Monday, March 09, 2015

Musing On Hunter's Hybrid Poetic Borrowings & Garcia's Sonic Envelopes


When I first saw the Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ballroom in the early summer of 1966, it was because a housemate in the Haight-Ashbury who helped with the Avalon’s light show had proselytized for them – raved, in fact. I was already a Jefferson Airplane fan, having seen them at the Fillmore Auditorium and found them melodic, dynamic and, crucially for me, professional.
The Dead at the Avalon were anything but. They were largely fronted then by vocalist-harmonica man Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, an occasional organist who would not have looked out of place on a Harley hog amidst the Oakland Hell’s Angels, and had, in fact, already befriended them. Pigpen, I thought, growled in a fashion that sought to imitate both South-of-the-Border deejay Wolfman Jack and Chicago bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, with a bit of gruff boogie guitarist John Lee Hooker.

The acne-riddled lead guitar man, Jerry Garcia, stood back a bit, grinning Cheshire-like, and played rather pedestrian rhythm and blues licks, while the pretty-boy rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and foppish bassist Phil Lesh seemed more like extras for a high school production of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Only drummer Bill Kreutzmann seemed competent.

At the end of each Stax or Motown cover tune – and I say that advisedly because they bore slight lyric resemblance and the tunes meandered via extended noodling until the band members’ limited improvisational skills seemed to exhausted – the band would halt and then retune their instruments for nearly as long as the song itself had lasted. Dancers sought either to recoup their breath or recapture lost momentum in the wait between songs.

To say I was unimpressed would be kind. I found the Grateful Dead largely repugnant to my eye and dissonant and amateurish to my ear.  Still, I saw the Dead several more times during that period, usually as they joined neighborhood bands in free outdoor concerts in the Haight’s Panhandle, and grew to appreciate the leaps forward they seemed to be making both in their musicianship and in reducing their retuning time.
Within the year, though, I had left San Francisco, returned home to the East Coast and enlisted in the Air Force, which sent me to San Antonio, Texas; Indianapolis; and eventually to Tokyo, Japan. When I stopped in San Francisco again while homebound two years later, I learned that virtually all the bands had moved out of the city, usually to bucolic Marin County across the Golden Gate, and the scene in the Haight had been collapsed by hard narcotics and an overwhelming influx of young homeless.

Yet the Airplane and the Dead, along with a few other bands, soldiered on, landing recording contracts and starting to tour nationally.

The Dead’s self-titled debut album had come from Warner Brothers in March 1967, and I defy any fan to say it faithfully reflected what their shows were like. The vocal sound was muddy and instruments sonically constrained. Still, I bought it as a faint replica of my time in the Haight.
I encountered Live Dead, their first live album and fourth overall, almost immediately upon my October 1969 Stateside return. By this time, Robert Hunter had signed on full-time as the Dead’s chief lyricist, and the band’s original songs were growing shapely because of his collaborations with Garcia, whose melodies were increasingly masterful and his improvisations on guitar and pedal steel more focused. “China Cat Sunflower” and “Dark Star” became permanent parts of the repertoire, and elevated everything else, as well. Even Weir, the rhythm guitarist who fancied himself a rock-star singer by imitation long before he became one, was learning to pen original tunes and to actually provide compelling counterpoint guitar backup.
Hunter’s verses cross-referenced an array of source material, from Western cowboy lore to Eastern mysticism, astrology to mythology, the I Ching to voodoo magic, Elizabethan balladry to Mississippi blues legends, T.S. Eliot to Jack Kerouac. And then he’d mix and match. The more he wrote, the subtler and more intertwined his images and narratives became, until soon he’d created a unique hybrid of poetic borrowings. And Garcia provided the sweetest sonic envelopes in which to seal them.

Once David Crosby taught the band how to blend their voices for Workingman’s Dead and then American Beauty, both released in 1970, the Grateful Dead gained a whole new level of vocal and musical acumen. And those two albums’ songs, largely Hunter lyrics that traded in deep pioneering grit, framed its live shows for the rest of the band’s days.

The next two years saw more live recordings, especially the epic Europe ‘72 three-disc set, which showcased the enhanced harmonic possibilities once they’d added the majestic keyboard stylings of Keith Godcheaux and the mellifluous backup vocals of his wife, Donna.
But by 1973, it was time for a new studio recording, on their own label, after they’d been performing most of the songs for several months. Five of the seven tracks on Wake of the Flood are by Hunter-Garcia, and a sixth is by Hunter with Keith Godcheaux. Six of the seven album tracks became career mainstays — the whirlwinds that carried Deadheads onto their psychic waves.
Wake has many worthy and beautiful tunes, but one shone above the rest.

Hunter has said he wrote “Stella Blue” in 1970, in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where Bob Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and Arthur Miller penned “After the Fall,” two other masterpieces that have had potent impact on many and me over the years.
UC Santa Cruz archivist David Dodd, in his online version of Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, has much to say in musings and references related to the song’s verses. The first is to note that “stella” is Latin for star, hence “blue star,” harking back to “dark star.” But then, more plausibly to me from the first, Dodd notes that Stella guitars were popular among blues players such as Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell.

 When I first dropped the needle on “Stella Blue,” I conjured a poignant image of a woeful and weary tunesmith, beaten but once proud -- his battered, chipped and rustic ax stuck off in a corner of a dusty downtown lodging as its owner mulls better days and imagines one last chance to relive them. I only read of the Chelsea link later, and didn’t meet Hunter until much later, but the picture fits, though he was then a much younger man (28 or 29).

I like that Dodd also quotes a Wallace Stevens poem:

They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’
Hunter has had a special way of putting us (me) into his scenes, be it holding a pat hand at a poker game, riding the range with desperadoes or, in this saga, smacked with the realization you can’t win for trying, once more sunk with smashed hopes in a fleabag with an eerie blue cast to your even bluer surroundings. The song somehow reminded me, too, of a Wyeth painting I wrote about in my high school days, when a print of it hung on a school wall: “The Blue Dump,” a gravel cart Andy saw at his Maine getaway; its peeling veneer is sort of how I imagined that guitar might look.

When Garcia first sang “Stella Blue,” the renderings were delicate and yearning on the early verses, frustrated and then stoically determined on the bridge, then wistful as he closes it out. That seemed to change, though, as he tackled the lyric again and again, finding fresh nooks to explore.

I read one online reviewer underscoring its “gentle melody and dreamy environment,” even as he suggested it could put some listeners to sleep like a “boring, sappy lullaby.” Yet he saluted it as “absolutely the most downright gorgeous song the Dead ever wrote.”

After mainlining the vinyl version, I’m glad that my first “Stella Blue” concert experience was at the Philadelphia Civic Center show that Kiko’s House blogger Shaun Mullen and I shared on August 5, 1974. It was certainly no lullaby, but more pained and compelling. It drained me.
I discovered in auditing various versions chronologically from my home collection that “Stella Blue” churned anthem-like as years passed, perhaps as its title chorus in concert more constantly elicited a rousing cheer – at every chorus. By the 1990s, Garcia sang and played the song emphatically, even stridently, and the once-shimmering guitar-solo coda eventually morphed to bombastic. My sense was that the later stylings no longer fit Hunter’s initial atmospherics, though Garcia may have decided he was indeed “dust[ing] off those rusty strings just one more time [to] make them shine.” Or perhaps he was just seeking to avoid presenting a “boring, sappy lullaby.”
For me, delicacy and wistfulness, dreaminess and “downright gorgeousness” better suit the tale. How better to come “crying like the night” or “crying like the wind,” as Hunter envisions twice?
That final verse smacks of every Zen Buddhist koan I’ve ever read:

It all rolls into one, and nothing comes for free;
There’s nothing you can hold for very long. …
It seems like all this life was just a dream.

I can almost hear the Master then intoning: "Go wash your bowl."
And if I were to be fully transparent, “Stella Blue” rests today all the more emotionally, almost clairvoyantly on Hunter’s part, on that opening figure, that Cheshire China cat at the mike through all the vanished years: “A broken angel sings from a guitar. . . . ”

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