Tuesday, February 6, 2018


 Chapter one of Positively Garcia: Reflections of the JGB

            As Garcia, Saunders, Kahn, and Kreutzmann launch “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” time’s suspended by the hypnotic groove. It’s a Dylan tune, yet there are no lyrics to ponder. The repetitive riff is sublime—Frisco Blues—as mysterious and vast as the Pacific, yet heavenly and cool in the style of Miles. Garcia’s snapping strings sing a lonely lullaby—poetry-in motion. The drummer and bassist are locked in tight, and the beat bounces brightly as the earthy vibrations of the Hammond organ swirl in and out and all around—aural ecstasy! This blues riff will never sound this good again, and the musicians know IT. There’s a song to be sung, somewhere down the line, but the band proceeds deliberately, intent on basking in the moment. A modest studio gathering and a privileged West Coast FM radio audience are listening in on this intimate musical conversation. Out of the mesmerizing groove, a mellifluous voice suddenly whispers:
            “KSAN in San Francisco.”
            Ordinarily this type of interruption would defile a masterpiece like a scar on the Mona Lisa, but the lady DJ sounds sultry, and it seamlessly intertwines with the music as if it were preordained. And if ever a radio station deserved to beat their chest, KSAN deserved props for broadcasting this jam from Pacific High Studios on 60 Brady Street in San Francisco. The musicians in the studio couldn’t hear the radio call letters, but Garcia is seemingly spurred on as if he could hear the DJ’s titillating tones. With each round, his leads become more pronounced and provocative. Garcia’s obviously an inspired man, possibly possessed. Even the purest of archivists wouldn’t wish away the KSAN interruption. It’s a stamp of immortality.
            Jerry draws a deep breath, steps to the mic, and an angelic voice fills the air. “Wintertime’s coming, it’s filled with frost. I tried to tell everybody but I could not get across.”
Hey, Jerry, wrong verse…wrong lyrics! Garcia sings the third verse instead of the first, and Dylan’s words are, “THE WINDOWS are filled with frost.” Yet we’ll forgive this faux pas because the bearded guru is singing with feeling, sweet and true. Without a trademark solo, Jerry transitions from the third verse to the first:
“I ride a mail train, mama, can’t buy a thrill.” Priceless. Garcia caresses every syllable until the jingle nimbly touches down. Garcia will perform more complex versions of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” but few satisfy like this odd nugget which radiates in its own imperfection. If I were commissioned to arrange a soundtrack for a documentary on the essence of Garcia as a performer, this is where it would begin.
            The band noodles and doodles in preparation for the next entrĂ©e. Garcia has a thing for tuning up. It’s an artistic endeavor for him, and quite frankly, the guy’s got a problem; he can’t stop picking. Someone in the pocket-sized audience yells out a barely audible request, and Garcia replies, “Everything’s gonna be all right.” Sure, that was easy for Mr. Garcia to say. By 1972, he had the hip world at his command. With the Grateful Dead’s most recent vinyl releases, Workingman’s Dead (recorded in Pacific High Studios) and American Beauty, the band had finally tasted commercial success and critical acclaim. The band’s lyricist, Robert Hunter, was on the mother of all rolls, penning verse after verse, and anthem after anthem, as if he were Robert Allen Zimmerman, the pen master himself. And the twenty-nine-year-old leader of the band, Jerry Garcia, was a virtuoso in his prime, unleashing visions and dreams beyond imagination. With Kahn, Kreutzmann, and Saunders jamming by his side, Garcia glowed. Everything’s gonna be all right, indeed.

             Following Garcia’s proclamation, the band slams into “Expressway To Your Heart.” All aboard the Motown Express! This little ditty penned by Gamble and Huff, and made famous by The Soul Survivors, is now a vehicle bulleting at the speed of sound—a bawdy traveling companion for “It Takes a Train to Cry.” Garcia and friends hammer “Expressway” as if this is the last jam of humanity. This tour de force rages down a jagged highway, and the band never eases off the gas—ten minutes of thrills at breakneck speeds. They interact as if they’ve sped down this road a thousand times before; however, this is their debut gig as a quartet. Jerry defers to Merl a few times, and Saunders drains a whole lotta soul from his Hammond B-3 organ. But on this number, Garcia’s driving the train, and it’s quite possible he’s high on cocaine. His volatile playing veers off the tracks, yet the Bearded One finds his way back home by balancing musical equations on the fly. 

For this Pacific High gig, Grateful Dead drummer Billy Kreutzmann, fills in for Bill Vitt, who had handled drumming duties for most of the Garcia/ Saunders shows. The familiarity of having Kreutzmann striking the skins is a rallying force for Garcia, and it energizes the quartet as a whole. The first Garcia/Saunders show took place on December 15, 1970, and after twenty or so performances, Garcia and Saunders were bubbling like lava. Jerry had also been moonlighting with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, but this involvement with Saunders and Kahn had developed into his pet project outside of the Grateful Dead. With Kreutzmann on board, this was perhaps the finest band of Bay Area musicians ever assembled. These visionaries were on the same wavelength, speaking the same language; yet there was virginal excitement in Pacific High Studios—a talented group hitting it off on their first date. 
On the heels of such a fanciful Pacific High opening, “That’s a Touch I Like” is no slouch in the third slot; in fact, it’s ravishing. After a crisp opening solo, Jerry croons, “Red ribbons in your hair, I’m kind of glad that you put them there. That’s the touch I like. That’s the touch I like. Whoa-oh-oh, that’s the touch I like.” This snippet of female infatuation was penned by Jesse Winchester for his eponymous 1970 album. On that record, this tune is mislabeled as “That’s the Touch I Like,” and that’s the touch Garcia likes, because that’s the way he sings it. Winchester actually sang, “That’s a touch I like,” and when his album was reissued on CD in 2006, the title was corrected.
Anyway, those witnesses at 60 Brady Street must have been swept out of their seats. Garcia’s charm and inquisitive nature took center stage. Is it the red ribbon, or the woman, that sparks the singer’s imagination? Either way, Jerry’s so pleased, he concedes, “I’ll be on my very best behavior.” The pulse and vibration of this performance is infectious, an instant remedy for the blues.
In arcane ways, these songs seem to be communicating with each other; each tune has a companion. It begins with the traveling tunes, “Train to Cry” and “Expressway.” The flipside for “That’s a Touch I Like” is this show’s encore, “How Sweet It Is.” Written by the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and popularized by both Marvin Gaye and James Taylor. “How Sweet It Is” would go on to be immortalized by the Jerry Garcia Band, becoming their signature opener, and the band’s most frequently played number. In substance and style, “How Sweet It Is” and “That’s a Touch I Like” are siblings; yet, “That’s a Touch I Like” would never be performed again after May 21, 1975. Of the two, I prefer Jesse Winchester’s baby. It could have been a dynamite alternative opener to the overplayed “How Sweet It Is.” However, on this night, both ballads are rapturous, a snapshot of Jerry’s giddy optimism.
These were also optimistic times for American culture. In February of 1972, two cinematic classics, The Godfather and Deliverance, were released, and Don Mclean’s “American Pie” was number one on the Billboard charts. In matters of war and peace, these were turbulent times. The United States was fatigued from a decade of civil strife and the horror of the never-ending war in Vietnam. Moving songs of protest, empowerment, and hope were replaced by monumental escapist anthems and Teflon rock. Maybe music couldn’t change the world, but it could take you to another time and place—transcendence. And in 1972, nobody was improvising mind-bending guitar jams like Jerome John Garcia. 

Back in Pacific High Studios, Kahn kicks off “Save Mother Earth” with thick, brooding bass blasts. Soulful riffs from Saunders ensue, and Garcia answers with yearning guitar bursts. The only original played by the band on this night, “Save Mother Earth” was written by Saunders for his soon-to-be-released album, Heavy Turbulence, which would also feature the following number, “Imagine.”
Garcia must be donning Superman’s cape as he wails on “Save Mother Earth.” Captain Trips breaks the instrumental free from the mother ship, spinning and spiraling it to the cosmos and beyond—“Dark Star” > “Mind Left Body Jam” territory, the psychedelic providence of the Grateful Dead. Jerry pecks away frantically and the sonic voyage gets way out there—farther, further, faster. When the exploration crackles, fizzles and fades, Saunders gently leads the band into “Imagine.” The audience applauds the soothing familiarity of the melody, relieved to be floating back towards earth. The segue is flawless. There’s no attempt to sing Lennon’s song. Garcia’s guitar humbly and simply pleads for peace on earth.
For Deadheads who collected bootlegs prior to the proliferation of digitized music, “Imagine” is the last song on the first side of a ninety-minute Maxell XLII cassette tape. The tape from 2-6-72 is a perfectly balanced boot that plays like an album. Sides A and B have their own distinctive mojo, and they complement each other as if they are separate sets, although this is a ninety-minute performance with no break. As the most bootlegged performer of his time, Garcia seemingly had a sixth sense for filling up tapes, as if he was performing especially for the tapers. This notion is not farfetched. In the early ‘60s, Garcia bootlegged largely unknown and wildly talented bluegrass musiciansthe very troubadours that fueled Garcia’s guitar picking fetish.
Side B commences with “That’s All right Mama,” a four-solo pressure cooker—Beale Street spirit meets New York City tenacity. Rolling Stone magazine identified Elvis Presley’s recording of “That’s All right Mama” as the first rock and roll record, and Garcia’s extended version embdies and amplifies that rowdy/rebellious swagger. “One and one is two. Two and two is four,” sings Jerry. Improvisation is like arithmetic in Garcia’s brain. The waterfall of creativity flows from his guitar, yet it all makes sense; every note is a number leading to the final sum. Transparency. When Garcia’s in the zone, he’s like Einstein on bennies—in front of a blackboard, chalk in hand.
Lingering in the Mississippi Delta, the band pairs “That’s All Right Mama” with Jimmie Rodgers’ “That’s All Right,” a song that has been mislabeled on most Pacific High Studio tapes as “Who’s Loving You Tonight.” The circulating KSAN tape is missing the opening of this song and it’s a damned shame, because as we jump in, Garcia’s on a rampage; his searing leads sizzle in agony. Saunders leans into his Hammond and unleashes hissing, hell-bent blues, the nasty and tenacious strain. As Jerry follows, he comes off like Clapton, Bloomfield, and Stills all rolled into one, and as he finishes out this tribute he howls, “But now that I wonder, whoo-ooh-ooh-ohh’s loving you tonight.” Somewhere in heaven, Jimmie Rodgers yodels back his approval.
An iconic album, or performance, is usually characterized by a magnificently orchestrated selection of songs that relate to, and build upon, each other, so that the listener is drawn deeper into the web of the artist’s vision. If you hit a shuffle button and randomly listen to the songs of Abbey Road, the playback won’t create the same experience as if the songs were heard in their rightful order, as consciously conceived by The Beatles and George Martin. The songs still stand on their own, but their collective power diminishes. Great live performances can be consciously orchestrated, but I prefer the thrill of free-flowing improvisational genius, which under the right circumstances, and fueled by the right momentum, can create a masterpiece that exceeds what the performer or audience could have ever imagined. On 2-6-72, Garcia is in that rarified air. After the Jimmie Rodgers’ stomp, Garcia paints his masterpiece with Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble, ancient footprints are everywhere,” croons Garcia—admiration and awe blatant in his delivery. In Garcia’s world, Dylan’s visions are glorified: Inside The Coliseum, dodging lions and wasting time…I landed in Brussels, on a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried…Train wheels running through the back of my memory…Young men in uniform and young girls pulling mussels…Newspaper man eating candy, had to be held back by big police. Oh, the sights and sounds! In Dylan’s studio recording of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the kaleidoscope of images are stacked upon each other, almost too much to ponder in a single listen. In Garcia’s “Masterpiece,” the tempo is relaxed, and the tone of his vivacious vocals illuminates Dylan’s lyrics. The three wicked guitar solos give the listener the time and space needed to relish and absorb the majesty of it all.
Just as the show had begun with a Dylan/Motown one-two wallop, Garcia and his cohorts chase “When I Paint My Masterpiece” with Stevie Wonder’s Motown masterpiece, “I Was Made To Love Her.” Like “Expressway To Your Heart,” Wonder’s genius is transformed into a colossal instrumental. The symmetry of this concert is uncanny. One and one is two. Two and two is four. On “Expressway,” the band latches onto a tight groove before Garcia comes off, but on Wonder’s tune, Garcia’s en fuego from the get-go. Graciously, Jerry defers to Merl, and the funky organ grinder swamps the studio with R&B. Kahn and Kreutzmann crank the tempo, imploring Garcia and Saunders to take it beyond their comfort zone. Like Ali in his prime, Garcia’s creative flow is endless. There’s never a dull moment, aborted lead, or hesitation of any kind.
Amazingly, this was Garcia’s debut of “I Was Made to Love Her,” an instrumental he would only perform six times, and never again after 1974. All of this experimentation by Garcia was stunning considering what a groundbreaking year 1972 would be for the Grateful Dead. After a short run of shows at Manhattan’s Academy of Music in March, the Dead barnstormed Europe for six weeks, which led to the idiosyncratic triple album, Europe ’72, which once again showcased the mystical musings of Robert Hunter. On a 100-degree day in August, the Grateful Dead melted minds with a three-set spectacular on Ken Kesey’s farm in Oregon. The band’s fall tour was even hotter; but all of this was not enough for Garcia. He was driven to explore and pay homage to the music he cherished. And this band he formed with Saunders and Kahn completed Garcia as an artist. The music would never stop.
The jam on 2-6-72 doesn’t need an exclamation point, but Garcia provides the punctuation with Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue.” Once again, the song symmetry is there—a Stevie Wonder number is followed by a tune that his mentor, Ray Charles, made famous. “Lonely Avenue” also pairs off well with the earlier blues scorcher, “That’s All Right.” Here’s to the slipstreams of imagination that flow through a gifted mind.
During the melancholy intro, Garcia’s guitar weeps: “I could cry, I could cry, I could cry…I could die, I could die, I could die. I live on a lonely avenue.” Tears fill each syllable as Jerry belts out, “My room has got windows and the sunshine never comes through.” And the way he achingly sings, “I live on a Looonleyyyy Ave-ah-nue…” It’s pure heartache—the blues minus humor, irony, or defiance. Garcia’s voice calls, and his guitar responds patiently to his own pleas.

Garcia lived on the same Lonely Avenue as Doc Pomus and Ray Charles. These musical brothers are bonded by the pain of suffering through unspeakable childhood tragedies. Jerry Felder, who later changed his name to Doc Pomus, was crippled by polio at a young age. Ray Charles Robinson completely lost his eyesight when he was seven, but prior to that, he witnessed the drowning of his brother George in a laundry tub, a vision that would forever haunt him. When Garcia was five, he may have witnessed the drowning death of his father Jose on a fishing trip. It isn’t clear whether Jerry actually saw the drowning, or if it became a learned memory from him hearing the story retold; but either way, the pain of losing his father was unbearable. A year earlier, Jerry had two-thirds of the middle finger on his right hand severed as he was steadying wood for his older brother, Tiff. Yes, five-year-old Tiff was swinging the axe that accidentally severed Jerry’s finger. Doc, Ray, and Jerry were all too familiar with growing up on Lonely Avenue .
In the heat of this Pacific High “Lonely Avenue,” Garcia bends his guitar strings until they screech and scratch with all the surpassed pain of his childhood during the solos, most notably, the second one. The sky’s a-crying as Garcia methodically plots his attack and unloads it with the fervor of a preacher prognosticating the apocalypse. Kahn’s a demon, thumping with all the madness in his slender frame, prodding Garcia past the point of no return. Climaxing with a mandolin-like tremolo, Garcia kicks on the wah-wah pedal to infuse some final despair. Clearly Garcia is a learned disciple of the blues tradition. This cathartic journey is bound to rattle your bones and shock your brain.
“How Sweet It Is” wraps things up; but after “Lonely Avenue” it’s anticlimactic, like watching a battle for bronze. In a rousing ninety-minute romp, Pacific High radiates the talents of Garcia better than any studio release of the Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia Band. Beyond any shadow of doubt, 2-6-72 features the finest renditions of “Expressway To Your Heart,” “That’s a Touch I Like,” “Save Mother Earth,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” and “Lonely Avenue.” It’s a rolling rhapsody of masterpieces in their early prime, raging in all their glory.
In one impromptu performance, Garcia and mates assembled and reinterpreted an anthology of Americana that covered a vast spectrum of musical genres linking legendary lyricists and performers: Dylan, Lennon, Wonder, Charles, Presley, Pomus, Rodgers, Gaye, Saunders, Winchester, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gamble and Huff. Although Lennon hails from the foreign shores of Liverpool, “Imagine” became an American lullaby, a melody of hope for a burned-out nation. If one were to arrange the originals of these songs for an album, the sum would be the embodiment of essential Americana, perhaps the beginning of a modern companion for Harry Smith’s extraordinary Anthology of American Folk Music (1952).
Pacific High has gone on to become a consecrated recording for Garcia aficionados, and because it has yet to be officially released, it maintains the alluring appeal of a bootleg. With the plethora of officially released Jerry Garcia Band concerts, I can’t fathom why 2-6-72 hasn’t met the same fate. Possibly some bootlegs are too hot for public consumption; they’re destined to remain in the Bootleg Zone, where only true fanatics can access, trade and obsess over them.
This rambunctious Pacific High jam was a crossroads performance for Garcia who, against his will, had been anointed as the inspirational guru of the Haight-Ashbury scene, just as Dylan had been anointed as the voice of his generation. Dylan’s radical break from the folk scene came when he donned a black leather jacket, strapped on an electric guitar, and blasted away the peaceful expectations of those at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a performance that was as outrageous as it was courageous. He temporally riled up a few folkies, but more significantly, he turned on and influenced a budding generation of rockers, including the Beatles, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead.
Critics and fans have always tried to stamp and label Dylan, but as a solo performer with a lot of nerve, Dylan has remained elusive, dodging other’s expectations. On the other hand, Garcia was always trapped by the expectations of his rabid fan base and those in the extended Grateful Dead family who depended on him for their own livelihoods. Garcia could never pull off a Dylan and completely reinvent himself. It’s well known that Jerry didn’t have a confrontational bone in his body. Captain Trips never desired the leadership role in the Grateful Dead, but sometimes history just crowns its heroes.
As the years rolled by, Garcia would be worshipped by millions. He could never file for divorce from the Grateful Dead, or his hippie kingdom. To cope with this burden, Jerry escaped into a ceaseless assortment of chemical cocktails; but his true love was creating and performing. With Merl Saunders and John Kahn, Garcia formed the nucleus of a band that would sustain him—a shelter from the storm. He found a musical outlet outside of the Grateful Dead without raising any eyebrows or alienating followers. In fact, Deadheads loved and embraced his new band; it was a natural extension of his artistic vision. And this performance in Pacific High Studios was a signpost to the future. The Jerry Garcia Band was busy being born, and it would never fade away. 

                                                   POSITIVELY GARCIA
                                      DYLAN & THE GRATEFUL DEAD


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