May 1, 2017

Truckin' 1970-1974 (Guest Post)

Truckin’ and Truckin’ Jams: 1970-1974

By snow and rain

Despite its relative popularity for general audiences, I’ve always felt that Truckin’ was strangely underappreciated. Sure, it was one of the Dead’s biggest hits, but I don’t think it’s really ever gotten its due as one of their signature songs and better jam launchers. Inside the Truckin’ jams (and the places that they led to) are some of my favorite Dead moments. While I admit to sometimes zoning out during the verse/refrain part of the song, I am invariably hooked by the time I reach the “GET BACK TRUCKIN ON!!!!” part and on into the crescendo that climaxes with what I call the “Truck-splosion.” I think of it as the part of the song where the big rig gets to the top of the hill and starts to roll on down the other side.

Often played to open shows as a stand-alone single in its early days, Truckin’ became a sort of jam table-setter, getting the band into a loose rocking blues riff. It reflected the band’s mood each night – sometimes the jam was charged with energy, sometimes it was quiet and spacey. Truckin’ was paired with the Other One as early as October 1970, with smooth segues as both are in roughly the same key. The song really had its roots in the “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” blues riff, which the band played a couple of times in 1970, but didn’t play again until fall ’72, when the Nobody’s jam became a pretty standard follower to the Truckin’ jam, sometimes with lyrics, sometimes not. Truckin’s E minor pentatonic jam mode segued easily into other blues jams too, as well as some of the Dead’s bigger jams like Eyes of the World, Dark Star, Mind Left Body and Spanish jams — pretty much all their best stuff.

So I wrote this out to make note of some of the most historic and enjoyable versions and unusual segues. Hope you enjoy. Additions and corrections always welcome.

Writing the Song

Perhaps the most self-reflective song in the band’s repertoire, one of the things that I like most about Truckin’ is that it was born out of, and is inextricably tied to, the Grateful Dead’s experience as a touring band. It’s an autobiographical song, and the verses were reflections on real events that happened out on the road. As Phil Lesh wrote in his book, “We took our experiences on the road and made poetry: all the cities fusing into one…the loneliness of street life…the omnipresence of drugs… Get back truckin’ on – that’s all we knew.”

Truckin’ was originally a Harlem dance step in the ‘20s and ‘30s, referred to in blues songs like Blind Boy Fuller’s “Keep on truckin’ mama, truckin’ my blues away.” (Hot Tuna also recorded a version of “Keep On Truckin’” on their album Burgers.) 
The Mills Blue Rhythm Band also recorded a jazz foxtrot called Truckin’ in 1935: “All over town you’ll see them truckin’ along…everybody’s truckin’.”

Robert Crumb was inspired by the old blues song to draw his comic “Keep On Truckin’” in 1968. Hunter may refer to Crumb’s big-footed men in the line “keep truckin’ like the doo-dah man” (though he later said, “Oh, that’s just from that [Stephen Foster] song ‘Camptown Races,’ that goes “doodah, doodah.” I wasn’t thinking about anybody in particular. Just that gambler on his way home from the game with a pocketful of tin.”)  The Dead would later use their own similar image of a big foot ready to stomp on Europe on the cover of the Europe ’72 album:

Robert Hunter went with the band on their March 1970 tour to write them a road song. (There’s a Lost Live Dead post about the timeframe in which the Dead wrote Truckin’.)

In a 1986 Relix interview, Hunter recalled, “I wrote that song in several different cities, starting off in San Francisco. I finished it up in Florida. I was on the road with the band and writing different verses in different cities, and when we were in Florida I went outside and everybody was sitting around the swimming pool. I had finally finished the lyrics, so I brought them down and the boys picked up their guitars, sat down, and wrote some rock ‘n’ roll changes behind it.”

And from a recent Hunter interview with David Browne
Q: Truckin' also was completed on the road with the Dead, wasn't it?
A: Yeah, I think it was in Florida, and I had been writing it for some time. I think I finished it there — it was not a song I just dashed off. And then I gave it to them. They were all sitting around the swimming pool, the guitars there, and they did a good job on it. I wrote all the lyric. "Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me" — I think that's Phil. It took me a couple of months to write and it maybe took 'em about half an hour to put it together.

In the Signpost to New Space interview, Garcia remembered, “The early stuff [Hunter] wrote that we tried to set to music was stiff because it wasn’t really meant to be sung. After he got further and further into it, his craft improved and then he started going out on the road with us, coming out to see what life was like, to be able to have more of that viewpoint in the music, for the words to be more Grateful Dead words. Truckin’ is the result of that sort of thing. Truckin’ is a song that we assembled: it wasn’t natural, and it didn’t flow, and it wasn’t easy, and we really labored over the bastard, all of us together…
It comes out of nothing specific, but it’s really a lot of like the way it is, the pace of it and the flow of it and the kinda-like fast thoughts that you have as things are happening around you; the ideas in it are right-on in that sense. I like Truckin’ a lot, Truckin’s one of my favorites.”

The Chuck Berry influence in Truckin’ is strong, particularly from a song like School Days that Truckin’ seems to be patterned after.
Hunter said, “There was no lyrical change when the song got to the band… The music was always like a Chuck Berry thing; they did it a little differently than I wrote it, put a different accent in. The ‘sometimes the light’s all shining on me’ part is definitely Grateful Dead.”

Garcia talked specifically about the “sometimes the light’s all shining on me” line:
“You can see it happen if you hang around backstage. If you go to a concert you see there’s the on-stage part with the bright lights, the show, loud music, people screaming, all that stuff happening. And then you’re backstage between sets and there’s all kinds of milling crowds and people going, “hey man, hey man,” stuff coming at you and weird shit and you’re having to duck and get out of the way and lie and talk fast – all these things to just be able to preserve a little composure, just so you don’t have to be constantly putting out. That’s just a way of saying that thing; I mean it’s a beautiful way of saying it.”

According to Hunter, the recording wasn’t easy: “It was fed to Bobby a line at a time when we got to the studio, with me telling him how to pronounce it. He’d go in and put a line down, then go back in and work out how to pronounce the next line.”

It would always remain a hard song for Weir to sing. Weir later complained to David Gans, “Truckin’ is kind of a tongue twister. Hunter wrote it that way out of spite! He just put it together so it’s impossible to sing. It’s not a matter of not remembering the words so much as not being able to get ‘em out sometimes.”

The verses about being “busted down on Bourbon Street” refer to the Dead’s recent New Orleans drug bust on January 31, 1970, when the city narcotics squad raided the Dead’s hotel after a show and arrested most of the band. The Dead didn’t come back to New Orleans for ten years.

The lyrics also refer to other cities the Dead had just played – “truckin’ up to Buffalo,” and a couple cities in Texas they’d passed through (though ironically, the song mentions somewhat spurious reasons not to play those places: Dallas has a mysterious “soft machine,” Houston is “too close to New Orleans,” New York “just won’t let you be,” and of course on Bourbon Street you just get “set up” and “knocked down.”) Of course, a lot of this is for the sake of the rhymes and ease of singing, rather than an accurate blow-by-blow account of the tour.

Hunter’s also said that in the verse about sweet Jane (“she lost her sparkle, you know she isn’t the same”) he was parodying a ‘40s toothpaste commercial:
Poor Millicent, poor Millicent,
She never used Pepsodent
Her smile grew dim
And she lost her vim
So folks don’t be like Millicent
Use Pepsodent!

(See the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics for more possible allusions in the song.)
Some of the Dead spoke about the song in interviews for the 1997 documentary Classic Albums: Anthem to Beauty.

Bob Weir: “There was a romance about being a young man on the road in America, and you had to do it! It was a rite of passage. And at the same time, it was the material that you drew from to write about. We were starting to become real guys, and really enjoying the hell out of it. We toured more or less four to six months out of the year. It was our bread and butter – we weren't selling that many records. And we had a lot of fun out on the road, got into a lot of trouble... We left some smoking craters of some Holiday Inns, I'll say that, and there were a lot of places that wouldn't have us back. All of this is absolutely autobiographical, all the stuff in Truckin’.”

Mickey Hart: “It was autobiographical. We told our story in song. I knew that the words were strong. They were powerful, they were depicting real events in real people’s lives, and they became part of the fabric, part of the history of our day. People could sing it and know there were events directly connected with it.”

Robert Hunter: “This was written over a long period of time. I had lots and lots of verses – I thought that we could keep adding to Truckin’ over the years, but the funny thing is, once you get it down, it is down. You don’t go back, you don’t revisit it.”

I particularly like Hunter’s idea of it as a living song, though I’m not too fond of his idea for a new verse:
Once in a while, the music gets into the street
Fifty old ladies bug every cop on the beat
They’re putting the lock on Lindley Meadow and Kezar
Beginning to look like we can’t play in the park

Of course, there’s Bobby’s alternative lyric changing sweet Jane’s fate in the ‘80s (“Ever since she went and had a sex change, all her friends can say is ain’t it a shame”), but that’s another story…

Truckin’ was released as a single in a hastily edited three-minute version as a concession to Warner Brothers, and it reached #64 on the pop singles chart, the Dead’s most successful single until Touch of Grey in 1987.

An alternate mix of the studio version is a filler track here:
It features lead guitar through the whole song that wasn't used on the album track, and the ending groove goes on longer til Weir finishes it with an impromptu 'Frozen Logger.'


The band went through a lot in 1970 – from the bust in New Orleans to the famous northeastern tour in the spring, to the “Festival Express” mini-tour across Canada in late-June. Criss-crossing the country to play the Fillmore East, the Capitol Theater, a couple shows in England...even Hawaii (twice!). It was also a very creative period, with new songs and acoustic sets being rotated in regularly. Truckin’ was a way of life for the Dead, and it sounds appropriately authentic in the available recordings.

Truckin’ was played at least 28 times in 1970. Fitting its acoustic origins, the Dead started playing the song in their acoustic sets; but in October it became an electric song, and within the month they were already starting to stretch out the ending jam a bit. The song’s loping, bluesy groove is very similar to New Speedway Boogie (both songs also included Nobody’s Fault jams, a natural fit), so it’s small wonder that New Speedway was dropped just a month after Truckin’ was introduced to the live set.

August 18, 1970, Fillmore West – First recorded Truckin'*

We only have a so-so audience recording of this historic show, which opens with the first-recorded Truckin’, played acoustically, and also features the first versions of Ripple, Operator and Brokedown Palace.

Bob’s voice is deep and soulful, the harmonies are sweet, and Pigpen sounds tasteful on piano. Bob says “garlands of neon” and “Detroit, Chicago, New York” instead of “arrows of neon” and “Chicago, New York, Detroit.” It’s interesting to hear slightly unusual cadences on certain lines. Really nice harmonies from Jerry especially.

* See the JGMF blog for a discussion of the previous night’s set list, which also included Truckin’. It appears that 8/17 was the first live Truckin’, while 8/18 remains the first for which we have a recording.

September 18, 1970, Fillmore East – First version on a SBD recording

Another nice acoustic version, this is the next-to-last to be played on acoustics. Bob is now singing “Chicago, New York, Detroit,” but still sings “garlands of neon.” The better quality of this recording significantly enhances the nuances of the acoustic sound (though the mix keeps changing).

The last-ever acoustic version was played a couple days later – the mix is smoother here, with Pigpen more clear on piano:

October 4, 1970, Winterland – First electric Truckin’ (fragment)

It’s a real shame that we only have a fragment of what is apparently the first plugged-in version of Truckin’, performed on the night Janis Joplin died in Los Angeles. The surviving portions of Truckin’ and the rest of the show come from a live KSAN broadcast. The tape starts in the middle of the “been thinking, I got to mellow slow” part and cuts off about 30 seconds later with an unfortunate DJ voiceover. Bummer, because the part of the song that survives sounds pretty great. (A complete multitrack may exist in the Vault, though.)

October 10, 1970, Colden Auditorium, Queens College, Queens, N.Y. – First complete electric Truckin’

The second electric Truckin’ is only available on a muddy audience recording, but the recording quality is the only drawback of this solid show. The Truckin’ opener is a perfect example of the the band’s more intense approach during this period. They’ve dropped the acoustic sets and are coming out more aggressively from the start. The song still isn’t very well jammed out, but you see glimmers of what’s to come in the last two minutes of the song – with Jerry noodling around in that familiar myxolydian groove that would become such a mainstay of the band’s big jam segments in years to come.

October 23, 1970, McDonough Arena, Georgetown U., Washington, D.C. – First Truckin’ segue (First Truckin’> Other One)

This show from a hot night at Georgetown University features the historic first-ever Truckin’> Other One combo that would become one of the band’s calling cards. Cary Wolfson’s audience recording captures the energy of the night very well, and is reasonably well-balanced despite being a little fuzzy. The Truckin’> Other One segue is truly remarkable given that it’s the first one ever. There is no break for drums and no Phil bomb to introduce the Other One, just a seamless continuation from Truckin’ jam into Other One jam that sounds perfectly organic. Listen to this one.

October 30, 1970, Gym, S.U.N.Y., Stony Brook, N.Y. – First (only?) time played twice on the same day

Electric Truckin’ played at both the early and late shows. The first clocks in at around 10 minutes and gets pretty spicy, making it the most jammed-out pure Truckin’ so far. The late show version is noticeably looser and shorter. Neither of them segue into anything.

November 5, 1970, Capitol Theater, Port Chester, N.Y. – First Truckin’> Drums> Other One

Notable as the first Truckin’ to segue into Drums. However, the main riff clearly changes abruptly from Truckin’ to the Other One a few measures before the start of Drums. These important Capitol Theater shows are audience recordings, and we’re damn lucky to have these tapes. Through the rest of the year, Truckin’ was most often played as a standalone song, but several times would segue into the Other One.

November 8, 1970, Capitol Theater, Port Chester, N.Y. – First Truckin’> Dark Star

This is the first of only four times that a Truckin’ jam segued into Dark Star (the other three were all in ’72). It’s not much of a segue --- more along the lines of the Eyes> Estimated variety, where the second song begins just after the final beat of the previous one. They played Truckin’ at every show during this four-night run at the Capitol Theater. This is one of the first times that I know of where they repeat the final refrain (“Truckin’, I’m a-goin’ home, woah, woah baby…”) a second time after the jam.


Truckin’ was played at least 67 times in 1971 (about 80% of the shows that year), and it didn’t change much through the year. It could appear anywhere in the show, either to start a set, or near the end of the show before the final Not Fade Away, and was most often a standalone song (played over 40 times by itself). The Dead frequently used it as the show-opener, so it often served as a short warm-up, typically kept fairly brief, about eight minutes or less. With the ending jam usually only a couple minutes long, it always feels like they’re pulling up short for the vocal reprise or a quick ending.  

When it did segue, it was almost always into a Drums>Other One (this pairing was played only 17 times this year; other times the Other One had its old Cryptical intro). There were a few other unusual segues in 1971:
4/6/71: Not Fade Away>Truckin’ (a smooth transition to close the show; fiery Truckin’)
4/13/71: Truckin’>drums>Good Lovin’ (opening the show; Truckin’ is unremarkable)
4/15/71: Truckin’>Not Fade Away (not as good as it looks)
5/30/71: Truckin’>Lovelight (an abrupt switch after Truckin’ dies down)
Best of all, this one:

January 21, 1971, Freeborn Hall, U. of California, Davis, Ca. – First pairing with Smokestack Lightning

A recently discovered audience tape. One highlight of the show is the unique Smokestack Lightning>Truckin' in the first set. Smokestack is pretty quiet and laid-back, but they switch right into Truckin', and Pigpen plays harmonica all through Truckin'! Very unusual, and worth hearing. (They may segue into Dire Wolf from Truckin' too, but a tapecut makes that unclear.)
The Truckin’>Smokestack Lightning combo wouldn’t be played until 4/9/83, and they were paired rather frequently later in the ‘80s.

October 19, 1971, Northrup Auditorium, U of Minn., MN – First Truckin’ with Keith Godchaux

A nice energized version from Keith’s first show with the Dead. Not especially jammed out, but Garcia now has the chance to play off an exuberant Keith. Pigpen can be heard on organ in the earlier ’71 versions, but he wouldn’t return until December.
A rehearsal version from 9/30 also exists with Keith on tentative organ, which fortunately he dropped for this song on the tour:

October 26, 1971, The Palestra, U of Rochester, Rochester NY – Truckin’ > drums > Other One

In the fall Truckin’ occasionally got up to ten minutes long, for instance on 10/26 and 11/14. This version is the longest of 1971 I believe, and one of the best – Other One hints sneak into the stretched-out jam, and they skip the vocal refrain before tumbling into the Drums>Other One. (This copy is rather muffled, but the show was released on the Download Series vol. 3.)
The fine but a little more subdued ten-minute Truckin’ from 11/14 was also released on the bonus disc to Road Trips 3:2:

In late ’71 Weir also occasionally started introducing Truckin’ as their hit single, for instance on 11/20, 12/5, and 12/10: “It soared straight to the top of the charts in Turlock, California – that’s a fact, it was #1 in Turlock.” (The rest of the Dead find this hilarious, especially on 11/20 – Garcia calls Weir “Mr. Show-biz.”) He’d keep doing this the next year, as preserved on Europe ’72.
"Hey listen, is there anybody here from Turlock tonight? When you're in love, the whole world is from Turlock, right?" (12/12/72)


The year Truckin’ took off. The tempo picked up from the slower Truckin’s of early ’71, and the ending jams quickly became more expansive and torrential. Almost any version from this year is a standout, so the choices here are very selective. In the fall they finally dropped the annoying reprise chorus after the jam – it was often skipped, and the last one sung that year was on 11/24/72.
Truckin’ was played 60 times in ’72, out of 86 shows (70% of the shows). Truckin’ was still frequently used to open sets, but gradually drifted to a second-set slot, only appearing in seven first sets in ’72. At the start of the year they alternated standalone Truckin’s and Truckin’>Other Ones, but Truckin’ was played by itself less frequently as the year went on. In the end fewer than twenty standalone Truckin’s were played in ’72, versus 35 Truckin’>Other Ones (some with drum solos, some without).
In September ‘72 they played He’s Gone>Truckin’ for the first time (on 9/9 and 9/10) and liked the combination, returning to it a couple times in November ‘72 and frequently in ’73. (A solitary Truckin’>He’s Gone was also played on 7/22, but it’s not a true transition; as Truckin’ winds down Garcia flirts with Wharf Rat for a bit, but Truckin’ comes to a stop for a couple seconds before Garcia starts He’s Gone.)

March 26, 1972, Academy of Music, NYC – Truckin’ > drums > Other One

Truckin’ had been creeping up in length in the few previous ’72 versions, but here it finally breaks out in the first huge Truckin’ jam. Truckin’ reaches 17 minutes before the drum break in a long jazzy Truckin’/Other One passage that introduces the ’72 jams to come. Released on Dave’s Picks 14.

April 8, 1972, Wembley Empire Pool, London, England

A great example of a standalone, set-opening Truckin’ from this tour. Thick double-keyboard sound, high energy, fantastic playing. It ends all too soon.

April 11, 1972, Newcastle City Hall, Newcastle, England – Truckin’ > Other One

One of the giant Europe ’72 Truckin’s – nearly 20 minutes including all the jams before the drums>Other One! Some super-rich, thick, gooey vintage E72 jazzy stuff in here, and a very underrated jam from this tour. Dig the Footprints theme pushed by Phil in the post-Truckin’ jam.

April 16, 1972, Aarhus University, Denmark – Killer Truckin>Other One jam

This used to be mislabeled as Truckin> Caution…I don’t know why. In any case, it is an awesome, must-hear Truckin’> Other One jam for sure, one of the best and most unusual of the tour.

April 17, 1972, Tivolis Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark – Video (currently missing from youtube)

A good standalone version, though not the equal of the mighty 4/16, this is notable mainly because of the widely-circulated video.

April 26, 1972, Jarhunderthalle, Frankfurt, West Germany – Truckin’ > drums > Other One

A sparkling high-energy version that jams into the Other One; released on Hundred Year Hall.  

May 11, 1972, Rotterdam Civic Hall, Netherlands – Caution>Who Do You Love?> Truckin’

The only time they did this pairing. Truckin’ closes a classic jam sequence; Pigpen is very clear on organ in this version.

May 26, 1972, The Strand Lyceum, London, England - Truckin'> jam> Other One

An amazing intense jam bridging the way to the Other One. One of the greatest passages from what is probably the best single show from E72. Released on Europe '72.

July 18, 1972, Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ – Truckin’> Dark Star

Sick Truckin’ jam that just drips with a nice spacey segue into Dark Star.

August 12, 1972, Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, Sacramento, CA – First Other One> Truckin’

First time they turned the dynamic duo around, Truckin’ comes after a tasty Other One>Black Peter>Other One sandwich. It’s not really a segue (there’s a pause after the Other One), but interesting to hear them in reverse order. Truckin’ is 12 minutes long and the jam is fully charged up after a short but very cool Other One reprise/verse two. A standout version.

September 10, 1972, Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood, CA – He's Gone> Truckin'

The second He’s Gone>Truckin’, after the previous night. Jerry starts in on some really terrific jamming about 5 and a half minutes in and doesn't look back.

September 21, 1972, The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA – He’s Gone> Truckin’

An intense, inspired jam – but it’s increasingly awkward for Truckin’ to just come to a stop.

September 26, 1972, Stanley Theater, Jersey City, NJ – Truckin’> Jam> Other One jam> Baby Blue

A good example of a really seamless Truckin’>Other One jam makes for 30 minutes of GD magic. From 10-12 minutes they funkify the rhythm significantly, opening up space for heavy improvisation by all parties. Do I hear a tiny hint of Me and My Uncle in there? Things start to mellow about 15 minutes in, with Keith making little jazz runs, and the music gets notably calmer before Phil steps up and introduces an ascending lick and we’re tossed into jazz/Other One jam territory—a chill Miles Davis/Herbie Hancock-inspired jam that picks up steam and charges toward a nasty Tiger jam and a rare ’72 Baby Blue. Awesome. A five-star Truckin’ jam in my opinion.

October 2, 1972, Springfield Civic Center Arena, Springfield, Ma. – Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> drums> jam> Morning Dew

Seems like Jerry must have hinted at Nobody’s during the Truckin’ jam sometime before this show, but this is considered the first Nobody’s Jam since June 13, 1970, and it’s a nice little capper on a really nice Truckin’ jam before moving on to a big jam segment that ends up in Morning Dew. Truckin’> Nobody’s would become pretty common in ’72-73.

[NOTE: Nobody’s Fault but Mine jam is often listed merely as “jam” on the available sources for late-’72. Sometimes the Dead veer into a bluesy post-Truckin’ jam without turning it into Nobody’s Fault.]

October 26, 1972, Music Hall, Cincinnati, OH – Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Dark Star

The Truckin’> Nobody’s jams were getting really nasty in fall of ’72, and this one’s a perfect example, where the two songs really become one jam. The Nobody’s part is probably the highlight of this suite, and the breakdown provides the perfect bridge between Truckin’ and what is ultimately a pretty mediocre Dark Star for the era. (The mix here is bass-light, drum-heavy.)

October 30, 1972, Ford Auditorium, Detroit, MI

A monster 15-minute standalone version to start the second set, in Bear’s excellent audience tape.

November 17, 1972, Century II Convention Hall, Wichita, KS – Truckin’ > Other One

All the direct Truckin’>Other One jams (without drums) are nice, but this one is intense and focused, up there with the better ones. Released on Dave’s Picks 11.

December 15, 1972, Long Beach Arena, Long Beach, CA – Truckin’> Dark Star> Morning Dew

The Truckin’ jam leads to unfamiliar territory in the last minute with Phil dropping big electronic thuds all over the arena and the band off in deep space blues just before the amazing Dark Star appears. Required listening.

December 31, 1972, Winterland – Truckin’ > Other One > Morning Dew

The Truckin’ is over 14 minutes, everyone is tight and zeroed in on jamming, slowly weaving into a classic Other One. Only the start of an amazing jam suite to finish the year.


In 1973, Truckin’ was played 48 times out of 72 shows (66% of the shows). Its position as a second-set suite song became fixed – it only appeared in the first set once (on December 4, a strange and hasty show), and it was only played as a standalone song one last time (on February 17, a laid-back version with the vocal reprise at the end).
1973 would see Truckin’ paired with all kinds of things on both ends – most commonly, it came out of He’s Gone, and went into the Other One (with or without a drum break).
Truckin’>Other One – 11 times
He’s Gone>Truckin’>Other One – 12 times
He’s Gone>Truckin’>anything else – 10 times
There were also nine Truckin’>Eyes of the World combos, mostly in March and September. The fall tour saw Truckin’>Wharf Rat paired four times as well (Truckin’ also came out of Wharf Rat once, on June 10). A variety of other songs came out of Truckin’ as well (mentioned below), and December even saw a couple Truckin’>Stella Blues. Nobody’s Fault appeared in Truckin’ over a dozen times, mostly in the fall – it was sung a few times that fall, but was usually an instrumental.
Again, with so many great versions of Truckin’ in ’73, this is a very selective list of some notable performances. Though many Truckin’s from this year are more laid-back than the ’72 variety (particularly when they go straight into Nobody’s jams), the big Truck-splosions also get more ferocious this year.

February 9, 1973, Roscoe Maples Pavilion, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA – Truckin’> Eyes of the World> China Doll (first Eyes, first China Doll)

The first show of ’73 and it is fairly evident that the band intends to mix it up a bit this year. Truckin’ is paired with the first version of Eyes of the World. Transition is on-a-dime perfect. This is followed by the first ever China Doll. What a show.

February 19, 1973, International Amphitheatre, Chicago, IL – He’s Gone> Truckin’> jam>Phil and Billy>Other One

Very nice He’s Gone>Truckin’ transition here. The Truckin’ jam is pretty rockin, but the heart of this is a very nice Phil-led jam before Phil and Billy. A classic ’73 jam sequence.

March 16, 1973, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y. – Dark Star> Truckin’> Morning Dew (first of both segues)

The emergence of Truckin’ out of Dark Star is surprising and a little awkward but still fun. Truckin’> Dew is spectacular.

March 24, 1973, The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA – He’s Gone> Truckin’> Spanish jam> Dark Star

Considered the first Truckin’> Spanish jam amid a HUGE He’s Gone> Truckin> Spanish> Dark Star. They call it Spanish jam but that only really applies to the last few minutes of it where it segues into Dark Star. The preceding 30 minutes is all “Truckin’” according to most track listings, but I’d call it Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Jam> Phil and Billy> Jam> Spanish jam> Dark Star. The jam after Truckin’ may be one big deferred Dark Star – this always felt to me like they were heading directly for Dark Star after Truckin’, but wound up taking a few surprise detours before getting there. A thing of beauty no matter how you slice it.

March 26, 1973, Baltimore Civic Center, MD – He's Gone> Truckin'> Weather Report Suite Prelude> Wharf Rat

An absolutely stellar Truckin’ jam that goes way out into space before settling into the WRS prelude. Beautiful and classic sequence from an amazing month of shows.

May 26, 1973, Kezar Stadium, San Francisco – He’s Gone> Truckin’> Other One

A very energetic, Keith-dominated Truckin’ with a sweet jam that slips into the Other One.

June 9, 1973, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC – He’s Gone> Truckin’> Playin’ in the Band

Nice transition from He’s Gone into Truckin’, followed by an INSANE Truckin’ jam that goes in unexpected directions and gets very hot, followed by a little Phil/Billy, a mellow jam, a Here Comes Sunshine tease, and finally PITB. First Truckin’> PITB (and one of only four ever).
The following night also had a short but extremely zippy Truckin’ that uniquely races out of Wharf Rat:

June 22, 1973, PNE Coliseum, Vancouver, BC – He’s Gone> Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Other One

The jam after Truckin’ ranges far and wide, with a Nobody’s jam that leads into some Phil/Billy and a long bass solo that opens up a long, lovely jam of many moods before the Other One sneaks in. One of those big ’73 jams that’s tracked differently on every copy.

July 28, 1973, Grand Prix Racecourse, Watkins Glen, NY – Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> El Paso

Plagued with sound problems, the band perseveres, driving the jam forward first into Nobody’s, then into a spacey breakdown, and finally into El Paso – a first.

July 31, 1973, Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ – Truckin’> GDTRFB

Awesome jam into Goin’ Down the Road for a great combo of highway songs. Features a hot Phil and Billy-led segue and a very subtle Good Lovin’ tease just before GDTR begins.

September 7 and 8, 1973, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY 

A couple unusual evenings for Truckin’. On the first night, Keith plays organ in the jam, which I believe he only did a couple times this year and sounds a little odd. On the second night, Truckin’ is hotter and struts to a finish…but instead of a drum break, Garcia starts up Not Fade Away, the first time the songs had been paired since April ’71.

September 15, 17, and 20, 1973, Various venues – Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Eyes of the World w/ Fiero and Ellis

The addition of Martin Fiero and Joe Ellis on horns for many of the shows played in September ’73 gives the band an almost Blues Brothers feel. Not really my cup of tea, but worth it for the novelty. The jamming is still hot on these versions, but the horns don’t really seem to add much to the dynamic. They step all over the song and don’t interact with the band well, like they’re on a separate track, coming into their own a bit more when it’s time to solo. They’re very bad in Truckin’ in the first show, are a little more together on the 17th, and on the 20th they step back and are less intrusive. On the rest of the tour, they don’t play on Truckin’. Keith plays organ on the 9/17 Truckin’.

October 21, 1973, Omaha Civic Auditorium, Omaha, NE – Truckin’> Wharf Rat (first)

Fairly sloppy and relatively short Truckin’ jam for the era concludes with a fine transition into Wharf Rat. Very nice playing by Bob in particular, who seems to be angling for the Other One. They would do the Truckin’> Wharf Rat combo three more times on the fall tour.

October 27, 1973, Indianapolis State Fair Coliseum, IN – He’s Gone> Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Wharf Rat

Keith busts out the organ for part of the Truckin’ jam again, a rare occurrence. A very hot version; Phil sticks out in the huge Truck-splosion.

October 29, 1973, Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, MO – Truckin’> Spacey jam> Other One

Soon after the Truck-splosion, the band breaks it down completely, morphing into a light, free-form thing that seems a little aimless for a bit before driving forward into one of those wonderful 1973 jazz-infused space jams.

November 14, 1973, San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego, CA – Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Other One> etc…

A second-set-opening Truckin’ from a stand-out period in the Dead’s history. This one is notable for launching an amazing, multi-tiered Other One sandwich that must be heard by all serious heads. There is a wonderful, eight-minute jam portion between Truckin’ and TOO. Released on the 30 Trips box set.

November 21, 1973, Denver Coliseum, Denver CO – Truckin’> Nobody’s Fault but Mine> GDTRFB

Notable for its relatively energetic Truckin’ jam, the fact that Jerry actually sings a verse of Nobody’s, which happened more over the next year, and the seamless transition into GDTRFB. Good stuff. Released on Road Trips 4:3.
The bonus disc also features the fine Truckin’ from the previous night in Denver:

December 2 and 4, 1973, Boston Music Hall, Boston, MA and Cincinnati Gardens, Cincinnati, OH – Truckin’> Stella Blue (first and second)

The Boston show is from Dick’s Picks Vol. 14. One of the finest sets of the year; the Truckin’ is pretty sleepy but includes a quiet, delicate Nobody’s jam where Garcia teases New Speedway Boogie (about ten minutes in). The Truckin’>Stella Blue combo was repeated at the next show, 12/4 in Cincinnati (but – unusually – as part of the first set of a truncated show). 12/4 is on the bonus disc from the Winterland ‘73 box set.

December 19, 1973, Curtis Hixon Convention Hall, Tampa, FL – He’s Gone> Truckin’> Nobody’s Fault> Other One

Classic sequence from a classic show. This is Dick’s Picks Vol. 1 for good reason. A really smooth He’s Gone> Truckin’ transition and of course the killer Nobody’s fusion jam bridging Truckin’ and the Other One. This show is in many ways the climax of that late-‘73 jazz period and you can really hear it in this Truckin’ into Other One jam, with some very nice layers of Keith and Bobby interplay behind Jerry’s spacey riffs.


They’re all noteworthy after a certain point. This is many people’s favorite year for Truckin’, for the fierce Truck-splosions and the gigantic jams. The playing in Truckin’ tends to get more loose and scattered as the year goes on, though.
Truckin’ was played 21 times in ’74, out of 40 shows (little more than half the shows). Its placement became much more unpredictable – it only came out of He’s Gone six times, and only went into the Other One five times. Now it no longer started sets, but frequently initiated jam sequences, heading into themed jams, deep spaces, or unpredictable places. Songs that followed Truckin’ included Wharf Rat (five times), Eyes (four times), Goin’ Down the Road (twice), and a few one-offs (listed below). Nobody’s Fault was played seven times this year (Jerry sang it three times), until its last appearance on July 29.

February 22, 1974 – Winterland, San Francisco, CA – Truckin’> Nobody’s Fault> GDTRFB

This is a powerful Truckin’ with a pretty swinging Nobody’s Fault (with vocals) that sounds more like Wang Dang Doodle than most other versions. The jam eventually winds down into GDTRFB. (The following night at Winterland also has a nice Truckin’ that veers quickly into the Other One.)

May 17, 1974, PNE Coliseum, Vancouver, BC - Truckin'> Nobody's Fault But Mine> Eyes of the World 

The microphones go out in Truckin' (or Weir forgets a verse), so the Dead play an instrumental verse. The playing is sharp - after the crescendo they veer into a long Nobody's Fault with vocals, which eventually breaks into Eyes after a brief chaos breakdown.
From the uneven show a few days earlier in Reno, the Truckin' is very hot with a distorted Keith standing out on piano. It's shorter though, heading quickly to the Other One after a couple minutes of Nobody's Fault jamming.

May 19, 1974, Portland Memorial Coliseum, Portland, OR – Truckin’> jam> Mind Left Body jam> Not Fade Away

Flat-out awesome Truckin’/Nobody’s attack into a gorgeous Mind Left Body>NFA jam. One of the best parts of one of the year’s best shows. (David Gans has described this jam at length.)

May 25, 1974, Campus Stadium, UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA – Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Space> Let it Grow

The Dead tear Truckin’ apart like a band at the height of its powers and then rip into a brief but blistering Nobody’s jam that descends into a spicy little groove before entering pretty deep space, ending up in Let It Grow.

June 16, 1974, Iowa State Fairgrounds, Des Moines, IA – Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Wharf Rat

A very special jam following Truckin' - it's not quite 6/28, but it is a very unique jam, containing many themes (named and unnamed) including Nobody's Fault and the Mind Left Body jams. As usual in '74, Phil carries this one to some wicked heights, and Garcia absolutely shreds this one up with his fuzz tone also. Jaw-dropping stuff, one of my very favorite moments of this great year. Released on Road Trips 2:3.

June 20, 1974, The Omni, Atlanta, GA – Truckin’> Jam> Eyes of the World

This sequence is an earful. A highly-rated Truckin’ is a bit sloppy through the song part and kind of lazy to develop. But it tightens up at the right moment and Jerry rides the slow groove directly into a Nobody’s-type jam, and then back into another Truckin’ crescendo sequence at about 8:30 minutes in and then rides a Nobody’s jam out into space, complete with heavy bass and a vicious tiger jam. Certainly one of the longer Truckin’s, depending on how you time it. The heavy space rock stuff is really pretty awesome and an example of what made ’74 so special.

June 26, 1974 - Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI – Truckin’> Other One jam> Spanish jam> Wharf Rat  

Jerry Moore’s audience recording is a little hissy (and very clappy) but is a nice recording overall, and the excitement is palpable as Truckin’ gets underway. (As the jam begins right after Bob's final scream, you can hear Jerry playing the melody to Hideaway, the Freddie King tune – a pretty clear quote.) The rhythm section really keeps this one moving along and Jerry has a highlight moment or two before they even get to the nine-minute mark. Strong stuff indeed! And the crowd reaction is cool. It’s amazing how well the rhythm section comes across on the audience recording. They slow it down into a more traditional Nobody’s jam kind of thing, and Keith makes sure the song retains an authentic barroom feel even as they enter a more intense Other One style jam in the eleventh minute and then descend into a short bass solo. Phil slips in a couple of cheeky false starts to begin the Other One. A brief Other One jam leads to one of the best Spanish Jams of the year. This one is always worth a re-listen: the post-Truckin’ jam is so unique, I keep expecting to hear Miles Davis step up to the mic. Could be a track from "On the Corner." Released on Dick’s Picks Vol. 12.

June 30, 1974 – Civic Center, Springfield, MA – US Blues> Truckin’> Eyes of the World

The only US Blues> Truckin’ (to my knowledge), and it’s a real transition that works pretty well. Funny that they never did it again. And a fully-realized, 13+ minute Truckin’ – this one’s mellow and restrained, without a big crescendo, but stays in a slinky groove with hints of Nobody’s Fault, until it slowly dissolves into Eyes.

July 21, 1974, Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood, CA – Playin’ in the Band> Wharf Rat> Truckin’> Nobody’s jam> Playin’

An energetic, bopping Truckin’ that zips through a quick crescendo and Nobody’s jam before diving back into a wonderful Playin’. Short but notable for the rare Truckin’ placement inside a larger Playin’. Great audience tape.

July 31, 1974, Dillon Stadium, Hartford, CT – Truckin’> Mind Left Body jam> Spanish jam> Wharf Rat

There’s something special about this version that’s apparent from the very start—like Jerry’s toast had a little extra butter on it tonight. The band sounds very loose, and they do go off the rails a bit during the crescendo jam, but all’s well that ends well, and that’s exactly what happens here, with some really funky jams that go off in all sorts of directions before finally settling into the Mind Left Body jam. Whatever Jerry took that night, I want some. Must-hear material. Released on Dave’s Picks Vol. 2.
The version two nights earlier in Landover, MD is pretty loose and short, mainly notable for the last full Nobody’s Fault of 1974, which Jerry sings and transitions into an Other One. Released on the bonus disc to Dick’s Picks Vol. 2.

August 5, 1974, Philadelphia Civic Arena, Philadelphia, PA – He's Gone > Truckin' > Jam > Other One Jam > Space > Jam > Stella Blue

Parts of this and the next night are on Dick’s Picks Vol. 31, including this entire monster jam suite from He’s Gone through Stella Blue. One of the best-ever jams out of Truckin’: this has to be one of the all-time great Truck-splosions, followed by a sick little Nobody’s jam that quickly evolves into a kind of Other One space. Great energy that spawns a huge 30-minute jam.

August 6, 1974 – Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ – He's Gone> Truckin'> Spanish Jam> Other One

Parts of this show are on Dick’s Picks Vol 31, but not this second-set jam suite. It’s not quite a heavy hitter like the previous night, but this one is still very nice – no explosion tonight, instead a swerve into space that leads ultimately into a Spanish jam.

September 9, 1974, Alexandra Palace, London, England – Truckin’> Wharf Rat

After a storming crescendo, the jam subsides into a slinky groove with Nobody’s Fault hints, which breaks up into a loose, stinging frenzy on the way to Wharf Rat. Released on Dick’s Picks Vol. 7, where the post-Truckin’ jam was named the “Wood Green Jam.”

September 14, 1974, Olympia Halle, Munich, Germany – Truckin’> Mind Left Body jam> Wharf Rat

Major vocals flub, but it’s Germany, so who cares? They more than make up for it with the mid-song jam, the big wind-up, and the post-jam, which goes very purposefully and gracefully out into space, then catches flight, with Jerry turning corner after corner, and everyone else just trying to keep up. Then a gorgeous little Mind Left Body jam and then a soft landing onto Wharf Rat. This is an underrated show. Sounds incredible on the audience recording.

September 18, 1974, Parc des Expositions, Dijon, France – He’s Gone> Truckin’> drums> Mind Left Body/Caution jam> Ship of Fools

Most of the big time action lies in the Mind Left Body/Caution jam that follows, but the Truckin' jam itself has some groovy playing as well. Truckin’ seems a little subdued and unfocused, but after a drum break they slip into some nice choppy, jazzy jamming, then quickly hit the brakes for a surprise Ship of Fools. Released on the 30 Trips box set.

September 20, 1974 – Palais des Sports, Paris, France – Truckin’> Eyes of the World

Phil offers up a crazy intro to start off this groovy Truckin’. Nice fat bass sound to get things going. Definitely a trippy sound, whatever it is they were on that particular evening. Jerry definitely seems to be making some adjustments for his condition, as it were. The band’s off-kilter and Weir’s guitar is inaudible, so naturally they drift into deep space feedback and a Tiger jam.

The next version a month later at Winterland saw the Dead getting back to form after the scattershot Europe tour. After a long spacey set, they find their boogie shoes again with a solid if unspectacular Truckin’ that goes into GDTRFB.

October 19, 1974, Winterland – He’s Gone> Truckin’ jam> Caution jam> Drums> Space> Truckin’> Black Peter

Three nights later, from the GD Movie Soundtrack, this is a wild version. Truckin’ springs out of He’s Gone, but instead of starting up the song proper, they jam out the intro for a couple minutes and then abruptly jump into a sweet Caution jam that goes off into a drum break and a 10-minute space that gradually returns to a speedy Truckin’. The song itself is almost an afterthought, but they close it with a big crescendo and a short but sweet little jam before Garcia turns the corner into Black Peter. The only split Truckin’? Don’t miss this one.

Truckin’ was played once in ’75, at the 9/28/75 Golden Gate Park show with an amazing, unique ’75-style outro jam (released on the 30 Trips box set). 
It didn’t return to the repertoire until two years later, closing the show at Raceway Park, Englishtown on 9/3/77 (a rusty, bludgeoning version released on Dick’s Picks 15). Truckin’ went back on the road after that…but that’s a story for another day!

(For a list of the most popular versions, see Heady Version.)

March 24, 2017

Dark Star 1968-1989 (Guest Post)

by Chris Forshay, 1999

If ever there were a fool’s errand in the realm of music criticism, tackling the evolution of Dark Star surely must be it. How does one apply linearity and coherence to music that so freely and frequently dispensed with both? It can’t be done, you say, as you prepare to skim this essay to see if your favorite versions are mentioned, and whether this essay’s opinions match your own. So be it; this essay asked for it. However, if this essay spurs the reader to listen to Dark Star more closely--and, in the process, to widen the circle of Dark Stars with which the reader is familiar--the this essay will have done its job, and will take whatever criticism the reader may offer with a smile on its face and a song in its heart.
It should surprise no one that a lot of listening went into the writing of this essay. It’s unclear whether it’s possible for a Deadhead to become sick of Dark Star; if it is, this essay will be the first to know. It has relied on the commercially released versions available as of this writing (Spring 1999), most of the best known and widely circulated tapes containing Dark Star, and some lesser known gems one occasionally encounters in a 2000+ hour collection. It was impossible and unnecessary to include every extant Dark Star in this analysis; the reader is urged not to interpret an omission of a given performance as some kind of "thumbs down". This isn’t a list of favorites, must-haves, or anything like that. What this essay has tried to do is, against the backdrop of the band’s history and evolution, chart how Dark Star grew and changed between 1968 and 1974. A tall order? You betcha.
Rather than bore the reader any further, this essay would like to invoke, as its template, the words of writer Michael Lydon, published most recently in Garcia (the Rolling Stone magazine tribute book). He describes a Dark Star he witnessed at Springer’s Inn in Portland, Oregon, in May 1969:

"...suddenly the music is not notes or a tune, but what those seven people are exactly: The music is an aural holograph of the Grateful Dead. All their fibers, nuances, histories, desires, beings are clear: Jerry and his questing; Phil the loyal comrade; Tom drifting beside them both on a cloud; Pig staying stubbornly down to earth; Mickey working out furious complexities, trying to understand how Bill is so simple; and Bob succumbing inevitably to Jerry and Phil and joining them. And that is just the beginning, because at each note, at each phrase, the balances change, each testing, feeding, mocking and finally driving each other on, further and further on."

In the beginning, the song--like the band itself--was no big deal. Lacking either the "ritalin-and-hashish" sound of the first album or the we-worked-on-this-for-months artlessness of Anthem of the Sun, the studio version of Dark Star--unheard by many until the release of the What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been greatest hits package, many years after the fact--sounds like an orphan of sorts. No way did it belong on Aoxomoxoa, with that album’s overly written, complex-for-the-sake-of-complexity songs. Unlike most of those songs, however, the studio Dark Star was not an end, but a beginning......

"There are certain structural poles which we have kind of set up in it, and those we periodically do away with." -- Jerry Garcia

The earliest Dark Stars are marked by an energy that ranges from crude to downright wired. Subtlety was not the Dead’s strong suit in their early years. Nor were they, as musicians, much more than high-flying neophytes on their chosen instruments. Banging it out was the order of the day, as anyone who’s listened to tapes of the Airplane, Big Brother, and (God help us) Blue Cheer from this period will attest. Nothing about the Dark Star from the 2/14/68 Carousel broadcast indicates any awareness of the song’s potential. The reading is a bit stiff, a bit fast. There’s not much of a beat; Garcia’s solos do not stray from the main theme. The unfocused intensity gives some heat, but little light. It’s obvious, at this juncture, that the band, when not putting its eggs in Pigpen’s basket, was more focused on the Anthem material, particularly That’s It for the Other One.
A month later, Dark Star reappeared at the Carousel (3/30) and at an unknown location (3/26). The percussion is more sophisticated, but there’s nary a snare or tom-tom to be heard. The beat is kept by a pair of maracas. It’s still a speedy Jerry-and-Phil show, with Bob doing little more than repeating the simple chord pattern over and over again and Pigpen somewhere on the periphery. It sounds as if the band has an arrangement they’re striving to perfect, but they aren’t swinging--their reach exceeds their grasp. Phil spends an inordinate amount of time fingering the upper reaches of his fretboard. While approximating a counterpoint to Garcia’s still-tentative lines, the technique (combined with the subdued percussion) precludes any rhythmic development, rendering Dark Star a respite between blood-and-thunder numbers like The Other One, Alligator, and Lovelight.
The Dark Star on Two from the Vault (8/24/68 Shrine Auditorium, LA) is nothing short of a revelation. Garcia sounds far more comfortable here--his playing has a ballsier, more confident tone. They’ve gotten the song away from its previous "pretty" sound and are determined to explore more ominous terrain. They’ve fleshed out the arrangement--a nascent E minor thing after Garcia’s final restatement of the melody (aka "the Dark Star riff"), a two-note Weir harmonic lead after the first chorus. The percussion is still faint, but between March & August Jerry apparently realized that he could stretch out his between-verses solo. This version is more than twice as long (and infinitely more satisfying) than the earlier versions from ‘68. By August, Dark Star had evolved from a stop-over to a destination--complete with eccentric outro vocals.

But all was not well with either Dark Star or the Dead. Pigpen and Weir were not with the program. Pigpen’s repetitive riff on the 8/24 version is maddeningly monochromatic, while Weir stubbornly sticks to playing first-position (folk guitar) chords, and damn few to boot. It sounds for all the world like he is several giant steps behind Garcia and Lesh in his development as a musician. Whether these factors were in any way connected with Pigpen & Bob’s "nearly leaving" or "almost being fired" (depending upon which story you believe) is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that the pair were conspicuously absent from a series of "Mickey and the Hartbeats" gigs in the early fall of ‘68.
The band was reunited for a the 10/12 gig at the Avalon. The Dark Star from this show indicates some further evolution. There’s much less preoccupation with establishing the leitmotif. Most conspicuously, Lesh is playing in the lower register--more typical for the bass, but a radical departure from his past approach to Dark Star. What’s more, there are the first cautious signs of drumming in the waning moments of the song--a first. These innovations give Dark Star new depth, throwing Garcia’s flights of fancy into more rhythmic relief. While Weir is still struggling to say something, he’s at least attempting to put a new spin on his contribution. Garcia adds here a series of triplets, following the more developed E minor thing, that would adorn many future Dark Stars (as well as find its way into other songs).

It was about this time that the band began to perform Dark Star, more often than not, as part of a suite that would be immortalized on Live/Dead. The 2/11/69 Fillmore East performance offers seeds of musical ideas--especially in Garcia’s playing--that would blossom in San Francisco a couple of weeks later. The big news is: Weir’s discovered second position chords! He inflects his playing a bit differently right from the start, though he reverts somewhat to form before Garcia starts singing.
The 2/27/69 Fillmore West Dark Star, captured (and remixed) for posterity on Live/Dead, remains the mother of all Dark Stars. The drummers finally jump in with all four feet (after hinting around at two shows in Vallejo the week before), with wonderful results. Weir’s playing has improved markedly, though it’s striking how low he’s mixed on the album, as compared to the soundboard tape. This version hits peaks and goes places before the first note is sung. The band takes a lot of impromptu detours. They were recording; they were swinging for the fences; they hit Dark Star out of the yard. This, friends, is the first full-blown Dark Star. If, perchance, you are unfamiliar with it, put this essay down, obtain a copy of Live/Dead, and get to know it. This essay will be here when you get back.
Live/Dead was recorded before (though it was released after) Aoxomoxoa. The Dead’s experimental period was in full bloom throughout 1969. They seem to have recognized Dark Star as a primary vehicle for unalloyed Deadness, non-Pigpen division. Listening to so many versions of Dark Star from 1969 makes one realize that, while Dark Star at its core is about improvisation, it is not a "completely improvised piece". Certain riffs recur more or less verbatim throughout the different versions.
If early 1969 was a time for consolidating their gains, the rest of that year was a period of using those gains as a springboard into parts unknown--unknown as recently as the Live/Dead shows. One exceptional example of a fiery Dark Star is 5/31/69 Eugene. The hyperventilating presence of Ken Babbs throughout the concert offers possible illumination as to why this Dark Star is so noteworthy.

"If it were possible for us to be able to survive playing music that was as potentially free and open as ‘Dark Star’, it’s likely we would do that or something along those lines." -- Jerry Garcia

For Dark Star, mid-1969 was a period of fruition; for the Dead, it was a period of transition. Change was everywhere: Several Aoxomoxoa tunes disappeared from the repertoire; country classics like Slewfoot and Silver Threads & Golden Needles replaced them; Garcia started playing pedal steel guitar onstage; and a collection of new, quieter original songs began to make their presence known. The Dead were undoubtedly influenced by hanging out with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, whom they credited with teaching them how to sing. (One rests assured that Messrs. Crosby and Stills learned a thing or two about playing electric from the Dead.) In the outside world, Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline changed the course of rock music overnight; the Dead--longtime Dylan admirers--were not immune from its influence. Things were changing all around the Dead, and the Dead were changing as well.
How did these developments affect the evolution of Dark Star? Not as much as you'd think. The Grateful Dead tent was big enough to include country crooning, Pigpen bluesing, and Dark Star blooming. Certain Dark Star patterns were in place by now: The melody is established. Garcia will state an idea. The band will kick it around and develop it, and Garcia will bring them back with a riff that may or may not be from Live/Dead. And all this before the first verse is sung..... Time was irrelevant. They played Dark Star long and they played it short. The Aquatheatre 8/20/69 show contains a radically short version, but this is much more the exception than the rule.

The 1969 model Dark Star peaked in November at the Fillmore West, of all places. The 11/7 and 11/8 concerts contain outstanding versions. The opening moments are a bit quieter, but Phil still states the theme and Jerry still initiates direction. The structural poles are very much there, but working the embryonic Uncle John’s Band into the heart of Dark Star was a none-too-subtle (and not terribly well executed) message that the band was headed in new directions that--overtly, at least--had little to do with psychedelia as it had been theretofore construed. Fillmorites could be forgiven for missing the message, packaged as it was within some extremely uncompromising sonic assaults on inner and outer space. But it’s an important part of Dark Star’s evolution: The musicians (Weir, in particular) would occasionally slip recognizable--and subsequently misnamed by fans--themes into Dark Star, on and off, over the ensuing years.
By now, it was a given that Dark Star was what happened between its verses. The intro, the opening notes, the lyrics, and the outro were the "structural poles" that separated the song from untitled chaos--those elements that bestowed form upon said chaos. But after that first verse, things fell apart and dissolved, to be recombined into something--or nothing--else. Form was abandoned; risks were taken. How far can we go? How do we get back?
These were not idle questions. They were points of intense interest for band and fans alike. Live/Dead had yet to hit the record stores; there was no taping scene. In order to hear Dark Star, you had to go to a Dead show. How you reacted to Dark Star--particularly one such as 11/7/69--had a huge bearing on whether you ever went to another one. If Dark Star was a psychedelic gut-check for the band--and it is this essay’s position that, in its heyday, it most certainly was--the song was also a psychedelic litmus test for its audience. At this time, the Dead’s audience was small, loyal, and unified by an intense appreciation for a type of music epitomized by Dark Star.

"...there’s a great big huge difference in form between ‘Dark Star’ and the blues, but I think that its essence is the same." -- Jerry Garcia

It’s remarkable how sophisticated the band’s sound became from, say, Woodstock (8/69) to the November Fillmore shows. They feel like bustin’ loose, yet they do so only sporadically. What was holding them back? By now, Pigpen was laying out during the spacy stuff, the drummers were totally in sync. The complex personnel crises of the previous fall were but a hazy memory. And yet.....when listening to tapes of the period, something seems out of place. What could it have been? History hints that the answer may have been Tom Constanten.
It’s not like TC held the band back, or anything like that. In a way, he was locked into his avant-garde bag as much as Pigpen was locked into his blues. Aoxomoxoa was his moment; when that album failed to excite either the band, its record company, or a significant segment of the record-buying public, the Dead intuitively realized it was time to move on. They didn’t want to be "experimental" anymore--they wanted to boogie. The bulk of the Aoxomoxoa tunes "didn’t stick" in the repertoire. Eventually, it dawned on the band that the album had been an expensive mistake. (Live/Dead, in fact, was conceived and released in order to pay for the studio excesses involved in producing Aoxomoxoa.) TC’s contributions onstage became less and less relevant. Sure, he contributed the occasional recognizable flourish, and his talent was (and is) undeniable, yet his overall impact on the music is rather like that of a hood ornament on an automobile: nice, nothing wrong with it, but ultimately dispensable. A case in point: 11/8/69, at the Fillmore West. During Dark Star, Constanten goes toe-to-toe with Garcia for a bit, then works some brief interplay with Lesh, all with indifferent results. The rest of the band is cooking, but TC sounds like he’s playing along with a record at home. Whether because or in spite of his playing, the 11/8 Dark Star is nowhere near as mind-melting as the previous evening’s onslaught. The band has to slip into The Other One to get things really moving. Perhaps the two are entirely unconnected, but the next phase of Dark Star’s evolution coincided with TC’s departure from the band in early 1970.

A lot of heavy stuff happened to the Grateful Dead in early 1970. The first serious episode occurred when they were busted en masse after a gig in New Orleans. Although nothing ever came of it--and the band was ultimately amused enough to immortalize the arrest in Truckin’--there was no way they could have known, when they played Dark Star for the first time after the bust (2/2/70 in St. Louis), that everything would be all right. Jail is a famously scary place, even if you’re just passing through while waiting to make bail, and the possibility, however remote, of an extended relocation to the New Orleans parish jail had to have been at least a bit unnerving. Perhaps that’s why the 2/2/70 Dark Star is a radically different beast than the one spotted at the Fillmore less than three months earlier. There are no pretty melodies, no swirling improvs. It’s a hell of a long way from the just-released Live/Dead. Phil is out front, a defiant survivor going for noise rather than pretty music. Eventually, Jerry comes in to give the song a more "conventional" spin. Weir’s more prominent than usual. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the wind’s been taken out of their sails, for the time being at least. They’re playing it much more cautiously than they did a few weeks ago, in Oregon. Smack dab in the heart of Middle America in a time of quasi-revolutionary political upheaval, they’d better be.
New York City was an unlikely haven, but Bill Graham’s Fillmore East had by now become their home away from home. They were able to inject a healthy dose of lyricism into one of the best-loved Dark Stars, from the 2/13/70 late show. The Fillmore East gave them the luxury of time--so often denied them on the road in that era--to develop ideas and themes, and the Dead took eager advantage. There’s less emphasis on sonic weirdness (though there surely is some). Weir instigates a variation on the Uncle John’s Band riff that, regrettably, has come to be known as the Feeling Groovy Jam. At times, the luxury of stretching out led to aimless self-indulgence; tonight, they had it goin’ on. For many, this (along with Live/Dead) is the Dark Star by which all others are measured.

Over the next few months, the evolution of Dark Star took a back seat to that of the band. The Dead had begun playing acoustic sets at their shows. They’d developed a spin-off band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage. They’d recorded an album, Workingman’s Dead, with nary a psychedelic jam to be heard. Some old-time Deadheads were horrified by this "soft Dead", but Workingman’s made them a lot of new fans, many of whom could get behind a down-and-dirty Dark Star. A prime example of the old Dead meeting the new is the pair of shows from 5/15/70 at the Fillmore East. Mickey Hart is particularly out front on the late show’s Dark Star. The increasingly country flavor of the Dead’s newer material had given him less and less to do. He makes up for that with a vengeance here. His gongs and cymbals combine with the bass for a first-class percussive freak-out. Jerry eventually intervenes to suggest more melodic directions, but he’s not above a little feedback. This type of freaking out was commonplace in Spring 1970 Dark Stars.
Other things were happening in the band in 1970. Lenny Hart (Mickey’s father), their manager at the time, had--after alienating a significant portion of the Dead’s crew--absconded with a healthy sum of money that was never fully recovered. That had to be a significant buzz-kill. They’d released their first live album--its greatness notwithstanding, it was already a year out of date. The Hunter/Garcia songwriting tandem hadn’t stopped with Workingman’s--they were on a roll. It’s hard not to feel, when listening to tapes years after the fact, that their hearts were in the newer material. To the extent they considered time, Friend of the Devil et al. were "now"; Dark Star was "then". Dark Star may have been old hat to the band by now, but Deadheads embraced it as their own almost as soon as Live/Dead was released. Compare the applause after the 5/15/70 version with that after the (superior) 2/13/70. They obviously relish the opportunity to jam out, but a "been there, done that" vibe occasionally leaks out from Dark Stars of this period. Evolution was occurring elsewhere.

A notable Dark Star, from this or any other era, occurred in Portchester, NY, on 6/24/70. It is another justly well-loved version. What’s interesting, from an evolutionary point of view, is the way the band weaves in and out, using Dark Star to highlight two newly minted originals. After a minute or so of Mickey/Phil bombast, they deliver a rough-but-quiet Attics of My Life. They pick up Dark Star again, then take a humorously abortive stab at Sugar Magnolia. This interesting, unique version was a forerunner of those later Dark Stars that would encapsulate El Paso, Sitting on Top of the World, Me & My Uncle, and other decidedly unspacy material.
Fast forward to 9/19/70, again at the Fillmore East. Dark Star’s tempo has slowed a tad. Mickey’s using the guiro--the cricket-like percussive device so prominent on the earliest Dark Stars. There’s a greater emphasis on dynamics; after the first verse, things fade to near total silence, from which Phil’s feedback and Mickey’s cymbals emerge, augmented by some Weir filigree. Bob’s playing has become more sophisticated by now, but he keeps throwing in those damn theme/riffs whenever he runs out of ideas.
In a way, 9/19 is a refined throwback to 2/2/70--the music has a dark, angry edge. Jerry, leading the way out, as usual, shows signs of this as well. Rather than facing a crisis from without, as had been the case in February, the current hassle was much closer to home: The extent of Lenny’s larceny had become painfully clear. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that, however blasé the individual band members (other than Mickey) came across regarding the whole affair, the group mind was pretty damn pissed off (they could no longer take all the credit for being perennially broke!) and expressed itself in Dark Star.
The most interesting characteristic of the final well-known 1970 Dark Star, 11/8 at Portchester, is the Jerry-led attack of the "Main Ten" theme, which would soon become the core of another jam vehicle, Playing in the Band. The progression from 2/13 to 11/8 was not as sweeping as one might guess. The Mickey/Phil combination after the first verse had developed a life of its own by the end of 1970. This gave the song a harder, almost industrial edge. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the latest phase of Dark Star’s evolution peaked in Portchester on 11/8/70. In a quirk of geographical coincidence, the next phase would begin on the same stage, a few months later.

"...all I can do is talk about ‘Dark Star’ as a playing experience."
"Well, yeah, talk about it a little."
"I can’t. It talks about itself." 
-- Jerry Garcia, interviewed by Charles Reich

That the Dead switched gears in a major way in the winter and spring of 1971 has been amply documented elsewhere; it’s obvious to anyone with even a modest tape collection. There were no Dark Stars that we know of between 11/8/70 and 2/18/71. Several new songs were rehearsed and debuted (and a series of Portchester shows postponed) during this period. Draw your own conclusions.....
The 2/18/71 Dark Star differs markedly from the version that prowled the same stage a scant three months earlier. Much of the weirdness has been squeezed out. Phil offers a short burst of feedback, but Mickey is nowhere to be heard. The song ultimately serves as an elaborate set-up for one of Garcia’s new tunes, Wharf Rat. (As with 6/24/70, this Dark Star is a showcase for promising new material.) The new tune segues back into Dark Star with a beautiful instrumental passage. With this performance, lyricism supplants sonic weirdness as Dark Star’s main ingredient. Tonight’s Dark Star is almost literally a snapshot of a band in transition.
The Dead’s continued infatuation with simpler song structures meant a concomitant deemphasis on polyrhythms and percussive esoterica--in short, less Mickey. In a 1969 interview, Mickey referred to 4/4 (common) time as "the box" from which the band was determined to escape. By early 1971, the band seemed all too happy to spend most of their onstage time within the confines of that box. Mix in lingering, intense embarrassment about his father’s chicanery and it’s little wonder he left the band after the 2/18 show.

If, by 1970, Dark Star was a bottle of fine cognac--broken out on special occasions, or sometimes just for the hell of it--then, by the Spring of 1971, Dark Star was an eccentric uncle--locked in the attic, seldom inflicted on the public. The Dead played Dark Star exactly three times on an April tour of the Northeast. The Boston 4/8/71 performance marked the first time that Billy had to carry the percussive load by himself. He plays it safe here, keeping things relatively close to home, while Phil--seldom a shrinking violet in Dark Star--achieves a new prominence that foreshadows the European developments of the following year. The net effect is an exercise in extended, amiable riffing that never strays too far from the main theme--Bob hitting a D chord is about as weird as it gets. That the Dead chose to break out Dark Star in Boston during this "drought" can be most likely attributed to the affection they had for that town’s audiences.
Such noble motivation can’t be ascribed to the Fillmore East Dark Stars. The first one, 4/26, shows an effort to recapture some of the magic the song had created there the year before, with mixed results. They quest, they seek, but they never quite find. That would come two nights later. The well-known 4/28 version has an almost New Year’s Eve air about it. It’s more brightly textured than the 4/26. One is tempted to wonder whether the band would have bothered in the absence of special guest keyboardist Tom Constanten. They give him space and a profile he’d never enjoyed during his stint with them. The extent and depth of the changes they’d gone through since TC’s departure are on full display here. At times, it sounds like an exercise in nostalgia. In retrospect, though, it’s a fond farewell--not only to the Fillmore East, but to Dark Star as a crucial, central element of their repertoire. Although they couldn’t have known at the time, they were about to begin saying goodbye to Pigpen as well.

You can’t keep a good song down. Dark Star spent most of 1971 in eclipse, neglected in favor of newer material that would show up on American Beauty, Skull & Roses, and Garcia and Weir’s solo albums. But there was still a hunger, both onstage and in the audience, for those moments of inspired jamming best provided by a righteous Dark Star. "DAAAAAAWK STAAAAAW, JERRY!" had entered the East Coast Deadhead lexicon by now, as had divisions of opinion regarding the relative merits of "hard" and "soft" Dead. (Jerry was quoted as saying, "They can call it ‘vanilla’.") The next stage of Dark Star’s evolution most definitely coincided with the arrival of Keith Godchaux as their new pianist in the fall of 1971.
Keith was born to play in the Grateful Dead. He was an impact player whose contributions were essential to the flowering that Dark Star, the band, and the band’s popularity began to experience in 1972. Keith was the bridge between Spring ‘71 and Europe ‘72.
His input on Dark Star was evident right from the start--he leapt into the fray. Billy would go to his cymbals early and often. Tempos were more relaxed; the band found new avenues in the pre-verse jamming beyond the occasional minor chord from Weir. (It must be noted that Bob had blossomed as a guitarist around the time Keith joined the band.) They hit peaks at the beginning that they’d previously not accessed until well after the first verse. Above all, the fall ‘71 Dark Stars showed a renewed emphasis on dynamics: Softly played, pretty passages alternate with moments of frantic loudness. All of this was delivered with a mature self-assurance that bordered on--egad!--polish.

Travel broadens the mind, or so they say. The Europe ‘72 tour affected all aspects of the band’s playing. Weir, in particular, continued to shine. If the Europe Dark Stars have anything in common, it’s the confidence, the poise with which the band delivers the goods. By now, the band had perfected Dark Star as a vehicle for the development and expression of multiple, complex ideas within a relatively confined framework. When the ideas achieved critical mass--as they did routinely in Europe--the band dispensed with the framework entirely. Thematic recapitulation, second verse, and coda--all of these structural poles were done away with. The band continued to explore contrast and dynamics, going from whispers to screams. Europe Dark Stars featured much more pre-verse instrumental activity. By the song’s "end"--more accurately, the point where it segued into something else (most notably Morning Dew)--any resemblance to Dark Stars past or future was purely coincidental.
By the end of the Europe tour, Dark Star had become a vehicle for stunningly free-form creation. More than at any other period of its history, each version was radically different. This fact makes listening to ‘72 Dark Stars so enjoyable, even as it renders attempts at coherent analysis futile. Dark Stars of this period seem to take on characteristics of the venues at which they were played: hot and sticky (Roosevelt Stadium), intimate and friendly (Berkeley Community Theatre), familiar and spacy (Veneta). The Dead were on a roll, dealing from strength, using their instruments as a painter uses a palette.
This essay would probably not be published if it failed to acknowledge the Dark Star from the Springfield Creamery Benefit in Veneta, Oregon, on 8/27. While the course of human evolution may or may not have been mere prologue to this event, there’s no denying that the Dark Star from this show is mellower and happier than the one from, say, Roosevelt Stadium. (In fact, 7/18 is yang to 8/27’s yin.) This might be a function of the respective sets and settings. If nothing else, the Veneta Dark Star was a prototype for the wonderful Dark Stars the band performed in the fall of 1972.
Each version from this period has its own personality. Overall, they’re somewhat less dissonant (7/18 was a peak in that regard). Sometimes there are drum solos; sometimes there are bass solos. The 9/27 Stanley Theatre performance (captured on Dick’s Picks XI) offers 25 minutes of instrumental pleasure before the first word is sung.

Things were going relatively well for the Dead in late ‘72. Their records were selling, their audience was growing. Their shows from this period--especially the Dark Stars--often convey sheer glee, a happiness to be playing this particular music at this particular time. This self-assured tone carried Dark Star into early 1973, but things would begin to change. The biggest and saddest change was the death of Pigpen. Although, as a practical matter, he hadn’t been a factor since the Europe tour, he was a member of the band until the very end. A case can be made, in fact, that Dark Star developed as it did, at least in part, to fill the vacuum left by the absence of Pigpen and his wealth of material.
Another change the band went through was the formation of their own record company. Jerry was quoted as referring to record companies as "a mindless juggernaut" and saying he didn’t feel like he had "a brother at Warner Brothers". (Europe ‘72 and Bear’s Choice were conceived and released, among other reasons, to hasten the band’s departure from Warner Brothers.) Grateful Dead Records forced them to divide their energies between their business and their art; it’s no surprise that both were affected. It’s even less of a surprise that they were much better at one than the other.
Nineteen seventy-three was not a good year to be a touring rock band with its own fledgling record company. Touring and recording required petroleum products. Petroleum was suddenly scarce and expensive. Their first release, Wake of the Flood, though much loved by Deadheads, did not have the impact on the world at large that their previous two studio albums had had. As for touring, they were playing for more people, for more money, and they *still* couldn’t make ends meet. A Rolling Stone article published around this time hinted that the band was consistently dissatisfied with its performances. They were unhappy about the larger venues their popularity was forcing them to play. Their audiences--particularly at outdoor East Coast shows--were growing ever rowdier. Grateful Dead Records was beginning to look like a bad (and questionably managed) idea. Taking some time off--a long time off--was starting to look like a damn good idea.

"....I have a long continuum of ‘Dark Stars’ which range in character from each other to real different extremes. ‘Dark Star’ has meant, while I’m playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine...." -- Jerry Garcia

How did all this tumult affect Dark Star? Any exercise in collective improvisation is the sum of what the improvisers bring to the exercise. As we’ve seen, Dark Star was a funhouse mirror, a psychedelic gut-check, a peek into the group mind. It served as an escape from mundane hassles, as well as a chance to vent about those hassles. To that extent, their approach to Dark Star had to be greatly affected by what was going on around them. It is this essay’s position that Dark Star’s evolution from Europe ‘72 to Fall ‘73 was greatly affected by the circumstances within and without the band described above.
The ‘72 and ‘73 Dark Stars, as groups, are like two different forests. The ‘72 Dark Star forest is, for the most part, safe and inviting, warm and bright, a place you want to tell your friends about. The ‘73 Dark Star forest is, overall, darker and more foreboding, not for the faint of heart. A great setting for spooky stories, it’s a place to warn your friends about.

It’s fascinating to hear Dark Star progress from February to December in a year that many Deadheads consider to be among the band’s peaks. The 2/15/73 Madison Dark Star is a joyous continuation of the lyrical playing that marked most late ‘72 versions. Phil merrily solos away, as he was wont to do in fall ’72. In fact, his solo dominates the post-verse festivities. As the year went on, of course, his more melodic solos would gravitate to The Other One.
By June, Dark Star’s pace had slowed. The 6/30/73 Universal performance finds the Dead in a transition of sorts. Phil is relying on bomb-like chords, and Jerry is turning more and more to wah-wah and feedback. Our old friend dissonance has reappeared--a more sophisticated (and much better amplified) form, to be sure, but far removed from the lyrical prettiness that characterized the Dark Stars from earlier in ‘73. Perhaps the renewed emphasis on terrifying noise was a gradual reaction to unpleasant circumstances--as it had been after the New Orleans bust.
The Dead were as much "in the mood" for Jerry’s birthday (8/1/73) at Roosevelt Stadium as they had been in Veneta the previous August. The Dark Star from this show doesn’t lie. The music builds up from next to nothing to a shrieking crescendo. Billy goes from lightly tinkling bells to wailing away, unrestrained by anything resembling conventional rhythm. This is one of the more breathtaking examples of Dark Star dynamics from ‘73 or any other year.
Late ‘73 versions all too often featured Weir throwing in chord progressions (often one that regrettably has become known as the "Mind Left Body Jam") whenever he ran short of ideas (cf. 12/2/73 Boston). This is the only flaw of the dense, uncompromising 10/25/73 Madison (what was it about that town in ‘73?) Dark Star. Phil’s playing had evolved by now into dark abstractions and thundering chords. Jerry’s playing has moved in this direction as well, making heavier use of wah and feedback. Their styles achieved an apotheosis of sorts before the hometown crowd at Winterland on 11/11. (Compare Phil’s 2/15 solo to his playing on 11/11 for a measure of the extent to which his approach to Dark Star had changed.)
The 12/18/73 Tampa Dark Star is the end of this particular line--the last stop on the tour, with no New Years shows, it has a dosed-on-the-last-day-of-school feel. It’s a dark, aggressively emotional reading. One pictures vast segments of the audience scratching their heads and wondering, "What was that all about?", while the rest of the crowd grins helplessly. Even as one marvels at the stunning power of this Dark Star, one must admit that the Dead sound a lot more tired and a lot less happy that they did at Madison in February.

The exact moment the band decided to quit touring remains unknown; Weir has indicated it was sometime in the latter half of 1973. It’s therefore conceivable that the end was in sight during the February Winterland shows. It’s tempting to say that the 1974 shows were devoted to playing out the string, but that would be an overstatement. While fatigue is occasionally noticeable on concert tapes from the period, there is no question that the Dead had their moments during this time.
Dark Star, unfortunately, provided relatively few of these moments. The Dead, for whatever reason, played it more sparingly in the last few months before the hiatus than at any time since 1971. Perhaps this was because the Dead were burnt out on performing, touring, and (in all likelihood) each other by this time. As mentioned earlier, Dark Star expressed the Dead--or allowed them to express themselves--better than any other song they did. It can therefore be inferred, or at least contended, that in 1974, the Dead were burned out on Dark Star.

There’s little doubt that Dark Star had lost a step between December and February. Things don’t get nearly as out of hand on the 2/24 Winterland performance as they routinely did in Fall ‘73. There’s an unsurprising, Mars Hotel kind of politeness afoot, as if they’ve refined their ‘73 excursions and reigned in the beast. Everybody sounds more laid back here; they would sound even more so as the year went on. Keith is much more prominent in the mix. Weir’s attempt to bring in the so-called Spanish Jam is met with complete indifference and quickly abandoned. Jerry explicitly tries to recapture his 11/11 sound. In listening to the tape, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve heard this before. No new ground is broken; no new ideas are expressed. Perhaps Dark Star has grown up, which is another way of saying that it essentially has stopped growing.
It’s obvious from tapes of the ‘74 shows that the jamming action was happening elsewhere--Other One, Playing, Eyes, Weather Report, even the Phil & Ned segments, all contained healthy portions of that Dark Star energy. Dark Star, by comparison, had begun to recede. The 6/23/74 Miami version (incorrectly referred to in some quarters as "Dark Star Jam") captures the band in a listless, uninspired mode. This version is noteworthy for the absence of any lyrics (cf. 12/5/71 for a similar phenomenon), but the most telling detail is their use of the Spanish Jam theme as an escape route, rather than a detour. It takes them out of Dark Star and into the then-fresh environs of U.S. Blues.
Our analysis ends with the 10/18/74 Winterland Dark Star. This one’s a keeper. Perhaps they were smiling for the cameras, believing that this could be the last time. Whatever the case, this one is, for all intents and purposes, as much a swan song to Dark Star as the Winterland shows were to the first phase of the Grateful Dead’s existence. This is as close to sentimental as Dark Star ever got. They’re tired, they have solo projects that interest them more, and they’re being filmed--not a good mix. But the Dead crank it up once more, for old times’ sake.

This essay’s intent is not to rate the Dark Stars, nor is it to push personal favorites. This essay gladly leaves the myth-making and rewriting of history to the self-styled experts who, it fears, will always be with us. However, if this essay has given the reader a framework for a deeper appreciation of Dark Star--and, in the process, the beginnings of an understanding of why the music sounded like it did when it did--then this essay is satisfied, and it will sleep well at night.

* * * 

by Douglas Ferguson, 1999

Q: Are there any old Grateful Dead songs that you would like the Dead to start doing again?
Garcia: No.
Q: None?
Garcia: Not really, no.
(The Golden Road/Fall 1986)

As with any retrospective evaluation, the temptation to split the period of study into definable parcels is admittedly great. With the GD, this inclination is encouraged, somewhat obviously, by the two, roughly equal-length, periods that frame their so called 'retirement' in 1975. That the two periods were separated by nearly the exact middle of the GD's career as a band practically begs for all manner of division and classification. While this way of thinking necessarily excludes the fundamental 'continuum' of their 30-year history, there are nevertheless many transformations, changes, and full-scale philosophical shifts that slowly and inexorably drifted across those 30 years, rarely acknowledged, but there nonetheless.
While it is far too simplistic to imply, or claim outright, as many veteran heads in fact do, that the post-retirement GD all but abandoned their 'canon' (quite literally, as it turns out, but more on this later), it is not so fantastic to observe that through necessary adaptation and, yes, further development, the GD of the eighties and nineties was, in many ways, a far different organism than the one of the preceding decades. In many ways a veritable lightning rod for these claims was the literal choice and rotation of the GD's repertoire, most specifically the appearance of the canonical focus, Dark Star. What was usually missing from such debates was the actual definition of the song, its place, its meaning or, conversely, its occasional irrelevance, in a period bridging four decades.
Rarely in any artistic endeavor is it so apparent that the work produced so directly reflects and boasts attributes of the organization that worked to produce it. Organization is this case referring to the entire GD family, the blurring of distinctions between performers, managers, roadies, office staff, family (rarely has any band ever been burdened by such massive egos on the part of technical staff). The period of the expanding Dark Star was also the period of nearly exponential organizational expansion, the band's vision, musical prowess, and ambition developing at a pace that required similar experimentation and expansion in the organization that managed and supported it. As has been documented, by 1973 the cracks had begun to show. The GD organization, personified in their own fan club literature by Ouroboros, the dragon eating its own tail, had become a huge and unwieldy beast.
The initial experiment in chaotic, laissez-faire self-management had taken on a dehumanizing corporate pattern that cruelly undermined the initial premise and, increasingly, offered severely diminishing financial returns, if not musical ones. When the GD stepped off the treadmill in 1974, they had literally reached the point of saturation, and the circumstances borne of this expansion began to highlight the nagging ironies and musical/stylistic contradictions. Forced to play a steady cycle of 15,000+ arenas to meet overhead, notions of further musical expansion and experimentation were becoming much less feasible, as evidenced by the baffled reception that greeted the 'Seastones' segments on the summer ‘74 tour. American stadium and arena-rock dynamics were at this time just codifying, and the GD, never a band to perform "at" their audience, especially couldn't be exempted from these new expectations.

“But there have been nights--not so much recently as before we knocked off in '74--we got so musically inbred that we were playing some fairly amazing stuff, but almost nobody could hear it or relate to it except us. That's one of the reasons why we knocked off and went out and did solo projects. We were speaking a language known only to us, using a musical vocabulary that was really pretty damned esoteric at some points.
Q: You don't think the crowd was picking up on it?
A lot of them didn't--I know they didn't.”
(Weir in an interview with Blair Jackson, 1981)

It is probably not altogether surprising that what many consider to be the last genuine Dark Star occurred in a smallish arena on home turf, October 18, 1974 at Winterland, during the farewell stand that was more a culmination/celebration of the first ten years than an avowed retreat from performance. Paradoxically, what some consider to be the last true version is, in many ways, the most organic rendering. Emerging from the inactive silence of intermission through the gradient electronic progress of the 'Seastones' segment, gradually joined and tentatively directed by Garcia and soon followed by the rest of the band, eventually shedding the cerebral electronic tones and gliding towards an elegant and austere transition into and through the 'song' itself. Virtually stand-alone and arriving formless, this was perhaps the last non-premeditated version, wholly organic rather than designed or simply occasioned. The culmination of the first version of the Grateful Dead and of the theoretical boundlessness of the era during which the song emerged and developed, this 'Dark Star' perhaps more than any other version best exemplifies the process of exploring and building upon an infinitely expandable improvisational vehicle.

Far from retiring or disbanding, within three months, the Dead were ensconced in Weir's home studio, only this time intent upon building songs from the ground up, having entered the studio without any pre-written material or conceptions as to how the music should proceed. When steady touring resumed a year and a half later, this material was emphasized along with revivals of older songs that either echoed the economical ethos of the new approach (High Time, Candyman) or closely matched the complex structures of the new 'Blues For Allah' material (Cosmic Charlie). When the GD returned to the road, the organizational egress had been remedied through a similarly philosophical paradigm shift that, although not openly acknowledged, came to be implemented all the same.
The production of shows and the concerts themselves reflected this reduced scale, the "comeback" tour of 1976 concentrating on intimate theatres, returning later that year to mid-size arenas and college auditoriums. However, the return to larger arenas did not necessarily mean a return to pre-retirement musical form. When the Dead at last returned to regular touring, concision and economy was the norm. Modest and deliberate was the musical approach, evidenced by the often leaden, groaning tempos and newly mannered treatments given older material ('St. Stephen' for example). The re-integration of Mickey Hart into the band was in part to blame for this, and if one follows this example and re-visits tapes of this period, it becomes obvious that the deft fusion and elasticity that characterized so many versions of Dark Star since late '71, would have been nearly impossible to recreate with two drummers.

From 31 appearances in 1972, to 13 in 1973, and 5 in 1974, Dark Star would only appear five times between 1975 and most of 1989. When it did appear during that period, it was almost always occasioned by a special event, or practically coerced into performance through the psychic demands of the audience; versions reluctantly submitted and only wearily echoing their predecessors. The failure in reintroducing the cumbersome and intentionally difficult Aoxomoxoa 'Baroque era' material in 1976 may have humbled the band, although 'St. Stephen', after many somnambular offerings during this year, did enjoy a genuine resurgence in both vigor and frequency during 1977 when it rather conveniently morphed into an arena-scale monster usually appended to 'Truckin', which was fast approaching its apex in this genre. 'Cosmic Charlie' and, later, 'St. Stephen' after its 1983 dusting, fared little better, the latter a prime example of the level of reluctance in bringing back old material simply to meet the demand, as anyone who witnessed the abysmal final recitation at Berkeley on 10/31/83 can attest.
By 1978 onward, the band was at once becoming accustomed to arena performance conventions and dynamics, adjusting to (some might say accommodating) revised audience expectations, putting the final touches on the institutional set format, and were struggling with the rapid and startlingly persistent decline of Keith Godchaux, whose fluid jazz runs had so brilliantly underscored so many pre-retirement Dark Stars, but who was increasingly withdrawn from the proceedings. With so many uncertainties within and without the band, it is perhaps not surprising that they chose to play within familiar confines and not stretch themselves to the point where the stress would come to define the performance, which, in fact, it already had done during most of 1978.

The 'Dark Star' that was trotted out on 12/31/78 was in many ways solely a combination tribute/concession to Bill Graham and those who went to the trouble of calculating the exact number of days since the last appearance. By this point, its mythology had become taken for granted, the very possibility of its occurrence becoming an obsession with touring Deadheads. Its absence fueled anticipation and further mythmaking, rather than rational speculation or sympathy on the part of those same Heads as to possibly why it had stopped being performed entirely.
Befitting the occasion, and setting the pattern for most of the future occurrences of Dark Star, the utterance of the opening phrase is greeted with a swell and release so forceful that it drowns out the first minute or so. Here, what is being celebrated in the audience reaction is not what is actually being laid out onstage, but rather circumstance and matching occasions: the closing of what was possibly the GD's most venerable home venue being bade farewell by the appearance of the most vaunted "song" in the GD repertoire. It is perhaps a good thing that the actual music is secondary, as it is a rushed and circumspect version, clinging to the middle and resisting any dissolution or transformation with all eyes straight ahead. What is perhaps most striking about this version is that it represents the re-classification of 'Dark Star' from a transformative piece within and of itself to a hemmed and proscribed transitional piece, a distinction that nearly guaranteed its omission during most of the eighties as the previously embroidered pathways between songs were abandoned for abrupt and often impatient transitions.
Along with the increasing "ossification" (as Lesh put it) of the standard first and second sets, it was at this time--in fact simultaneously with the development of the 'Drums' section--that a free-form compartment developed that bridged the drums segment with the latter half of the second set. These segments, usually lumped together as 'Space,' re-introduced a familiar element (free-form, often atonal, electric tone experiments) that, while suitably formless, were still bookended by entrenched second set fixtures. By the late ‘70s, free-form exploration had become effectively relegated to a somewhat redundant transitional bridge to more conventional songs rather than an endeavor in itself.

After the New Year's dusting, two further performances followed over the nearly three-week ’79 tour immediately following Winterland's closing. Ostensibly a make-up tour to reschedule dates cancelled the previous November and December due to Garcia's illness, the metro New York, Springfield and Providence shows evidence a surprising degree of enthusiasm, while some nights appear little more than desultory run-throughs, namely Utica and New Haven. The very pairing of 'Dark Star' and 'St. Stephen' at the Nassau Coliseum on January 10 was enough to ensure setlist infamy, regardless of the actual submission. The next appearance (and last performance for 232 shows) on the penultimate date of the tour, January 20, again seemed occasioned, this time by the palpable absence of Donna.
While the two ‘79 versions don't vary much from the Winterland version, the Buffalo edition benefits, and takes much of its definition from, a smoldering and exploratory 'Other One'. The 'Other One' being the third in the perennial troika of exploratory vehicles (Playin' being second) developed during the improvisational peak years, it is perhaps not surprising that Dark Star should, in its subsequent rare appearances, begin to pattern itself after its siblings. While admittedly more volatile and open-ended than just about anything in the GD repertoire at this point, The Other One was still a transitional piece, rarely straying and fairly adhering to the approach>peak>quick decline pattern that usually ushered in the allotted Garcia ballad. Similarly, Playin' had by this time taken its place along 'Estimated Prophet' as the primary second-set jam vehicle, abandoning--like the 'Other One' with its 'Cryptical Envelopment' bookends'--its status as a stand-alone exploratory vehicle. The incongruity of a stand-alone 'Playin' became evident on the return tour of 1976, appearing all the more an anomaly amidst the designed and economical structure of the immediate post-retirement shows.
The dispatching of Keith & Donna after the January tour heralded optimism that the GD could and would now shake things up, freed as they were from Keith's incessant plodding and the cold wash of the always tenuous male/female vocal mix. What the GD referred to however, was the lean and fast approach of late ‘71 when, not ironically, Keith was first introduced into the band, rather than the expository bend of ‘72-74. If it can be argued that these years were defined and indeed propelled by the emerging individual and group dynamics, how were the GD to be defined, in their new start with Brent, during the Eighties? As commercially isolated as they always claimed to be, the 1970s GD were at least considered emblematic of whatever countercultural identity and theory that still lingered from the Sixties, be it drug culture or nouveau organic American antiquity ("good ol' Grateful Dead"). As the GD worked their way into the Reagan era, they found out what it was really like to be isolated.

Before the tumult of October 1989, the 1980s Dark Stars (all two of them) were less than notable save for the curiosity of their inclusion. The New Year's Eve 1981 version is surprisingly graceful if not very engaging. The 7-13-84 version is simply desultory, fifteen minutes of sheer absence. What deadheads should have taken as an insult, the cruelly offhanded throwaway of perhaps the most cherished event in the GD concert experience, was again orgasmically heralded by its mere appearance. Coming as it did during the height of Garcia's 1980s opiate indifference, perhaps one shouldn't have expected much more. Still, it was as if it was enough to know the song still existed, to be casually acknowledged by the band every few years, enough to partially re-affirm the GD as a performing unit and touring experience in one of its darkest and most dislocated periods.
10-9-89, however, is a different animal altogether. If the decade's previous versions were either sops to constant audience expectations or offhanded attempts at dismissing the myth, the version of Dark Star unveiled at the Hampton Coliseum 'Warlocks' show was at once the enthusiastic embrace of the prodigal song and a ringing affirmation of the Grateful Dead's commitment to its past and present. That the same show also contained purposeful versions of 'Attics of My Life' & 'And We Bid You Goodnight' (as well as the return of 'Help On The Way>Slipknot' the previous night) also seemed to suggest that the GD might be confronting their mythology in one massive therapy session. Rather than attempting to exorcise this mythology, the Hampton shows mark a point at which the first period Grateful Dead catches up with and takes its place alongside the second.
In the years following, Dark Star would again be dismissed from rotation for months at a time, only to be revived for occasions, usually a guest musician of the caliber of Branford Marsalis or David Murray. And while it was understood that in accordance with the illogic of all things Grateful Dead, each appearance may be the last, Dark Star appeared in a fairly regular manner up until March of 1994, its disappearance from the repertoire more or less coinciding with Garcia's relapse into drugs and the band into a corresponding torpor, this time even more desolate than the eighties stretch. 
If any contained history can indeed be divided into broad periods, what enjoins those periods are not grand or sweeping gestures but the measured accumulation of individual actions and the cycles those consequences set in motion. As a unit, the Grateful Dead was as democratically vulnerable to internal and external pressures, to the increasing weight of history combined with the consistent demands for maintenance and progress. As perhaps the song most central to the Grateful Dead experience, the development, contraction, and progression of Dark Star most closely reflects that same history.