Saturday, June 30, 2007

Then another car erupted into its agonized whine. It was David Coulthard's car. We heard it wind its way around the track, echoey. As we sat at the last corner I kept expecting it to emerge when in fact it had a longer ways to go. Then suddenly it came 'round Rascasse and raced before us with an urgency. All navy blue and red and yellow. Zigzagging a little as it turned away from us, backfiring, backfiring into the distance.

Ahead of me in line at the Duane Reade, a teacher buying boxes upon boxes of chalk and a pack of Pall Malls; I thought school was out.

The thing about the Grateful Dead is either you really, really love 'em or you really, really hate 'em. You can't say the same of, let's say, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Can you? Or Dire Straits. The Cars? OK, Fleetwood Mac. Forgive me if I've named a band you really, really love. That'll happen. Or you really, really hate. But I think you know what I mean – whether you really, really love the Dead or really, really hate 'em. You know who you are. No other band has such a dynamic sweep in the public's perceptions. No band is so polarizing. And that's neither a good thing nor a bad thing, of course, but permit me to assert that it's interesting.

The truth is the Dead have a fundamental weakness and I know what it is. When you ask someone who hates the Dead what they hate they might say, "I hate the jamming."

Fair enough. "Do you hate jazz?"

"No, I love jazz."

"Well, jazz is jamming."

"You're right. It's not the jamming, it's the... it's the... it's the... aimless jamming. It's the noodling. I fucking hate it."

Now we're getting somewhere. The Dead's jams are aimless and they do noodle. And here's why.

Jerry Garcia was strongly, philosophically, disinclined to assert a theme. This was so deeply ingrained, evidently, in his personal philosophy and his musical philosophy that it is practically inescapable in either, and his considerable charisma in both realms ensured that others would adapt their strategies to his (forget everything you ever heard him say about the Dead being a "leaderless" band or how a drummer might lead them – that's yet more evidence of his aversion to assertion. But in that way, he asserted.). So whereas a great jazz improviser – Herbie Hancock let's say, or John Coltrane, or a thousand others – might stumble upon a theme and grab it by the balls, play it for all it was worth, play it hungrily, like it was the last musical notion they'd ever get again; when Jerry or anyone else in the Dead for that matter would cross paths with a theme they would leave it alone. They would curiously, agonizingly almost, yield to the imaginary space it occupied; they might indicate it; perhaps allude to it; but they would just about never seize it. The Grateful Dead's music, their improvisation that is (it being the aspect of their music that is most recognizably theirs) is a chronicle of frustrations, of incompletion, of allusion. Of metaphor. My fondest moments of the Dead's music are characterized by an ineffable, bittersweet melancholy: they are brief, they die upon the threshold of the ear; they describe a huge longing, a space far greater in every dimension than we have ever perceived, but they don't and can't quite take us there, because to take us there would be the end of everything. They flirt and tease, agonizingly; they tickle the itch. Where other improvisers hold a lamp and the best among them are a lighthouse, Jerry Garcia is a firefly, unpredictably aflame and never alighting anywhere.

This I love, love, love, love, love and others hate.