BRAIN TUBA: Escaping the Escape (Dead Tour ’70)

To paraphrase the great Leadbelly song, “Goodnight, Irene”: sometimes I live in the remote valley with my pal Kzzzknkh, sometimes I live on the 1970 Dead tour. This is not a bad place to escape to, I think, even amid the melodious crying of the uyuuyuyuyi bird perched at my yurt’s fire-hole. It certainly beats a good deal of other places. As for 1970, it’s an arbitrary choice. One can hop on and off in any era. I happened to get on the bus in May of ’69, because—at the time—it was the 40th anniversary, and things seemed good and psychedelic. What else is the obsessive hoarding and cataloging of Dead shows at for, if not to listen to them chronologically and chart the Dead’s repertoire as it evolved day by sunkissed day, feeling it move with the seasons?

There have been novelties (Garcia singing lead on “Good Lovin’,” Weir doing “Dire Wolf” for a period), and amazing “Dark Star“s (May 30th at Springer’s Inn in Portland, August 30th at the Family Dog) filled with chimes and clangs and, by 1970, with Tom Constanten gone, free-flowing themes sewn together in sequence. There have been tunes that might go on an all-time list (the solo Garcia “Black Peter” from the night after the New Orleans bust in January 1970). Sometimes, friends come and go. As I write, preparing myself for the season of blazcooster orgies, I’m listening to a performance recorded February 23rd at the Auditorium in Austin, Texas. It’s their second trip to Texas ever, returning after a Boxing Day show in December, and it features the last version of “Mason’s Children.”

Another regular activity is discovering something that’s a rarity in the years beyond: the Dead finding themselves. It’s most audible (on this particular show) via “I Know You Rider,” where Garcia delivers the climactic “wish I was a headlight” verse with subdued downturns at the end of the phrases: a modest reading of a song that would become melodramatic by comparison within a year or two. Here, less than six months into its pairing with “China Cat Sunflower,” it’s still a new trick. As is the “High Time” that follows, which the Dead frequently paired with “China > Rider” until June, after which they would inexplicably shelve “High Time” until 1976.

Listening to the Dead day-by-day is listening to a group of guys make a series of choices. Mostly, they’re spot-on, like the evolution of an aggressively melodic jam, well in the tradition of “The Eleven” and their earlier psychedelic tunes, into the sweet folk sing-along, “Uncle John’s Band.” In classic Dead fashion, sometimes they don’t make choices at all. “Black Peter” was never seemingly never arranged. Some versions feature light drumming, some feature none. Some build to a climax, some are dirges all the way to the end. It’s the sound of people trying things out. During one of the first shows following Tom Constanten’s January departure, on February 2nd in St. Louis, Pigpen adds organ for a few tentative (and awesome) bars during a fierce “Dark Star”. Later in the week, at the Fillmore West on February 6th, he hangs out for the whole of “Dancing in the Street” and “The Other One” and really kinda kills it, fully contributing to a typically out there jam.

Gradually, though, I know—just as they’re not going to play “Mason’s Children” again, and that “New Speedway Boogie” is going to be shelved until 1991—that Pig is going to start playing less, too. And, eventually—if I keep on with this—not at all. For now, I’ve got at least another year of boss “Lovelight“s in front me. (I’m also going to have fewer tapes: Owsley Stanley, the band’s benefactor/acidmaker/soundguy, went to jail.)

Occasionally, I come across other travelers in the time-track. Garcia once said about Woodstock that he felt the presence of visitors watching from the future, and that certainly felt so when I recently got around to the Valentine’s Day run at the Fillmore East, released in parts as 1973’s Bear Choice and the fourth volume of the Dick’s Picks series. Which meant that owing to their commercial release, they weren’t available via, and the official releases only offered fragments. I found them elsewhere online without much trouble, but it was an interesting sensation to suddenly come up against a gaggle of lawyers in what sometimes feels like an intimate path.

Which is, actually, the chief awesomeness of listening to the Grateful Dead like this: the intimacy. It’s not real, except in the sense that it’s an intimacy with the flat plane of art in front of you, the band only characters on tape. And they’re pretty fun to hang out with.