Friday, October 2, 2009

Running with the Dead: Dark Star

Running with the Dead: Dark Star
Result: Negative
Best Line: Shall we go, you and I, while we can?
Link: Cool sixties version

The Dead never played the same show twice. They liked to roulette-wheel through their catalog. Every show was a gamble. Thus, anticipating the next song was a big joy for dead heads. And no song was anticipated more than Dark Star. The song's length, exuberance, and lack of structure had become legendary (check out what this old Dead Head said). The band shelved the song in the early 70's but its disappearance caused great mourning. Dark Star would make a handful of reappearances, bursting out every five years or so, and then it returned for good in '89, a much better behaved song.

Run to Dark Star? Are you kidding? First off, the song behaves more like improvisational jazz than good old Grateful Dead (which may explain why it prompts Charlie-Parker-like fervor). It starts off with a warning riff that seems to say, watch out, or abandon all hope, or buckle in. And then it wanders straight off a cliff. For Jerry worshipers, following his guitar here can be like visiting a holy shrine. When the lyrics finally arrive, if they ever do, they sound like bad college poetry: a mix of haiku, Prufrock and sixties scifi.

So what's the deal? Why all the hub-bub over Dark Star? Hell, I don't know. In the early days, Jerry used this song as a portal. Like a City on the Edge of Forever. Or a Clifford D. Simack novel. The song would warp fans through the entire Dead landscape. Where it stopped, who knew? Eventually it grew into a monster, some versions going on for close to an hour. Which is probably why they had to cut it off. Considering the direction of the band's music. . . more steady rock-n-roll, tinged with country and blue grass, where did Dark Star fit in? Between Me and My Uncle and El Paso?

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