Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

From The Top #10

TotD has been informed that the Dave’s Picks reviews have been described using words and phrases such as “farcical,” “off-topic,” “only tangentially related at best,” and “you can’t review two Official Releases at once, jackass.”

All of those things were said by the Gardener of Rose City, Mr. Completely, who as we know is also secretly Portland’s own The Tree Octopus. He fights crime with his heterocotylus, which is a dick-arm. Or an arm-dick. A dick-arm, yes, because it operates the same as the other seven arms–suckering and grasping and all–but it’s also a dick.

Anyway: fucker’s got one of those. Too much time on tour, I guess, but he uses it to aid his fellow Portlandianites on their bike rides home from gluten-free yoga. Muggers, flashers, the heteronormative: all fall to the unlicensed, untrained baton-wielding Deadhead with a dick-arm!

It’s getting weird around here.

Yeah. Anyway, he was offended by my laxity in Dave’s Pick reviews, so he took the reins for Volume Ten. All opinions expressed herein are Mr. Completely’s completey, in all completeness. Leave me out of it. Also, any typos are his, unless they occur in the italicized part, in which case he is also responsible for them, somehow.

Take it away:

Look, these half-assed Dave’s Picks reviews have gone on long enough, don’t you think? It’s time for an adult to step in, and I guess that’s me. Since you can see the word “Mr.” right there in my name, with its forceful semiotic of respectable masculine authority I must be qualified. After all, “TotD Guy” is what we all call TotD Guy – not “Mr. On The Dead,” no matter what his made-up medical office worker dialogues might have you believe. That’s not the kind of name we give to subject-matter experts or professionals in this culture, is it? By way of contrast, I have at hand all the tools of the professional (or at least the expert): espresso, the finest West Coast cannabis concentrates, a loud stereo and a pro quality thesaurus. Put me in, Coach!

So we will begin with Dave’s Picks 10, a fine late ‘69 selection from small LA theater which for some reason we are supposed to believe was simply called “Thelma.” As seen in official release liner notes and other, less absurd blogs than this one, all proper Deadhead show reviews start with a context-setting paragraph or two. This is both to situate the music in a proper interpretational frame for the listener/reader and to impress upon them the writer’s mastery of the material. Prepare to be situated and impressed!

As any serious Dead obsessive can tell you, late 1969 was A Transitional Period For The Band both musically and socio-culturo-psychologically. The end of that year was when everything finally fell permanently and inarguably apart for the “Sixties counterculture movement,” which while a little on the nose timing-wise undeniably had a major impact on the band, as the world-weary bittersweet cynicism of their mature artistic period begin to manifest lyrically and in their onstage affect. We thus can unpack the tension you’ll hear in the music as an apt metaphor for the effect of the Manson murders, the Altamont debacle and rest of the national dark night of the soul on the Dead’s collective psyche.

Restless creativity (or sheer boredom) had also driven the band out of the tightly rehearsed performance style they had mastered for the recording of Live/Dead earlier in the year, and so the shows of this period demonstrate a new, looser approach to the improvisational sections of the songs. Between this sardonic, experimental approach to jamming, the relatively unformed new country-influenced material, the sophomorically clumsy enthusiasm of Weir and Lesh on the newly relevant backing vocals and the fact that Mickey seems to have turned into a potato for much of this timeframe, gig recordings of the Thelma vintage often present as sloppy, unfocused or meandering on the surface. But this loose presentation can disguise deep structure that should greatly interest any serious Dead fan.

This show is in fact an important historical document, a snapshot of a crucial moment in time: a glimpse into the liminal state so beloved of all serious New Critical Thinkers like you and I. In this snapshot the band stands poised between What Was and What Is To Be But At The Moment Isn’t Quite, a point of maximum ambiguity, the deconstructionist interpreter’s dream wherein everything becomes a matter of perspective. The band wasn’t sloppy: they were experimenting with new, less structured modes of performance, so don’t be a middlebrow simpleton about it, kid! Mickey wasn’t nodding off or even playing wildly out of sync: he was integrating minimalism and stochastic beat structures as a decentering exercise within his technique. Bobby and Phil were taking a microtonal approach to harmony vocals, not randomly screeching.

See, this is easy! With the right frame of interpretation it’s easy to reframe these issues in a more informed way. You just don’t get that kind of sophisticated insight from TotD Guy, do you? He and I have a nice bromance going, despite the occasional boundary issues, but we all need to be realistic about our strengths and weaknesses in this life.

Having provided a proper contextual reference frame for interpretation and built reader tension across several paragraphs, we’ll now flip the script with the badass expert show reviewer trick of jumping in media res to the heart of the gig: the magnificent, stratosphere-scraping Alligator > Caution jam from disk 3. We’ll go back later for the rest of the music, but this masterpiece sequence delivers a densely packed series of musical thrills in the emerging conversational improvisation style of the time, and every single one of you reading this probably skipped right to it when you got DaP10 anyway so why not just get to the good part.

What do we mean when we say “conversational” in the context of improvised music? The essence of the idea comes from the development of post-bop jazz in the early to mid 1960s as epitomized by the “second great quintet” of Miles Davis and Village Vanguard era Coltrane, filtered into the Dead’s music through the listening habits of Garcia and Lesh in particular. Freed from the linear structure of sequential solos, improvisational music of this lineage enters a state of constant creative/destructive mutual interplay, wherein each note, scale, or chord choice may signal assent, demurral, or creative digression from the emerging direction of the “conversation.” A quintessential example can be heard in the musical discussion underway late in the Thelma Alligator jam.

The topic of musical debate, as it were, concerns whether to proceed with the natural canonical transition into Caution; to find another potential transition into a different song; or to simply abide in an ambiguous but pleasing improvisational space. We hear the debate between Lesh and Garcia quite clearly: the latter is ready to complete the Caution transition, while the former is unconvinced. “I’m not ready to leave this musical space,” the obstinate bass ostinato proclaims; “there may be territory here yet undiscovered.” Phil really talks like that, you know.

“I want to play fast and loud, Phil, get a move on” comes the answer from the guitar – Garcia is no teddy bear onstage when it comes to musical direction in this era and of course has a more blue-collar diction.

Two bars later we hear the answer, plain as day: “Well, I concur that accelerando to crescendo would be fine indeed, but I’m going to need to work my way back into the Caution structure from here.” Phil may be an intellectual at heart, but he likes to rock out as much as the next fellow.

Always glad to be helpful whenever he was getting his way, Garcia now inquires solicitously (expressed through a louche, piquant Django-inspired run): “Sure my friend, what do you need to get there?”

“I’m gonna need…about tree fiddy” comes the unexpected response, and that’s when Garcia suddenly realizes in shock that instead of his bass player friend, Phil is actually a six-story tall crustacean from the Paleolithic Era. That damn Loch Ness Monster has foiled their jam again!

“Get outta here you got dam Loch Ness Monstah! I ain’t givin’ you no tree fiddy!” Garcia flashes the Hey Rube signal to Billy, who jumps up ready to go and accidentally wakes up Mickey. But the Loch Ness Monster ain’t fool enough to mess with Bill The Drummer, no sir! So it runs right out the Thelma backstage door and off into the bad ol’ Los Angeles air.

We never do find out what happened earlier in the show.



  1. that’s actually a damn good review
    where am I?

  2. Wow. Lots of words. Good for you!

  3. Hey Mr. Grammar Challenged: “This show is in fact an important historical document, a snapshot of a crucial moment in time: a glimpse into the liminal state so beloved of all serious New Critical Thinkers like you and I.”

    It’s “you and me.”

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