Friday, June 29, 2012

JG70--In the End There's Just a Song. And a Show!

What are you doing July 27 at 10pm? If you live within striking distance of Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA, you may want to check out what will hopefully be a pretty neat show that I dreamed up, pitched and organized (that's less of a pat on the back than a "so you can blame me if something goes awry").

It's a celebration of what would have been Jerry Garcia's 70th birthday. I'm calling it "In the End, There's Just a Song: Happy 70th, Garcia!".

Or, code name: "JG70".

It's also a benefit for a great guy. 

Details below.

It will be a night where a series of well known area musical figures (many of whom you wouldn't expect to be part of something like this) will each take a turn on stage to sing one Garcia-penned song with the "house band". There are a lot of performers and only so much time, so this will insure that the night is long on songs, and short on jamming. Things may well get weird, but they won't test your attention span. We'll keep it interesting.  I want this to be a night for music lovers--not just Deadheads. 

The above graphic is a cropped and zoomed image of Garcia from the back of the Mars Hotel album (1974). Unlike the images that are often associated with Garcia (older, heavier, not at the top of his game, a victim of cultural icon-making by the press), I chose this one to promote the show. 1974 was just about the peak of an extremely productive and ambitious decade for Garcia. No, he didn't go around dressed as a cartoon space-reptile, but he was clean-shaven (for part of the year anyway), thin and bursting with energy and ideas. 

In real life, at that time, he looked like this:

Yale Bowl, July 31, 1974

 Anyway....What's the deal with the show? Well, I thought of it in a flash, driving one evening. When I got home I got right on the computer and emailed the Iron Horse people with the concept, before I could talk myself out of it. I of course knew that I was setting myself up for being known as "That Grateful Dead guy". But hopefully people, in this city at least, know that, depending on which way the wind is blowing, I can also be "That Smiths Guy", "That Pavement Guy", "That Bee Gees Guy" etc. But there's a bottomless pit of Dead lore, so many interconnections with other artists,  and I'm a pop music/pop culture history junkie, so I keep diving back for more and coming back up with more. (some Deadheads would cringe at my calling the Dead "pop". Pop is short for popular. The Dead sold out stadiums. Bam. This is Pop!).

Anyway....So, uh..Wot's the deal?

July 27 at 10pm at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton (a few days ahead of the actual JG birthday)

House band:

Bruce Mandaro (Bruce Mandaro Band, The Knot): Guitar
Peter Sax (Mobius Band, Conjure Beat): Bass
Joshua Sitron (composer of some famous television show music!) : keyboards
Brian Marchese (here) : drums

Of the four of us, only Bruce has extensive experience playing these songs. The rest of us know and love Jerry G, but have spent our careers playing different stuff (indie pop, electronica, new wave, punk, children's music, ambient, alt country...). So together, we should get an interesting and fresh take on things.

I won't give away the songs (which will be only Garcia/Hunter songs..), but the performers (and I think this is the confirmed list) are:

Jim Armenti (Lonesome Brothers), Jason Bourgeois (Bourgeois Heroes, The Novels), Thane Thomsen (The Figments, Goldwater), Jason Johnson (National Carpet), Terry Flood (Drunk Stuntmen),  Lesa Bezo (The Fawns), Zip Cody aka Scott Lawson Pomeroy (Orange Crush),  Henning Ohlenbusch (School For the Dead, Aloha Steamtrain), Stephen Desaulniers (Scud Mt. Boys), Kevin O'Rourke (Lo Fine), Mark Mulcahy (Miracle Legion, Polaris, solo artist), Alex Johnson (Drunk Stuntmen), Katy Schneider (Katyland), Ray Mason (Ray Mason Band, Lonesome Brothers), Matt Silberstein (Flashbangs, Salvation Alley String Band) Scott Hall (Drunk Stuntmen, Burn Pile), Dave Houghton (Fancy Trash), Ryan Quinn (Salvation Alley String Band) and Tony Westcott (School For the Dead, Humbert).

And, doncha know, proceeds for this show will go to help with our musician brother Kevin Smith's enormous medical bills. Kevin's been undergoing treatment for cancer for a couple years now, and doing well enough that he's returned behind his drum kit, gigging and recording with his band National Carpet.  However, a genetic heart defect (unrelated to the cancer) caused him to lose consciousness during a recent show--luckily his band mates and a medically-inclined fan or two were able to keep him alive while the paramedics were on their way. More time in the hospital, more tests and procedures, and more mounting bills. He's out and about now, but could use a bit of help in the bills department.

Come, do!

Ticket Info Here:

Two Great Quotes by Garcia:

"You have to get past the idea that music has to be one thing. To be alive in America is to hear all kinds of music constantly--radio, records, churches, cats on the street, everywhere music, man. And with records, the whole history of music is open to everyone who wants to hear it. ... Nobody has to fool around with musty old scores, weird notation, and scholarship bullshit: you can just go into a record store and pick a century, pick a country, pick anything, and dig it, make it a part of you, add it to the stuff you carry around, and see that it's all music." 
--The Rolling Stone Rock 'n' Roll Reader. Edited by Ben Fong-Torres. New York: Bantam, 1974.

"I’ve got nothing but limitations! I mean, I’m limited by everything. I’m limited by my technique. I’m limited by my background. I’m limited by my education. I’m limited by the things I’ve heard. I’m limited by all that stuff. I’m limited by being a human being. Yeah. I think in a way that a musician – and particularly a musician with a distinctive style – is, in fact, a product of their limitations. What you’re hearing is their limitations, really. I assume that almost everybody plays at the outside edge of their ability, so that’s usually what you’re hearing – as good as they can do."
-- Frets Magazine 1985

Extra Notes: 

Why "In the End, There's Just a Song"? 

Short answer:  Because songs are a tangible thing that a songwriter can leave behind. Because it's a night that's all about the songs the man wrote. Not the jamming or the hundreds of cover songs in his repertoire.
The line comes from one of the best loved (and darkest) songs from the Garcia-(Robert) Hunter canon, "Stella Blue"; a song Hunter wrote the lyrics to while staying in the Chelsea Hotel in 1970. Garcia eventually put music to it, and the studio version appears on 1973's Wake of the Flood LP.

And in the end, there is in fact just a song--or rather 70 or so songs--that Garcia wrote in his lifetime (music only--he wasn't a word guy except for a couple clumsy early efforts).

Garcia had other talents, but you can't leave behind a bunch of improvised guitar explorations. Well you can, but those weren't meant to be set in stone. Songs are. Plus, it's hard to immediately impress upon a lot of people what was special about his unique playing style. I want those who only think of Garcia as "that guy who jammed a lot" to know that he was a songwriter that was--especially between 1969-1979--every bit as original as contemporaries Robbie Robertson, Neil Young, Elton John (another music-only guy) etc. It's just that because The Grateful Dead were such a circus with no focal point and a lot of obnoxious, culty fans with few social graces (I'm saying SOME, not all), it's sometimes hard to remember Garcia's songwriting talents.

Modern day jam bands can jam til the cows come home, but how many have well written SONGS? The things with verses, bridges, choruses, hooks, melodies? That people will want to cover 20 or 50 years later? Garcia understood what makes a timeless song, having great admiration for songwriting greats from Irving Berlin to Chuck Berry, Jimmy Cliff to Warren Zevon, and of course, Beatles/Stones/Dylan. 

Random Thoughts Regarding Why I Wanted to Put This Gig Together:  

The more I read and get into Garcia's fascinating life, the more I'm afraid that his legacy will be (or already is) that of an overweight, white haired, lethargic addict who forgot lyrics and played meandering guitar solos to stadiums full of tripping folks who had not a critical bone in their semi naked bodies (what did the Deadhead say when he ran out of drugs....yadda yadda)

You can't have a super-successful 30 year career based on conning your drugged fans with crappy songs, sub par performances and interminable space jams. Sure, they were there, but there are a lot of great, well-written songs that Garcia and Hunter came up with over their 25 year partnership. Those (as well as a handful of Weir songs and a lot of covers) are the foundation upon which all the rest was built.

Not that I'm a shill for the Grateful Dead's big corporation, but I am for the slightest re-branding of the Dead/Garcia for a new generation that either never saw them, or only saw the sad final years. People's final impressions of Garcia while he was alive had nothing to do with all the hard work he put in during his prime. Like how, at age 11, I thought Bruce Springsteen was just "Born In the USA" and "Glory Days" because that was my first exposure to him (and thus, I was turned off for a long time), many folks born in the last 30 years have a skewed idea of what Garcia was all about. And most won't be interested enough to correct their misconceptions. And misconceptions burn me up!

Neck tie designer?
Ice Cream flavor?
"The Fat Man"?
Benign Santa Claus with a damaged voice?
Guy with too many quibbling wives?
Burnt out junky figurehead?

Well, kind of yeah, but also a whole lot of NO!

For the first, say, 15 years of The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia was a healthy (as any rocker in those days), clear-voiced, animated presence on stage. Not motionless and shoegazing, but roaming the stage, gesturing,  making eye contact with the whole band as well as the audience. He was the proud Leo, king of this musical jungle leading his pack (as opposed to the aged, tired, wounded lion of his final years).
A Dead show during that first decade and a half was like an unpredictable music lesson. Country, motown, disco, space, jazz, reggae, noise, pop, blues and of course, rock and roll all swirling in and out of the mix.
Jerry could have focused this mess, born leader that he was, but he never wanted that responsibility. Never wanted to be the one to determine Good from Bad, Right from Wrong. *

(*For a brief time in '68-69, Garcia and Phil Lesh wanted to cut Bob Weir and Pig Pen out of the band, thus eliminating the white boy blues and the prep school cowboy elements out of the band. 
But Bob and Pig refused to acknowledge their walking papers and the rest is history, for better AND for worse--hard to think of the Dead without Weir, as spotty as his output was).
As a result, there's always some crap one must wade through to get to the good stuff.

When not playing with the Dead, Jerry had his solo career. His first four solo albums are all full of great moments, excellent players, and classic songs.
Add to that his lending a hand to his bluegrass projects (Old and In the Way), ambient noise projects (Seastones) AND guesting on albums by such varied folks from Link Wray to Art Garfunkel, and (later) Warren Zevon to Thomas Dolby.
This is why I get upset when reading, say, YouTube comments by clueless folks who will just say "fat hippie sux" or something else along those Doctorate-level lines.

We love to reduce artists to just an image on a dorm room poster. And it's easy to forget why that person gained fame in the first place. They CREATED STUFF. They CHANGED STUFF.

Many old school Deadheads like to hold fast to their belief that "you can't know if you weren't there".  That's true, and it's fine to hold to that subjective opinion...if you want the legacy of the Grateful Dead to be that their fans clung so tightly to their exclusivity that they scared off anyone from future generations from wanting to find out what the hubbub was about.

Yeah, I too wish that I could have caught 50 Dead shows between 1967-83. (I could even probably list which 50!) I also wish I could have seen Charlie Parker, Coltrane with Elvin Jones,  The Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, The Who with Keith Moon, Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett, Led Zeppelin, The Stones in '72, Television,  XTC, The Clash and The Smiths. But the point is, I can't.

It may have been nice if you were there, but soon, all there will be is an image. And you need something substantial to have there be more than just the superficial stuff. So...SONGS! They are the voices from the past. The windows to the soul. (when eyes are on vacation, at least)

Many people I know who under normal circumstances would enjoy a lot of Grateful Dead music would rank finding themselves in the middle of a throng of dancing Deadheads somewhere between french kissing a llama and waking up hungover in a dumpster behind a seafood shop on a 95 degree afternoon.
I know that, while I can name 25 awesome "Dark Star"s, I still would feel much more at home at a Morrissey or Cure show circa 1989. It's just my personality. I'm not very communal. I do my Dead listening alone. I get uptight at semi naked, bare flesh dancing in front of me. (This is probably why I'm a drummer. I can make people dance without having to deal with them coming too close).
For the record, I also don't like mosh pits. 
So, since there is no "being there" these days (unless one wants to go to see a tribute band), what do the kids do today to be turned on to the music? Oh! I know! Listen to the music. And I'm talking just starting with the album versions of the songs. At its best, it's unique and unlike anything else before or since.

"Doin' That Rag"? "Wharf Rat"? "Eyes of the World"? "Bird Song"? "Blues for Allah"? "Terrapin Station"? How the hell do you define those? Neither derivative nor contemporary nor ahead of their time. They just exist in their own time and space. And totally original.

This is what seems to have gone on lately among the indie "hipster" crowd, with the recent acceptance and embracing of the Dead. They're not interested in jamming, or foregoing bathing, tripping for weeks on end, growing dreads or following a band for a month or two. They are interested in songcraft, and the Dead, especially Garcia, had a very unique take on it (to be fair, Weir and to a lesser extent, Lesh, each have a few examples of songwriting genius.).
And they're interested in where Garcia's songs stand in the fabric of late 20th century popular music. 

This is what I want to be on display at this show.
I hope you can come.



  1.'s hard to imagine any other artist that you would feel like you have to spend 2500 words justifying a tribute to! That's kind of pathetic in a way...I mean, Garcia was a fucking genius. Nobody should be apologizing here.

    And you give the old Garcia short shrift (at least pre-1992)...his voice got ragged, but it also got meatier and more soulful (again, pre-1992 or maybe even 1991). And his playing was brilliant. AND he wrote a handful of great songs after 1979 (Althea being from '79, though, you're right that if you cut it off there you'd have most of the essential stuff). But Foolish Heart, Black Muddy River, Days Between, So Many Roads are all great songs.

    And 1982 is an arbitrary cutoff for when you wanted to see them, especially considering how great 1983 is.

    Anyway I'm glad you're doing this, I think it's exactly right to focus on his songwriting (with Hunter), which was indeed just about as good as it gets. And you're right about jam bands...I LOVE Garcia's playing live, but what sets the Dead apart as much as anything is that they were doing this with WORLD CLASS songs; it's also astonishing that they had a knack for writing songs in such a way that extended live renditions seemed natural, not contrived. I don't see any other jam bands meeting these be honest, I pretty much hate jam bands. If I'm not listening to the Dead, I'd much rather hear something like the Ramones.

  2. You're right about '83. Note the change :) Some awesome heaviness that year.

  3. What about 84 and 85? The band got a little sloppy and Garcia's voice went all ragged, but they rocked really hard and he played some of his most aggressive leads those years! Sorry to be a nitpicker, but it seems like those years (my first show was 1984) would have been good to see the band too! Really, so I don't keep niggling, I'll put my cards on the table and say in my opinion, every year before Brent died has great things about it, and even after that there are some moments...

  4. I gotta draw the line somewhere! As a drummer, it really bugged me when the stage sound of the drums sounded like they were hitting deflated basketballs, interspersed with the occasional synth drum surprise. And when Weir's over-processed guitar sound stopped sounding like anything resembling a guitar.
    I do like some 84-85, but have a hard time listening to what some have called the "Fozzy Bear" voice. Few examples of someone's angelic voice changing so drastically so quickly--Brian Wilson and Jim Morrison are the only other two I can think of.

    I realized that after Dan Healy was fired, the drums regained some snap and crackle.

    I will say this--for a long time I avoided listening to any post Brent stuff, but was really surprised to hear Garcia's voice entering a new, soulful phase around 93-94--perhaps he cut down on cigs. There's a version of "Stella Blue" from 1994--lemme check--3/21/94--that is hands down great.

  5. Yeah, the drums were often pretty awful, and there were whole years in which they were worse than usual--I think around 1988 might be the nadir. A big part of it was those idiots being out of synch.

    I actually like Garcia's voice the best circa 87-90, I think the preceding few years were like a transition period to a new peak of greatness. He's really soulful then. But 93 or so he could still be effective, his voice got a little thinner and higher after 1990 in a way that wasn't always as great. I don't really do post-Brent very often... but fair enough, draw your line, by all means.

    I actually love all four of Garcia's last songs: "Liberty," Lazy River Road," "So Many Roads," "Days Between"; it's a shame the band was kind of bad for seemingly all the performances of those, and "So Many Roads" he never actually learned the words to...I wish there was a recording of those songs played better than the ones that exist, or studio versions that apparently never got made (beyond half-assed demos). I wonder if any of your people will be doing any of those...

    1. I feel the same way exactly about those last four songs. I'd never heard "Days Between" until a couple years ago and it really blew my mind 1) that Garcia/Hunter had come up with such a masterpiece so late in the game 2) that The Grateful Dead never fully conjured the song's magic and 3) that Deadheads don't unanimously hail it as they do "Terrapin Station", and that some flat out dislike it. WTF?
      I've actually had a plan in the back of my mind to get a really good combo of people to record a good version of "Days Between" that does justice to its poetic, spacey, drone-y, spooky, timeless beauty.
      I've always heard a bit of Sonic Youth potential in that song (see: "The Diamond Sea" by SY).
      If the Dead were in a healthier, more inspired place, they could have gone into the studio and knocked those 4 final Garcia/Hunter songs out if the park.
      Perhaps the reason Jerry aborted the final album sessions was because he realized Bobby, Phil and Vince's songs paled in comparison?

  6. Thanks for this read, Brian. I enjoy your perspective. I Will try to make it to the show.

  7. Bobby, Phil and Vince's songs were atrocities. I think Garcia was just either too doped up or sick to get it together, though.

  8. Yale Bowl, July 31, 1974 Caption from your Jerry picture. no That date was Dillon Stadium Hartford. I was there. Yale Bowl was July, 31 1971. I was there too