The Grateful Dead: Trying to Figure Out this Odd SF Rock Band
By Richard Goldstein
A good album, like those long lasting cold remedies, is filled with tiny time capsules which burst open at their own speed. Cuts that astound at first fade as subtle ballads emerge. Great blasts of noise vanish as haunting melodies appear. A line suddenly hits home...a phrase...a shade of meaning, and the whole album becomes something else again.
The shape of a good album changes constantly. A review can never be anything more than a synthesis of moments. When technical trickery wears thin, and novelty loses its appeal is the time to evaluate a piece of work. The test of time doesn't mean very much; repetition is all. The good albums stick; the great ones transmigrate.
The Grateful Dead, San Francisco's most highly touted tock band, have released an album which is a perfect illustration of this time-gap principle. It is straight, decent rhythm and blues -- some of it so civil it passes for dull. Certainly, this is no "psychedelic" music. It doesn't fuzz, except in spots. It doesn't squeal inside your head like a dentist's drill. It isn't even in a minor key.
In fact, on first hearing the Grateful Dead is the Butterfield Blues Band in Merry Prankster drag. "The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion" turns out to be plain old rock with vocal harmonies that remind you of the Mamas and the Papas, of all things. "Beat It on Down the Line" is the kind of putty R and B Barry Goldberg stretches into a 20-minute magnum opus. "Good Morning Little School Girl" has a raunchy, funky sound. Lines like "I wanna put a tiger, baby, in your sweet little tank" fulfill all criteria for blue eyed soul, a la Eric Burdon. Further on, there is "Sitting on Top of the World," a snazzy touch of bluegrass, "Cream Puff War," with a modified Young Rascals vocal, "Morning Dew," with instrumental lines right off the Jefferson Airplane album (listen to "Today" alongside this cut) and a 10-minute blues excursion which breaks no rules, stretches no boundaries, and won't even rankle your middle ear. Ten minutes that don't deafen is just not psychedelic, man. And a lust-song with implications -- baby, what ever happened to acid passivity?
I don't think this album has much of a future with the underground. It dispels utterly the treasured myth that the psychedelic experience automatically turns a musician to specific forms of expression -- like atonality, baroque harmonica, or raga. The Grateful Dead give the lie to most technical embellishments which have become psychedelic symbols in our music. The people who first decided that any musician worth his head has to wreak electronic havoc were businessmen. Straight or stone, a rock band is a rock band.
The Grateful Dead play music with an optimistic simplicity that is the San Francisco sound. All the prototechnics of the recording studio are forsaken for a straight, "live" effect. It feels spontaneous; it sounds honest. The Dead are in utter interaction on this album. Theirs is the kind of leaderless co-operation you seldom find in rock 'n' roll, and the tightness in their music shows it. The Grateful Dead are a musical community.
...The Grateful Dead will let you down if you're expecting some of the unbearable auditory torture that goes by the name of revelation these days. But, at the first sign of hi-fi headache, cabaret intestinal distress, or malaise-of-the-scene, I intend to slip this disc on my meagre phonograph and relax while the time capsules flower.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]