It all started off harmlessly enough. Earlier this year the Dessner boys, from The National, put out a five-disc Grateful Dead tribute album. The opening track was by War on Drugs, of whom I am a recently converted Big Fan, and the broad range of contributors was enough to pique my interest. Plus, I have long felt guilty about my total lack of Dead knowledge. So I gave it a listen. Obviously, that took quite a while. (This, I now know, is something of a constant with the Dead.) But I was sufficiently impressed with what I heard to take the next step and listen to something by the band themselves.
I had also just read a favourable review of the 2016-released 1978 Red Rocks Amphitheatre show ("7/8/78" in Deadhead notation), so that seemed like as good a place as any to start. (Although, as you will discover if you start digging, each of the many and varied eras of the Dead has its boosters. Perhaps even more so than usual, don't believe anything you read unless you already trust the writer.)
There is a venerable and wise saying: anyone who claims that they don't like Grateful Dead just hasn't heard the right song yet. And so it was that I heard the 7/8/78 version of a song called "Terrapin Station", whereupon I tumbled down a rabbit hole ...
And there I have stayed. Among the many unpleasant side-effects of a Grateful Dead obsession is the collapse of regular sleep patterns. By rights, Grateful Dead late at night should be a no-go zone: their songs not so much having the usual verse-chorus-verse structure as a kind of circular and/or perpetual motion, they tend to get lodged in your head more tenaciously than other songs. But when else is it possible to listen to the Dead in the only way they should really be absorbed: in concert. Dead shows had a tendency to run for two, three, four hours. Many have been released commercially. Many more are readily streamable at Archive.org. They toured extensively for something like 28 years. They seemingly recorded everything. If you think you can listen to all of it, you are some kind of an idiot. I might be that kind of an idiot.
So, you ask, how is the view from down the rabbit hole?
The first thing you notice is that there are hours and hours of live Grateful Dead that are just plain awful. Even if you limit yourself to what I think I am coming to regard as Peak Dead (late sixties to early- to mid-seventies, with another spike around 1990), you will find yourself sitting through hour after hour of tedium: yet another by-the-numbers Chuck Berry cover; dubious country-and-western-inflected "ditties" (although I must confess to having a soft spot for "Me And My Uncle", and not only because it tends to be mercifully short); aimless instrumental noodling; embarrassingly bad vocals (which have ruined many an otherwise near-perfect version of "Playing In The Band"); drum solos (although at least they are reasonably concise; compare and contrast Led Zeppelin's "How The West Was Won"); more ill-considered cover versions; more abstract and directionless musical wanderings; and so on.
Sounds about as much fun as halitosis, right? But here's the thing: a lot of what I described in the previous paragraph is in the nature of a down payment. The band takes its sweet time warming up for the evening, allowing whatever substances to start working (band and audience alike, as legend has it), getting their bearings as to where they are and figuring out where they might go next. The payoff, assuming there is one, is largely inexplicable. A band that has hitherto sounded like your worst idea of a bad night out at some point takes off. Where exactly it takes off to can vary, but that's the thing. These dudes are so skilful, and have played together for so long, that they can pretty much go anywhere. Songs turn into other songs on the head of a pin. A three-minute blues number suddenly forgets what it is, and only remembers an hour later, having taken some pretty hard left turns in the meantime. For me, the best moments actually sound like they have been hived off from Miles Davis albums such as "In A Silent Way", "Agharta" and "Pangaea".
If that peak only lasted for a few minutes (and I have heard that happen), it would not be unreasonable to ask whether those lost hours spent getting there were really worth it. But transcendence is transcendence: some people spend their entire lives in search of it. If you can find it in a passage of music after what may have been only a few short hours of searching (painful as those hours might have been), maybe you have, actually, done rather well.
But back to "Terrapin Station". The version I heard (and subsequently wrote about) had me making comparisons with Wilco. (The more Dead I listen to, the more I think that comparison wasn't as stupid as I initially thought.) Interestingly, there is a show from a few days before Red Rocks (aka 7/1/78) where it might as well be a totally different song. Its prog-rock undercarriage is completely exposed, so much so that if you added a one-legged flute player into the mix it would sound precisely like Jethro Tull circa "Songs From The Wood". Had that been the first version I heard, I can't imagine it would have tipped me over the edge. Whereas later in that same show (during the same uninterrupted sequence of songs, in fact) another song appears which, although I had heard it before, stopped me in my tracks. It is, I suspect, "my" Grateful Dead song (at least until the next one): "Wharf Rat". It's not so different from the Red Rocks version of "Terrapin Station" in mood, actually. If there are several discrete "types" of Dead song (I think that case can be made), they would both fall into the one category. (The band also played "Wharf Rat" at Red Rocks, a couple of songs before "Terrapin Station". But at the time (or maybe it was the way they played it that night) it didn't grab me like "Terrapin" did.) Maybe I am just a Jerry Garcia kind of guy.
I think that what I have learnt from all of this is that, if you simply have to take the long and winding road that leads to Grateful Dead, get yourself a good map. It just so happens that over the last couple of weeks a worthy curator has revealed himself to me: his name is John Hilgart, and he has been working his special brand of Dead magic at a web site called Save Your Face. Focussing on the years 1972-1974, he takes particular shows and edits them down into digestible and, generally, highly listenable chunks. (If you don't like one, at least you know there will be another one along in a minute that might be more to your liking, and probably is.) Working my way through his offerings has been working well for me, because when you are 52 years old and have been exposed as a child to god knows what dangerous chemicals through working on your parents' farm (they both died in their sixties) you just don't know how much time you have left, and, transcendental moments be damned, you have probably got better things to do than sit through one more bad rendition of "Good Lovin'" in the hope that it will eventually get you to the next level. I recommend checking out his good works.
In the meantime, here are three YouTubes of "Wharf Rat", from various moments in Dead time. They don't so much demonstrate evolution as change, but hey, a change is as good as a holiday, right?
First, from 1981. Garcia looks like Alan Moore on a bad day.
This one's from ten years later. There is rather a lot of bad hair here. Is Bob Weir wearing dad jeans? ("Wharf Rat" starts around 16 minutes in.)
And then there's Winterland, New Year's Eve 1978. "Wharf Rat" enters around 17:45 into this beast of a sequence. (I have actually listened to this entire show. At four hours it's a bit of a trial, although to be fair it must have taken place at the end of a long night: they offer breakfast to those who choose to hang around.)