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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Compensation on TDIH

I have explored, mentally more than online, the hypothesis that when Jerry's vocals were especially, noteworthily bad, he compensated with his guitar playing, really concentrating on it and giving it extra "oomph".

If we could gather all the data (like continuous measures of the quality of singing and guitar playing), the compensation hypothesis might be testable in a satisfactorily scientific sense.

That's not going to happen.

Instead, I'll say that I believe it sometimes to have been true, which is a simply a statement of possibility. And I might offer in support the Grateful Dead show at Golden Hall, San Diego, CA, January 7, 1978.

I think there are several tapes, but this is the one I am listening to. It's a great tape that puts you right in the sweet spot.

The worst case of laryngitis in his 30-plus career struck Garcia in early 1978. If outright pneumonia caused cancellations --even the Dead had humanitarian standards, and even its Garcia was subject to the relevant labor laws-- for mere laryngits, The Show Would Go On, and they played two nights in San Diego (Sunday 1/7 and Monday 1/8) without "Jerry songs", i.e., no Garcia lead vocals. On the tape linked above, Weir informs the crowd of this (track 9, "Jerry's problem").

The results are pretty striking, and I think are indicative of various compensation effects.

From a Grateful Dead perspective (not usually the one I take here), the whole band seems to respond. The bassist and the drummers all have great nights. Partly this is the tape, I assume, but Phil, Bill and presumably Mickey just sound great. Lesh plays some very forward, fluid stuff all night long. The drummers sound alive, really as one on this night (which was too infrequently the case - I am not a fan of the two-drummer sound). I don't hear Bob tearing it up on guitar quite as might as one might expect, but I am not firm on that.

The key pieces of evidence from the tape are "Let It Grow" and the big jam on "Dancing In The Street".

"Let It Grow" might be exhibit #1 in support of the compensation possibility from a Garciacentric perspective. (Though the whole band is great, I think that's partly endogenous to Jerry.) Pantagruel's tape picks this up beautifully, but any recording would find Garcia playing "Let It Grow" like a man with his hair on fire, scrubbing, hammering, scrubbing some more, occasionally soaring; parkour guitar. Maybe he's a little angry, and he takes it out on the Tiger (right? I should know these things). Somewhere around 3:45 and again right around the 5-minute mark, he fans with tremendous power. If you have good speakers and a good room --this tape needs space to breathe, but given the space I think it will sound very nice indeed -- go ahead and turn it up, LOUD.

Dancin' finds the whole band highly exploratory, a great piece of  group improvisation. For at least five or eight minutes they explore lots of creative byways. "Compensation" has a quite specific manifestation here, because I don't think that, initially, they are trying harder so much as the tried and true is not ready-to-hand. When you reach for the standard formula and it's not there, right where it usually is and where you implicitly expected it to be, what do you do? You improvise.

(Note here that Corry has discussed a related phenomenon, whereby the band "compensates", responds to, a small and alien crowd by hunkering down and, together, tearing the roof off the place. Not only that, he discussed in the context of this very tour, and specifically the 1/15 show at Selland Arena in Fresno. JGMF: Corry's ideas, my turgid prose.)

I lament the institution of the vocal rotation in the Dead. It began very early and didn't really start to stifle things, too much, until other features, such as the setlist structure, and the subsong types such as "Bob rockers" and "Jerry ballads", populating a rather limited ecology, ossified around it. By 1980 a Dead setlist was highly predictable on all kinds of dimensions, and various members of any given crew of fans typically specialized in "calling songs". Alas, it wasn't rocket science.

I don't consider 1978 to be a great year for the Dead, but I like it relative to what followed because I so strongly dislike the ossuary that the setlist structure became, a deadweight around the band's neck. One could still be surprised by a GD setlist in 1978 in ways that one could never be in any of the band's remaining years that contained an '8'. And 1/7/78 has this in spades, since even what was already tried-and-trued by this time, the Bob-Jerry rotation, and certain song combinations, were ruled out by Jerry's laryngitis.

With routinization, space for true exploration becomes more and more constrained. This is probably tautological. What this show allows us to see is that the vocal rotation was part of this limitation, and breaking it down posed interesting questions, calling forth interesting answers. On more than a few occasions I hear Jerry suggesting "Franklin's Tower", for example. Now maybe he had a mic set up and was considering exercising a vocal option. Or maybe he just wanted to attack the song from a new angle, free of singing responsibilities and with a chance to focus on just playing it. Or maybe he just stumbled into it. Whatever the case, the whole band is fun and engaged and ripping it up in a very interesting Dancin' - looking down the setlist, I have high hopes for what looks like a tight Playin, a long and hopefully not too dull Drums -> NFA, and what I am hoping is a hot Around & Around (with the double-time ending? I hope so). I hope not to listen to OMNS, but I might slip up.

(some hours later)

I have picked this up again after being taken away by other things. I love this "Playing In The Band" - not as long as it had been, which is fine - more like a nice compact 1972 version. At 9:19 Garcia quotes "Close Encounters" a few times, which I am contractually obligated to remind you he broke out with the Garcia Band, not the Dead, in November.

Still listening, but anyway, I hear this show as strong evidence in support of the compensation hypothesis. Of course I am listening *for* this, to some extent. But either way, it's there.

Let me be clear: I don't think there's a linear and negative relationship between vocals and guitar, symmetrical across all the values those two things can take. Instead, I would model this as a conditional relationship: it's only when the vocals fall below some threshhold that the compensation kicks in. When the vocals are really terrible (or, in the limit, as with 1/7/78, Garcia cannot sing), then he compensates. It's a categorical ("if ..., then ...") rather than a continuous ("as ..., then ...") kind of statement.

One last set of points, the kind of thing we ask in my day job, what's the mechanism? Here, I speculate.

1) Marginal reallocation of attention/effort: Here, the idea is that Garcia has some amount of relatively fungible energy and attention to expend. When he doesn't have to worry about singing, he can reallocate that stuff into his playing. This doesn't have to be conscious.

2) Guilt: I have discussed at some length how important the idea of being a competent professional musician was to Garcia. If this sounds obvious, it shouldn't. Some great players don't give a shit about this. But Garcia cared about being a pro, embracing if not always respective a set of professional standards. He rejected "Cabaret Economics" as a concept, even if he sometimes inflicted it on his loyal fans. But I surmise that when he couldn't sing, or when he knew that his vocals were objectively embarrassing, he would feel that he needed to make it up to his fans with better guitar work. This one sort of implies a lit more consciousness.

3) anything else?

Anyway, do check this show out. NFA playing and Garcia still sounds great. Two snaps up.


  1. Generally speaking I think there was something to say for the idea that if a leg of a Grateful Dead tour started off well, the whole tour was generally pretty good. This may have been as much an indicator as cause, but I still think it's relevant. The January-February 78 tour was an all-timer, and most people don't realize it. I have written about how the Fresno show (Jan 15) was my personal best, but there are meltdown jams from every stop.

    We can look at it another way: the Dead had the deck stacked against them as the tour opened, and Jerry and the band were determined to make it a great show anyway, and they did. Fresno was a similar situation, albeit for a different reason (a tiny, disinterested audience), and the Dead managed to kill it anyway. The Oregon show and the Dick's Picks shows (Feb 3 and Feb 5) are well-known, but there's no all-out duds anywhere on that tour.

    I think this fits your theory--Jerry was generally determined to make his performances worthwhile, and when he couldn't do it one way he did it another. The Dead, collectively, was a different beast (albeit one that included Jer), and not always able to successfully exert its will. Garcia had more impact on his own band, so his determination to make something worthwhile out of every show was more apparent.

  2. The St. Stephen on 1/11/78 Shrine features some rippin' Jerry solos...

  3. It sort of worked the other way, too- some of Garcia's best ballad singing was in 1994 and 1995, at the point where his fingers were having pronounced difficulties in doing all of the tricks that he had taught them over the years.

    As for the notion of Jerry's guitar work excelling to make up for vocal problems, 12-31-1990 supports that theory- voice shot, fairly amazing playing. Although that show really makes it because of the group effort- an octet!- giving one of the top performances of the GD's last five years as a band.

  4. Fascinating observation about the reversal of the later years. I don't know them well enough to have ever thought of that.

  5. I was at the 4/3/88 show in Hartford when Jerry had terrible laryngitis. I was familiar with the San Diego shows and was bewildered and disappointed that they didn't try the same thing here. Jerry's voice is terrible the entire show, and then they play "Black Peter." Right before the coda solo, he disgustedly swats the microphone out of its stand. That's the pop you hear at 7:02:

    From then on, Jerry really leans into his solo. From watching him as well as listening, I would characterize the playing as "angry" rather than "good." There was no doubt in my mind at the time, though, that he was trying to compensate for something, or obliterate it, with his playing.


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