Fifty Years On, We're Living in the Grateful Dead's Future
Radio Motherboard talks time travel, sound tech, and pre-internet virality with Amir Bar-Lev, director of a new doc about the Dead.
The Dead perform in Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 13, 1967. Photo: Leni Sinclair/Getty Images)
February 13, 1966. Dawn. Jerry Garcia is high on acid. The Grateful Dead have just performed at the now-infamous Watts Acid Test in Los Angeles, although there apparently wasn't much actual "playing" involved. According to one account, the musicians "weren't exactly functioning."
After the event, the band drives across town to the historic Watts Towers art installation just as the sun is rising. That's where Garcia has a crucial epiphany, one that would help define the Dead's ethos moving forward. For Amir Bar-Lev, director of Long Strange Trip, the marvelous new Martin Scorsese-produced four-hour documentary about the Dead, the episode is a signal moment in the story of a band that anticipated the future we find ourselves living in today.
The Watts Towers are a classic example of "outsider art," built over a 30-year period by an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia, who used found objects to build a network of otherworldly-looking cement and steel towers rising above his neighborhood. In the late 1950s, local officials conducted an engineering test to see if the structures could be toppled, but the towers wouldn't budge. They remain the centerpiece of Simon Rodia State Historic Park to this day.
Is the ultimate goal of an artist, Garcia wonders that morning, to craft a body of work that outlives its creator, frozen and ossified? High on LSD and contemplating these monuments to artistic permanence, Garcia decides that his art will live in the moment, let it roll, come what may. Over the next 30 years, Garcia and his bandmates would create some of the most enduring music of the 20th century, and a living legacy that is celebrated to this day by millions of Deadheads worldwide.
During a recent interview with Radio Motherboard, Bar-Lev discussed the push-and-pull between creating art for the present and establishing a lasting legacy, a dynamic that's at the heart of his sprawling, deeply-felt, frequently funny, and often tragic film. It's a question that would repeatedly surface during the Grateful Dead's 30-year career, and helps illuminate how a group of musicians so committed to in-the-moment performance would become the most recorded, documented, and catalogued band in American history.
"I think the tension between posterity and 'the now' is a false dichotomy," Bar-Lev said. "I think that actually what Jerry was talking about is something that is a continuum of human experience that stretches back in time and stretches forward in time."
The Grateful Dead were futurists, ahead of their time on many levels, even if they didn't always realize it. As the house band for the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey's motley cadre of psychedelic explorers, the Dead were at the vanguard of the LSD-infused counterculture movement that started in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and rapidly spread across the country. Musically, the band was among the first to combine elements of rock, folk, blues, and jazz to create a new, hybrid sound that anticipated the jazz-fusion and prog rock bands of the 1970s.
"Jerry wasn't a guy who didn't give a shit about the future."
In the recording studio and on the road, the Dead were also pioneers. They were among the first groups to use a 16-track recorder for albums, and of course, they created the now-legendary "Wall of Sound," a mammoth, 500-speaker touring rig widely regarded as the most technologically advanced sound system of its time. The Wall of Sound only existed for a few years, in part because it nearly bankrupted the band, but many of its design innovations are now standard features of large-scale concert sound systems around the world.
The Dead also inadvertently pioneered commercial practices that are now common aspects of the media business in the internet age. The band's unwillingness to crack down on amateur concert recordings, much to the displeasure of its record label, created a far-flung, decentralized network of tape-traders that dramatically increased the band's audience and presaged online social networking and viral marketing. (The Dead's taper community is very much alive to this day.)
The Dead's decision to prioritize relentless touring over studio albums established a template for jam bands like Phish, as well as more mainstream acts like Madonna and The Rolling Stones that make most of their money by touring in an era of dwindling album sales. And the Dead's emphasis on live music as a vehicle for large-scale, ecstatic communal experience anticipated underground rave culture, which itself laid the foundation for modern electronic dance music.
The Grateful Dead were trying to figure out "how we could live with one another in counter culture to the way that other people are living, which was cool back then, but it's extremely vital and crucial right now," Bar-Lev said. "I'm talking about having real encounters with each other, being present, not performing at one another all the time, not striking postures, but actually trying to have a genuine encounter in the moment."
"Jerry wasn't a guy who didn't give a shit about the future," Bar-Lev added. "He figured that the best way to give something to the future was to create these 'nows,' and that the 'nows' would inspire us, and they have. And in turn, we would do something in the future. It's what "Ripple" is all about. So how do you create the ripple? It's about love. That's how you transcend time."
(intro) "Help on the Way" 05/09/77, Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, New York (Charlie Miller/soundboard)
01:28 Full disclosure
03:27 When and how Amir personally got into the Dead and how did he come to make this epic 4 hour doc on the band?
03:34 "After you've been to a Dead concert, everything after that is a little too Spinal Tap. Hello Cleveland!" (Amir)
04:40 Making the doc became "an 11-year game of shoots and ladders"
05:42 "I don't think Martin Scorsese is into the Dead" (Amir)
09:01 "A lot of what the Grateful Dead were about is a gift from 30 or 40 years ago to now, that is only really vital right now" (Amir)
10:55 The Dead as cultural lifeline
13:45 Garcia's post-Acid Test epiphany at the Watts Towers in LA
17:18 Tension between posterity and "the now"
17:55 Frankenstein's influence on Garcia: "a dead thing brought back to life"
20:12 What's the best way to give something to the future?
21:17 "Everything I know about American geography I learned from the Grateful Dead"
23:00 What's the story? It's ambiguous
26:00 Why the Dead chose not to wade into politics
29:27 Garcia was terrified of his own charisma
29:45 How the Dead's aversion to authority begot decentralized communities and economies; tapers and proto-viral marketing
31:00 The Dead were not business savvy
(break) 32:51 "Dark Star" 02/13/70 Fillmore East, New York, NY (Charlie Miller/soundboard)
34:00 What it was like being raised by Deadheads
37:28 "In order for the grateful dead to continue the grateful dead has to die and be reborn in some new form" (Amir)
39:33 Fractured groups of people! Deadheads were all different
40:18 Amir's Grateful Dead: being egoless
43:35 The Highgate incident
46:00 What explains the Dead's enduring popularity?
47:00 "In a way the Grateful Dead can never die" (Amir)
47:50 Enter the Wall of Sound
49:07 "The most preposterous sound system the world had ever seen" (Amir)
50:37 What do we want the future to look like, and how are we going to get there?
(outro) "Eyes of the World" 09/03/77 Raceway Park, Englishtown, New Jersey (Dave Usborne/soundboard)