August 18, 2009

The Brief Tale of Mountains of the Moon

Aoxomoxoa marked the first big songwriting boom of Hunter & Garcia. Hunter had started writing for the Dead in late '67 (Dark Star, Alligator, China Cat), but Anthem of the Sun turned out to be very much a 'group' album, with contributions from all over the place. But through 1968, Hunter and Garcia kept writing songs together, enough to fill their next (short) album. Aoxomoxoa was another change of direction for the Dead - not so thoroughly psychedelic or full of jamming this time, here poppy tunes and weirdness rubbed side by side in songs that offered a variety of styles.

For the most part though, they weren't songs that would last long in the Dead's set - though everything was played at least once, few of the tunes would survive '69. Cosmic Charlie would linger into 1970, St Stephen lasted to 1971, and China Cat made it all the way to 1974....each of them would be picked up again later on as the band found reasons to try them again, but Garcia was generally not too happy with his early songs. Hunter was practicing bizarre poetic lyrics at the time, obscure and trippy, which Garcia would claim were "too far-out, really, for most people"; Garcia in this period was having fun composing tricky, complicated music, but later on he complained that songs like St Stephen and Cosmic Charlie were too difficult to play. (China Cat, the big success story among this group of songs, he called "marginal".)

Garcia said of Mountains of the Moon that it was "one of my favorite ones. I thought it came off like a little gem" - and years later, "That song turned out nicely. I had an acoustic setting in mind from the get-go and it turned out pretty much how I envisioned it. I don't know what made me think I could do a song like that.... I like the tune a lot." Yet it wasn't played very often - we only have thirteen performances. (The Dead never revived it either, though Hunter hoped they would, and even Constanten did a cover.)

It's a simple enough tune, and with its acoustic arrangement is a precursor to the more folky tunes the Dead started doing in mid-'69 - which is exactly when the Dead dropped it. (On 6/7 it rubs shoulders with the first Dire Wolf, and on 7/12 it follows country covers of Green Grass of Home and Slewfoot.) Possibly Garcia was more excited by the new material. The lyrics don't make much sense (Hunter says he was rushed) -

Mountains seems like Hunter was trying to recapture the ancient mystery of old folk songs, and with the simple guitar picking and Constanten's harpsichord-like accompaniment it sounds like it could have come out of some English renaissance court. I like Lesh's bass line, which even in live shows imitates an upright acoustic bass sound and gives the song more depth; he didn't often have such a quiet setting to work in. Mountains was always a welcome appearance when it was played - a brief mystical acoustic respite from the "sweat and steam and uproar and tumult" that made up an early-'69 Dead show.

There are a couple outtakes (or alternate mixes) of Mountains from the Aoxomoxoa sessions - they sound pretty much identical to the album version.

There is also a picture (on page 15 of the Taping Compendium) of Garcia, Lesh, and Constanten recording Mountains in the studio!

The first live version we have is from 12/20/68 (a very hissy tape): the Dead abandon a snappy Eleven mid-jam for some reason and Garcia immediately gets out his acoustic to treat the bewildered audience to a new song. (Somewhat like the one-time Rosemary of 12/7/68.) Mountains is more jaunty than it would be next year, and Garcia isn't fully practiced with it yet, stumbling at one point with the guitar, but he gives a nice little acoustic solo at the end.

Mountains pops up again a month later, at the Playboy After Dark TV session on 1/18/69 (though not broadcast until 7/10, after Aoxomoxoa had been released). It's interesting that of all the new songs, this is the one Garcia wants to play first - in fact, he's beaming, probably quite high. The song is smoother now, and Constanten's playing dominates this version. (Weir is playing as well, but inaudible I think; he always stayed on electric and turned down very low for this song, so his fills are often hard to hear. Depending on the mix, Constanten is frequently inaudible as well.) The TV editors obviously found this tune the most accessible, as they left it complete but snipped up the St Stephen and following jam.

Although other new songs (Dupree's, Doin' that Rag, Cosmic Charlie) were debuted early on in the January '69 shows, we don't have another live Mountains until 2/11/69, but already it's found a definite place in the set. It always follows Dupree's Diamond Blues - probably because they were the two acoustic songs, so it made sense to play them together. And always until April, it segues into Dark Star. This became one of the ideal Dead song pairings, the reflective mystery of Mountains hushing the atmosphere and opening up to the interstellar quest of Dark Star - in the Mountains outro, after his wiry acoustic solo Garcia would switch back to electric guitar while the rest of the band kept playing, and after a few electric licks they would start Dark Star. The transition was never very long though - Lesh or Garcia would always be in a hurry to start Dark Star, so the Mountains jam is rarely more than a couple minutes. But it seems to me more than a coincidence that some of the best Stars of the year come out of Mountains.

On 2/11/69 there's a very short segue, they go into Dark Star as soon as Garcia's switched guitars. This show was a strange selection for release; since the Dead had to finish their sets in an hour, they seem to abbreviate the Dark Star, which is a very short, tame version for the time as they rush through the themes. It would be nice to hear the rest of 2/12 to see how it compares.
Again on 2/15/69 there isn't much of a jam out of Mountains, they go straight into Dark Star which is pretty low-key. Garcia stops playing for several minutes in the middle (perhaps having amp trouble), so it's interesting to hear Lesh & Weir jamming the Dark Star by themselves.

2/22/69 is a great show, probably the best of February (after 2/28). The Mountains transition is better this time, still short but it has that 'questing' feel familiar from Live Dead; the Dark Star is dreamy and mesmerizing, with a rare segue into Cryptical, and the rest of the show is just as good.

2/27/69 of course is famous for the elegant Live-Dead Dark Star. They could have opened the record with the Star riff, but decided to start a little sooner, fading in as the band wanders gently out of Mountains and Lesh opens up the door to Dark Star. Many of the best moments of their shows came 'in-between' songs as they kept playing with no particular direction, just freely improvising to see what turned up; it's fitting that their first live album would start with one of those moments. The next Mountains, on 3/1/69 would be quite different as there is no segue - they stop for a break while Garcia switches guitars.

They apparently didn't play any more Mountains during March, but it shows up again on 4/5/69, with a very nice acoustic solo and a short electric segue into a super-magical Dark Star. By now they're starting to rely less on repeated themes in the Dark Star, there's more 'free' jamming, and they're getting closer to the 'space' section that they'd later use after the verse.

4/22/69 has the best transition into Dark Star; Garcia's electric solo continues his acoustic thought and the band jams for a minute, already in a Dark Star space. The Star is dense and magnificent, the most expansive of that spring.

4/26/69 is an unusual show, starting with four Aoxomoxoa songs in a row. There's a great transition jam out of Mountains, the longest yet. Garcia decides to take it into a raucous China Cat; Dark Star would be deferred until the great version the next night. (Dick's Picks 26)

The Mountains on 6/7/69 has a nice acoustic solo, but no electric jam at all, going straight into a strong, slowly building Dark Star.

At one show, 4/20/69, Mountains was played by itself - oddly, as the acoustic encore (with Dupree's, of course) - the brief acoustic solo ended the show.

They probably played Mountains some more that summer, but the last performance we have is from 7/12/69, in an extremely poor-sounding tape. The audience claps when it starts - Aoxomoxoa has come out so they've heard it on the new Dead album! It's an unusual version in that, after a long acoustic jam, Garcia reprises the song, stretching it to nine minutes. This would probably be the most trancelike Mountains if it were in better quality - showing how it might have developed if they'd opened it up a bit more.


  1. My search to find the true venue for a mis-marked show led me to your blog.
    I have a tape marked Haight St. 3-3-68. However all I can turn up is that this show was only recorded by an audience member and the set list is incomplete, the "known" set list is not what I have on the tape. I cannot find a set list for the track order on the tape I have. It is a soundboard goes as follows:
    Good Lovin'>
    Good Lovin'
    Cold Rain & Snow
    Hard to Handle
    Other One>
    Death Don't Have No Mercy

    I have checked for every show with Death Don't Have No Mercy, and none of them have this set list. The sound is crips, they are totally rocking, a very high energy show and the Cryptical-Other One is mindblowing and the center piece of the show. I have this on a 45 min. tape, with appx. 60 min. used for this show. Last song is Death, and the tape starts with the drums banging the opening note for Good Lovin'

    Because this show is a wall of rolling thunder, I started to try and find out more, and it led me realize that based on current knowledge it is not as it is marked "Haight St. 3-3-68" and efforts to search by Death Don't Have no Mercy, didn't turn anything up.

    I don't know the lineage, I just ended up with it after college 20 years ago. If you can help me in the quest to find out the real date of the show I would appreciate it.

    Kyle Bairnsfather

  2. That's a tricky tape, actually, since it's not from an actual show. The first few songs look like they're from early 1970, but I can't find one where they were played in that order, so it seems to be a mix & match tape. The Other One>Death Don't is almost certainly from 4/6/69 - they played it a few other times in early '69 but that's the most commonly circulating version, especially from the old tape days. Sorry to say, lots of tapes were compiled from various shows and given totally random dates.... In this case, unless you have timings for the other songs, I can't name a particular date for those.

  3. any chance you could upload that picture from the Taping Compendium of Garcia, Lesh, and Constanten recording Mountains that you spoke of?

    As i have said before, thank you for all your sterling and very informative work on here

  4. It would be a good idea to link to that picture, actually. It might take a while though, because I don't have a scanner. Maybe someone else will oblige first....

  5. Just discovered your blog, and it is outstanding. Erudite, accurate, thorough and lucid. I look forward to reading more.


  6. I'm also interested in that picture! Great post.

  7. Somehow I failed to mention here that the original mix of Mountains on Aoxomoxoa featured some women singing a choral backing (presumably "Wendy and Debbie," listed as supporting musicians in the album credits).
    They were removed in Garcia's 1971 remix, when he simplified the album. He said at the time, "On the record as it is now, I've dropped a lot of the junk off it. It sounds more like what I hoped it would when we recorded it."

    Robert Hunter called it "a nice finger-picking tune," but had a little quarrel with the lyrics Garcia sang. Hunter didn't like the line "twenty degrees in all," and later changed it for his own performances.
    He explained in '88: "When I wrote it originally, we were in a pressured recording situation. I knew it was weak, but I just didn't have the time to fix things I wasn't entirely happy with."
    Considering how leisurely the Aoxomoxoa writing & recording process was (it took months), this is strange to hear. Perhaps just as likely, Garcia accepted the first lyrics he was given and was reluctant to change them later. As Hunter said, "He's loath to change something once he feels like it's done, while I'll tinker endlessly with things."

    I've just posted a piece on Rosemary, which is kind of the companion song to Mountains of the Moon. These two songs (and Dupree's Diamond Blues) were Hunter's & Garcia's first attempts to write new acoustic songs in traditional folk styles; their next step would be the folky, traditional-sounding Workingman's Dead songs to come in 1969.

  8. july 11 & 12 1969, the pavilion, my first dead show, a weed drought meant I was straight, the music was so intense, the acoustic mountains, I could not figure out how lesh played bass, it seemed as if he never hit notes on the beat, and played with the rythym," even missing whole notes at times". The missing bass note must have been "the eleven" I guess

  9. I always heard that the background singers were The Ace of Cups on the original mix of Mountains of the Moon. I have the original vinyl version of the album and like that mix better. I wish they'd release the original mix on CD.

    1. "Wendy and Debbie" are credited on the original Aoxomoxoa liner notes, I presume for those backing vocals. I'm doubtful about the Ace of Cups - they did some vocals for albums by other bands (including Quicksilver & Jefferson Airplane), but I've never seen them credited for this one.
      I think a whole Aoxomoxoa Sessions box set should be released. All the outtakes & studio jams that have come out so far have been highly illuminating.

  10. Someone should ask Justin Kreutzmann what video material he used in 'Backstage Pass' during 'HardToHandle'.
    Of course there is the original video of Family Dog 70-02-04, also video of Columbia 68-05-03, more obscure are the short parts of Pigpen Garcia and Hunter which we think are 63 or 64.
    But the most interesting parts are from a 69 show -- on my copy of 'Backstage Pass' at around 3:15 and 3:45 and some very short snippets thereafter: they show Mickey on washboard, Garcia on 3 guitars (acoustic, electric and 12 string !) and Pigpen directing Mickey to sing into a microphone. My assumption is, these snippets are 69-07-12.

  11. They played Mountains of the Moon this morning on the Grateful Dead channel (Sirius) I often bounce when studio songs are played, I prefer live music. I listened to it in full and it's really a nice song. I know it's on Aoxomoxoa, an album I don't have, I was wondering if anyone knows of a live recording of it?

    1. A list of live releases is here:

  12. Phil Lesh and Friends played Mountains wonderfully. Their version from 4/24/01 is part of the most enjoyable and trippy concert I have ever seen.

  13. Mountains played tonight in London by Tom Constanten & Live Dead on tour .Just lovely

  14. This was the only song I listened to, the first time I ever got stoned, and it was breathtaking. I was never able to hear it the same again though.
    I must say that the changeup at 'heyyyy tom banjo' always destroyed the song for me a bit. It is a goofy, stumbling jolt from the flow of the song. I even edited that bit out with adobe audition and like it much better. :)