area closely monitor each year's Bohemian Grove encampments, and want to know what the meaning is of Bob Weir's frequent sightings there, Bono-esque in slacks and polo shirt as he confabs with unhip suits. I didn't know, but I have some unquiet notions about it.

On what basis do you write: "I've come to believe that Dylan wasn't even the writer of a lot of his stuff."

Either Dylan wrote it, or someone else with the same name and abilities.

Crusty old Bob himself probably acknowledges that some renditions of his songs by the Dead, or by the Jerry Garcia Band, are markedly better than Dylan’s own versions, live or recorded.

Question: did Dylan ever publicly own up to his limitations in singing, or are you just surmising? And, same question about "stage presence"? That is to say, did he think of his lack of "catering to" his audience (to put it in a positive light) rather than something more Garcia-like was an actual improvement of the performance, or was it just his own cantankerous revolt against fan-adoration that was so prevalent in performances by other artists?

To the first question, Tony, the answer seems to be yes. Here's quote from an article in Rolling Stone twelve years ago: “The Dead did a lot of my songs, and we’d just take the whole arrangement, because they did it better than me. Jerry Garcia could hear the song in all my bad recordings, the song that was buried there. So if I want to sing something different, I just bring out one of them Dead records and see which one I wanna do. I never do that with my records.”

The answer to the second question is far less clear. Enigmatic, you might say. For one thing, there was the early experience of violent hostility from folk crowds to Dylan's electric music (Garcia himself walked out on a Dylan show for that very reason), which found a later parallel in the rejection of his Christian music 15 years later. Part of it also arises from Dylan's jealousy-guarded sense of privacy, which is evident across his career. The audience is just a mass of strangers, in the end. In later years, this has manifested itself as an aloof professionalism; there's just very little interaction between him and the crowd. He's cordial but distant. Whether he was trying to make a point, being deliberately cantankerous, or just reacting organically based on his own personality, I cannot say.

By textual analysis of his songs from different periods, and also comparing them to those of contemporaries. And in light of his furtiveness about his real intent, etc. I've run these ideas by a couple others I know who are more learned in poetry than I am, and they didn't completely shout me down. We know songwriters 'borrow' liberally from others, and I've had reason to believe Neil Young and others just outright stole some of their song ideas. I think "Like A Rolling Stone" resembles Paul Simon's writing style and verbal range very smartly. The chronology is good too, Simon was there and pumping out songs like this at that time. Leonard Cohen could have easily written "Tangled Up In Blue" or "Shelter From The Storm" and I would bet a nickel that he in fact did.

The best thing about Dylan musically is that he had a jazzman's or a bluesman's approach to recording -- he said, "Here's how this song goes" and then he'd go 'OK, roll it!' And what you got was almost every Dylan track -- some rough edges, but a fresh, spur of the moment feeling. He generally had terrific backing musicians, who by definition could 'wing it' on first takes in the studio (just like the great jazz records like those by Miles Davis are). And so Dylan getting with the Dead makes sense, since those guys knew and loved his music, and they were already set up to be able to 'wing it' in whatever direction. On the other hand, that Dylan and the Dead album that was released was almost a joke or something -- neither the band nor Dylan ever sounded more unfocused, to these ears.

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