This Grateful Dead show at the Beat Club in Bremen, West Germany, April 21, 1972, was the show that turned me onto the Grateful Dead around 35 years ago. Got on the bus as the hippies say. It’s not even one of their best shows, although certainly one of the most unique on video, and Donna was squawking away, but it didn’t matter. 1972 is one of their top years. And a show with Pigpen and Keith is special. Out of the many keyboardists the Dead have had, Keith Godchaux was my favorite with Bruce Hornsby second. This was one of Pigpen’s last shows.
Where and how I grew up in South Carolina, good music wasn’t exactly easy to come by. I was born a poor black child, you see. Good music anywhere was tough, but especially in a little town of 500 in S.C. To get true alternative music back then, before alternative was mainstream and was actually an alternative to pop instead of being pop, you ordered records from magazines out of New York. My mother, fortunately, saved a big box of 45s from the beach house from the 50s and early 60s, and a stack of LPs that dated back to the late 1800’s I think. Seriously. Inch-thick discs of classical that played at obscure turntable speeds. But what was played mostly on the old Victrola was a lot of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Enrico Caruso, and other opera and country and western selections mostly. My father’s musical reach was the hook from Ray Stevens’ “The Streak,” and that was about it. We had a radio of course but with poor reception of crummy stations, who bothered? If you wanted to buy a record or cassette tape, you had the Record Bar at the mall, which sold mostly the same crap that was on the radio, or the seedy cinder-block building on the other part of town that sold classic rock and some good stuff, but was known more for their vast porn selection than their music. So I only went in there when my dad took me.
I had listened to Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor and the usual South Carolina fare that all my friends listened to, but I also listened to a lot of those old 45s of my mother’s. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were two artists whose hits I listened to a lot. All sorts of obscure hits from those decades were in that stack, and a lot of them were fun for a kid to listen to, like “Splish Splash,” etc…but I got a good feeling for the dawn of rock and roll and pre-rock. The Beatles totally saved humanity from some seriously terrible music. Paul Anka? Tiny Tim? Seriously?
And then one day, in the early 1980’s, I saw the cut of “One More Saturday Night” from this show (@30:20 in the video below). I saw it once, my jaw hit the ground, and that was it. Which made sense since VCRs were still a new technology and what you watched was whatever was on one of the 3 stations. But few things have hit me as resolutely as that did. Like Jehovah’s favorite choir. Seeing these guys play such energetic, raw rock and roll and the colorful wild hippie set and such intense and competent musicianship, and I was sold. (You have to think, this was the 1980’s and synth and bubblegum crap music was everywhere. Seeing guys actually playing instruments like that live and sounding so unique, real, musically complex(they have 7 people on stage) and completely awesome was amazing!) The modulation gets the blood pumping, too. Musically it was familiar. A big influence on Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing is obviously Chuck Berry which you can hear in One More Saturday Night and of course his cover of Johnny B. Goode and Promised Land among other songs that leak out the influence from that era like Not Fade Away. Plus Keith’s piano playing, with his runs and trills and ragtime feel was reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis. And no racks of stupid synthesizers everywhere like Devo-or far, far worse in the 80’s- but just Keith over on the side banging away at a piano with a bottle of Coke next to him. I still love watching and listening to it, even though musically it’s not their finest version. It’s pretty good though because of the energy. That’s easy to say though when you have a trillion shows under your belt. It’s still great and I still love it like the first time I saw/heard it in fact, if not more because I know the Dead pretty well now.
And before I get a bunch of emails telling me the Grateful Dead are terrible, I realize this is my opinion and they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Their time signatures are non-standard, which a lot of people don’t like, and the nontraditional arrangements are too much for some people as well. Jerry’s style involves coming in just a little late on vocals and guitar every now and then I’ve noticed, which he does on on purpose usually, which also may put some people off very subtly. Or maybe it’s just Donna, or whatever, but save your time and breath; I know it. I’ve heard it before a time or two. Thankfully, we don’t all have to appreciate each others’ music. I mean Slim Whitman was great and all…
I’ve also heard so many of their shows so many times now, I find I can pick out more and more unique information just by listening to them, like a sommelier can tell you about a bottle of wine by taking a sip. and this new sound system I have is revealing some amazing details I’ve never heard, like heaving breaths and picks hitting the strings and new percussion and subtle runs and phrases I’d never picked up on. In some cases entire instruments that you couldn’t hear in the background. It’s like hearing a lot of these shows for the first time again, which is pretty great. Especially with the frequent releases of all their best shows professionally remastered, like Cornell 5/8/77 etc… in really good audio quality.
The Dead’s sound evolved of course from a jug band quickly to rock and roll, and within that the songs and styles were dynamic. Psychedelia to country and western to old spirituals to jazz numbers to everything in between. Even a polka thrown in here and there. It’s partially why they’re the longest enduring band ever. This period in the 70’s was my favorite(minus the horrible disco-Dead with Go to Heaven-style “Street” songs. My least favorite Dead songs are Dancing in the Streets and Shakedown Street. And Looks like Rain.), with the early 80’s and late 60’s right behind. Those were different eras in several ways. The repertoire pivoting each time for one. Different instruments. Different hairstyles even. Lots of stuff. The worst being when they added the MIDI and went digital in the early 90’s. That’s also when the Dead became seriously mainstream and took on a life of its own. Weird to say when they packed a million people into their shows. But the partying and parking lot scene were out of control. It became about nothing but partying and the music was highly secondary. That’s when I stopped going to shows. It goes from novel at first, to distracting, then annoying after a while. I blame MTV, as I do with a lot of the decline of the general quality of the music scene in the US. How hot you were became more important than how good you were musically. That’s a big conversation for another time.
I recently remembered that I used to make the A/V guys at my high school play and replay the “One More Saturday Night” clip for me on Saturdays when I was stuck on campus, because only a few qualified
geeks students could hit Play/Stop/Rewind on the highly-technical VCR on the cart in the A/V center. Which was basically the library attic if I also remember right. What made me think of that was how things have changed since those days. I’m watching it now, at my total leisure, on a giant high-def screen on an audiophile-grade sound system. I can’t wait to see what media consumption is like in 30+ more years. I’m sure the guys in the band couldn’t begin to imagine their humble shows would one day be broadcast like they are. Bobby, with the ponytail, turns 70 this year. And he’s the youngest by quite a few years, since he ran off with the band when he was 16. In the decades following this performance, both keyboardists and the guitarist would be dead, the bassist will have a liver transplant and they’ll add another drummer. And make a ton of great music playing a few thousand shows in between, all available at our fingertips.