Wednesday, July 23, 2014

John: Uncle John’s Band

[purchase the Dick’s Picks version]
[purchase the original Workingman’s Dead version]

The Grateful Dead are an incredibly polarizing band. On the one hand, you have the haters, people who dislike the jamming, the psychedelic weirdness, the oblique lyrics, the often weak studio albums and the sometimes questionable harmonies. And then there are the legendary Deadheads, for whom the band was more than just a group of musicians, who followed them around the world, obsessed over their setlists and, to this day, nearly 20 years after the death of Jerry Garcia, still follow various remnants and splinter groups.

And then, there is me (and, I suspect I am not alone). I like the Grateful Dead. I like them a lot. I think that some of their music is remarkably good, particularly their more Americana-sounding stuff, but I’m not by any means a Deadhead. Although I recognize that they were much better live than on most of their studio albums, I saw them exactly once, in 1979 (more on that later), and I have never seen The Dead, The Other Ones, Furthur, Phil Lesh and Friends, RatDog, the Rhythm Devils, or any other of the post-Dead ensembles (although I kind of regret missing Phil Lesh and his sons playing at Princeton reunions a few years ago, with Stanley Jordan sitting in, but I was having fun with my classmates at the time. You can’t do everything).

I have two strong memories that relate to the Grateful Dead. The first was from 1974, when I was a 13 year old junior counselor at Gate Hill Day Camp. During lunch, they often blasted The Dead on the stereo, usually the recently released From the Mars Hotel album, which I really liked, especially the song “U.S. Blues.” That was the summer that the Watergate scandal was coming to a head, and as a politically aware kid, I understood how Nixon had subverted the law. Later that summer, we had a resignation party, which was great. But I also appreciated the dissonance (although I wouldn’t have used that word) of the hippie, druggie, anti-Establishment Grateful Dead writing a fun, almost positive song about America, waving the flag “wide and high!”

Jump ahead 5 years, and now, I’m a college freshman. I’m roadtripping to Lafayette College to see the Grateful Dead for the first (and, as it turned out, only) time with my high school friend Chris, who was at Lafayette (and some friends from Princeton, although I really can’t remember who). Things were going well as we waited outside the fieldhouse. It was a few days before my 18th birthday, and there were things to drink and smoke, none of which were legal for me to partake in, but, hey, it was still the Seventies, man. I even saw my cousin Billy there—he was more of a Deadhead than me, and came over from Muhlenberg, as usual with a beautiful girl in tow.

It was a general admission concert, and when they opened the door, it was a mad rush to get in. People were getting jostled, knocked over, pushed. When I got close to the door, I saw my cousin standing over his girlfriend, protecting her from the crowd, and I jumped in, pressing my hands against the wall of the fieldhouse to create a safe space for his girlfriend, until we went in. You can read more about the “’tidal wave’ of overzealous fans . . . who pushed through three doors . . . “ which was like “’the sinking of the Titanic and the mad rush to get to the lifeboats’” and the other security issues that resulted from the inexplicable decision to only open three doors from The Lafayette, here (as well as the fact that the band was surprisingly punctual, clean and easy to get along with). It was hot in the fieldhouse, the acoustics were not great, and I was completely freaked out by, you know, almost getting trampled. Only a few months later, at a Who concert in Cincinnati, 11 people were killed getting into a show. My memory was that for the first set, I was unimpressed, but the second set came alive. I’ve listened to recordings of the show, and read some comments about it, and it seems that my memory in that regard was accurate. Until I heard the recording, though, I had no recollection whatsoever of what they played. And I can attribute that to lots of different things, but you can speculate all you want.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to “Uncle John’s Band,” a song I chose because it fits the theme, but it is really just an excuse for me to tell my two Dead stories. Although it was not performed that day at Lafayette College, it is one of their most popular, and was often played by the band and on the radio. It’s accessible melody and Crosby, Stills and Nash inspired harmonies make it one of the Dead songs that even many non-Dead fans appreciate. Although like most lyrics by Robert Hunter, it is hard to figure out exactly what he means, it appears that the song is at its core a reference to “Uncle John” Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, an old-time string band that also included Mike Seeger, Pete’s half-brother, and a distinguished and influential musician in his own right. Cohen, a musician, photographer, filmmaker and musicologist. married Mike Seeger’s younger sister Penny. For much, much more about the song, its lyrics and what it all may mean, take the time to read this.

The obsessive nature of Deadheads, the band’s permissive policy on taping, the fact that every show is different, and the vast network of traders (even before the Internet facilitated such things) have resulted in spirited debates over the “best” version of their songs. For “Uncle John’s Band” there are a few contenders, but one of the most popular choices is the version in the video above, from a show at the Oakland Arena on December 26, 1979 (only a few months after I saw them). The show was a benefit for the Seva Foundation, a health care charity which focuses on vision care in poor countries and Native American communities. Bob Weir is an Honorary Lifetime Board Member of the foundation.

Ultimately, the entire show was released by the band as part of the Dick’s Picks series.  I lack the breadth of Grateful Dead knowledge to have any way of knowing if it is, in fact, the best version (if such a thing can even be determined). But I have to say that there is something really nice about the feel of it, the quality of the guitar solos and the harmonies, that make it special. And the band must have liked it, too, because they decided to reprise the song at the end of their last encore.

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