CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Riffs: Be Grateful You’re Dead

RIFFS: Be Grateful You’re Dead

The Grateful Dead have lost a lot of weight. Pigpen is almost svelte, and Bill the Drummer doesn’t look so good. Musically they’ve added so much weight that their old album (new one due in July) now sounds like your speakers have turned to sieves. You first heard it in December those two night at the the Village Theatre. What is the the same is the purity. No tricks, just music, hard, lyric, joyous — pure and together, dense and warm as a dark summer country night. There’s the Dead, and then there’s everybody else.

That spiraling new riff that comes through almost everything they play now — including the old stuff, pushed hard by Bill and the New Drummer, winds above you, around you, swoops you into a driving, pulsing, always always musical solid state of energy — enough to (incredibly) lift at least one New York audience to its feet dancing last week. Sunday in the park. They nearly caused a civic disturbance by stopping when the permit said they had to (disturbance cooled by Bill Graham). It was beautiful. The audience — a little wiped out from hours of Butterfield Blues, Airplane, crush, and waiting — milled and sat. The Dead played: it was New York, but it was a free concert, in a park on a sunny Sunday. The Airplane, back in the bandshell listening, grooved. The Dead started cooking. Suddenly teeny bopper was up down front, all lime green and longhair and motion. The row of photographers in front of her were up. Then the audience, not in rows, but en masse, was up, dancing, screaming, frenzied. A firecracker went off onstage. Bubblegum flew. A drumhead popped and drumsticks flew. The band grooved on. Everyone onstage was dancing. Suddenly it was over. There WAS something like it once before. Newport, Duke Ellington, Jonah Jones wailing in the wings on rolled-up newspaper, 27 choruses by Sal Salvadore. The audience was wild. The Newport cops requested and got an end to that. There was no riot then. But that was Newport, and New York audiences don’t come lightly to their feet. There was no riot this time either, of course — there was football in the meadow and a promise of three nights at the Electric Circus.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716114″ /]

The night before, in a set without a break that lasted over two hours, they played one epic number that lasted over one hour. The Dead were at Stony Brook, but the audience was nowhere at all, perhaps partly because the lightshow, which was good, very good in its own right, but inexperienced, was off on some trip that intruded on the music instead of backing it.

Tuesday the Dead opened (at a stiff $4.50 a head) at the Circus, which has good acoustics and is a generally relaxed place to listen. Their first tune is always a shambles — “You’ll have to wait till we figure out who we are and what we’re doing here,” says Jerry Garcia. When they find out, Garcia climbs all over your head with those beautiful riffs shot out of outer space; Bob Weir is there, always there, building, building; Phil Lesh, those long sets; Pigpen, riding everything. There’s the Dead, and then there’s everybody else.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717029″ /]

Wednesday, after one set that was nearly perfect, they busted eardrums with a full-volume “Viola Le” — retaliation on a non-dancing audience, not their best sound or act. It’s a drag that they’re dragged by non-dancing. New York’s not quite ready, but if they stayed here it would happen sooner. It’s still hard to move and hear simultaneously, but at least they raised one audience last week,

Thursday they played a touching “He Was a Friend of Mine,” then I understand some Kew Gardens mama invaded the stage and broke up the last set. Lesh booted her where appropriate, drumsticks flew again (aimed this time), Weir got beaned by a flying cymbal, the drummers stalked off. I wouldn’t know. Suffering a back strained by nearly a week of sitting backless and standing for the Dead, I was kacked out in the dark rear of the Circus. Where do THEY get the energy?


Dropping In on the Grateful Dead

I tried to roll a joint before walking over to the Palladium to see the Grateful Dead for the first time in four years last Friday, but ended up asking my wife to do it. I’d never mastered the knack, even when I was in practice, and this would be the third or fourth time I’d smoked my own grass in — hmm — about four years. All of these instances, I should add, have taken place since I made a buy in honor of Graham Parker’s Palladium appearance last De­cember. Turn on, tune in, drop in.

I am, or have been, a certified Grateful Dead freak; I don’t know how many Dead concerts I’ve attended, but it has to be more than 25, which for this record addict is a record. What’s more, I never made a conscious decision to lay off. In fact, the last time I’d seen them, at Nassau Coli­seum shortly after Pigpen’s death in March, 1973, I couldn’t tear myself away from “Sugar Magnolia” and go write my review, while the time before — Roo­sevelt Stadium in July, 1972 — I had left with some relief (and no deadline) during the same song. Yet somehow I never got back. I continued to admire the staunch commu­nalism of Jerry Garcia’s countercultural values, but their spaced-out myopia of these values became harder and harder to take as history got harsher and harsher. A parallel spaceyness was increasingly ap­parent in records I struggled — and eventu­ally failed — to find praiseworthy. With Pigpen’s r&b pulled out by the roots, the Dead’s music was defined by Bob Weir’s strained rockabilly when it touched earth at all. What a combination — a ’60s nostalgia trip in the attenuated country-rock mode of the middle ’70s. So what if they ran their own record company? I was better off savoring my memories.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716114″ /]

It was basically to check out these memories that I went to the Palladium. Anti-psychedelic propaganda notwith­standing, Dead heads tend to be quite bright. But it should go without saying that the group inspires (and attracts) enlightened hipness rather than analytic acumen or musical savvy, which means that most of my acquaintances remain decidedly unconverted. When the Dead applied for State Department assistance on an Asian tour last fall, I found it impossible to locate cuts on either of two relatively strong albums that would convince a panel of open-minded jazz and folk professionals that the band was worthy. In that skeptical context, Jon Landau’s old charges about “absence of a lead singer with a competent voice” and “no drive” became quite vivid. I went home and put on Live/Dead, once one of my favorite records; it sounded aimless. Even Workingman’s Dead, their best-made LP, lacked punch. I began to wonder whether my former fanaticism was based on anything more substantial than good dope, and misconstrued vibes.

When we arrived at the Palladium at 8:30, punctual by Dead standards, the music had already begun, and the vibes were unmistakable — hair was shorter, but the eyes had that old glow. The music sounded good, too; even skeptics find something nice to say about Garcia’s gui­tar, and he was ringing through the smoke as we took our seats. The tune — from Blues for Allah, their worst, most recent, and biggest-selling studio LP — was predictably desultory. But when a Dead jam climaxes properly, Garcia’s keen lines transfigure the surrounding babble into a strain of polyrhythmic rhapsody not ordinarily encountered at the Palladium or anywhere else. I was aware, as this climax recurred three times in the course of the song, that I was being subjected to the Dead’s basic tension-and-release trick, but that didn’t make me enjoy it less. Unfortunately, nothing exhilarating occurred during “New, New Minglewood Blues” — or the always long-winded “Tennessee Jed.” In fact, I was quite bored, and not in the spirit of friendly rumination I used to love them for eliciting — I was worrying how long they’d play. Not until Garcia’s opening solo on a Donna Godchaux feature did anything interesting catch my ear. I decid­ed to toke up immediately. And immedi­ately the concert got better.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715819″ /]

But I swear that it really did get better. In any case, cheers and whistles from the audience increased in loudness and number, and mine were among them even though the effect of the dope was not to bring me into the music but to put me more attentively outside it. I noticed with some disapproval, for instance, that the ripple effect I’d always admired in Garcia’s playing was achieved, at least this time, by an improvisationally elementary device: He was running triplets up and down the scale, four at a time, so that when he merely held a single note for two beats the contrast was arresting almost by definition. Soon, I also noticed, however, that into all this repetition he was sneaking a few very attractive melodies. Then, for the final raveup, he suddenly attacked the guitar with a bluesish (almost Jamesian) slash that made all that rippling melody seem a diversion in subliminal retrospect. We’d been set up, and we loved it.

Joints were shared by strangers during the half-time intermission, a rite now rare enough at concerts to be newsworthy. But although the dope continued for the rest of the show, it was the two numbers that opened the second set — Gary Davis’s “Samson and Delilah” and a long, slow “Sugaree” — that were the high point. Only “California,” which sounds like their first groundbreaking new song in at least five years, and Garcia’s transmutation into Chuck Berry on the flaccid (and too well­-received) finale, “Around and Around,” really turned me on. But when the cheering stopped it was 12:45. My wife and I would both have sworn it was an hour earlier.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717973″ /]

In other words, although this was not (for me) a great Dead concert — great Dead concerts finish in total abandon — it kept me occupied the way nobody’s concerts do anymore, not for two hours, much less four. Appropriately, my number one occupation was figuring out just what the Dead are and have been. Clearly, not your textbook Great Rock and Roll Band. They do lack drive; even at the climaxes they roll rather than rock. Their good drummer, Mickey Hart, is into jazz rhythms, and their ordi­nary drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, has never had the chops to push the band, although since Phil Lash plays bass strictly for lyrical input and harmonic guidance, pushing the band would be uphill work for Steve Gadd or Keith Moon.

More complex is the issue of vocal competence. By their own standards, the Dead learned to sing — to project their voices — around 1969. Their equipment has never been overwhelming; even Bob Weir, the loudest, has always wavered slightly. But insofar as they are incompetent, it is not as singers, but as lead singers — they project voice but not character. They do add the appropriate emotional color to the words and notes, of course — weary plain­tiveness, happy energy, whatever — but the color is there for musical rather than dramatic reasons; even when Weir shouts out “One More Saturday Night,” to choose the most far-fetched example available, there is something slightly detached about his ebullience. This deadpan quality is much more apparent in a typical perform­ance by Garcia or Donna Godchaux (who has moved from pianist’s wife to backup chick to part-timer in good standing); it often makes Weir’s own “El Paso” seem oddly off. By instinct or design the Dead refuse to provide the easy psychological referents that most people (including me) seek in vocal music. What’s left is the music itself. Performing personas­ — Weir’s callowness, which becomes ever harder to tolerate as he passes 30, or Garcia’s beneficence — are inescapable for musicians on view for dozens and even hundreds of individual spectator-hours. But even these tend to merge into the Dead’s version of the ultimate reality.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717604″ /]

The source of this vocal anti-stance is clearly the affectless singing of bluegrass and string-band music. But it makes for surprising alliances. Yes and Cleo Laine, for instance, use the voice for emotional rather than musical effect. The Dead distinguish themselves from such showoffs by their vaunted modesty. Garcia (not to mention Mickey Hart and Keith Godchaux) is not averse to letting us enjoy his techni­cal virtuosity, but always in the service of the larger pattern; in their own way, the Dead are as anti-virtuosic as the Ramones. This in turn suggests other alliances. ­Television, say, or Eno, who in his con­siderably more abstract way also exploits rock and roll usages to build patterns that move back and forth between the reflective and the ecstatic. To me, such connections are instinctively right. They add an enlightening dimension to the Dead’s status as musty avatars of the counterculture. This can’t mean that all those déclassé longhairs were actually as avant-garde as they thought they were, can it? The thought of finding out is enough to make me take up smoking again.


Autumn in the Haight: Where Has Love Gone?

Autumn in the Haight: Where Has Love Gone?

November 30, 1967

San Francisco — The season changed, and the moon thrusts of the Autumn Equinox preoc­cupied the many people in Haight-Ashbury who chart by planetary movement. Others par­ticipated in the Equinox celebra­tion, a pleasant event which has become a tradition here in the past few seasons. This celebration was of special note, because two traditional American Indian medicine men decided at the last minute to attend. The medicine men, Rolling Thunder and Shay­mu, came to the Straight Thea­tre on Haight Street and helpers hurried to the street with hand­bills reading “QUICK INDIANS WANT TO SEE YOU.” The na­tives came, and, in front of the Straight, Rolling Thunder met Shaymu, and Shaymu said, “Let us adopt these people, who are called hippies, as our children. They have been disowned.” Roll­ing Thunder agreed, and the In­dians and many of their new children went to the country to dance all night around a fire on a beach.

The vast majority of the younger residents of Haight-Ash­bury just hung around the street, aware of neither the Equinox nor of their new family. Most were unaware because they didn’t care. They had more pressing problems: to find some bread to get home, to find a place bread to crash for the night, or to find some speed so they could forget about the night. Haight Street was lined with people with prob­lems. Behind the scenes, there were only more problems.

Most of the tourists were gone, and with them their funny mon­ey, which really didn’t matter because they only clogged the streets and not much of the mon­ey filtered back into the com­munity anyway. But the community was certainly short of bread. The Haight-Ashbury Medical Clin­ic, which had given free medical treatment to 13,000 people since June without any financial or moral support from government or foundation sources, finally closed its doors, defeated and depleted, on September 22. The Digger Free Store was in debt and the proprietor threatened to split to New York unless the $750 in back rent materialized. The Switchboard, which main­tained a volunteer legal staff of 30 lawyers and had found crash pads for up to 300 pilgrims a night, was doing fine until it received some contributions. They spent the money before the checks bounced, and needed $1000 to survive. Most of the communes in the country still depended on outside support, and even the free food in the Panhandle, which began to resemble ­a bread line, threatened to fold without any more funds.

Haight-Ashbury had survived the Summer of Love, but it seemed mortally wounded.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717973″ /]

Relatively Calm

It could have been worse. Estimates in the spring had doubled the estimated 50,000 saints and freeloaders who came to the Haight seeking the love and free life that the papers had promised. The subdivided flats in the bay-windowed houses-the rule to Haight-Ashbury as tenement apartments are to the East Side  stretched to accommodate guests. There were no hunger riots, and the now defunct free medical clinic kept the threat­ened plague and pestilence in check. The pilgrims were fed and housed — with occasional free music and drugs thrown in and the panhandlers on Haight Street were still asking for quarters in October.

As I arrived, there were kids on many corners with packs on their backs and thumbs stuck out trying to leave. The people I met, many of whom had been here before the Human Be-In and the Summer of Love (some of whom had coined the words), were exhausted and dejected, rather like a bartender counting unbroken glasses after an all­-night brawl. Yet they were count­ing broken spirits and their new veteran friends who had not yet split for the sanctum of an un-­publicized commune in the country. They were the hosts of the Summer of Love and now, after the Autumn Equinox, it was time to clean up.


There’s not much reason now to go to Haight Street unless it’s to cop. The street itself has a layer of grease and dirt which is common on busy sidewalks in New York but rare in San Fran­cisco, a film that comes from bits of lunch garbage and spilled coke ground into the cement by the heels of Haight Street strollers. It is not a plea­sant place to sit, yet hundreds do, huddled in doorways or stretched out on the sidewalk, in torn blankets and bare feet, bor­ed voices begging tor spare change, selling two-bit psyche­delic newspapers that were cur­rent in the spring, and dealing, dealing, dealing. The dealing is  my strongest impression of Haight Street. The housewives with their brownie cameras miss the best part of the show.

It’s not hard to cop in the Haight. It you look remotely hip and walk down the street, a do­zen anxious peddlers should approach you to offer their goods. It is something that may happen once a day on St. Mark’s Place. Here I am asked several times on each block whether I want to buy, or occasionally sell, grass, acid, meth, kilos, lids, matchboxes or, in the case of one ambitious (and, I think, mad) merchant, “Owsley tabs, mescaline, psilocybin coated grass, or anything, anything you want.” The merchant was young, fat, owlish-looking, perspiring and unshaven. He had an entourage of several pre-adolescent kids swathed in Army blankets. “I know the stuff is good,” he said. “I try it all myself.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715819″ /]

The Dealers

The pace of dealing picks up at night, when the dark provides some protection. Walking down Haight Street at night, the offers are whispers in the shadows or in the crowds. Mostly its acid. But the street acid is usually a combination of a taste of acid fortified with anything from methedrine to strychnine. There have been a lot of bad trips here lately, because there has been a lot of bad acid.

Even in October some new stores are opening, latecomers for the leftovers of the poster and bead market, but it should be a rough winter for the bead game with no assurance that next summer the circus will come to town again. Enlightened natives have spread out all over  town from Haight-Ashbury. Anyone curious about hippies can pick up a hitchhiker or find some on his own block. Unlike Greenwich Village, the shops are not an attraction in themselves. The same goods are sold in more attractive shops all over town.

I did find one merchant who wanted nothing to do with the psychedelic market. I needed some matches so I went into a liquor store on Haight Street off Clayton and, rather than hassle the thin, white-haired man at the counter, I bought a pack of cigarettes, which he gave me with a pack of matches. Then I asked for an extra pack of matches.

He eyed me severely.

“You got matches, right here,” he said, tapping the pack of matches with the nail of his index finger.

“I’d like an extra pack” I said. “I’ll pay you for them”

He shook his head. “No,” he said, “you got matches right here. One pack is all you need. One pack of cigarettes. One pack of matches. What do you need more for?”

I pulled out my other pack of cigarettes. “For these,” I said. “That’s what I came here for.”

“What happened to the matches you got with those?” he shouted, triumphant with the evidence, finding me guilty of all the dope fiend-marijuana-puffing sins that the mind of a liquor store keeper could imagine. Even after the hoards, he was holding his hill. He was doing his bit.

Lonely Trips

The street is the heart of the Haight. It is where everyone first realized that they had company on their trip. It is reality — a hard fact to stomach when you’re 15 and strung out on meth and it’s midnight and you’ve got no place to crash except a doorway. Without the coffee houses and bars of the beats, the street is the scene, a hell of a scene, with tourists and runaways and dealers and burners and the holy Angels with their bikes and the gaudy stores as a backdrop.

A schism exists between the street and the elite in Haight-Ashbury. The same is true in New York. The elite of the Haight-Ashbury scene are more aware of it, and they have occasionally tried to bridge the gap, without much success. Chester Anderson began the Communication Company over a year ago, hoping to keep the street in touch and control with an “instant newspaper” of enticing handbills. The handbills fascinated the fringes but bored the masses. Anderson was finally purged and split several months ago for Florida. The Diggers tried harder, attacking the needs of the neighborhood with free food and free stores and free theatre and free thought. They convinced Jay and Ron Thelin, pioneer proprietors of the Psychedelic Shop, to fore­sake free enterprise and just be free. The shop became a lounge for the street and finally died October 6 with the proprietors in debt, in love, and enlightened. On that day, the elders decided to put an end to it all.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717600″ /]

Burying Hip

The idea was kindled at a meeting earlier in the week at Happening House, a beautiful Victorian mansion just off the Panhandle on Clayton Street, which opened at the end of the summer to serve as a community center. The idea was to have a three day funeral for the death of hip — or the death of the Haight — and most of the meet­ing was spent trying to determine just what had died. But all agreed that a funeral was a good idea. “The idea of a few people going down Haight Street,” sigh­ed Oracle editor Allen Cohen. “The idea, the symbol goes through walls, through windows, through air, through mountains. Through the media, it will hit millions of people.” The media giveth and the media taketh away.

“I’m going to be driving the truck all day,” a Digger said, “and I’m going to be talking to people.”

“What are you going tell them to do?” someone asked.

“I’m gonna tell them that everything’s out of control. That they’re free.”

And then someone read the surrender speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and the meeting was adjourned.

After the meeting I walked with several of the talkers to the house of the Grateful Dead, where Rolling Thunder, the Shoshone medicine man, was staying while he visited Haight-Ashbury. It is a four-story Victorian townhouse glowing with stained glass windows, which clings to the hill on Ashbury Street and houses the Dead, their entourage, and the offices of the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization. Rolling Thunder was sitting in the parlor.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717029″ /]

Candid Prophet

Had it not been for his turquoise headband and heavy necklaces, which he said were given to him since he arrived in Haight-Ashbury, Rolling Thunder would hardly have looked like an Indian, let alone medicine man. His skin is light and his face bears the hard lines of the harsh weather in the country of the Western Shoshone, which is Eastern Nevada. His hair is short and combed back and he wore the simple clothes of a rancher. He is soft-spoken, with a slight Western drawl, and loves to talk, making him the most candid prophet one could ever hope to meet.

Rolling Thunder, who is chairman of the traditional Tribal Council of the Western Shoshone Nation, came to San Francisco to join 32 traditional Indians who were about to embark on a caravan to circle the country to protest a bill pending in Congress which will allow Indians to bor­row money on their lands. He believes that the bill is a trick to deprive the Indians of their remaining land.

But the real threat of the bill before Congress, Rolling Thunder explained, is that it endangers the lands of the Hopi, which have always remained intact. “The Hopi are the keepers of our religion,” he said. “As soon as we found out that the white man was taking everything, our sacred tablets were hidden with the Hopi.

“I was praying for my people,” he recalled, “and I had a dream. I was in a Kiva. I saw a fire — blue and green — in the dark at the far side. I knew it was a pre­sence. I know it was the supreme being. He was covered with eagle feathers. He had a beak like an eagle and a body like a man. He said and to saw look to the left. I looked and saw stone tablets with pictographs. He said, look there and you’ll find an answer.

“A few days later I was in Hopi land, and they brought out the stone tablets, and I read them.

“They said, in the last days, ­the Hopi would be the last to go. That’s happening now, so we know the time is close.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716114″ /]

The caravan is intended to ful­fill the prophecy which speaks of two stars in the sky. “For hundreds of years,” Rolling Thunder said, “the large star followed the small star across the sky. And the Great Spirit said, when the stars reverse, the time is right. That happened two months ago. He also said that we should go out and meet people, to see who is true and who is not true. And that is what we are doing.”

The prophecy also speaks of  destruction, that after the stars reverse a “gourd of ashes” will fall from the sky, destroying the people who are not true. “It’s written on the rocks,” Rolling Thunder said, “and when that comes people will come to the wilderness to seek refuge with the Indians and they’ll try to buy their way in, but their money­ will be of no value. We will know who is true and who is not true.”

Thelin explained the idea of the funeral. “We’re really trying to sabotage the word hippie,” he said. “It’s really fucking us up. It’s not our word. It has nothing to do with us. We’d like to substitute ‘free American’ in its place.”

Rolling Thunder smiled and nodded. “That free American term sounds a lot better,” he said. “I’ve asked several people what they call themselves, and they couldn’t give me an an­swer. Now maybe they can give me an answer.”

The medicine man sat on a large desk, and a dozen people sat around him on the floor. “I saw this before it ever happened,” he said. “This is a direct prophecy from myself. I wonder­ed it the white man could ever live in this country and eat the food and still remain a hashed­-over European. And I saw these people with the long hair. These people will be the future Americans.

“What you people are going through is the same thing that we’ve gone through. You’re just getting your training. We’ll help you in any way we can.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715930″ /]

Hidden Medicine Men

“There will also be people among you who will be medicine men. He will know protection. He will know what areas will be safe. There’s one among you already. He doesn’t know it. I’ve talked to him and he will be coming to my country to learn. But, until you have your own, you can borrow one once in a while.

“It’s going to be rough,” he warned. “It’s going to be violent, especially in the cities. The spirit told me tostay away from that violence. I think that might be good advice for you people. Violence is not the way. There’s something more powerful than that.”

“In the last days, they will throw everything at you to de­stroy you, and that’s what’s happening  now. And now the medicine men are coming back. When those stars reversed — that is when the power of good took over from the power of evil. Many young people are becoming me­dicine men. So now your people, who are living like Indians, you see what you’ve let yourselves into.

“They may prosecute and jail people. They may do everything, because they are fearful. But they won’t succeed.”

Someone asked about the Shoshone way of facing death.

“Death?” the medicine man asked. “There is no death. But if you kill yourself, you displease the Great Spirit, and you may be reincarnated as a worm.”

Rolling Thunder’s daughter, who was with him, said that she was walking down to Haight Street, and asked if there was anything she could do for him.

“I’ll tell you one thing you can do,” he said. “You can go down to the Psychedelic shop and get some of those ‘”We Shall Overcome’ buttons. Those will be very popular in our country. Can you get them wholesale?”

“They might for you,” some­one said. “They should know you.”

“Then I guess I’d better walk down myself.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]


The next day was a day of preparation and press conferences. I walked into the Psychedelic Shop in the late afternoon to find CBS News waiting in line behind a local television station to interview Ron Thelin in his tiny office at the back of the shop. A tiny enameled American flag hung from Thelin’s freshly pierced ear.

The funeral notices had been printed. They were small stiff cards, bordered in black, reading “HIPPIE. In the Haight Ashbury district of this city, Hippie, de­voted son of Mass Media. Friends are invited to attend services beginning at sunrise,  October 6, 1967, at Buena Vista Park.”


Saturday morning the little windows in the parking meters up and down Haight Street were all painted white, and the faithful gathered before dawn at the top of the hill in Buena Vista Park to greet the sun. The sun rose on time, and they rang bells and breathed deeply and ex­haled OM, the first sound in the Universe. Then the pallbear­ers lifted the 15-foot coffin, to be  filled with the artifacts of hip, and bore it down the long hill to the street. They paused to kneel at the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury and brough the coffin to rest for the moment in front of the Psychedelic Shop, which had a huge sign reading “BE FREE” in place of its famous mandala. Then the elated mourners swept the street in preparation for the procession at noon.

At noon a huge banner was stretched across the street. It read “DEATH OF HIPPIE, FREEBIE, BIRTH OF THE FREE MAN.” (The Chronicle had dubbed the reincarnated hippie a “freebie” in a story on Friday, but later apologized). The coffin was carried to the Panhandle, where more news­papers, beads, fruit, cookies, posters, flowers, and buttons were added to the remains. A banner was held up reading “The Brotherhood of Free Men is Born.” And, as the proeession began, the crowd sang Hare Krishna, but slowly, as a dirge.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719802″ /]

The Procession

The procession moved slowly down the Panhandle towards Golden Gate Park. First came a legion of photographers, walking backwards, and then the coffin, over ten struggling pallbearers, and then a hippie laid out on a stretcher, holding a flower to his chest, and then about 200 mourn­ers, some in elaborate costume, some shaking tambourines, some carrying babies, some dodging cameras. When it reached the park the procession turned left, now with a police escort, whose job seemed to be to keep the procession jammed onto the side­walk. Six blocks later they turn­ed left again, hauling the coffin up the steep hill on Fredrick Street, and at the top of the hill, they turned again on Ma­sonic Street, which goes steeply down hill, to complete the circle of the Haight. The coffin picked up speed as it moved downhill, the photographers jumped to get out of the way, and dead hippie squirmed to stay on the stretcher. And then halfway down the steep Masonic Street sidewalk, their path was blocked.

A Cadillac had been left parked in a driveway.

The funeral procession came to a crushing halt, and the police escort — a lone cop — sauntered over and began to write out a parking ticket.

“Move the car.” someone yell­ed. The owner wa1ked out of the house and began to argue with the cop.

“Hassle him later,” they yell­ed. “Move the car!”

The cop gave the man a tic­ket, and the owner returned to his house. The Cadillac remained in the driveway, and the pallbearers were groaning.

At which point the cop consent­ed to let the procession bypass the car in the street.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717604″ /]

The End of the Line

The procession ended where it began, in the Panhandle. The hippie on the stretcher rose from the dead, looking punchy, and the banners, were used to kindle a fire under the huge coffin. The flames took to it quickly and rose ten feet in the air as the crowd cheered. They danced in a circle around the burning coffin and the cameramen and, and as the fire died down, free men began to leap over the flames. Then the crowd gasped with horror as they saw the fire engines approach.

“The remains!” someone yelled. “Don’t let them put it out!” The crowd blocked the firemen and spokesmen argued with the   chief as his men readied their hoses. When the hoses were ready, the crowd parted, and the coffin disappeared in a monster cloud of spray and black smoke. The fire was out in seconds, and the firemen moved in with shovels to break apart the smouldering remains. A few diehards were still arguing with the chief, but the mourners had already begun to wander off.

Saturday, the Chronicle reverently reported that the Hippie was dead, but by Monday they were back in business again, with their daily quota of copy from the Haight. The banner re­mained strung across Haight Street for a week, as a reminder, and the Psychedelic Shop was closed and boarded up, and the parking meters were cleaned of the white paint. But the kids still panhandled and sold news­papers and lounged in the door­ways, and the occasional tourist still gawked from behind the locked doors of his car. Nothing bad changed. It was all the same.

But an exorcism is a subtle thing, and some of the dejection that plagued the Haight in the wake of the Summer of Love did appear to be gone. When a phalanx of 14 cops swept down Haight Street Tuesday in a daylight raid to net runaways, the community responded with vigor and outrage and, despite threats by Police Chief Cahill, the raids were not repeated. The heat was on and the Haight kept cool.

Within a few weeks, the Switchboard was out of debt and danger, and a series of well-attended benefits brought a generous reserve of funds into  the coffers of the clinic, which reopened in late October. The Straight Theatre, which was denied a dance permit by an ever-harassing city, held huge “Dance Classes” (for which permits are not needed) to the accompaniment of the Grateful Dead. And the Diggers were delivering free meat to communes and distribut­ing 5000 copies of a 20-page free magazine called “Free City.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

The Free City

The elders now harbor hopes that San Francisco will indeed become a “free city.” If any city can, it can, but it must be born, not made. The hippie was made but the community called Haight-Ashbury was born, and it was a virgin birth — an evolution­ary experiment and experience. It was beautiful, I am told, in the golden age before the Human Be-In which awoke the media to the precious copy lying untapped on the south side of Golden Gate Park. “Were you here a year ago?” people ask. If you were, then you know.

But then the seekers came en masse, enticed by the media. “They came to the Haight,” a handbill relates, “with a great need and great hunger for a loving community. Many, wanting to belong, identified with the superficial aspects of what ‘hip­pie’ was. They didn’t drop out but rather changed roles.

“As a result the tone of Haight-­Ashbury changed. With many people coming in expecting to be fed and housed, the older com­munity tried to fulfill their needs. Rather than asking them to do their thing, the community tried te give them what they came for. The community tried to be some­thing it wasn’t.

“The early members tried to save the community and as a re­sult it began to die. It began to die because in the effort to save it the individuals lost themselves. Without individual selves the community started to become a shell with little within; to maintain the community feeling, meetings replaced relationships and organization replaced com­munity.

“By the end of the summer we were forming organizations to save something that no longer existed. Community is a creative thing and saving is only a hold­ing action. By desperate clinging, we lost.”

They lost, but they learned.



Ken Kesey: One Who Wigged Out

“Ken ‘Cuckoo Nest’ Kesey: One Who Wigged Out”
May 12, 1966

SAN FRANCISCO — Where is novelist Ken Kesey? It has been months and still no word on him. Not since O. Henry, 70 years ago, has an American lit­erary figure taken it on the lam after getting into trouble with the law. O. Henry was accused of embezzling bank funds. Kesey has been convicted of possessing marijuana and sentenced to six months in jail. Then, while his case was under appeal, he was picked up again, for marijuana and also for resisting arrest lo­cally, when he was taken one night from a Telegraph Hill roof­top with Mountain Girl, 19 years old. The neighbors had complained, as they have been doing ever since Kesey hit California.

O. Henry skipped because the idea of prison frightened him. Kesey ran because the “com­bine” was going to deny him justice and instead make an example of him. This is the way his followers, who reach from Portland, Oregon, down to Los Angeles, look at it. Others, not so fond of him, including novel­ist Robin White, say he ran be­cause, despite the bull neck and the big biceps and the big talk, Kesey is a coward.

This is part of the Kesey fascination: he doesn’t add up. Mark Schorer, who has had two polite conversations with him, regards him as “a very retiring fellow, nothing aggressive about him and rather shy.” Herbert Gold, who knows Kesey from various places, said first about him, “He’s a warm-hearted per­son.” Robin White (Elephant HillAll in Favor Say No) becomes incensed at the mention of Kesey: “He talks about him­self as though he were Christ. If Kesey was in isolation, he’d disintegrate. He’s got to have buttressing, weak individuals he can exploit.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

Kesey, whose high domed head is nearly bald, is 30 years old. He regards himself as fiercely independent, no doubt as the McMurphy of his own novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are no limits. His buddies are LSD cultists, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, peace marchers, Allen Ginsberg (off and on), Jack Kerouac hangers-on, a bookshop owner, a helicopter pilot wounded in Vietnam, and people who prefer anonymity, like Mountain Girl, and the man she says she is going to marry. She is seven months pregnant.

Independence has a price. Kesey is convinced that the gutty individual is only doomed to failure and oblivion (like McMurphy). “Ken has as elaborate mystique about the system and retaliation,” a friend who knew him from the Palo Alto days said. In a weird record album made by Kesey and his LSD “trip” buddies, just before he skipped, voices, including Kesey’s, say in one segment:

“Oh my God, what does it mean? . . . Electrical impulses through all this statical feedback clicks . . . You do achieve a clarity that passes you one step over the be-good fence . . . He thinks I am dangerous. America doesn’t need these kind of impudent young snots . . . We are at war. ‘This is Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.’ The only salvation is to be good. Be good.”

Kesey had no care for community sensibilities. He was the watcher of the scene, “having fun all the time,” and wherever he went, he dragged a camera and a tape-recorder. He explained his drug habit. “You don’t sit on a toilet and strain and come up with a new idea. To discover something new, you have to put yourself in a position where an accident can happen to you. It can’t be pre-determined.”

He had come down to Palo Alto from Oregon lumber country, where he was reared, in 1960, to work in a mental hospital and to attend creative writing classes at Stanford taught by Wallace Stegner and later by Malcom Cowley. The mentally ill had a powerful hold on Kesey and he had “lightning ways” of looking at things, including his relationship with patients. He organized hell-raising parties. He loaned his car to them for a “night out.” He protected them. When co-worker wouldn’t stop bullying a pitiful catatonic patient, Kesey, who had been a champion wrestler at the University of Oregon, lifted the attendant off the floor and heaved him through the shower room door — even as McMurphy did in the novel. He was fired a few months later — “Not interested in patient welfare,” the official discharge said.

[related_posts post_id_1=”674292″ /]

Kesey lived on Perry Lane, Palo Alto (later celebrated in the work of Gwen Davis). Robin White had arranged it. “At the time,” he recalled, “Perry Lane was made up of nonconformists. After Kesey came on, it became conformist. There had to be sex parties, marijuana smoking, and you had to dress and speak in a certain way. Kesey became the master of ceremonies. He has a real capacity to perform which quite exceeds his ability to write.” Many nights Kesey lay wake in bed staring at the ceiling, scenes from the hospital burning themselves into his memory.

It was through Malcolm Cowley that Viking Press published. Kesey’s first novel in 1962. One Flew Over was well received. Critics found the plight of a ward of mental patients a par­able of the whole human condi­tion. The book sold some 14,000 copies in hard cover and was produced on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. It was a dismal flop. Critically panned, it closed after 82 per­formances.

With money from the play, Kesey bought a 1939 bus, painted it in swirls of pink, green, and lavender, packed up his wife and three children, and headed cross-­country in the summer of 1964 to film people “just having fun.” The bus driver was Neil Cas­sidy, the Dean Moriarty of Kero­uac’s On the Road. Kesey told a newspaperman that he was through writing fiction. “I don’t think the novel has any place to go,” he said.

Sometimes a Great Notion, published in that summer of 1964, was the work of a robust talent, but it was not an entirely successful novel. Critics said Kesey was too windy, too detailed — un­able, Julian Moynahan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “to imagine a whole word where whole men . . . can get together and make a whole life.” News­week called it “a barrel-chested counterfeit of life.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716114″ /]

Kesey shot 60,000 feet of film on his travels. He proposed to produce a documentary movie. His redwood house in the drowsy resort village of La Honda, California, south of here, was trans­formed into a vast pleasure pad, where his buddies made out and freaked out in the woods all around it. No one was kept away. Inside was the promise of bed­lam: statues and metal pieces everywhere, pictures and furni­ture without names, incredible designs on the ceilings, the bath­tub and toilet bowl splashed with paint. Kesey took a title for him­self, The Navigator.

People complained. They h­arassed Kesey on the phone and cursed him from their cars. Kes­ey’s bright orange mailbox was picked with bullet holes. High on LSD, he and the gang went off and gave “shows” — one to an au­dience of 5000 in San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall, Harry Bridges’s shrine.

Early last year, Federal and state narcotics agents started staking out Kesey’s pad. He con­sidered it a monumental joke. He was clean, he said. But on April 23, 1965, agents raided the place and arrested Kesey and 13 guests. The agents said Kesey was in his bathroom trying to flush away the evidence. He said it had been planted. They won. Two days after his conviction, Kesey and Mountain Girl decid­ed on a Telegraph Hill rooftop as the place to make a “big acci­dent” happen. Residents of the apartment house called the po­lice.

“They was coming on like gangbusters in the first row of the downtown Orpheus Theatre . . . I mean to say, watch them go. Their hooves was three feet above the ground and never touching down . . . ”

An officer discovered marijuana. Kesey told the cop to go to hell and wrestled him right to the edge of the roof: He was nailed there. He posted bond and took off.

His 1939 bus was found on January 31 of this year, aban­doned on a desolate stretch of the California coast. The note Kesey left was beautiful: “Ocean, ocean, I’ll beat you in the end. I’ll break you this time. I’ll go through with my heels at your hungry ribs.” Suicide note or the put-on? While au­thorities were puzzling, the cult make a tactical error. It leaked word through one of its principal spokesmen that Kesey was in Mexico, when he wasn’t. The anticipated result was supposed to be: Now they’ll call off the dogs. Who’d chase all the way to Mexico for a guy who smokes pot?

The FBI. It filed a fugitive warrant and promptly joined the search. The United States At­torney’s office here says that the trail is cold now, though tipsters keep calling and the FBI never gives up. A close friend says he recently heard from Kesey. Pe­ter Demma, who runs a book­shop in merry Santa Cruz, Cali­fornia, said Kesey “wants a con­frontation with world society” and is touring.

Two weeks before he disap­peared, Kesey, lugging a coffee can with over $3000 in it from a “show,” and his buddies cut a record, “The Acid Test,” dur­ing a 14-hour “trip” at Sound City here. The album sells for $5.95 and is moving at better than 100 copies a day. Sound City’s owner, Jim Safford, explained, “Anytime Ken Kesey wants to belch, there are at least 20 people around who want to hear it.”

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1987 Pazz & Jop: Significance and Its Discontents in the Year of the Blip

I grew up in a time when elections still had their popcult charm, like baseball standings. Since age 10 I’ve been rooting for a presidential convention to go into extra ballots, and despite the lives at stake, the first Tuesday of November is my idea of a good night for a TV party. That’s how the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was conceived — as an election with only metaphors hanging in the balance, or maybe the musical equivalent of association baseball. But usually — cf. the goddamn presidency — the thrill of the contest is undercut by its more or less foreordained result. Not this year, though. As in the march of the seven dorks through spring primaries, the winner was hard to figure out precisely because the general outlines were so predictable.

I never bought Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons’s fatalistic assumption that U2 would rampage idealistically to the top of our 14th (or 15th) poll like we were Rolling Stone or the L.A. Times or the Hot 100. But since he was opening the ballots, I eventually lost my palmy certainty that The Joshua Tree couldn’t win because it just wasn’t good enough. As the countdown approached I handicapped the yearning sons of Eire just below Bruce Springsteen, the only major artist whose courage exceeded the call of duty in 1987, and Prince, the only major artist whose professionalism ditto, and a little ahead of yearning son of Indiana John Cougar Mellencamp and Pazz & Jop perennials R.E.M. and the Replacements. If I’d had to pick one horse it would have been Sign “O” [sic] the Times, but that was a guess, and I looked forward to some fun — an all-night tally down to the wire. Instead, the 226 voters gave Prince an unprecedented landslide. Prorated, only three albums this decade — London Calling in 1980, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain in the donnybrook of 1984 — have run up more points, and Sign “O” the Times is easily the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Its 579-point margin is 40 per cent wider than London Calling’s over The River in 1980, 60 per cent wider than Thrillers over Murmur in 1983. If only we could expect as much of Jesse Jackson.

I voted for Prince, and given the electoral realities I was rooting for him; I couldn’t have asked for a more gratifying or newsworthy result. Sign “O” the Times established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era — as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer. The set’s few lackluster cuts would shine electric anywhere else, and sides two and three never stop, piling on the crafty, eccentric, blatantly seductive pop erotica until you just can’t take no more. Between AIDS and Tipper Gore, it was a good year to stick sex in the world’s face, too, as George Michael wasn’t the only one to figure out. But I’m obliged to point out that Sign “O” the Times doesn’t right Prince’s chronic shortcomings as lyricist-icon-conceptmaster, shortcomings exemplified by the title cut, which squeaked into first in the singles category. As usual when he Makes a Statement, what it states is that he’s Making a Statement, and while I’ll take that from George Michael or even Michael Stipe these days, I expect better of a peerless musician who predicates his iconography on lyrics and concept. I prefer the runner-up, Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” not because it invokes the tragedy of child abuse with all the expressive means at Vega’s collegiate disposal, but because it condenses a two-hour TV movie into four minutes. And I’ll take “U Got the Look,” Prince’s erotomanic collaboration with Sugarwalls Easton, over either. Fuck significance, let’s dance.

As we’ll see, significance and its discontents loom large in this year’s poll, with several thoughtful voters chalking up Prince’s concept problem as a strength. Of course, if everyone agreed, the title tune wouldn’t have outpolled “U Got the Look” two-to-one. One reason the album gathered such broad support is that it gives off enough verbal-conceptual signals to appease the average critical conscience. For every J. D. Considine tagging it (plausibly if meanly) as “half-assed, self-indulgent,” there’s another who thinks it’s all about, well, the times — and another who hears the music signifying, and another who says let’s just dance (or boogie) (or fuck), and maybe half a Chuck Eddy concluding that Prince’s very confusion makes him a true son of rock and roll. All of which is worth precisely eight points by me. So if I gave Springsteen 13, why was I rooting for Prince? Because Tunnel of Love is so subtle, so austere, that a victory would have smelled of the sobersided insularity, racial myopia, and old-boy conservatism rock critics are accused of every once in a while. Historically, smart but obvious beat music has won this poll. I wanted Bruce second, and I got him.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

After that, to be honest, I didn’t much give a shit. My more recondite personal choices finished higher than I’d hoped: Sonny Rollins’s hottest record in a quarter-century at 60, New Order’s definitive 12-inch compilation at 56, Jimi Hendrix’s definitive live album tied at 45, and, in a startling surge, Sly and Robbie’s Laswellized art-funk statement at 25, with the official U.S. debut of Culture’s roots-reggae classic Two Sevens Clash tied for eighth among reissues. All of which made me feel righteous. But when R.E.M.’s Document and John Cougar Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee didn’t turn into the contenders my enthusiasm fooled me into expecting, I just figured these personal discoveries were blips.

Because 1987 was the year of the blip. In the collective mind and ear, no fewer than five of the top 10 albums were almost as unexciting as they were unexceptionable, with individual preferences among them adding up to nothing more than a bunch of individual preferences. I liked R.E.M. and Mellencamp, others liked Los Lobos and Hüsker Dü, big deal. The Replacements do drum up more passion, and rightly so — Paul Westerberg is the Prince of critics’ rock. But all these bands articulate well-turned variants on the song-oriented Amerindie guitar-band dialect that has dominated this poll all decade, and if their professionalism is a lot more meaningful, pleasurable, and unpecuniary than Whitesnake’s or (Jesus) David Bowie’s, professionalism is nonetheless what it is. They make a living at it — in some cases a damn good one. In 1987, Mellencamp led his multiplatinum following deeper into roots while R.E.M. sold a million and Los Lobos scored a number-one single (third with the critics) and soundtrack (two mentions). Can the Replacements be far behind? Not with Westerberg engrossed by the contradictions of maturity they can’t.

One result of this professionalism is a logjam that disorients critics addicted like no others to the shock of the new. Except for 1982, when there were six, exactly five newcomers had entered the Pazz & Jop top 10 every year since 1979. In 1987, that figure plummeted to two: old P&J hands XTC with the 1986 holdover Skylarking, and old P&J also-ran John Hiatt, now alcohol-free and on his fourth major label in a career dating back to 1974. Deprived of their dose of new-thing, the critics dispersed their support into an ever-widening field of mutually exclusive cult artists as their general enthusiasm waned. Both responses were reflected in point totals that dip below ’86 and ’85 levels right after Hiatt’s depressingly impressive finish and never recover. Not since 1979 has anybody snuck into our top 40 with under 100 points the way abstemious Tom Verlaine and alcohol-free Warren Zevon did — and need I mention that we’ve seen these deserving coots around here before?

In the end, however, criticism more than statistics was what convinced me that my mood of good-but-not-good-enough wasn’t a blip. Last time, determined to bring forth a more democratic forum, I published testimonials to the top 10 from the professional and semiprofessional writers who voted them in. But this year I came up almost dry once past U2, who also elicited all the contumely due a dubious frontrunner. Not a word on XTC beyond a complaint that “Dear God” spoiled Skylarking’s concept. A single compliment for Mellencamp’s music — leading into a surly assault on all the “people” (not even “critics”) who’ve “spread ’em” (male bias? us?) for his “populist bilge” (and this from a fan of A Very Special Christmas). “No scams, no star-struck looks, and no hook-oriented lyrics” was as not-bad as it got for Los Lobos; “His singing has never been more soulful and his lyrics have never been more witty and intelligent” was as much-worse as it got for John Hiatt. I name no names because it’s not my desire to put colleagues down, but if they couldn’t rise to the occasion of their own preferences, I felt no need to cut their faves any slack.

By now, faithful readers may be wondering whether something’s changed. After years of pooh-poohing the pessimism of the electorate, am I finally buying in? Well, yeah, in a way. If in 1986 I saw progress turning into a problematic concept for rock and roll, now I get the sense something’s ending. That doesn’t mean nothing’s beginning, though. Amid the usual aye-and-nay (and more nay) — pedestrian complaints about radio and A&R, pedestrian demurrals, criticism criticism, appreciations, gibes at this or that bête noire, dull desperation, crazed desperation — there were defiant glimmers of pleasure and elation, often from respondents who don’t strike me as dopes or pollyannas, or even especially happy people.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692572″ /]

As usual — strangely enough, it’s how I make my living — I have the beginnings of a theory about all this. Keepers of the flame may well regard this theory as treasonous; those who’ve gotten burned, meanwhile, will wonder what took me so long. I suppose the catalyst was the rockcrit (not rock and roll) event of the year, Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, which sent admirers and epigones ruminating off in a hundred directions, as you can see from the comments that begin that long section entitled “Rock and Roll as Literature, Literature as Rock and Roll.” As far as I’m concerned (he ruminated), Lester’s relentless attack on significance, right reason, rock-is-art, the whole baggage of validation and domestication that’s an all but inevitable consequence of criticism no matter how wild and wooly it sets out to be, was always salutory and never the whole enchilada, not even in his own mind. Still, I was struck by what Bart Becker had to say about Lester’s elevation to “literature” on his own dust jacket. The term is sharp marketing, useful propaganda, and an all but inevitable consequence of writing as well as Lester wanted to and did, but I have to admit that it lays a dead hand on a tremendously vital life-enterprise. And I’m not so sure the same concept isn’t vitiating rock and roll itself.

The canard that rock critics only care about the words has a history so long that there was once a smidgen of truth to it — around the dawning of James Taylor, when Lester was coming up. But the most genteel songpoetry shill always knew he or she was in it for the song, not poetry, though the terminology to evoke or analyze the song may have been lacking. Anyway, that was long ago. These days critics no less than songwriters are acutely aware of music and especially musicians. Most exemplary are the de facto singer-songwriters — Westerberg, Mellencamp, Holsapple, Merchant, imminent apostate Morrissey — who actively embrace the expressive discipline (and limitations) of a band. If anything, critics are even stricter about this than bandleaders, who do have ego conflicts and little dollar signs in front of their eyes to distract them from the path of righteousness. And the bands critics like best generate their own unmistakable sounds: except for studio-bound quick-change artists XTC and Pet Shop Boys and the R.E.M.-influenced 10,000 Maniacs (plus perhaps the proudly folklorico Los Lobos), there isn’t one in the top 40 who couldn’t be ID’d without vocals inside of eight bars.

Yet nobody would be interested in these bands without vocals — not just because the vocalists are essential and usually dominate musically, but because the lyrics the vocalists articulate (or slur) are what make the music mean. They specify it, sharpen its bite. And at whatever level of change-your-life, cognitive dissonance, sound example, comforting half-truth, or craven banality, meaning — or anyway, the show of meaning — is something audiences expect from music. So from the pop factories to the garages, from Debbie Gibson to Big Black, we’re inundated with well-made songs — well-made not because they revitalize the European concert tradition with harmonic aperçus, as polite little well-made songs are supposed to, but because they yoke sense and/or nonsense to sound and/or noise. This sense/nonsense is literary in a fairly narrow way — with due consideration for the peculiarities of the genre, which often include gauche blank patches and a rather unliterary colloquial logic, but no more than in drama or epic. Most critics have little trouble, really, finding songs if not albums that meet their literary standards. But one reason good is no longer good enough is that songwriters are having trouble eluding the dead hand that pushed more than one critic into rock and roll to begin with: the relative rapidity with which words lose their power to surprise, especially when they’re competing with countless other words of similar form and quality if not import. In a crisis of overproduction, another peculiarity of the genre eludes us: stuff that gets us off, as rude little rock and roll songs are supposed to.

I don’t trust theories of formal exhaustion. They’re too tautological; they don’t explain enough. The right artist in the right place at the right time can make them look ridiculous — Rosanne Cash’s Nashville branch of the El Lay School of Rock is so well-endowed it’s a wonder John Hiatt dropped out. And there are obviously personal exceptions beyond number. Nobody’s gonna tell me that R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” isn’t a sign of the times, or that Mellencamp’s “The Real Life” is any kind of bilge, and there’s evidence that my failure to fully connect with Pleased To Meet Me shouldn’t be blamed on Bob Stinson’s gone guitar or Paul Westerberg’s broken contract with the devil — that it’s a dysfunction related to my advanced years. There are loads of blips out there without a doubt, and I’m ready to believe that blips are what make life worth living. It’s even possible the year itself was a blip. Years do differ, after all — only 15 of the 1986 top 40 even released albums in 1987, which is about normal, and among the missing were song-oriented neofolkies Bragg and Burnett and Pogues and Timbuk 3, two of whom have already posted contenders for the 1988 list. Or maybe as they break pop the great critics’ groups will go into cultural overdrive. But I suspect not. Speaking generally, collectively, historically, an aesthetic seems to have lost its charge. Words aren’t making rock and roll mean the way they have ever since I took this job.

As I said, some dare call this treason. There are critics out there who’ll die believing Robbie Robertson is cutting-edge because he gave his imprimatur to Bono Vox; if I’m not mistaken, some of them are dead already. But as I also said, others dare call it too fucking late, and them I take seriously. One way or another, consciously or instinctively, many of the most demanding younger critics have been pushing ill-made antisong for years. They look to immerse in sound that destroys or supercedes the sense/nonsense continuum: posthardcore, industrial noise, skronk, grunge, shit-rock, records that deteriorate before your very ears. Most of it sounds dead end, is dead end, but a new dead end is at least a change, and out of the wreckage of feuding cults and stupid experiments has emerged the one Amerindie band to show significant upward musical and electoral movement in recent years: Sonic Youth, who finished 12th and deserved better with a noisy album whose songs never call attention to how they’re made and connect more powerfully for it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

Still, the wreckage is there. Beyond this year’s top 10 (plus dB’s and Blasters and 42nd-place X hanging on and Del-Lords ready to emerge from limbo), our recent LP and EP lists have touted too many imminent obscurities. The roll call begins with tragedy and fast degenerates into small-time professionalism, earned anonymity, and pathetic self-indulgence: Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Fleshtones, Lyres, Rank and File, Bongos, Love Tractor, Let’s Active, Salem 66, Violent Femmes, Neats, Lifeboat, Flipper, Butthole Surfers, Dream Syndicate, Del Fuegos. Of the 17 Amerindie bands to place 41–100 last year, seven made new albums, one of which placed 41–100 this year. (That would be Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, tied for 77th with supergriot Salif Keita’s Soro, which is my idea of poetic justice. FYI, the Leaving Trains’ Fuck got shut out.) If any of the six American ill-mades to place 41–100 this year — Red Kross, Dinosaur Jr., Firehose, Big Black, Chain Gang, Negativland — ever finish as high again, I’ll be astonished. And also, probably, pleased. It’s not as if I don’t hope the Amerindies shock me into recognition again — I want to mention that the best songs of the 70th-place Silos beat Mellencamp’s by me, albeit without Kenny Aronoff to kick them home, and wonder what Negativland think of the Pet Shop Boys. Even among enthusiasts, though, enthusiasm is flagging palpably.

With this in mind, I decided we should finally 86 the EP tally, instituted in 1981 as an Amerindie showcase, though from the start it proved a refuge for major-label odd lots as well. In the early years, the list did serve a predictive function, but not lately. Simmons readily assented to the change, and after some consideration we decided EPs would compete with albums (where Feedtime’s Shovel — which some claim is an EP, although I’ve never laid eyes on the thing — finished 63rd and Pussy Galore’s Pussy Gold 5000 118th, nine points ahead of the overpraised Right Now!). We weren’t surprised when Amerindie partisans howled; what surprised us is that they changed our minds. The EP ballot will return next year by semisemipopular demand, replacing videos, where only a third of the voters exercised their franchise this year, with the Chief Poobah among the missing. Maybe the victory will give the partisans a taste for the rewards of consensus, but I doubt it, because what was most striking about the ad hoc EP lists scattershot our way was their dearth of agreement — or duplication, I guess you could say. Having grown up in a time when elections had their popcult charm, I value consensus — even (or especially) oddball consensus. The partisans value self-expression, self-interest, self-anything, in bands and criticism both. At this juncture the American “underground” isn’t just factionalized — it’s atomized, a minority of minorities of one.

Other minorities proved more coherent — and also, as should surprise no one, more suggestive. We paid special attention this year to demographics — not regional, where the usual distribution prevailed (29 states plus D.C. and Ontario, with 84 metro-NY voters; qualified boondockers please apply), but racial, sexual, and generational. After appending a brief plea for black and female participation to our first mailing, where we also asked critics how old they were, we followed up by sending an affirmative-action statement and second ballot-and-SASE to black invitees. None of which worked. Black participation rose from an embarrassing 13 to an embarrassing 16, about half of them Voicers; female participation fell from 30 to 29; and well under 100 voters revealed their ages. But we had to do what we had to do, not just because we’re always looking for new ways to wear our hearts on our sleeves, but because as devotees of what’s supposedly a novelty-obsessed youth music we combat stasis by any means necessary. After all, in a year when the top 10 was almost uniformly white, uniformly male, and depressing by nonacclamation, maybe those perennially short-changed in the Pazz & Jop (and rock and roll) consensus might offer useful input. Bob the Nonethnic Mack may think the secret is revitalizing ’70s art-rock — guitar solos welcome, neatness counts. But after you agree that the Edge’s Zeppisms do more for The Joshua Tree than Bono’s bluesisms, read Gina Arnold on Eric Clapton in the section headed “Demography in Action.” For her — and, unless she’s deceiving herself, most young women — guitar solos are the enemy. Like it or not, minority musical needs and proclivities really do differ from those of rock criticism’s white boys, a jocular heh-heh term from our invitation that was thrown jocularly heh-heh back in our teeth by a number of respondents — “I’m a white boy,” “28-year-old white-boy rock critic,” “35 years old, white, male (of course!)”

Pursuing this line of thought, I ignored the unreliability of our tiny samples and totted up women- and blacks-only top 15s. Not surprisingly in a music that has yet to generate an unseparate-but-equal female tradition, the women’s list begins not unlike the big one, but with fewer points (read: less enthusiasm) for the identical top four than 29 randomly selected voters would have assigned. Other high-finishing albums did poorly (Hüsker Dü, Coleman, and Sonic Youth featuring Kim Gordon got four mentions total), while women put Kate-Bush-with-teeth Sinéad O’Connor into the top 40 and 10,000 Maniacs featuring Natalie Merchant into the top 30. Presumably, women play this boys’ game for the same conflicted reasons they play so many others — partly because their options are limited, partly because they share the boys’ values (freely or otherwise), and partly because the game has its intrinsic attractions. Taken as a group, they decline several of its usages, notably romantic-individualist virtuosity from Coleman to Clapton (though mad poet O’Connor half-fits the mold) and the objectification of gurls/wimmin to which all boys are prone and some more prone than others. When they choose role models (or sex objects), they prefer the emotion and atmosphere of O’Connor and Merchant (or U2 and, it pains me to report, Robbie Robertson) to Kim Gordon’s defiant porn-queen fantasies (or John Hiatt’s mitigated sexism).

[related_posts post_id_1=”692491″ /]

Partly because they can’t change it much, the few women critics are grudgingly accepted into rock’s journalistic consensus. Black critics, who are in a position to really wreck the thing, are stuck someplace else altogether. Now more than ever, they decisively prefer their own half-separate tradition, which some people claim is the source of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols. Collectively, our 16 black critics voted for black artists, with the Replacements edging onto their list at 15; about half of them voted for no white albums, compared to the fifth of white critics who voted for no black albums and the seventh who voted only for Prince. Of course, black critics aren’t exactly encouraged to cross over. Excluding the close to a dozen blacks who now write about rock and roll at least occasionally for the Voice, I know of precisely seven nationwide with ready access to the general interest press. (Let me name them: Cary Darling, Pablo Guzman, Marty Hughley, Dennis Hunt, Belma Johnson, Connie Johnson, Ron Wynn. I must be missing some — mustn’t I? — and would love to know who they are.) The rest are confined to black-targeted consumer publications, dance and radio tipsheets, and trade journals. Opportunities to discuss Hüsker Dü in such venues are limited, and so are opportunities for real criticism — only rarely can they write negatively except by omission, and only rarely can they delve much deeper than simple function analysis. Especially given the slavishness of much white music writing, from dailies puffing the stars to you-send-it we’ll-like-it fanzines and leisure weeklies, this doesn’t bother me much. But though we solicit ballots from many such writers, few respond. Which is doubly unfortunate in a year when significance-free function analysis isn’t far removed from what some of our most disaffected respondents think we need.

At least temporarily, you see, function analysis might serve as an alternative to quasiliterary criticism. “Radio is a good, weird machine,” Greil Marcus insisted last year, and this year the theme was reflected in the singles lists of many critics who’ve never met — for instance, Frank Kogan, Rob Tannenbaum, Chuck Eddy, and Ted Cox. All were Amerindie partisans five years ago, and to an extent they still are, with Cox and Tannenbaum in the Lobos-to-Hüskers tributary and Eddy and Kogan down with noise bands like White Zombie and Pussy Galore. But for singles they listen to the radio and get off on getting manipulated. Cox and Tannenbaum go for pop-to-schlock, Fleetwood Mac or Eddie Money, while Eddy and Kogan list a lot of street-rap. But all fell for diva/girl dance records that five years ago they almost certainly would have dismissed as, dare I say it, disco: Whitney Houston, Deborah Allen, Company B, Exposé.

None of this is reflected on a singles list that doesn’t call for much rumination. Note the anti-backlash for Michael Jackson at his most professional (Bad was 49th), the big finish of M/A/R/R/S’s state-of-the-microchip multiple-climax dance smash, the second-generation soul of LeVert, and the outpouring of sentiment for American beauties from two supposedly opposed generations, X and the Dead. Also note the sole nonhit, Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” which was merely the greatest piece of rock and roll released in 1987. Then note that in general the chart is dominated even more than usual by the second-half releases from top 40 albums that are a chronic distortion of our consensus.

But if Eddie Money and Spoonie Gee are blips, they’re blips that add up to something. Cox and Tannenbaum move from meaningful, sonically distinct Amerindie songcraft to pragmatic, factory-tooled songcraft to physically manipulative (but liberating) dance-pop; Eddy and Kogan move from desperate, sonically enraged Amerindie noise to streetwise, beatwise noise to physically liberating (if manipulative) dance-pop. All respond to rhythm as meaning — or at least as a component of rock and roll’s musical vocabulary that the various unmistakable Amerindie sounds fail to account for. And all confront rock and roll’s significance-deadening crisis of overproduction by moving beyond mere critical consensus to the pop consensus at its most democratic, anonymous, and perhaps even arbitrary. Being critics, they may well get into the lyrics of their favorite disco songs as well, although not as spontaneously as Brian Chin gets into “You Used To Hold Me.” But it’s fair to say that the elation they feel is the elation of escape — not just from their troubles, as Cox believes, but from a critical dead end.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692489″ /]

As someone who’s always believed the stupid pleasures of mass culture deserve more respect than they get from intellectuals of any political stripe, I’m very sympathetic to this tendency. I suspect it’s prophetic, too, which doesn’t necessarily mean it will ever be fully reflected in the Pazz & Jop consensus. But it does partake of a certain voluptuous beat-me beat-me passivity that I find suspicious as the reign of Reagan drags to its enervating close. And insofar as it represents a programmatic rejection of the quasi-literary song aesthetic (as it does for Eddy), I’m not ready to go along. Just in case it seems I’ve been saying there are no more good songs any more, let me emphasize: I’ve been saying there are more than we know what to do with. Maybe, just maybe, we can solve this cognitive problem, and we definitely shouldn’t give up on it yet. I mean, every day I hear songs that not only mean something but get me off. That effect rarely endures the way it’s supposed to, sometimes because the song (words and/or music) wears out, sometimes because it’s rendered moot by the competence and worse of the LP where it appears. The thing is, why should it endure? As a peculiarity of a novelty-obsessed youth genre, the belief that rock and roll should get you off forever — that is, change your life on an approximately semiannual basis — has essential uses and attractions. But it’s also a romantic delusion. As Randy Newman put it: “Everybody dies.”

And so we find ourselves up against the third demographic. Since generational splits within rock criticism deepen every year, let’s get one thing straight. The idea that rock and roll is the eternal province of teenagers flies in the face of so much evidence by now that it’s too kind to call it a delusion — try distortion, or lie. Not only isn’t the music created primarily by teenagers, it isn’t consumed primarily by teenagers, and to claim the contrary is ’50s nostalgia as rank as the new Sun Rhythm Section album. Originally, rock and roll was indeed keyed to high-school spending cash, and teenagers have exerted innovative pressure on it ever since — without them we would never have had hip hop, hardcore, English punk, P-Funk, etc., Motown, or Beatlemania (to say nothing of MTV, heavy metal, English art-rock, and the Partridge Family). But in their total concentration on teenagers, the ’50s were an anomaly. Throughout its history, popular music has been the domain not of teenagers but of young adults whose mean age fell somewhere in the midtwenties, just as it does now — of people who lost touch with the soundtrack of their courtship years gradually if at all once they turned into grownups. In the rock and roll era, young adults have nurtured soul, disco, guitar-strummers good and bad, the best jazz-rock, the entire country-music tradition, CBGB punk/new wave, reggae, etc., black pop, and Randy Newman. I say we need them as much as we need the kids.

Of course, I don’t speak as a young adult. Call me the dean heh-heh, a 45-year-old whose fondness for his work bewilders benighted baby boomers. Except to observe that lengthy interactions with a Sesame Street fan do cut into one’s listening time, a precious resource in a crisis of overproduction, I admit to no diminution of interest or hardening of the sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean my agenda is independent of my age. And it doesn’t mean every veteran in this white boys’ game shares my enthusiasm. There’s a logjam in rock criticism not unlike that in the music itself — a logjam comprising a few lucky souls whose writing lives on, numerous pros who do an honest night’s work, plenty of hacks who should hang it up, and too many subcompetents who should never have taken it off the rack. The resentments that build are often dumb: knowledge does count for more now than it did back when there wasn’t much to be had, and between the pay and the mythos there’s plenty of turnover, so that young talents find their niches pretty fast. But the young semitalents who chafe most bitterly have a point: their half-assed ideas might well prove more provocative and productive than the solidly grounded opinions of the hacks and professionals in front of them.

Thus, two more minipolls: of critics 36-and-over and 29-and-under. The panels comprised 36 graybeards including five women (grayhairs?) and one black, 43 whippersnappers including five women and five blacks; ages provided were augmented by my personal knowledge (no guesses) to enlarge the samples. Alert for conservatism and hegemony on the one hand and rebellion and next-big-thing on the other, I got hearteningly ambiguous results. Seven of 1987’s top 10 albums finished in the graybeard top 15, which dropped those ill-behaved Replacements to 11th and made a top four out of the rest of the Pazz & Jop top five, but with much stronger than random support for under-30s Prince and U2 and only average points for near-contemporaries Springsteen and Hiatt. And they reserved their greatest enthusiasm not for steadfast Van Morrison or gaseous Robbie Robertson but for Ornette Coleman and especially Marianne Faithfull, two over-40s who stretched rock and roll in 1987 by ignoring everything about it but its attitude — by raging against the dying of the light. The whippersnappers, meanwhile, put the entire Pazz & Jop top 10 in their top 15, but with marked enthusiasm only for XTC and Hüsker Dü and marked unenthusiasm for Springsteen, Los Lobos, Mellencamp, and R.E.M. With several notable exceptions (including Sonic Youth, who also did fine among the graybeards, and the Smiths, whose two entries got nary a mention), it’s almost as if they couldn’t come up with anything better — not collectively. They couldn’t agree. Call it fragmentation, or option overload, or the shape of things to come. Maybe call it all three.

As their sneak preview the whippersnappers selected Dinosaur Jr., whose achievement outstripped their potential by me, something the whippersnappers can obviously relate to. Fan Frank Kogan would say Dinosaur Jr. acknowledge how fucked they are, and they’re certainly better at it than most, but seekers after future hep will be safer with 10,000 Maniacs or Sinéad O’Connor, or with any of the four count-’em four Pazz & Jop debuts more genuine than Hiatt’s in the graybeards’ top 15. Most curious are Brit teendreams George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys, which latter received a full two-thirds of their support from our 36-and-overs and only two mentions from 29-and-unders. Pass this off as our weakness for pop muzik if you like; I say for us graybeards all youth music partakes of sociology and the field report. By now our eternal attraction to the theme is so disinterested that Paul Westerberg’s passionately fucked edge-pop and Neil Tennant’s disaffected consumerism seem equally true, equally representative, while young crits are so imbued with the guitar-crazed Amerindie ethos that they regard Tennant as the enemy. May the best boy win, I say — assuming they don’t find some way to agree.

The graybeards also went for more black music than the voters at large — not just Ornette, but crossover pheenom Alexander O’Neal and great hope Terence Trent D’Arby. Hearsay’s auteurs are pop-disco princes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but O’Neal has a good voice and a good head on his shoulders, undercutting emotionalism with a constricted timbre I associate with the marketable funk of Slave and Con Funk Shun. He certainly updates soul more smartly than veteran up-and-comer Hiatt, who equates deep feeling with overstatement like so many alcohol-prone white people before him, a fallacy that also puts me on Bob Mack’s side of the Edge-Bono question and induced me to pass over the powerful instrument and utterly tortured spirit of 1987 reissue champ James Carr. D’Arby isn’t immune to this fallacy, but in his virtuosic neotraditionalism he gets away with it, and if his lyrics recall Dinosaur Jr.’s achievement-potential gap, he’ll stick around on ego alone. Our 36 graybeards gave the young man nearly half his support. The whippersnappers vouchsafed him one mention.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692487″ /]

Not that the whippersnappers ignored black music — only old stuff. They championed rap, the most defiantly youth-targeted black music ever, almost as militantly as black voters — the teen-metal crossover of L.L. Cool J. more than the JB redux of Eric B. & Rakim, the year’s hands-down superthreat debut more than Hüsker Dü or Sonic Youth. Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show did receive 55 of its 29-and-under points from black voters (Cool J got five), but if these middle-class midtwenties from the margins of NYC don’t qualify as sonic youths of the year, I’m giving up graph paper. After I got on Chuck D.’s hit list by assailing the album’s achievement-potential gap (have to introduce him to Lou Reed — and Sonic Youth), the December single “Bring the Noise” convinced me inside of 30 seconds that his claque wasn’t whistling dixie. This is postminimal rap refracted through Blood Ulmer and On the Corner, as gripping as it is abrasive, and the black militant dialogue-as-diatribe that goes with it is almost as scary as “Stones in My Passway” or “Holiday in the Sun.” I’m ashamed to reveal that I’m the only graybeard who voted for it. And as an amateur statistician, I must insist that the failure of a single 36-and-over to mention Yo! Bum Rush the Show was more than a blip. Old folks really don’t like loud noises much — or black militance either.

This is the first year in Pazz & Jop history when black debut albums outnumbered white, and even if you don’t expect much of Eric B.’s formalism you can’t deny that Public Enemy’s message-rap and D’Arby’s black-is-beautiful soul-revisited are ideas whose time has been too long coming — now that their commercial viability is manifest, there’ll be plenty of variations. But before you get set for one of my black-to-the-future sermons, expand your horizons. No matter how far these two ideas go, they’ll do so in the well-made songs I just claimed were wearing out, though rap does fuck with the aesthetic as effectively as any more self-conscious attack on the sense/nonsense continuum. They’ll be part of the future, depend on it; so will Brits and Amerindies. But my personal projection is more in line with the postsubcultural antijingoism espoused by graybeards Ron Wynn, Michael Freedberg, and John F. Szwed, and not just because I happen to be a reggae loyalist and Africana fan. The way I see it, internationalism has gathered an aura of historical inevitability — if the pop music I insist on calling rock and roll does progress, where else can I go?

As Szwed indicates, this is an old man’s kind of wisdom, dripping with the accrued tolerance of the years, and the flood of utter bullshit it presages is horrifying to contemplate — Europop, world-beat, white reggae, Zaireans cleaning up their acts in Paris, the romanticization of the primitive, the denial that there’s any such thing as the primitive, Indian movie music, Japanese metal, Kitaro, Little Steven, arrghhh. Rather than a quest for international understanding, think of it as a lover’s leap off the tower of babble — or as the nonpassive, postmasscultural alternative to getting off on random disco songs (though they also figure in the future, of course). In a crisis of overproduction, the solution isn’t necessarily to await a hero or movement that renders all else irrelevant. Just as likely, the solution is to go all the way with it. Overwhelmed by significance we can’t quite make sense of, we could do worse than take meaninglessness by the horns.

With U.K. Earthworks and Globestyle distributed Stateside as of 1988 by Virgin and Shanachie, the raw material will obviously get spread around, but as a critical-perceptual project this one could take decades to bear its own fruit — that is, genuinely international rock and roll. Which as far as I’m concerned is a guarantee that things will stay interesting. I’m talking more music than anybody can handle physically much less conceptually — so much more that no amount of preweeding can make the task manageable. I’m talking songs whose workmanship can’t fully register until you figure out what the words are, and good luck. I’m talking function analysis of living cultural artifacts that exist only on plastic for 95 per cent of the would-be analysts. I’m talking more shock of the new than any human being can possibly absorb, more room for disagreement than any consensus can possibly quantify. I’m talking the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1987

1. Prince: Sign “O” the Times (Paisley Park)

2. Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love (Columbia)

3. The Replacements: Pleased To Meet Me (Sire)

4. U2: The Joshua Tree (Island)

5. John Hiatt: Bring the Family (A&M)

6. Los Lobos: By the Light of the Moon (Slash)

7. John Cougar Mellencamp: The Lonesome Jubilee (Mercury)

8. R.E.M.: Document (I.R.S.)

9. XTC: Skylarking (Geffen)

10. Hüsker Dü: Warehouse: Songs & Stories (Warner Bros.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1987

1. Prince: “Sign ‘O’ the Times” (Paisley Park)

2. Suzanne Vega: “Luka” (A&M)

3. Los Lobos: “La Bamba” (Slash)

4. Prince: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”/”Hot Thing” (Paisley Park)

5. M/A/R/R/S: “Pump Up the Volume” (4th & B’way)

6. (Tie) Grateful Dead: “Touch of Grey” (Arista)
Bruce Springsteen: “Brilliant Disguise”/”Lucky Man” (Columbia)
R.E.M.: “The One I Love” (I.R.S.)

9. Prince: “U Got the Look”/”Housequake” (Paisley Park)

10. (Tie) Bruce Springsteen: “Tunnel of Love” (Columbia)
X: “Fourth of July”/”Positively Fourth Street” (Elektra)

—From the March 1, 1988, issue


Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.


Lee Ranaldo & the Dust

There are many sides to former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo: noise harrier Lee, alt-rock balladeer Lee, experimental sound-sculptor Lee, notepad-burnishing poet Lee. On his two recent LPs for Matador – the first solo, the second billed alongside backing band The Dust – we’ve borne witness to classic-rockin’ Lee, an untucked purveyor of casual axe wizardry who doesn’t shy away from sparkling feedback but isn’t necessarily interested in upending the rock’n’roll paradigm. Hardcore SY traditionalists have been vocal in their disappointment, but to these ears, the end of the Yooth find Ranaldo more intrinsically himself – in an unabashedly Grateful Dead sense – than he’s ever sounded.

Sat., Sept. 27, 9 p.m., 2014


Bob Weir & RatDog

If you’re missing the Grateful Dead’s heady tunes, then Bob Weir & RatDog might very well put you at ease. Since the Dead disbanded in 1995 after the death of Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman emerged as RatDog, specializing in covers, Grateful Dead classics, and original songs. At one time, the duo, along with Primus and Further drummer Jay Lane, went by the name Scaring the Children to very well — as we have surmised — scare your children. But scare your children out of what? We aren’t sure. We can be sure, however, that we’re a little too excited to take a jaunt down Shakedown Street with a couple of Grateful Dead OGs.

Mon., Aug. 18, 5:30 p.m., 2014


Keith Jarrett Trio

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the magnificently self-involved pianist’s “standards” trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock. Sort of a bejazzled Grateful Dead in miniature, the three intersperse long-familiar tunes with astonishing interludes of free group improvisation. Everything old becomes transcendent in these three wise men’s capable hands.

Wed., Dec. 11, 8 p.m., 2013


Joe Gallant’s Illuminati Orchestra

The Grateful Dead’s most intriguing orchestrator celebrates today’s 35th anniversary of Terrapin Station, the band’s heady side-length suite, with a rare appearance by Gallant’s 18-piece ensemble. A fine bassist (and former pornography instructor), Gallant has a knack for entwining both the muscle and sparkle of the Dead’s more carefully wrought tunes. Expect non-Terrapin gems like “Unbroken Chain” to fill out the set.

Fri., July 27, 8 p.m., 2012


Born Again, Then Turned Against in Mega-Church Satire Salvation Boulevard

A shopworn barrel overstocked with slow-moving fish—mega-churches, the Grateful Dead, Mexican crime lords, preening clerics and their sheep-like followers—Salvation Boulevard is nevertheless an agreeable, largely vitriol-free farce. Based on a novel by Larry Beinhart (Wag the Dog), the film tracks former Deadhead and recent Christian convert Carl Vanderveer (Greg Kinnear) as he witnesses, helps cover up, then takes the fall for an indiscretion committed by his charismatic pastor (Pierce Brosnan). Carl’s true-believer wife (Jennifer Connelly sans noticeable makeup—realism!) and a homicidal church flunkie (Jim Gaffigan) conspire against him, while his stepdaughter (Isabelle Fuhrman) and a fetching stoner security guard (Marisa Tomei) provide support—until Carl disappears in what appears to be Mexico, anyway. The film is all over the map tonally, too, and frequently feels one Nancy Botwin away from being an especially schizoid episode of Weeds. But director George Ratliff, who helmed the dour 2007 kid-psycho potboiler Joshua, keeps things light and fast, and reserves his nastiest swipes for unquestioning obedience in all its forms. Salvation Boulevard isn’t groundbreaking or even consistently funny, but it is mildly inventive and the absurdities of its characters are tender and recognizably human. Best of all, we’re encouraged to laugh with them rather than at them.