**massively updated 11/24/2014 11 PM mountain time**
I just tipped my hat to the idea of meso level musical risk in Garcia's side trips. This is the pedantic-even-by-my-high-standards phrasing of the notion that that different bands, qua bands (combinations of players and repertoires), could and did musically challenge Garcia to different degrees. The challenge-comfort continuum provides a nice way to narrate the overall arc Garcia on the side, I'll suggest more broadly. Here I point this lens at Reconstruction.Reconstruction: End of an Era
John Kahn, for the first time since meeting Garcia, conceived and led his own band in 1979: Reconstruction, a jazz-funk-soul-disco-etc. outfit featuring loud horns and occasionally tight arrangements (Brown 1979; Light 1979). Reconstruction played "sophisticated improvisational jazz with a beat" (Light 1979). I love most of this band's music.
Beyond mostly-good and occasionally-amazing music, though, Reconstruction matters to me as a local high point for the musical challenge embedded in Garcia's 1970s side trips. For several years prior to 1979, after the Nicky Hopkins and, a fortiori, James Booker flameouts, Jerry took refuge in and sought comfort with Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux in the Jerry Garcia Band. This was mostly living room music, if a little loud for the parlor, though things picked up a little before the final collapse. After 1979, after Reconstruction, Jerry and John gradually and codependently softshoe-shuffle away from risk and challenge. Reconstruction, then, presented Garcia with a far greater musical challenge than he got from what preceded or followed it.
But it was more than a local high – its demise also signals the end of a broader era, Garcia's Seventies Side Trips. On my read, John never really recovered the energy he expended through the 70s. Jerry eventually rediscovered some of his old mojo, tackling some challenging stuff from 1990 forward with his newly-reconciled friend, the innovative American musical legend, mandolinist David Grisman. That leaves the 80s, and on that view Reconstruction appears as the storm before the calm, so to speak: Garcia's 1980s side trips provided no sustained musical risks and challenges. On the long view, then, Reconstruction offers an oasis of challenge amid a growing sea of comfort and complacency.Some Conceptual Notes
Let me clear some conceptual and other ground, starting with my notion of the "meso level". I am operating here, as I like to do, in a world of at least minimally formalized institutions, which left enough of an imprint on paper, tape, memory, and other potentially-observed phenomena that I can sink my teeth into them. "Meso" institutions lie between the big macros (like, say, capitalism) and the tiny micros (what Garcia had for breakfast on any given day). I really have in mind how Garcia arranged his professional life, i.e., mostly, how others such as Merl, John Kahn, managers, etc. etc. arranged his professional life for him.
The meso level is populated by all kinds of interesting institutions, but I most often focus on an entity called a band. In my usage, a band is an institutionalized musical aggregation. Because it's institutionalized, it is in some sense intended by at least some of the people involved. It is intended to arrange (creating or formalizing order) and endure through time -- a "going concern". In this post I will isolate two features of bands: their members and their repertoires.
"Member" is an institutionalized position - it's a role, defined in specific ways, involving strongly ritualized rights and expectations, and so forth. A band member, it is intended, is going to be around, reasonably predictably. Each individual, and emergently in a well-functioning institution, the group as a whole will form expectations about what each and all should be doing. This might be formalized, as in a contract, or it might be completely implicit. A member stands conceptually distinct from a guest, though the messy empirical world doesn't always play along with such idealized types. They are all players, of course, which is the term I find myself using here.
Each player embodies a package of skill, tastes, inclinations, experiences and musical knowledge (leaving aside all of the other human fun we pack in our skins and clothes). I'll call this package an individual's repertoire, the stock of musical material at his or her disposal. Put the individuals together in a band, and these repertoires form a Venn diagram, the core of which is the set of possible stuff they can/want to play together. I don't want to make this too static: since people both can be taught and can forget stuff, repertoires can ebb and flow over time. But out of this possibility set, and probably passing through filters of musical taste and interests, arrangeability, playability, and all of that, bands create a collective repertoire.
So in talking about the side trips' relative "meso level risk", I am really talking about how much each band musically challenged Jerry Garcia, as shaped by who was playing and the material they took on. Unfamiliar and skilled players, on the one hand, and unfamiliar and challenging material, on the other, combine to define the level of risk and challenge posed by a band.
This is distinct from what I might think of as micro level risk and challenge, i.e., at the level of concrete performances. At the micro level he never stopped leaping, finding amazing musical flashes even in the deepest, darkest depths of his rock bottom period (except for maybe 8/26/84!). The frequency of super-high musical attainments ebbed in, let's say, 1984-1986, and so too did their duration, but they kept their upside amplitude (see 5/31/83, for example). (Unfortunately, overall amplitude did increase. I believe it to be axiomatic that if the highs were no higher, and amplitude increased, it must be the case that the lows got lower. Whatever the math, and it has the virtue of being checkable, that last statement is certainly true, empirically.) David Kemper and Melvin Seals could push Garcia in any given moment (if more from the chair than the bench, in my view). But it's nevertheless true that the meso level got really static, especially once JGB #21b took the stage in mid-1983 (see 7/20/83 and 7/21/83). The same players convened, around a relatively invariant repertoire, month after month for more than a decade. They made some amazing music in the moment, but they confronted Garcia with little in the way of sustained musical challenges.An aside on John Kahn
I don't take John Kahn's perspective nearly often enough, and, following Corry, I'll use the occasion of talking about this band, his band to think a little more about the Mule. He seems to have had real ambitions for Reconstruction. He saw it as a kind of update to the Garcia-Saunders-Kahn-et-al group which had sold (and continues to sell!) so many records for Fantasy. The outfit would be rebuilt, playing some of the stuff that John had picked out for Jerry's 1974 Compliments of Garcia (Round RX 102, June 1974), notwithstanding that the latter hadn't sold enough to make Round Records viable. They throw in more Merl vocals, a beautiful batch of Latin and other jazz, and a bunch of other stuff, and generally play the black sinner music that John loved so much (see my reportorial analysis below). Reconstruction was aptly named, the mixing and mingling of old and new players and materials. Not only momentarily ambitious, John Kahn was also a musical revelation in Reconstruction, playing the best bass of his life (and also "lead eyebrows", according to one account – Brown 1979). Reconstruction was John taking his big chance, and he really gave it his all. "I want it to last," he said in April. "We're a serious band, and I want it to stay together" (Brown 1979).
Garciacentrically, the end of Reconstruction only coincides with the disappearance of meso level musical challenge, I think. That ship had sailed when Cats Under the Stars failed commercially, let's say, sometime in 1978. I doubt he was all that broken up about Reconstruction one way or the other. (Corry narrates a bit tighter Cats -> Reconstruction progression than I do – read him.) But, for John, I think the relationship was causal, that Reconstruction's failure to "take" took John's heart out of it, to some extent. He was never the same after 1979, to my ears, always weaker, while to my taste bass in the rock idiom (and accompanying very, very, very loud electric guitar) absolutely requires power. In short, I am conjecturing that as the commercial failure of Cats Under the Stars was to Jerry –occasion to stop trying—so Reconstruction's quick end was to John.Birth of Reconstruction
Corry deftly narrated the birth of Reconstruction in his 2011 post "Reconstructing Reconstruction". Re-reading him, I am struck by the idea of the band as an easy way out of the Keith and Donna relationship (I'll discuss Garcia's inability to come clean and provide closure to erstwhile collaborators he's walking away from, in re Merl, more below). Comfort and challenge coexist all too fluidly in life, of course.
I read Corry as still allowing for a possible late 1978 birth of Reconstruction, but I think we should pin it down to January 1979. The Mule spelled it out in a rare contemporary interview which took place between Wednesday sets at the band's only out of state gigs,at Denver's Rainbow Music Hall, April 11-12, 1979. (1) Reconstruction had started earlier in the year. (2) John got Garcia to sign on the dotted line (as if!) after an especially taxing Dead tour. This sounds for all the world like January 1979 in Deadland, a wrecked Donna Jean heading home midstream and, which is worse, an even more wrecked Keith Godchaux staying onboard. (These shows are improbably great, as was known regularly to happen in Deadland, a place that thrived when the tension was productive.) That tour wrapped up January 21 in Detroit and Jerry was presumably home the next day. (3) They practiced for a week, and then started gigging.
To The List!
Lo! Reconstruction's first Listed public gig took place on Tuesday, January 30, 1979 at the Keystone Berkeley. This fits John's timeline to a 'T' – Jerry is home from Dead tour on 1/22, they practice for a week and gig on 1/30. This fits a pattern I believe to have established, that, in the Garciaverse, new bands are broken in on off-nights. Most importantly, tapers Steve Spitalny and John Angus made and circulated a great recording of the show, which is playing as I write this. I don't know what to make of the fact that I have Garcia manifestly playing on this tape, while he was also, manifestly enough, photographed in the City this same date for the Bammie awards (see BAM no. 50, February 16, 1979, p. 30). It seems like the industry party ended early enough for Jerry to cross the Bay Bridge to Berkeley; indeed, by the time they play Ray Charles's "Let's Go Get Stoned", at the tail end of the tape, it sounds quite a bit after hours.
Anyway, I feel reasonably confident about dating the band's public debut to Tuesday, January 30, 1979, and its birth to earlier in the month.Players
Reconstruction was a jazz sextet. Of greatest magnitude within the Garciaverse, it publicly reunited John and Jerry with Merl Saunders. The few scraps we have about the mid-1975 demise of Legion of Mary (and, thus, of a sustained, nearly five-year Garcia-Saunders-Kahn-et-al collaboration) suggest that Jerry walked away from Merl, or was pushed/dragged away by the Grateful Dead family. This is the key piece of evidence in various Garcia narratives, including that Garcia was cowardly around personal confrontation, and especially the "goodbyes" of breaking up, which he did at some point with every single person in his life except the Dead guys and John Kahn himself. If we imagine the players orbiting the Garciaverse at the time, this looks an awful lot like the Dead and John Kahn winning a struggle for Garcia's soul (and, uncharitably, the lucre it seemed to spawn with only the gentlest priming). From Merl's perspective, it probably looks and feels at least a little bit like a betrayal, maybe less dramatically a run-of-the-mill bullshit move, or perhaps, most mundanely, just a sadness.
If Reconstruction aimed to reconstruct the old Garcia-Saunders-Kahn-et-al players and material for the disco era, reconciliation, to whatever degree it would have been needed, would have been the order of the day. The guys had not been totally estranged, it's true. Though I believe a longstanding Listing of Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders gigging on 11/20/76 to be spurious – that month's Keystone calendar listed the JGB—it is incontrovertible that between Legion and Reconstruction Merl had helped Jerry and John out (or they, him) with some work on Cats, recorded summer 1977 through early 1978. Jerry sitting in with Merl's band at the Shady Grove on October 2-3, 1978 looks like a real breakthrough, both signaling the death throes of the Godchaux-era JGB –it'd go out with a great "So What" on November 3, 1978—and the public re-emergence of Jer and Merl. For all we know, John might have orchestrated, or at least helped facilitate the reunion. As ever, Corry writes it all up, just right; I like his idea that Merl, burned once, was testing Garcia's commitment before exposing himself a second time.
Whatever the case, in John's reconstruction of the old Garcia-Saunders-Kahn-et-al, firming up some of the planking on the jazzy side of the vessel, he naturally enough signed Merl up first, and together they brought in the et al. These included Merl's old bandmate, Gaylord Birch (see Corry), who led the Pointer Sisters' band, including on their profoundly fonky 1975 #1 soul hit "How Long (Betcha Got A Chick On The Side)" [LLD | youtube]. Jerry had played with him at least once before when sitting in with Merl's band at the Keystone in January 1975, tackling a repertoire not unlike Reconstruction's which included one-offs by Marvin Gaye ("What's Going On") and Weather Report's killer jazz-funk fusion "Cucumber Slumber". So, Birch knew John and Merl really well, Jerry a little, and he had some serious chops.
Also entering the fray was John's fellow Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band alumnus and former roommate (LLD), and his and Merl's Bloomfield/"Better Days"-era co-conspirator, longtime Bay Area saxophonist "Reverend" Ron Stallings. I have no documented Stallings-Garcia Shared Stage events, though I think probably played together somewhere on the road that passed first through Heavy Turbulence and then through the Merl Saunders/Aunt Monk aggregations. The Rev, in turn, brought in trombonist Ed Neumeister a few days before the first gig. Neumeister had neither played with nor met Garcia before, and wasn't particularly aware of him even in the more diffuse sense: “I had no idea to be honest the following that Jerry had. I showed up for that first gig and there were wall-to-wall people" (Sforzini 2012). Ahh, the burdens of being Jerry.
Along the way, Garcia had signed on. Corry considers him not a member, but an "an ongoing, if important, guest star for a permanent band." I am not sure it's worth trying to resolve what are really just semantic differences around an ambiguous reality; it's probably enough just to acknowledge them and move on.
Here's how I might code things, with all due indifference to consistency:
! ACT1: Reconstruction (1/30/79-9/22/79)
! lineup: John Kahn – el-bass;
! lineup: Merl Saunders – keyboards, synthesizers, vocals;
! lineup: Ron Stallings – saxophone;
! lineup: Ed Neumeister – trombone;
! lineup: Jerry Garcia – el-g, vocals;
! lineup: Gaylord Birch – drums.
These guys are all monster players. Kahn was at the top of his game, playing fat, strong and aggressive bass. I love Merl's keys and synth work in this period, but what really strikes me is how much his singing has improved since the JGMS/Legion period. He brought some great club groove to the Bill Withers tunes, "Don't It Make It Better" and "Lovely Night For Dancing", for example. Stallings had played with everyone and Gaylord Birch wasa master of deeply timely but highly-styled funk drumming. The Pointer Sisters' bandleader could flat out get ... it ... on. You know what the best test of a jazz musician's chops is? How busy he keeps. Ed Neumeister was holding down multiple gigs at this time: Reconstruction, the Sacramento Symphony (yes, a classical music crossing!), the Circle Star Theater house band (Corry), also, naturlich, gigging and jamming all around Northern California with every conceivable kind of combo. Less known among denizens of the Garciaverse, because he played with Jerry in an obscure band in small rooms for an obscure eight months in 1979 -- , he remains a highly respected teacher and player [edneumeister.com | JFS #55: The Ed Neumeister interview].Repertoires
Part of being a real band with real members, with aspirations for sustained professional success is figuring out what to play and working on playing it, together. In the case of Reconstruction as a Garcia side trip, the results are rich and highly distinctive. Many numbers and even genres only appear in the Garciaverse by way of the band. It was, in short, risky, and the results show it – some great, some not-so-great. Let me unpack.1. Contemporary White Boy Soul
Let's start on the "swing and miss" side of the ledger. The chief culprit here is a Ron Stallings-sung contemporary white soul number, Gino Vannelli's "I Just Wanna Stop". It charted #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 (despite having music's most Canadian opening line, "When I think about those nights in Montreal"). With Reconstruction it came off a little cringeworthy, Stallings incongruously smooth in his white suit and shoes. It's exceptionally interesting to me to hear Garcia playing a contemporary soul and trying to process the dissonance, but there's no reason you, reader, should subject yourself to it. A better choice in this genre is Reconstruction's "What You Won't Do For Love". It's a better tune to begin with --freaking Tupac sampled it-- with some real soul. It drew enough well enough in black clubs and on black radio that the record company tried for awhile to obscure Bobby Caldwell's race. It's a late-night-lovemaker in just the right measure, with an appropriately slinky progression, far dirtier than the pablum dribbling down from up north. Garcia used it to groove in some nice harmony vocals ("I'm in a daze | from your love, you see") with that little insouciance that comes from feeling both strong and relaxed about "l-o-v-e-love, l-o-v-e-love". This song succeeds where "I Just Wanna Stop" falls flat.2. Killer Instrumentals
On the wow! side of the ledger, I'd make special note of some killer instrumentals. "Welcome To The Basement", composed by Merl and Eddie Moore, had appeared on Heavy Turbulence (Fantasy 8241, 1972), featuring Garcia on guitar. I would drool to hear some earlier versions, but it's not known to have been played live with Garcia until Reconstruction did it seven years later. John Kahn starts it off with his best lead bass, running several fast and powerful measures on his own before the band joins in. He also took a couple-minute feature inside the song, playing much more forcefully than he'd ever do again. Indeed, talking about critical ruptures, hearing John play this tune on July 22, 1979 undergirds my view that, when Reconstruction died, so too did John's playing power, giving way to disturbingly fluttery, feathery, overlong and generally unsuccessful soli from 1980 forward (e.g., 2/20/80).
Stevie Wonder's "Another Star", from his amazing 1976 double record Songs in the Key of Life [deaddisc], absolutely knocks me out every time. Merl, who ended up putting this on his 1979 album Do I Move You (Crystal Clear Records CCS-5006), had catalyzed Garcia to play a bunch of Stevie Wonder songs in their earlier collaborations including, regularly with JGMS and the Legion, the great "I Was Made To Love Her", done as a smoking instrumental and, in early 1973, with Sarah Fulcher on vocals, as well as "Boogie on Reggae Woman" (Merl singing) and an instrumental "Creepin'", both from 1974's Fulfillingness’ First Finale. There are even a couple of Stevie singletons in the Garciaverse: "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life", the Talking Book single that reached #1 on the charts and for which Wonder won a Grammy award, made one October 1973 appearance, and the Merl Saunders /Aunt Monk aggregation did "Love Having You Around" (5/9/75). There may be others.
Reconstruction's "Another Star", like Stevie's own, burns barns. Here are my notes from the version identified as 4/12/79 early show:
3. An old favoriteThis is a great horn tune, and these guys set the chart ablaze. They are killin' it. Garcia jumps in for his first solo playing like a man possessed -- this is some of the most molten Garcia guitar work you will ever hear. Merl, who is spinning it out like a wizard over a crystal ball, all arcing fingers, allowing a little decay in, then more decayed wizardry, like 10 degrees off from true. Garcia harshly scrubbing at various places. I bet Jerry's disappointed they end it so soon. I bet at some point he gave them the old "let's stretch that out even more, man". I am sure they have it charted out, but they are pros and I hypothesize that if we time "Another Star" we'll see it lengthen out over the course of Reconstruction's (too-brief) run.
The other Motown they covered that destroys me is Smokey Robinson's "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game", done best, with lips reaching out the vinyl to whisper in your ear, by the Marvelletes. The tune entered the Garciaverse through ol' buddy John Kahn, who picked it for Jerry to do on Compliments (Round Records, 1974). John was a bona fide R&B nut, a legendary record collector and listener, holding special attachment, as is right and proper for the period, to Motown, and there is nothing that is not devastatingly great about his song. Legion did it live at least a time or two in 1975, it reappeared with Reconstruction, took a decade off, and came back in the late-era Garcia Band. The tune is unorthodoxly keyed, and Jerry sometimes had a hard time figuring out how to sing it; I find this in the Reconstruction versions. Old Jerry could sing it better, mostly because he was more patient with it, putting in a slightly more spacious arrangement with JGB #21b, slowing it down. But the 1990s versions also deliver a much heavier emotional punch – old Jerry isn't singing it about chasing tail (and tail being chased) – this song is about our predator-prey relations with life itself. The live version on Shining Star (Grateful Dead Records 4079, March 2001) wonderfully represents how an older, more grizzled Jerry could utterly reinterpret this American masterpiece of word and groove.4. Latin Jazz
I hope to find another time to write about some other killer Reconstruction jazz instrumentals, so let me just mention the great Latin numbers. McCoy Tyner's "Sama Layuca" is terrifyingly brilliant, and the band drives it a fair bit harder than Tyner's original (on the album of the same name). Check out the August 10, 1979 version from the Temple Beautiful on Geary, a spaced-out 15-minute rendition that segues with limpid placidity into a sublime "Dear Prudence", the single best Beatles-song performances of Garcia's career. "Nessa", from Willie Bobo's Spanish Grease (Verve V6-8631, 1965), pushed the groove even more – this is some of the straightest Latin jazz you'll hear Garcia play, and it's got a little more frantic on it, just a shade or two darker, than most other artists' versions. Finally, a tune which Betty Cantor-Jackson inscribed as "Lyinda" on her tape boxes turns out to be "Linda Chicana", written by Mark Levine and first recorded by by Mongo Santamaria as "Sheila" (on Afro American Latin, Columbia, recorded 1969 and released 2000), was played by lots of folks, including one of Mongo's bosses, Cal Tjader, under the title I use (Clemens 2011). Like the other two, Reconstruction drove this one harder than any of these other artists.
These tunes gave Garcia a chance to work his deeply-imbued but rarely-displayed Latin chops. Despite the obviously Spanish surname, he was not a Latino in the current usage, since his father was Spain-Spanish, as one might say, rather than of New World descent. But he knew the music, was surrounded by it. He knew Carlos Santana very well, of course, had played with him and the Santanamigos at least a few times (GD 5/11/69 and 4/15/70 come immediately to mind). Merl had played with Carlos, too. But the San Francisco Latin scene, jazz and otherwise, was loaded with talented players (see here, mostly in comments). Conguero Armando Peraza had been a member of JGMS for a few months in early 1972. Martin Fierro, of course, joined Jerry and Merl in 1973 and was one of the three instrumental centerpieces of the Legion of Mary, the repertoire of which included Latin numbers "Valdez In The Country" and "La-La". While there was some precedent for Reconstruction's Latin engagements, then, the key point is that there was no "postcedent": after Reconstruction, Garcia would set Latin music aside, more or less completely, until right after his 1986 coma, when he started hooking up with Los Lobo, and he never engaged it in a sustained way again. The chance to hear Jerry play Latin jazz would be just one more casualty of Reconstruction's demise, victim to his and John's decelerating, Persian-assisted, post-Reconstruction drift into musical comfort.5. Disco
The band also played what I can only call disco music, even though Gaylord Birch characterized Reconstruction as "tryin' to knock disco outta the box" (1/30/79, shnid-12560, s1t05). Disco of the sort I have in mind strikes me as an indigenous American musical form just as much as jazz is, though I don't know its history well enough to say. I have to think that, whatever its genesis, it found distinctively American expression. Reconstruction's disco, which I think leads lots of people to dismiss the whole enterprise is not about repertoire (they didn't do "I Will Survive"), but mostly about instrumentation --strobe-suggestive-synth, hard horns-- and, especially, arrangements -- fast and tight, good to dance to.
I like that Garcia was willing and able to engage disco (if it's really disco at all) with the same exploratory spirit he brought to most of the 70s side trips that centered on black and pan-racial musical forms. I like what it says about him, because it's an artistic choice that risked turning off his audience. Dead fans had reacted in some dismay to the horns and strings on 1977's Terrapin Station, perhaps even more so to the straight-disco "Dancing In The Streets" on Shakedown Street (1978). The cover of 1980's Go To Heaven, with the Dead in Disco Full Cleveland, has left none who have seen it capable of fully respecting any of those pictured on it. Professional reputations can suffer when musicians, perhaps having passed their primes, try on incongruous material; it can be unseemly.
But, to his credit, Garcia didn't seem to give much of a fuck. Reconstruction's Denver audience, a schadenfroh reviewer reports, "had a hard time accepting Garcia's new role as a neo-George Benson guitarist left to battle synthesizers" and "blaring horns" (Brown 1979), characteristically calling for "Casey Jones" or the Dead's exploratory masterpiece "Dark Star". Instead, they got, inter alia, white boy soul and disco. A Santa Cruz reviewer found the audience more accepting of the challenge with which Reconstruction presented them, and up to it (Light 1979). Either way, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, and all that. And history can sometimes vindicate thoughtful choices – Reconstruction holds up well today, while disco –disco!—through Abba's improbable vicegrip stranglehold on the popular imagination—has permanently impacted popular music as it has ebbed and flowed these last four decades.6. Etc.
In the interest of space (!), and using the Reconstruction songlist at deaddisc, I'll do some rough taxonomizing over the rest of the band's repertoire, in no particular order, and bearing in mind the arbitrariness of some of these distinctions. (I am more than open for suggestions on other ways to slice and package this material!)
Ain't That Lovin' You
Linda Chicana (Mark Levine)
Nessa (Ed Diehl)
Contemporary White Soul
FunkWelcome To The Basement (Merl Saunders / Eddie Moore)
A Little Gigging History
The hopes John expressed in April, that Reconstruction would become a going concern, were based more in optimism than in "success" over its first few months. Most gigs were midweek, and tiny rooms like the Cotati Cabaret and Rancho Nicasio provide the modal gig space. Reconstruction's first Friday gig was March 9th in Cotati at the Inn; its next, and far and away its biggest gig to that point, was March 30th at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz; just its third, in over two months of existence, was at the ultralocal Rio Theatre, in isolated Rodeo (possible slogan: "always unlikely"), a week later. One trip out of state (four midweek shows in Denver, April 11-12), one gig in Sacto, one in LA, and a night in San Diego – that's it as far as making its way in the wide world beyond the Greater Bay Area trilateral centered on Cotati to the North, Berkeley to the East, and Santa Cruz to the South. 57 gigs total, on my current count.
Reconstruction was a most unusual side trip for Garcia. It was his only post-1975 band not to bear his name. He frequently took a "subdued, background role" in the band (Light 1979). He was generally billed as a special guest, and even skipped a few gigs when the Dead occupied him otherwise (Corry). All of this suggests low pressure. True, in these senses (and in some absolute sense) he risked little in Reconstruction. He certainly didn't need the little money it might have provided. But at the same time, the band found him taking the risks that would have mattered most to him – musical ones. The players and the repertoire pushed Garcia out of his social and musical comfort zone, at the very least getting him to think about some new charts. Taking chances doesn't always pay off, though I find many in Reconstruction that do. But perhaps more importantly, getting stuck in a rut always pays peanuts.
Matt Light (1979) could have been summing up Garcia's seventies side trips in reviewing Reconstruction in Santa Cruz: "it is ever [Garcia's] habit to experiment, and he held his end in a first-rate group".
But it wouldn't last. The band didn't survive 1979, for reasons that are characteristically obscure. Pretty much all of Garcia's side trips ended with a whimper, usually skulking away, Baltimore-Colts-in-the-dead-of-night-style, from a hurt friend, or at least collaborator. He and John walked away from Merl, a man who loved Jerry, for at least the second time. I am sure it was probably just "wanting to move in another direction", as the euphemism has it. That's fine. But have the balls to say something. Instead, as Merl recounts, "there was a night when he didn't show up for a gig, which was done purposely, I think. It was sabotaged [Saunders won't say by whom]. They didn't tell him there was a gig to get to. And shortly after that he and John started a different group and I sort of lost touch with him" (Jackson 1999, 307, quoted by Corry).
While I think Garcia and Kahn were cowardly not to just lay it out for Merl, my sense of them is that they were both sensitive enough to others that they knew, if only deep-down but I really think closer to the surface, that they had done Merl wrong. We've all screwed somebody over at some point, did wrong by them. Only a sociopath doesn't feel guilty about it (I don't think these guys were sociopaths, natch), and I suspect that this was just one more piece of painful emotional baggage that gave opiates, with their promised and presumed unfeeling powers, so congenial. I want to be clear – I am speculating about any tie-in with Merl guilt. And we know, by Garcia's own stated timelines, that he (and we suspect with about 99% confidence that John) was already using before this. But more guilt almost certainly didn't help.
Whatever the emotions, Reconstruction's demise tolled heavily on Garcia's musical life, or rather it indicated big changes. After Reconstruction, he would not regularly try on material this novel, with players who could really stand up and push him, for more than a decade. And even then, when he returned to Grisman, he was rediscovering old material more than learning new things. Reconstruction had found Jerry Garcia reaching, if not for a gold ring, then at least for one with an appealing shine, or an interesting dent, or an evocative if not expensive jewel. When it ended, he stopped reaching, period. As the 1970s ended, the curtain came down, for a good long time, on Garcia's pursuit of challenge in his side trips. The eighties would wax in waning musical ambition.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
! ref: Arnold, Corry. 2010. John Kahn Live Performance 1967-68: T&A R&B Band and Memory Pain (John Kahn II). Lost Live Dead, November 26, URL http://lostlivedead.blogspot.com/2010/11/john-kahn-live-performance-1967-68-t-r.html, consulted 11/24/2014.
! ref: Arnold, Corry. 2011. Jerry Garcia Band Drummers Top 10 List. Lost Live Dead, November 10, 2011, http://lostlivedead.blogspot.com/2011/11/jerry-garcia-band-drummers-top-10-list.html, consulted 5/19/2013.
! ref: Arnold, Corry. 2011. May 19, 1979: The Old Waldorf, San Francisco, CA: Reconstruction/Horslips. Lost Live Dead, January 6, http://lostlivedead.blogspot.com/2011/01/may-19-1979-old-waldorf-san-francisco.html, consulted 11/15/2014.
! ref: Arnold, Corry. 2012. Jerry Garcia>1978>Keyboards (Jerry Garcia-Bandleader). Lost Live Dead, September 20, 2012, URL http://lostlivedead.blogspot.com/2012/09/jerry-garcia1978keyboards-jerry-garcia.html, consulted 12/31/2013.
! ref: Arnold, Corry. 2012. Reconstructing Reconstruction, January-February and August-September 1979. Lost Live Dead, November 1, URL http://lostlivedead.blogspot.com/2012/11/reconstructing-reconstruction-january.html, consulted 11/15/2014.
! ref: Arnold, Corry. 2012. Gaylord Birch – Drums. Hooterollin' Around, February 3, URL consulted 11/15/2014.
! ref: BAM no. 50, February 16, 1979, p. 30.
! ref: Brown, G. 1979. Reconstruction Gig Not From Dead Catalog. Denver Post, April 12, 1979, p. 56.
! ref: Clemons, Dan. 2011. Mark Levine: The Interview. Jazzreview, January 29, 2011, URL http://www.jazzreview.com/jazz-artist-interviews/mark-levine-the-interview.html, consulted 11/23/2014.
! ref: Light, Matt. 1979. Jazz for the Dead Heads. Good Times (Santa Cruz, CA), April 5, 1979, p. 14.! ref: Sforzini, Hank. 2012. Five Musicians Remember Jerry Garcia. Paste, August 20, 2012, URL http://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2012/08/five-musicians-remember-jerry-garcia.html, consulted 11/24/2014.
! note: see also my "Reconstruction at the Rainbow"