October 31, 2020

What's Become of the Baby

In June 1969, the Grateful Dead astonished the world with their new electronic epic, What’s Become of the Baby. Sprawling over much of side two of Aoxomoxoa, this track assaulted puzzled listeners with strange noises and impenetrable lyrics. Was this a song? Was it the future of the Dead? Could psychedelia go no further? Dismissed these days as “practically unlistenable,” the tune actually started out as a lilting pretty ballad, only to transform into an experimental noise trip during the album recording. So what happened?
Garcia & Hunter talked about the song during a 1991 interview with Blair Jackson. 
Garcia: “What’s Become of the Baby was originally baroque. I had this melody worked out that had this counterpoint and a nice little rhythm. The original setting I’d worked out was really like one of those song forms from the New York Pro Musica. [He and Hunter sing a melody.] …I just had a desire to make it much weirder than that and I didn’t know how to do it. Also, the technology wasn’t there to do what I could easily do now. I had something specific in mind but simply couldn’t execute it because I didn’t have the tools.
Hunter: Either that or you did execute it and it’s been overlooked because it’s so challenging.
Garcia: Maybe, though personally I was never quite satisfied with it.
Hunter: It could have been the great psychedelic song of that year. It just didn’t happen to crack through that way in listeners’ ears. If it had, then we’d be sitting here bragging about it rather than excusing ourselves.
Garcia: [laughs] Right! I had something in mind that was extremely revolutionary. I wanted to use the entire band, but I didn’t want to use it in a standard rhythm section and lead instruments way. I wanted something more like the stuff we did in the bridge section of St. Stephen: “Lady finger dipped in moonlight.” That weird scratchy shit. I wanted something more like that, but which also included feedback and other stuff, and it would all be gated through the mouth…it would all be somehow enclosed inside the voice. But, well, you know how it goes… It’s too bad, because it’s an incredible lyric and I feel I threw the song away somewhat.
Hunter: We feel perhaps it sunk the album! [laughs]
Garcia: I think, “Why the fuck did everybody let me do that?”
(Goin’ Down the Road p.217-218)
Garcia originally had a baroque-music setting in mind for this piece. The New York Pro Musica was a music ensemble active through the ‘50s and ‘60s playing authentic medieval and Renaissance music, often using vintage instruments. I don’t know what specifically Garcia would have heard of theirs, but these are a couple samples of their style: 
And some footage of the group on TV in 1965, with more modern horns, is here and here
(They did vocal pieces too, which I'm not very familiar with, but some might be more pertinent to the setting Garcia was thinking of.)

Before Aoxomoxoa, Hunter had offered the Dead his “Eagle Mall” suite, which Garcia rejected since “there’s no way in the world people will be able to dance to this sort of thing.” Hunter admitted, “It almost had to have an old English flavor,” and Garcia told him, “What we need is the New York Pro Musica to make this sound the way it’s supposed to go – with the bells and recorders and viola da gambas and all that stuff.” (Goin’ Down the Road p.216)
What’s Become of the Baby would have turned out quite differently had Garcia pursued that idea. Aoxomoxoa ended up with one old-English-flavored track, the antique-sounding folk ballad Mountains of the Moon, decorated with harpsichord and choir. Two such tracks on the album was too many for the Dead, so What’s Become of the Baby had to go in a different direction. As Hunter later told a live audience, it was too similar to Mountains of the Moon to remain intact: 
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that What’s Become of the Baby was a very beautiful art-nouveau kind of thing. But the thing was, Jimi Hendrix was gonna come over to the studio, so we decided to get it good and weird so he could hear it. I’ll just start it to give you an idea of how Jerry originally wrote it, what he intended it to sound like. [sings a verse] I mean it could have been a... It was a minuet, but we already had one minuet on the record, which was Mountains of the Moon, so we just got really ripped and decided to screw with it bad! If you were to get a recording of what the Grateful Dead think their greatest hits are, well, you know you wouldn’t be getting that, would you?”  
That's how Hunter remembered it, but the timeline is imprecise. Hendrix did visit San Francisco in October ’68 while the Dead were recording, but unfortunately didn’t connect with them; he may have vaguely said, ‘I’ll come over’ and then never showed up. But Mountains of the Moon apparently hadn’t been recorded yet, and we don’t know whether it was even written yet. (And properly speaking, Mountains wasn’t a minuet, but Hunter thought of it as one, telling McNally, “Jerry had written a minuet.”) The impulse to make What’s Become of the Baby weird may have come later on; too little is known of the fall ’68 sessions to say just what the Dead did with it at that point. 
The way Hunter sang it in that example, it sounds more like a normal, melodic ‘60s folk tune you could sing along to. For a longer example of how the song was originally conceived, here’s a Hunter performance of the end of the song from 1978:
(What’s Become of the Baby is the same performance on both tapes.)
Though Hunter’s covering the Dead version to some extent here, it’s apparent how much more tuneful the song sounds at a faster pace and with an actual guitar/bass backing.
A studio outtake survives of Garcia singing the song by himself, with just acoustic guitar strums and some white-noise hiss as accompaniment:
(This copy is somewhat marred at the start by print-through from some other incompletely erased recording, and tape dropouts throughout. Also, at 6:45 it cuts to a better-sounding copy, going back a verse. More echo is added in the last verse.)
Compared to how Hunter presented it, Garcia has slowed down the song considerably for this take, drawing out the words in a solemn medieval chant. (Possibly the tape has been slowed down too.) The guitar strums give it a different feel from the approach on the album, more like an ancient incantation. The song wasn’t meant to be heard so starkly, it’s just the basis for further overdubs. At the end someone (Weir?) says, “I think that was it.” It’s not the same vocal take that was used for the album, but the singing is quite similar.
Deadbase lists a couple early studio dates for this track when the Aoxomoxoa sessions started at Pacific Recording: Sept. 6 & 11 and Oct. 2-3 (along with other songs). But this is just a partial list; it’s certain that the Dead continued work on it into 1969 as they moved to Pacific High and revised the album for 16-track recording. In fact, people’s memories of recording this track come from the later Pacific High sessions in ’69.
The Dead were one of the first rock bands to use a Moog synthesizer on the album. Phil Sawyer, an engineer at Pacific High, recalled, “We had one of the early Moogs in there at that time, and the Dead seemed to enjoy fooling with that for hours at a time.” (Jackson, Grateful Dead Gear p.82)
According to the book Analog Days (a history of the Moog), "Tom Constanten remembers that he treated Jerry Garcia's voice through a Moog synthesizer. The track 'Rosemary' features a heavily distorted voice with phasing and filtering, and 'What's Become of the Baby' has vocals treated, distorted, and phased." (Analog Days, p. 339)
Doug McKechnie, a Moog performer and friend of the Dead’s, brought his Moog synthesizer to the sessions in early 1969: “We basically took a voltage-controlled envelope generator and, using a sequencer, modulated [Jerry’s] voice on the album. Six days at Pacific High Recording. Extraordinary, though. They had this huge tank of nitrous oxide, which we all…went a little crazy on. There’s actually a video of that, taken by Ray Andersen, who was the leader of the Holy See light show.”
Garcia cackled, “At the time we were sipping STP during our sessions, which made it a little weird – in fact, very weird.” (Signpost p.65)  It certainly affected the mixing of the album; Garcia said in ’78, “If you want to make What’s Become of the Baby work, I’ll tell you what to do: get a tank of nitrous oxide. All of a sudden it works! When we were doing our mixes on that we had a tank. We were all there with hoses. All kinds of weird shit was happening. It was totally mad, total lunacy.” 
You can see film of the Aoxomoxoa nitrous sessions:  
Engineer Phil Sawyer found the chaotic, protracted sessions dismaying: “It was like a circus in there.” He wrote, “These sessions were like a carnival lava-flow – everything just being swept along through days and days – nitrous oxide tanks, the cases of densely patched Moog…everything just oozing along.”
Somehow an album came out the other end. After months of labor and untold tanks of nitrous, What’s Become of the Baby emerged as a hallucinatory electronic freak-out, unlike any of the rest of the album tracks.
On the album, the acoustic guitar has been stripped out, more processing and buzzing added to Garcia’s voice, and all sorts of noises have been laid on top. The song is still pretty bare, just voice and electronic effects without much musical background, but now festooned with beeps and chimes, clangs and clatters, gongs and wind noises, feedback, and some keyboard and organ. It rises to a bit of a climax towards the end as the noises gather around Garcia’s vocal in a mournful conclusion. The song has become acid-folk at its most extreme, a marriage of Pearls Before Swine with Stockhausen.
Tom Constanten wrote, “What’s Become of the Baby was mainly Jerry’s project. The trans-Moogrifications and pre-echoes of the vocal track, the freely-freaking accompaniment – in its original form it’s a bit busy in places, not necessarily ‘my’ style of experimental, but I still like it, and don’t make any apologies.” (Between Rock and Hard Places, p.78)
Once Aoxomoxoa was unveiled to the world, it had a mixed but mostly poor reception. From album reviews 
Billboard: “’What’s Become of the Baby’ is an exceptional extended piece with Eastern musical influences.”
Columbia Daily Spectator: “A long piece of electronic music… This selection is all right, because it seems to express a mood pretty well.”
Los Angeles Free Press: “The only cut that irks me is ‘What’s Become of the Baby,’ a boring excursion in electronic excesses.”
The Observer: “’What’s Become of the Baby’ consists of distorted voices, studio-made sound effects, and no musical sounds.”
The Province: “One thing I really didn’t like was the longest (eight minutes, 17 seconds) track on the record, What’s Become of the Baby. A disjointed piece of pseudodelic drivel made up of vocal and quasi-electronic backing, this cut is musically dull, uninteresting, and anachronistic.”  
But What’s Become of the Baby was also featured in one of the Dead’s radio ads for the album, an American Bandstand-style “Rate the Record” spoof where a bubbly teen rates the song. Naturally, it “gets a 98 for its danceable beat and catchy lyrics!”
"But would you buy it?" Somehow I doubt this ad sent listeners rushing to the stores, but it’s a cute example of the Dead poking fun at themselves and their place in the music industry.
Some listeners were intrigued by the song’s mystery. David Dodd writes, “I remember spending hours attempting to transcribe this song from the album; picking up the needle and putting it back down; consulting with friends who had their own theories.”
The ‘catchy lyrics’ in this song must have been quite difficult to discern amid the sonic clangor and warbling vocal. Garcia was later apologetic about the songwriting on Aoxomoxoa: “It was when Hunter and I were both being more or less obscure, and there are lots of levels on the verbal plane in terms of the lyrics being very far out. Too far out, really, for most people.” (Signpost p.65)
What’s Become of the Baby may be the most far-out lyric on an album full of strange fantasias, blending Odin, Mohammed, Scheherazade, and the Khan in a surreal landscape of ice caverns, mythical seashores, Arabian fantasies, and regions of nursery-rhyme. But unlike the cheerful adventures of China Cat Sunflower or the fairytale mystique of Mountains of the Moon, here in Garcia’s somber delivery it appears the missing child will be forever lost in the gloom.
In another sense, the song may have been too far out for the Dead as well, since they ignored it in live shows. A song without a ‘danceable beat’ was a trip too far for this psychedelic group! Nonetheless, it did get one live performance, in Chicago on 4/26/69, a couple months before the album’s release. Following a lengthy Viola Lee Blues, the Dead embarked on their usual Feedback to close the show. But tonight they were inspired to further craziness – they had brought reels of Aoxomoxoa to listen to on the tour, and Bear put a studio reel of What’s Become of the Baby on the PA as the Dead blasted feedback over it.
It appears to be the same version as on the album, but Bear fades it in and out of the live mix and pans it between channels. The effect is super-trippy with the feedback redoubled as the vocals drift around, the result more spooky and intense than the album. But the Dead didn’t repeat this menacing experiment again.
In 1971, Garcia remixed Aoxomoxoa to match the Dead’s more stripped-down, radio-friendly ‘70s sound. “The remixes are admittedly somewhat simpler,” he said; “I’ve dropped a lot of the junk off it.” (Signpost p.66) But What’s Become of the Baby presented him with a problem: what to do with such out-of-place weirdness?
In the remix, Garcia’s voice is now more recessed, drenched in echo and double-tracked; the buzzing effects on his vocal are gone. The instrumental background is much more spectral and muted, with all the dramatic clutter mixed out. Basically all that’s left is a bit of gong, to the point where this is basically an a cappella version. The song now sounds like it’s coming out of a windy tunnel, the lyrics are even more obscured, and all the interesting effects have been removed. (It’s also a bit shorter with the instrumental conclusion trimmed off.)
Garcia claimed that the album now “sounds like what I hoped it would sound like in the first place,” but I think he’d lost his vision for this song. Take out the electronic Twilight Zone creepiness, and nothing’s left but a dreary dirge.
Nonetheless, the remix of Aoxomoxoa is the version that went onto CD as the original mix went out-of-print, so for a generation of Dead listeners this barebones track was the first (and usually only) way they heard the song. As one of the most striking changes from the original Aoxomoxoa, it concealed the Dead’s embrace of experimental electronica in this song, one of their most unusual efforts. The attempt to blend alarming sound effects with a folky song structure wasn’t repeated – the Dead would keep conventional songs and noisy feedback chaos strictly separate from then on.
You’d think Phil Lesh would have been heavily involved in working on this song – it seems like a piece he would have enjoyed, particularly the Stockhausen-like effects – but I haven’t seen him talk about it. He did resurrect it in a few post-Dead shows, lovingly recreating Garcia’s vocals and the spooky ambience.
Phil sang it with Phil & Friends on 12/17/04 at the Warfield, a faithful 17-minute drone treatment, then again on 5/14/08 sharing vocals with Teresa Williams in a quietly subdued drone:
Furthur later played it a couple times (5/20/10 & 3/27/11). These stretched-out versions add an Indian buzz and busier instrumental work, and Teresa Williams alternates vocals again:  
The song finally resurfaced in the 6/27/15 Santa Clara show, in a last affectionate revival, done Furthur-style but at the original album length:
It remains a small mystery just what gave Garcia the idea to do the song like this. Garcia was normally a conventional songwriter, not prone to dabbling in "extremely revolutionary" arrangements, and this was about as experimental as he ever got in song. While Phil may have egged him on toward weirdness, I wonder if there were other influences. Some earlier songs like Mimi Farina's 'Quiet Joys of Brotherhood' or Nico's 'It Was a Pleasure Then' have a slight stylistic resemblance, but I don't know of any direct precedents for the Dead's recording. If anyone does, leave a comment!
What's Become of the Baby continues to divide listeners. It's mostly unpopular: as a "lengthy noise experiment" and "excursion into weirdness" it's "hopeless," "forgettable," "acid test noise," "confusing and unsuccessful," "nearly unlistenable…no music or melody of any kind," "a plodding, drugged-out psychedelic drone," "an eight-minute torture fest…atonal annoying garbage," and "filler…the kind of track the CD skip button was invented for." 
Others appreciate the strangeness more, calling it "spooky and creepy," "unsettling…a dark trip," "a haunting vacuum," a "Gregorian chant meets mescaline trip," "a truly ground-breaking piece...not a song, but a kind of musique concrete word and sound tone poem." 
A compilation of longer reviews: 
“One of their most forgettable tracks. Almost monk-like chanting by Garcia throughout with well-treated vocal effects, this song almost ruins an otherwise fine album with this ridiculous eight and a half minute indulgence, which was only really meant for use with the right chemical mix.” 
“[An] overly experimental production...the eight-minute epic "What's Become of the Baby" was the most glaring example of the album's ungrounded production aesthetic, reaching an almost musique concrète level of weirdness with random electronic sounds and choppy effects swarming on Garcia’s isolated vocal tracks.” 
“If a lullaby is normally meant to lull the listener into sweet dreams, this is its opposite, meant to unsettle the listener into a nightmare state. Hunter’s contributions as lyricist are front and center here, as is the farthest fringe of the Dead’s psychedelic impulses. There is little traditional instrumentation. Occasional bursts of percussion break through. Moans and hisses and hums of indeterminate provenance circle in the background. A chair can be heard creaking. Garcia’s vocals are distorted.” 
“The 1969 mix of the song is a garden of sound — Garcia's voice is run through various effects while guitar scribbles, gongs and organ drones bleed in and out as if from another dimension. The 1971 mix strips everything away and soaks the vocals in so much reverb that each word becomes an icy wind across a barren field. On the 1971 mix...the song seemed like filler. It is an event unto itself in the 1969 mix.” 
“What’s Become of the Baby” is a spacy, echo-laden epic that was a truly experimental sound, perhaps the only number on the album that achieved the psychedelic innovation they sought in the first place. Listening to the original version is revelatory; you hear the future... The remixed version removes the weirdness, and thus sounds less like an experiment and more like a studio goof-off. It’s a shame, because the original version is absolutely brilliant.”
For one positive appraisal of the song, see:
Some interesting listener comments are also found here.  
A couple recent covers: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5NDnOP2dVg (Henry Kaiser, More Requia)
One reader writes: “There's a transcription of it in the Garcia-Hunter Songbook (2003) but included is an acoustic guitar intro that doesn't appear on either the officially released Aoxomoxoa or the bootlegged outtakes. I've been wondering where it may have come from and through Alan Trist I've been able to determine that it almost certainly originates from a tape that Robert Hunter sent the publisher.”