The legendary promoter Bill Graham stares straight into the camera and declares, "Forty thousand Americans cannot be wrong!" Ah, those were the days!
The Grateful Dead Movie plays pretty weird right now. Originally shot three decades ago in 1974, it captures an America that looks, sounds and feels like it’s on a totally different planet from the nation that recently returned George Bush to the White House. Peopled by the alien young and the conservative old, it shows a world which turned on the axis of a very simple equation – “us” and “them”. The cops were brutal, slitty-eyed, suspicious cartoon pigs and the kids were a whirling dervish army of freewheeling freaks being led by Chemical Jerry and his merry band to the golden kingdom of Aquarius. Thirty years on and life’s a lot more complicated; many of Uncut’s activist anti-Bush heroes – Stipe, Springsteen, Vedder etc – were blatantly booed or embarrassed by their fans at the ballot. To paraphrase the Dead’s signature song: what a long, strange and not altogether pleasant trip it’s been.
Not that life was all skull and roses way back when. The sides may have been more forcefully drawn – pony-tails versus short back and sides – but what The Grateful Dead Movie captures more than anything else is the political, social and musical inertia that may well have sewn the seeds of the Dubya disaster. The Dead portrayed in the Movie are – shame to admit it – hardly the counter cultural force they had promised in the ’60s and their fans – the younger brothers and sisters of the SF originals – seem a goonish lot, somewhat lost in a fog somewhere between stoner hedonism and handed down philosophy.
In fact, the project was fortuitously spawned from the Dead’s rather poor business acumen rather than any desire to spread the revolutionary word. Having been ripped off over the years, by 1974, the band faced bankruptcy, hauling a massive extended family on tour around the world and lumbering themselves with a monstrously expensive sound system. The only way out was to quit the road, concentrate on recording and, as guitarist Bob Weir admits in the accompanying documentary, wait for most of the crew to get employment elsewhere before they could resume their gypsy lifestyle with clear consciences.
So it was that these “farewell” shows were organised at Bill Graham’s Winterland in October. As an afterthought, Jerry Garcia hired a film crew to capture the event for posterity, the Movie eventually touring theatres as an alternative to the real thing until the Dead got back on track gaining, along the way, serious cult status. What we encounter is some stunning Yellow Submarine-style cartoon graphics courtesy of Gary Gutierrez, much footage of saucer-eyed longhairs dancing and smoking dope, a lot of real up close on stage playing.
The band trundle through Deadhead faves like “US Blues”, “Casey Jones”, “Eyes Of The World” and, on the bonus Disc, “China Cat Sunflower”/”I Know You Rider” and “Dark Star”. The performances may lack the interstellar improvisation of the band’s classic ’60s psychedelia nor the easy grace of the country-flecked line-up they toured around ’72, but it’s still a compelling snapshot of the Dead at that point in their career.
They used to say that there’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert and, with a head full of acid, four hours in, they were right on the money.