Thursday, June 18, 2015

9/11/74 - as natural as breath or speech or thought

I'll be done with my Ornette musings for now, but I did find one more little nugget that segues nicely into something else.  This excellent appreciation by trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum reminds us that Ornette's greatness was in positing "that the infinite improvisational possibilities of a melody could thrive outside of a predetermined structure, that musical ideas could flow and expand in the moment as naturally as breath or speech or thought."

That struck me more than once last night as I listened to a truly amazing yet strangely under-recognized performance from one of the Dead's most heralded years and felt the need to trumpet its greatness.  I'm talking about the last night of the Dead's London run in Sept 1974, released in small part on Dick's Picks which ignored the towering highlight.  This short European tour seems pretty universally dismissed as a poorer run of shows, with one glowing exception (9/18/74), and in my own unscientific observation it seems like the three London shows are overlooked because of their official release status.

Confession: 1974 is seen by many as a high watermark for the Dead, and I agree in theory, but in practice I find a good deal of 74 to be a little too, well, I dunno, too coked out.  It's still one of their best years and has some of their very best moments, but it also has a fair bit of spiky, edgy jamming that makes my gums throb and my cheekbones ache.  Coupled with the flatter feel of many of those 1974 sbd recordings, I find myself gravitating more towards 1972-73 or 1976 these days (and yes, I'm aware of the irony of writing this on the anniversary of 6/18/74, one of the finest shows of the year).  There's extramusical stuff that colors how I hear this year, too: the amazing but cripplingly extravagant Wall of Sound itself, the band's dissatisfaction with playing larger and more impersonal venues, the increasing intensity/insularity of the behind-the-scenes scene, the growing dependence on cocaine to keep the whole train moving.  It all sounds like one hell of a pressure cooker, and I do think the music reflects that to a significant extent, as brilliant as it often was.

I bring this up because, according to various sources, most of these things came to head on this last night of their London stand.  Someone's book (Rock Scully's?) tells a tantalizing and hopefully not too good to be true tale of the organization's collective coke problem getting so out of hand that one of the roadies finally called for everyone to empty all of their stashes onstage that afternoon and sacrificially light the whole pile ablaze.  Ned Lagin picks up the story and relates how the band huddled up and agreed to reset the levels and engage in a little lysergic purification (he explicitly says so in the interview in Gans' book and hints at it here).

So inevitably that may color your listening to this, too.  It certainly colors mine.  There are a number of shows where folklore has it that the band were all tripping -- we seem to festishize some (8/27/72 and 5/11/78 come to mind) and don't make much of others, for whatever reason (I feel like this is rarely brought up about any of the Oct 74 Winterland shows).  9/11/74 seems to fall into the latter category.  You go down a slippery slope once you start trying to identify indicators of pscyhotropic drugs that are evident in music.  I don't know that the Dead sound different when they're suitably dosed vs. relatively sober (or on something else), but I dunno, there's just a different kind of a vibe.  It may be pure conjecture, but this night feels like it has that vibe all over it.

Granted, another contributing factor may be the recording.  I listened to this fine new matrix blending the meh sbd with an impressive audience recording.  Let's hope these good people are able to put one together for the night before as well!

There are folks who don't get much out of 73-74 era first sets, and I get that, but this one seems to me like it shimmers a little more than usual.  The matrix helps to really highlight some of the dyanmics that are usually missing many 1974 sbds, so that's certainly a contributing factor -- Sugaree is an example of a tune from this period that rarely jumps out at me, but the dynamic contrasts that are highlighed by the roomy ambiance here really bring it to life.  Little details kept jumping out at me throughout: Donna's little patch of scatting (as opposed to oooh'ing glossolalia) in the crackling Scarlet jam, Jerry's daredevil little fills under Bob's vocals in Jack Straw, Phil's divebombing runs in Big River... all this stuff gives a very well-played set a little extra sparkle.  Only Bobby McGee seems to wobble and struggle to stay upright.  The closing Playing in the Band seems to deviate slightly but significantly from many other Playin's that characterize the year for me: the first half seems content to revel in its own environment rather than charge forward, but it never feels stagnant or dull to me.  The second half builds a little more purposefully, but without the single-minded, teeth-clenched determination of many Playin' jams of this vintage.  They push and pull at it, never too forcefully, gradually building a delicious kind of tension, which Jerry finally resolves with a little mini-Tiger rush at the end, although here it feels less like a harried, hard-won peak and more like finally letting steam out of a valve.  Phew!  Some ride.

The second set, though, is what puts this in the upper tier of 1974 jams, and, if pressed, I would probably say, of 1971-74 jams in my book.  It could have been included on the Dick's Picks release (the sbd is under 74 minutes), but I guess I can see why it wasn't.  I suspect most heads would prefer to pass on Phil & Ned's sets, and even if you're one of them, don't automatically pass on this one: many of them could be ear-splittingly jagged (like the next one on 9/14/74), but some could be softer, developing more organically and gently, and I would put this one with that bunch.  The first few minutes seem like Ned alone, patiently sending synth waves spiraling and twisting slowly out into the void, almost curiously probing.  It's not all smooth sailing, of course, but it never gets abrasive.  Billy appears, then Jerry, then eventually Bob, and Ned seems to mostly abandon the synthesizers and moves to his Rhodes piano.  This is pure Brain Moss Music, difficult to describe, palpably psychedelic, and deeply, deeply in a groove of its own.  They never played like this after 1976.  Eventually Eyes of the World appears on the horizon, and I love how it takes them seven more minutes to fully their get space together and begin it for real -- you don't often hear them find their way into a new song, cue it up, then back away so completely.  In one of the rare instances that his contributions to a full-band jam is audible, Ned adds some acrobatic keyboard lines as Keith comps behind him, and while this Eyes doesn't quite take flight and soar like others from the year, it doesn't have to.  They're already deep under the sea, so why bother to surface?  Eyes works through its changes brilliantly, finds its way to another nameless jam for another full ten minutes, and winding down with Wharf Rat.  Monstrous, leviathan, beautifully strange music, flowing and expanding in the moment as naturally as breath or speech or thought, up there with some of the best that the Dead created.  And from the looks of it, it was a beautiful old brokedown palace in which to have this experience:

the Alexandra Palace in 1974 (at an international darts championship!)

Phil announces a break to break down Ned's equipment and adds a spacey little comment, "Everybody turn around, look at your neighbor, and smile or something, like naaaah..."  Like whaaa?  It definitely sounds like everyone could use a little break.  The boys return for a perfunctory final mini-set, another half hour or so of reentry music to get everyone back on their feet and back in their minds.  The first few tunes are actually pretty hot and energetic, but by the time they get to Sugar Magnolia, it's clear that they're absolutely spent.  Phil takes the mic again, "Thanks a lot folks.  We couldn't have done it without you."


  1. Ned Lagin & Richard Loren (a Dead manager) also say that everyone agreed to get rid of their coke stashes at the London shows (admittedly without the detail of burning it all onstage!).
    Loren writes: "The band and crew had already been doing a lot of nonstop, hard partying and were burned out. It was hard to ignore how out of control the situation had become. Rex Jackson, a longtime and respected crew member, came down hard on the group, railing about the cocaine madness and challenging the group to toss their drug stashes and get it together. Bob Weir backed Rex, and others voiced concern. No one disagreed, the end, usage just became more secretive."
    Lagin said: "By the time we got to London, everyone was clearly doing too many drugs. We had a meeting with everybody who was on the road with the band. We agreed that everything was fucked up; to be blunt, cocaine was a problem. We all agreed to flush our stashes - which we all dutifully did."

    Lagin also mentions that some members of Pink Floyd were watching the show that night. Don't know what they thought...
    (As an aside, most of the Dead (except for Garcia) had gone to see one of Pink Floyd's Dark Side shows in New York in March '73, but left halfway through the show!)
    The Dead were also very unhappy with how the first two London shows had gone, so I think they were trying to be more adventurous even aside from 9/11/74 being an LSD night.

    I wonder how you'd compare this to the 10/16/74 Lagin set? Extremely similar to this one - Seastones>Wharf Rat>space>Eyes. (That set was also not included on the 5-CD Winterland release! But it's also quite spacy.)

    For that matter, there are just a few occasions where the whole band joined Lagin in an extended post-Seastones jam. 9/21/74 Paris was another, a fascinating journey into an unusual Playing. My own favorite may be 10/18/74, the Seastones>Dark Star with a very heavy feel.

    Garcia alluded to these Lagin sets in an interview after the tour: "When we went to Europe this last time we got into some new directions in improvisation which have been the opening of new, fertile ground." But they didn't pursue this direction past 1975... Weir probably felt that these types of spaces were just too weird for their audiences to follow, and Garcia worried about that as well.

  2. By the way, at least one London reviewer hated this show!

    "Wednesday night with the Dead was the letdown of the year... [It was] a marathon as to how long the Dead would play, and unofficially a race to see how many people would fall asleep... During the first set, the Dead went very slowly through [their] songs...
    Despite the presence of numerous parachutes hung from the cathedral ceiling to try to help the sound system, it kept blowing the music back into the band's face. This, along with the fact that a ritual group of ten insisted on standing up in the front of the hall lethargically swaying and blocking most everyone's view, didn't make things any better.
    By the second set, all the smart journalists had adjourned to the press bar... The second set started out sounding like a bad sound check. Or a poor Stockhausen imitation. The electronic music had the overall sound of one of those "Monster arising from the Swamp" movies. After an hour of watching the Dead's sound equipment (as the stage was blacked out so that one could not see the group) and listening to the hundredth variation on the Goola monster theme, we headed for the door along with dozens of others migraine-struck humans... What was good was not done; and what was done wasn't good."
    (Sounds, 9/21/74)

  3. Ha! "A poor Stockhausen imitation" -- so much for producing biophysical, electromagnetic, psychochemical reactions in a bunch of grumpy rock journalists. And Scully's book is where the burning story comes from (the actual pages are missing from google books, though), so a grain of salt for that one.

    Thanks for providing all the context. I like the similar 10/16/74 jam a lot and think it's another widely overlooked performance. It's been a while, though, and I see there's a matrix for that one as well, so maybe I'll have to give that one another spin soon.

  4. So this was several months ago, but . . .

    would you say '74 is the first year where the drugs on the scene have an overall negative effect on the quality of the music for long enough that it's noticeable?

    I enjoy the blog, it offers food for thought. I for one would appreciate you posting more show recommendations.

  5. you can read much more about ned lagin, his music, and the grateful dead playing with him on the Nedbase blog

    I-) ihor