Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Dark Star, Oct 1986

I finally got around to reading David Browne’s recent GD bio So Many Roads which, as you may have heard, freshens up the story by structuring it around a series of dates and events (shows, mainly) instead of the usual straight-through narrative.  It allows him to touch down in places that many other GD/JG books have glossed over (gasp, 1984!), and he’s a fine enough writer to pull it off, but he has this thing for always keeping one eye on the dark clouds gathering on the horizon.  The book starts in 1962, when Garcia and his girlfriend go for a walk to the beach at the height of the Cuban missile crisis to wait for the end of the world, and by the time they hit 1972 (and 5/26/72, no less), it’s mostly all strictly downhill.  Browne is able to maintain that balancing act between the perpetual troubles ahead and the perpetual "chance of redemption [that] still hung in the air" (which he says of Built to Last), but honestly it just gets a little exhausting after a while.  It's still a good book and deserves a spot on a discerning deadhead's bookshelf, but man, it was still a little bit of a downer.

Nevertheless, there are some gems.  One that I particularly liked was in his chapter on the post-coma Dead’s resurgence (with ominous shadows of In the Dark just around the next corner, naturally), as he reports on the Dead’s bumpy return to form.  After a frighteningly unencouraging start to rehearsals in October 1986, bandmembers and employees are left wondering if Garcia was ever really going to get it back (his coma was in July!).  However:
Finally in late October, Hart returned to the office again and was smiling.  "We just did a really good Dark Star," he told them, adding, "It's back."  The Dead's ticket office booked comeback shows that same day...
Whoa.  Dark Star.  This was the same guy who had to relearn the guitar chord by chord?   If it's true, then talk about a missed opportunity for a good study!  Mirror Flashes: Dark Star and the Rebuilding of Neural Pathways.  Too bad Dead scholarship was still in its embryonic stages in 1986.

post-script: Chronology is a bitch, but it's worth pointing out that Garcia had already been "back" enough to play at least five gigs with the JGB that same month, including one at the Kaiser on Halloween, which is a good show.  Then again, maybe we have that Dark Star to thank for the lightning recovery.


  1. I wonder...
    It's a secondhand report, perhaps told many years later, so maybe it wasn't Dark Star! Then again, assuming they did try it out, perhaps it's because Dark Star is a fairly easy tune to vamp on without actually getting into deep improv. I almost shudder to think what a "really good" Dark Star rehearsal by 1986 standards would sound like... Maybe Garcia managed to cough up a verse from memory, and that was good enough!

    Anyway, as far as Browne's book being a dark downer...I don't know....if true, is there any other honest way to write a bio of the Dead? I don't recall it being as dark as McNally, Jackson, or Greenfield, all of which became pretty grim once they hit the '80s and '90s. From what I recall, Richardson gets past this by sweeping through personal details of the Dead and focusing more on their social/historical context. Of course, it's also possible to write about the early years without reference to the dark clouds on the horizon!

  2. heh, I wasn't going to post anything more about the book, but...
    I think you're right that it's hard to spin the 80's-90's any other way, particularly when the focus is Garcia's health -- all the other serious GD bios are "grim" in the sense of the facts they present about the early 80's. Browne's "grimness" seemed to be as much a matter of artistic choice as it was of historical accuracy. I don't take issue with any of the facts he presents, but the narrative he creates gives the sense (imho, of course) like their whole career was one long descent, almost before it even began. It felt like every triumph or high point was undercut by something negative that was bubbling just under the surface. After a while, I thought it became a bit of an exhausting read, since that regular foreshadowing of bad things to come is a repeated device that Browne uses: the rough 'n tumble roadies in 72 (and on 5/26/72, no less!) as a prelude to the later mob/muscle mentality of the crew, the massive crowds on 9/3/77 (cheering on a substandard performance) as a harbinger of the mindless partying throngs in the later 80's/90's (represented in chapters centered on the riots in '89 and '95), and so on -- heck even the little detail Browne includes about how the band shrugged their shoulders and ignored the Great American Music Hall's complaints about Mickey's crickets getting loose in the building seems to be included only because it points to the pissy legal wranglings that went on between the band's management and the Radio City Music Hall people 5 years later. Maybe I'm reading too much into it? It felt a little formulaic after a while, though.

    The book isn't all gloom and doom, of course, and again, I don't think that anything he says seems inaccurate, but it seemed like a fairly dreary (and maybe somewhat misleading?) way to tell the story of one of the most important American rock bands.

  3. In the interest of fairness, I've been taking another look at McNally's Long Strange Trip bio (from 2003), and I do think he takes a noticeably different tone even when covering the dark underbelly of the second half of their career. Granted, McNally's an insider, but imho he was able to let the negative and the positive coexist without the feeling that it's all sliding hopelessly downhill. The contrast between how each write about the failed 1984 studio sessions is a good illustration of their different approaches.

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  5. "failed 1984 studio sessions"? Can you elaborate on this? Was it at Le Club Front?

    1. I don't have Browne's book in front of me, so I can't say much about the circumstances. He devotes one chapter to the band's attempt at getting some recording done at Fantasy Studios in early 1984, which didn't result in much. There's a recording of West LA Fadeaway from these sessions (March 84) that was released as a bonus track on the latest CD of In the Dark. There's also some "demo" material from Feb 84 in circulation, but I don't know if those are from these Fantasy sessions or separate work at Club Front:

  6. Phil had said after the coma that they were going to shake things up in terms of material and structure, but of course they really didn't, '87 and '88 being the least jammy years of the band's history.

    I have no right to judge of course, but that is a missed opportunity that really irritates me. I know, I know, I have no right to that feeling. But, c'mon, man! It was so utterly formulaic, night after night after night.

    The GD Archive has extensive band meeting minutes frmo '84-'86, and there's lots of interesting stuff around negotiating with Arista to get out of the final record obligation, since the studio work just wasn't happening. They try lots of different rooms (Fantasy, Marin Vets, plus Club Front - I have no idea what the Stone House Studios are, which attach to some early '80s rehearsal tapes). They keep scheduling rehearsals, and nothing keeps coming of it. One meeting has them scheduling sessions at 4, and Phil letting it be known that if music hasn't started by 6 he's leaving. Weir was clearly frustrated, at one point in early '86 being noted as saying that he's going to just start laying down tracks on his own. There was talk before the BCT '84 run of moving the stage arrangements --Garcia and Phil switching sides, made harder because of particular gear needs-- and bringing in new material. I guess "Do It In The Road" counts ...

  7. Stone House Studio (Henry Bothin Youth Camp)
    3125 Sir Francis Drake
    Fairfax, California
    38.00388359 -122.62030335

    Originally a part of an Indian Reservation; Camp Arequipa, once known as Hill Farm, has a rich history that has always included young women. Once a tuberculosis sanitarium for women after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the sanitarium Arequipa (meaning ‘a place of rest) was a haven from the dust and debris in the air that was making so many women sick. It was the dream of Elizabeth Ashe, a socialite who wanted to help others, and the money and property of Henry Bothin, which prompted them to find a place in the “fresh air and sunshine” for these women.[4]  In 1910 the Manor House was built to house the rising patient population as the number of tuberculosis patients was steadily rising after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In 1917 the Stone House was built to house even more patients.[7]
    In 1956 the sanitarium was closed due to advancements and successful treatment of tuberculosis. 

    Four years later Marin County Girl Scout Council acquired use of the land and started Marin County Day Camp. In 1961 the Girl Scouts took over the 47-acre site for a 20 year lease at $1 per year. The property continued to be leased at a fee of $1 per year until 1989 when the Bothin Foundation generously transferred title of the acreage to Girl Scouts of the San Francisco Bay Area.
    Formerly the Henry Bothin Youth Camp, Marin. 

    Jerry rehearsed here on
    11/8/74 Dan Healy, Rex Jackson, Mickey Hart.
    Shri Rij Ram
    Sarangi: The Music Of India - Ustad Sultan Khan and Shri Rij Ram (360 Degrees Records - 102) Recorded by Mickey Hart and Dan Healy in December, 1974 at The Stone House (formerly the Henry Botham Youth Camp, Marin County, CA). Some of the album tracks were pulled from all-night jam sessions, held the day after George Harrison's "Dark Horse" Tour concert at the Cow Palace, November 7, 1974. These were recorded on 16 track tape by Dan Healy, Rex Jackson, and Mickey Hart. Shri Rij Ram plays the tabla. The album contains: Raga: Bageshree (34:42), and Thumri (11:04).[1]
    Jerry wasn't here as he was performing early and late shows at The Dome, Greenvale, New York with the Jerry Garcia Band.[5]

    1/24/83 Grateful Dead
    Lots of jams and four Hell In A Buckets.

    1/31/83 Grateful Dead
    Molly Dee rehearsal.

    2/1/83 Grateful Dead
    North By Northeast, Northeast By West, UFO
    “…there is a drum machine running at the same time ... something which offended both drummers and wound up with all this studio material being shelved.”[6]

  8. @jgmf: Go ahead and feel frustrated! The stagnancy and inability to break out of that rut is something that is both maddening and understandable given the personalities involved (Garcia’s being the “biggest,” in a sense, but certainly not the only one). Thanks for sharing that info about the 1984-86 minutes. It sounds like there was an increasing level of concern (fear?) re: studio recordings, lack of new material, stage setups -- anything that the band could try to exert some control over, i.e. anything besides the big elephant in the room. Yet Garcia pulled so much water, I guess there was nothing else to do. But still, you think they could’ve done a little better than Do It In the Road.

    @jbdp: Thanks for that info — I vaguely knew that Mickey had recorded that sarangi record in 74, but now I’m feeling inspired to track it down. I knew he maintained plenty of connection to the GD organization in 71-74, but it’s interesting to see that session happening within 3 weeks of his reappearance at the “last” show. Funny note about the drum machine, too.