|John Oswald-Canadian Sound Artist|
This essay will discuss what, in many ways, is the coolest Grateful Dead album: John Oswald's Grayfolded, released in 1994. It is one continuous piece of music (2 CDs) consisting of over 100 versions of the Dead's signature piece, "Dark Star". There may be 2 seconds of one version, 12 seconds of just one isolated instrument from another version, or 7 uninterrupted minutes of yet another version. There may be a 1971 Phil Lesh playing bass to a 1990 Garcia lead with a 1974 Bill Kreutzmann ratta-tatting away. The vocals (very few and far between) feature multiple Garcia's spanning 20 years. The over all effect is his young voice, but with close listen you can detect a few layers of croaky old Jerry from 1989-92.
|JG-No Glasses. 1987|
|JG-No Glasses. 1969|
Some of the coolest moments are when, for example, a 1970 Garcia run seems to perfectly complement something he was playing in 1991. (of course, that '70 tone--an SG through a Fender amp is much more palatable to these ears than the custom guitar, MIDI set up, a zillion effects blah blah...which, to me, took all the life out the entire band's sound. And no doubt cost a fortune. Why couldn't have they been more like Crazy Horse? Well, if one does their homework, The Grateful Dead were always total tech nerds.)
Here's a movie I made of my favorite track. Vimeo let me upload it. You Tube did not. I may be a convert. Or not. Anyway, watch this and be prepared to be blown out of your beanbag:
(Give this track 90 seconds to take off...then make sure your volume isn't too high. Not many people are aware of this aspect of the Dead)
Fault Forces--John Oswald mixes up some noisy Dead moments from Brian Marchese on Vimeo.
Commissioned by the band, Oswald, the Canadian composer/sound-collage artist, whose work was admired by members of the Dead (he'd remixed Michael Jackson's BAD, which apparently the band loved), knew little to nothing of the Dead's music. He had quite a task on his hands: compile "the ultimate 'Dark Star' out of the hundreds of versions in the Dead's vault. But not with the humor of the MJ project (even though there's always inherent humor in most of what the Dead do...)
|Yeah, disturbing, to say the least.|
Oswald was given full access to the famous Dead Vault, and brought to the project a total objectivity. He'd never seen the Dead (he did see two sub par shows while working on the project) and had stopped listening to them after 1969's Live Dead. So suddenly having every version at his fingertips must have been a combination of overwhelming, disgusting, addictive and intimidating.
I can't even imagine. I'm STILL discovering versions of Dark Star that make me say "OH! THIS is THE ONE!". Since I've delved in to Dead-land (about 4 years ago), I seem to hear a Dark Star that replaces my old favorite one about once every other month. I could list my faves, but I really don't want to do that. I don't want to know that I did that.
Like most casual Dead fans, my first taste of "Dark Star" was what many still feel is "the one"; the one from LIVE/DEAD, recorded on 2/27/69. And yes, that one will forever hold up. In my teens, I had both a peak and a dreadful experience with that version. The peak came one late night, wearing headphones, staring at the glow-in-the-dark-stars on my ceiling and at the movies behind my eyelids. That's when I got it: "The instruments are talking to each other! Jerry asks a question, Bob makes a joke, Phil comments on it, Jerry answers his own question, now Bob is laughing and Phil getting a bit fed up with the subject and wants to change it....". That was when I feel I sort of "passed the test".
However, not long after, I had a girl over. I thought I'd set the mood with a long, spacy song that could just be in the background. However, she didn't dig it one bit...."ugh! What is this? Take it off!". And the mood was ruined.
And so, my opinion of the Dead was ruined for the immediate future.And that was compounded by college hippies. "The Dead? Hate 'em!"
No bother, all the cutest and smartest girls liked The Cure, The Smiths and Jane's Addiction anyway. I found hippie chicks to be a little too immodest for my tastes. Gimme some knee high Doc Martens over open toe whateverthefucks any day of the week. Still.
But enough about me. Grayfolded.
How does one describe it? I'll kind of sort of try, I guess.
You see these half-assed scans I took?
These are from the liner notes to Grayfolded (Grayfolded is like a slurred version of Grateful...yeah, you got it). And they are visual representations of what the music sounds like. I'm glad Oswald included this. Not only to show the work that went into it, but also, to someone like me, if I hear a particularly cool passage, I can consult the chart--which goes minute by minute, track by track--and say "Oh! 12-01-71 in Boston? Never heard that show! Sounds like just my type of thing!" And then I can seek out that show on some site or blog or what not.
To me, the whole process is fascinating research. And as far as the layering of different versions of things, I have done my own poor-man's versions on a few occasions. Like THIS and THIS. But this, of course, is a major work, using state of the art technology and months of steady, paid work.
To the untrained ear, the average "Dark Star" sounds like this: "deedle deedle noodle noodle wanky wanky crash boom dum dum da da noodle noodle Dark Star something/ space rock lyrics total dork fest doodle dee smoke another, dude, stoner twirly spinny dancer psychedelic space rock..."
And that's...OK. I refuse to get huffy about such relatively unimportant matters. But I will tell you a few factual things.
1) Dark Star started as a 3 minute single. Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, out. This was late 1967.
2) Throughout 1968, it slowed slightly and could be as long as 10 minutes. The instrumentals were largely Garcia soloing over Weir's simple chord pattern, and Lesh doing his usual non-bass-playing (like The Who's John Entwistle, Phil Lesh ignores the concept of "locking in with the kick drum" and goes for the holes, and becomes almost another lead instrument. He's like an invasive weed or climbing ivy).
3) In 1969 it slowed even more, and was allowed to breath and mature. Tom Constanten relieved Pig Pen on organ. This was good, because Pig, as cool of a line as it was, would spend 10-12 minutes repeating the same 6 note pattern. It did make it more like Stereolab or something, but it also made the others seem like dogs straining at their leashes. Constanten was an avant/classical player who played flourishes that would be embraced by any Prog-Art band. Also. the drummers, who, had been spending the whole song keeping a steady pulse on shakers and guiro, were now also opening up. The pulse was still there, but one might do a tom flourish. And of course, Garcia's vocabulary was expanding by the minute. There were stock phrases he'd always incorporate, but often many breathtaking inventions.
While I'm at it: It's funny that in 1988 I was listening to both The Dead and Jane's Addiction, but never noticed this until now: Go to 1:30 and listen to the guitar figure that Dave Navarro starts to play during the middle section of "Trip Away" from the first Jane's album.
Now go here and foward to 12:00 and hear what Jerry stumbles into. (By the way, this is the aforementioned definitive "Dark Star" in many people's books. The one where "I got it" and the one that repulsed the girl in my room. It's still great and engaging all the way through.
I don't know, O guitar players: Is this a fairly common figure for "now I'm gonna get trippy, folks" or you think Dave was paying tribute to Jerry? (Remember, Jane's Addiction did an amazing version of "Ripple". which incorporates both "The Other One" and "BirdSong" at the end..)
So 1969 Dark Stars. Truly psychedelic, spacy, pretty, shades of prog-rock. Also, in the spring (I'm thinking 4/5/69 Avalon and 4/22/69 at the Ark in Boston), it could get just aggressive, noisy and heavy in a very 1969 rock way.
3) Late 1969 and 1970 saw some of the coolest Dark Stars that can only be described as "arty". Listen to 1970-05-15, or 9-19 and you'll see what I mean. There will be like full 2 minute periods where you think "did my speakers die?" And then someone will lightly scrape their pick against the strings on the bridge or head of the guitar (sonic youth anyone?). 10 seconds later, a 2 second burst of feedback. Then a very quick mallet-on-cymbal wash. The tension build. The audience is totally silent. Maybe you hear one tripping girl screech in fear. Because it is scary. Like, what could happen next?
Thank God Jim Morrison wasn't there to scream something dumb.
Then someone like Weir will suggest something goofy and light to break up the mood. Like Archie Bell's "Tighten Up" or Paul Simon's "Feelin' Groovy" and they'll jam on that for 5 minutes, before heading back into the main riff and eventually a sung verse.
4) In 1971, they lost Micky Hart, and Constanten, and it was back to the original 5-piece. And Pig Pen still wasn't adding much to the more adventurous stuff, so he'd sit out and wait for a blues song (yawn). So, '71 didn't have many "Dark Stars", but it is very cool to hear what they did with basically a quartet. Many find the 10/31/71 to be among the best ever. Without the distractions and frills, one can hear really the genius of Garcia/Lesh/Weir working as a team. They were all about listening. having a three way chat. "Ensemble Improvisation" is how Jerry Garcia put it, differentiating them from "jazz fusion". Because he knew that none of the players were going to win any virtuoso awards--because they didn't want to be virtuosos. Where do you go from there? So they'd intentionally put road blocks in their way. Try to trick each other, or, as was often the case with many of them, just be so high that your mind plays tricks and your fingers get a different message than what your brain was trying to tell them.You don't know down from up, the one from four beat, or 5 seconds from 5 minutes.
5) 1972-74--It Gets Truly Weird. And long. Keith Godchaux joins on piano, and hits the ground running. He had jazz training, so he knew how to improvise. And what he brought lent a, I dunno, Keith Jarret vibe to things at times. He never took over, and if there's anything to complain about, he'd sometimes parrot a line or two that Jerry just played. I read that this annoyed Jerry towards the end of Keith's tenure, but I notice it all the way back in '72. In '72, "Dark Star"'s tempo slowed down dramatically, and a sort of pattern started to emerge. And this is sort of the pattern that Oswald attempted to emulate in Grayfolded:
--opening riff (a cheer of recognition from the crowd)
--meandering, finding a vibe. Like walking into a crowded room and deciding who you're going to talk to. Or into a forest and deciding which trail to follow. If it was a novel, this would be the first 2 chapters setting up the characters and relationships.
--if it's a good one, there will be many cool ideas exchanged, with some great "dialog" between the characters. But it's usually still a bit reserved. Sometimes, a forceful statement is made--say with a Garcia figure or a restless Kreutzmann flourish.
--Then it's time to wind down and the signature riff repeats a few times.
--Garcia steps to the mic and sings "Daaaark Staaar Crashes...." and we get the first verse and chorus ("Shall we go....)
--Intro again, and then often times, all hell breaks loose. In a truly great Dark Star, this section (between first and second verse) is transfixing. Ideas abound, and sometimes these are ideas that some bands would immediately take note of and remember for future reference. Not the Dead. Like a late night "enhanced" conversation, so many ideas are flying around that no one has the wits to remember them or follow the thread to the end. Sometimes, they will recur in a future version, but what makes a Dark Star fan keep coming back for more is to see exactly what occurs at this section.
--A couple things that have a good chance of happening: In late '72, Phil Lesh briefly introduced what has become known as the "Philo-Stomp" (coined, I think, by the late archivist Dick Vitala). I love this. Phil does this bass chord riffing that is somewhere between a Stones riff and something Peter Hook would do in Joy Division. I SO WISH the band all joined on this in a totally ballsy way. But, being the Dead, Phil's vision of a heavy moment is spurned. If this was, say, LED ZEPPELIN, this would have become one of those awesome head banging riffs they'd go into in the middle of "Dazed and Confused" or "Whole Lotta Love". But instead, Jerry noodles, Bill can't seem to find the "one" and the promise of complete rock and roll satisfaction is dashed. Thus, this section only lasted a couple months. Well, ok--I'm being harsh. There is one version that seems to get it together--1972-11-13, 70% of which is just a total noise orgy. Dig it.
--One thing that often happened, and never failed, and I could listen to 50 examples in a row is what some call "The Tiger" (credit Deadheads for these goofy names). Jerry's foot is on the wah pedal. He teases with some dissonant scratches. Meanwhile, Bob and Phil start to build a bed of feedback. As it builds, Jerry SHREDS THE LIVING CRAP out of his distorted guitar, with the wah going crazy, going up and up and up and up the neck until he can't bend the strings any higher on the highest frets, and then keeps that going for about 20 seconds, collapsing into Phil and Bob's feedback bed. it truly does sound like stuff Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers routinely did 10-15 years later. It's the most glorious noise ever. Sometimes Kreutzmann joins in, sometimes he lays out until order is restored. (this type of freakout could also happen in the middle of "The Other One", "Playin In the Band", or even "Here Comes Sunshine". Or sometimes, just on its own.
Watch the last 2 minutes of this clip for the only real video evidence of what I mean. This is relatively tame compared to others (possibly because it was apparently 98 degrees at this show), but it's video nonetheless:
--By then, most everyone is ready to settle into the second verse/chorus and the end. Or, as would often happen, Bob Weir, Mr. Showbiz, would lighten the mood by bringing the band into one of his beloved country covers like "El Paso" or "Me and My Uncle", because no one ever gets sick of those songs, right? (blecchhh). Perhaps it was an old acid trick that I don't understand.
Then the last verse was sung--or not--and the band would segue into something sad and beautiful like "Morning Dew", "Stella Blue" or "China Doll". Basically, after taking you on a tour through the universe, Jerry wanted to see you weep.
So that was pretty much Dark Star as it evolved from 1968-74.
After that, it disappeared until 12/31/1978. (I really don't listen to much 80's-90's Dead) Then a couple in '79, 81...I think one in 1984...then it appeared a few dozen times between 1989-94. One guy on the Dead forum on Archive.org put it best when he said that (I'm paraphrasing), from '78 onwards, Dark Star was like a treasured car that the boys would take for a spin around the block but never dare to cut across 3 lanes at 90 mph while flipping off old couples, and taking the wrong way down one way streets while rolling joints with one hand. No, modern day Dark Stars were safe, kinda boring, Jerry's vocal would be strained and the goddamn fucking reentry after the first chorus was always a train wreck. What's so hard, fellas? Phil does the 5 note lick, then everyone falls in with the riff! You got it perfectly every time from 68-74, and most of you were tripping your faces off!
(Ok, 2 good Dark Stars I've heard from "the modern age": One is fall '90 in NYC shortly after Brent died. It took BRUCE HORNSBY of all people to re-inspire the band. So they do a good one. A year before that, the guys must have got their hands on some primo Miami blow, because they do a Dark Star that sounds like 7 glue-sniffing teenagers let loose in a MIDI convention. It's the Art of Noise 10/26/89 in Miami).
The many forums on Archive.org cover so much ground. And there are some outstanding and thoughtful writers who really know their stuff (there are also a lot of haters and people with shockingly closed minds and argument styles right out of the Limbaugh book. These are the Deadheads that are all about the Sheep Mentality and wouldn't be able to think for themselves if their lives depended on it. Really? Give us a reason why Donna sucks other than that she is a woman? Hey wait, are those racist or homophobic tones behind some of those reactionary diatribes? I mean, at least I could give a few educated reasons why Pig Pen and Brent bore me most of the time. They're bluesy and a bit simplistic and I just think Jerry and Phil wanted the new and the weird to rule the day. But I could also give you many things I love about them).
Wow, sidetrack supreme.
I bonded with "Dark Star" again about 2 years ago when I had a job where I would drive all day around every town in the western half of Massachusetts. I'd download a Dead podcast (Shakedown Stream or The Deadpod--this was after I got my first iPhone, yo) and either dig it or hate it. But one thing I loved was to be listening to a Dark Star for the first time, while driving through, say, Sandisfield or Richmond on a weird-weather day, and feel like the twists and turns in the song were corresponding to the old roads and the weather. It was like navigating through a new universe. I even had a great idea for a Dark Star video game, but 1) I can't design video games and 2) someone else is doing a Dead video game. But mine would have RULED! Let me know, o reader, if you design video games.
And NO I never EVER was on any illegal substances while on the job. I swear on whatever it is you want me to swear on. This is why I like listening to the Dead a) ALONE and b) STRAIGHT. I listen as a musician and I'm either totally wowed or completely disgusted.
I find Grayfolded to go best with driving on a rainy day. Not a passing shower. I mean steady (but not scary) rain. That's just me.
Grayfolded is spread across two CDs. Initially, the first CD, called Transitive Axis was the whole shebang. But Oswald had more ideas and too much good material he had yet to use. So we got CD 2, known as Mirror Ashes, and which branches out into "Dark Star"s cousin, "The Other One" (with its proto metal beat, borrowed by Weir from The Yardbirds' "Little Games" and soon was the official "this is a head banging song" beat. You know the one. Triplets against a 4/4.
Much like I enjoy some Dark Stars more than others, I also enjoy different tracks more than others.
Here they are and why--and yes, for me, like in actual "Dark Stars", it takes about 10 minutes to get anywhere interesting. In this case, tracks 1-3 are "eh". But they succeed in setting up the plot. Use the first three tracks to clean the wine glasses, clear out the bowl, wash the dishes, put the kid to sleep, write an email, whatever. If you smoke weed, spark up in the middle of track 3. Then we get to my faves:
--Track 4) "Clouds Cast"": Because it mainly follows one fairly straight forward 1968 version. Brisk and rhythmic and engaging. And it's the first appearance of the "Jerry Chorus". The phrase "Dark Star Crashes" is stretched (through reverb and echo and stuff) over one minute, and it's EIGHT Jerry's singing in unison: 3 from 1969, 1 from 1970, 1 from 1972, 1 from 1992 and 2 from 1993. Cool idea. And softens the blow of creaky old 90's Jerry.
--Track 5) "Through"--This is mainly some suspenseful, feeling out, cautiously seeing what's around the next corner... which side street to walk down (if we're in an industrial mood) or what trail to take (if on a walk in the woods). We also hear what some have thought was some lost "acoustic Dark Star", but it's really the end of "Mountains of the Moon", the acoustic song that would segue into "Dark Star" in early '69. Jerry and Bob would put on the electrics while Phil and co would continue the groove. It's otherwise a lot of 1971 and 1974, clean toned meandering, with some 1990 at the end. It's a set up for...
--Track 6) "Fault Forces" (the one I did the video for)--you can re-watch, so I won't go over it again. Suffice to say, once again, I'm a sucker for Garcia's "Tiger" freakout.
--Track 8) "La Estrella Oscura"-- this takes us on a historic tour through what became known as the "Spanish Jam". You know. "Bolero", "White Rabbit", "Sketches of Spain"...2 repeating chords, half a step apart. The guys liked to sometimes do this in the middle of "Dark Star", but not exclusively. In any case, this is neat because it shows the very different live sounds in the band in several different eras: --1992--Jerry's got his MIDI trumpet effect, living out all his Miles Davis fantasies. Sounds a bit like drunken muzak to my ears. No real groove or feeling.
--1973--this is verry groovy and inspired. Everyone's listening to each other. Kreutzmann is at the top of his jazz game and Lesh is driving it. Jerry gets into jagged, dissonant chords
--1974--famous version, if I may be such a goddamn nerd. 6/23/74. One of my fave shows. The Dead were at their coked out best. "Inbred" as Bob Weir put it. Phil is out of hand. Overdriven, sticking forceful bass chords wherever the fuck, and Jerry's got that weird distortion that he had in the Wall Of Sound Years.
--1968--lastly, hey wait, I'm about to praise Pig Pen. Because when he just wanted to be a Hammond player filling out the sound, he was great. He's got a great sound here. And of course, there's NO BEATING Jerry's sharp, acidic tone in 1968. It's a close cousin at times to The Velvet's White Light White Heat. It's dangerous. It just wants to be ugly and thus, make you feel right at home.
--Track 9) "Recedes"--ends CD one. It takes us out of that January '68 Spanish Jam and into the telltale "Caution" beat. It's only 1:56 long and basically has Jerry doing some of his fast '68 type runs, while hinting at the "Dark Star" riff. Another "Jerry Chorus ('69-92) sings a bit more, and a very fast opening "Dark Star" riff ends the CD. Kind of like hearing Glenn Miller doing "Kind of Blue".
--Track 1) "Transilience"--only 47 seconds long. It's a Jerry chorus (all 1969-70) singing "..the transitive nightfall of diamonds.."
--Track 2) "73rd Star Bridge Sonanta"--this track is an anomaly for two reasons. First off, it's all from one performance--the famous 2/13/70 at the Fillmore East. The Dead always loved NYC because they knew the audiences there would let them know if they sucked. So they always brought their "A Game".
Second of all, Oswald took a few favorite passages and floated them in and out of the track, sometimes adding an effect (tastefully) So it's not a straight reproduction of 2/13/70's Dark Star. It's the 13 minutes between verse one and two, during which Garcia, Weir, Lesh and the drummers operate SO WELL together. So psychically. So, about that title: It's a play on "59th Street Bridge Song", by Simon and Garfunkel. Because Weir starts in on that progression, Lesh follows and Garcia plays (kinda) the melody. They did this a few times, but this is the most famous. It only lasts a minute, and goes into several other ideas.
(Do you know The Who's Live At Leeds? Wouldn't you say that The Who were doing their own version of this kind of thing back then? Townshend spacing out, everything going quiet, everyone exploding, riff-o-ramas etc? Different bands, obviously, but similar idea, I feel).
One last thought. Anyone who disses Bob Weir, please listen to this track. He is contributing a lot. Chord-wise AND rhythm-wise. He had about 5 excellent years--1969-74. Then his tone gradually got lamer and lamer and you could still hear good ideas, but the tone was barfburgers.
Track 4--"The Speed of Space"--I'd forgotten about this one. What's the theme of it? Oh yes. It's mainly mid-late 1972, with some 1974. When the Dead were doing their version of "fusion".
I don't like fusion because I really don't need to hear a group of virtuosos jerking each other off and then giving each other sticky High Fives. Sorry if that's totally insulting. It's just not what I'm in it for at all. The Dead doing fusion was more like "Holy Fucking Shit! Look what happens when a jug band who took too much acid starts to play 150 concerts a year together! We end up with dozens of top notch conventional pop rock songs, AND the ability to play together fearlessly! Without any real goal but to satisfy ourselves!" And what does that sound like? It sounds like rockpopnoisecountryballadjazzfusionavantgardebluesprog.
Like Jerry said, "The Grateful Dead is no one's idea of what a band or what music should sound like". There was no leader. No one wanted to be told what to do and so no one told anyone what to do.
Anyway, this 72-74 madness starts to give way to some more modern tones, and the hint of the riff re-enters. A crowd cheers, and then another "Jerry Chorus" sings the whole second verse/chorus. Once in a while a 90's Jerry is isolated and you can hear the young Jerry still lives in the old emphysemic croak. (truth be told, I've heard some '94-95 Garcia that shows that he must have either gotten nodes removed or just cut down smoking). The best part of the end of the last chorus in the old days was Phil's countermelody. Very cool. Why'd he have to go and wreck his voice? But that last minute is a great hyperspeed time warp. And prepares us for.....
Track 5) "Dark Matter Problem/Every Leaf is Turning"--which is all about Bob Weir's "The Other One", a song they never stopped doing. It starts with about 30 Bill Kreutzmann's banging out the drum intro, out of sync with each other. The effect? Sitting in your car during the most frightening hail storm. Then a distant gun shot (Pig Pen and Micky Hart were fond of firing cap guns during quiet moments).
So then, a great mix of "Other One's. No words. Just some great moments (from 68-73) which blend together magically. A bit of feedback and are in an exhillerating climax (of "Cauton) from 2/28/69. It's not just "rocks in relative Dead terms" (which I am well aware of), it rocks in all that is rock and roll terms. Then back to some more '69 "The Other One" which--kind of a downer--goes into a limp late '78 Garcia lead, with a 1990 Weir rhythm track (ugh!) with Phil's '69 bass remaining (yay!).
Now what happens is muy interesante: a collage, from many shows, of the opening notes of songs that The Dead would meander into once "Dark Star" had imploded: "St Stephen", "Stella Blue", "Wharf Rat", "Eyes of the World", "Morning Dew"...probably more that I'm not hearing.
If you haven't guessed, I'm sort of "live blogging". But the advantage is that I can go back and re-listen to a moment if I missed it. But trying to be as live as possible.
So now...finally (and Jesus, I'm sorry this turned into such a beast. I need to shower after this. Or have another beer.)
Track 6--"Foldback Time": From 67-69, every Dead show would end in ear splitting feedback. Maybe for 12 minutes, maybe for 2. Maybe until the hall cut the power. I kind of hoped this track would kick out the jams and be a "best of feedback". But Oswald is too kind. There's some feedback, but there's a lot of MIDI strings, like a John Williams score coming to an end. The last thing you hear is a couple tinkling piano keys, and according to the chart, I believe it's Brent. Fair enough.
And bloody long enough. I won't bore you like this again, I promise.