“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”
My musical roots are in what is now referred to as jamband and at the top of that pyramid were the Grateful Dead. There were however extended periods of time when I didn’t listen to them at all. That certainly has not been the case of late. I recently saw the Grateful Dead documentary “Long Strange Trip”. If you’re a deadhead, the movie isn’t going to offer any major revelations but the movie tells the story of the band and particularly Garcia in a way that’s engaging and ultimately heartbreaking. Between the movie and my going to see Dead & Company later this month, I have been listening to the Dead more recently that I have in a long time. The song that I have been listening to the most is the one that was most identified with early Grateful Dead, “Dark Star”.
In the early seventies, one usually became a deadhead almost as a process of mentor ship. My mentor was my older brother. I think I was eleven when one day he brought home a copy of Live Dead. As I looked over the list of songs, the title “Dark Star” jumped out at me. In my previous post about Pink Floyd and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, I talked about how I was an adolescent science fiction twerp. A song with the title “Dark Star” was like catnip and demanded to be checked out. It was there and then that my young mind was blown. The music was mysterious and other worldly but beautifully melodic. The way the instruments weaved in and around each other didn’t sound like any other music I heard. For me, it changed how I heard music forever.
One of the more amusing parts of “Long Strange Trip” was the interview with Senator Al Franken discussing his favorite performance of his favorite Dead tune, “Althea” (May 16, 1980 at Nassau Coliseum, Long Island, N.Y.). Deadheads love to analyze setlists and debate their favorite live versions of songs. This particularity among deadheads can be even more intense when discussing such an iconic song like “Dark Star”. Given this intensity, it did not come as much of a surprise to discover the amount of academic scholarship written about the band. I refer to it as Grateful Dead Studies. In hindsight, between listening to the Dead and playing bass in a Grateful Dead cover band, that was my unofficial major in college.
The links below point to a several articles and papers discussing “Dark Star”. The first link is to an article in the excellent web site Grateful Dead Guide. This is a comprehensive discussion of the song and it’s history. Everything you wanted to know about Dark Star but were afraid to ask.
For those deadheads who actually love reading musical analysis (guilty as charged officer), the link below is to an article that talks about the harmonic aspects of Dark Star. It features mini score transcriptions of several key moments from the Dead’s performance of February 27, 1969, the version on Live Dead that changed my life. The scores have time stamps so you can cue up the performance and follow the transcriptions. Be prepared for some real technical material. This is some serious musicological geek stuff here.
Grateful Dead – Dark Star (Live/Dead) 1969
Below is a video from a masterclass given by the jazz pianist Dave Franks about Dark Star. It opens with a solo jazz piano performance and begins the discussion at around 7:00.
Grateful Dead master class with Dave Frank: Exploring “Dark Star”
Finally there is Grayfolded, a two CD record by experimental composer John Oswald. Oswald, using a process he calls plunderphonics, used over a hundred different performances of Dark Star to create an audio collage in which 25 years of performances are assembled, layered anf “folded” to produce two large, recomposed versions, each about one hour long of the Dead classic. Well before internet mash-ups became a thing, it’s interesting to note how well it functions as straight-up Dead music.
“Grayfolded” – Grateful Dead & John Oswald (Vinyl Side 1 Audio with Time Map)