Wednesday 14 June 2017

Streaming - LONG STRANGE TRIP (Amir Bar-Lev, USA), Rod Bishop is enthralled by a movie about The Grateful Dead

In the first six months of 1989, The Grateful Dead played 17 shows in California. Every time a show was announced I tried for tickets, but never had a hope in hell. You want Neil Diamond tickets? Not a problem. But The Dead? Forget it -the Deadheads had those gigs completely under their control.
In the late 60s and early 70s I never owned a Grateful Dead record, but their music was everywhere I hung out. Friends’ houses, university halls, record shops, cafes. I vividly remember a farm on the Mornington Peninsular commandeered by Dead fans with the music blaring at extreme volume across the paddocks. The cattle were unconcerned. The music filled the farmhouse and kitchen as food was made for a couple of dozen visitors and was still rolling across the night sky when we left.
I also knew people who’d actually been to three-hour and four-hour Dead concerts in the States. One is my life partner and I’ve had to live with that ever since.

The streaming version of Long Strange Trip runs 4 hours 40 minutes, although there is close to 45 minutes of credits spread across the six ‘acts’. It covers Jerry Garcia’s first musical steps in the early 60s and the entire career of the band until Garcia’s death in 1995 at the age of 53.
Early career highlights include Garcia explaining how the “conversational” musical style of bluegrass (instruments playing off against each other) was the blueprint for the band’s celebrated improvisation on-stage and not, as many have thought, jazz.

There’s footage of The Dead playing at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests; what remains of footage shot by a Warner Bros film crew trying to film the band but who were sabotaged by LSD during the shoot; a very engaging, blunt talking cockney road manager Sam Cutler - on band member Pigpen and his death in 1972: “Alcoholics don’t like acid; they’re trying to shut down the doors of perception, not open them”. There’s the legendary LSD-manufacturer Owsley “Bear” Stanley and his jaw-dropping, astounding, ridiculously gigantic “Wall of Sound” speaker stacks. And contented shots of the enormous road crews The Dead insisted on remunerating far in excess of any other band at the time.
The Grateful Dead made it up as they went along. They were a legendary musical commune who created an acid counter-culture community around them. With very few exceptions, the band’s lyrics were apolitical in very political times. Their touring parties would stretch to wives, kids and anyone else who was fun to be around. A graphics industry grew up around them, riffing off the skull, the lightning bolt and the lettering. Counter-cultural books were constantly published espousing The Dead’s philosophies, influences and blueprints for living an alternative life.

Jerry Garcia
This was a band like no other. The shaman-like Jerry Garcia repelled all attempts at being the leader, believing everyone contributed and no-one makes anyone do anything, like that Punk era phrase from the UK “No-one rules, ok?” Organizationally leaderless and financially irresponsible (at least in the first 15 years), they were dedicated to live performance rather than studio recording (driving their record company Warner Bros nuts) and they encouraged fans to illegally tape shows (also driving Warner Bros nuts).

Allowing this bootleg industry to blossom – it had its own section set up near the stage – proved a master-stroke. Tapes of shows circulated, collectors proliferated, older brothers and sisters introduced their younger siblings to The Dead with the bootlegs. For a band that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) produce the requested string of hit singles, it just inverted the business model. They wouldn’t survive on record sales, but from live performances. The bootleg industry become responsible for the vastly increased attendances through the 80s and 90s.  The music industry was impressed, The Dead claim there was nothing brilliant about this strategy - they were just being typically permissive, letting people do whatever they want.

Through the 1980s, as this audience grew, quasi-religious elements developed, like the Deadhead “spinners”, Sufi-like trace dancers who literally believed Garcia to be a prophet. Religion or not, the attraction was a concert experience like no other.

By the late 80s, the shows moved into stadiums to accommodate those without tickets who were partying outside the venues. But everything grew exponentially and thousands more started turning up to the party outside venues. Garcia’s heroin addiction got worse and most of the insiders believed he would just play on until death.

Not being a Deadhead, I don’t really know what’s missing. What I did notice was that no mention was made of percussionist Mickey Hart’s dad Lenny, of whom Wikipedia says:
Lenny Hart was also the Grateful Dead's original money manager. In March, 1970, he disappeared along with approximately US$155,000 (US$955,900 in 2016 dollars) of the group's profits.
Hart was located by a private detective and arrested in San Diego on July 26, 1971,while baptizing people and using the name "Rev. Lenny B. Hart". He was convicted of criminal embezzlement and sentenced to six months in jail.
Sounds a little like Ronnie, father of David Cornwell (John le Carre).
The gestalt of The Dead, particularly their social influence on the counter-culture is pretty thinly covered. The website gives a “not comprehensive” list of 364 books about the band or books including a chapter on the band. These include 70 histories of The Dead; 24 biographies of Garcia; 75 biographies of other band members; 16 about other Dead personnel; 21 on graphic art originating from the band; 16 comic books; 18 books devoted to Deadheads; 7 kids’ books; 4 Dead recipe books and 5 on The Dead’s business and marketing.
There’s a lot of stories in those books.

Towards the end of Long Strange Trip, footage appears of Jerry Garcia gracefully scuba diving on coral reefs. He was a master scuba diver. Other reports say he made his PADI certification in 1988 followed by 500 dives along the Kona Coast in Hawaii before his death. Who knew that?

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