Searching for the (Sacred) Sound: Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead, and Religion

By Kaler, Michael | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Searching for the (Sacred) Sound: Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead, and Religion


Kaler, Michael, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Introduction

In this paper, I will be discussing the Grateful Dead, a California-based rock band who were active for thirty years (from 1965 to 1995) and disbanded following the death of one of the founding members, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Associated in their origins with the San Francisco hippie scene (which they actually predate), the band released many studio and live recordings during their long career and toured regularly, earning an enduring reputation for the compelling, exploratory, and spontaneous music that they made in their live performances.

The Grateful Dead are noteworthy for their immense popular success, their longevity, and the extent and sophistication of their work, as well as the ecstatic behaviour and religious--I do not use that word lightly--devotion of some of their fans, the Deadheads. They are also extremely significant in the history of rock music for being one of the first bands to incorporate the practice of improvisation into their music in an extensive way. By this, I mean that it was integrated into their songs and into each band member's approach to playing, rather than being reserved for solo turns by lead players.

The period in which the Grateful Dead began was one in which rock music was coming of age--musicians and fans were taking the music more seriously as a form of art than had been the case before; non-fans too, establishment figures and academics among them, were taking it more seriously, rather than simply dismissing it as insignificant or dangerous, as had frequently been the case in the 1950s.

Overall, rock musicians were working at higher levels of virtuosity than ever before, and the field was opening up to influences from other fields--modal jazz; avant-garde "new music"; world, and especially Indian music--that valued improvisation and provided models that could be relevant to rock musicians. The importance of improvisation in the non-musical arts at this time was also influential--for a good overview, see Daniel Belgrad's The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America. (1)

In short, it is no surprise that rock bands start publicly experimenting with improvisation at this time. I have been told by Lewis Melville, a Guelph-based improvising musician whose career began in the early 1960s, that rock musicians, including himself, had "always" been improvising privately, in rehearsal. (2) Be that as it may, it is certainly the case that the mid-1960s are associated with rock-based improvisation "going public."

There are however, numerous ways that improvisation can be incorporated into rock music, numerous different directions that bands could go, and have gone. One way, probably the most popular and obviously indebted to blues and mainstream jazz influences, was simply to extend solos, enabling members to "stretch out" in their playing. Another way was to draw from minimalist music (Terry Riley's In C premiered in 1964, for example) to create interlocked drones within which musicians could improvise and interact, an approach favoured by the Velvet Underground live and, later, by the German bands of the cosmische musik (a.k.a. "Krautrock") school.

The modal jazz approach, which came to popularity in the jazz world with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, but was especially developed by John Coltrane in the early 1960s, was another influential model. The new sonic possibilities offered by developments in instruments, amplifiers and effects in this period also opened up improvisational possibilities, particularly when allied with approaches to music deriving from the first generation of self-consciously free improvisers then coming of age--for example, the member of the British groups AMM, the Music Improvisation Company, and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

So while the development and incorporation of improvisational practice can be seen as being almost inevitable, this is not to say that any one approach would be equally inevitable. …

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