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THOUGHTS ON A LONG STRANGE TRIP

My name is Simon and I’m a Deadhead.

If you’re not, whatever. But I continue to maintain that in terms of repertoire, The Grateful Dead stacks up to pretty much any rock band mining American roots music.

Now’s a good time to dive in, as an array of Dead-related riches has rolled out in recent weeks and months. First and foremost is Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s astonishingly great four-hour documentary (which I watched in 45-minute chapters on Amazon).

The stories in it go deep into the music but primarily focus on the players and fans, friends and team. There are home movies of Jerry as a beatnik. The Watts Towers exercise a magnetic influence. Joe Smith and Al Franken weigh in. British documentarians take acid and start pointing the camera at each other. At the band’s direction, the crew builds a sound system that looks like it came out of a science-fiction story. The tale of the recordist on the Europe ‘72 tour momentarily leaving his post will make you well up. Frankenstein figures very prominently.

Yes, it’s the story of a rock band that loved nothing more than dropping a tab and plunging into a 13-minute “Morning Dew.” But it’s also about our rambling, shambling cultural identity and spiritual restlessness, about how a million outcasts found a community, about how mainstream commercial success—when the band was already singing about being old, 30 years ago—nearly brought the whole enterprise down.

It’s about a counter-narrative of America (mostly made flesh by Robert Hunter’s sublime lyrics) in which Uncle Sam is out of pocket and on the lam, train conductors run on bumpski, bootlegger families ply their trade, miners are encumbered by their horny girlfriends, drifters and grifters and dire wolves outrace the law and one another. And it’s about death, that implacable, moon-white inevitability, mocking our festivity with a garland of roses on its bony brow.


Photos courtesy GratefulDead.com

See it, is what I’m saying. Several reviewers have averred that they went in not caring much for the Dead and came out in love. That may not be you. But I do believe this is one of the most ambitious and powerful music docs ever made.

One of the film's credited producers is Rhino’s Mark Pinkus, whose loving investment in providing a steady stream of thoughtfully packaged “tapes” is a prime example of fan ardor transforming “catalog monetization” into great music artifacts.

This bears some elaboration. The Dead permitted its fans to tape and trade freely, you’ll recall (in violation of every music-industry rule) and the circulation of that material has occupied a place normally taken by a band’s albums. The guys didn’t care—and they got fantastically rich anyway, just from touring and merch. Fans expect different renditions of songs each time, and were “curating” their favorites decades before there was an Internet to stream on.

There are home movies of Jerry as a beatnik. British documentarians take acid and start pointing the camera at each other. The crew builds a sound system out of a science-fiction story. The tale of the recordist on the Europe ‘72 tour leaving his post will make you well up. Frankenstein figures very prominently.

Some of the best-loved material in the Dead songbook, mind you, was never recorded in the studio.

Pinkus, Dead archivist David Lemieux and co. have most recently unveiled a jewel in the crown of live Dead: a suite of recordings from Cornell University’s Barton Hall in May of 1977, which capture the band at a particular musical peak. Those shows (mastered in glorious HDCD and delivered on their 40th anniversary) are also available—for the fan who has everything—as part of an 11-disc set, Get Shown the Light, that also includes several other key concerts from that year. You can get that in a limited run of CDs, lossless downloads and other fetishistic formulations.

Rhino also has the three-disc soundtrack set to Long Strange Trip, which unpacks a series of integral jams that dot the narrative.

During night two of Dead & Co.'s stint at Boulder's Folsom Field (which saw the band do 60k over the course of the two nights), the following folks attempted to guard the drumkit from superfan Bill Walton, seen in back: (middle row) CAA's Brad Bissell, Matt Busch, Bernie Cahill of ROAR, Jeff Chimenti, Oteil Burbridge, Bill Kreutzmann, Howard Cohen, Bob Weir, John Mayer, Mickey Hart, Jim Packer, Matt Maher of ROAR, Kraig Fox and (front, l-r) Live Nation's Eric Pirritt, UC Boulder's Cory Hilliard and Lance Carl, ROAR's Red Tanner, AEG's Don Strasburg and Ken Helie. (Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg)

Manager Bernie Cahill of ROAR has helped the band navigate its way into a potent new era. Bob Weir, who spent about 30 years as the baby-faced kid brother, now has the beard and gravitas of an elder statesman. And his slightly cracked but still beautiful cowboy croon perfectly fits material that the Dead (as young hippies) crafted in a voice much older than their own. That’s not a surprise. On the other hand, if you’d told me some years ago that John Mayer would step in, as both lead guitarist and singer, and simply crush it, I’d have invited you to have your head examined. But crush it he does. At the recent Dead & Co. show at the Hollywood Bowl—as pure an outpost of public joy as I’ve seen in the age of Trump—Mayer tore into a solo on the lesser-known gem “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” that knocked the joint on its ass. And he was just warming up. He brings an electricity to the proceedings that Deadheads adore and his bandmates feed off of.

But the musicianship of the Dead, however formidable, was never the point—only a means to an end. Experientially, that end is bliss, elevation—”fun,” as Garcia generally preferred to describe it. It’s also a cache of songs, brewed in the still of American tradition and spiked with a little something Owsley cooked up in the lab, that still have throngs of fans (now of multiple generations) singing along: “Sugar Magnolia.” “Friend of the Devil.” “Casey Jones.” “Jack Straw.” “Truckin’.” “St. Stephen.” “Brown-Eyed Women.” “Ripple.” “Tennessee Jed.” “U.S. Blues.” “Deal.” “Scarlet Begonias.” “Uncle John’s Band.” “Franklin’s Tower.” “Brokedown Palace.” “New Speedway Boogie.” “China Doll.” “Cassidy.” “He’s Gone.” “Ship of Fools.” “Eyes of the World.” “Cumberland Blues.” “Sugaree.” “Box of Rain.”

Long Strange Trip frequently circles back—as my mind has often done since viewing it—to the trippy, mysterious bridge of “St. Stephen,” where the beat drops away and the melody takes an Eastern detour: “Sunlight splatters dawn with answer/Darkness shrugs and bids the day goodbye.” Jerry is gone, as are several other formative and influential members of the Dead. The Summer of Love and the days of spiritual awakening are long in the rearview. But the music and community shall remain, through each new dawning.

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