Great psychedelic artists are able to bend the perception of time and space, leaving audiences spellbound and sometimes enlightened by what the universe may contain beyond their ordinary day-to-day lives. Of all the great psychedelic rock bands, perhaps no musicians have delved into that mystical power as deeply and powerfully as the Grateful Dead.
This week, Grayfolded is being released for the first time ever on vinyl. The triple LP is nearly two hours of the Grateful Dead's most psychedelic work from 1967 to 1992, pieced together by John Oswald. Check it out on Important Records.
In the YouTube video above, you can listen to the first vinyl side of Grayfolded. In the video, we've included the official time map from the liner notes that details the time and place of 24 Grateful Dead performances that Oswald used as source material, as well as a superimposed time marker so you can see exactly what you're hearing. The maps were originally created by Oswald's mLab co-worker Phil Strong, and "measure time against intensity" according to the album's liner notes.
The Dead were brilliant on radio friendly hits like "Truckin'," "Casey Jones," and "Touch of Grey" (just to name a few), and their repertoire also included lots of traditional folk songs, outlaw country, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. However, what truly made the band special were their improvisational jams. Seeing the Grateful Dead in concert was an experience unlike any other, best summed up by the legendary concert promoter Bill Graham, who famously said, "The Grateful Dead aren't the best at what they do. They're the only ones who do what they do."
The same could be said about John Oswald, the experimental music composer and sound engineer who coined the term "Plunderphonics" to describe the sampling, altering, and mashing up of previously recorded music to create new works of art. While many others have done similar projects in his wake, no one is quite the artist and originator that Oswald has been over his career, going back to his combination of Led Zeppelin's "The Wanton Song" with an evangelical sermon to create "Power" in 1975.
In the early '90s, Oswald and the Grateful Dead linked up through David Gans. The result was Grayfolded, a two-part release on compact disc in which Oswald compiled over 100 versions of the song "Dark Star" (and instrumental sections of adjacent songs in sets) into two extended pieces known as Transitive Axis and Mirror Ashes.
What I personally love about this new vinyl release is that it breaks the complete work of Grayfolded into 6 record sides that are a little easier to digest than the original CDs that are so chock full of music that they could be daunting and difficult to get all the way through in a single sitting (even for a hardcore Deadhead like myself).
At first, I was hesitant to embrace this new vinyl release because it would mean breaking up the continuity of Oswald's original work. An important part of the Grayfolded concept was the unbroken chain of 25 years worth of performances, featuring every member of the band from 1967 to 1992 -- including the core band (Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann), the deceased members (Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick), as well as all the supplemental members from over the years (Mickey Hart, Donna Jean Godchaux, Bruce Hornsby, Tom Constanten).
In order to put the nearly two hours of sound into a vinyl release, there would need to be a certain amount of re-arranging of Oswald's work in order to fit on records that ideally hold less than 22 minutes of music per side without compromising sound quality. What I've found, having listened to everything is that this actually enhances Grayfolded as a whole.
Each record side here has its own character, and I'm finding great sections of music are easier to focus in on. My favorite record side is the 4th side, which starts with the final section of Transitive Axis before going into the opening Mirror Ashes. What you get is 4+ minutes of a "Spanish Jam" (an exquisite instrumental section that the Dead rarely played) and part of another jam, "Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks)," followed by the vocal opening to Mirror Ashes, a spacey transition, and then "73rd Star Bridge Sonata" (aka the "Feelin' Groovy" jam, because of its resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song"). Here's the time map for that 4th side:
This vinyl version of Grayfolded is also special because it shows how music can evolve over time an an artful and organic way. New experiences are being created by this vinyl issue that have never existed before. This isn't just putting the disc on the turntable and dropping the needle to produce sound. This is opening up another dimension in time and space that only a few people have ever been to before.
The Grateful Dead were built on the edge of time, with one foot in the prehistoric past and the other foot in the mysterious future. Every concert was a new journey into unchartered territory. Their "Wall of Sound" setup for live concerts during '73 and '74 was arguably the most cutting edge piece of technology that any musicians have ever toured with to this day. And they would play and adapt songs that had been passed down for generations, spanning back centuries.
Grayfolded is also available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify as two separate albums, as they were originally released a year apart. Here are the Spotify streams:
Grateful Dead & John Oswald Grayfolded: Transitive Axis & Mirror Ashes Spotify Streams:
Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead's main lyricist: "What the Dead do on 'Dark Star' is what the Dead are, that's what they do best. What defines the Dead is 'Dark Star'."
“I was in my cabin,” recalls Hunter. “They were rehearsing in the hall and you could hear from there. I heard the music and I just started writing ‘Dark Star’ just lying on my bed. I wrote the first half of it and I went in and I think I handed what I’d written to Jerry. He said, ‘Oh, this will fit just fine,’ and he started singing it. That’s true collaboration. I mean I actually heard the Grateful Dead playing it and those were the words that it seemed to be saying. I’m going to take a big stretch here and say the music seemed to be saying that and I transcribed it.
“That did for the time being. Then a couple of days or weeks later— days/ weeks, what were those in those days— he said he’d like as much material again. So I went out and sat in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park. I was sitting there writing some more lyrics for it and a hippie came up and offered me a joint. I took a hit on that and he said, ‘What are you writing?’ I said, ‘This is a song called ‘Dark Star’— remember that, it’s gonna be important!’ He said, ‘Far out.’ Off he went and I finished writing it. I suppose it is important within the context of the Grateful Dead and the most we can ask for is importance within a context.”
Perhaps the best way of summarizing Transitive Axis is that Oswald has effectively created an outrageously ideal ‘Dark Star’ on the Dead’s terms. Several Deadheads described it on the Internet as “the ‘Dark Star’ you always hoped they would play.”
“The big influence for Transitive Axis,” continues Oswald, “was going to my first Grateful Dead concert and not being particularly satisfied by the music, but being impressed by the activity in the hallways— seeing people having their little rave dance parties and realizing that the groove was the main thing. It didn’t have to be a musically fascinating explication of that groove at any particular time; it was just this overall feel of the kind of music the band was playing. So I attempted to give that part of Transitive Axis a dance groove ambience.”
“The biggest impression I got from my second Grateful Dead concert was a strong sense of the rapport between the audience and the band that was reinforced by the way the lights and staging, the shape of screens and things they had around the stage, and how the lights could go off the band and open up on the audience. The audience would react to that, ‘Oh yes, we’re in the spotlight now, we’re the feature.’ They’d also become the aural feature at that point. There’d be a big roar. You’d hear these responses going back and forth between the band and the audience which were in sympathy with the lighting. So, something I’m playing around with a bit more on Mirror Ashes than I did on Transitive Axis are these audience surges.”
In general, Mirror Ashes is a somewhat different kettle of fish. While, like Transitive Axis,’ it has its fair share of folding, overall there is much greater use of other manipulation techniques such as tape echo, backwards sounds, longer echoes, preludes and repeats of material and, most extensively, speed alteration. The latter is primarily of the variety that Oswald refers to as “harmonic speeds” where given musical gestures are sped up or slowed down by factors of two, four or eight so that the resulting sounds are octave equivalents of the source material. This technique is extensively used in the section entitled ‘Cease Tone Beam’ where the undercurrent for the whole twelve minutes is comprised of source material that originally was performed in under a minute and a half.
“The incentive for the slowing down thing,” recounts Oswald, “was the Space section at the second concert I attended. It seemed long and homogeneous and smooth. It was an engulfing soundscape that didn’t have many distractions. But my experience from listening to tapes of Space indicates that there’s usually a whole pile of sonic distraction going on. So, to give the effect that I got in concert, this mirror kind of a floating space, it was necessary to take a bit and slow it down and extend it just to give this sense of really slow time that I was getting in concert. One of the added features of that for me was having a beam-laden section . So, you’re getting that Harry Partch ultra-bass marimba kind of sound, but it’s been taken down even further in pitch and speed. It’s really, really low stuff that might be a challenge to reproduce on people’s home stereos.”
‘73rd Star Bridge Sonata’ is built upon a very different kind of undercurrent. The through line of this section is the complete fourteen minutes that the Dead played between the two verses on February 13, 1970 at the Fillmore East in New York. This has long been considered by Deadheads to be one of the, if not the, finest versions of ‘Dark Star.’ Many of the Heads wrote to Oswald suggesting that it become part of the second instalment of Grayfolded. It is often referred to as the ‘Feelin’Groovy Jam’ because, in the course of the improvisation, the Dead allude to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘59th Street Bridge Song’ which is subtitled ‘Feelin’Groovy.’ While Transitive Axis contains no extended real-time samples, in this case Oswald elected to include the complete section as played by the Dead.
“The ‘Feelin’Groovy Jam’ was one of my favourite things with the whole band playing,” volunteers Oswald. “It just seemed like they were really paying attention to each other. I started off thinking here’s something I wouldn’t want to fiddle with. I wouldn’t want to cut anything out of it or I wouldn’t want to fold it down. It seems to work nicely at its own length.
“After making something that was perhaps a bit disorienting in the first disc, it might be just as shocking to go into something in the second disc where, ‘Hey, this is familiar territory, this doesn’t sound like it’s been manipulated.’ But, as inevitably happens, I try to make improvements each time I hear something: in this case doubling lines and referentially reiterating bits again and again as echoes and pre-echoes, which is something that doesn’t happen at all on Transitive Axis, where each sound happens uniquely once.”
"Oswald prefers to think of the whole work existing within Tralfamadorian time. Ultimately it is unimportant for his purposes where a specific Dead performance originates in a temporal sense. He views much of their playing as timeless. To put it another way— where Grayfolded is concerned everything is in ‘Dark Star’ time."
"If Transitive Axis can be thought of as involving ‘folded time,’ Mirror Ashes can be understood under the rubric of ‘warped time.’ Both discs involve an astonishing amount of manipulation but in the case of Transitive Axis the dominant technique (or as Oswald puts in ‘plunderphonic actualizer’) is the folding of material where, for example a thirty second passage could be folded in half and thereby cut to fifteen seconds which could then be folded again and compressed down to seven and a half seconds. The net result, of course, is four times shorter and four times as dense. On a couple of occasions after Transitive Axis was first released in August 1994, Phil Lesh commented that he wished there had been more folding. Always sensitive to constructive criticism, Oswald decided to give Lesh a present of sorts, inserting a two second clip in the middle of “Mirror Ashes” which consists of the entire hour of Transitive Axis being folded some 16,384 times! The net result is one ungodly ‘whoosh.’"
“As I mentioned earlier, plunderphonics usually entails taking what seems to be normal music and making it strange,” relates Oswald. “But with ‘Dark Star’, since it often is strange to begin with, the task is inevitably different. Because I’ve so often heard that the experience of a Dead concert has never been translated to record in a satisfying way, I decided to attempt to make that translation.
“With ‘Dark Star’ I felt like orchestrating the Dead— having multiple versions of the band superimposed in vertical layers, so you’d have the Grateful Dead Orchestra for the nebulous sections of the song, which would be interspersed with smaller ensembles."
From 1971 through the Dead’s ‘retirement’ in October 1974, the band’s playing in general became increasingly jazzy, strongly reminiscent of Miles Davis’ apocalyptically intense electric band. The Dead had actually shared a bill with Miles at the Fillmore West in the late 1960s. “It was at the height of the Bitches Brew period,” recounted Lesh, “the deepest shit he ever did. Miles was an influence on everybody. He’s probably an influence on people who aren’t even musicians. The Bitches Brew thing was so amazing because it took everything that we were doing and we’d been trying to do and took it another 200 miles down the road. It was definitely an influence just in the way everybody played.”
Jerry Garcia, on playing "Dark Star" only a handful of times between 1978 and 1989:
“We burnt out on it,” sighs Garcia. “What happens to me is all of a sudden I feel like I haven’t got a thing to say in this context. I really believe I have played as much of this as I possibly can and I feel very empty. I feel if I have to play this song one more time, I’m just gonna break something. I get bored. That’s what that was all about. I wish I didn’t. I wish I could stay on top of it forever. The thing is, it has to be good. That tune, it isn’t quite satisfying. If I were writing it now, I would go for something else in it. I would challenge myself a little more.”
Such revelations seem surprising given just how much exploration the song had generated through 1974. In point of fact, it would seem as if the tune was just an excuse for the explorations.
“But,” counters Garcia, “it doesn’t include the imperative that you must explore beyond these places. In other words, you could screw around in the diatonic kind of space forever with that and you can daisy chain any number of modes through it and it’ll still have perfect vigor. It will do that nicely. I want for it to plug in as successfully to things that are really out the door, things that are like tone poems or tone rows, something bizarre.
“As a musician I like form but there’s a part of me that wants there to be underform, like the form after chaos, that kind of fractal form. I long to take ideas down those roads. Now it remains for me to figure out ways to suggest the use of those things where the stuff is satisfying intellectually so I feel like I’m playing and I’m being honest in a formal sense but I’m also allowed to be inventive in a way where I can get a chance to surprise myself. It’s really hard to talk about it. I’m having to grope for every word. I’m not accustomed to addressing this stuff on a verbal level. It’s so much easier to play than it is to talk.”
“All of our music,” offers Garcia, “is really a process. ‘Dark Star’ is a good example. It’s not a work, it’s not like an opus— now it’s done, here’s the tune, play it this way always, everybody play this tempo always, here are the expression marks. It isn’t like that. What we do is an ongoing procedure. The procedure sometimes coughs up a magical relationship with the music and other people can dig it too. We’re definitely a process band.”
As Garcia indicates, the idea of bass/guitar counterpoint was intrinsic to the stylistic alchemy of the Dead in general. That said, it was perhaps nowhere more in evidence than on ‘Dark Star.’ Phil Lesh laughingly concurs: “Some reviewer described the way I play as being ‘Like a sandworm in heat wrapped around Garcia’s guitar line.’ I love that line and it does describe that really because it’s like we’re playing chasing the train which is a lot of fun. I try to do that all the time but ‘Dark Star’ is supposed to do that.”
If you love psychedelic music, do yourself a favor and buy the album through Important Records. They are offering it in limited edition black, blue, and red vinyl.