Amir Bar-Lev’s 4-hour documentary on The Grateful Dead has its moments: Al Franken explaining the subtleties of Althea, Robert Hunter stating that his lyrics “are clear”, as well as archival footage of an army platoon on LSD. And of course there is the music – Uncle John’s Band, Sugar Magnolia, Dark Star and Playin’ in the Band and on – along with reams of concert footage. However, as melancholically sweet as these moments might be, the narrative is skewed, emphasizing the mania and addiction, a tough go for anyone not a Deadhead. The story of Jerry Garcia as the unwilling guru/god throughout his life is ironically reinforced throughout the film, focusing almost exclusively on his reclusive genius while tip-toeing around the personal wreckage an addict leaves behind, which leaves the viewer wondering how the others might have coped the past 22 years since his death.Which is the biggest gap of all in the film, ignoring the fact that Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart have all been consistently touring, chasing a sound as rapturous as ever.
I’m trying to figure out this moment, like a glimpse from the ridge, the sun just right, the river and valley streaming out, where the getting to where is gotten to and there might be nothing more. It’s the end of the first set opener – Sugar Magnolia – for The Closing of Winterland on New Year’s Eve 1978. Bobby is raring to go, strumming and, well, bobbing, while Jerry watches, amused by these simple chords that we are all ready to jump and die for.And they go on, Bobby strumming and bobbing, Jerry beatific, Donna unwittingly caught in the whirligig of this remarkable everything thing.And because it’s recorded, I watch it again and again and come to the realization that a simple thing is not that at all.
The hype on Dead and Company, the latest Grateful Dead side project, is befuddling to say the least, although the success of 50th anniversary shows have certainly led us hereThe truth is, however, that the fall tour of this hodgepodge and questionably-named band has little to do with the concerts in Chicago. Not only is founding member Phil Lesh nowhere to be seen – indeed he is concurrently playing in his eponymous band – but neither were Bruce Hornsby and Trey Anastasio included.
This group lacks the soul of earlier post-Jerry Garcia incarnations, The Dead and Furthur, neither of which were bedazzled by all the hype.This band, headlined by pop guitarist John Mayer who has nothing whatsoever to do with the music of the Grateful Dead, is a dubious path for Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and, if they are not careful, could lead to moments they might regret.
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been praised as a great filmmaker and artist, one who probes the shades of humanity in such great films as Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon. Bob Weir, not as highly praised, is certainly recognized for “chasing the music” as he says, on his 50-year journey as rhythm guitarist with The Grateful Dead. And so I was intrigued to watch documentaries on each man this weekend to perhaps gain an insight or two through understanding their trials and tribulations.
It was not to be.Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2007) offers brief moments of filmic analysis amidst a tidal wave of laudatory praise, Steven Spielberg gushing, “He was a conceptual illustrator of the human condition”. And so despite a 50-year career, we are left with the trite summation that Mr. Kubrick worked terribly hard and loved his family, little else.
The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (2013) is worse. While some fellow musicians offer comments on Bob Weir’s work, the documentary is almost solely guided by bland recollections by Weir – “Here’s my Jerry Bobbblehead” – occasionally, boyishly and evasively hinting toward his notorious off-stage reputation. His band mates are only briefly interviewed, likewise alluding, saying little else. It’s a shame that both of these these documentaries offered so little, not that they should focus on personal scandal, but that they veered so very far from the very same human condition that these men had endeavored to understand and instead settled on empty praise.
The Grateful Dead create an environment like no other. It is a simple thing, marvelous and sweet, just music, but music to live in, breathless and divine at moments, raucous at others, insane in between, just music, music that never seems to end.
Yeah, I love The Grateful Dead. That’s why I wanted to go to the 50th Anniversary Shows in Chicago. That’s why I entered the mail order. That’s why, even after only 10% of the orders were fulfilled (not for me) in some sort of unpleasant insider deal with Ticketmaster, Stubhub, Ebay, etc, I tried again.
That’s why, even with tickets marked up as much as 1200% (yes, twelve thousand percent), I am still considering going to one of the nights. And that’s also why I’m questioning the whole thing…or to be more honest, why I’m so pissed off at the band right now. This astronomical pricing indicate that there is a possibility of Jerry Garcia might show up when it’s going to be Trey Anastasio instead, a guitarist known for his obsessive Zappa-like changes, and on-stage shenanigans.The ugly tenor established by the promoters of this event indicate that this show could even feature a bastardized setlist or two. And it could be real bad: Day Job – Big Boss Man – Money – Deal – Money Money – Might As Well – Sell Out.
The Dead do not have a good business history, messing up Grateful Dead Records and every big concert they staged; as Bob Weir admitted many years ago, “We always blow the big shows”.
Indeed, for this show of shows, how is that Deadheads will even get in……when the market for tickets has been cornered by Deadheads who have lost their way?The band has never been known for empathy. Many anecdotes in Dennis McNally’s What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been focus on the band members’ personal indifference toward one another, including when drummer Bill Kreutzmann had to leave a tour to visit his gravely ill father, and only Bob Weir bothered to talk to him about it.
The musicians are known for their personal indulgences in sex, booze and drugs, and not much else…except of course for the music. It is the music that is supposed to take us away from the scourge that is us, the burden of who we actually are, this detritus, our ugly state. And, yes, this music really can do that. It’s just that now The Dead are demanding a heavy price..and it isn’t just money. And yet…I still wanna go. How much is it again?