I’m not even sure where to begin with The Grateful Dead. So let me start with this: regardless of how I’ve ever felt about their music, I always loved how much they understood and respected their fans.
In terms of creating and fostering a community — especially their deep understanding that fans recording and sharing their shows was the best thing possible for their music — around their music, they were absolute role models, emulated by bands like R.E.M., Wilco & The Hold Steady.
That said, it took me a long time to get into their music, and while the excellent work by my Grateful Dead spirit guide, Larry, really helped, the first Grateful Dead album I really loved was mostly atypical from their later work.
Unlike pretty much everything else they recorded afterwards, their self-titled debut was full of speedy garage rockers and crazy-wild rave ups. Sure it had the mandated-by-1960s-law cover of “Morning Dew,” but it also had “Cream Puff War,” a song that would be a highlight of any 60s proto-punk compilation.
Just dig the opening sequence: a dueling guitar and organ sequence highlighted by Jerry Garcia absolutely shredding chords on the guitar with Pig Pen’s organ’s tumbling across the room from the sheer force of that guitar. And with the drums never quite finding a beat to stay with as Garcia shouts:
No, no! She can’t take your mind and leave
I know it’s just another trick she’s got up her sleeve
I can’t believe that she really wants you to die
After all it’s more than enough to pay for your lie
Then the song slows down into a waltz time — a fast waltz time, to be sure — for a couple of measures, because why not, but that’s thrown out the window as the speed kicks back in and with a strangled “ahhhhhh!” Garcia launches into a raggedy and jagged guitar solo, with each note that spews his guitar acting surprised to even exist.
The first time I heard “Cream Puff War,” I was absolutely floored. The universe is, of course, filled with bands who started off garagey and got more and more sophisticated, but that primitive period was part of their legend. In 1981, at least, this period of the Dead seemed like a secret.
I wonder if it still does. I also wonder how Deadheads feel about it. Do they despise it like Radiohead fans slag Pablo Honey in light of their later work, or do they love it, like Who fans have always treasured the rough pop songs on My Generation?
My guess is that it’s the latter, as Deadheads don’t strike me as being as nearly as snobby as, er, Radioheads are, and of course, none of the singles from The Grateful Dead did anything to break them the way that “Creep” broke Radiohead.
Anyways, if you completely associate The Dead with long guitar solos, classic acoustic folk songs, or even that unlikely hit single about growing older, here’s a completely different side of their music.
“Cream Puff War”
“Cream Puff War” performed live in 1966 (audio only)
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