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If ever there were a fool’s errand in the realm of music criticism, tackling the evolution of Dark Star surely must be it. How does one apply linearity and coherence to music that so freely and frequently dispensed with both? It can’t be done, you say, as you prepare to skim this essay to see if your favorite versions are mentioned, and whether this essay’s opinions match your own. So be it; this essay asked for it. However, if this essay spurs the reader to listen to Dark Star more closely--and, in the process, to widen the circle of Dark Stars with which the reader is familiar--the this essay will have done its job, and will take whatever criticism the reader may offer with a smile on its face and a song in its heart.

It should surprise no one that a lot of listening went into the writing of this essay. It’s unclear whether it’s possible for a Deadhead to become sick of Dark Star; if it is, this essay will be the first to know. It has relied on the commercially released versions available as of this writing (Spring 1999), most of the best known and widely circulated tapes containing Dark Star, and some lesser known gems one occasionally encounters in a 2000+ hour collection. It was impossible and unnecessary to include every extant Dark Star in this analysis; the reader is urged not to interpret an omission of a given performance as some kind of "thumbs down". This isn’t a list of favorites, must-haves, or anything like that. What this essay has tried to do is, against the backdrop of the band’s history and evolution, chart how Dark Star grew and changed between 1968 and 1974. A tall order? You betcha.

Rather than bore the reader any further, this essay would like to invoke, as its template, the words of writer Michael Lydon, published most recently in Garcia (the Rolling Stone magazine tribute book). He describes a Dark Star he witnessed at Springer’s Inn in Portland, Oregon, in May 1969:


"...suddenly the music is not notes or a tune, but what those seven people are

exactly: The music is an aural holograph of the Grateful Dead. All their fibers, nuances, histories, desires, beings are clear: Jerry and his questing; Phil the loyal comrade; Tom drifting beside them both on a cloud; Pig staying stubbornly down to earth; Mickey working out furious complexities, trying to understand how Bill is so simple; and Bob succumbing inevitably to Jerry and Phil and joining them. And that is just the beginning, because at each note, at each phrase, the balances change, each testing, feeding, mocking and finally driving each other on, further and further on."

In the beginning, the song--like the band itself--was no big deal. Lacking either the "ritalin-and-hashish" sound of the first album or the we-worked-on-this-for-months artlessness of Anthem of the Sun, the studio version of Dark Star--unheard by many until the release of the What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been greatest hits package, many years after the fact--sounds like an orphan of sorts. No way did it belong on Aoxomoxoa, with that album’s overly written, complex-for-the-sake-of-complexity songs. Unlike most of those songs, however, the studio Dark Star was not an end, but a beginning......


"There are certain structural poles which we have kind of set up in it, and those we periodically do away with." -- Jerry Garcia

The earliest Dark Stars are marked by an energy that ranges from crude to downright wired. Subtlety was not the Dead’s strong suit in their early years. Nor were they, as musicians, much more than high-flying neophytes on their chosen instruments. Banging it out was the order of the day, as anyone who’s listened to tapes of the Airplane, Big Brother, and (God help us) Blue Cheer from this period will attest. Nothing about the Dark Star from the 2/14/68 Carousel broadcast indicates any awareness of the song’s potential. The reading is a bit stiff, a bit fast. There’s not much of a beat; Garcia’s solos do not stray from the main theme. The unfocused intensity gives some heat, but little light. It’s obvious, at this juncture, that the band, when not putting its eggs in Pigpen’s basket, was more focused on the Anthem material, particularly That’s It for the Other One.

A month later, Dark Star reappeared at the Carousel (3/30) and at an unknown location (3/26). The percussion is more sophisticated, but there’s nary a snare or tom-tom to be heard. The beat is kept by a pair of maracas. It’s still a speedy Jerry-and-Phil show, with Bob doing little more than repeating the simple chord pattern over and over again and Pigpen somewhere on the periphery. It sounds as if the band has an arrangement they’re striving to perfect, but they aren’t swinging--their reach exceeds their grasp. Phil spends an inordinate amount of time fingering the upper reaches of his fretboard. While approximating a counterpoint to Garcia’s still-tentative lines, the technique (combined with the subdued percussion) precludes any rhythmic development, rendering Dark Star a respite between blood-and-thunder numbers like The Other One, Alligator, and Lovelight.

The Dark Star on Two from the Vault (8/24/68 Shrine Auditorium, LA) is nothing short of a revelation. Garcia sounds far more comfortable here--his playing has a ballsier, more confident tone. They’ve gotten the song away from its previous "pretty" sound and are determined to explore more ominous terrain. They’ve fleshed out the arrangement--a nascent E minor thing after Garcia’s final restatement of the melody (aka "the Dark Star riff"), a two-note Weir harmonic lead after the first chorus. The percussion is still faint, but between March & August Jerry apparently realized that he could stretch out his between-verses solo. This version is more than twice as long (and infinitely more satisfying) than the earlier versions from ‘68. By July, Dark Star had evolved from a stop-over to a destination--complete with eccentric outro vocals.

But all was not well with either Dark Star or the Dead. Pigpen and Weir were not with the program. Pigpen’s repetitive riff on the 8/24 version is maddeningly monochromatic, while Weir stubbornly sticks to playing first-position (folk guitar) chords, and damn few to boot. It sounds for all the world like he is several giant steps behind Garcia and Lesh in his development as a musician. Whether these factors were in any way connected with Pigpen & Bob’s "nearly leaving" or "almost being fired" (depending upon which story you believe) is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that the pair were conspicuously absent from a series of "Mickey and the Hartbeats" gigs in the early fall of ‘68.

The band was reunited for a the 10/12 gig at the Avalon. The Dark Star from this show indicates some further evolution. There’s much less preoccupation with establishing the leitmotif. Most conspicuously, Lesh is playing in the lower register--more typical for the bass, but a radical departure from his past approach to Dark Star. What’s more, there are the first cautious signs of drumming in the waning moments of the song--a first. These innovations give Dark Star new depth, throwing Garcia’s flights of fancy into more rhythmic relief. While Weir is still struggling to say something, he’s at least attempting to put a new spin on his contribution. Garcia adds here a series of triplets, following the more developed E minor thing, that would adorn many future Dark Stars (as well as find its way into other songs).

It was about this time that the band began to perform Dark Star, more often than not, as part of a suite that would be immortalized on Live/Dead. The 2/11/69 Fillmore East performance offers seeds of musical ideas--especially in Garcia’s playing--that would blossom in San Francisco a couple of weeks later. The big news is: Weir’s discovered second position chords! He inflects his playing a bit differently right from the start, though he reverts somewhat to form before Garcia starts singing.

The 2/27/69 Fillmore West Dark Star, captured (and remixed) for posterity on Live/Dead, remains the mother of all Dark Stars. The drummers finally jump in with all four feet (after hinting around at two shows in Vallejo the week before), with wonderful results. Weir’s playing has improved markedly, though it’s striking how low he’s mixed on the album, as compared to the soundboard tape. This version hits peaks and goes places before the first note is sung. The band takes a lot of impromptu detours. They were recording; they were swinging for the fences; they hit Dark Star out of the yard. This, friends, is the first full-blown Dark Star. If, perchance, you are unfamiliar with it, put this essay down, obtain a copy of Live/Dead, and get to know it. This essay will be here when you get back.

Live/Dead was recorded before (though it was released after) Aoxomoxoa. The Dead’s experimental period was in full bloom throughout 1969. They seem to have recognized Dark Star as a primary vehicle for unalloyed Deadness, non-Pigpen division. Listening to so many versions of Dark Star from 1969 makes one realize that, while Dark Star at its core is about improvisation, it is not a "completely improvised piece". Certain riffs recur more or less verbatim throughout the different versions.

If early 1969 was a time for consolidating their gains, the rest of that year was a period of using those gains as a springboard into parts unknown--unknown as recently as the Live/Dead shows. One exceptional example of a fiery Dark Star is 5/31/69 Eugene. The hyperventilating presence of Ken Babbs throughout the concert offers possible illumination as to why this Dark Star is so noteworthy.


"If it were possible for us to be able to survive playing music that was as potentially free and open as ‘Dark Star’, it’s likely we would do that or something along those lines." -- Jerry Garcia

For Dark Star, mid-1969 was a period of fruition; for the Dead, it was a period of transition. Change was everywhere: Several Aoxomoxoa tunes disappeared from the repertoire; country classics like Slewfoot and Silver Threads & Golden Needles replaced them; Garcia started playing pedal steel guitar onstage; and a collection of new, quieter original songs began to make their presence known. The Dead were undoubtedly influenced by hanging out with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, whom they credited with teaching them how to sing. (One rests assured that Messrs. Crosby and Stills learned a thing or two about playing electric from the Dead.) In the outside world, Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline changed the course of rock music overnight; the Dead--longtime Dylan admirers--were not immune from its influence. Things were changing all around the Dead, and the Dead were changing as well.

How did these developments affect the evolution of Dark Star? Not as much as you'd think. The Grateful Dead tent was big enough to include country crooning, Pigpen bluesing, and Dark Star blooming. Certain Dark Star patterns were in place by now: The melody is established. Garcia will state an idea. The band will kick it around and develop it, and Garcia will bring them back with a riff that may or may not be from Live/Dead. And all this before the first verse is sung..... Time was irrelevant. They played Dark Star long and they played it short. The Aquatheatre 8/20/69 show contains a radically short version, but this is much more the exception than the rule.

The 1969 model Dark Star peaked in November at the Fillmore West, of all places. The 11/7 and 11/8 concerts contain outstanding versions. The opening moments are a bit quieter, but Phil still states the theme and Jerry still initiates direction. The structural poles are very much there, but working the embryonic Uncle John’s Band into the heart of Dark Star was a none-too-subtle (and not terribly well executed) message that the band was headed in new directions that--overtly, at least--had little to do with psychedelia as it had been theretofore construed. Fillmorites could be forgiven for missing the message, packaged as it was within some extremely uncompromising sonic assaults on inner and outer space. But it’s an important part of Dark Star’s evolution: The musicians (Weir, in particular) would occasionally slip recognizable--and subsequently misnamed by fans--themes into Dark Star, on and off, over the ensuing years.

By now, it was a given that Dark Star was what happened between its verses. The intro, the opening notes, the lyrics, and the outro were the "structural poles" that separated the song from untitled chaos--those elements that bestowed form upon said chaos. But after that first verse, things fell apart and dissolved, to be recombined into something--or nothing--else. Form was abandoned; risks were taken. How far can we go? How do we get back?

These were not idle questions. They were points of intense interest for band and fans alike. Live/Dead had yet to hit the record stores; there was no taping scene. In order to hear Dark Star, you had to go to a Dead show. How you reacted to Dark Star--particularly one such as 11/7/69--had a huge bearing on whether you ever went to another one. If Dark Star was a psychedelic gut-check for the band--and it is this essay’s position that, in its heyday, it most certainly was--the song was also a psychedelic litmus test for its audience. At this time, the Dead’s audience was small, loyal, and unified by an intense appreciation for a type of music epitomized by Dark Star.


"...there’s a great big huge difference in form between ‘Dark Star’ and the blues, but I think that its essence is the same." -- Jerry Garcia

It’s remarkable how sophisticated the band’s sound became from, say, Woodstock (8/69) to the November Fillmore shows. They feel like bustin’ loose, yet they do so only sporadically. What was holding them back? By now, Pigpen was laying out during the spacy stuff, the drummers were totally in sync. The complex personnel crises of the previous fall were but a hazy memory. And yet..... when listening to tapes of the period, something seems out of place. What could it have been? History hints that the answer may have been Tom Constanten.

It’s not like TC held the band back, or anything like that. In a way, he was locked into his avant-garde bag as much as Pigpen was locked into his blues. Aoxomoxoa was his moment; when that album failed to excite either the band, its record company, or a significant segment of the record-buying public, the Dead intuitively realized it was time to move on. They didn’t want to be "experimental" anymore--they wanted to boogie. The bulk of the Aoxomoxoa tunes "didn’t stick" in the repertoire. Eventually, it dawned on the band that the album had been an expensive mistake. (Live/Dead, in fact, was conceived and released in order to pay for the studio excesses involved in producing Aoxomoxoa.) TC’s contributions onstage became less and less relevant. Sure, he contributed the occasional recognizable flourish, and his talent was (and is) undeniable, yet his overall impact on the music is rather like that of a hood ornament on an automobile: nice, nothing wrong with it, but ultimately dispensable. A case in point: 11/8/69, at the Fillmore West. During Dark Star, Constanten goes toe-to-toe with Garcia for a bit, then works some brief interplay with Lesh, all with indifferent results. The rest of the band is cooking, but TC sounds like he’s playing along with a record at home. Whether because or in spite of his playing, the 11/8 Dark Star is nowhere near as mind-melting as the previous evening’s onslaught. The band has to slip into The Other One to get things really moving. Perhaps the two are entirely unconnected, but the next phase of Dark Star’s evolution coincided with TC’s departure from the band in early 1970.

A lot of heavy stuff happened to the Grateful Dead in early 1970. The first serious episode occurred when they were busted en masse after a gig in New Orleans. Although nothing ever came of it--and the band was ultimately amused enough to immortalize the arrest in Truckin’--there was no way they could have known, when they played Dark Star for the first time after the bust (2/2/70 in St. Louis), that everything would be all right. Jail is a famously scary place, even if you’re just passing through while waiting to make bail, and the possibility, however remote, of an extended relocation to the New Orleans parish jail had to have been at least a bit unnerving. Perhaps that’s why the 2/2/70 Dark Star is a radically different beast than the one spotted at the Fillmore less than three months earlier. There are no pretty melodies, no swirling improvs. It’s a hell of a long way from the just-released Live/Dead. Phil is out front, a defiant survivor going for noise rather than pretty music. Eventually, Jerry comes in to give the song a more "conventional" spin. Weir’s more prominent than usual. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the wind’s been taken out of their sails, for the time being at least. They’re playing it much more cautiously than they did a few weeks ago, in Oregon. Smack dab in the heart of Middle America in a time of quasi-revolutionary political upheaval, they’d better be.

New York City was an unlikely haven, but Bill Graham’s Fillmore East had by now become their home away from home. They were able to inject a healthy dose of lyricism into one of the best-loved Dark Stars, from the 2/13/70 late show. The Fillmore East gave them the luxury of time--so often denied them on the road in that era--to develop ideas and themes, and the Dead took eager advantage. There’s less emphasis on sonic weirdness (though there surely is some). Weir instigates a variation on the Uncle John’s Band riff that, regrettably, has come to be known as the Feeling Groovy Jam. At times, the luxury of stretching out led to aimless self-indulgence; tonight, they had it goin’ on. For many, this (along with Live/Dead) is the Dark Star by which all others are measured.

Over the next few months, the evolution of Dark Star took a back seat to that of the band. The Dead had begun playing acoustic sets at their shows. They’d developed a spin-off band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage. They’d recorded an album, Workingman’s Dead, with nary a psychedelic jam to be heard. Some old-time Deadheads were horrified by this "soft Dead", but Workingman’s made them a lot of new fans, many of whom could get behind a down-and-dirty Dark Star. A prime example of the old Dead meeting the new is the pair of shows from 5/15/70 at the Fillmore East. Mickey Hart is particularly out front on the late show’s Dark Star. The increasingly country flavor of the Dead’s newer material had given him less and less to do. He makes up for that with a vengeance here. His gongs and cymbals combine with the bass for a first-class percussive freak-out. Jerry eventually intervenes to suggest more melodic directions, but he’s not above a little feedback. This type of freaking out was commonplace in Spring 1970 Dark Stars.

Other things were happening in the band in 1970. Lenny Hart (Mickey’s father), their manager at the time, had--after alienating a significant portion of the Dead’s crew--absconded with a healthy sum of money that was never fully recovered. That had to be a significant buzz-kill. They’d released their first live album--its greatness notwithstanding, it was already a year out of date. The Hunter/Garcia songwriting tandem hadn’t stopped with Workingman’s--they were on a roll. It’s hard not to feel, when listening to tapes years after the fact, that their hearts were in the newer material. To the extent they considered time, Friend of the Devil et al. were "now"; Dark Star was "then". Dark Star may have been old hat to the band by now, but Deadheads embraced it as their own almost as soon as Live/Dead was released. Compare the applause after the 5/15/70 version with that after the (superior) 2/14/70. They obviously relish the opportunity to jam out, but a "been there, done that" vibe occasionally leaks out from Dark Stars of this period. Evolution was occurring elsewhere.

A notable Dark Star, from this or any other era, occurred in Portchester, NY, on 6/24/70. It is another justly well-loved version. What’s interesting, from an evolutionary point of view, is the way the band weaves in and out, using Dark Star to highlight two newly minted originals. After a minute or so of Mickey/Phil bombast, they deliver a rough-but-quiet Attics of My Life. They pick up Dark Star again, then take a humorously abortive stab at Sugar Magnolia. This interesting, unique version was a forerunner of those later Dark Stars that would encapsulate El Paso, Sitting on Top of the World, Me & My Uncle, and other decidedly unspacy material.

Fast forward to 9/18/70, again at the Fillmore East. Dark Star’s tempo has slowed a tad. Mickey’s using the guiro--the cricket-like percussive device so prominent on the earliest Dark Stars. There’s a greater emphasis on dynamics; after the first verse, things fade to near total silence, from which Phil’s feedback and Mickey’s cymbals emerge, augmented by some Weir filigree. Bob’s playing has become more sophisticated by now, but he keeps throwing in those damn theme/riffs whenever he runs out of ideas.

In a way, 9/18 is a refined throwback to 2/2/70--the music has a dark, angry edge. Jerry, leading the way out, as usual, shows signs of this as well. Rather than facing a crisis from without, as had been the case in February, the current hassle was much closer to home: The extent of Lenny’s larceny had become painfully clear. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that, however blasé the individual band members (other than Mickey) came across regarding the whole affair, the group mind was pretty damn pissed off (they could no longer take all the credit for being perennially broke!) and expressed itself in Dark Star.

The most interesting characteristic of the final well-known 1970 Dark Star, 11/8 at Portchester, is the Jerry-led attack of the "Main Ten" theme, which would soon become the core of another jam vehicle, Playing in the Band. The progression from 2/13 to 11/8 was not as sweeping as one might guess. The Mickey/Phil combination after the first verse had developed a life of its own by the end of 1970. This gave the song a harder, almost industrial edge. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the latest phase of Dark Star’s evolution peaked in Portchester on 11/8/70. In a quirk of geographical coincidence, the next phase would begin on the same stage, a few months later.


"...all I can do is talk about ‘Dark Star’ as a playing experience."

"Well, yeah, talk about it a little."

"I can’t. It talks about itself." -- Jerry Garcia, interviewed by Charles Reich

That the Dead switched gears in a major way in the winter and spring of 1971 has been amply documented elsewhere; it’s obvious to anyone with even a modest tape collection. There were no Dark Stars that we know of between 11/8/70 and 2/18/71. Several new songs were rehearsed and debuted (and a series of Portchester shows postponed) during this period. Draw your own conclusions.....

The 2/18/71 Dark Star differs markedly from the version that prowled the same stage a scant three months earlier. Much of the weirdness has been squeezed out. Phil offers a short burst of feedback, but Mickey is nowhere to be heard. The song ultimately serves as an elaborate set-up for one of Garcia’s new tunes, Wharf Rat. (As with 6/24/70, this Dark Star is a showcase for promising new material.) The new tune segues back into Dark Star with a beautiful instrumental passage. With this performance, lyricism supplants sonic weirdness as Dark Star’s main ingredient. Tonight’s Dark Star is almost literally a snapshot of a band in transition.

The Dead’s continued infatuation with simpler song structures meant a concomitant deemphasis on polyrhythms and percussive esoterica--in short, less Mickey. In a 1969 interview, Mickey referred to 4/4 (common) time as "the box" from which the band was determined to escape. By early 1971, the band seemed all too happy to spend most of their onstage time within the confines of that box. Mix in lingering, intense embarrassment about his father’s chicanery and it’s little wonder he left the band after the 2/18 show.

If, by 1970, Dark Star was a bottle of fine cognac--broken out on special occasions, or sometimes just for the hell of it--then, by the Spring of 1971, Dark Star had an eccentric uncle--locked in the attic, seldom inflicted on the public. The Dead played Dark Star exactly three times on an April tour of the Northeast. The Boston 4/8/71 performance marked the first time that Billy had to carry the percussive load by himself. He plays it safe here, keeping things relatively close to home, while Phil--seldom a shrinking violet in Dark Star--achieves a new prominence that foreshadows the European developments of the following year. The net effect is an exercise in extended, amiable riffing that never strays too far from the main theme--Bob hitting a D chord is about as weird as it gets. That the Dead chose to break out Dark Star in Boston during this "drought" can be most likely attributed to the affection they had for that town’s audiences.

Such noble motivation can’t be ascribed to the Fillmore East Dark Stars. The first one, 4/26, shows an effort to recapture some of the magic the song had created there the year before, with mixed results. They quest, they seek, but they never quite find. That would come two nights later. The well-known 4/28 version has an almost New Year’s Eve air about it. It’s more brightly textured than the 4/26. One is tempted to wonder whether the band would have bothered in the absence of special guest keyboardist Tom Constanten. They give him space and a profile he’d never enjoyed during his stint with them. The extent and depth of the changes they’d gone through since TC’s departure are on full display here. At times, it sounds like an exercise in nostalgia. In retrospect, though, it’s a fond farewell--not only to the Fillmore East, but to Dark Star as a crucial, central element of their repertoire. Although they couldn’t have known at the time, they were about to begin saying goodbye to Pigpen as well.

You can’t keep a good song down. Dark Star spent most of 1971 in eclipse, neglected in favor of newer material that would show up on American Beauty, Skull & Roses, and Garcia and Weir’s solo albums. But there was still a hunger, both onstage and in the audience, for those moments of inspired jamming best provided by a righteous Dark Star. "DAAAAAAWK STAAAAAW, JERRY!" had entered the East Coast Deadhead lexicon by now, as had divisions of opinion regarding the relative merits of "hard" and "soft" Dead. (Jerry was quoted as saying, "They can call it ‘vanilla’.") The next stage of Dark Star’s evolution most definitely coincided with the arrival of Keith Godchaux as their new pianist in the fall of 1971.

Keith was born to play in the Grateful Dead. He was an impact player whose contributions were essential to the flowering that Dark Star, the band, and the band’s popularity began to experience in 1972. Keith was the bridge between Spring ‘71 and Europe ‘72.

His input on Dark Star was evident right from the start--he leapt into the fray. Billy would go to his cymbals early and often. Tempos were more relaxed; the band found new avenues in the pre-verse jamming beyond the occasional minor chord from Weir. (It must be noted that Bob had blossomed as a guitarist around the time Keith joined the band.) They hit peaks at the beginning that they’d previously not accessed until well after the first verse. Above all, the fall ‘71 Dark Stars showed a renewed emphasis on dynamics: Softly played, pretty passages alternate with moments of frantic loudness. All of this was delivered with a mature self-assurance that bordered on--egad!--polish.

Travel broadens the mind, or so they say. The Europe ‘72 tour affected all aspects of the band’s playing. Weir, in particular, continued to shine. If the Europe Dark Stars have anything in common, it’s the confidence, the poise with which the band delivers the goods. By now, the band had perfected Dark Star as a vehicle for the development and expression of multiple, complex ideas within a relatively confined framework. When the ideas achieved critical mass--as they did routinely in Europe--the band dispensed with the framework entirely. Thematic recapitulation, second verse, and coda--all of these structural poles were done away with. The band continued to explore contrast and dynamics, going from whispers to screams. Europe Dark Stars featured much more pre-verse instrumental activity. By the song’s "end"--more accurately, the point where it segued into something else (most notably Morning Dew)--any resemblance to Dark Stars past or future was purely coincidental.

By the end of the Europe tour, Dark Star had become a vehicle for stunningly free-form creation. More than at any other period of its history, each version was radically different. This fact makes listening to ‘72 Dark Stars so enjoyable, even as it renders attempts at coherent analysis futile. Dark Stars of this period seem to take on characteristics of the venues at which they were played: hot and sticky (Roosevelt Stadium), intimate and friendly (Berkeley Community Theatre), familiar and spacy (Veneta). The Dead were on a roll, dealing from strength, using their instruments as a painter uses a palette.

This essay would probably not be published if it failed to acknowledge the Dark Star from the Springfield Creamery Benefit in Veneta, Oregon, on 8/27. While the course of human evolution may or may not have been mere prologue to this event, there’s no denying that the Dark Star from this show is mellower and happier than the one from, say, Roosevelt Stadium. (In fact, 7/18 is yang to 8/27’s yin.) This might be a function of the respective sets and settings. If nothing else, the Veneta Dark Star was a prototype for the wonderful Dark Stars the band performed in the fall of 1972.

Each version from this period has its own personality. Overall, they’re somewhat less dissonant (7/18 was a peak in that regard). Sometimes there are drum solos; sometimes there are bass solos. The 9/27 Stanley Theatre performance (captured on Dick’s Picks XI) offers 25 minutes of instrumental pleasure before the first word is sung.

Things were going relatively well for the Dead in late ‘72. Their records were selling, their audience was growing. Their shows from this period--especially the Dark Stars--often convey sheer glee, a happiness to be playing this particular music at this particular time. This self-assured tone carried Dark Star into early 1973, but things would begin to change. The biggest and saddest change was the death of Pigpen. Although, as a practical matter, he hadn’t been a factor since the Europe tour, he was a member of the band until the very end. A case can be made, in fact, that Dark Star developed as it did, at least in part, to fill the vacuum left by the absence of Pigpen and his wealth of material.

Another change the band went through was the formation of their own record company. Jerry was quoted as referring to record companies as "a mindless juggernaut" and saying he didn’t feel like he had "a brother at Warner Brothers". (Europe ‘72 and Bear’s Choice were conceived and released, among other reasons, to hasten the band’s departure from Warner Brothers.) Grateful Dead Records forced them to divide their energies between their business and their art; it’s no surprise that both were affected. It’s even less of a surprise that they were much better at one than the other.

Nineteen seventy-three was not a good year to be a touring rock band with its own fledgling record company. Touring and recording required petroleum products. Petroleum was suddenly scarce and expensive. Their first release, Wake of the Flood, though much loved by Deadheads, did not have the impact on the world at large that their previous two studio albums had had. As for touring, they were playing for more people, for more money, and they *still* couldn’t make ends meet. A Rolling Stone article published around this time hinted that the band was consistently dissatisfied with its performances. They were unhappy about the larger venues their popularity was forcing them to play. Their audiences--particularly at outdoor East Coast shows--were growing ever rowdier. Grateful Dead Records was beginning to look like a bad (and questionably managed) idea. Taking some time off--a long time off--was starting to look like a damn good idea.


"....I have a long continuum of ‘Dark Stars’ which range in character from each other to real different extremes. ‘Dark Star’ has meant, while I’m playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine...." -- Jerry Garcia

How did all this tumult affect Dark Star? Any exercise in collective improvisation is the sum of what the improvisers bring to the exercise. As we’ve seen, Dark Star was a funhouse mirror, a psychedelic gut-check, a peek into the group mind. It served as an escape from mundane hassles, as well as a chance to vent about those hassles. To that extent, their approach to Dark Star had to be greatly affected by what was going on around them. It is this essay’s position that Dark Star’s evolution from Europe ‘72 to Fall ‘73 was greatly affected by the circumstances within and without the band described above.

The ‘72 and ‘73 Dark Stars, as groups, are like two different forests. The ‘72 Dark Star forest is, for the most part, safe and inviting, warm and bright, a place you want to tell your friends about. The ‘73 Dark Star forest is, overall, darker and more foreboding, not for the faint of heart. A great setting for spooky stories, it’s a place to warn your friends about.

It’s fascinating to hear Dark Star progress from February to December in a year that many Deadheads consider to be among the band’s peaks. The 2/15/73 Madison Dark Star is a joyous continuation of the lyrical playing that marked most late ‘72 versions. Phil merrily solos away, as he was wont to do in fall ’72. In fact, his solo dominates the post-verse festivities. As the year went on, of course, his more melodic solos would gravitate to The Other One.

By June, Dark Star’s pace had slowed. The 6/30/73 Universal performance finds the Dead in a transition of sorts. Phil is relying on bomb-like chords, and Jerry is turning more and more to wah-wah and feedback. Our old friend dissonance has reappeared--a more sophisticated (and much better amplified) form, to be sure, but far removed from the lyrical prettiness that characterized the Dark Stars from earlier in ‘73. Perhaps the renewed emphasis on terrifying noise was a gradual reaction to unpleasant circumstances--as it had been after the New Orleans bust.

The Dead were as much "in the mood" for Jerry’s birthday (8/1/73) at Roosevelt Stadium as they had been in Veneta the previous August. The Dark Star from this show doesn’t lie. The music builds up from next to nothing to a shrieking crescendo. Billy goes from lightly tinkling bells to wailing away, unrestrained by anything resembling conventional rhythm. This is one of the more breathtaking examples of Dark Star dynamics from ‘73 or any other year.

Late ‘73 versions all too often featured Weir throwing in chord progressions (often one that regrettably has become known as the "Mind Left Body Jam") whenever he ran short of ideas (cf. 12/2/73 Boston). This is the only flaw of the dense, uncompromising 10/25/73 Madison (what was it about that town in ‘73?) Dark Star. Phil’s playing had evolved by now into dark abstractions and thundering chords. Jerry’s playing has moved in this direction as well, making heavier use of wah and feedback. Their styles achieved an apotheosis of sorts before the hometown crowd at Winterland on 11/11. (Compare Phil’s 2/15 solo to his playing on 11/11 for a measure of the extent to which his approach to Dark Star had changed.)

The 12/18/73 Tampa Dark Star is the end of this particular line--the last stop on the tour, with no New Years shows, it has a dosed-on-the-last-day-of-school feel. It’s a dark, aggressively emotional reading. One pictures vast segments of the audience scratching their heads and wondering, "What was that all about?", while the rest of the crowd grins helplessly. Even as one marvels at the stunning power of this Dark Star, one must admit that the Dead sound a lot more tired and a lot less happy that they did at Madison in February.

The exact moment the band decided to quit touring remains unknown; Weir has indicated it was sometime in the latter half of 1973. It’s therefore conceivable that the end was in sight during the February Winterland shows. It’s tempting to say that the 1974 shows were devoted to playing out the string, but that would be an overstatement. While fatigue is occasionally noticeable on concert tapes from the period, there is no question that the Dead had their moments during this time.

Dark Star, unfortunately, provided relatively few of these moments. The Dead, for whatever reason, played it more sparingly in the last few months before the hiatus than at any time since 1971. Perhaps this was because the Dead were burnt out on performing, touring, and (in all likelihood) each other by this time. As mentioned earlier, Dark Star expressed the Dead--or allowed them to express themselves--better than any other song they did. It can therefore be inferred, or at least contended, that in 1974, the Dead were burned out on Dark Star.

There’s little doubt that Dark Star had lost a step between December and February. Things don’t get nearly out of hand on the 2/24 Winterland performance as they routinely did in Fall ‘73. There’s an unsurprising, Mars Hotel kind of politeness afoot, as if they’ve refined their ‘73 excursions and reigned in the beast. Everybody sounds more laid back here; they would sound even more so as the year went on. Keith is much more prominent in the mix. Weir’s attempt to bring in the so-called Spanish Jam is met with complete indifference and quickly abandoned. Jerry explicitly tries to recapture his 11/11 sound. In listening to the tape, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve heard this before. No new ground is broken; no new ideas are expressed. Perhaps Dark Star has grown up, which is another way of saying that it essentially has stopped growing.

It’s obvious from tapes of the ‘74 shows that the jamming action was happening elsewhere--Other One, Playing, Eyes, Weather Report, even the Phil & Ned segments, all contained healthy portions of that Dark Star energy. Dark Star, by comparison, had begun to recede. The 6/23/74 Miami version (incorrectly referred to in some quarters as "Dark Star Jam") captures the band in a listless, uninspired mode. This version is noteworthy for the absence of any lyrics (cf. 12/5/71 for a similar phenomenon), but the most telling detail is their use of the Spanish Jam theme as an escape route, rather than a detour. It takes them out of Dark Star and into the then-fresh environs of U.S. Blues.

Our analysis ends with the 10/18/74 Winterland Dark Star. This one’s a keeper. Perhaps they were smiling for the cameras, believing that this could be the last time. Whatever the case, this one is, for all intents and purposes, as much a swan song to Dark Star as the Winterland shows were to the first phase of the Grateful Dead’s existence. This is as close to sentimental as Dark Star ever got. They’re tired, they have solo projects that interest them more, and they’re being filmed--not a good mix. But the Dead crank it up once more, for old times’ sake.

This essay’s intent is not to rate the Dark Stars, nor is it to push personal favorites. This essay gladly leaves the myth-making and rewriting of history to the self-styled experts who, it fears, will always be with us. However, if this essay has given the reader a framework for a deeper appreciation of Dark Star--and, in the process, the beginnings of an understanding of why the music sounded like it did when it did--then this essay is satisfied, and it will sleep well at night.

By Chris Forshay

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