August 31, 2018

A Rehearsal with Tom Constanten, Fall 1968


“My separation from the Air Force occurred on St. Cecilia’s Day, November 22, 1968,” Tom Constanten wrote. “After a few hours in the air…I was in Columbus, Ohio, joining the Grateful Dead on tour. The next night was my first at the organ with them, at the University of Ohio at Athens.” (1)

This was no spontaneous reunion. After his work on the Anthem of the Sun sessions, the Dead had planned to have Constanten join them as soon as he got out of the Air Force’s clutches, and they had been preparing for his arrival. Constanten had been using 3-day passes to join the Dead in studio rehearsals, so their more complicated material wouldn’t be new to him when he started playing on stage. Recently a rehearsal from 9/12/68 surfaced with the band going over Clementine, and TC sounds as familiar with the song as the rest of the band.

For many years, another studio rehearsal of the Dark Star>St. Stephen>Eleven suite has circulated, under various dates such as 11/6/68 and 12/10/68. Without paying much attention before, I made some mistaken assumptions about the tape – first, that it was Pigpen playing organ; then, that it was after TC joined. But it was actually recorded some time earlier, and the tape tells an interesting story about when it was made and how the Dead brought Constanten into their music.

(This is the most complete copy available, with useful text notes outlining what’s going on.)

First the location: this was most likely recorded at Pacific Recording Studios in San Mateo. Despite the circulating tape labels of “Pacific High” or “Alembic Studios,” the Dead had not yet moved to Pacific High Recording in San Francisco (which would later become Alembic). At this point in 1968, they were blithely indifferent to studio fees, and would spend days in the studio on loose jams and lengthy rehearsals, even recording them. (Some jams from 8/13/68 were released on the Aoxomoxoa CD reissue.)

The Dead were going through disarray in September ’68, making lots of noises about splitting up and getting rid of Weir & Pigpen. David Nelson was invited to jam with the band at some point as a possible replacement for Weir. Garcia, Lesh & the drummers even entered the studio on 9/21/68 with a couple guest guitarists (Vic Briggs & David Crosby) for some jamming – perhaps a spontaneous jam session, perhaps recruiting guests for the Aoxomoxoa recordings, or perhaps seeing what the band would sound like with different members.

By October, things settled down, Garcia & Lesh decided to try out the short-lived Hartbeats experiment instead, and Weir & Pigpen were accepted once more as indispensable members of the Dead. At least, Weir was – the Dead decided they had no use for Pigpen on the organ (he’s not known to have participated in any of the Aoxomoxoa sessions), and they would lose no time in getting someone else to play. Garcia later said, “We just didn’t want him playing keyboard, because he just didn’t know what to do on the kind of material we were writing. It seemed like we were heading someplace in a big way, and Pigpen just wasn’t open to it.” (2)
Though it may be around this time that they asked Constanten to join, he says it was months earlier during the Anthem of the Sun recordings when Garcia told him, “I think we can use you.” At any rate, the door was open for him and they impatiently waited for him to become available. Tellingly, they aren’t known to have tried out any other keyboard players at this time.

The date of this Constanten rehearsal is now thought to be 11/6/68 (two weeks before his discharge), although the music on the tape suggests it might be even earlier.

The tape cuts in mid-performance while the band plays Lovelight, and the instruments come in as the engineer adjusts the tapemix. It is clear pretty soon that Pigpen’s not playing – Constanten sticks to simple repetitive riffs on the organ, with a very stiff rhythm, and switches the organ tone a few times searching for the right sound. (He’ll keep doing this through the rehearsal.) Pigpen was far more assured in his playing, and through the rehearsal we can tell the Dead are taking a big step back in their keyboard parts – this material is new to TC. Pigpen being absent, Garcia sings a verse of Lovelight, and it comes to an end.
Someone shouts, “Get offa there!” and there’s some chatter – but in general I can’t make out the talking because it’s too far from the mics. Someone does ask the engineer, “Did you record any of that?” which indicates they wanted this session to be taped.

They spend a minute getting ready for Dark Star. Weir plays the backing chords for a bit, showing them to Constanten, who pokes around for the right accompaniment. After a couple minutes, there’s a cut, and the tape comes back during the Dark Star intro jam. Constanten is screwing up Pigpen’s infamous 8-note riff, so Garcia keeps repeating it for him for a minute on guitar until he gets it right. (This confirms that at the time, the Dead really did want that little riff going all through Dark Star; TC would continue playing it during the Dark Star intro for many months to come.)
Constanten tries changing the tone a couple times, apparently not happy with the way it’s sounding. (Later on, he’d protest frequently about the organ sound he was stuck with: “I couldn’t get behind the sound of the Vox organ they had for me to play when I first joined the band full time… In the context of electric guitars it came off as thin and nasal sounding.”) (3)
This is just a laid-back run-through of Dark Star, lacking the energy and spirit of the live versions. At 4:45, Garcia again synchronizes the 8-note riff with Constanten, who vainly keeps trying to change the organ tone, without much luck. When the jam starts getting more adventurous, Constanten is somewhat stuck and sticks gamely to that riff, even through the verse at 7:30. (It’s interesting that the Dead, with a new organist, didn’t ask him to play anything different here.) His accompaniment to the “shall we go” verse ending is a bit awkward, but it may be his first try. This is actually the same part that was played on the studio version, and that Pigpen played live – though Pigpen played it with a more natural, rhythmic feel.
The middle jam goes pretty smoothly, though Constanten is still trying for a more chintzy/warbly tone. (There are some more mix adjustments at 11:30, with Lesh & Weir turned up.) After 11:40 Garcia starts playing a short, primitive Sputnik riff, Constanten accompanying him with a little swirl, before Garcia breaks back into the Dark Star theme. Finally the jam has loosened up a bit, and Constanten plays a more free lead line before the second verse.

This little Sputnik section, though brief, helps narrow down the date for the jam, since it changed considerably from month to month in 1968. It was not played in any Dark Stars before the end of August – one of the earliest versions on 9/2/68 is very short, with Garcia playing the riff in normal-sounding notes. The versions in the Avalon shows in October sound more similar to this rehearsal – a bit more trippy and stretched-out, Lesh and Weir intertwining around Garcia. These live October Sputniks go farther-out than the rehearsal version, as you might expect, with more fuzzy overlapping notes – by 10/20 Garcia’s getting a more chimey, feedbacky sound. And by the 11/22 Dark Star, Sputnik has become longer, wilder & weirder, Garcia getting those metallic chimes that would make Sputnik distinctive.
So with no other date known, this would most likely place the studio rehearsal in early October or maybe late September.

After Dark Star ends, there’s a pause before they tackle St. Stephen. Lesh & Weir play Stephen’s intro chords out for Constanten before they count off a “real” start – track 3 is a complete version. He had some familiarity with Dark Star, but St. Stephen would have been new to TC since the Dead didn’t write this song until after the Anthem album was finished. He stabs out a simple chord backing for the verses, and stays out during the bridge. Pigpen’s playing in Stephen was much more rhythmic and worked-out, even back in August – heck, even back in June! From the start, Pigpen was playing several lines in the song that Constanten hasn’t picked up yet.
Then they go over the last verse linking to the “William Tell” section, a few times – this seems to be for Constanten’s benefit so he can work out the right timing to his organ part. (The vocals are turned up in track 5.) They chatter briefly about how it should be played, then at last play into a sloppy William Tell transition (track 7). While they practice that, TC tries finding the right organ tone – Lesh asks him to make it “sound like a bagpipe.” (track 8) Then there’s a brief Mickey/Bill drum practice in track 9, which cuts, and the tape returns to more St. Stephen attempts. They try the Stephen “ladyfinger” bridge a couple more times in tracks 10-11 (the glockenspiel can be heard), but despite a few stabs Constanten doesn’t seem to have any luck finding the right organ accompaniment for this.
In track 12, after “one man gathers what another man spills,” someone tells Constanten, “You’re invited to sing along on that.” There’s another demonstration of the main lick and some faint chatter on the song’s arrangement in track 13 (the tape is stopped again), then they try Stephen from the start again – “take it from the top.” After a false start (track 14), Weir asks, “Can we have some more monitors, please?… More monitors on the voices, or get it real good… Does anybody hear me, does anybody care?” They make it all the way through Stephen again in track 16 – TC stays out during the bridge.

The way they play St. Stephen also helps to date this rehearsal. Stephen is not as speedy as it is in the August and 9/2/68 versions; Garcia’s guitar phrasing is a little more nuanced. And at this point St Stephen is still straightforward with no big jam – in mid-January ’69 they would extend the intro, and add a jam after “another man spills.”
There’s one small touch that narrows down the date range even more. In August, September, and the October Avalon shows, in the pause after “another man spills,” the band all return to the main riff at the same time (or try to). But on 10/20/68, a single drumbeat is cracked out before the riff – the band must have liked this, for they kept it in all subsequent versions. This drumbeat is not played in either Stephen in the rehearsal, which again suggests that it may come from early October.

This Stephen segues without a pause through the William Tell bridge into a complete Eleven (track 17), the longest continuous piece of music in this rehearsal. This Eleven has the same structure as all of the late-’68 Elevens (though they could vary widely in length at each show). Weir is very low in the mix, but has an unusual distorted guitar tone in this performance, fuzzier than I recall him using live. (There’s a funny moment at 9:05 – someone yells “aw, fuck!” before they start the vocals.)
TC seems a little uncertain in the bridge, but once they finally start the Eleven, it sounds like they just let Constanten play what he wants, and he turns up and is much freer than in St Stephen. I think he was familiar with the Eleven since they were playing this during the Anthem shows in early ’68. Sometimes he really steps out (particularly at the beginning & end), though at other points he does stop playing from time to time, or awkwardly tries to find the right chordal backing on the fly as the band steams along. As the Eleven starts he’s co-leading with Garcia for a bit; that and the last minute of the Eleven are probably his best playing in this session (and not so different from how Pigpen played the Eleven, except that Pigpen had a choppier touch).
It stops at the point where they’d usually start transitioning to the next tune. The band sounds upset as it ends, and there’s some bickering in track 18 – Lesh yells, “Bullshit, it happens every time!” Weir and the drums practice the Eleven for a bit before the others join back in, and then Weir sits out while the rest of the band goes over a lengthy 7-minute section of the Eleven again (track 20, mislabeled). Constanten sounds more at home by now, mostly playing a solid chord backing (filling in for Weir), though after 5:20 he tries out off-beat syncopated chords, which is distracting. As it ends the band has another heated discussion; Lesh says, “I still can’t play twelve all by myself… That’s the trouble with having schizophrenic drummers.”
The tape stops again, and resumes with another bit of the Eleven in track 21 (it sounds like they’re jelling by now). Lesh is definitely in charge of the Eleven, guiding the others with instructions on what to do – it sounds like he and Garcia are working primarily with the drummers to straighten them out, not with the organ. There’s a bit of explanation of one part, as they count out the meter – Lesh says: “On the subdivisions of the Eleven, we’re dropping ones all over the place, we’re dropping the beat.”
Then Lesh, Constanten, and the drummers go over the same part again (track 23). Lesh tells Garcia to “play your lick,” and Garcia plays his ascending line over it (track 24). Someone says, “I’m sorry, you got it right, but I’m fucking up.” Lesh leads the drummers with the bassline of that one part over & over again (at one screwup he exclaims, “Aw fuck!”), and after a minute TC joins in, with Garcia contributing some rhythm stabs (track 25).
There’s some more discussion of the Eleven, too faint for me to make out, but concentrating on the meter: as someone taps a beat, Lesh explains, “You’ll notice it’s not quite exactly even…there’s slightly different phrasing between us and yourself.” Then they rehearse that part again, focusing on the ascending line which sounds increasingly like the Seven with its guitar/bass unison (track 26). TC sticks to a simple chord backing; Weir has been inaudible since track 20, so it’s almost Hartbeats-ish – perhaps Weir was accidentally turned down in the mix, but I think he may just have left early. Finally they lose interest and stop playing with some inaudible chatter, and the tape ends.

The skipping Seven-like part that Lesh is playing in the last few Eleven tracks did not appear in the live Elevens from September or October '68, or the early Hartbeats shows (at least, not that I caught). Its first live appearance is briefly in the 10/30/68 Hartbeats show during the Eleven jam, and then it is played in the Eleven on 11/22/68 and shows that December. So this would support an early November date for this rehearsal.

Lesh takes charge of the Eleven rehearsal, which was standard practice for him, and not always happy for the others - Constanten recalled his "autocratic high-handedness." One reviewer writes of this session, “Lesh can faintly be heard barking and scolding at his bandmates.” (4) Lesh could be quite bossy in rehearsals, as he writes about the Eleven: “I was so driven by this vision that I became somewhat, shall we say, insistent about going over and over these transitions… Sometimes these very intense rehearsal sessions would tip me over the edge and I’d start yelling at the drummers: ‘Let’s do it again – right this time.’” (The drummers eventually asked him to “back off with the pressure.”) (5) Lesh’s dominating style of rehearsal management can also be heard in the 9/12/68 Clementine rehearsal – though, to be fair, Clementine and the Eleven were both his compositions.

I don’t know if the tape was made for Constanten’s benefit, or if the Dead were just regularly recording practice sessions at the studio – we’ll only find out once more is known about their studio activities and surviving tapes from 1968. Although during much of the session the Dead are showing TC the material so he can learn it, once they get to the Eleven, he’s on his own and they’re practicing for themselves (despite Weir’s odd, abrupt disappearance).
In contrast to the lengthy section-by-section rehearsals of St. Stephen and the Eleven, they only run through Dark Star once. Partly this is because it isn't such a complicated arrangement; also, I think Constanten already knew this song from his time in the Anthem sessions, and they were just reminding him how it went. They may have also deliberately left Dark Star more "open," less rehearsed, for live performances.
Though the tape is confidently dated 11/6/68, musically some parts seem to be from a month earlier. I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on this – it’s possible for arrangements to regress a bit during a practice session, without the focus of a live show – but early October ’68 was a time when the band had few gigs and may have felt in need of extra rehearsal on a piece like the Eleven. (Perhaps people more closely acquainted with Eleven arrangement minutiae can tell where this rehearsal fits among the other Elevens that fall.) And if the supposed 9/12/68 Clementine rehearsal is dated correctly, it shows that TC was dropping in on the Aoxomoxoa studio sessions two months before he was free from the Air Force.

So what can we conclude about Constanten’s involvement here?
The standard story is that the band got sick of Pigpen’s playing, as he just couldn’t keep up with them – once Constanten was free from the Air Force, he was able to jump right in and contribute the kind of keyboard parts the band wanted. This tape shows it wasn’t that simple – Constanten needed to practice quite a bit with them before he could find his way into the songs and add anything more than what Pigpen had been doing. Something was lost as well as gained, since Constanten was never able to capture Pigpen’s natural feel for rhythm. This rehearsal actually documents an abrupt regression from Pigpen’s playing style, which illustrates either how little faith the band had left in Pigpen, or how much they were placing on Constanten. Fortunately, within a month or two Constanten would be much better integrated in the music.
Playing on stage was much more helpful for TC than the early rehearsals. He’d later say that live performance is “the best thing for your chops. One performance can achieve things impossible in a dozen rehearsals, in that so much attention is focused.” Arrangements could be worked out in practice, but only so far: “Much of what happened [in improvisations] was nailed down during our extensive rehearsals, but a lot was left flapping to the breeze,” to be discovered in performance. (6)

The comparisons with Pigpen on this tape are of course unfair – Pigpen had been playing this material for months, while TC’s captured in what might have been his first rehearsal of these songs. Later on, he was quite complimentary of Pigpen’s playing: “I copped some of his lines where they seemed to be part of the piece. He was pretty good actually; his playing was commensurate with the type of music he was playing… If anything, I was trying to pick up on some of the stylistic things he was doing, ‘cause…we came from such different traditions.” (7)
It’s noticeable that only sometimes does the band show TC what to play on this tape; he’s mostly figuring his parts out on his own. They might not have known what to tell him, other than showing him the arrangements and hoping he could work something out himself. TC later said he’d sometimes get “truculent directions” from the band, which were contradictory and not very helpful, and noticed later on that other organ players also had problems interacting with the Dead: “I began to suspect that some of the band members themselves didn’t have that clear an idea of the keyboard’s role in a guitar band context.” (8)

At the same time, even in this limited early sample he’s already showing some of the difficulties the band would be unhappy with a year later – a certain rhythmic stiffness, some out-of-place organ tones, and a reluctance to step into the lead. He’d always have trouble finding his own voice within the band: “I felt like a rookie joining a championship team when I joined the band. There’s a reluctance to mess with a winning formula.” He tried slowly over the months to create a style that worked with the others; Garcia would tell him to play “more like a source and less like a sideman…[but] my ‘thing’ wasn’t developed enough yet to stake out its territory in the texture.” (9)
Part of the difficulty, as it turned out, was that he could barely hear himself live: “Seeking relief from being positioned stage right, directly in front of four Jerry Garcia twin reverbs turned up to 10, I moved across the stage, there to be greeted by Mickey’s cannons.” Amid the blasting Dead, “on stage, I was chronically underamplified” and often inaudible. “Consequently I was never able to find a comfortable platform amid the band’s texture… I felt as if I were groping for [the music] in the dark… I felt baffled, remote, unable to get a fix on even my own contributions to the mix.” (10)

As far as tape-mixes indicate, this seems true in his early months with the band, as he can barely be heard on any tapes until 1/25/69! (And even his presence there is due to an accidentally askew mix.)
So it’s hard to evaluate how TC’s playing changed during his initial two months of Dead shows; but he's loud and clear on 1/25, and the Dark Star suite shows him to be more settled within the band and engaged with the jams (even though his tone is glaringly ugly). They’d started recording for Live/Dead, he felt a bit more secure and comfortable, and his playing had loosened to become more ornate and responsive to the music.
Some more of TC’s thoughts on his time with the band are here:


NOTES:

  1. Constanten, Between Rock and Hard Places, p.68
  2. Golden Road 1993, p.60
  3. BRHP p.81
  4. Taping Compendium, p.165
  5. Lesh, Searching for the Sound, p.132
  6. BRHP, pp.73, 79
  7. Golden Road 1993, p.61
  8. BRHP, p.80
  9. BRHP, pp.81, 80
  10. BRHP, pp.73, 80

(P.S.: There was a lot of talking on the tape I couldn't make out, so sharp-eared listeners are invited to add more band chatter.)

1 comment:

  1. A joy as always to read your insightful analysis of a particular aspect of the Dead's music. I can't listen to it right now, but this has left me wanting to get the headphones on and give it another listen.

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