Return of the Living Dead

That spirit of giddy playfulness seeps through the music here, a tub-thumping collection of folk standards the band barrels their way through on banjo, kazoo, tin cup, washboard, and windmill-strummed acoustic guitar. In contrast to many of the old-timey outfits of the period, Garcia's group displays little piety with these chestnuts. Songs such as Jimmie Rodgers's "In the Jail House Now," Huddie Ledbetter's "Big Fat Woman," and Jesse Fuller's "Beat It on Down the Line" aren't holy texts to be recited, but age-old tales of wisdom and licentiousness, fully inhabited by their new interpreters. The musicianship isn't virtuoso, yet there's a ragged but right quality throughout that gets the music over.

What's on display even at this early stage is an intimate acquaintance with roots, not as affectation, but as deeply felt experience. In late 1965 Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions would plug itself into amplifiers and reconstitute itself as the electrified Warlocks, and later the Grateful Dead. After a few years of loose acid blues and lyrical whimsy, the band would hunker down to craft something both timeless and altogether new, drawing on that same body of work that inspired them originally, but updating it for a new era.

Brightman writes: "Garcia and Hunter wove together strands of bluegrass, English, and American folk motifs, California country and western, gospel, blues, the Beatles, Dylan, and the Band into a Whitmanesque sampler.... Like no other popular music before or since, it spoke to the dailiness of getting by, which is largely overlooked in the lyrics of other bands, and it satisfied a longing for songs that come from somewhere, that have a past, if only a sense of the past."

It shouldn't be surprising then that the 1970 albums American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, which first introduced many of the Dead's songs to the public, remain the band's biggest sellers. Songs like "Uncle John's Band" and "Brokedown Palace" aren't just catchy, however. What lingers uniquely on these records is a sense of hope rising through the pained fragility of Garcia's voice. Written in response to the November 1969 Altamont concert killing (which many in the media indirectly attributed to the Dead's misguided recruiting of Hell's Angels to act as security at the event), "New Speedway Boogie" summons up this sentiment mightily. As the band settles into a slinky yet barbed groove, Garcia seems to be addressing much more than one death, more than Altamont's denouement as the end of Woodstock's Edenic promise, more than the Manson Family's transformation of the hippy lifestyle into something malevolent and sinister, more even than Vietnam's interminable fighting. Yet the Dead resisted the despair, instead intoning solemnly: "Things went down we don't understand, but I think in time we will. One way or another, this darkness got to give." As Brightman posits, it's at precisely this moment that the Dead start looking like the sagest philosophers in town.

"Demonstrations had turned to trashings, which offered the police and the National Guard a pretext for using tear gas and guns," Brightman writes. "Were protesters supposed to arm themselves? ... Or should they demobilize and return to teach-ins, petitions, and marching up and down in front of the White House holding candles? For the vast majority of political organizers, not to mention hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers, these questions were answered in the negative. In time it was a negative that spread like a slow-growing mold over the once-vibrant culture of political activism. Anger and frustration turned into cynicism, and cynicism, feeding on itself, led to withdrawal. It was against this background that the nation-state of fans to which the Grateful Dead lays claim began to bulk up and acquire some of its characteristic mating calls."

It was a call that followers were still answering almost two decades later when a time-scarred Garcia smiled, shook the dust from his hair, and croaked on 1987's "Touch of Grey": "I know the rent is in arrears, the dog has not been fed in years, it's even worse than it appears, but it's all right." The song was a subtle nod to 1969 and the Band's "The Weight," with its wandering narrator's plea to a friend to care for his dog while he's gone. It's an impassioned wish that sums up the Dead's ethos: keepers of the Sixties flame celebrating their very survival as an anthem. Its supporters, chiming in on the chorus from arenas across America, may have had their political inaction mistaken for apathy, but it was not out of resignation that they disengaged from the body politic. It was out of disgust.

The New Left had crashed and burned and its surrounding milieu lay stripped of meaning. If neither Weather Underground-style armed resistance nor flower child nonviolence seemed to make sense any longer, what else was there to do but keep on truckin'? "We're still here," was what the Dead was announcing, speaking not just for its members, or even a generation, but rather, for an idea -- one that apparently still had its true believers, even in the depths of the Reagan era.

For a sense of the miles traveled, listen to the version of "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" on Dick's Picks Volume 13. Although this Woody Guthrie song was among Mother McCree's 1964 repertoire, a world of difference marks the distance from there to the 1981 New York concert version. Originally sung as a short, straightforward ode of Depression-era Okies seeking the promised land of California, the Dead retains the song's soulful and redemptive tone, but also uses it as a springboard for jazzy improvising. As the rhythm section launches into a solid gallop, keyboardist Brent Mydland lays down a thick wash of organ, providing a solid bed for Garcia's nimble guitar lines to arc and lazily pinwheel above like a gliding seagull. The band pulls back, opening up the song to a sense of eerie deep space before the drummers seize the reigns, engaging in a bout of percussion that seems part duet, part battle.

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