Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Long, Strange Trip: Life Among The Dead

It’s no coincidence, of course, that The Grateful Dead Movie will screen at more than 500 theaters across America on the night of April 20. That’s 4/20, dude! The cannabis holiday is celebrated every year throughout the continent. The Toronto festivities, with a march ending at Queen’s Park Circle, drew some 30,000 participants in 2010. The counterculture event is even more significant on Hippie Hill at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The City by the Bay is where the Winterland Ballroom hosted the October 1974 concerts that are in this 1977 rockumentary, now being re-released with additional footage: never-before-seen interviews with Jerry Garcia, its director, and Bob Weir.

I haven’t caught either version, but did spend some time with the Dead in May of 1978 on assignment for a Vermont daily newspaper. Although backstage access had been arranged by some well-connected music business person, a big part of our plan was upended when a photographer named Charlie and I got to the Thompson Arena at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Told no cameras, notebooks or tape recorders would be allowed, we were journalists without the necessary tools who managed to persevere. My memorization skills had to kick into high gear. Here’s what happened:

After a 5 p.m. sound check, the Dead and their crew assembled for a meal. Garcia playfully attempted to fork a piece of steak from a roadie’s plate, but the guy pretended he would hit him in the face with a gooey cake in retaliation. Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist, told drummer Mickey Hart that he was on his customary afternoon run when police ejected him from the small airport adjacent to the hotel where they would be staying that night. “That’s a drag,” Hart commented. “It’s a runway, isn’t it?” For some reason, the two then tried walking backwards on their heels.

The Grateful Dead
Amid the pervasive smell of marijuana in the venue, the 8 p.m. show started almost a half-hour late. The Dead also took their time between tunes. And, unlike most bands, they did not bound right back on for an encore. As much as 15 minutes went by before the crowd – going from happy to disgruntled to indignant – found that its applause, yelling and stomping paid off with one last song: Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” one of the few non-Dead numbers they ever incorporated in the act. After the final, “Awooo,” the group returned to the dressing room, where the food was gone and the drinks were dwindling.

One nervous fan was stumbling over his words, trying to ask the enigmatic Garcia a question. Something about how he deals with nights when things don’t go well. Grinning a wide, toothy smile, the then-35-year-old acid rock veteran offered the young man a brief discourse on polarity: Good and bad exist side-by-side, in the same breath, he explained. His speaking voice was higher than might be expected from listening to him sing. 

Jerry Garcia
The fan looked perplexed when Garcia – behind dark sunglasses, graying and a bit grizzled, his generous frame stretched out on a couch – summed up life’s contradictions: “I like the tension better than the resolution.” He had been dubbed Captain Trips by the press and legions of Deadheads. The jam band became LSD personified for a generation that headed to San Francisco with flowers in their hair, ingested hallucinogens and danced with abandon to music that helped open the doors of perception. “I love tension,” Garcia repeated. “I’m all fire. Leo sun, Aries moon.”

During a subsequent gathering at their hotel, he was clowning around with bass player Phil Lesh and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux. They were surrounded by several admirers who laughed at Dead in-jokes they probably didn’t really understand. There was a bottle of vodka and a bottle of mescal (a cousin of tequila) with a worm in it, but no mixers and no glasses. “We sure know how to throw a great party,” Garcia said, deadpan. “Boy, are we having fun time.”

He began harmonizing with Lesh and Godchaux on an impromptu chorus of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” They lamented the fact that no cassette of Saturday Night Fever was available to put on the tape deck. Dead meets disco. Sitting next to Garcia, an ardent admirer gushed: “I’ve been waiting 11 years to be right where I am now!” The guitar virtuoso laughed. “And it don’t amount to a hill of beans,” he contended. “We’re just like everybody else.”

Jerrry Garcia and Bob Weir
Well, yes and no. There were not all that many rockers that could generate the long-term loyalty and enthusiasm of Deadheads who followed the tours from town to town. Their cars often bore bumper stickers reading “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” that attested to the magic they anticipated was sure to take place. This abracadabra sometimes transcended age limits. In the Dartmouth audience, a 91-year-old woman was nodding her head to the music. Many others in the crowd hadn’t yet been born when the Dead started out.

Since the beginning, the group had recorded every performance, 80 percent of which was not worthy of making it onto an album, according to Garcia. They tried using horns in their live act, but found that addition required endless rehearsals. “It was too difficult to blend into our sound,” he said. The Dead had never enjoyed a hit single or a best-selling album, yet their staying power was unique. “I like growing old,” Garcia noted, chain-smoking as the party fizzled out at dawn. “It gets better every year.”

I wondered why the band booked cookie-cutter chains rather than picturesque little inns off the beaten path. “It wouldn’t be The Road if we didn’t stay in place like this,” Garcia mused.

After no more than four hours sleep, by noon he was seated at a table in the nondescript hotel’s restaurant. Charlie and I joined him. Garcia either didn’t notice or didn’t care that I began taking notes. He had ordered a chicken sandwich that was half-eaten, but continued consuming coffee and cigarettes throughout the conversation, explaining “I’m into a non-health trip.” 

He also was into entertainment as a semi-controlled form of chaos. “Beyond the lyrics, chord changes and basic framework, nothing is structured about our shows. We are maintaining our dedication to anarchy.” But Garcia tempered that belief system with some lessons learned: “You can follow the flow of things till you hit a stone wall -- or till you’re dead. So, we’ve started to be able to use our wills. We’ve found we can act.”

And, in a recent instance, direct. Garcia talked about being at the helm of The Grateful Dead Movie, released the previous year, and now wanted to tackle a feature film. The science-fiction buff had purchased the rights to Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, a novel he described as “very cinemagraphic.”

Garcia said Deadheads at concerts calling out requests for their favorite songs most often wanted “Dark Star,” a trippy ode to a black hole in space that allowed the musicians to go wild with their trademark improvisation. “What they don’t realize,” he added, “is that there’s a little bit of ‘Dark Star’ in everything we do. In fact, there’s a little bit of ‘Dark Star’ in everything.”

In 1996, Dark Star would become the title of Robert Greenfield’s oral biography posthumously published on the first anniversary of Garcia’s death from a heart attack related to abuse of cocaine and heroin. Last year, Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story, 2010) announced that he will direct an adaptation of the book for a movie chronicling the early days of the psychedelic icon who loved tension.

Happy 4/20!

 Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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