Lately the city of San Francisco has been unfairly associated with tragic violence. However, just in time to remind us that the Bay Area has also been an enduring center of great and diverse artistic ferment, the Grateful Dead, those tribal prophets of the acid era, have released a new album.
Listening to "Shakedown Street" (Arista AB4198), it becomes apparent that several years ago the Dead were faced with an artistic and spiritual choice. At that point, they opted to continue their pharmaceutically dictated life style, or in the words of author Tom Wolfe: to remain "as a group with a name and a mission, which was music and the psychedelic vision."
"Our scene," as lead singer and group patriarch Jerry Garcia described those early years, "was totally anarchic, you know, we had no plans. We had nothing to prove or anything like that." At one point, the band and its "family" occupied at house 710 Ashbury St. in San Francisco. Parties, revolving around Kesey and the notorious "acid testers", routinely went on for days to the roaring accompaniment of the Grateful Dead. "Dance lessons" were held in the streets, and television cameras were on hand to record the dramatic 1967 drug bust, which resulted in the arrest of 11 residents for marijuana possession.
Still, as late as a 1972 interview, Garcia maintained that the music was only tangential to the band's purpose. "The Grateful Dead is not for cranking out rock 'n' roll, it's not for going out and doing concerts or any of that." The band's ultimate goal, he concluded, was "to get high".
Yet despite what Garcia said, the Grateful Dead was gradually moving away from total immersion in drugs to a greater concern with the development of a distinctive, coherent approach to music. And even at that point, their sound was far from accessible. (Tom Wolfe was calling the Dead's music "agony-ecstasies," making light of "something wholly new and deliriuosly weird in the Dead's sound.")
What emerged out of this progression was often crude and eerie, almost satanic. The first three albums, "The Grateful Dead (1967), "Anthem of the Sun (1968) and "aoxomoxoa" (1969) established Jerry Garcia as a subtle and inspired guitarist and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan as a very gifted, lunatic-fringe mouth organ player and vocalist. The sound of the music was new, the approach was novel and the possibilities were frightening. As The Band's Robbie Robertson once said, "Music should never be harmless," and the early Dead albums offered little danger of that.
The Dead were captured on vinyl as never before, in 1970: It was then that Warner Brothers released "Live Dead," a two-album set Gracia hailed as "the prototype Dead." They jammed on "Dark Star" for an entire side (23 minutes), and Pigpen shrieked "Turn On Your Light" in unison with ehe assembled California multitude for another 15 minutes. "We're like a regular shoot-em-up saloon band8" exulted Garcia. "that'z more what we are like."
A frenetic year of te Dead, both musically and emotionally, was 1970. There was the new countrified sound of "Workingman's Dead," produced in only nine days and still finely crafted. "American Beauty" appeared later in the year; on it was the song "Truckin'," which many interpretes as the story of the Dead - a rumor Garcia denied in his vague, inimitable way. Garcia's mother died during the year, and the band was arrested in New Orleans on a variety of durg charges, inspiring the line in "Truckin'"; "busted down on Bourbon Street".
On April 12, 1973, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan died of a liver ailment which had kept him off the previous year's tour of Europe. An honorary Hell's Angel, McKernan had been with the band since the early years, and was sorely missed. Keith and Donna Godchaux joined the band shortly after that, but Pigpen's raspy vocal urgency was irreplaceable.
After some corporate disputes and contract finagling, "Wake of the Flood? and "From the Mars Hotel" were released on the new United Artists/Grateful Dead label. One reviewer said the "Wake" lyrics plumbed "new depths of dull-witted, inbred, blissed out, hippydippyness." "Mars Hotel" was saved by the jaunty "U.S. Blues" and the rambling "Scarlet Begonias."
A definite trend toward funkiness developed in the band's approach. "Blues for Allah," generally regarded as another crypto-psychedelic turkey, was graced with "The Music Never Stopped" and "Franklin's Twer," both of which were tight and rhythmically infectious. Its jazzy reggae tendency carried over onto "Terrapin Station," the Dead's first album for Arista. "Terrapin's" slick, funky-clean sound was the work of Keith Olsen, formerly of the Fleetwood mac production team, and now the Dead's first produced in 10 years.
With the Arrival of "shakedown Street," the Dead have gone certifiably commercial, and the so-called "formlessness" has given way to a slick, balanced sound. "Shakedown Street" heralds the arrival of "Disco Dead," though not in a pejorative dsense.
Under the production guidance of Little Feat's Lowell George, the Dead have a least four solid singles out of the album's 10 cuts. "Good Lovin'," originally recorded by the Olympics and the Rascals, is destined to be the "most sucessful Grateful Dead single ever," according to an Arista spokesman. "Shakedown Street" could be the Dead equivalent of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You," with its funky guitar-drum interplay. There's an accelerated reggae tune, "Fire on the Mountain," which though burdened by facile lyrics, sports some sassy guitar work. Even "I Need a Miracle" shines with Bob Weir's capacity- for lyrical whimsicality, a quality which plays well off his forceful California infliection.
Several years ago, Jerry Garcia was asked to offer advice on musical inspiration. "Do the sound yu hear in your head," he advised. "Like scratching an itch." With 400,000 units of "Shakedown Street already sold, the Dead are evidently scratching where the public itches.