Reviewed by Andrew Hamlin.
The Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol. 4: 2/13/70 – 2/14/70 (Fillmore East, New York, NY)
The bar burned down. The bar named Dante’s, that’s right, it went down (flames) and up (smoke). That’s hell for you. “We look forward to everyone rejoining us at Dante’s when we re-open,” says the web page. But no date, no time, no progress.
Dante’s caught the fraternity binge-drinkers in the evening, but daytime found it quiet. I’d order nachos and Diet Coke and greet Chris (behind the bar) and Rick (propping it up). And sometimes we were the only folks in the place. Sometimes a solitary drinker or two bellied up a few stools over to drink and not talk, “Nighthawks” style.
The online (“virtual”) jukebox only gave me three plays for a buck, so I’d pick all the half-hour songs I knew, notably this set’s “That’s It For The Other One.” Jerry sang about a dark and faded sky, guitar glistening behind his voice, and then the drums took over.
I’d listen to those drums roll and reverb through the main level of hell; through the usually-empty upper level; down along the dance floor/karaoke floor, through the DJ booth (near the booth said to be serial killer Ted Bundy’s favorite hidey hole), through the alcove that held the pool tables. If I felt exceptionally lonely, I’d head down to the alcove and listen to the drums make their sonic way back up the stairs, from there. Once in a blue moon a couple would come in to play pool, and I always wondered how my feeble (in that great scheme of things) jukebox powers, fried their minds. Hardly fried, actually. They might fume about the drums, but come to think of it that was probably the Allman Brothers.
I didn’t digest the whole CD set (some of it extracted for a previous release and not included here—the Dead’s history of live releases proves as almost as confusing as the band itself) until it came in the mail, so I laughed to hear it lead with the apocalypse, that is “Casey Jones,” the shiny myth and swift death of a railroad man and even after that odd couplet closing up the verses “the fireman screams and the engine just gleams”—even the apocalypse evinces its moments of beauty—“and you know that notion, just crossed my mind”, the chorus comes back in to find Casey Jones resurrected, still driving and snorting.
Garcia, Weir, Pig Pen, and possibly Lesh, gang the microphones here and all down the line. A good friend of mine who wrote extensively about the Dead, says their live vocals are usually horrible. Me, I prefer “ragged” (so I can stick a “glory” on in my own mind, at least), and on a more subtle level, “participatory democracy.” A single voice makes a point, lonely, waiting for company—possibly hoarse, possibly flat, but sticking to its point of passion—and two, three, other voices crash in, giving it more than enough help, even if they can’t agree on harmony.
Participatory democracy makes not guarantee that everyone will be on time, clean, sober, shoe-shined, right, righteous, or even learned. It demands patience, and it commands the sometimes-concealed truth that politics, especially democracy, grind slow and ugly like, indeed, sausage in the making. It isn’t for people who want quick results, and that is one of many reasons fascism—which tempts with efficiency, speed, and the apocalypse against any enemy—grows in a dissatisfied society, fungus to the algae of those times.
And the Dead were a democracy—twelve minutes and thirty-one seconds of drums, proved that. Garcia gets all the credit for driving the train, but hear Weir molding rhythm chords around the lead lines, stoking the fire no matter what hallucinogenic shape the firebox might assume—and Phil Lesh’s bass lines were not bass lines. Phil Lesh’s bass lines were the testimony of a deep-sea slime-bed organism who’d felt a few odd oscillations from the surface, shot up a pseudopod with an eyeball and an earball, and decided, after much pondering, like Tolkien’s Ents, that it would join this cause. It has no idea how earthlings say and do; no notion of the continuum, even. But it is trying.
Pig Pen does not, as he did on other nights, tell the crowd to make love, full stop, on his showcase “Turn On Your Love Light,” but he fixates on “shine on me,” “yes I need,” repeated into new-gospel liturgy, and Weir turns up to duel first playfully, then screamingly. On “Dark Star” and one or two other occasions, the ensemble, always mindful of dynamics, dials it all the way down, to where you can’t hardly detect anything even with your volume knob on 15. And the audience goes along with this—no stamping, jeering, catcalls. The band was a participatory direct democracy unto itself—but, to boot, a representative democracy, elected by audiences who voted with their feet, their tickets, and yes, their silence. Garcia always shied away from this. He hated to admit that others had made him a leader. Fortunately, he had his bandmates to help enthuse him. To come from nowhere and carry the load.
How safe, history. Nixon was in office back then and we survived his apocalypse, his affront to democracy. We survived the others who came after him, the belt sanders and sledgehammers. Will we survive the entirely-possible election of the man I like to call Big Orange? I don’t know. Between climate change and the United States Supreme Court and the hard choice of calling Big Orange’s followers subhuman, or acknowledging that hate, blind righteousness, and the salacious desire for a winning side…I don’t know.
Dante’s burned down (as well as up). Garcia died young. Pig Pen died younger. Lesh is on his second liver. Big Orange may yet lower the boom. I do know that if he’s elected, people will die. People I love. I am left with the brightness behind Garcia’s words of dark, faded, death, his oral death trip. Out of his mouth he was often morbid. His guitar told a different story. His guitar sparkled. Hope over here, it sang.