September 23, 2010

Live vs. Studio Dead 1967-69

“Making a record is like building a ship in a bottle. Playing live music is like being in a rowboat in the ocean.” - Jerry Garcia

The Dead were known as live improvisers who could never quite pull it off in the studio – the magical jams that sustained their shows and wowed audiences were rarely found on their studio albums. As Phil Lesh said, “The Grateful Dead have always primarily been a live band; we’ve never quite managed to capture on record just exactly what it is that we do so well.” Weir agreed: “We just don’t play with the same fire in the studio.” And Garcia grumpily commented in 1974, “I hate all my records. The Grateful Dead don’t make good records.” By that time they were running on two different tracks - the ‘studio Dead’ focused merely on making radio-friendly pop albums, while the live band went on merrily expanding consciousness.
I thought I’d write about the Dead’s early albums, when they were still figuring out what would work in the studio environment, and still trying to capture that live aura on vinyl grooves. It’s not often mentioned that the early Dead could be quite ambitious and disciplined, in their own way – not in the sense of being conventionally ‘successful’ with hit singles & TV shows, or being able to play the same thing twice. But when they had an artistic vision, they would go after it with relentless rehearsals and patience; and when they had an album to make, they would stay in the studio month after month getting it right - only to proclaim disappointment once it was finally released. This was a band that listened to itself with very critical ears.
(I talked about this a little in an earlier post – )

Garcia was asked in 1988 what he thought of his playing from 1969:
“It’s embarrassing to me! I studied all that stuff to improve what I found embarrassing about my own playing. To me it’s the thing of not being in tune a lot of the time…I meant to be in tune! I hear what I meant, as opposed to what I actually played… It’s not as embarrassing for me to listen to myself now.”
And in 1976, he said of the Dead’s albums, “Comparing the record to the vision, I always feel that it fails…it produces sort of a feeling of disappointment. You want it to work a certain way and sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you want… On our earlier records, if I listen to them now, they’re embarrassing for reasons like they’re out of tune.”
Even back in 1971, he felt the same:
“It’s hard for me to go back to the past in terms of the music, because for me it’s a continuum, and to stop it at one of those points, to me it always looks underdeveloped and not quite working… I think of it in terms of something we were trying to do but didn’t succeed in doing. I listen to what’s wrong with it.”

Garcia talked about the Dead’s first album in 1968: “We didn’t know anything about it, so we went down and ground out the first record in four nights. We were inexperienced about recording…there we were for the first time in the studio world – engineers looking at their watches [saying] ‘OK, what’s next?’ and that whole scene…”
He said a few years later, “At that time we had no real record consciousness… We were completely na├»ve… So in three nights we played some hyperactive music. That’s what’s embarrassing about that record now – the tempo was way too fast, we were all so speedy at the time. It has its sort of crude energy, but obviously it’s difficult for me to listen to it; I can’t enjoy it… Even as soon as we’d finish it there were things that we could hear… It was just simply what we were doing onstage. But in reality, the way we played was not really too much the way that record was. Usually we played tunes that lasted a long time…then we went down there and turned out songs real fast, less than three minutes…” (By ’71, apparently Garcia had forgotten that their early live shows were often even speedier and more hyper than the album!)
He dismissed the album as a product of low expectations: “We really didn’t much care about it while we were doing it. So we weren’t surprised when it didn’t quite sound like we wanted it to.”

The Dead weren’t complete strangers to the studio, though. They’d recorded a demo for Autumn Records in November ’65 at Golden State Recorders in San Francisco (probably a session of a couple hours with one engineer attending). This demo apparently went nowhere, and I’d imagine the Dead held it in some disdain.
They tried recording again for Scorpio Records in June ’66, at producer Gene Estribou’s home studio. There was even a single (Stealin’ b/w Don’t Ease Me In), which was barely released and they quickly disowned. The complete sessions have long circulated, and show the Dead quite patiently tackling multiple takes of each song. (A selection was released on the Birth of the Dead CD, omitting Cardboard Cowboy.)
But the Dead became disenchanted early on with the recording process. The producer recalled, “It was an effort to get out of the zone of indecision…Phil wanted to do one thing and Jerry wanted to do another… So it was frustrating for everybody, but we had to get something finished rather than nine thousand hours of shit that was unusable.”
Garcia summed up the single in August ’66: “We never got in on the mixing of it, and we didn’t really like the cuts, and the performances were bad, and the recordings were bad, and everything else was bad, so we didn’t want it out… It doesn’t sound like us.” The rest of the band shared his feelings.
Garcia: “It’s not that bad, but - ”
Pigpen: “Bullshit.”
Weir: “Go burn it.”

Come January ’67, the band was ready to try again, recording for Warner Bros in RCA Studios in Los Angeles. The Dead recorded their first album in just a few days, basically taping live with only the vocals overdubbed (just as they’d done at the Scorpio sessions). At this point the Dead thought of a studio record as just like a live set – the goal was to capture what they sounded like onstage.
The band picked their producer, Dave Hassinger, who was known for his recent work with the Stones. Garcia said, “We were impressed by him because he’d been the engineer on a couple of Rolling Stones records that we liked the sound of.” Hassinger, though, did little producing on this record. He admitted later, “That upset the band, because I had been primarily an engineer and that’s what the band wanted from me… They needed someone to help them get the record the way they wanted it to sound, and that’s what I would have liked to have done.” (The RCA engineers, of course, simply told the band to turn down! – causing Weir to comment that the band’s sound “didn’t fill out the same way.”)
Hassinger remembered, “We went in and did the first album very, very fast – less than a week… At that time I didn’t know them, and looking back I wish I could have had more time and done some things a little differently. But my understanding was that these were songs they’d played a lot, and they essentially wanted to get them down like they played them live. I’d made two or three trips up to the Bay Area and seen them at the Fillmore, and I thought they were dynamite. What I was after on the album was to capture as much of the energy as I could.”
This is a (misdated) collection of mostly instrumental outtakes, showing how the Dead worked – they rushed through the tracks live, leaving just the vocals for later. (For such a speedy recording session, there were actually quite a few songs taped and then abandoned – I Know You Rider, King Bee, Stealin’, Alice D Millionaire, Overseas Stomp, Tastebud, and Death Don’t. Garcia also said that they taped a different Viola Lee Blues each day, in order to pick the best one for the album – indeed, a different version was used for the single edit.)
By the way, it’s worth noting that the Dead may have had little to do with the mixing of this album. It was standard before ’67 for the musicians to record the tracks and split; the producer would then spend a few hours (at most) mixing the album. (The 4-track mix in this case was quite simple anyway, with each instrument staying in its allotted place for the length of the album.) At any rate, the album was mixed on the fifth day of the session – McNally says the Dead were there, but they didn’t have much oversight over the process, as quite a few songs were considerably shortened for the record, eliminating the end jams (one thing Garcia later objected to!).
And ironically, once the band had finished recording, Warner Bros asked them for a single – “they said, ‘We still haven’t got anything here that’d be a strong single,’ so we said, ‘Ah, a strong single, sure!’” - so the Dead composed Golden Road to order and recorded it in San Francisco. The recording was more complex than their LA tapes, and they took more time on it with several overdubs - it was a highlight of the album, but didn’t fly up the charts! It’s easy to hear why this clean, zippy, somewhat restrained album would later sound strange to Garcia – it came out just when the band was turning the corner into a new musical dimension.
Crawdaddy magazine wrote a positive review of the album, but noted that it “disappoints fans of the live Dead. The more you’ve grown to love Grateful Dead live performances over the years, the more difficult it must be to accept an album which is (though very beautiful) something completely different. Only Viola Lee Blues has any of the fantastic ‘this is happening now!’ quality of a good Dead performance; only Viola Lee Blues takes you away as far as the longtime Dead fan has grown accustomed to being taken.”

On the album’s release in March ‘67, Garcia already sounded a bit skeptical about it: “I think our album is honest. It sounds just like us. It even has mistakes on it. But it also has a certain amount of excitement on it… It’s the material we’ve been doing onstage for quite a long time – it sounds like one of our good sets.”
But Garcia already realized that while the album accurately reflected their live show at the moment, they were quickly moving beyond that moment. “It isn’t as good as it could have been, but it’s still okay… After the fact of the recording, I don’t want to say too much about it – it’s finished and it’s sort of in the past. [The album had just been released!] None of the material we’re doing that was on the record is going to be much like the record from now on. Because now we feel we’ve done it that way. I’m even thinking perhaps there’s a possibility of re-recording some of this stuff in the future, just for the sake of how much it’s changed.”

By December ’68, Garcia was even more negative: “We felt very bad about it. We felt it was unfortunate… We did it, and that was it. We had all the time afterwards, and after it was released, and listening to it hundreds of times, to really regret it, because it was mediocre performances of material that we were able to do much better. It was uninspired completely. We’ll never go about it that way again.”
Back in March ’67, he’d started thinking about how their studio approach could be different than their live performances. “Being in a recording situation is really a lot different than playing. A recording situation brings out another side of creativity…something that you do over a long period of time… So when you get into a recording studio you begin to have a different feeling about what you’re doing. That’s something we’re just starting to get into. So the first album was essentially a live album.”
By April, Garcia was determined not to record in the same way again. “That was an attempt to try and sound like the way we do live - there's not really anything unconventional for us in there. So we're not going to bother doing that anymore... When we go and record, since the first album is doing so nicely, we hope they'll let us have a lot of time in the studio, and next time we'll do a lot more studio stuff.”

As he hoped, that’s exactly what happened. As he told the story later, “On the second record, we went the whole other way. We decided we’d spend time on our record: we’re going to work on it, we’re going to make sure it sounds good, we’re really going to get into recording and go on some trips with it. So our second record turned out to be a monumental project.”

In October ’67 the Dead went down to Los Angeles to work on recording their new album in RCA Studios. (They’d started work on Alligator and other tracks for a couple weeks in September, but didn’t get far – as Garcia said, “we accomplished absolutely nothing” - and after Mickey Hart joined that month, they probably decided to rehearse a little while before they continued recording!)
The October studio sessions went slowly, as they tried out Alligator and the newly written Other One suite. We have a set of outtakes from these sessions: (identical to the “10/20/67” session)
In November they moved to the smaller American Studios in Hollywood, recording Dark Star and Born Cross-Eyed: (though these tracks include later overdubs)
There’s also a tape of a long Lovelight rehearsal from November 19 (not on the Archive) – it might be surprising the Dead would consider Lovelight for their studio album, but at the time they’d only been playing it for a few months. They also tried taping Death Don’t, a reject from their first album (and one of their oldest numbers going back to ‘65), and New Potato, which they’d written just after the first album – though sadly we don’t have outtakes of it!

But the thought of recording a real live album had also crossed their minds. When asked in April ‘67 about capturing the Dead's live sound, Garcia stated, “You can't do it in a studio.” [It had taken just a few days in the studio to learn that!] But he theorized: “If you recorded us live, like at the Fillmore, maybe after two or three months....we'd start to get good cuts, good enough for an album in terms of how clean they were and how much we liked the performance on them. It would be such an expensive undertaking, and long....”

In November ’67, the Dead made their first attempt at professional live taping. While they were in the Los Angeles studios, the band brought a Warner Bros recording crew to tape a couple of their Shrine shows on 8-track. An LA Times reviewer at the November 10 show noticed that they were recording; and the two shows were kept in the Warner Bros vaults.
For me the mysterious question is, why were these shows taped? The Dead were not taping their shows in any format that year, let alone 8-track. (Many of our SBDs from ’67 apparently come from Bill Graham’s tapes; the Dead at the time were quite indifferent. David Lemieux says of the famed August ’67 Toronto tapes: “Unfortunately there are reels in the vault clearly marked with the date and venue of some of these shows, which has been scratched out, as the tapes were recorded over.”) As of November ’67, the band had only just started their long trek through the studios – and the idea to mix live & studio tracks together (born of desperation after Dave Hassinger quit) I don’t think had occurred yet.
Possibly Warner Bros, aware of the Dead’s live reputation, wanted to try recording a straight live album. (This may not be so far-fetched: remember that Hassinger considered their live show ‘dynamite’ and said of their first record, “What I was after on the album was to capture as much of the energy as I could.” So he may have been in favor of a live album, especially after seeing how slow their studio work had become.) If this was the case, the Dead clearly rejected this idea, either feeling these Shrine shows weren’t good enough, or having more ambitious ideas they wanted to get down.
The other scenario is that it was the Dead’s idea to record these shows for some undefined use on the album. A few months later, Cream would record an album split between live sides & studio sides, and the Dead might have had something like this in mind. Perhaps they were initially thinking of dubbing studio parts onto the basic live tracks, in an attempt to combine the live ‘excitement’ with studio trimmings (the way they would do with their ‘live’ albums in the early ‘70s).

In December, the Dead went to New York to try recording at Century and Olmstead studios there. Producer Hassinger finally quit, fed up with their inability to sing complicated songs like New Potato and Born Cross-Eyed, and tired of their insane production requests:
“I gave up in New York. We’d been working for a long time on that second album, and they had put down some new tracks in New York, and nobody could sing them, and at that point they were experimenting too much in my opinion. They didn’t know what the hell they were looking for…they were going from one end of the spectrum to the other… It was like pulling teeth, until finally I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Dan Healy recalled, “There was friction between the band and Hassinger – hassle hassle, back and forth. We were at the session one afternoon when we got into an argument with Hassinger about something he was doing in the mix. He jumped up, freaked out, and stomped out of the studio. Everybody just sat there. We were left there, halfway through finishing the record.”
Healy replaced Hassinger as the nominal ‘producer’, and the band saw a golden opportunity. Lesh realized, “We found ourselves with enough music on tape for maybe a third of an album, so we had to figure out what to do.” As Mickey Hart says, “It was our springboard to weirdness. We thought, ‘Now we’re not tethered by the engineers or the technology! We can fly the lofty peaks, man…’ And of course we knew nothing of the studio.”
Warner Bros president Joe Smith sent them a letter in late December insisting on a February ’68 release, saying they had “no time for delays or indecision as we must have the package on the market as quickly as possible… Now let’s get the album out on the streets without anymore fun and games.” The band, of course, ignored him - they now had bigger plans in mind.

In fact, they’d decided to record an entire live tour and blend the best performances with what studio tracks they had in an album-length symphonic collage. The famous Anthem tour followed in winter ’68, Dan Healy faithfully capturing the Dead’s shows on 2-track and 4-track tapes.
Garcia: “We recorded some of those shows using an 8-track machine for the band, and then using a 4-track machine for the room, so that we had 4 tracks of the room, various parts of the perspective of the corner over here, one corner over here, one in the middle, done lots of different places... In mastering, we had the 8-track and the 4-track playing simultaneously. We'd mix them together and cross-fade them, so as to get partly the sound of the band, partly the sound of the hall, gives you a sense of enfolding space.”

It’s worth noting how overboard the Dead went, taping all those shows. They had a 40-minute album to make, much of which was already recorded in the studios over the months; simply mixing together the different live tracks was going to be a gargantuan job. And yet they taped over sixteen shows (probably more) from January through March ’68, in their search for just the right performances.
I think this tour definitely shows the Dead going after certain long album sequences, the same way they would do Live/Dead the following year – several planned medleys were done repeatedly. Of course with only two album-sides, some things had to go – the Dark Star>China Cat>Eleven medley was dropped and later dissolved into its separate songs. The Space>Spanish Jam that usually followed Born Cross-Eyed was also left unused, except for a bit of feedback on the single. (And it’s hard to say if Clementine or Lovelight were even considered, but probably not.)

Compared to our sparse knowledge of 1967 shows (where almost the whole year is missing), we have really good coverage for early 1968, thanks to these tapes. Here’s a rundown of the shows on the Anthem tour, noting what circulates (usually just partial sets), and also which shows were not listed in the Anthem CD liner notes (indicating that the Dead didn’t find them usable). What’s interesting is that our lost shows tend to be the ones that weren’t used for the album, suggesting that the Dead discarded those reels early on.
1/17 – complete tape; but not listed on album
1/20 – partial tape only
1/26 (aka “1/22”) – mostly complete
1/27 (aka “1/23”) – partial tape circulates; another set was found abandoned in studio
1/29 – lost; not listed
1/30 – lost except for one newly discovered song; not listed
2/2 – partial set only
2/3 – mostly complete set
2/4 – lost; not listed
2/14 – complete
2/17 – lost; not listed
2/22 – partial set in the Vault (vocals not recorded)
2/23-24 – mostly released on Dick’s Pick
Most of the Dead’s shows in March are lost – it looks like they only taped their Carousel shows that month:
3/15 – doesn’t circulate; but listed, and may still be in the Vault
3/16 – circulates complete
3/17 – didn’t circulate, but partially released in Download Series
3/29-3/31 – mostly circulates except for the 31st
After that, the Dead’s shows fade into darkness again for a few months….

One of these shows is famous for the incident where Lesh became so confused by the music he stopped playing for a little while. “For the first time I discovered that there were realms of music that we could play, that I couldn’t even imagine what was going on…it got more and more incomprehensible to me as the night wore on.” After the show, he tried to slink out in shame, but Garcia intercepted him. “He was so pissed, he just grabbed me and said, ‘You play, motherfucker!’ and sort of threw me down the stairs…”
There is actually some disagreement as to which show this was, though! Lesh’s original story was clear:
“The gig that became the core tape of Anthem in the Sun was the one Garcia talked about in the movie, where he ‘threw me down the stairs’ because I stopped playing… That was one night we weren’t high on acid; we were just playing. If you’re not on drugs and you play shit like that…maybe it makes you more edgy. We were trying too hard… That tape was so hot that we didn’t connect it with that incident for a while. I think Jerry was the first one who recognized it… Even after all that misunderstanding, we used those tapes of that night: St Valentine’s Day 1968, at the Carousel Ballroom. We used that for the core of the Other One and Alligator.”
Which sounds straightforward – yet in his book, Lesh says it didn’t happen at that Carousel show, but in one a month later, on the weekend of his birthday (during the March 15-17 run). And McNally’s bio offers yet a different date, saying it happened during the Carousel run from March 29-31…

Meanwhile, the album mixing commenced. I’m not sure how much new studio recording was done that year; some accounts suggest the Dead were still working on their studio material, though the CD liner notes state all the studio tracks were done in ’67. (It’s unclear, for instance, just when or where Tom Constanten contributed his noise piece to the end of the Other One, as different sources vary.) It’s also unclear just how long the mixing took; most of it seems to have been done in April and May, and it must have been finished before the summer. Most of the mixing was done at Columbus Recording in SF; but in April they also tried out Criteria Studios in Miami, with little result.
Garcia said, “We just worked and worked and worked for months – mostly Phil and I… We assembled an enormous amount of stuff…after an enormously complex period of time, we assembled the material that was on the master tape. Then we went through the mixing…” (Lesh has a good account of the mixing methods & process in his book.)
Healy described some of the tape problems: “We got all these tapes, and they were all recorded on different machines in different cities. The speeds were all different and weird and variable. There would be things wrong – the performance would be going along real good, and suddenly somebody would kick out a plug, or the power would go off and the performance would end prematurely… We got back to the studio, and it turned out there wasn’t one performance that played all the way through and did anything. We decided to just devise a way to be able to play them all by aligning and starting two different performances in the same place…”
Garcia spoke of not two, but “four stereo pairs of completely different shows that all started in the same meter and had about the same timing.” But he also said, “We selected, from various performances we did, the performance which seemed the most spaced, and we did that all the way through.” (This perhaps refers to the 2/14 Alligator, which does make for a spacy side B.)
“In a lot of those places, we have two or three different live performances all happening at the same time, and we’re cross-fading – that’s why some of that stuff is like a dream. You listen to a guitar run, and it goes somewhere, and all of a sudden there’s another part of it that’s almost a continuation but not quite, coming from another place. We did that a lot in the Other One, particularly.”
Lesh pointed out an example of the show combination in the Other One: “On tracks 1 and 2 we have the Grateful Dead at Kings Beach, California; on tracks 3 and 4 we have Eureka, California; and on 5, 6, 7, and 8 we have two different performances from Portland, Oregon.”
Of course, with just 8 tracks at their disposal, they had to do a lot of track-bouncing, as Garcia explained: “It was an 8-track tape, so we spent a lot of time crowding things down to one track, mixing down… A lot of stuff is dubbed off quarter-track…half-inch…4-track stuff…which we assembled in the hopes of producing a sound-collage symphonette or some damn thing.” Healy expanded on this: “We had to convert all the performances down to whatever tape machine was in the studio. Some of the performances we took down to 3-track, and some we took down to 2-track…then we transferred it all onto the 8-track.”
And throwing all these performances together required tons of edits, as Garcia said: “There are zillions…they’re everywhere…a lot of them are not in obvious places at all. There are things like three or four splices every two or three bars, and a couple of transitional places where we would have to piece things together to get it to work.” (On top of this, they’d have to edit together performances recorded at different speeds, and still get the tempos to match – you can hear an example of the speed shifting just before Pigpen sings “just a touch of mojo hand.”)
The final mix required numerous rehearsals to get right. “We shot at performances of the mix, rather than mixing little bits and tying them together. We ended up mixing almost the whole side in big flows, to get smoothness through the transitions. It was the most complicated fucking mixing you could imagine… It took a long time, but we took lots and lots of passes, and then went through the best of them.” (Lesh remembers, “I lost track of the number of times we performed this mix, trying to achieve just the right timing and balance.”)
This produced a very random yet open-ended album, full of mix collages and sonic jumps. “Each performance of the mix of those 8-tracks is like throwing the I Ching. You know it will all work – any possibility will work, any combination would produce a version of it that you could dig.”

Ihor Slabicky in his discography gives a rundown of some of the live tracks used, which I’ll list (I haven’t gone into the identifications myself, but have made some additions other listeners have found) -
The basic music for much of the album (Alligator and part of the Other One) was taken from February 14.
The Other One verses, and the first half of the New Potato Caboose jam are from March 17.
(It's been speculated that possibly some of the tracks for New Potato Caboose and Born Cross-Eyed come from February 3, but Born Cross-Eyed seems to be all-studio. I think the ending of New Potato is still unidentified?)
The jam sequence for side two has Alligator (from February 14, with the vocal reprise from November 10, 1967) into Caution (from November 10, and part of March 31), with some of Feedback from March 17.
A portion of Feedback is from January 22.
A short portion of Feedback from February 24 was used at the end of Caution.

Anthem of the Sun is a hybrid record, where songs like Cryptical, New Potato, and Alligator start out in ‘conventional’ studio guises and then suddenly lurch into jumbled-up live versions. It remains the Dead’s weirdest, most far-out statement. (In a way, they’d spend the rest of their career retreating from 1968.)
In the abstract, it appealed to Lesh & Garcia’s intellectual side: “We weren’t making a record in the normal sense, we were making a collage…more like electronic music or concrete music, where you are actually assembling bits and pieces toward an enhanced nonrealistic representation.”
And as an ‘acid’ record, it was very much designed for people’s mental trips. “We worked on it to get you high,” Garcia would say; or, “We mixed it for the hallucinations.”

At the same time, the record has a rather muffled quality, both in the sound and the performances. Today, a straight live tape from early ’68 can be more exciting, playing-wise, than this doctored melange (although perhaps the right hallucinations will hit me one day, and the full glory of Anthem will be revealed). But it still has the power to disturb. As Garcia said, “There are places of extreme awkwardness, but it wasn’t hurting for imagination.” What’s most notable about the album are the juxtapositions of moods, the feeling of disorientation and darkness, the heavy psychedelic atmosphere, the descent from the jaunty kazoos of Alligator to the apocalyptic ashes of Feedback.
McNally suggests the band wasn’t too thrilled with the album at the time, saying they “lost it in the mix.” Garcia said in 1971 that though he liked how far-out it was, “there’s parts of it that sound dated…in terms of the form and structure, it’s something which you can dig; but in terms of the way [it’s] performed, it’s a drag… We didn’t really succeed in getting [our ideas] onto tape too successfully.”
With Lesh and Garcia at the helm, some of the others in the band may have felt left out. Bill Kreutzmann later said, “There was a lot of layering and manipulation in the studio…I wasn’t all that involved with Anthem of the Sun. I didn’t feel like I participated that much in the music…it wasn’t my cup of tea particularly…I wasn’t that thrilled with it… Sometimes less is more.”

Aside from the rehearsal sessions I listed earlier where the band were initially running through their new repertoire, no outtakes have circulated from the later studio work. Part of this is because, as Lesh explains, “We didn’t have even one song complete; just a bunch of fragments.” And the CD liner notes clarify: “There don’t appear to be any completed outtakes from the sessions – most of what’s still in the vaults consists of instrumental backing tracks and separate vocal overdubs.”

Once the Anthem album was behind them (it was released in July ’68), the Dead were soon itching to get back into the studio. In the summer of ’68, they had one exciting new song (St Stephen), and a couple Anthem rejects from the dissolved Dark Star sequence (China Cat and the Eleven). Also, Robert Hunter was now writing songs with Garcia (starting with Cosmic Charlie).
One of the mysteries of Aoxomoxoa is just how the first months of sessions went – how much material did they have to work on? Several songs on the finished album – Mountains, Dupree’s, Rag - would not be written or played live until Dec ‘68/Jan ’69, which makes me wonder just what they’d been recording all the previous months. (Not only that, but the band was going through a crisis, as I’ll discuss below.)
I suspect they started the sessions simply jamming in the studio to see what turned up (the way they would start Blues for Allah sessions in 1975). The Aoxomoxoa CD reissue includes a Pacific Recording Studio session from August 13 ’68, where the band jams at length on a few themes.
There are also a couple too-brief tidbits on the Taper’s Section: - a short instrumental studio Caution, “recorded sometime in 1968, likely the summer” (so it could actually be another Anthem outtake). This is just a loose rehearsal with Pigpen (sadly, the last minute before it cuts out is the best part!). - a short Clementine jam from 9/21/68; Weir and Pigpen are absent, but the Hartbeats perform with a guest guitarist.
I believe they also worked more on Clementine in these early sessions. Not only do we have the 8/13 and 9/21 Clementine jams, but the Hartbeats also ran through it at the Matrix shows in October (with some new riffs), so I have to think they tried recording it around this time… It would be nice to know if more studio takes exist!

We do have one full studio rehearsal from these sessions:
They start the session by warming up with a loose Lovelight (with Garcia singing the verse!) and Dark Star (very laid-back, and dominated by Pigpen’s little riff). Most of the session is devoted to exasperating stop-and-start attempts to get down St Stephen and the Eleven - the transition is especially troublesome. (They do manage one good full Eleven, though. This is one of the sessions where Lesh becomes quite bossy, as he mentions in his book – “I became insistent about going over and over these transitions…sometimes I’d start yelling at the drummers, ‘Let’s do it again – right this time.’”)
I used to think this session was from around September when they were just jamming in the studio; but now I think the labeled date is correct. Dark Star and St Stephen are slowed down from the summer versions, and Pigpen is still on organ, so a November date makes sense. What baffles me is why they’d have such trouble rehearsing a Stephen>Eleven segment they’d been performing for months, and why they taped it at all…. It’s unknown whether this rehearsal was for the album or some other purpose, but it may indicate that the full Stephen>Eleven medley was then planned for the album. (And indeed, a ‘finished’ version shows up on our outtakes tape.) The studio Eleven was dropped, though, when the Live/Dead shows were taped.

Just when they started the Aoxomoxoa sessions, the band again made professional 8-track recordings of some of their live shows – August 21 & 22 at the Fillmore West, and August 23 & 24, again at the Shrine in LA. Dan Healy notes in Two From the Vault, “Because our approach to recording was then considered controversial, Warner Bros would not entrust this new [8-track] equipment to us without their engineers chaperoning. The engineers they sent to us were accustomed to recording big-band style, and were not familiar with rock & roll close microphone techniques.”
So what was the Dead’s plan when they recorded these shows? I think clearly they had a live album in mind – why else would they drag skeptical Warner Bros engineers and their precious equipment to several shows? But it’s a strange move, when the largely live Anthem had been released just the month before. (Perhaps, as with Live/Dead the next year, the plan was to get an inexpensive live album out to pay for all the Anthem studio time, especially with a new studio album in the works.) Or perhaps the band felt there was more new live material, like the Dark Star medley, they wanted to release. It’s notable that the familiar Live/Dead sequence is already being played in August ’68 – in fact, the setlists for their shows would barely change over the next six months. As Garcia said, “We were after a certain sequence to the music - a serious, long composition, musically, and then a recording of it.”
But, just like the Nov ’67 Shrine shows, these tapes were rejected by the Dead. [The show from the 24th was finally released 24 years later.] Whether they were unhappy with the performances or felt the material needed more work, I’m not sure. But it’s probably not coincidental that right around this time, Garcia and Lesh started grumbling about getting rid of Weir and Pigpen.

Rock Scully says, “If the firing had to happen, it happened at a good time, because we were just sort of doodling in the studio, we weren’t making any money, we didn’t have any gigs booked…”
Garcia downplayed the firing later on, saying, “It didn’t take. We fired them, all right, but they just kept coming back.” He even said, “We never actually let [Pigpen] go; 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 we were heading someplace in a big way, and Pigpen just wasn’t open to it.”
According to McNally, it was in August that the band held a meeting to fire Weir and Pigpen (though I’m not sure if Pigpen was even there). They were planning to start recording their next album, and it seems they’d just taped and listened to the Shrine shows [or the earlier rehearsal jams] and were not too happy with them.
Scully: “We haven’t talked about anything more immediate than an EP and this record, in terms of Bob and Pig, and I think that you guys oughta make your intentions clear… The situation as it exists right now, musically, depends on four guys. The weight is on four cats in this band, not six… It seems like the music is being carried to a certain level, then staying there… You guys tire of music that has much more potential, many more possibilities, too soon…it never gets any better.”
Garcia: “All you gotta do is listen to the tapes there and test them.”
Lesh: “You can’t really get but two or three of them on, man; even those are with reservation…”
Garcia: “You guys know that the gigs haven’t been any fun, it hasn’t been any good playing it, because we’re at different levels of playing, we’re thinking different thoughts and we just aren’t playing together.”
As it turns out, Weir and Pigpen stayed with the band. Memories are vague here (Weir seems to feel he was out of the band for a couple months; and the band’s known gigs are notably sparse in September ’68, with only four dates in deadlists). But it seems Weir still kept playing at all the shows; Pigpen was absent for at least part of October, and mostly stayed out of the album sessions. I think the band found that it just wasn’t feasible to lose two of their key members (as the Hartbeats experiment showed), but what they could do was limit their input into the music.

Years later, Weir admitted, “I didn’t have all that great a vocabulary as a guitarist at that point. And my role…was a fairly difficult one. Being in-between the lead and the bass and intuiting where the hell they’re going to go, and being there. It took a while to work up a touch for that. I’d get hot and find myself moving pretty fluently in that role, then I’d lose my momentum and fall out of it. It’s a real difficult position to stay on top of… When TC was playing with us was an era when the music was its most cumbersome. It was hard to turn the corner, because it was a little too outside. For me, nowhere could I find a handle on the drift when it started to get spacy, well enough to intuit where it was going. It was accidental music…”

With Weir and Pigpen somewhat out of the picture, Aoxomoxoa turned into practically a solo Garcia album. I think the most obvious reason is because no one else was writing anything – but it’s a big shift from Anthem which was very much a full-band composition. It’s true that when Hunter arrived, he could churn out the songs and crowd the others out, but I don’t think the others tried either.
Pigpen, with his role in the band rather shaky, probably felt no need to participate in the studio - especially after Constanten replaced him on keyboards in November. Weir was not much of a songwriter at that point – he’d been dissatisfied with Born Cross-Eyed (which soon dropped out of their live sets), and combined with the criticism from the others, that pretty much shut him down for a couple years. (He said in December ’68, “My songwriting career has been slowed up because I can’t think of any decent words to sing. That’s kind of gotten to me after the last album…you’ve written a song, and you hear it on the album and the words are so nada, they don’t really say anything.”)
As for Lesh, it’s hard to say – he was a co-composer on St Stephen but otherwise gets no writing credits on Aoxomoxoa. His forte was more the jam-songs, which were left off that album – the Lesh/Hunter song Clementine was sadly dropped, and the Eleven (which was also a Lesh/Hunter collaboration) was picked for Live/Dead, so the the studio version was dropped from Aoxomoxoa. Lesh’s role at that point seems to have been something of an invisible arranger – Weir sang New Potato Caboose, and you’d never guess Clementine was Lesh’s as well, since Garcia sang it (Lesh has said he wasn’t ready to sing leads yet) - and the Eleven was very much driven by the whole band. As Lesh has said of New Potato, “It didn’t spring into being all at once, but rather amalgamated itself over time, with small but crucial contributions from the whole band.” But Lesh focused on developing the arrangements and jamming possibilities in these band collaborations. So, like Weir, it would be a couple years before we heard Lesh singing his own songs again.

Garcia himself later became unhappy with the batch of songs he and Hunter wrote for the album. “All those Aoxomoxoa songs, a lot of them are cumbersome to perform, overwritten. China Cat Sunflower is marginal. But a lot of tunes on there are just packed with lyrics, or packed with musical changes that aren’t worth it for what happens finally with the song. There isn’t a graceful way to perform them… Cosmic Charlie was really a recording song, and even when we did perform it, it always had its weaknesses…it’s not quite performable… At the time I wasn’t writing songs for the band to play; I was writing songs to be writing songs. Those were the first songs me and Hunter did together, and we didn’t have the craft of songwriting down.”
(He was talking after the band had turned toward simpler, easy-to-play songs; but the Dead in 1969 had no problem with tackling odd, complex tunes and demanding a lot of themselves!)

Serious album work commenced in September – the band was now able to drop out of the conventional studio system, and went to Pacific Recording in San Mateo, where Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor were recording engineers. Matthews says, “Aoxomoxoa was the first album they were allowed to do completely on their own…this was their opportunity to be in charge.”
They started with St Stephen, moved on to Cosmic Charlie (first heard live on October 8), and in October unveiled the Barbed Wire Whipping Party. (Which was probably an accurate picture of how they were spending their studio time!) Little did they know, all these early recordings would be abandoned.

Although Lesh doesn’t follow a strict chronology in his book, he says that the new 16-track was installed in the studio while the Dead were on their Nov/Dec ’68 midwest tour. (McNally says it was around Christmas.) When they came back to the studio in December, they decided to scrap everything they’d done and start over. As Bob Matthews said, when the new 16-track recorder arrived, “we fooled with it for a couple of hours and said ‘Fuck it, we’re redoing the album’… We all knew we could do it better.” It wasn’t entirely whimsical for the Dead to re-record the entire album, though – what most accounts leave out is that they now had a new player with them, Tom Constanten, who’d joined on November 23 and would play a central part in the recordings. In fact it’s hard to imagine what many of these songs sounded like without him! But the ‘first’ 8-track version of Aoxomoxoa has never been heard, not even as bonus tracks. (Possibly it was just erased, but I’ve never read what happened to it.)

We have one collection of Aoxomoxoa outtakes – (I’ve posted a review there outlining the various tracks.)
The notes speculate these are from the original 8-track sessions. I’m not sure - some definitely are, some must be from ’69, but most of these tracks are noticeably lacking Constanten. In fact, some of these are missing any band members except for Garcia and Kreutzmann, who apparently laid down some basic tracks themselves (just like they’d do for Garcia’s first solo album). It’s evident that the Aoxomoxoa tracks were generally done piece-by-piece in a series of layered overdubs, though the finished mix disguised this somewhat by putting in bits of studio chatter and instrument doodles between tracks to make it sound more ‘live’. (And in turn, the CD remix does away with most of those to make it sound more ‘album-like’!)
Blair Jackson suggests that China Cat, Mountains, Dupree’s, and Doin’ That Rag weren’t recorded in the studio until January ’69, which makes sense since most of them had just debuted live. (According to McNally, the last three had only just been written, after Hunter moved in with Garcia.) But since that’s half the album songs (and Rosemary was simply a Garcia solo tape), it strongly indicates that most of fall ’68 had been spent tinkering and experimenting in the studio, rather than trying to finish any songs. Check out the bizarre version of St Stephen on the outtakes tape, which is stuffed with odd effects, to hear what the Dead were up to during those long weeks in the studio!
One engineer said of the Aoxomoxoa sessions, “It was like a circus in there,” as the band sipped STP and sucked on nitrous oxide to see how it might alter the music. (And imagine, if you will, the entire group of people on the album’s back cover crowding into the studio each day and camping out! It becomes no wonder the album work went rather slowly…)

Over the months recording Aoxomoxoa, as the Dead piled up their studio hours and worked out their disagreements, I think they had a dual strategy in mind. On the one hand, they were anxious to create a full studio album just the way they wanted. But I think they were also honing their live set with an eye to future live recording. Whether or not their debt to Warner Bros factored into their Live/Dead plans, on an artistic level, they’d clearly decided that ‘live Dead’ and ‘studio Dead’ were now going in two different directions.
Garcia said, “We knew that we weren’t going to be able to sound like we sounded onstage, in the studio – we just couldn’t do that. We haven’t ever been able to do that.”

Interviewed in December ’68, Garcia sounded quite bold and optimistic about the upcoming album (which at that point, was barely in shape at all) -
“This next album is going to have lots of songs on it, ‘cause we’ve been into lots of songs lately. It’s going to be mostly a vocal trip, really, just ‘cause we’ve gotten into lyrics this time. And, at this point it’s pretty amorphous. We have lots of material, and we have much of it recorded, but we haven’t decided exactly how to put it together…whether it’s gonna be a double album or a triple album or… We’ve got lots of different kinds of material. We have jam session stuff, we have all kinds of live scenes. Our material, at this point, is getting to be so interchangeable…we can do almost anything inside of anything else.”
He also talked about their plans for a live album:
“What would be nicest would be to take one complete show with no editing and just say, here it is, man. [Interviewer: “The perfect night!”] It could happen, and on the chance that it might happen sometime, we record.”
Weir: “And invariably, the really good, perfect performances are never on tape. Which is, of course, the way it should be.”
Garcia: “The latest trip that we’re on is to get some large room and say, we’re gonna do four hours, four or five hours of whatever we do, everything we can pull out of our hats; really do a huge number that just goes on and on, has millions of changes and goes millions of places.”

Once the Dead started using a 16-track in the studio, naturally they felt their live album had to be taped in 16-track, too. (‘The more tracks, the better!’ was their attitude.) At the time, the Ampex 16-track recorder was a large, expensive new item, and the idea of carting it to live shows frightened the manufacturer. According to Bob Matthews, “Ampex said, ‘You’re crazy; you can’t do that. It’s not portable’… They lost that round, and we put it in the back of the truck and took it over to Winterland for the Dead’s New Year’s Eve show.”
The first tryout did not work so well, as the recording turned out distorted. Dave Lemieux says this about the tape, the first live 16-track: "The reels of 12/31/68 were erased to record the January '69 Avalon shows (hey, tape was expensive!), with one lonely Midnight Hour left on tape, featuring all of the musicians who performed that night in an all-star jam. The sound on this 16-track recording is very poor, filled with distortion."
Unfazed, the Dead tried the 16-track again at their Avalon run from January 24-26: “We got ten people with ropes and we carried it like a sedan chair up the stairs into the Avalon.” Lesh tells the story of how (in the first set on the 25th), Weir’s guitar was lost in the mix, to the band’s great frustration. However, it appears our circulating copies come from Bear’s 2-track tapes, not the 16-tracks, as Lemieux notes: “the master 16-tracks from the first two Avalon shows were erased” to record the February Fillmore shows!
The Dead agreed that these shows weren’t quite right (except for the Eleven>Lovelight from the 26th) – a wise decision on their part, as Dark Star would mature immensely over the next month of touring. One interesting thing about their February touring is that they did not bring the 16-track; in fact, it was not used for any shows outside San Francisco, as far as I know. (Perhaps because it was too valuable or difficult to transport cross-country.)
However, on at least one night they did record on 8-track. The Fillmore East 2/11/69 album was recorded by Bob Matthews on 8-track, and I would presume he taped the next night as well. (Unfortunately, we only have an incomplete copy of Bear’s tape from the 12th.) If Matthews was with them in New York, I’d guess it was to get more recordings for the live album. It’s unknown whether Matthews brought the 8-track to other shows on the tour as well – perhaps they felt that the Fillmore East was where they’d get the best shows, despite the short sets. [Oddly, the pictures used in the 1997 CD release were from the January 1970 Fillmore East shows!]
Back in San Francisco, the Dead played the “Celestial Synapse” show at the Fillmore West on February 19. One newspaper wrote that they played “a set that ran for four hours or so with scarcely an interruption… The Dead played continuously, a flowing improvisatory set of new material. Originally the concert was to be recorded for inclusion on the next Dead album, but last-minute difficulties in setting up the recording equipment scotched that.” They must have had some trouble with the 16-track! It’s a great loss that this show is among the missing, but we can hope that perhaps a Bear tape is hiding in the Vault, waiting to be unveiled.
In any case, when they returned to the Fillmore West at the end of the month, the recording went smoothly. (Although in the middle of the first set on the 27th, the Dead seem a bit bewildered, with lots of chatter and mayhem. Garcia says, “It’s really too weird up here… If you’d like to spend an idle half hour sometime, you oughta come up here under these similar circumstances, and see what it’s like, it’s truly weird – utterly weird - beyond the pale.” But they calmed down in time for a more tranquil second set.)

Trivia note: In-between the majestic Dream Bowl show on Feb 22 and the Fillmore West run, there was another Mickey & the Hartbeats run at the Matrix! (The notorious Frumious Bandersnatch also played.) It’s interesting that they kept going with this setup even after Weir & Pigpen were fully reinstated in the band; so apparently Garcia & Lesh didn’t yet feel that it was a dead end, and these shows may well have been ‘open invitations’ for other musicians to come jam with them. It would be great to hear how the Garcia/Lesh jams had evolved since October ’68, but sadly there are no known tapes. (Matrix owner Peter Abram had to abandon or tape over many of his tapes, as he couldn’t keep everything, so quite a few Hartbeats shows are lost.)

Strangely, the band didn’t rush to release their live album. Instead, they sat on the tapes for months while they finished Aoxomoxoa. The studio album was finally finished in April and released in June - apparently only then did the Dead get around to mixing Live/Dead, which wasn’t released til November. As Garcia said, “When Live/Dead came out, it was about a year out of date.” (This is one reason I doubt the band planned the live album from the start to relieve their studio debt. Although most accounts like McNally’s suggest that “the fact that Live/Dead was in the can helped them finance the studio album,” I’m not sure just how an unheard, unreleased batch of live tapes convinced Warner Bros to keep giving the Dead advances for their never-ending studio work! The Dead had, after all, professionally recorded shows for Warner Bros twice before, but didn’t release anything from those.) Once Aoxomoxoa was finished, they were in debt to Warner Bros for about $180,000, but the success of Live/Dead helped pay some of that off.

Bob Matthews says that initially the Dead tried mixing Live/Dead themselves (as they’d done on Aoxomoxoa) – it was “from their perspective onstage, which is their mindset. It didn’t work…it didn’t have any dimension to it. I always listened to the band from the hall, so when I got the chance to mix Live/Dead, that was the perspective I was looking to recreate: how it felt to be in the hall.” Apparently there were no ‘room’ tracks used in the Live/Dead recordings (even with all the new tracks!) – and unlike later live albums, there were also no overdubs - although they did add some echo, the better to make it more grand and spacious. And it’s interesting that, just as on Anthem, they decided to end the record with a long bout of feedback – it worked well as a live closer, so why not use it again on the album?
In marked contrast to his complaints about the studio albums, Garcia liked Live/Dead: “It’s good… We only recorded a few gigs to get that album… It’s our music at one of its really good moments.” Even in the ‘80s, Garcia still said that album came closest to capturing the band’s essence.

It was probably a given that there would be no songs (except for St Stephen) repeated between Live/Dead and Aoxomoxoa. Live/Dead famously starts with a fade-in, cutting out Mountains of the Moon. Actually, they were only doing five of the Aoxomoxoa songs live – Rosemary and What’s Become of the Baby were probably never going to be live contenders! (Although we’re lucky to have one live Rosemary from 12/7/68, and one instance of Bear playing a Baby studio track under the feedback-encore of 4/26/69 – which sounds different from the released track, so they may have taken some work mixes on tour.) China Cat, oddly enough, had been dropped from their live shows after March ’68 and was not revived until April ‘69; so as far as we know it wasn’t played live the whole time they were recording it. (When they did start playing it again, it shared much of the shambolic energy of the album cut.)
Aoxomoxoa songs were done the same way live as they were in the studio, though of course without the extra instruments and overdubs. St Stephen for instance sounds more chaotic on Aoxomoxoa due to the additional parts (like the piano) – in contrast, the live versions sound more focused and pared-down, and can sometimes dig into the jam more.
(As for the other songs on Live/Dead, though they’d been tried out in the studio in ‘67/68, after that album they were ‘finished’, and the Dead never bothered with them in the studio anymore.)

Garcia later looked back with ‘90s hindsight on the Aoxomoxoa period: “The live show was what we did; it’s who we were. The record was like dicking around. It was like a day job or something; it wasn’t that relevant.” (This reflects his later distaste for the studio, but I’m not sure he felt that way in ’69 – and perhaps not for many years afterwards. He tended to put a lot of artistic effort into whatever he was working on.)
Garcia said in 1971, “We spent too much money and too much time on that record; we were trying to accomplish too much, and I was being really stupid about a lot of it, because it was some new tunes that I had written, that I hadn’t really bothered to teach anyone in the band, and I was trying to record them from the ground up, and everybody was coming in and doing overdubs… We went about it in a very fragmentary way; we didn’t go about it as a group at all.”
Nonetheless, he liked Aoxomoxoa for its weirdness and looseness – it “sounded like how I wanted…the tapes were well-recorded, and the music is well-played and everything on it is really right.” Unfortunately, “it’s been our most unsuccessful record. It was when Hunter and I were being more or less obscure…too far-out, really, for most people.” He sighed, “That record is one of my pets. I really like it. I was always sorry that it came out so fucked up and then didn’t sell.”
Mickey Hart said of the Aoxomoxoa mixing, “All those psychedelics clouded the lens…they’d give you great detail, but then you’d hear the most obscure aspect in the mix. [The music was] real fuzzy; you couldn’t find a real center.”
Garcia remixed the album in the summer of ’71: “I’m really happy with the remix… It was our first adventure with 16-track, and we tended to put too much on everything; we tended to use up every track…and then we were all of us trying to mix. Well, we couldn’t…it came out mixed by committee. A lot of the music was just lost in the mix…but I really had fun remixing it. The remixes are admittedly somewhat simpler…I dropped a lot of the junk off it. It sounds more like I hoped it would when we recorded it.”
In general, the ’71 remix presented clearer, more organized and stripped-down mixes of the songs, with many incidental ‘studio bits’ mixed out so that the album, though less cluttered, now had less of an atmospheric ‘live in the studio’ feel. (It’s telling that the original album has no fadeouts, while most of the remixed songs fade early.) Some songs were changed more than others - Mountains of the Moon was now minus its choir and ending; China Cat Sunflower was simplified and the 40-second jam at the end discarded; Doin’ That Rag was missing the vocal outro they did live; Cosmic Charlie was quieter, with drums much reduced and TC’s organ almost inaudible; What’s Become of the Baby was stripped of almost all the bizarre electronic effects that had made the original version at all interesting, and turned into a long bore. (The feedback-drenched 4/26/69 version is probably the ideal for what this song should have sounded like.)
The remix of Aoxomoxoa is what’s on CD now, and the original is out of print. Phil Lesh also got busy in 1971 remixing Anthem of the Sun, which had the opposite fate – it’s the original mix that’s now on CD, while Lesh’s remix has disappeared.

Once Aoxomoxoa was finished, new songs came pouring out of the Hunter/Garcia team, but the band didn’t rush to the studio right away, like they had in ’68.
Garcia said, “After Aoxomoxoa, we didn’t make a studio record for almost a year – Live/Dead came out in its place. We were anxious to go into the studio, but we didn’t want to incur an enormous debt making the record like we had been. When you make a record, you pay for the studio time out of your own royalties. That costs plenty. Live/Dead was not too expensive since it was recorded live. It ended up paying for the time on Aoxomoxoa… So when we were getting new material together, we thought, ‘Let’s try to make it cheap this time.’”
“We spent so much money on Aoxomoxoa – we spent almost a year working on it, and it was not that great of an album – that we had a huge deficit. So I was thinking, when we go into the studio next time, let’s try a real close-to-the-bone approach… ‘Let’s not spend a year, let’s do it all in three weeks and get it the hell out of the way. And that way, if the record does at all well, we will be able to pay off some of what we owe to the record company.”

The next album was recorded during a couple of weeks in February 1970 after the Fillmore East run, though the specific dates haven’t been revealed. According to Blair Jackson, "Shortly after the bust, the Dead went into Pacific High Recording and cut their studio album in just ten days." Steve Silberman’s CD liner notes agree: "The New Orleans bust went down two weeks before the Workingman's sessions began…and [the band] wrapped up the new album in a couple of weeks.” He even gives the recording date for one song: Dire Wolf was recorded on February 16.
This time around, most of the songs already had a long performing history behind them, and the Dead went through additional rehearsals to get them ready for a quick recording. Bob Matthews says, "We went into the studio first and spent a couple days rehearsing, performing all the tunes. When that was done I sat down and spliced together the tunes [in an album sequence]. We made a bunch of cassette copies and gave them to the band. They rehearsed some more in their rehearsal studio, and then they came in and recorded."
McNally's bio, though not date-specific, also puts the recording after the Fillmore East shows. "They went into Pacific High Recording, a tiny room half a block behind Fillmore West, and rehearsed for a week. Then [after Matthews gave them the album-sequence tape] the band rehearsed for another week... They went into Pacific High to record Workingman's Dead, and in about three weeks they had an album."
(As we know, Lenny Hart fled with the Dead’s bank accounts during the album sessions - McNally unfortunately doesn’t mention any dates, but he does say specifically that it was mid-March, whereas all other accounts put this in February.)

What these accounts make clear is that there were two separate studio sessions, the first one a kind of 'practice run', with perhaps a week of rehearsals in-between. In a way, this was a return to the brisk methods of their first album – the months of studio experimentation were through. Not only did the Dead’s perilous finances call for a short studio trip, their new material did not need much embellishment.
Garcia explained in ‘81, “We weren’t having much success getting that experimental stuff down in the studio, so we thought we’d strip it down to the bare bones and make a record of very simple music and see how that worked. Time was another factor. We’d been spending a long time in the studio with those exploratory albums, six to eight months apiece, and it was really eating up our lives.”
The new songs were quite a change from the strange, quirky material the Dead had been doing, and lent themselves to the much quicker, simpler recording process. “It was a chance to expose a side of us that we certainly hadn’t exposed very much,” Garcia said – in fact, it was a side they’d hardly exposed at all, save for a few hints on Aoxomoxoa. Listeners were surprised by this new, accessible sing-along country-rock Grateful Dead, with not an acid jam in sight.

One interviewer the next year asked Garcia if they had given up the long jams:
“We never really gave it up, we just didn’t put it out on that record. We still play that way, we still stretch out. It wasn’t meant to indicate any trend… We’ve never accepted any limitations. We don’t think of ourselves as a rock & roll band, an experimental band, this band or that band… We think of ourselves as musicians, who have lots of possibilities. [Each record] is one of the possibilities, and I expect in the course of a lifetime of music, we’ll have thrown out lots of possibilities.”

September 7, 2010

The Velvets and the Dead

Weary readers might wonder what connection the Velvet Underground had with the Grateful Dead. Weren’t they complete opposites? Didn’t the Velvet Underground hate hippies, psychedelia, and laughter? Sunny, pleasant acid trips for dancing hippies vs. dark, abrasive anti-life heroin dirges - could any two bands be more different?

The story isn’t so simple, though. In some strange ways, the two bands were like flip sides to each other. As Richie Unterberger says, “Both were once known as the Warlocks; both have made their music heavily associated with the ingestion of drugs; and both were prone to performing lengthy improvisations onstage that are comparable to those of few other bands.”

Lou Reed:
“Once when we were playing on a bill with the Grateful Dead, some reporter from the Daily News asked me what was the difference between us and the Dead. With a perfectly straight face, I told him, ‘The difference is that they take the kids backstage and turn them on – but we shoot ‘em up!’ Don’t you know, he actually believed me and printed that.”

Despite a totally different style and sensibility, their musical approach is closer than seems obvious at first. The Velvets were consistent in using songs as jumping-off places for extended improvs – Lou Reed was as much a fan of Coltrane and jazz horn players as the Dead were, though he favored the noisy ‘skronk’ style of Ornette Coleman & Albert Ayler. “When I started out I was inspired by people like Ornette Coleman. He was always a great influence.” He’s said that ‘European Son’ was his way of imitating Coleman with guitars.
Reed: “I had been listening to a lot of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, and wanted to get something like that with a rock & roll feeling. And I think we were successful, but I also think we carried that about as far as we could, for our abilities as a basically rock & roll band. Later we continued to play that kind of music, and I was really experimenting a lot with guitar, but most of the audiences in the clubs just weren't receptive to it at all."
(The Dead’s admiration of Ornette was a quiet one, but acknowledged when he played with them in the ‘90s. Garcia said after working on one of Coleman’s albums, “When I hear his playing, I hear something that I always wish would be in mine – a kind of joy and beauty.”)

Both bands liked to take simple modal patterns of one or two chords and spin them out into long jams, though they took these in different directions. Both the Velvets and the Dead were innovators in using feedback as a meaningful musical statement (of course they weren't alone - the Who and Hendrix among others were doing the same – feedback was an exciting new thing in those days). If you’ve heard the Velvets’ early soundtracks for Warhol films, they’re freaky ambient noise not far removed from the Dead’s later ‘spaces’.
The Velvets were one of few rock bands I know of to do half-hour freeform improvisations in 1966. Rock music was stretching out and solos were getting wilder, but not many instrumentals had gone to such monstrous lengths yet. (The list of 20-minute live rock jams is a short one that year – there’s Moby Grape, ‘Dark Magic’ – Butterfield Blues Band, ‘East/West’ – Pink Floyd, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ – readers can probably think of a few more.)
Improvisation is very much a live art, though, and was frowned upon in studio recordings of the time - as was any tune longer than three minutes. (A couple rare instances of rock album tracks over ten minutes in ’66 are Love’s ‘Revelations’, the Stones’ ‘Goin’ Home’, and the Blues Project’s ‘Two Trains Running’. Even on Cream’s first album, the longest track is six minutes!) As a result, there are many bands who were known for their exciting long jams onstage (like, later on in the ‘60s, Buffalo Springfield or Fairport Convention), who confined themselves to short pop material on their records – their live sound was never caught on tape. So people were probably hearing more live jamming in ’66 than we can recover today.

One recommended Velvets show is from October '66, a complete two-hour show (in poor sound, as usual) where they play no less than TWO half-hour improvs (called "The Nothing Song" and "Melody Laughter"), which don't sound quite like anything else. (Nico moans over the music, kind of like Donna...)
Then by '68, with Sister Ray they had a piece that could be transformed into something different each time they played it, and they were happy to stretch it out to thirty, forty minutes or more. There's one famous show from April '68 where just the INTRO to Sister Ray is a forty-minute quiet trance drone!
Other songs could sprout ten-minute guitar solos as well, depending on the band’s mood; long jams would develop in the sets and then disappear. (One example is the otherwise unheard, rambling ‘Follow the Leader’ on the Quine Tapes set.) And practically none of these were recorded by the band – just a few instances were captured by audience tapers.

And while the Dead had Phil Lesh to give them that avant-garde dissonant edge (especially apparent on Anthem), the early Velvets had John Cale who brought a quite different avant-garde slant from his previous noise/drone experiments. In much the same way as Lesh came to the Dead fresh from absorbing Luciano Berio and Stockhausen, John Cale had studied with LaMonte Young and brought that strong influence into their music. There's a 1965 recording from the Dream Syndicate (with Young & Tony Conrad) which is just ONE NOTE (on two or three violas) sustained for about a half-hour. Now that's a serious drone! (Cale has also released a 3-CD set of some of the noise/minimalist experiments he was doing in the '60s outside the Velvets.)
One thing about the Dead's music is that they did not like repetition too much in the jams - the music is always busy, restless. Lesh is not one to be pinned down to a single bassline for too long – and Garcia will often find some beautiful phrase, repeat it a couple times....and then drop it to do something else, never to be heard again. So, in spite of the Indian music they liked, we almost never get drones in their jams or 'trance Dead'.

The Velvets, of course, were sworn enemies of the Dead’s music.
In ’71 Maureen Tucker called the Dead the most boring band she’d ever heard. Sterling Morrison also loathed them, and despised San Francisco music in general. (But he did make an exception for Quicksilver Messenger Service, saying they sounded great and John Cipollina was a really good guitar player.) Lou Reed also had harsh things to say (although he did like the first Moby Grape album; and they were fans of LA bands Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds.)

Reed and Doug Yule, in a 1970 interview:
LOU: We had vast objections to the whole San Francisco scene. It's just tedious, a lie, and untalented. They can't play and they certainly can't write. The Airplane, the Dead, all of them...
DOUG: They lose track of where the music comes from - they start thinking it instead of playing it. Especially the Dead. Now I saw the Dead when they just started, and they were a bunch of scuzzy kids just having a ball playing rock & roll - they were a lot of fun. But then they started thinking about what they were doing too much.
LOU: I can get off understanding the kick it was to play Lovelight.... But they're amateur...they can't play. Jerry's not a good guitar player. It's a joke, and the Airplane is even worse, if that's possible.
DOUG: Jerry, he'll play the same solo for a half hour, but if he'd done it for just two minutes....he plays the same notes over and over again.
LOU: You listen to the Beatles, or you listen to 'Gimme Shelter' by the Stones, and Keith isn't playing many notes, but the notes he's playing are so thought out, so perfect...
Q: But don't you think a lot of people get off on something like the Dead because it's so loose?
LOU: It's what people are settling for....they're getting third-hand blues. It's a fad.... People like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, all those people are the most untalented bores that have ever lived. Just look at them - can you take Grace Slick seriously? It's a joke. And the whole thing is, the kids are being hyped this on FM radio. Well, now finally it's dead, the whole San Francisco thing is dead.

The Velvets had first come to San Francisco in May ’66 - they played the Fillmore with the Mothers of Invention, and developed an instant mutual dislike for Bill Graham. (They also hated Frank Zappa – Lou Reed later called Zappa “the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life – he’s two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything. He can’t play rock & roll.” Reportedly Reed also hated the Jefferson Airplane’s music so much that he refused to share a bill with them.)
Cale admitted that on this first San Francisco trip, “No one liked us much.” Audiences met them with bewilderment – one witness remembers, “they had this weird stuff onstage with some chick getting whipped, and I went, ‘Oh wow, this is music?’” Ralph Gleason wrote a very hostile review of their ‘sick, campy, dull, joyless, non-artistic’ show – “a bad condensation of all the bum trips of the Trips Festival… Opening night was really crowded, even though hippies were continually walking out shaking their heads and saying ‘Wow!’ in wonder that such a bore could be.”
The Velvets ended a Fillmore show by putting their guitars against the amps and letting the feedback howl as they left the stage. Bill Graham couldn’t stand this, or the rest of their stage act – he called them perverted, sickening, and negative, “the worst piece of entertainment I’ve ever seen in my life” - and they all agreed that the Velvets would never play any Fillmore show again. (The police in Los Angeles that month also found the Velvets’ show so offensive they shut down the club they were playing in!)
The Velvets later believed that Bill Graham had even stolen the idea of their light show – they found the Fillmore’s current light-shows laughable. Doug Yule said this was “one of Sterling’s rants…they felt that when they showed up with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, that Graham was doing kindergarten-level light shows, and they opened his eyes and then he ripped ‘em off, took all their ideas and put that out as his own.”

In any case, the Velvets didn’t return to California for two years. As Sterling said in his usual manner, “We left California alone for two years, because they’re so determined to do their own thing, their own San Francisco music. We were just rocking the boat – they don’t want to know about that. ‘There’s only one music, and we all know what that is…it’s what the Grateful Dead play. That’s the very best rock & roll can ever get…’ We said, ‘You’re full of shit, your city, your state, and everything else.’”
But they did come back. In fact, in ‘68/69, they played San Francisco more often than anywhere else except for Boston, playing numerous shows at the Avalon, Family Dog, and Matrix. One reason was that by then, the audience had caught up with them, and loud hard rock was the order of the day, so the Velvets were now well-received by enthusiastic fans. Peter Abrams liked them enough to record hours of their Matrix performances (“I wanted to get as many recordings of them as I could”), and Robert Quine was one fan who’d recently discovered the Velvets and also taped as many shows as he could. (Both of them, though, had to erase most of their recordings and keep only highlight reels, since they couldn’t afford all that tape.) But ironically, most of the Velvets’ live releases come from San Francisco!

One audience member saw a show with the Velvets and Quicksilver Messenger Service in ‘68, and noted the Velvets’ “depressing drug-type songs, very heavy, very dark, very heroin, with a dangerous underground feel…while Quicksilver was light and color and acid and mind-wandering.”
Some California newspaper reviewers tried to describe the Velvets’ sound in their shows:
“The band makes a sound that can only be compared to a railroad shunting yard, metal wheels screeching to a halt on the tracks. It’s music to go out of your mind to.”
“In the middle of Sister Ray, they created this harmonic that sounded like the roof of the building was cracking open! It was just wild; it went on for a long time. It was really the ultimate in trance music, even beyond what La Monte Young was doing, because it was so loud and there were so many instruments.”
“The Underground played an extremely involving two-hour set which completely destroyed the audience, left limp at its conclusion. The music was earthy with a heavy beat and moderate use of electronics and feedback. The sound it created was all-enveloping. Catharsis was particularly strong in Heroin and the 45-minute concluding number, which included electronic viola and organ as well as the guitars…they’re a heavy group.”
Doug Yule admits, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a recording that gives you the feeling that the group put out live. It was a locomotive.”

The Velvets and the Dead played together a couple times in 1969.
One remarkable night at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, February 7, the Fugs, the Velvets, and the Dead all played. One newspaper reviewer wrote, “Such a collection of freaks could hardly lead anywhere but up. The Velvet Underground…opened up the festivities with Heroin, one of their religious songs.” The Dead offered two typically intense hard-jamming sets.

They shared a bill again just a couple months later, at Chicago’s Electric Theater, April 25 & 26. (Detroit band SRC was the third band on the bill.) By then, the Dead’s live approach was much sloppier, with many new songs in the set.
It’s commonly believed among Dead fans that on the 25th, the Velvets opened and played a very long set, leaving the Dead only a short time to play. In revenge, when they switched and the Dead opened on the 26th, the Dead played for almost three hours, making the Velvets wait through their 40-minute wall-of-feedback encore.
This story is wrong, though! If you listen to the end of the Dead’s short set on the 25th, it’s clear that they were the opening act that night – when the audience cries for more, Weir says, “We’re gonna come back and do a second set in a little while, and we’re gonna bring on two other real good bands, and they’ll blow your minds anyway; so we’ll be back in just a short while.” (Which obviously raises the question, is there a whole second set from April 25 that we’ve never heard?)
Doug Yule reports that the first night “the Dead opened for us – we opened for them the next night so that no one could say they were the openers. As you know, the Grateful Dead play very long sets, and they were supposed to only play for an hour. We were up in the dressing room and they were playing for an hour and a half, an hour and 45 minutes. So the next day when we were opening for them, Lou says, ‘Watch this.’ We did Sister Ray for like an hour, and then a whole other show.”
(The entire tape we have of April 25, though, is only about an hour, and it sounds like the complete set. Did the Dead really open the show with two sets in a row? Or perhaps the Velvets found the Dead so awful their set just seemed to last forever!)
Apparently the theater had no time restrictions, so the Dead seem to have been encouraged by the Velvets’ long noisy set on the 26th to play for even longer! My theory is that listening to that long Sister Ray is what gave them the idea to close with a huge Viola Lee going into fifteen minutes of feedback mixed with What’s Become Of The Baby….they certainly didn’t do anything like this at any other ’69 shows!
One audience member says of this famous show, “I believe the Velvet Underground played first…then the Grateful Dead came out and played til about 2 or 3 in the morning. And literally, the only people left in attendance when the Dead were through playing were people that were laying on the floor. Eighty percent of the crowd had gone, and the Dead just kept on playing.” (What he doesn’t mention is that he must have lingered through the whole show, too! At one point he tried to talk to Owsley by the soundboard, but “the whole thing was up so loud that we couldn’t hear each other. We just looked at each other and shrugged.”)
It’s not known whether Bear taped the Velvets’ shows. But even if he did – between Bear hanging for life onto his journal tapes and never authorizing releases, and the Velvets also refusing to release any more live shows, we’d probably never hear them.

I’ll conclude with a quote from this interesting book review:

“When you look at the state of both bands at their founding moments in 1965-66, you find that the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead started out, in an odd way, as basically the same band. In fact, both bands started with the same name in 1965: the Warlocks. And both were quickly taken up by other cultural movements and artists from other genres to furnish ‘house bands’ for collective projects.
On the West Coast, Ken Kesey hired the Dead to provide music for his acid tests... The Palo Alto acid test, the first to involve a real stage, took place in December 1965… In New York, meanwhile, Warhol took up the Velvets as a vehicle for his Factory events and a featured role in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which had various incarnations between January 1966 and its first broad public invitation in April, each of which also involved some combination of Warhol’s dancing fools, slide-projector gels, light shows, silent films and chaos. (Warhol took first billing in all advertisements, above the Velvets, though presumably he just stood around and watched.)
Both bands’ music depended on a tight association with drugs – LSD for the Dead, heroin for the Velvets (plus amphetamines) – but the musicians drew fewer distinctions in their personal lives...
Each band’s early development was paid for by benefactors from the scenes of communal presentation: the Velvets had Warhol; the Dead had Owsley Stanley, supplier of LSD for the acid tests…
Like the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground started out as a platform for extremely long, wandering, repetitive live improvisations, appropriate to multimedia events…. The Velvets’ principals insist in interviews that they were far better as a live band than in anything captured on record… Morrison, Reed and Tucker all complained about the failure to capture their live work… The Dead cultivated a ‘taping’ culture of audiophiles who recorded each and every performance…and, at the far extreme, created a unique audience of people willing to listen to forty performances of ‘Dark Star’ to find the passages of improvisational transcendence in each… Imagine that there could have been an alternate world in which people would have listened to forty versions of ‘Sister Ray’ for similar moments of transcendence, or to thirty-minute improvisations like ‘Melody Laughter’…made up of feedback, guitar, organ and vocals from Nico. But the Velvets had few tapers...
Both bands originally imagined themselves as the ‘Warlocks’ essentially because each had a vision of enchantment, underlaid with darkness. (They both had to choose a different name because it turned out that a third band had already put out a record as the Warlocks.) Cale says that the ‘aim of the band on the whole was to hypnotise audiences so that their subconscious would take over… It was an attempt to control the unconscious with the hypnotic.’ This accounts for the drone, and the songs built on long vamps of two chords… ‘We thought that the solution lay in providing hard drugs for everyone,’ Cale said, but ‘there is already a very strong psychedelic element in sustained sound, which is what we had … so we thought that putting viola [drones] behind guitars and echo was one way of creating this enormous space … which was itself a psychedelic experience.’
While both groups initially aimed to hypnotise with their music, lyrically they were worlds apart.”