Monday 29 May 2017

Grateful Dead "Live/Dead" (1969)

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Grateful Dead "Live/Dead" (1969)

Dark Star//St Stephen/The Eleven//Turn On Your Lovelight//Death Don't Have No Mercy/Feedback/And We Bid You Goodnight

'Take your hands out of your pocket and turn on your love-light!'

The Grateful Dead were clearly a beast meant to be heard in their natural habitat on the stage. Slightly scared of the studio, with its possibilities for finesse and re-recordings and it's white-coated engineers and old-school producers and it's artificial lighting and most of all its lack of people in the audience taking part in the 'trip', the first three Dead albums had all been something of a missed opportunity, at least in the eyes of the growing number of Deadheads used to hearing the band in concert. The first album had been felled by too much interference from the men in suits and the second and third by not enough, the Dead free to do whatever they wanted, on almost any budget they chose: quite why they chose to record the likes of '[  ] 'What Has Become Of The Baby?' when they were given the chance to record everything is something that will perhaps never truly be known. The Dead should have been recorded live from the start, the engineers waiting night after night until they finally captured the lightning in a bottle that happened to the Dead during their really magical majestic nights. Instead it took Warner Brothers' shock and horror at the balance sheets for second album 'Aoxomoxoa'' in 1968 (not out yet at the time this album was being recorded but which was already costing a fortune) for some unspoken hero to pipe up and suggest that the next time around the Dead could probably get away with adding a double album for the price it took to run a couple of mobile unit recording trucks (with sound engineer Stanley 'Bear' Owsley already the perfect person to run them, having tried and experimented with recording the band live anyway on a lower budget).The idea was that Warner Brothers would then get three albums for virtually the price of one' in the end even being a pricier double-set 'Live/Dead' still outsold 'Aoxomoxoa' hands down. 'Live/Dead' seems an obvious solution to the increasing problems the Dead were having trying to capture their real and very unique selves and it was a natural heavy-seller, a cult album that was both as extreme as the band ever went and as marketable an album as they ever made. Anyone who went to a Dead show in 1969 (as a lot of people did) had to own this album - and anyone who couldn't afford to go or lived in a part of the world the Dead hadn't got to yet had to buy it too in order to see what their crazy friends were making such a fuss about. Shall we go, then, you and I while we can, through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?

‘Live/Dead’ is one of the best AAA album live albums of them all. Only seven ‘songs’ fill up this double album’s 77 minute running time (and one of them is entitled ‘Feedback’!) and yet four of them making up the first unbroken hour suite at least are up to the best things the Dead ever did. The set starts off with a 23-minute Dark Star, segues neatly into a 'St Stephen' sounding so much fuller and fatter than it had on 'Aoxomoxoa' complete with a break-off into a new spin on 'William Tell', then lurches into a nine minute ‘The Eleven’ a fiery and a near-impossible to play instrumental and then spirals out into a fifteen minute blues workout on ‘Turn Off Your Lovelight’ to tether the song back to Earth. All these songs are very very different and the only thing they have in common is that they are incredibly complex. The fact that the band play them, indeed largely improvise them past the bare-bones, without a break for a full hour without putting a foot wrong anywhere demonstrates once and for all why the Dead were like no other band, with a telepathy that bordered on the alien and a unity that could only be formed through intense hours of practice, rehearsal and performance. This is the sound of a band that can go anywhere and do anything - and frequently do.

What I like a lot about this record is that we get to hear it pretty much as the audience would have heard it back then. There's no overdubbing trickery, no mass choirs or guest stars added in ther studio and instead of multiple gigs combined together th,is set is taken from just three, all of them played at the band's natural home The Filmore West in order to keep the same ambience and atmosphere throughout: a killer 'Dark Star > St Stephen' segue from February 27th 1969, an 'Eleven > Turn On Your Lovelight' jam January 25th that slots in perfectly despite coming from a month before (though you can hear the edit right at the start of 'The Eleven' if you listen closely, it really doesn't spoil the sequence) and 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' 'Feedback' plus 'And We Bid You Goodnight' from a later gig on March 2nd 1969. In between the Dead went off and played all sorts of shows up and down America but somehow here they manage to keep focus and tie up the three different gigs together into a natural sounding sequence. Another thing I love is that 'Aoxomoxoa' isn't even out yet:  It's the opposite of 'Anthem Of The Sun' where several gigs combined to sound like many different possible avenues to explore, only here the statement is definitive. Talking of which another thing I love about this record is the title: 'Live/Dead', one of the cleverest puns in the whole of the AAA franchise and summing up simply what this album is. Even now in 2017, with another - gulp - six official albums to follow up to the 1990s and 145 and counting archive Dead releases this set still feels the most 'definitive' live Dead statement somehow, the point at which this band are playing something that no other band could ever think up, never mind pull off during the course of seventy-five exciting minutes. The angel resurrected from her tomb on the coffin  sums the band up well too during the period of their second wind, perhaps more than the stars and stripes on the back does.

However what I love most about this album is how daring it is. Every song here charts new territory in a whole number of different ways, each one prepared to go further out into the realms of music than anyone had ever been before. Far from being a collection of random songs from the Dead's repertoire this is a collection of songs that sounds as if it's meant to be together (even though, sometimes in period concerts, the band switched things around and added 'The Other One' or 'Alligator' into the mix for good measure, or switched Pigpen's earthy blues finale). For the first five songs of this album at least are all about exploration into different things. 'Dark Star' finds the band heading off into outer space, describing the solar system in beautiful, sometimes claustrophobic detail. 'St Stephen' is about time, looking back to an early Christian Saint who represented what was once a whole new way of life that Stephen was ridiculed for at the time but which became the de facto way of life (are the Dead's hippies the Saint Stephens of their own generation per chance?) The un-credited 'William Tell' stuck on the end repeats the generational difficulty, a father literally shooting at his son (or at least the apple balanced on his noggin) to prove a point. 'The Eleven' explores music: what other musician even knows what an 11/8signature is never mind play it? (To give you the basics it's like playing a typical 4/4 rock song, the 'common time' signature most rock music is in, twice over before sticking a waltz on the end and playing all three bars to sound perfectly natural. If anyone ever told you that the Dead aren't 'proper' musicians then a) they probably heard them on an off night during the 1980s b) seriously that's rude, you need a new grou[ of friends and c) play them this track. Their head might just explode. 'Turn On Your Lovelight' explores sex with Pigpen wringing every double entrendre and metaphor he can out of what was once a fairly compact Scott Marlowe song. 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' explores what happens next, the inevitability of death that awaits us all, even the Grateful Dead (poor Pig will succumb to his hard-living and liquor addiction just four years on from this recording). 'Feedback' kinda fits too, exploring what constitutes music, before the Dead end on a thirty second traditional folk song (one more usually stretched out to five minutes).

In a way it's the history of the human race right there and what makes us human not animal and our need to 'know' everything: how the world around us works, what 'creator' put us here and for what purpose, love of sex, fear of death and an embracing of music that also happens to be at its most mathematical. Time, space, death, love and impossible time signatures: that's quite a 'trip' as they say, without a single drugs reference anywhere funnily enough. It's quite a chaotic one too, the 11/8 time signature the perfect accompaniment to the spacemen who don't really know where they're going (and as beautiful as  a 'dark star' sounds it's highly dangerous with its irresistible gravitational pull). 'St Stephen' and 'William Tell' turbulent songs about changes no one sounds fit to embrace just yet. 'Turn On Your Lovelight' traces the ups and downs of love as only Pigpen can, driven by instinct and lust rather than planning and preparation. Then there's 'Death Don't Have No Mercy', the single scariest, creepiest song in the Dead canon, lurching forward in a roundabout way rather than pouncing and getting it over with, as if death is random and inexplicable. And then it ends in nearly eight minutes of feedback and primal howls, the possible end of the human race gobbled up from the inside. This isn't just an album that's 'live dead' but one that's maybe about 'life and death' too.

Or am I seeing too much into a record that was made on the cheap in something of a hurry that just happened to take songs that were already in the Dead's back catalogue by 1969 for quite a while anyway? You see, you don't need to have a brain to enjoy this album - a pair of eyes will reveal just as much to enjoy. Ignore the lyrics if you want to, the Dead's musical abilities were never stronger than here. The Dead played their 'signature tune' 'Dark Star' every which way down the years: fast, slow, assertive, laidback and with jazz, folk and rock and roll kicks to it - there's even a three minute distillation released as a single at the start of the year (and included on the 'Live/Dead' CD as a bonus track). This full album version though is arguably the definitive one with a bit of everything thrown in. So used are we now to hearing the band navigate their way through these familiar sections that we've forgotten the fact that nobody on the stage actually knows what's coming next. Everything here sounds planned, the band getting by on instinct and trust and above all listening to each other in the era when - more than any other - the Dead could read each other like the book. And a multi-volume book at that, given that Garcia doesn't always go where you expect him to, that Weir doesn't always join him and that Lesh isn't always playing what anyone would recognise as music having anything in common with the tune. And then there's the cymbal washes added by the drummers - bootlegs reveal that they had never done that before this 'take' of the song and rarely did it again after and it works, brilliantly. 'St Stephen' is a great song, multi-layered and full of twists and turns held in check by a gorgeous inventive riff but this version leaves the studio take for dust. The band nail the tricky stop-start sections without even pausing for breath. 

My favourite moment in the whole Dead canon (all 400-odd legally released hours of it!) comes when the band are navigating their way out of the end of the slow middle eight ('One man gathers what another man spills') and back into the main theme. On the record Tom Constanten is flying on the piano while the drummers are playing a whole great sea of cacophony. On record the guitars play the piano part, Mickey plays like a demon and Billy pauses, waiting for the mother of all drum-whallops that you know is always going to happen, dispensing with all that flowery stuff to get at the very heart of the song. Its the queue for the whole band, who've been holding back while playing an extremely tricky song for ten minutes, to just go all out. It's the kind of moment that had the Dead been working to a score would have been marked 'forte forte forte' after 'pianissimo', one of the best uses of dynamics on record. And even then the song stop-starts again, in synch, before taking you by surprise and heading off down the folky 'William Tell' route, the Dead loving the fact that they've just confused the hell out of an audience who think they know where the song is going. Only then so we end up at 'The Eleven', perhaps the trickiest song in the Dead catalogue, not just performed without mistakes but heard at full-throttle speed as if the band are inviting every last bit of risk into their performance. This is a band who know how to live dangerously and who then spend the next quarter hour 'chilling out' on the open-ended groove of 'Lovelight', the point in the show which for any other band would be the show-stopper but here is a chance to kick back and relax for everyone except Pig, one of the greatest front-men in music finally given a chance to move from the backline and strut his stuff.

'Live/Dead' isn't perfect. The last side of the original vinyl undoes a lot of the good work of the other three. As well as this album sounds together and as much as it 'feels' as if 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' 'Feedback' and 'Goodnight' fits thematically, I'd have dropped them in a Micky Hart drumbeat/heartbeat for a side-long excursion into 'That's It For The Other One' (the version recorded at the same Filmore show as 'Dark Star/St Stephen' and included in the 1999 box set 'So Many Roads' and later the 'Complete Filmore Recordings'  is the 'other' Dead live moment every Deadhead needs to own, an extraordinary tightrope walk of daring, ambition and dexterity), plus any amount of 'Morning Dew' 'Alligator' 'Viola Lee Blues' or 'China Riders' around at the time. There are many of my friends and family who still insist on hearing even the best of this album as pure noise rather than rock music played like jazz and flying by the seat of its pants but played on instruments that actually sound good together (Rock music naturally leads to power and melody even if you don't try too hard; horns lead to noise which is why so much - not all, but much - jazz ends in unlistenable jams that make your head hurt). Fans of the Dead's quieter, more reflective music that came out less than a year later (!) will wonder what all the fuss is about and what happened to the tunes and harmonies. The vocals are particularly sloppy on this album, Bob and Phil messing up the words to 'William Tell' and struggling through patches of 'Dark Star' whilst even Jerry seems to lose the plot midway through 'Death Don't Have No Mercy'. But that's the small price to be paid for the sheer joy of hearing a band  flying in formation arguably further than any band have ever been in tandem then, now or always. For nearly an hour we get the chance to hear the Dead the way they should always have been heard, playing 'like the five fingers on a hand', each of them going to exactly the same place but taking very different routes to get there played with the sheer excitement and energy that doing something fresh and brave and new and unknown brings out in musicians, without making any clumsy mistakes along the way. No one can play better than the Grateful Dead when they're playing to a room of Deadheads that love them and get them and understand them and the audience squeals (deliberately downplayed on the original recordings but nevertheless more than loud enough to be picked up by the microphones) are the seventh band member in the room, playing their bit to will the musicians on from A to glorious B. Even several hundred shows on this remains one of their all-time best shows at least partly because they got the timing right, with exactly the right band performing exactly the right material to exactly the right crowd ine exactly the right venue at exactly the right time (in 1968 the band would have been too 'new' and under-rehearsed; in 1970 this would have been too 'pretentious' for a pop market that had gone back to 'roots' music). No one can improvise the way the Dead can, but this album doesn't even sound like improvising, the band so sure of each other and full of such faith in the material that they can leap off giant cliffs together and still land on their feet time and time again. Not every Dead album works, not even every live Dead album works, but high points like this give the listener something special and so alive they can't get it from any other place. This is the Dead at their most alive - and how!

'Dark Star' is a work of beauty, rightly hailed as the Grateful Dead's signature song and their most important, unique and groundbreaking song even though - at a mere 235 performances - it doesn't even feature in the top ten most performed Dead songs. It is, like many Garcia-Hunter songs to come, a tone poem that breaks all the rules set to music that embellishes all that rule-breaking and non-conformity but in a way that still somehow makes sense. Freed of the need to reach from verse to chorus to instrumental, instead it's a piece designed to be moulded to the mood of the musicians and the Dead duly played it every which way - with clean starts, with lengthy instrumental openings, with detours into other ideas and even other songs, reduced to the bare-bones essentials at four minutes or spin out across half an hour. This most famous version, for instance, lasts twenty-three minutes and takes it's sweet time investigating a bit of everything, taking a full minute before we even get the song's familiar riff and a full six before we get any lyrics, only returning to the main theme after a quarter hour break to explore the galaxy and beyond. One of the best of the Dead's handful of 'interactive' songs, this is a song that manages to be both playful and serious as it invites us the listener to explore the outer galaxies with the band. Only eighty words are used in total, Hunter paring back the song's meaning to the point where this piece is more like a haiku than a rock and roll lyrics and leaving everything delightfully ambiguous. Hunter admits that he nicked the rhythm and roll and even the chorus from TS Elliott (and his lesser-known work 'The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock' ('Shall we go you and I while we can?') but the words are the sort of thing that could only make sense when backed with soul-searching music like the Dead's.

As with so many of the Dead's song it's a piece about transformations. In the space-scene we witness a dark star: an ancient, imploding star whose power is folding in on itself and who has the gravitational weight to suck in all light around it. This should be a scene of horror as the star 'crashes' and 'reasons tatter', all previous logic and laws of physics suddenly turned topsy-turvy. Though which star this is is never stated, this song could easily be our own sun, the source of all our current light and life turned inward to be cruel and devastating. But as with 'St Stephen' and 'That's It For The Other One' the new changing world isn't something to be frightened of but embraced. As the star breaks up search lights pick up on 'faults' in the 'old' way of life, seeing through the 'clouds of delusion' that have sprung up around the 'Anthem Of The Sun' as an Earth-bound Dead came to understand the world. Hunter invites us to go with the band, hand in hand, 'through the transitive nightfall of diamonds', our perception of the world changing as the air is strewn and littered with things that were once so rare and so expensive now turned into something common. The mirror 'shatters' and a glass hand's 'dissolving', the streaks of light that once gave us our strength turned into an illusion. It all sounds so beautiful - yet would be so horrific if it were to happen for real, the universe effectively eating and destroying itself; sometimes though out of the ashes of something terrible something beautiful and new can be formed in its wake.The Dead know that more than perhaps any other band. So many of their marathon jam sessions start in beauty, end in migraine-inducing terror and yet pick themselves up to go through the journey all over again, in search of perfection. As a lover of history Hunter also knows that the human race is run under cycles, powers rising and falling and beginning again generations apart in different places - that's just the way of human nature as it blossoms then decays.

A song about a theme that size needs music as powerful and epic to match it (no wonder the three minute studio version of 'Dark Star' flopped when released as a single, with a banjo tagline of all things) and the Dead excel themselves here, taking their own sweet time to build up from nothing to a sound as magnificently loud and powerful as any music can be. Garcia's at the heart of the storm, pining away for a future that might be and searching bravely into distant space for mankind's future. Weir is right there with him, his chunky rhythm guitar never better as he tears away obstacle after obstacle in his plight. Lesh's bass adds the curiosity, mankind driven on by ever wandering what lies over the horizon. And the two drummers keep up the momentum one cymbal bash at a time. Eventually the music ends where it began, on a quiet reflective note as the human race searches ever onwards for a new life source, a new goal and a new home. It's an age-long search and could have gone so wrong (indeed often did go wrong, which is why the band dropped it after a while in the 1970s as a regular fixture of their set). That's the trouble with free-form songs about mega life events - they come over as pretentious or meandering. Not so this version which, while improvised, feels 'right' from first note to last, the Dead searching in tandem in song.

'St Stephen' sounds a million miles away from the studio version heard on 'Aoxomoxoa'. As you'd expect from a live version it's a lot rougher but a lot punchier too, the band sounding more desperate and emotional here as the song clearly means something to them rather than being a cute novelty song based around a great riff (just listen to Jerry's passionate scream at the 3:35 mark!) As we've seen in our review of 'Aoxomoxoa' St Stephen was the first 'real' person not to have met Jesus to have died for his beliefs, stoned to death for refusing to denounce his faith. In astrological terms the 20th century was the last 'Age of Pisces' after 2000 years, a period that began the same year Christ was born and which had several things in common (the fish turns up a lot in the Bible, as done washing feet and baptisms in water, as well as a general move towards love and art - on paper at least). The more eccentric, opinionated Age of Aquarius officially began in 2001 (9/11 being a scary premonition perhaps) but as Earth only gradually changes from one constellation to another there are said to be 'premonitions' from earlier times. Some hippies clearly believed they were part of this change (which is why the musical 'Hair' was such a big hit, even though it's mostly rubbish) longing for a new way of life apart from the religious indoctrination and blind faith of their school days on the one hand and the pressure of capitalism on the other (Pisces, of course, is a sign that delights in heading in two extremes at once). 'St Stephen', who died somewhere around 100 years in to the 'Age Of Pisces' is surely, then, the equivalent of the hippies in 1969, having his own blind faith in something no one around him 'gets' and which he's adamant is the 'real' truth as he sees it. Hell beckons from a bucket and everyone around him complains and had you met anyone who 'knew' him surely Stephen would be painted as a loser hippie, giving up his job to worship some guy he never met and being killed for it; not until the old testament was written did he become a martyr and a hero, all he lost since regained, by dint of reputation at least. 'St Stephen' is surely Hunter's tribute to a similarly confused man at a similarly confused period in time, abused and ridiculed for nothing worse than listening to his heart, the way the hippies did in the day. One generation gathering from their predecessors what another generation spills. Even compared to the studio version this recording of the song is magnificent, Jerry's vocal cracking under the weight in a beautiful middle eight and the whole song ending with a truly fierce rock and roll attack where everyone piles in on one of the greatest riffs in rock and goes for a big ending that lasts for a full minute - which still isn't the 'real' ending, but another chance to go back where we started, which seems somehow fitting given the song.  Listen out for manic laughter at 3:20 in the distance, buried on the original vinyl but slightly louder on CD.

The part that differs from the studio version is a new 'old' part suddenly attached at the end after the 'what would be the answer to the answer man?' line. A new bridge written by Hunter and based on the 'William Tell' story, this is another tale of generational divide using another historical is-he-real-or-is-he-fictional character from the past to reflect on current issues. However this doesn't feel like the past and is observed as present day, Hunter's narrator now the boy perched nervously with an apple on his head while his father is forced to fire at him to 'prove' his skills. In the original tale (which Hunter surely knew) this isn't just a father getting cross at his son but a punishment for refusing to bow to a hat perched on a branch which was said to signify Switzerland's new Hapsburg leaders. This saw both father and son imprisoned and due to be executed but Tell Senior was famous in his village for being a talented marksmen and the intrigued town leaders wanted a demonstration, forcing him to shoot at an apple on his son's head with only one chance. In the story it goes well but Tell is imprisoned anyway for taking two arrows from his quiver and admitting to the 'mayor' that he doubted his own abilities and would have shot the man for making him kill his son had it gone wrong (Tell dies an old man in prison having never been released in the folk tale original). In the song the Dead are the children perched with apples on their heads, waiting to see if the parental generation will shoot them down anyway for refusing to bow to their way of life. The first lines describe the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside and the next describes how 'William Tell has stretched his bow till it won't stretch no furthermore', the arm of ther elders pulled back to the point where they either have to stamp hippiedom and all it stands for for good or embrace it. The lines continue 'It may require a change that hasn't come before', that ominous line (parental divide or refusal to bow to the rich and powerful?) left hanging in the air like a threat. In the event we kind of get both across the next few years, ending when Nixon gets kicked out the Whitehouse and hippies are seen as being almost sorta kinda 'right' at last (by some people anyway), but with the movement by then too sparse to rise up again. The song is for the most part given the air of a Scottish folk tune (which isn't that close to Switzerland really, but never mind) and ends with pure rock, that arm held back waiting to pull the trigger which actually results in...

'The Eleven', one of the most ridiculous and bonkers of all instrumentals. Have you ever tried to play music in 11/8 dear readers? I had a go at all the time signatures I could find back in my piano theory days and I can't even think in this tome signature, never get my fingers nimble enough to play it. Imagine a waltz on top of two rock and roll tunes, all playing at the same time but with five different members of the band (Pig and TC sit this one out) all starting at different points of the rhythm and all playing different tunes. It should be an unholy mess - indeed, occasionally, on both bootlegs and official 'archives' releases the Dead are simply too ambitious and fall flat on their faces. However the Dead are so disciplined in this period and have so much momentum coming out of the last song (actually we're onto a different concert now, but they played the same sequence at most of their 1969 shows) that they navigate it nimbly. That's particularly true of the moments from 2:45 when the band stop playing hell for leather and remember that this song has a tune, a nimble scales-style chord progression that features Jerry worrying away at a few notes before Phil leads off into the riff, the drummers and Bob nipping at his heels, before the whole lot suddenly meet up in tandem somewhere around 3:35 where the effect is tremendous. The criss-crossing drum pattern especially is mind-blowing as you can't tell where Billy ends and Mickey begins and Jerry is on top form once again, blistering in his quicksilver lightning runs as he picks up this weird time signature and runs with it.

Finally, after five minutes of tension-release, we get to the song proper. 'This is the season 'of what?' asks Hunter out loud, before answering 'The time of returning with our thought'. We're in the present day at last, a complex mechanical time perhaps (given the music and time signature) but one bursting with new ideas. It's a time 'past believing that the child has relinquished the reins' as the youngsters are very much in control their jewels (records?) 'polished and gleaming'. However this is not the comfortable end of a quest but a beginning, Hunter waiting anxiously as the 'boomerang tossed in the night of redeeming', wondering what the future response will be. The song then counts down, not from eleven as expected, but from seven in a mockery of the 'Fie Gold Rings' Christmas carol imagining what future happy new years (in the age of Aquarius?) might bring, each one with a bigger return: 'Seven faced marble-eyed transitory dream-doll, six proud walkers on the jingle bell rainbow...' As much sense as this (again kinda sorta) makes though  you get the sense that Hunter is pulling our leg a little here, over-writing the song to the point where it sounds like a self-parody, a comedy at the band's expense. The Dead seem in on the joke too performing with a real twinkle in their voices as they garble this near-nonsense prose and make it sound like Christmas. However I sense there's a kernel of something deeper lurking in this song. Eleven is, after all a spiritual number, said to be the 'life path' of people born on this planet to do good and create lasting changes, the idea being that they've 'evolved' and been re-incarnated enough times on Earth to teach this pinnacle (you can tell it's your life path if your day and month of birth add up to 11, 22 or 33. Oddly enough neither Robert's - June 23rd - or Jerry's - August 1st - does, though oddly my 4th July birthday does so hahaha the AAA is officially a product of a higher more progressive way of thinking, so there!) It's also the first time that the numbers repeat themselves on a 'higher plain' (we've been here before in reviews, notably on Cat Stevens' 'Numbers' and The Beatles' 'Revolution #9', but basically 'nine' is the highest spiritual point you can reach before you begin to repeat yourself and 'eleven' is the start of a whole new 'level' of understanding on a higher plain). Could it be that Hunter started writing this song seriously after being handed the melody and time signature by Garcia and then got the giggles and turned it into a silly song instead? Either way 'The Eleven' is a daring, ambitious, ridiculous tour de force that we're meant to goggle and giggle at, amongst the most spectacular the Dead ever played.

After so much airy-fairy detours throughout time, space, history and impossible time-signatures with possible life path configurations we end up landing right on top of the R and B groove of 'Turn On Your Lovelight'. Believe it or not the original of this song by Joe Scott and Deadric Malone is a compact piece of writing, a #2 hit for soul singer Bobby Bland in 1961 that gets by through keeping up the intensity factor all the way through. The Dead take quite a different approach, Pigpen stretching out the original simple metaphor (the 'lovelight' is a metaphor for feeling sexy) from not quite three minutes to fifteen. Along the way we get such fun improvisations as 'I don't want it all, I just want a little bit' and the lacklustre love 'is your fault cause it's none of mine - unless I stole her!' The Dead listen to each other superbly here, allowing Pig time to rasp away to his heart's content, then diving in en masse when he finally gets to the middle of the tune ('Working under cover of her four-wheel drive') and then chasing each other around the song's circular riff. This is all bluff and bluster of course - actually Pig was a rather lonely soul, the closest he came to having a long-lasting relationship in his twenty-seven years a brief love affair with similar hard-drinking hard-living outsider Janis Joplin. He's having fun living out a character here though and has great fun tethering the Dead and their audience back to Earth again after forty-odd minutes in space, playing cat and mouse like all the best soul singers. However Pig is upstaged by Bob's improvised sexual interruption to 'get your hands out of your pockets and turn on your lovelight!', as close to referencing masturbation as the censors allowed in 1969. 'Like the man says!' giggles Pig, shocked at his bandmate's audacity before the pair bounce around each other quoting from another legendary period song 'Shout!' by the Isley Brothers. Somehow though 'a little bit louder' and 'a little bit quieter' have now turned into 'a little big higher' a suitable double entendre for the 'love-light' and for 'drugs'! The band pound in for a full five minute ending that fair takes your breath away before they finally close in on themselves with a marvellous final twirl that ends in a hoarse cry from Pig, the perfect end to nearly a full hour of jamming without a pause spread across three album sides. '...And leave it on!' jokes Bob, as if the previous quarter hour has all been a build-up to that punchline! Sloppy maybe, messy definitely and yet it's all terrifically exciting and Lovelight's good-time cheer is impossible to ignore. One of the Dead's best R and B covers.

After such delight 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' feels like even more of an uncomfortable ride. The Dead had been playing this Rev Gary Davis song for a while and often played it for laughs, treating the Grim Reaper like an unwanted visitor or a mother-in-law. For whatever reason though serious stalks this cover version and Jerry isn't joking when he finds his household decimated and his life stalked by a figure he can't escape (his scream at 9:10 is utterly terrifying!) Death indeed don't have no mercy, picking the young, the loved, the wanted, the needed at random and leaving people like the narrator behind 'standing and crying' wishing he could join  them. Again the original of this song is rather compact but this version is stretched out to ten and a half of the most painful moments in the Dead's back catalogue with Jerry singing most of the verses through three times for added weight. I'm still, several hundred playings of this album on, not quite sure what I think of this piece. It's certainly brave and the chill factor is through the roof, but this track doesn't feel as if it belongs on this album somehow, a dark evil statement on an album that spends its other three sides being quite hopeful about the future of the hippie dream. Finding out that even the happiest, kindest and most selfless of us will pass and cause others to cry and mourn while those we love can be taken away at random is scary as hell, especially given the way that Jerry lives this song. In many ways 'Live/Dead' is an album that mirrors a drug experience, with sudden moments of adrenalin and lethargy all fused up together in one long suite. This song is the dreaded acid flashback, the epitome of a 'bad trip'. Best avoided too to be honest unless you feel like scaring yourself silly.

'Feedback' is perhaps a self-indulgence too far. We know the Dead can control feedback like no other band before or since, perhaps because they worked with it more than most groups, always pushing their songs to the limits (at least until the end of 1969 when they'd gone about as far as they could go). The end of [  ]  'Caution', for instance, is phenomenal, the feedback the natural result of having pushed the musical envelope as far as it will go and then some. This track is different. It's pasted in from somewhere else and - ironically given that every other song but one so far has been divided by side change on the original vinyl, doesn't feel like it goes with the end of 'Death Don't Have No Mercy'. Stylistically of course it should: what better or more inhuman sound can there be for passing from one world to the next than peals of feedback? (That's how I'm going I tell you!) At 1:53 we get a sudden loud burst of something (thunder? clapping? The two drummers falling on top of their drum-kits?!?) and the 'song' threatens to go somewhere but no, this is just an inhuman howl letting off steam and exploring sounds for the pure hell of it. Which would have made sense had this song naturally built up from the ether of 'Mercy', but instead it all sounds rather forced and contrived, not two words that usually go with either 'feedback' or 'The Grateful Dead'!

For sitting through that cacophony we then get the briefest of goodbyes, the traditional chant 'And We Bid You Goodnight', usually performed in concert as a 'round' but here heard just the once. In a twist on 'St Stephen' it's a Christian hymn which the Dead probably learnt from The Incredible String Band in the first half of the 1960s and based on a song written by Sarah Doudney for a friend's funeral. It's meant to be heard as a body is buried, family and friends bidding 'I love you - but Jesus loves you the best' before the soul passes into the next world. The Dead skip a few verses though, here's an example: 'Until our shadows from this Earth are cast, until he gathers in his sheave at last, until the twilight gloom is over past, we bid you goodnight goodnight goodnight'. It's in some ways a fitting end to an album about the glory of change on the one hand and the inevitability of death on the other and perhaps symbolically closes the 'age of Pisces' started with St Stephen. In another way though the Dead aren't the sort of band for straight Christian a capella chants and they never sounded all that comfortable on this song on the dozens of recordings of them playing it. This high-profile noisy rule-breaking album deserved better than to end on such a low key traditional note, or perhaps that was the idea, the Dead assuming everyone would expect the album to end on another far-out note so they decided to offer up what no fan was expecting instead, closing on a song that in many ways was the antithesis of Dead-dom.

Overall, then, 'Live/Dead' is remembered for its first three sides and not really the fourth. The best of this album is extraordinary and richly deserves the accolades it was given at the time as one of the best live albums around and proof that the Dead live experience was like no other yet also one that could be successfully captured on record without any dilution of their sound. It's a record that lives outside time and space playing to its own rules, an hour-long journey split across three LP sides that cares nothing for radio airplay or publishing rights (most bands would have split the songs into multiple parts for 'extra money' the way the Dead did on 'The Other One') but simply has to exist like this because that's where the muse happened to take the band this particular night (well, three nights). It's a shame, though, that the record ends so dismally - there's no end of goodies on the 'Complete Filmore' box set that would have gone better still in place of 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' and 'Feedback' and at seventy-five minutes this set runs five short for an average double album set anyway. That, though, seems like trying to find something bad and realistic to say about an album that really isn't about Earthly restrictions at all. For 'Live/Dead' is an album quite unlike any other  rock and roll ever made, working to its own rulebook and even a band as adventurous as the Grateful Dead never quite dared to make a second album as graceful, powerful or wonderful as this again. The Dead truly never sounded more alive. 

Other Dead-related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

'Workingman's Dead' (1970)

'American Beauty' (1970)
'Blues For Allah' (1975)

'Terrapin Station' (1977)
'Shakedown Street' (1978)
'Go To Heaven' (1980)
'In The Dark' (1987)

'Built To Last' (1989)
Surviving TV Clips 1966-1994
The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1993
The Last Unfinished Album 1990-1995
Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1966-1976
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1978-2011
A Guide To The CD Bonus Tracks
Dick's Picks/Dave's Picks
Road Trips/Download Series/Miscellaneous Archive Releases

Essay: Why The ‘Dead’ Made Fans Feel So ‘Alive’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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