Friday, May 1, 2009

Garcia: An American Life Book Review

Blair Jackson is probably my favorite Grateful Dead historian because he is so knowledgeable, thoroughly published, writes about the music with nice detail, and was credited for the book
Grateful Dead Gear: The Band's Instruments, Sound Systems, and Recording Sessions from 1965 to 1995 (review coming soon). That book is truly encyclopedic in it's scope and so is Garcia: An American Life.

This book is a godsend for Jerry Garcia and Grateful Dead fanatics. I would couple it with the (more controversial and tabloid-ish Living with the Dead - review coming soon) as mandatory reading for someone who wants to understand what life was like inside the Dead organization while they were creating the monstrous cultural movement that we were all affected by.

The detail is staggering, and the insights into Jerry Garcia and his demons are numerous. this book lays it out and provides a much needed expose into Jerry's life - even chronicling his drug use and his checkered love life.

Blair Jackson has provides great insight into the music itself (better than the the other notable Grateful Dead authors), take for example Blair Jackson's take on Days Between's structure:

The song did not have a conventional pop structure. There was no chorus, no bridge; just four long verses that started with spare and simple accompaniment and then built in intensity as the instruments played increasingly grand ornamental fills. Vince Welnick described it nicely: "It would go from this poignant but intense space to this big, majestic thing that would just pour out. That song and 'So Many Roads' really meant a lot to Jerry, you could tell." In it's early versions, the song had no solo break between the verses, but it had a moody and unusual open-ended instrumental coda that wasn't tied to the melody of the song, but rather spilled off in other more musically abstract directions.

In another excerpt Blair Jackson talks about the lyrics and then gets a great quote from Steve Silberman that gives insight into the climate of serious Deadheads' opinions about the music when Days Between came about and how it was received:

... Days Between is painted in an emotional chiaroscuro, at once fond and foreboding, filled with promise and dread. In one verse, "Summer flies and August dies / The world grwos dark and mean." But in another "a hopeful candle flickers / in the land of lullabies." One part of the final verse has "Hearts of summer held in trust / still tender young and green," then immediately offsets that with "left on shelves collecting dust / not knowing what they mean."

" 'Days Between' joined the Grateful Dead oeuvre right at the time - 1993 - when old-time Deadheads were asking themselves if Garcia and Hunter were still capable of creating art that had a primordial, frightening intensity: the beauty at the edge of terror that Rilke described," comments Steve Silberman. "As the other songs written roughtly in the same period seemed to mine well-worn images and attitudes - almost reveling in their seasoned facility to created and archetypal mood, like 'Lazy river Road' - 'Days Between slipped between your clothes and your skin like a chill wind out of a grave. I think it's the most uncompromisingly adult lyric Hunter ever wrote."
So that's the kind of stuff that I live to read, and passages like that kept me glued to this book when it first came out in 1999. I re-purchased it recently and re-read it, happily having forgotten enough of the incredible amount of information to make it very informative to read again.

There is information about every album Jerry made, every musical endeavor, and every tour the Dead went on. The book describes the "ups and downs" of maintaining the world's most successful touring rock band and the pressures that come with it (for instance - the Grateful Dead wanted New Years Eve off to spend R&R time with their families but for many years played the concerts out of a sense of obligation).

There is a ton of other great info in the book about Jerry's musical and non musical relationships, activities, and personality traits. There is information in this book that you will not find anywhere else (like for instance, insight into John Kahn's life - a subject rarely written about buut of great interest to me).

I highly recommend Garcia: An American Life to anyone who likes the Grateful Dead enough to read this blog. The book will not disappoint and you will feel like you understand the life of Jerry Garcia more than you previously did. You may find yourself feeling sympathy for him because of his drug addiction and pressures of being the leader of the Grateful Dead. During other parts of the book you may experience anger at the irresponsible and insensitive actions of the man who's unhealthy lifestyle caused him to die prematurely at age 53.

I once e-mailed Blair Jackson about something and he emailed back too, which was really cool.

Garcia: An American Life Book Rating on a Scale of 1-10: 10.0


Sundar said...

That's so true about Days Between - it has an indescribable quality that makes you stop whatever you are doing and be drawn to it. (And that's 'before' you hear the words).

Mike, one more book that you should add to your list is 'Grateful Dead Reader'. A bunch of nice essays, including one from Steve Silberman. His piece can be found at:

In a couple of hours, my wife and I leave for Chicago for some R&R. And to see the Dead on Tuesday.


PS: Tell me if this is strange...The word verification for this comment is 'Trucken'.

MH said...

Thanks for the tip FYI I got the Phil Lesh book coming from Amazon books - it's so cheap when you buy from used sellers that I can't help but go buy the 'Reader' now. That's exactly why I do this blog is to get turned on to new things so thanks.

POST A REVIEW of the Chicago show!!! Give us some insight! I'll put it on the blog if it's okay with you. You are a huge Dead fan and I want to know what you think.

(PS verification code is "booken" - kind of cool considering the subject of our talk)