Grateful Dead

Books have been written on this topic, but since many will never read a whole book about the Grateful Dead, here’s my short article for the uninitiated.

The Grateful Dead (hereinafter referred to simply as ‘the Dead”) is a band that formed in 1965 and is associated with the psychedelic movement of the 1960’s. The great and recently deceased author Tom Wolfe wrote about that connection in his 1968 work, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

The band was originally called The Warlocks, but after discovering that another band also used that name, they had to find another one. According to the great book “Skeleton Key” by Blair Jackson, the band was together at the house of their bass player, Phil Lesh, when they randomly opened a dictionary and the first thing that stood out were the words: “Grateful Dead,” which refers to a story in which a traveler comes upon a crowd of people abusing a corpse because the deceased could not pay for his own funeral. The traveler gives the last money he has so that the crowd will stop abusing the corpse, and subsequently meets another traveler who turns out to be deceased, who then helps the traveler perform a monumental task.

Later, the band discovered this reference in the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void,
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night,
the ship of the sun,
is drawn by the grateful dead.

Pretty cool/creepy, huh? There’s a mysticism about the Dead that has always been part of their appeal.

I saw the Dead play live in concert dozens of times prior to the death of their leader, Jerry Garcia, in 1995. The first Dead show I attended was on July 17, 1982 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, in Ventura, CA. I know the date because there is a reference book called DeadBase that not only lists all of the Dead’s shows, but also the songs they played at each show. DeadBase also has statistical information, such as the number of times they played particular songs, the number of shows between the performance of particular songs, etc. Unlike most bands, the Dead would alter the song list each time they played, which explains why someone (like me) would go to see them so many times. The Dead were also notoriously uneven in their live performances, in part due to the different set lists, but primarily due to their reliance on ensemble improvisation. So, you could go see them a dozen times and maybe two or three of those shows would be mediocre, one or two would be flat-out disappointing, but the remainder would showcase not just the best live band at that moment, but arguably the best live band ever. If you happened to see one of those great shows, chances are you were hooked and would see them again and again in hopes of seeing another great show.

I had almost zero familiarity with the Dead’s material when I went to that first show, which I attended at the urging of my roommate at the time. My perception was that they played country music, of which I am not a big fan. What I discovered is that the Dead’s material spans every genre of American music, including rock, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, funk, reggae, orchestral, you name it. The stylistic breadth of their original material exceeds any other band I am aware of. They were also famous for playing covers of other people’s material, but whatever covers they played ended up sounding like the Dead. At that first show in Ventura, they played the following covers: 1) Big River (Johnny Cash), 2) Little Red Rooster (Rolling Stones), 3) Around and Around (Rolling Stones),  and 4), It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan). It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in retrospect the covers made the whole show more accessible to a neophyte like me, because there were at least a few songs they played with which I was already familiar. The good news is that I liked all of the original songs they played, even though I was hearing most of them for the first time.

Part of the reason I am writing this for the uninitiated is that the Dead tend to be somewhat polarizing in the sense that most people either love them or have no use for them at all. But there is another category of people who may have never considered whether they could be a fan or not, simply because they’ve never heard their original material except for the few songs that get played on FM radio (and those infrequently). In other words, there’s a good chance you could be a fan of the Grateful Dead (or, in Dead parlance, a “Deadhead”) without knowing it because you’ve never been exposed. So, as part of this post I’m going to make it easier for those who might like to find out if they’re a Deadhead by curating a list of seven original songs by the Dead, including the song title, genre, songwriter, lyricist (most of the Dead’s lyrics were not written by the band, but by their long-time lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow), including a snippet of the lyrics for each particular song.

  1. Scarlet Begonias; loping hippy rock; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; As I picked up my matches, and was closing the door; I had one of those flashes, I’d been there before
  2. Estimated Prophet; weird anthem about California in 7/4 time signature; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; California, a prophet on the burning shore; California, I’ll be knocking on the golden doorLike an angel, standing in a shaft of light; Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.
  3. Dupree’s Diamond Blues; Blues/Honky Tonk; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; And down to this jewelry store packin’ a gun; Says, “Wrap it up. I think I’ll take this one.”; “A thousand dollars, please,” the jewelry man said; Dupree said, “I’ll pay this one off to you in lead.”
  4. The Music Never Stopped; Funky Rock; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; There’s a band out on the highway, they’re high-steppin’ into town; It’s a rainbow full of sound, It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns.
  5. Black Peter; Bluesy Dirge; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; Fever roll up, to a, hundred and five; Roll on up, gonna roll back down; One more day, I find myself alive; Tomorrow, maybe go, beneath the ground.
  6. I Need a Miracle; Rock; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; I need a woman ’bout twice my height; Statuesque, raven-dressed, a goddess of the night; Her secret incantations, a candle burning blue; We’ll consult the spirits, maybe they’ll know what to do.
  7. Crazy Fingers; Reggae; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; Gone are the days, we stopped to decide; where we should go, we just ride.

All Deadheads have their favorite Dead songs, and others they like less. If you listen to these seven and find three or four that you like, it would be worth your while to explore their catalogue further. Because their material is so diverse, chances are there are many songs you’ll discover that will quickly become favorites.

Many people reading this who are not familiar with the Dead may wonder why I’m writing this so many years after Garcia’s death. Two reasons: 1) the Dead subculture is still there and, in many ways, has only become more vibrant since Garcia’s death. There are many people who were not old enough to ever see the Dead in concert, but have become Deadheads; 2) About two years ago I discovered the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band, which I go to see on a regular basis. This post was the predicate for a post I’m going to write about that band, which I’ll publish tomorrow.

 

Burlington, Vermont

My daughter and I spent five days in Burlington, Vermont, during our July 2018 vacation.  We’d been to Vermont before a couple of years ago, but this was our first time in Burlington. It’s a great place to visit and I’d consider moving there except for the Vermont winters.

Burlington is unique because although it’s the largest city in Vermont, it has a population of only 43,000 people. This makes it the smallest, largest city in any state. As a result, the city’s culture is condensed and concentrated. The downtown area is centered around Church Street, with several blocks closed to vehicular traffic, creating a pedestrian thoroughfare. Church Street is full of restaurants, bars, clubs, and shops, with many of the service establishments offering outdoor seating. Lights are strung across the street and provide a inviting atmosphere in the evening. Here’s a photo I took.

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You can walk down the street and hear music from bands and DJ’s. One spot I liked is called Red Square. Everyone was dancing to the DJ’s mix and drinking up a storm. Walk down a few doors and there’s a band playing. On Friday nights there might be a stage set up in the pedestrian thoroughfare with a band playing, as there was the Friday night I was there. You don’t have to get in a car and drive anywhere; everything is concentrated into this one, vibrant area, and it’s a lot of fun. It reminded me a little bit of Bourbon Street and Magazine Street in New Orleans, except neat and tidy. There’s also a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop that shows outdoor movies for the kids. The eating establishments are varied and the food was pretty good wherever we ate. In particular, there’s a very good ramen operation. My daughter is a ramen fan and she rated the ramen there as the best she’s had.

Another cool thing about Burlington is that it sits on Lake Champlain and there is a very beautiful beach, called North Beach, right there in town. North Beach is staffed with lifeguards, has bath/changing rooms, a snack bar, and a concession that rents out stuff like canoes and stand-up paddle boards. During the summertime the water temperature is doable for swimming; about 72 degrees. So, not warm, but doable. Definitely warmer than summertime in Lake Tahoe, if you know what that’s like. Here’s a photo looking across Lake Champlain from North Beach.

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As you can see, there’s a boat there on the right, which probably docks at the marina a mile or so down the coast, a few blocks below Church Street. I was surprised that many of the people I heard talking at North Beach were speaking French, which added a somewhat exotic, European flavor to the experience. The Canadian province of Quebec shares a border with Vermont, and the people there speak French, so that explains it.

The people I met in Burlington were, for the most part, service/wait staff, and were very friendly. I asked if they were Vermont natives and found that many were not. It seems that some of them stumbled across Burlington during travel and decided to stay. One guy in particular said he was working with a traveling carnival and when the carnival hit Burlington he quit and has been living there ever since. So, Burlington has sort of an “island of misfit toys” feel to it, as regards the residents.

There is also a unique museum close by in the town of Shelburne, Vermont, which also sits on Lake Champlain. The Shelburne Museum is about a fifteen minute drive from Burlington and is a must-do activity if you’re visiting the area. It’s unique because it houses a wide variety of Americana art and artifacts in several buildings that were mostly relocated from other parts of Vermont. For example, one building houses a collection of circus artifacts, including a miniature circus. Here’s a photo I took.

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Another building houses what must be the world’s largest collection of decoy ducks. OK, so maybe decoy ducks aren’t your thing. You might like this steamboat, which is parked there on the museum property.

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Another building houses my favorite collection: an authentic general store from the period just after the American Civil War. Every item in the store is genuine and period-specific, so when you walk in it’s like being transported back in time. Here’s a photo.

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There are collections of glassware, fabric, fine art (including a beautiful painting by Andrew Wyeth), and even cigar-store Indians. Almost everyone will find something that will be of interest. You might be wondering where they got this odd collection of so much different stuff. Well, it turns out that most of the stuff was collected by a lady named Electra Havemeyer Webb. This lady was a wealthy New York socialite and world-class pack-rat, er, collector. There was always the question of what would become of all her stuff when she passed away. The answer is the Shelburne Museum.

Another recommendation is to visit the Inn at Shelburne Farm for dinner. It’s a working farm so all the food served at the restaurant is raised or grown right there. Truly “farm to table.” The Inn and restaurant are housed in a mansion that served as a summer home for the Vanderbilt family. It’s situated in a beautiful location on the shore of the lake. Here’s a photo from the lawn at sunset.

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I highly recommend a visit to Burlington and the surrounding area. Hopefully this post will pique the interest of people who never would have considered it as a destination. The next time I go will be during the fall so I can see the trees in autumn.

 

Holy Human

Holy Human is a band from Daytona Beach, Florida. About a month ago they were far away from home, in Burlington, Vermont, having driven there to start a mini-tour celebrating their new album, titled “Epiphany.”

Our paths crossed briefly because I was in Burlington on vacation (great town; more on that in a separate post). A friend of mine who grew up near Burlington told me to check out this bar called Radio Bean. When I got there, Holy Human was just about to start their set. Seeing them was a complete fluke; pure serendipity.

Have you ever gone to a show and there’s an opening band you’ve never heard of, and you’re unfamiliar with their material? The experience of seeing Holy Human was kind of like that, because they write and perform their own songs (except, in this instance, for one cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Under my Thumb.”) The cool thing was that they were quite entertaining, even though I was hearing all of their stuff for the first time. I stayed for the whole set. Radio Bean is an intimate setting and I was thus able to interact with the band members afterward. I even bought their CD.

So now I’ve been listening to the CD for a couple of weeks. It sounds better in my car than in the house, especially if I’m in the car with someone else and we’re talking, with the CD playing in the background. I’ve thought a bit about how to describe Holy Human’s style of music, and I came up with psychedelic surf rock, although the songs on the CD are somewhat eclectic. One thing I appreciate about this band and that sets them apart is that four of the five members sing, and they have worked out cool harmonies for most of the songs. The harmonies are somewhat evocative of The Byrds, or the Beach Boys, or the Mama’s and Papa’s; even, at times, The Monkees, though less pop-oriented and more psychedelic. I guess that’s part of why they sound like surf rock, to me.

The first song is “Scary Girl,” which is a heavy tune about a stalker-like acquaintance. Holy Human started their set with that song, and I have a good memory of it. It’s good live material. Other songs that stand out for me are “Tower Hour,” “God Damaged,” and, especially, “The Sunshine Conspiracy.” But I enjoy all the songs, actually. I’ve taken to leaving the CD in the car and playing it as an alternative to the crappy Bay Area rock radio stations.

I don’t know if Holy Human will get out to the west coast, but I’d go see them again if they did. I don’t have any plans to visit Florida in the near future, either, but I would seek them out if I was anywhere near Daytona Beach.

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Here’s a photo of the band in front of Radio Bean. From left to right: Matthew Wall, Woody Moore, Mark Murray, Matthew Aubertin, and Anthony Santisi.

A Strange Kind of Pride

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I work in downtown Oakland, California and I took this photo a couple of blocks from my office. This is graffiti painted on the wall of a construction site. It’s funny how the graffiti depicts a rat doing the deed. Here’s another photo farther down the same wall.

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If you don’t live in Oakland you may well look at the graffiti in a very negative light and think that it reflects poorly on the city. Here’s another photo I took about a block away (in fact all of the photos I’m posting were taken in a three block area of downtown).

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So, it’s not cool to deface a storefront like this, even though it’s empty and undergoing renovation inside, as indicated by butcher paper on the inside of the windows. This particular graffiti has been there about two weeks and there has been no attempt to clean it up, which I put down to a combination of the likelihood that the people who lease the building are probably waiting until the interior renovation is done, and a sense of futility in the meantime. I’m sure they’ll clean it up before the new business opens at that location. There’s a separate question, though, as to whether it should be removed. You’ll see why in a bit. Obviously, removal is up to the property owners and the business leasing it.

If it’s not cool to deface a storefront, what about a non-street facing wall next to a parking lot?

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I think this graffiti is of a quality that it adds to the urban landscape. I have no idea whether the property owners gave permission for this, but I could imagine a business or building owner doing that. If you still haven’t migrated at all toward the notion that graffiti is ever a good thing, what about this?

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Again, I have no idea if this was approved by the building owner and/or the business. I do consider it a positive addition to the urban landscape. It’s cool to walk around this part of Oakland and be confronted by the imagination of these people, who I suspect are locals. Why do I think that?IMG_2451

This doesn’t look like the other graffiti and I doubt this was an unauthorized job. It does show that graffiti has gained a grudging acceptance in this part of town. It’s achieved critical mass, as exemplified by this…

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…or this.

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There are smaller works, like this…

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Again, I don’t know in any given instance which of these works were approved. I just know that I enjoy them when I’m walking around at lunch. One more:

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You’ll notice the “Love Oakland” on the left hand side of the frame. It seems that an unlikely confluence of societal forces are creating an unconventional art district in the heart of downtown Oakland. This is the type of thing that is unlikely as an official civic project, which makes it all the more special. It makes me proud of the region where I live.

I love Oakland.

Full disclosure: I live next door in Alameda, but I lived in Oakland for many, many years, and work there currently.