Friday, February 15, 2013

"Viola Lee Blues" and the Grateful Dead's Relationship with Chaos

There is a segment of my family for whom the Grateful Dead is nearly a religion. Being a Deadhead is one of the main pillars on which their musical identities rest. In spite of the frequent exposure to the band that their devotion has caused as well as several attempts to immerse myself in their catalog (studio and live albums as well as bootleg show tapes), I’ve always struggled with the Dead. This is due I think primarily to two reasons.[1] The sheer amount of their output is the first and primary reason. I’ve heard all of their studio albums from their debut through to 1977’s Terrapin Station, and only four (their self-titled debut, American Beauty, From the Mars Hotel and Blues for Allah) have really made much of an impression, and even still, I rarely listen to them. The Dead were always at their best live (well not always, I’m sure they had their off nights), and I’ve enjoyed both Live/Dead and Europe ’72, though not enough to return to them frequently. At the center of the cult of the Dead is the thousands of bootleg live tapes have been completely overwhelming due to their sheer quantity. My understanding is that the changes in their live show over the years were so distinct that the most dedicated of Deadheads will know within the first song what year or tour a particular tape is from, but I haven’t immersed myself enough to even know which years of their career would be most in line with my tastes.

This brings me to my second major hurdle with the Dead: their style of songwriting and jamming is not one that appeals to me that much. If I’m going to listen to live jams from the Dead’s first decade or so of activity (1965-1977), I much prefer the heroin-indebted noise of the Velvet Underground’s 1969: The Velvet Underground Live or the space rock drones of Hawkwind’s Space Ritual. Outside of this twelve year period, I turn to the psychedelic chaos of Acid Mothers Temple and the drone metal of Boris, among others, or eschew rock altogether in favor of exploratory or abrasive free jazz. By contrast, the Grateful Dead’s music is rooted primarily in bluegrass, country, folk, and other sounds that don’t grab me as immediately as the aforementioned styles do. Moreover, even with all of the noodling and endless jams and ridiculous amounts of drugs, pretty much everything I’ve heard from them sounds like the band is completely in control of their music. I can really only think of one time in the hours of Grateful Dead music I’ve heard where they sound like they give in to chaos: “Viola Lee Blues,” the final track from their self-titled debut album.

“Viola Lee Blues,” a cover of a Noah Lewis standard, is nearly twice as long as any other song on The Grateful Dead, and has a much liver feel than anything else on this record or any other studio album they put out in the sixties. During the song’s first third it is a fairly standard, if slightly heavier than normal, early period Dead song, with Jerry Garcia’s singing through much of it. A little more than a third of the way in, however, Jerry steps away from the microphone and the band gets into a really excellent jam. After a few minutes, at about the eight minute mark, it starts to sound like the acid that they were probably on was taking a bad turn, and the tight jamming begins coming apart at the seams. Jerry’s guitar line starts tripping over itself and then descends into feedback, and Pigpen’s keyboard follows suit, burying the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar in noise. And then suddenly, with 70 seconds to go, the Grateful Dead ship abruptly rights itself and the band returns to the original song, vocals and all. It’s an exhilarating mess, abandoning logical transitions in favor of letting chaos take over for a while.

Does “Viola Lee Blues” point toward a potential missed opportunity for the band? Could they have explored noise and chaos a bit more than they ultimately did? I haven’t heard any live tapes from this era so I have no idea if they’re more noisy and chaotic than the tapes from 5-10 years later that I’m more familiar with. My difficulty with the rest of their catalog and my lack of knowledge of where to start tapes-wise has deterred me from pursuing this era of Grateful Dead concerts, but returning to “Viola Lee Blues” over the last few days has reignited my interest. If my favorite minute from any Grateful Dead studio album is not reflective of anything the band was pursuing live around this time, then I’ll be sorely disappointed. Ten years later, the band released Terrapin Station, a studio album with a mix that buffs off all of the rough edges the band might have had left in their music. It’s my least favorite studio record I’ve ever heard of theirs (although admittedly I’ve never ventured into the wasteland that I’ve heard their eighties records supposedly are). I think the mix on Terrapin Station is indicative of the direction the band’s music ultimately took, and that direction is why they’ve never appealed to me as much as some of their contemporaries have. An alternate trajectory for the band could have had them pursuing this noisier direction in some of their music without fully abandoning their primary jammy folk/bluegrass sound. Had they really embraced the darkness and the unknown that is so much a part of death and really lived up to the second half of their name, I’d probably be a Deadhead.

[1] Well three, actually, with the third reason being that I’ve never been crazy about Jerry Garcia or any other member of the band’s vocals. When it comes to their live shows, however, the instrumental portions generally outweigh the vocal portions in both length and importance, so I try not to let my indifference to their singing get too much in the way of the listening experience.

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