Friday, January 13, 2006

When it's done and over, Lord, a man is just a man

Bar 63, eighth-note 347,942

Through the modern miracle of podcasting, for some months now I've had the pleasure of timeshifting the day's Al Franken Show into my evening drive home. My enjoyment of the show is muted, though. Al's not the most acute interviewer in the world of space and time, and all too often he marshals his guests out of their own particular areas of expertise and solicits agreement with his own hobby-horses. Fair enough; he's not a "pro"; and what he lacks in professionalism he by far makes up for by being, you know, funny.

But Al and I are not destined by the stars to grow old together, I can already foretell.

The problem is musical.

Al's chosen a few snips from the Grateful Dead's catalog as bumpers to play segments in and out, and it's these things that will eventually drive me away.

Habitués of the Jingosphere may have already picked up on the free-floating notion that I bear little affection for the Grateful Dead's self-congratulatory elitist cult, or indeed for Hippieism in general -- having taken the Clash seriously in Bobby Lightfoot's 1979 may have had something to do with it.

I hung with lots of Deadheads in the Seventies -- it was mighty hard to be in a Midwestern college village and avoid 'em -- but after school was over I managed to get Jerry and the Boys into the rear-view mirror while I explored what we all should have been listening to in our formative years instead of that drunken mess "Europe '72": Vintage country, bluegrass, jug-band music, Delta blues, the huge universe of jazz -- in fact, all the musical forms that preceded and influenced the Dead and indeed all of rock music.

So not having availed myself of the Dateful Bread for quite a few years it's a bit of a hardship to be exposed rather relentlessly to a few selected ten-second snips of Jerry Garcia's guitar playing. I have loathed "Terrapin Station" since approximately four seconds into the first time I heard it, and as a particularly bombastic passage from it serves as Al's main bumper, the cause is not helped.

But no, mainly it's the Garcia Thing. With a few notable exceptions, Jerry Garcia was a sloppy, lazy, cliché-ridden mess of a guitar player, who interrupted his boring eighth-note scales only to interject cod-country double-stop bends that were trite when Chet Atkins nicked them from Merle Travis in 1947. Seriously, listen to any Garcia solo and concentrate on the rhythms he's choosing -- ninety percent of the time he's playing nothing but eighth notes:


I can't help but wonder, whenever I hear the passage from "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" that Franken plays, why that particular edit? Couldn't Al hear the dope-sick, thoughtless reliance on pure muscle-memory that invariably produces the hackneyed guitar playing of a flogger who's so phoning it in he may as well live at Ma Bell's? Can you hear me now? Good!

On another bumper -- don't know the song, sorry -- it couldn't be plainer to this weekend warrior (who has actually once or twice Walked the Walk) that the guy doesn't know what key he's in or what chord is coming next. He noodles, hoping against hope that Bob-n-Phil will hit that tonic A they're hinting at. Whew, they do, but it was touch-and-go there for a second.

OK, so maybe Al just hit a bad patch in his selections. A storied guitarist with Rock-and-Roll Patriot cred like Jerry couldn't have been that awful, could he? I decided to download Skull and Roses from iTunes, just to test the proposition. A 1971 live album over which the band had absolute creative control, right? They could have chosen from a huge number of performances, even edited some together -- it's been done, believe me -- to come up with the bestest representation of their musicianship they could, 'kay?

So... The first song ("Bertha"), the first guitar solo on the record, three bars into it...

Jerry Clams It

He doesn't just clam it, he clams it hard. He clams it with a clam that would make a second-year Mel Bay student wince. Clam Casino. Clam Royale. Steamed Clam with sauerkraut.

And you hear those eighth notes? He's gonna do those goddamned eighth notes for another 72 bars, man!

Now, please. I love Workingman's Dead. Jerry's pedal-steel playing on "The Wheel" is some of the most innovative ever done, and that song is right up there in the Personal Top Hundred. "Dark Star/St. Stephen" Live/Dead yadda yadda. Dawg Music. No question.






Anonymous said...

That was... That was a Euell Gibbons field note on the Surf Clam (Spisula solidissima).

Oh my.

Can't tell if he was recovering or not, but those bends at the end don't sound very promising.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Simon. What does Paula think?

I saw the Dead a couple of times, pharmacologically enhanced, and the first time I was 15 feet from one of their speakers. Along with numerous rides in a CH-46 and a couple of rounds of artillery practice, that night pretty much explains my annoying tinnitus here in the golden years.

It's probably hackneyed to say so, but my impression is that on any given night they could be sublime, or they could be like your local teen hangout band, only with way more volume. The Allman Brothers could jam more skillfully and way more consistently, but I wouldn't take back the hours I spent listening to the Dead. The reason I never went to see them again was the annoying bubbleheads-- sorry, deadheads-- in the crowd. I just couldn't abide such a massive waste of oxygen anymore.

An Upstep or a Downstep said...

Good points all. Having NEVER been a Dead fan, I am biased towards your point. I was constantly surprised what a crowd mentality broke out during a languid LSD afternoon when Gerry the noodle diddled his pasta notes.

You can imagine the shit I(and two other unamed pranksters) received after painting over the Steal Your Face mural with the PIL logo,e.g:

"Maybe we should talk to sheriff Bob about vandalism!" to which I replied, "Uh would that be before or after we count the square patterned illegal substances. Paint over it again if you don't like it..."

Whadda 'ya think: does Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil" trounce with other-wordly and demonic superiority a rather weak opponent in the Dead's "Friend of the Devil?"

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I found your post much ado about nothing. Yes - I like the Dead and saw them some 40 times, but I’ve always understood how subjective taste in music is.
In the 25 years I've been a fan I've read 10 times as much dismissing them as supporting them. The case against them has been made ad nauseam and yours was post 63 rant 347,942 arguing that Jerry Garcia is an overrated guitarist. (Someone needs to explain to me how someone or some band so constantly torn apart can be considered “overrated”.)
So you will soon stop listening to Al Franken because once every 15 minutes you might hear 7 seconds of the Dead. So be it, but it seems a rather trite reason to stop listening.
I loathe U2 – a band all but universally praised. I couldn’t possibly count how many times I’ve had to listen to their catalog of Arena Rock Anthems With Important Messages From St. Bono. So what? I have to hear music I don’t like when I visit friends, go shopping, walk down a street on a nice day, or turn on a radio or TV. I’ll live. And I’ll be damned if I’ll rearrange my life to avoid that shit and the preening eyeglass model braying above all the bar chords.
And please understand, I enjoy your blog and consider you a good writer with an interesting mind. It’s just that seeing yet another essay on “Why I hate the Dead” is about as exciting as seeing another one on “The War on Christmas.”

Neddie said...

My goodness! Behold the Wrath of the Outraged Deadhead!

I really think you need to work on that Reinforcing-the-Stereotype thing a little bit, though, Bob-ola. You got the Aggrieved Tone of the Put-Upon Fanboy down pretty good, and the Unsupportable Assertion and the False Analogy bits are note-perfect (U2, for all love! Well done!) But points off for the "musical taste is subjective" concession, which you then belie completely by chastising me for four more wheedling paragraphs.

As to your last paragraph -- well, do you want your fucking money back? Jesus H. Particular Christ.

But I don't happen to subscribe to the notion that all musical taste is subjective. I believe there is good musicianship and there's bad musicianship, and that these can be judged by objective criteria, such as skill, execution, discipline, and tonal control of the instrument. And from what I've heard of Jerry Garcia's playing today, he was a rotten, unpracticed, undisciplined, toss-it-out cliche-monger.

I dare you, Bob-o, to listen along with me to the version of "Not Fade Away/Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" on Skull and Roses that I bought today. Ready? Skip forward to 6:10, where the solo starts. With me? OK, here we go.

6:16 Jerry anticipates the chord change to IV AN ENTIRE MEASURE EARLY, appears to lose the key. The rest of the band is thrown into disarray, thinking THEY got it wrong. Listen to Bob Weir; he doesn't know whether to shit or go blind. They don't recover until 6:22, when Kreutzmann's drum fill starts everyone back on one.

6:29. Major tempo stumble. A second-year-student's mistake.

6:42. Going way too fast, has to slow down to let the band catch up with him. This is the section that Franken extracts for his show, and is absolutely rife with truly wretched cliched, unfocused "errrny-errrny" time-filling. I'm flabbergasted that ANYBODY thinks this is good musicianship.

6:43. If that ain't another clam, I'm Spongebob Squarepants. If he intended to play that note, things are even worse than I'd thought.

6:46. Again, out ahead of the band. Has to wait.

6:50. Has no idea where the fuck he is, or where the chorus ends. Fills with a half-assed phrase until he can find the tonic again.

7:06. AGAIN HE LOSES HIS PLACE. This were my band, I'd have stopped the show, fired his ass then and there, and apologized to the audience.

7:13 Weak, weak, WEAK ending to the solo, caused by inadvertently visiting -- AGAIN -- the wrong key.

By any objective measure, Bob, that is one TERRIBLE guitar solo, both in conception and execution. And this, Bob, this is a major release by a world-renowned band that year. The chose to give the world that guitar solo, as if they were proud of it.

Stop to consider the possibility that they're "constantly torn apart" for a very good reason.

Uncle Rameau said...

got one of those new-fangled mp3 thingies at the boxing day sales, and having loaded 'er up with the music of my life, what do you think was playing as I read this post and comments?

Uncle John's Band, followed by Sunday Blood Sunday. I guess that was the jingosphere shuffle.

are either any good? Don't ask me, I don't even know what a crop is.

evbcmn - something else I don't know what it is.

Anonymous said...

In Al's defense, he once said in the early days of his show that choosing the Dead for his bumpers was a small way of expressing his revulsion at Rush Limbaugh's classy reaction to Jerry Garcia's death: "Just another dead doper. And a dirt bag."

But, yeah, now that we've gotten the point, Al... can we move on to some decent music?

The Viscount LaCarte said...

What does a dead-head say when he runs out of weed?


I'm one of those people that likes The Dead. Most people I meet who have an opinion either love them or hate them. The stuff that I like is always sung by Jerry, and is almost always played in the studio as opposed to the live noodling that sometimes sounds like a guitar tuning seminar for the tone-deaf.

I agree with Bob that music is indeed subjective, but I also agree with Neddie in that live jams that amount to a clambake where the chefs are drinking electric kool-aid are not. A certain level of technical expertise is expected for a certain type of music, and when Jerry was strung out his playing was pretty dismal.

The Clash is a great example of a band whose players were not virtuosos on their instruments but were still great at what they did. They would have made an atrocious jazz pop band a la Steely Dan, and an unlistenable blues-rock jam-band, but for their style of music they were unequaled. They drove within the range of their headlights.

If what hipdaddy said is true, then I'm with Al. Crank it up!

Neddie said...

That Rush quote's pretty repulsive, all right. Wikipedia confirms it. (scroll down to "Drugs."

Bob, on further reflection it's not the mere fact of the Dateful Bread being used by Al as bumpers that drives me batty.

It's the incessant repetition of EXACTLY THE SAME FOUR BUMPERS that does it, especially when at least two of them contain just awful lead guitar playing. These things get stuck in the head very easily, and are butt-difficult to expunge.

asyjfdgq, the sequence of notes that kick off a Garcia solo

Anonymous said...

What's great about the Limbaugh quote is he was really creating his own epitaph: "Just another dead doper. And a dirt bag."

Anonymous said...

And from what I've heard of Jerry Garcia's playing today, he was a rotten, unpracticed, undisciplined, toss-it-out cliche-monger.

...Who only thought a few seconds ahead, and who visited places on the scale one after the next like a bar-hopping frat boy.

A Garcia solo is usually a series of meanders at different places on the scale, ending at a high tonic with a bit of bendy stuff, then somehow getting back down again. Actually, it's usually the same solo.

Anonymous said...

“My goodness! Behold the Wrath of the Outraged Deadhead! “

What “Wrath”? I merely wrote to point out that if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need it’s another rambling dissertation on why the Dead suck. By the way, I didn’t say this because I was responding to what you wrote, but another thing the world doesn’t need is another rambling dissertation on why the Dead are great. And before your grand “A-ha!” moment, let me say no, you score no points by claiming I wrote such a dissertation. I responded to something you wrote and made no effort – none – to convince you or anyone the Dead were a good band.

“I really think you need to work on that Reinforcing-the-Stereotype thing a little bit, though, Bob-ola. You got the Aggrieved Tone of the Put-Upon Fanboy down pretty good, and the Unsupportable Assertion and the False Analogy bits are note-perfect (U2, for all love! Well done!) But points off for the "musical taste is subjective" concession, which you then belie completely by chastising me for four more wheedling paragraphs.”

Where to start…I write a sincere, thoughtful response to you. No snark, no sarcasm, no attacks*. And in your response I become “Bob-ola” who is “Reinforcing-the-Stereotype” with the “Aggrieved Tone of the Put-Upon Fanboy…” Jesus Christ, I hope you see the irony there.

“As to your last paragraph -- well, do you want your fucking money back? Jesus H. Particular Christ.”

No Needie, your razor sharp wit will be payment enough. David Letterman drove that gag into the ground 20 years ago, but hey, whatever works.

“But I don't happen to subscribe to the notion that all musical taste is subjective. I believe there is good musicianship and there's bad musicianship, and that these can be judged by objective criteria, such as skill, execution, discipline, and tonal control of the instrument. And from what I've heard of Jerry Garcia's playing today, he was a rotten, unpracticed, undisciplined, toss-it-out cliche-monger.”

For someone who gets so worked up over the Clash I find your second by second account of the Dead’s concert recordings interesting. Yeah, The Clash were real virtuosos. Look, I love the Clash and think they did a lot with the rather average amount of musical chops they had. Over the years Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Ornette Coleman, John Lennon, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and a host of other musical heavyweights have sung the praises of Jerry Garcia. But if you say he sucked, he sucked.

One last point. I have reread my original post 3 times now and can’t for the life of me understand the invective you responded with. I’m terribly sorry to have had the temerity to question something you wrote. Had I known how important it was to you to have your thoughts accepted and praised I wouldn’t have ruined your day. I guess saying it seemed “trite” to stop listening because of a few seconds out of every 15 minutes is “chastising” while paragraph after paragraph of capitalized insults is the height of intellectual prowess.

* Yes, I did “attack” U2, but only as an example of the larger point I was making. Are they a “great” band? Sure, guess so. Most of the western world loves em. I don’t. So fucking what? I can’t conceive of not listening to a radio show because of 10 seconds of “Where the Streets Have No Name” once every 10 or 15 minutes. But then, not being an overly sensitive Fanboy, I wouldn’t be expected to.

Neddie said...

Bob, what I said before, times three, no tagbacks.

What “Wrath”? I merely wrote to point out that if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need it’s another rambling dissertation on why the Dead suck.

You came to my blog, and essentially told me to shut up. Right? How the hell else am I to interpret instruction from a total stranger, who's never commented here before, on what is and isn't proper subject matter IN MY OWN FUCKING BLOG.

Goddammit, you do NOT come in here and tell me what I can and can't say. If you want a clue as to why I blew up at you, start right fucking there. And if you can't see that your sniveling tone is goddamned irritating, take this as your first hint: It is.

It's a rock band, not a cure for cancer. Grow the fuck up, and find some other blog to infest. You're gone from this one.

beyond passionate said...

well, uh, uhm... how 'bout those Yankees?

Anonymous said...

I know I personally cannot listen to the Dead's mostly because I hate the Dead copy bands that litter the collge town I happen to live in. It's bad enough to have to listen to numerous copy bands, but Grateful Dead copy bands? That takes the cake. I would rather listen to a band struggling to find it's voice and verve doing original music (whatever that is...that deserves it's own post...)than a band doing Airplane Allman Bros Clapton and Dead covers really well. That's just me. I know when I perform I strive to be a tight band where the breaks are rehearsed and the ins and outs are basically known in advance by the other band members...

In viewing/listening to live performance I like tight practiced songs as oppossed to loosely organized jam bands. I think that is part of my distaste for Garcia soloing. I like the studio albums best like American Beauty and Wake of the Flood and I think it is because the tunes are tighter more cogent and they sound like the band is trying to make a really good collection of songs on an album. Alot of people like the jam thing. They like the loose arrangements and the fact that the progression goes on and on. It's more of a dreamscape I guess. I've had fun at some dead shows in the early 80's, especially in Santa Fe, but it ain't my cup of tea anymore and in spite of the effort to beatify St Jerry, I do understand what Neddie is syaing...

Anonymous said...

Over the years Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Ornette Coleman, John Lennon, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and a host of other musical heavyweights have sung the praises of Jerry Garcia. But if you say he sucked, he sucked.

Shit! I knew that there was something I forgot to do--send my playlists to Willie Nelson for review and approval! Dang, I hope that he doesn't revoke my music-listening license...

Anonymous said...

Hey Now! Lay off Willie. You don't diss Willie. Granted, he has put out some utter crap, and will probably continue to do so, but he has also written some very fine stuff. More importantly, I just like him as a human being.
Besides, you wouldn't want to bring the wrath of future Governor of Texas Kinky Friedman down on your ass now would you?
Oh and please place me in the category of 'mean people who suck' if that is the anti-Dead camp and always remember that nice people swallow.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

U2 saved the WHALES, man. U2 saved THOUSANDS in Katrina, baby. U2 eats injustice for BREAKFAST, dog. U2 are making poverty HISTORY. U2 pop cartoonlike from Th' Man's breast pocket and bitchslap him about the neck and face, baby.

Th' Clash coined this: "Well, I believe in this and it's been proven by research/He who fucks nuns will later join a church".

Cherry! Cherry G! What the FUCK? He's a icecream flavor. He's th' savior of flavior. He WORMFOOD, diggity.

Serbiously. If you call yourself a jam band, let's be able to jam. Th' Clish was a punk band. U2 is a christband. Lights come up in Cleveland- 4 crosses against a red red sky.

I so drunk not rite good today. Or maybe very goord.

shosbb- th' sound this tequillia's going to make on 'er way up.

lonesomepolecat said...

nobody gets to any proper comprehension of the dead or g garcia thru counting errors musical or lapses of tightness or even taste. it was never really about the music except as more or less agreeable background for a kind of joyous community not easily available elsewhere. further, i would challenge anyone to name another institution of similar timespan who never sold out it's constituency. i have nothing but sadness for anyone who missed out.

Neddie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter said...

oh, i dunno. you're obviously right about jerry's clams, but i think they're what kind of makes him great. it's all subjective and stuff, but i'd rather hear that than any amount of soulless fretboard theatrics by 'greater' talents. and while he does repeat himself a lot, he did take a lot of solos, so maybe it's only to be expected. don't all guitarists do that?

i suspect those naughty substances didn't aid his motor skills either (apart from, as you rightly noted, live/dead). didn't seem to play hell with his pedal steel playing though...shows what a nice sit down can do for you.

Anonymous said...

A little late to the party, but Neddie, it may be your blog but when you treat people like shit they don't come back. I don't care.

You treated Bob-ola like shit. Enjoy your own farts!

Sorry you don't like Garcia. Your loss.

Anonymous said...

The Dead were great because they broke the rules. Changing chords early, messing with the tempo, throwing in notes that someone used to mainstream music would think don't belong. The Dead were about one player changing things up and the others having a musical discussion of whether to follow or stay the course. The best parts were when the band would split into two different songs at the same time, half saying in the 4/4 and the other half swithcing into a song in 6/8. It all happens on a whim and they know that they won't be able to resolve it untill the versus line up again. These things happen when you play without a set list, when you play the songs differently each time, and when you start song only to finish it five songs later.

When the dead played just eighth notses over and over again it was to develop a predictable pulsating sound for a mind to get lulled into before chaning it later creating an unexpected variation.

I hear the subtle changes in Jerry's playing because I have practiced listening to him and I listen closely. Most people can't hear how he is constantly changing things. It is a style of music that takes practice to appreciate. I love his playing because I have never heard any other guitar player who is as unpredictable as him. Yet most people don't hear the variations in volume in each guitar pick, or they think his "mistakes" were unplanned.

Sure they made some missed notes, but that is inevitable when the form of the music is as loose as it is. Most bands can't play that loose or they fall apart. The Dead wiggled that loose format better than any othe band. That is what Grateful Dead music is. Its taking a normal song and getting rid of all the consticting normal rules. If you like rules, then listen to other stuff, if you want to hear a band make stuff up as they go along, then listen to the Dead.

Don't forget that Jerry was one of the all time great bluegrass banjo players before he started the Dead. The Dead were a jug band befoe they took LSD. Phil is a classical musician. Mickey is known as one of the best world music drummers, leading the Smithsonian archiving of tribal music. If you don't get the Dead its because they bring together so many different types of music.

When people opened for them and sat in with them for a few songs, they came away a better more complex musician. Just ask Etta James, Branford Marsallis, Sting, Willy Nelson etc. Bruce Hornsbey was a full fledged member of the band for a while. Why do so many musicians play Dead songs. Why did they sell more concert tickets than any other band in history. They brought tens of thousands of people to tears each night because they were real, playing from their heart, and not from some precision style. Too many bands today like polished solos that build quickly and are done in a minute. The greats play it raw and let it develop as the mood permits it. I am a very accomplished musician and I have to say the Dead were the most complex band I've heard, and much of that is due to Jerry's playing. As a result, I find it the most enjoyable to listen to.

Unknown said...

The Dead weren't trying to impress music critics. That was never their target market. The Dead played more live shows than ANY other band in history and they didn't have a problem filling seats. So something they did was right. They also stayed together, something most bands cannot claim. They also put together some very complex studio recordings in Wake of the Flood, Blues for Allah and Terrapin Station.

And for those who think Jerry sucks on guitar, keep in mind that he was a professional bluegrass player long before he joined the Dead. Did he have off days? Yes. But overall his style was just that. His chosen style. 1/8th notes or not, you knew it was Garcia the minute you heard their songs.

I listen to a LOT of music and have seen a LOT of concerts and I can safely say that when you are looking at a Suck-O-Meter, the Dead are nowhere near the top where bands like Kiss, Black Sabbath, Bob Seeger, Hall & Oats, REO Speedwagon, and others of the period ran.

I will always have GD in my collection. There's something about a classic GD tune like Scarlet Begonias, Eyes of the World, Mississippi Half-Step, Touch of Grey, and West LA Fade Away just to name a few.

Like them or not, they created classic arrangements that most "modern" suck bands couldn't begin to tackle and were able not only to play them live but to have 2, 3 and 4-hour long concerts in which one song streamed into the other almost seemlessly. When they were on, there were few bands that could do the complexities of their music live without playing the same set night after night. At least when the Dead toured, the concerts were not carbon copies one of another as most bands are.

Unknown said...

Well, fine, anyone got it. You don't like Jerry, the GD and their followers!

So there is only one thing I can hardly understand.

Why does a one single note statement lead you into a whole page of blabla?! I mean, who cares, that Jerry wasn't one hell of a good guitar player?

It's the vibration, the spirit (sic!) of his play, that counted and still counts.

Obviously you listened to GD just because everyone did at the time?! You follow trends, is that what you supposed to tell us?


Then go ahead w/your trendish style, but for God's sake,

let Jerry rest in peace!