Fare Thee Well To The Grand Ridiculous

Over their storied career, the Grateful Dead have been many things to many people. Perhaps above all else, they were some of the greatest Absurdists in the history of Rock & Roll. To achieve such a prestigious title, the band had to step and stumble into amazing, strange situations and embark on odd, creative endeavors. Few other groups witnessed as much lunacy, especially at such an early stage of their career. 

As one of the best results from Ken Kesey’s early 60’s free-form no-holds-barred acid tests, the band’s creative foundation was built on absurdity. Only very few ideas were turned away for being too far-out. As time marched on, this worked for and against them. The list of good ideas gone weird, gone wrong, gone well, is long and makes for one of the most fascinating careers in popular music.

Luckily, there were more positive effects than negative from these far-out ideas and creative leaps of faith:

  1. Adding a second drummer to the line-up and, therefore, forcing their already complex time structures into previously unknown dimensions? Check!

  2. Deciding to make friend and Bay Area LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley their sound guy? Check!

  3. Countering their growing popularity by creating an in-house mail-order ticketing service? Check!

  4. Deciding to take their act to Egypt and playing in front of the pyramids amidst a total lunar eclipse only to have their first of three performances almost hijacked due to a sky full of bats? Checkity-check-check!

  5. Landing a top ten single twenty years into their career? Okay, that one wasn’t necessarily up to them, but it was absurd nonetheless.  

Perhaps the highpoint of their Absurdist existence, however, came in 1974, just shy of their tenth anniversary. They had already lost founding keyboard/harmonica player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan to liver disease the previous year and had absorbed the husband and wife team of Keith and Donna Godchaux (piano and vocals, respectively). Also by this point the band found themselves running out of gas after years of constant road work, money/management problems and, of course, rampant drug use. These troubles ran deep-enough to inspire the band to retire from the road indefinitely at the end of the year -- a retirement that lasted maybe twelve months. In typical Absurdist fashion, however, they were also making incredibly complex and fresh music (while stumbling through some amazingly lackluster shows) and blazing trails by creating their own over-the-top sound system, the much ballyhooed “Wall Of Sound,” which looked something like this:

What you’re looking at is roughly 60 speakers, 50 amps, and about 27,000 watts of power. Remember earlier when I mentioned they made friend and local LSD chemist their sound guy? Yeah, well, the Wall Of Sound was his idea. Turns out, he knew a thing or two about electronics, as well.

When the band unveiled the Wall Of Sound for its first appearance in a live performance, every tweeter (the part of the speaker which produces higher-end frequencies) blew during the first song. It took another year of tinkering before they were able to take it on the road with them. (Actually, they had three Wall(s) of Sound(s): one  being used for the current show, one being torn down from the previous show, and one being set up for the next show: a practice now standardized in the giant world of music tours.)

The Wall Of Sound was a first on many levels (mostly technical), and while it provided the band with perfect stage sound and provided the audience with amazingly clear live sound, it also required an extra twenty crew members and four semi-truck trailers. It also inevitably sent the band’s finances into a wall of its own. Anyway, it was during this time touring around the country with all this stuff that the band decided to add another dash of the ridiculous into the mix. (Deciding to add another dash of ridiculousness into the mix? Check!)

Ned Lagin was studying molecular biology and humanities at MIT in the late 60’s as well as playing piano for the school’s jazz bands. After seeing the Grateful Dead in Boston in 1969, he helped organize a few shows on the east coast for the band. In return, Garcia invited him out to San Francisco where they were recording what would be their American Beauty LP. (Invite someone who you’ve never met into the studio with you? Check!) Once there, he contributed to the album and began strong friendships with Garcia and bassist/resident envelope-pusher, Phil Lesh. His involvement naturally extended to live performances and -- presto! -- Lagin became a quazi-member of the group. He played Hammond B3 organ, electric piano, and clavichord with the band on stage and in the studio for the next handful of years.

By 1974, they had set aside the middle of each show for Lagin to play electronic music with Lesh in the middle of each show with the former plodding around on an analog synthesizer and the latter indulging in coordinated feedback. The first few attempts at this collaboration resulted in awkward but fascinating chunks of experimental music punctuated by screeches of high-end feedback and bowel loosening tremors, all delivered to the audience, mind you, by the afore mentioned 27,000 watts of power. By the end of the band’s final shows that year in October at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena, much of the band would join them for what had evolved into amazing voyages of haunted, improvised electronic soundscape with Lagin using the Wall Of Sound as his larger instrument.

These Lagin/Lesh mini-sets were given the title “Seastones” and, while this may’ve been a rousing boost of creativity for a band feeling stifled and burning out in their current situation, one must consider the reactions of the audience who weren’t necessarily expecting this particular veering into deeper space. Okay, sure, it’d be a good bet 95% of the people attending these shows were well aware of the band’s talent for improvised music, but very few of those could tolerate such extended voyages (some up to thirty minutes) without an actual melody -- especially while under the influence of high-powered hallucinogens. General reactions varied from amusement and acceptance to impatience and rejection. During a short tour of Europe that autumn (deciding to taking along a 75 ton sound system overseas? Ch-ch-ch-check!), they had by then extended “Seastones” into a group composition. A rowdy London audience primed to hear the songs from a band who rarely played their shores were made to sit through a half hour of no-boundary experimentation. How wonderfully absurd!  

Is this a case of the group taking out their frustrations on the audience? Maybe. And, even if so, they wouldn’t be the first nor last to pull such a stunt. Were they just doing as they pleased no matter the consequences? Definitely. Which is precisely what makes their career so much more unique. A resistance to adapt or conform is not even close to being on the to-do list for group of people whose collective and creative mind was formed during the Acid Tests nine years previous.

Whether you like their music or not, one has to tip their hat to this band for their delightfully stubborn ways. Essentially, if it wasn’t weird enough, then it wasn’t fun enough … and if it wasn’t fun, then it simply wasn’t worth it.