DG’s Stanford “Overture”

Here is the address I delivered to the first session of “MUS 49 — Psychedelia and Groove: The Music and Culture of the Grateful Dead,” a class I am teaching for Stanford Continuing Studies.

I wanted to call this class DID IT MATTER? DOES IT NOW? The answer is “Yes, and… yes!”

Please think of this as the OVERTURE, with hints of themes to come. Just let it wash over you! Lots of these bits will be elaborated on as we go.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead brought together a group of brilliant and musically diverse people, created a sophisticated musical language, and invited us to listen in on an ongoing conversation, in which the group gave equal weight to their original songs and their interpretations of songs from elsewhere – all woven together with a unique form of collective improvisation. As the years went by, they continued to expand their sonic palettes along with their repertoires, and large numbers of us stayed with them through all the changes.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead played more than 2000 shows in thirty years, a great percentage of which are thoroughly documented in various media, and because several generations of Americans – and a few people on other continents, too – organized their lives to a great extent around their relationships with this band and its fan community.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead cultivated an audience that welcomed new songs and was happy to hear a fresh twist on an old one.

• We’re here because the sailor gave at least a try.

• We’re here because there are web sites devoted to Grateful Dead set lists; web sites where you can listen to hundreds of concert recordings for free; a scholar who makes mandalas that attempt to describe the universe of “Dark Star,” and another who delves deep into union records and rental receipts to map out Jerry Garcia’s musical travels from the 1950s til he died in ’95.

• We’re here because a lot of people like licorice.

• We’re here because, as Gary Lambert likes to point out, the Grateful Dead performed unstructured, abstract music to audiences of thousands on a regular basis.

• We’re here because Jerry Garcia brought some of his bluegrass practices to the proto-Grateful Dead, thinking it would be great to have “an electric band where the instruments talk to each other.”

• We’re here because various members of the Grateful Dead collected and transmuted input from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Charles Ives, Ken Kesey, Chuck Berry, Lord Buckley, Ornette Coleman, Mississippi John Hurt, Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Jesse Winchester, Hamza el-Din, The Band, Ken Nordine, the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, reggae, jazz, blues, musique concréte, African and Indian scales and grooves, samplers, synthesizers, and such.

• We’re here because as Mikal Gilmore wrote, “At their best, they were a band capable of surprising both themselves and their audience… playing as if they had spent their whole lives learning to make music as a way of talking to one another, and as if music were the language of their sodality, and therefore their history.”

• We’re here because you ain’t gonna learn what you don’t wanna know.

• We’re here because the studio recording of “Dark Star” is less than three minutes long while live performances tended to go for 20 or so and once peaked at 48 minutes.

• We’re here because Sue Swanson, Connie Bonner, and Bob Matthews decided to help their pals the Warlocks become famous so they could all meet the Beatles.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead produced not one but two brilliant songwriting partnerships – Jerry Garcia with Robert Hunter, and Bob Weir with John Perry Barlow – and because every other band member also contributed eminently worthy material.

• We’re here because, as Regan McMahon observed, Grateful Dead music is loaded with biblical references, death, and gambling. And I would like to note that Grateful Dead music features at least one talking dog.

• We’re here because a friend of the devil is a friend of mine.

• We’re here because when I became a Deadhead, I couldn’t find any books on the Grateful Dead until 1973, and when I published my first book on the subject in 1985 there were maybe half a dozen. As I speak to you today, there are hundreds of books about the Grateful Dead, and my personal contribution to the pile is up to five of ‘em!

• We’re here because a significant number of key behind-the-scenes players in the Grateful Dead world were women. There was plenty of sexism in that the various sub-subcultures of this scene, of course, but women were essential to the operation.

• We’re here because one of those women, Eileen Law – the face and voice of the Grateful Dead – was my main contact in the office when I was covering the Grateful Dead for BAM magazine in 1976, and it was her voice on the ticket hotline in the later years.

• We’re here because Donna Godchaux had the chutzpah to approach Jerry Garcia at a club gig and tell him that her husband was his next keyboard player – and it turned out to be true!

• We’re here because Jerry Garcia played the banjo when he was young and then came back to it in 1973 with Old and In the Way, a band that introduced a lot of hippies to bluegrass!

• We’re here because there were days when all we ever wanted was to learn and love and grow.

• We’re here because, as Peter Richardson told me, “The Dead seemed to flourish when Ronald Reagan was in office – first as California governor (1966-74) and then as president (1980-88).”

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead played so many benefits that they eventually founded a nonprofit, the Rex Foundation, that continues to do good in the world to this day, in memory of Rex Jackson, a member of the Grateful Dead road crew.

• We’re here because Les Kippel and Jerry Moore started a tape trading newsletter that evolved into a Grateful Dead magazine called RELIX that still exists today, and because of Mikel and Dupree’s Diamond News and Unbroken Chain and The Golden Road, and other periodicals that served the music and the community.

• We’re here because, as Nick Meriwether of the the Grateful Dead Studies Association tells me, there have been more than 600 papers presented at Popular Culture Association conferences representing more than 25 different disciplines “from musicology and literary studies to history and sociology.”

• We’re here because a web site called gratefuldeadtributebands.com has listings of Dead cover bands and other related musical happenings every day, from coast to coast.

• We’re here because I know musicians in their 30s who couldn’t possibly have seen Jerry Garcia play live but who have become fluent speakers of the Grateful Dead language and practitioners of collective improvisation.

• We’re here because a band that isn’t the Grateful Dead played a sold-out concert at Red Rocks in Colorado a few years back, celebrating and re-creating the Dead’s sold-out performance in that venue 40+ years earlier.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead played a big part in the evolution of concert sound, eagerly collaborating with various geniuses to improve everything from guitar pickups to PA speakers and everything in between.

• We’re here because Deadheads and other recording enthusiasts taped pretty much every Grateful Dead concert after the first few years, and distributed copies for free: VIRAL MARKETING before that term existed!

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead served their community by fighting for the right to issue their own tickets for their shows, and created a ticket office run by fans of the band to make sure the people who loved the Dead the most got to see the shows.

• We’re here because Lonnie Frazier got healed on a surprise road trip to see the Grateful Dead in Colorado, and because there are so many more like her who found fellowship in the Deadhead community. They didn’t all make movies, but I’ve heard so many stories! I’ll borrow a line from John Denver, of all people, to describe the feeling so many have reported when they arrived in the Grateful Dead world: “coming home to a place we’d never been before.”

• We’re here because as Jerry Garcia recovered from a diabetic coma in 1986, Merl Saunders spent days helping him to relearn the guitar.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead inspired artists of all kinds to make graphical portmanteaus of GD and other corporate logos – such as a t-shirt that combines Grateful Dead and Federal Express on the front and WHEN YOU ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY HAVE TO BE THERE EVERY NIGHT on the back, or MORNING DEW replacing MOUNTAIN DEW on a soft drink logo.

• We’re here because you know it’s gonna get stranger.

• We’re here because Tom Stack sold unauthorized t-shirts in the parking lot on Dead tour, became a licensee, and wound up running Grateful Dead merchandising for several years.

• We’re here because Courtenay Pollock went walking one day and wound up making tie-dyes for the Grateful Dead.

• We’re here because Ben and Jerry are Deadheads, and so are retired senators Patrick Leahy and Al Franken, former vice president Al Gore, Steve Wozniak, Bill Walton! and Tucker Carlson. And Steve Liesman, senior economics correspondent for CNBC, also plays in a Dead tribute called Stella Blue’s Band.

• We’re here because Patti Smith recorded “Black Peter” the day Jerry Garcia died and let me put it on a record called Stolen Roses: Songs of the Grateful Dead.

• We’re here because Stephen Inglis made a record of Grateful Dead songs in a Hawaiian slack-key style, and because the David Murray Octet recorded a kick-ass version of “One More Saturday Night,” and because Wake the Dead play their Dead music in a Celtic groove.

• We’re here because the a grade-school singing troupe called the Barton Hills Choir has released two albums of Grateful Dead songs.

• We’re here because Grateful Dead was something of a killer app for online community.

• We’re here because Grateful Dead was something of a killer app for online streaming of live concerts.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead created their own career path: while most of the music business profited most from the sale and airplay of studio recordings, the Dead made their living playing live. Over time, as CD sales collapsed, the rest of the industry came over to our side: the bands that once toured to support their records now make records to support their tours.

• We’re here because Time Magazine, in an early-‘70s article about music fans, characterized the GD audience as “male lonerism” – but we turned it into a family-friendly culture that now sports three and even four generations of Deadheads.

• We’re here because at Jerry Garcia’s funeral, Bob Dylan told John Scher that Jerry had been the only person alive who knew what it was like to be him.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead persisted long enough to become a formidable entry in the annals of the record business after all. Among other things, the Dead are tied with Frank Sinatra for the most top-40 albums at 56, and the Dave’s Picks CD series has the most releases of any single band, at 49 and counting.

• We’re here because Phil Lesh is about to turn 84 and he’s still playing music, and because Bob Weir is 76 and tours with a ten-piece band and occasionally plays with a symphony orchestra.

• We’re here because the Grateful Dead are more popular now than they’ve ever been.

• We’re here because Bill Kreutzmann’s son Justin made a film called Let There Be Drums, worked as a producer on The Long Strange Trip, and is currently making the definitive documentary on the life of Jerry Garcia.

• We’re here because “Sure don’t know what I’m goin’ for/But I’m gonna go for it for sure” turned out to be a viable career plan for me.

• We’re here because I have been curating Grateful Dead music on the radio and elsewhere for going on 40 years and I’ve never gotten the slightest bit tired of it.

• We’re here because Gary Lambert is a wonderful co-host! We have collaborated improvisationally on SirisuXM’s Tales from the Golden Road for 16 years, shooting the shit about the Grateful Dead.

• We’re here because Joel Selvin, longtime music writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, recommended me to teach a class on the Grateful Dead.

• And we’re here because, as it turns out, several hundred of you are interested enough in this subject that you signed up for the class. Thank you!

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4 Responses to “DG’s Stanford “Overture””

  1. Janet Grant says:

    I loved this . It’s sort of IYKYK but explained just enough to pull you in.

  2. Janet Grant says:

    I loved this . It’s sort of IYKYK but explained just enough to pull you in. Thank you.

  3. Sandy Miranda says:

    really soulful, David. What a gift! Thank you.

  4. Carolynn Holmes Search says:

    A most perfect and fitting intro to this class! Loved its poetic nonlinear feel.

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