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 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, and 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 90s 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 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 http://www.gdao.org. 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 jonimitchell.com 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 a second drummer in 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!
- Tune In: The first three parts are definitely worth the trip. The first part, “Cryptical Envelopment,” is an engaging Jerry Garcia piece where verses are sung over a background of Pigpen’s mellow organ, Jerry’s complementary guitar and a drum part that breaks expectations by frequently mirroring the rhythm of the lyrics. The piece temporarily shifts to a heavily processed vocal passage with a pretty psychedelic pop melody that serves as a bridge before returning to a final verse. Though The Dead were more or less a communal operation, this tiny passage makes it clear that their most promising path to broader recognition would be Jerry Garcia’s voice and guitar, a truth that would emerge later in American Beauty. “Cryptical Envelopment” is a studio recording, and with no break whatsoever, we move to the brief second passage, “Quadlibet for Tenderfeet,” an instrumental passage recorded at one of their live performances. The shift is timed to the descending notes of “Cryptical Envelopment,” with the expected final note replaced by the first drumbeat of “Quadlibet.” The timing of that beat is a just teensy bit rushed—much more noticeable than the barely indistinguishable cut that gave George Martin and crew the fits on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The shift from one reality to another is surprising at first, as we move from the manufactured stillness of the studio to the acoustically-variable dynamics of a live performance and are vaulted from a gentle tempo into a rocking bash. “Quadlibet” fades pretty quickly and “The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get,” comes barreling in. This is also a live performance, though with slightly better recording quality and fabulous collaborative energy. The syncopated rhythms and rhythmic shifts are particularly well-executed and the weaving of the vocals during the chorus is terribly exciting. “The Faster We Go” then fades somewhat awkwardly into a live fragment from the “Cryptical Envelopment. Oh, how I wish they would have ended it right there.
- Drop Out: The fourth part is “We Leave the Castle,” a concoction of weird beeps, bells, growls, squeaks, noises, creaks, and chimes courtesy of Tom Constanten, a friend of Phil Lesh who joined the party to provide piano and the barrage of effects you hear in this piece. Constanten preferred “prepared piano,” where the preparation involves wedging screws, bolts, erasers or whatever into piano strings to make cosmic noise. The results are “cinematic sci-fi creepy,” reminiscent of the soundtrack accompanying the parts of Star Trek: First Contact when Picard and crew are hunting for Borg drones.
“New Potato Caboose”: This track merges with the previous track; you can spot the switch when the eerie noises disappear and a gentle guitar duet takes over. The piece is roughly divided into a studio half and a live half.
- Tune In: The studio half is engaging on many levels. Both the chord structure and rhythms are complex and compelling; the flashes of harmony provide a series of musical peaks; the interspersing of glockenspiel with the guitars and organ brightens the soundscape; and Bob Weir’s lead vocal is gentle and sensitive. From a musical perspective, it’s a very strong composition with beautiful flow. The live segment is a jam with superb drumming, Jerry Garcia’s typical mastery of tonal variation. and the band’s ability to capitalize on improvisational windows of opportunity. The one quality that unites both tracks, though, is a masterful display of bass guitar virtuosity from Phil Lesh. In the quieter studio passage, he blends nimble melodic counterpoints with strong support of the rhythm in the syncopated sections; in the live section, he fills your headphones with deep bottom and more amazing runs. Though I think “New Potato Caboose” is the strongest collaborative performance on the album, Lesh is the guy who takes it to another level.
- Drop Out: The lyrics are typical hippie fol-de-rol.
“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.
- Tune In: The lead guitar solo from about 5:30 to 9:00.
- Drop Out: Everything else, which is a lot, since the entire track clocks in at 11:20. The recording quality is variable, the drum solo lasts too long and the lyrical storyline would appeal only to fat men with latent herpetophobia flopping around The Everglades or the bayou. The worst mistake was to use a kazoo as the complementary instrument in the opening segment: it saps all the power from Jerry Garcia’s impressive opening riff. A sax would have been great; a harmonica more than appropriate. The Dead were fond of down-home instruments, and while the story in the lyrics certainly supports kazoos and mouth harps, the combination of kazoo and electric power is jarring.
“Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)”:
- Tune In: . . .
- Drop Out: This is the track submitted by the plaintiffs as evidence when The Dead were charged with the crime, “Pointless Jamming.” 9:37 of silence would have been a great way to end this album.
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 with 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.” It’s easy to dismiss that explanation as New Age bullshit, but pretty music describes what modern jazz musicians attempted 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 outlasted them all.
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.