Everybody Is Playing in the Heart of Gold Band
by David Gans
"Group improvisation is a ... challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result." - Bill Evans, from the liner notes for Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1959)
In a 1991 interview, Owsley "Bear" Stanley, who was the band's financial, technical and psychedelic patron for several crucial years) told me that when he hooked up with tthe Grateful Dead during the Acid Test era, "they were part of a scene that was doing something that was right out on the edge, the edge of consciousness, the edge of social, the edge of magic, the edge of music ... five guys that were among the smartest people I'd ever run across.... who could carry on the most tenuous and stratospheric of conversations with nobody gettin' lost..."
Attending a Dead concert was like siting in on a conversation among very smart, funny, soulful people. We didn't really know who they were when they weren't in front of us onstage, but sometimes we thought we did and that was just as good. Their musical personalities were engaging, and we supported their collective risk-taking because we shared in the ecstasy of their triumphs and in the learning from their failures.
We were part of it – and not just witnesses, but as contributors. "We do read the crowd, all of us, and work with whatever spirit arises from that particular evening," said Weir in 1981. "It's a real-time experience, the way we approach it. Every time we do a song, it's different, because the mood of the evening is different. The crowd is only a part of that, but a fairly large part." Everybody got something unique from the experience, and the results were often wildly disparate, even among people who were standing side by side.
Sometimes the songs would arrange themselves in such a way as to illuminate each other in unexpected ways, and from that time on your experience of the song was enhanced by this new knowledge. I remember a show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1974 that seemed to be telling a story of intense conflict; I wasn't surprised to learn a few years later that the backstage scene was tense and perilous due to the violent behavior of security people recruited from a local pool of university jocks. I don't even know if the story is true, and it doesn't really matter if it is. My personal tale of the Grateful Dead now incorporates that knowledge, and I can still recall the emotional temperature of that day when I listen to the tape 25 years later. It's a hell of a show.
It was always an experiment. And it always relied on these very specific characters. The Grateful Dead brought together an impressive variety of personalities and musical sensibilities at a special, moment in history. The ears of the community were wide open, and the Dead's synthesis of folk, rock, blues, jazz, atonal, noise, and other influences was embraced and encouraged by the people who came to the show. It became possible to view the entire concert as a composition, a spontaneous arrangement of known components threaded together with invented structures to create an ephemeral little universe. LSD was the catalyst, all the music of the universe was the vocabulary (and I don't say that lightly: these guys brought a huge smorgasbord of styles and philosophies to the conversation), and the brilliance of the individuals put the pedal to the metal. Their concerted sense of quest and their commitment to one another rang out in every performance, and those who heard the song became as devoted to our role in the performance as the players were to theirs.
It's the combination of rich, enduring songs and brilliant improvisation that made the Grateful Dead so compelling to so many for so long. This is music you can think along with, music that rewards continuing and repeated engagement. There was a bond of good will between the band and the audience, just as there was among the band members. We were all committed to the pleasure of each other's company, and the band's sole obligation was to satisfy themselves.
Like any good conversation, a Grateful Dead show was a great way to get inspired. I always got a lot of thinking done at Dead shows, and so did they. David Grisman once told me that he views composition and improvisation as essentially the same thing. Improvisation is composition in real time, you see; if you remember (or record) what you improvised, you can turn it into a composition. "Estimated Prophet" is a song that grew in part from ideas that emerged spontaneously from improvisation, and you can hear various ideas being invented or tried out over the years: Weir played the "Weather Report Prelude" in the middle of some way-outside performances of "Other One" in 1971, and Jerry Garcia played the "Slipknot!" riff in some early 1974 jams.
In an interview with filmmaker Peter Shapiro, Ken Kesey said, "When you see a magic trick, there's a crack in your mind. You know it's a trick, but you can't figure it out. That crack lets in all the light; it opens up all the possibilities. When that little split-second thing happens when the Dead are playing, and everybody in the audience goes 'Wow! Did you see that!' -- that is the moment. And kids will watch five hours of mediocre music to have that one click happen, because that puts them in touch with the invisible."
(This essay was included in the booklet accompanying the Grateful Dead boxed set So Many Roads (1965-1995), which David co-produced with Blair Jackson and Steve Silberman)