50 years on, bidding farewell to The Dead

The Grateful Dead, 1970.

The Grateful Dead, 1970.

What a long, sometimes strange, trip it was.

This weekend, after 50 years of music and two decades on from the death of Jerry Garcia, the original members of the Grateful Dead will take to the stage for the last time.

Fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field – some of whom paid $11,000 for their general admission ticket – can expect a blueprint Dead performance: four hours of music, built around the jazz-inflected solos and space rock jams that the band’s become renowned for over the past half century.

For some it’s the end of an era, one rooted in a 1960s San Francisco that seems impossibly distant from 2015. For others it’s ‘did they not wrap up years ago’?

For those of us in between, it’s a case of mild nostalgia leading to a dig through the archives.

Or, as WH Auden wrote on the death of earlier cultural giant: “A few thousand will think of this day
as one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual”.

Grateful_Dead_-_Workingman's_DeadMy own interaction with the Dead’s music is, by a fan’s standards at least, lamentably limited. In fact it’s mainly based around two albums, a pair of stripped-down acoustic recordings released within five months of each other in 1970 – Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

Both were recorded at a time when the band was under financial and other pressures – Phil Lesh later recounted how Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Box Of Rain were inspired by the terminal illness of Lesh’s father.

The albums are peopled with characters from the first half of the American 20th century – some real (Casey Jones, Mississippi John Hurt) some an amalgam of the nameless thousands (the cut-adrift singer of Brokedown Palace, the drifter happy to meet a Friend Of The Devil).

One song in particular has stood out in the 20 years or so since I first heard it.

Ripple is the axis on which American Beauty turns, an existentialist lyric in an easy turn of phrase, on top of a gentle melody.

Owing more Thoreau than Timothy Leary the recording stands, 45 years later, as a call to self-reliance:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone.

To those who listened, the Dead brought us this far – now we’re on our own.

 

_____

 

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