(Grateful Dead * Rock & Roll)
Sean M. Conrey
Citation: Conrey, Sean M.. “Jerry Garcia.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r05
Abstract: The Grateful Dead, and particularly Garcia’s approach to the guitar, implies that if you're not far enough out of yourself, or aren't giving enough of yourself to the world at the moment, you can't begin to approach something that those involved will agree is the truth. Composition as a polite and civil “gathering of positions,” breaks down under these conditions. The incumbent attributes of co-ecstasy, namely mutual bewilderment, astonishment and amazement, help to refocus attention on the impolite bonds between the positions of those involved, and those bonds become a gathering force in their own right.
Keywords: Dark Star, Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead, Exstasis.
A naïve, bourgeois-safe 17-year-old who’d spent some time hanging out with my sister’s friends at college, I bought my first Grateful Dead album, 1969’s Live Dead. I guess I bought it looking for an identity as much as I was looking for a way of getting out of my lanky, brooding teenage body for a few minutes.
The album’s opening track features the band’s signature psychedelic foray, “Dark Star,” culled from live performances at the Fillmore. I listened to the track constantly, often sleeping with it on repeat all night. It interested me that the tensions in the music built as an ensemble more than around any one player. Jerry Garcia’s leads were often out front in the mix, but he didn’t seem to be in charge. The band seemed to be not just improvising around a lead melody, but mutually amazed, feeling for the walls in the dark together, and occasionally finding a way forward.
This is most clear around the seven minute mark of “Dark Star” when, released from the willful, formal burden of having to sing the first verse, the band begins a slow, slightly dissonant climb, with cymbals coming in occasional waves, the rhythm guitar and organ adding a light textural harmony, the bass moving up the scale like a thick, aural vine, and Garcia presumably hitting his guitar with his fist to provide a noisy, fed-back chord that culminates in a lead line of sharp, clear notes at its peak. I have probably listened to this passage of instrumental music more than any other, but too often some polite force has held me just shy of ecstasy when listening to it.
A week or two after high school graduation I attended my first Dead show. On the cusp of the summer solstice, a seventy-degree, clear blue day led into a warm evening. The hippie auspices abounded. Though I was unfamiliar with most of the songs they played that night, inhabiting them came easy. I couldn’t describe it until years later, but it became clear that evening that the mutual amazement I’d heard in the ensemble-focused improvisations on the band’s live records, what I’ll here call “co-ecstasy,” extended beyond the band members. While the proscenium framed the band onstage, the fourth wall seemed fully permeable.
I’ve chased that aesthetic and its driving philosophy of mutual exstasis ever since. The Grateful Dead, and particularly Garcia’s approach to the guitar, implies that if you're not far enough out of yourself, or aren't giving enough of yourself to the world at the moment, you can't begin to approach something that those involved will agree is the truth. Composition as a polite and civil “gathering of positions,” breaks down under these conditions. The incumbent attributes of co-ecstasy, namely mutual bewilderment, astonishment and amazement, help to refocus attention on the impolite bonds between the positions of those involved, and those bonds become a gathering force in their own right. Garcia’s guitar playing at its best asks “When the composition breaks down and we’re left in the breach, where are we, and how long can we stay there before polite society snaps us back into place?” It’s this co-ecstasy that I primarily want to explore in this discussion.
Part 1.1: Focal Song: “Dark Star,” Live Dead (1969)
Jerry Garcia’s Rocktalog Opening Statement
How do I compose? Do you really want to hear that? Where to start? I mean, there’s composing in the recording studio and then there’s composing on stage. In the studio, it’s like a painting. You have a chance to study every detail, and you can make sure that everything that happens in the song has the benefit of supervision. You can pay attention to incredible detail. But in most ways the lines are drawn. And it can be beautiful. But I’m immediately interested in what’s on the other side of the line. I mean, I’d rather do almost anything than write a song, and being in the studio comes a close second. It might be why we always had such a hard time making a good record.
But when you’re playing it live it’s a whole other experience. It’s like a snapshot. It’s like a Polaroid. What’s there is what’s there, and the moment provides the things sometimes. Sometimes they’re better, sometimes they’re worse. Sometimes they come from somewhere else, or from who knows where, but you’re there in the midst of it and if you can stay with it, I mean really playing for your life, there’s no struggle, just an ease of flow. Those are the kind of nights that really get me off. I mean, there are errors that you make musically, but then there’s that feeling where there’s not a lot of tension in terms of— well, you don’t have to struggle for ideas, you know what I mean? It’s interesting to me the way that there’s this struggle, and then suddenly your technique or your personality or whatever isn’t standing in the way and we somehow hold it together for a while.
I think for me, and I don’t want to speak for anybody else, but for all of us in the band, really, I think we’d have to talk about the Acid Tests if we wanted to talk about how we approach composing together. At the Acid Tests, we learned how the line between the audience and the band it typically put there to keep everyone polite, you know what I mean? The Acid Tests gave us absolute freedom to play or not play in any way we wanted to. And everyone there, I mean we weren’t the house band, we were participants just like everybody else. Having no specific focus in the room meant that a kind of pattern beyond randomness could come to the surface. At the Acid Tests, when you took the order and the focus away from it, took away all of the traditional trappings of the division between audience and performer, all these things start to happen on other levels and it’s terribly interesting. It’s more than interesting. But you have to be willing to go there. I mean, “willing,” isn’t the right word. For it to be good, for it to be fun for everybody, you have to get out of the way so everybody’s doing their thing together, you know?
For some reason, with the music that we’re playing, when this happens, everybody knows it, nobody has to tell anybody. Because it’s obvious music. It’s loud and there’s excitement about it. But the excitement comes, and it’s kind of reciprocal excitement, you know. We pick it up from the audience and the audience feeds it back to us, and we feed it back to them, and like that. It kind of works back and forth. It’s always, like in any kind of music you play, it’s always fun to play for an audience that’s responsive.