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Dark Star-Devolution

Q: Are there any old Grateful Dead songs that you would like the Dead to start

doing again?

Garcia: No.

Q: None?

Garcia: Not really, no.

The Golden Road/Fall 1986

As with any restrospective evaluation, the temptation to split the period of

study into definable parcels is admittedly great. With the G.D., this inclination is encouraged, somewhat obviously, by the two, roughly equal-length, periods that frame their so called 'retirement' in 1975. That the two periods were separated by nearly the exact middle of the GD's career as a band practically begs for all manner of division and classification. While this way of thinking necessarily excludes the fundamental 'continuum' of their 30-year history, there are nevertheless many transformations, changes, and full-scale philosophical

shifts that slowly and inexorably drifted across those 30 years, rarely

acknowledged, but there nonetheless.

While it is far too simplistic to imply, or claim outright, as many veteran

heads in fact do, that the post-retirement GD all but abandoned their 'canon' (quite literally, as it turns out, but more on this later), it is not so fantastic to observe that through necessary adaptation and, yes, further development, the GD of the eighties and nineties was, in many ways, a far different organism than the one of the preceding decades. In

many ways a veritable lightning rod for these claims was the literal choice

and rotation of the GD's repetoire, most specifically the appearance of the canonical focus, Dark Star. What was usually missing from such debates was the actual definition of the song, its place, its meaning or, conversely, its occasional irrelevance, in a period bridging four decades.

Rarely in any artistic endeavor is it so apparent that the work produced so

directly reflects and boasts attributes of the organization that worked to produce it. Organization is this case referring to the entire GD family, the blurring of distinctions between performers, managers, roadies, office staff, kin family (rarely has

any band ever been burdened by such massive egos on the part of technical

staff). The period of the expanding Dark Star was also the period of nearly exponential organizational expansion, the band's vision, musical prowess, and ambition developing at a pace that required similiar experimentation and expansion in

the organization that managed and supported it. As has been documented, by

1973 the cracks had begun to show. The GD organization, personified in their own fan club literature by Uburous, the dragon eating its own tail, had become a huge and unweildy beast.

The initial experiment in chaotic, lassiez-faire self management had taken on

a dehumanizing corporate pattern that cruelly undermined the initial premise and, increasingly, offered severely diminishing financial returns, if not musical ones. When the GD stepped off the treadmill in

1974, they had literally reached the point of saturation, and the circumstances borne of this expansion began to highlight the nagging ironies and musical/stylistic contradictions. Forced to play a steady cycle of 15,000+ arenas to meet overhead, notions of further musical expansion and experimentaion were becoming much less feasible, as evidenced by the baffled reception that greeted the 'Seastones' segments on the summer 74' tour. American stadium and arena-rock dynamics were at this time just codifying, and the GD, never a band to perform "at" their audience, especially couldn't be exempted from these new expectations.

 

"But there have been nights--not so much recently as before we knocked off in

'74--we got so musically inbred that we were playing some fairly amazing stuff, but almost

nobody could hear it or relate to it except us. That's one of the reasons why we knocked off and went out and did solo projects. We were speaking a language known only to us, using a musical vocabulary that was really pretty damned esoteric at some points".

You don't think the crowd was picking up on it?

Alot of them didn't--I know they didn't. (Weir in an interview with Blair

Jackson, 1981)

 

 

It is probably not altogether surprising that what many consider to be the

last genuine Dark Star, occured in a smallish arena on home turf, October 18, 1974 at Winterland, during the farewell stand that was more a culmination/celebration of the first ten years than an avowed retreat from performance. Paradoxically, what some consider to be the last true version is, in many ways, the most organic rendering. Emerging from the

inactive silence of intermission through the gradient electronic progress of the 'Seastones' segment, gradually joined and tentatively directed by Garcia and soon followed by the rest of the band, eventually shedding the cerebral electronic tones and gliding towards an elegant and austere transition into and through the 'song' itself. Virtually stand-alone and arriving formless, this was perhaps the last non-premediated version, wholly organic rather than designed or simply occasioned. The culmination of the

first version of the Grateful Dead and of the theoretical boundlessness of the era during which the song emerged and developed, this

'Dark Star' perhaps more than any other version best exemplifies the process of exploring and building upon an infinitely expandable improvisational vehicle.

Far from retiring or disbanding, within three months, the Dead were enconced

in Weir's home studio, only this time intent upon building songs from the ground up, having entered the studio without any pre-written material or conceptions as to how the music should proceed. When steady touring was resumed a year and

a half later, this material was emphasized along with revivals of older songs

that either echoed the economical ethos of the new approach (High Time, Candyman) or closely matched the complex structures of the new 'Blues For Allah' material (Cosmic Charlie). When the GD returned to the road, the organizational egress had been remedied through a similarly philosophical paradigm shift that, although not openly adknowledged, came to be implemented all the same.

The production of shows and the concerts themselves reflected this reduced

scale, the "comeback" tour of 1976 concentrating on intimate theatres, returning later that year to mid-size arenas and college auditoriums. However, the return to larger arenas did not necessarily mean a return to pre- retirement musical form. When the Dead at last returned to regular touring, concision and economy was the norm. Modest and

deliberate was the musical approach, evidenced by the often leaden, groaning tempos and newly mannered treatments given older material ('St. Stephen' for example). The re-

integration of Mickey Hart into the band was in part to blame for this, and if one follows this example and re-visits tapes of this period, it becomes obvious that the deft fusion and elasticity that characterized so many versions of Dark Star since late '71, would have been nearly impossible to recreate with two drummers.

From 31 appearances in 1972, to 13 in 1973, and 5 in 1974, Dark Star would

only appear five times between1975 and most of 1989. When it did appear during that period, it was almostalways occasioned by a specialevent or practically coerced into performance through the psychic demands ofthe audience; versionsreluctantly submitted and only wearily echoing their predeccesors. The failure in reintroducing the cumbersome and intentionally difficult Aoxomoxoa 'Boroque era' material in 1976 may have humbled the band, although 'St. Stephen', after many somnambular offerings during this

year, did enjoy a genuine

resurgence in both vigor and frequency during 1977 when it rather conveniently

morphed into an arena-scale monster usually appended to 'Truckin', which was fast approaching it's apex in this genre. 'Cosmic Charlie'

and, later, 'St. Stephen' after it's 1983 dusting fared little better, the latter a prime example of the level of reluctance in bringing back old material simply to meet the demand, as anyone

who witnessed the abysmal final recitation at Berkeley on 10/31/83 can attest.

By 1978 onward, the band was at once becoming accustomed to arena performance

conventions and dynamics, adjusting to (some might say accomodating) revised audience

expectations, putting the final touches on the institutional set format, and were struggling with the rapid and startingly persistent decline of Keith Godchaux, whose fluid jazz runs had so brilliantly underscored so many pre-retirement DS's, increasingly withdrawn from the proceedings. With so many uncertainties within and without the band, it is

perhaps not surprising that they chose to play within familiar confines and not stretch themselves to the point where the stress would come to define the performance, which, in fact, it already had done during most of 1978. The 'Dark Star' that was trotted out on 12/31/78 was in many ways solely a combination tribute/concession to Bill Graham and those who went to the trouble of calculating the exact number of days since the last appearance. By this point, its mythology had become taken for granted, the very possibility of

its occurance becoming an obsession with touring Deadheads. Its absence fueled anticipation and further mythmaking, rather than rational speculation or sympathy on the part of those

same Heads as to possibly why it had stopped being performed entirely.

Befitting the occasion, and setting the pattern for most of the future

occurences of Dark Star, the utterance of the opening phrase is greeted with a swell and release so forceful that it drowns out the first minute or so.

Here, what is being celebrated in the audience reaction is not what is actually being laid out onstage, but rather circumstance and matching occasions. The closing of what was possibly

the GD's most venerable home venue being bade farewell by the appearance of the most vaunted "song" in the GD repetoire. It is perhaps a good thing that the actual music is secondary, as it is a rushed and circumspect version, clinging to

the middle and resisting any dissolution or transformation with all eyes straight ahead. What is perhaps most striking about this version is that it represents the re-classification of

'Dark Star' from a transformative piece within and of itself to a hemmed and proscribed transitional piece, a distinction that nearly guaranteed its omission during most of the eighties as the previously embroidered pathways between songs were

abandoned for abrupt and often impatient transitions.

Along with the increasing "ossification" (as Lesh put it) of the standard

first and second sets, it was at this time--in fact simultaneously with the development of the 'Drums' section--that a free-form compartment developed that bridged the drums segment with the latter half of the second set. These segments, usually

lumped together as 'Space' re-introduced a familiar element (free-form, often

atonal, electric tone experiments) that, while suitably formless, were still bookended by entrenched second set fixtures. By the

late 70's, free-form exploration had become effectively relegated to a somewhat redundant transitional bridge to more conventional songs rather than an endeavor in itself.

After the New Year's dusting, two further performances followed over the

nearly three-week tour immediately following Winterland's closing. Ostensibly a make-up tour to reschedule dates cancelled the previous November and December due to Garcia's illness, the metro New York, Springfield and Providence shows evidence a surprising degree of enthusiasm while some nights appear little more than desultory run-

throughs, namely Utica and New Haven. The very pairing of 'Dark Star' and 'St. Stephen' at the Nassau Coliseum on January 10 was enough to ensure setlist infamy, regardless of the

actual submission. The next appearance (and last performance for 232 shows) on the penultimate date of the tour, January 20, again seemed occasioned, this time by the palpable absence of Donna.

While the two 79' versions don't vary much from the Winterland version, the

Buffalo edition benefits, and takes much of its definition from, a smoldering and exploratory 'Other One'. The 'Other One' being the third in the perennial troika of exploratory vehicles (Playin' being second) developed during the improvisational peak years, it is perhaps not surprising that DS should, in its subsequent rare appearances, begin to pattern

itself after its siblings. While admittedly more volatile and open-ended than

just about anything in the GD repitoire at this point, The Other One was still a transitional piece, rarely straying and fairly adhering to the approach>peak>quick decline pattern that usually ushered in the alloted Garcia ballad. Similarly, Playin' had by this time taken its place along 'Estimated Prophet' as the primary second-set jam vehicle, abandoning--

like the 'Other One' with its 'Cryptical Envelopment' bookends'--its status as a stand-alone exploratory vehicle. The incongriuty of a stand-alone 'Playin' became evident on the

return tour of 1976, appearing all the more an anomaly amidst the designed and economical structure of the immediate post-retirement shows.

The dispatching of Keith & Donna after the January tour heralded optimism that

the GD could and would now shake things up, freed as they were from Kieth's incessant plodding and cold wash of the always tenuous male/female vocal mix. What the GD referred to however, was the lean and fast approach of late 71' when, not ironically, Keith was first introduced into the band, rather than the expository bend of 72'-74'. If it can be argued that these years were defined and indeed propelled by the emerging individual and group

dynamics, how were the GD to be defined, in their new start with Brent, during

the Eighties? As commercially isolated as they always claimed to be, the 1970's GD were at

least considered emblematic of whatever countercultural identity and theory that still lingered from the Sixties, be it drug culture or nouveau organic American antiquity ("good ol' Grateful Dead"). As the GD worked they way into the Reagan era, they found out what it was really like to be isolated.

Before the tumult of October 1989, The 1980's Dark Stars' (all two of them)

were less than notable save for the curiosity of their inclusion. The New Year's Eve 1981 version is surprisngly graceful if not very engaging. The 7-13-84 version is simply desultory, fifteen minutes of sheer absence. What deadheads should have taken as an insult, the cruelly offhanded throwaway of perhaps the most cherished event in the

GD concert experience, was again orgasmically heralded by its mere appearance. Coming as it did during the height of Garcia's 1980's opiate indifference, perhaps one shouldn't have

expected much more. Still, it was as if it was enough to know the song still existed, to be casually acknowledged by the band every few years, enough to partially re-affirm the GD as a performing unit and touring experience in one of its darkest and most dislocated periods.

10-9-89, however, is a different animal altogether. If the decade's previous

versions were either sops to constant audience expectations or offhanded attempts at dismissing the myth, the version of Dark Star unveiled at the Hampton Coliseum 'Warlocks' show was at once the enthusiastic embrace of the prodigal song and a ringing affirmation of the Grateful Dead's commitment to its past and present. That the same

show also contained purposeful versions of 'Attics of My Life' & 'And We Bid You Goodnight' (as well as the return of 'Help On The Way>Slipknot' the previous night) also seemed to

suggest that the GD might be confronting their mythology in one massive therapy session. Rather than attempting to exorcise this mythology, the Hampton shows mark a point at which the first period Grateful Dead catches up with and takes its place alongside the second.

In the years following, Dark Star would again be dismissed from rotation for

months at a time, only to be revived for occasion, usually a guest musician of the caliber of Branford Marsalis or David Murray. And while it was understood that in accordance with the illogic of all things Grateful Dead, the last appearance may be the final, Dark Star appeared in a fairly regular manner up until March of 1994, its disappearance from the repitoire more or less coinciding with Garcia's relapse into drugs and the band into a corresponding torpor, this time even more desolate than the eighties stretch. If any contained history can indeed be divided into broad periods, what enjoins those periods are not grand or sweeping

gestures but the measured accumulation of individual actions and the cycles those consequences set in motion. As a unit, the Grateful Dead was as democratically vulnerable to internal and external pressures, to the increasing weight of history combined with the consistent demands for maintenance and progress. As perhaps the song most central to

the Grateful Dead experience, the development, contraction, and progression of Dark Star most closelyreflects that same history.

Douglas Ferguson

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