Things we like
Divorcing music from its social context has allowed me to indulge myself in a Grateful Dead binge that would have been unimaginable when I wrote about them as a kind of guilty pleasure a couple of years ago. Since then, I've re-read the Arthur magazine symposium that I referred to in my earlier post (as well as the Daniel Chamberlin confessional memoir that preceded it) on their website, and more recently, Uncle Johnny "The Mailman" Bargas pulled my coat to a lengthy New Yorker piece on the subculture of Grateful Dead bootleg collecting. (There was also a good interview with Dead bassist Phil Lesh in the Julia Louis-Dreyfus issue of Rolling Stone, but it's unavailable to link to as of this writing.)
While I'll never go that far down the wormhole (who has the time?), I've been digging the '68-'70 albums Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa, and Live/Dead. Those albums represent the Dead's apogee as purveyors of borderline avant-garde psychedelia. While American Beauty still occupies its own unique space in my consciousness, to these feedback-scorched ears, the Dead as a performing entity were most interesting when they were in the process of becoming the franchise they'd become in the '70s. (I'll never be enough of a fan to endure Donna Godcheaux's horrible caterwauling, or their execrable Terrapin Station cover of "Dancing In the Street." But both Terry Valderas and Big Mike Richardson speak highly of Blues for Allah, so maybe I need to give thatun another chance.)
Sure, their jams tended to meander, and while Pigpen was still alive, they were as terrible a blues band as Big Brother and the Holding Company, but at their best (the sequence "Dark Star"/"St. Stephen"/"The Eleven" on Live Dead; the live "Alligator" on the CD reish of Anthem where you can hear the seed of the Allman Brothers' "Mountain Jam" and realize how much Dickey Betts owed to Garcia; the studio weirdness in the original mix of Aoxomoxoa -- dig the choir on "Mountains of the Moon!"), they could be as transcendent as their rep. So there.
2) Watching Jim Jarmusch's Year of the Horse, his 1997 documentary about Neil Young and Crazy Horse (which I just scored on VHS, although I understand it's also Netflix-available), one is reminded of how totally reptilian brain those guys play -- makes me wanna play some really simple music, really aggressively. Those guys were really just hitting their stride on the '96 tour the film documents (although there's also live footage from Neil's scuttled Rusty Track doco, including a "Like A Hurricane" that juxtaposes performances from '76 and '96) -- it's instructive to remember that they'd been playing with Neil for about a week when Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was recorded in '70, and that Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot's rockaroll experience started in the doowop era, just like Ronnie James Dio's did.
One is impressed by the primal force of their troglodyte stomp on songs like "Fuckin' Up" and "Tonight's the Night" and "Sedan Delivery," they way they all stand really close-in onstage, and how adept Frank Sampedro is at occupying a different sonic space than Neil, which is part of what gives the Horse's sound its grungy fullness -- "the sound of one big guitar playing, rather than two guys." It's also innaresting (as Neil's Shakey biographer Jimmy McDonough would have it) to be a fly on the wall for one of the band's backstage arguments, and to hear Neil's dad, the late journo Scott Young, offer his take on the band. It also makes me wonder when (if?) Jarmusch's long-awaited Stooges movie is coming out.