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The Grateful Dead – Anthem of the Sun – Classic Music Review


One idea behind Anthem of the Sun was to create a soundscape that reflected the experience of a Grateful Dead concert, so that’s the perspective I’m going to take for this review. I have the right to take that perspective because my parents took me to see The Dead at the Oakland Coliseum Arena when I was thirteen years old, a few months before Jerry Garcia passed away.

I had already been to other shows with my parents, but I’d never experienced and will never again experience anything like a Dead concert. The Dead didn’t “perform” like other bands;  they just got up on stage and played, focusing more on the music and each other than the crowd, rather like jazz musicians. The crowd moved more than other crowds, and by that I don’t mean just dancing, but milling about and mingling with each other, taking strolls, stopping to see old friends. It felt more like an extended family reunion than a concert. Some of the people seemed a little spaced out but I didn’t feel threatened at all: despite some ancient publicity to the contrary, I found Deadheads to be very nice people. One woman who looked like she’d warped into the 90’s from The Haight in its heyday spent a long time chatting with me about music, chakras and higher consciousness, smiling all the while, giving me hugs when I said something she thought was cute and leaving traces of patchouli oil on my hair and skin. I had a nice time, but I remember very little about the music: it was more like the background music at a party: when you run out of conversation, it’s there for you. A Dead concert was the physical manifestation of Timothy Leary’s famous motto: you can tune in anytime you want, drop out if you feel like it, and it’s assumed that you’re already turned on.

I heard some Grateful Dead on the family stereo growing up, primarily from their more commercially successful periods, so this series gave me an opportunity to learn more about their roots. I picked Anthem from the Sun because when I had my dad play it I had a faint and distant memory that I heard fragments of “The Other One” (called “That’s It for the Other One” on the album) at the concert . . . more like a déjà vu feeling than a real memory.

Much to my delight, when I started my research, I learned that the University of California Santa Cruz Library has an extensive Grateful Dead Archive you can access online at Most of the work on this blog involves searching Internet sites for fragments and snippets about the music I’m reviewing, and sites like this and are like little bits of heaven to me. What’s special about the Grateful Dead archive is that it is also a socially-generated space for fans to share their experience, and the fan experience is critical to understanding The Dead. The Grateful Dead were as much a socio-cultural phenomenon as a musical group, and the way people experienced them is crucial to understanding their place in music history.

Anthem of the Sun is an album of five tracks, some in the form of “suites” and one or two that might qualify as “songs,” depending on your perspective. Because the motivation behind the album was to recreate the experience of The Dead’s live act through the recording technology available in the studio, you hear studio and live performance segments melded together within a single track. Further reinforcing the non-linear nature of the record, some of the tracks melt into the next, so you do not know where you are unless you happen to be staring at your track counter when you’re listening to the album. This is how The Dead played live: they went with the flow and allowed one song to merge into another with little or no space between them.

As with many albums from the psychedelic era, there is some weird and ridiculous shit here. Shortly after they entered the studio, their producer quit in frustration, saying “they didn’t know what the hell they were looking for.” Jerry Garcia disagreed, saying, “We weren’t making a record in the normal sense; we were making a collage.” Once they were rid of the producer, changed locales and brought their sound guy in for support, The Dead took advantage of a recording contract that gave them unlimited studio time. What makes the story even more interesting is that they didn’t know dick about recording studios or the recording process: Anthem of the Sun was a learn-as-you-go, let-the-music-emerge experience. Even Jerry admitted that they went too far at times, so it should be no surprise Anthem of the Sun is an album of uneven quality. It’s more like a tryout session or a dress rehearsal than a holistic artistic statement.

Some of it does work, though, and what makes those parts work is the band itself. Jerry Garcia was a guitarist of the highest order and had a warm, friendly voice that remains very accessible to the listener. Bob Weir has more of an everyman’s voice and was also a superb and inventive rhythm guitar player. Phil Lesh was a classically-trained trumpeter who played an amazing bass, and the addition of second drummer Mickey Hart added an entire spectrum of new percussive possibilities. From a compositional standpoint, they were still pretty green, and from a recording standpoint, they still had a lot to learn. The fact that they were on drugs most of the time might have slowed the learning process just a bit (ya think?).

I think the best way to interpret the album for non-Deadheads like me is to apply the Leary theory to each track and identify where you should tune in and where you probably want to drop out. Ready?

“That’s It for The Other One”: This is a piece in four parts about a man marked for death, either the legendary Beat figure Neal Cassady or Owsley Stanley, the counterculture figure known as The LSD Cook who was the first free citizen to manufacture LSD in large quantities. American ingenuity knows no boundaries!

“New Potato Caboose”: This track merges with the previous track; you can spot the switch when the weird noises disappear and a gentle guitar duet takes over. The piece is roughly divided into a studio half and a live half.

“Born Cross-Eyed”: The shortest song on the album, it wound up (in an altered version) as the B-side to “Dark Star,” a single that “sank like a stone” according to Phil Lesh. The full version of “Dark Star” would later be christened a guitar masterpiece and become a favorite jamming platform at Dead concerts. This track doesn’t last long enough (two minutes) to make a choice between tuning in and dropping out, so I’m going to suggest you drop out: the song is really the fragment of an idea that never develops cohesion. I like the power of the band on this piece, though.


“Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)”:

You may ask the question, “If they wanted to capture the feel of their live shows, why not just record a live album?” Good question! My read is that they were obsessed on making the studio thing work, but there was no way it could work. The belief that one could recreate a live experience through the technology of a recording studio is silly. Performing musicians don’t play in a vacuum; they play in a space full of other human beings. The energy flows both ways: sometimes a band starts off having an off-night but the crowd energy picks them up; sometimes a great band can energize a sleepy audience, particularly if they weren’t expecting much. The Dead certainly knew this, but for some reason wanted to put a whole lot of wasted energy into trying to make the studio do what a studio cannot do.

Garcia’s alt-explanation of what they were attempting better explains what you hear on the record: “Actually, when we mixed it, we mixed it for the hallucinations. Phil and I performed the mix as though it were an electronic-music composition.” I also think Phil Lesh’s description of how they worked together adds even more insight: “The unique organicity of our music reflects the fact that each of us consciously personalized his playing: to fit with what others were playing and to fit with who each man was as an individual, allowing us to meld our consciousnesses together in the unity of a group mind.” While it’s easy to dismiss that explanation as New Age bullshit, it’s very similar to what modern jazz musicians attempt to achieve. While I don’t like everything The Dead did, I have never doubted their sincerity. They were the true believers, and I’ve always admired people who fully commit to something, no matter how challenging it may be for other people to understand what the fuck they’re doing. At least The Dead had a more coherent idea of how they wanted to work together than the other bands in the San Francisco scene, and that’s why they lasted as long as they did.

Anthem of the Sun is far from perfect, and though I didn’t care much for the last half of the record, I have sort of a warm feeling about it. Go figure.


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