The Grateful Dead play Hard to Handle

Classic jams, classic jams… from ten different angles…

Remember those musical hits that go straight for the sacral iliac? Where there’s no question, just straight musical interface? You put it on, you get up and shimmy about ― because it’s right and necessary? That good old unalloyed musical power, the hair standing on your arms, that cool cerebral chill. Doesn’t happen very often, does it? 

I had it recently with Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle”; his lusty strut of manly ability. Dig those tight Stax horns, dig the diesel-powered rhythm section. Listen to Otis laying it on you and putting down the drugstore lovin; listen to his knack for contained pop ditties. He’s gotta have it.

Once it come along a dime by the dozen
That ain’t nothin’ but drug store lovin’
Pretty little thing, let me light your candle
Cause mama I’m sure hard to handle, now, yes around.

But I had this sensation even stronger when I heard the Grateful Dead do it in 1971. No, I wasn’t there ― I heard it on a Phil Lesh compilation. But I got up and strutted, I did funny moves with my arms and sock-shimmied along. Man ― this track doesn’t just rock, it dances! Let no-one forget the Dead began by playing in dance halls ― that they were, among so many other things, a great dance band. Forget the acid freakers ― if there’s no boogie in the music you wouldn’t be swirling yer arms and hair anyway.

But ― the track. Pigpen does his strutting, seedy best vocal. On the source recording I’m drawing from (live audience recording, Hollywood Palladium August 6, 1971, subtitled ‘(yes I ram)’ by Phil on Fallout From the Philzone), he sounds unusually young and lad-about-townish (usually he sounds more blues-seasoned than his years; Pig only had a few years left in him at this point). Looking at some YouTube videos from this era, I noticed how good he was as leery/seedy rock performer. Maybe not the best voice but he certainly had the swampy presence of old-school rock power.

Guitarists Jerry and Bobby construct an amazingly upbeat and groove-inspired line over Phil’s fat and meandering bass oomph (fattened either by mastering or lucky microphone placement). I still can’t hold a candle to Phil ― his entire approach to basslines sets me adrift, scratching my head, looking for clues. Bill Kreutzmann does a nicely tight/loose drum boogie halfway between swing and propellant ― and you just know from the first opening breaks this is gonna be a hella performance. The band stretches out; and Pigpen does his strut.

Mind ― this is an audience recording ― so every whoop and scream near the mic is captured. Near the end the Deadheads are whooping something specific onstage ― which Phil thinks might’ve been a weird Pig dance. But the track sounds so involved ― band and audience ― all that old reactive dynamism ― of a jam band in top form visited by the magic on an inspired night ― and their loving audience along for every note. And the solo jams cap everything off ― the cerebral buzz to the limbic boogie, the head rush on shimmying feet. It’s such a ‘there’ moment; a dance of identification or something, purely human and organic. The Dead and Deadheads in communion.

But, let’s back it up a bit. This is an essential Dead performance in the way they take a rigid pop song and just open it up for miles and miles of improvised groove. The first solo, technically, is Pig’s, scatting up the strut. Then Bobby takes a choppy rhythm excursion that noodles and dribbles a bit, but which sets up a Jerry solo to die for. If I had to convince someone new to electric guitar what it is that makes Jerry such an amazing and atypical player, I’d point him/her to this track, this solo. Actually, if I needed a single no-argument instance of live Dead power in action ― this is the one. If you don’t feel this Jerry solo, the dynamics, the groove, then you’ll never get why the Dead are the band to become if you’re considering improvised rock music.

Jerry’s solo has everything in place: amazing depth of tone and touch, exploration and build-up, tongue-in-groove climax and a precise return to the One with the band for the last chorus. Now, a live band is only as good as its changes (first), and its interplay (second) ― and the Dead’s return to the One on this track has all the cosmic precision of Indian music. It’s probably my favourite Jerry/Dead moment.

Phil Lesh, in the meantime, it just soloing all the time. Yet he never walks too far from the group interplay, the group mind. He reins in his improv before the climax because he knows the band are all coming back.

Strong instrumentalists working in the service of the group mind, that’s the Grateful Dead, and they do it with more panache than a band-of-soloists like The Who. Just compare Live at Leeds, which sounds like four angry individuals cutting for individuation and yet somehow, nearly by chance, also happening to make coherent songs. The Dead let the music breathe and stretch in an organic sense; there’s a mutuality in service of the whole which encompasses the audience and which to my ear sounds gentler, more intuitive.

The intent at work in the Dead’s group improvisation is never virtuosity or proggish chops, but just group groove and good time swing. Theirs is the kind of respect you’ll also meet in jazz ― it’s soloing to extend the dance vibe ― just like in original jazz.  And it’s an intent which (let’s not forget) pretty much defined the modern concept of the ‘jam band’.

{OK, I’d like to take some time for a tangent. My best experiences with music (art, and literature also) have been typified by a sense of expanding time. Of time dilating or slowing down and somehow changing my sense of immersion in it. Like when you lose track of it passing. I can stand for hours transfixed by a Vermeer or a masterwork like Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride ― there’s something about its superficial-as-depth craft that draws me into a tempered perception of humanity-in-a-gesture. It’s a painting that locks in time, fixing the human and vital in the raging impermanence of the fleeting, and causing us to feel and consider (our) time, just as it tickles the eye with its trickery. Or take Jacques Rivette’s films, which seriously dispense with time altogether. Indian music tampering with the old clock-sense. Or Miles Davis in the late long night, when time runs its slowest. They draw you in, these works, they sharpen the focus and calm the attention. The jetsam of thought and perception drift away for a moment.

My #2 argument for the no-argument superiority of “Hard to Handle” as played by the Grateful Dead: every time I hear Jerry’s solo, it seems longer, differently timed. Sometimes it shoots by, and other times I’m hanging on to every note. Sometimes I turn it up and try the sound from a different room. Sometimes I lose track of the bass and stick my head in the woofer. But dang it, every time the (perceived) length of Jerry’s solo is different. Sometimes it feels like a full 20 minutes. Sometimes I shimmy so funky I gotta replay before the end. And there was one time I was regaling the track in commentary-mode to an unsuspecting car passenger while waiting for a traffic light that just never seemed to change. It does things to you, if you hear it.

If music can get you high and dickie with your sense of time, is this not everything, the best it can be? For me at least, I think any art which entrances or alters your thought and perception, which takes you up and immerses you in its duration, that art is a superior work. Or such an effect as the signature of something better than pedestrian, familiar and rote works.

{Aside ― it’s also worth making a quick note about the virtue of the Internet ― like it was made for and by Deadheads ― in that thousands of Dead gigs are freely available for download. The entire August 6, 1971 concert is available from The show-stopping “Turn on Your Lovelight” from this date is well worth the bandwidth alone. Don’t waste time, go there now and download it. The whole show. Do not hesitate; it’s free, and for a reason. This gig is what it means when the Dead had a really ‘on’ night. It must be shared.

The virtue of this ― is that I now have two different audience recordings of the same gig, the same tracks. One has most likely been through a better mastering process (the Phil version), but the other is just about as ‘there’ as you could get. The Archive version is clearer on Pig’s vocal, and not as boomy on the bass and just a fraction more subdued (balance-wise, and so impact-wise) on Jerry’s solo. When I find and download a third, different taper’s recording of the show, no doubt from some different-sounding part of the venue, I’ll be able to fully triangulate the secret* of this band’s live appeal in true tri-fi sound. Now that will be a moment in time.

And then, begin to compare notes with the dozens of other “Hard to Handles” extant in the catalogue, to listen and absorb every angle of aural perspective and variation. Compare different vibes and reaction, the quality of recording. And then, get obsessed with the thousand subtle, organic and spacious variations in some other Dead track. This is the ultimate in ‘music for the fans’ ― and it seems designed that way. The Dead were content-sharing pioneers.}}

* The secret, if any, to my attuned ears at least, and this does not derive from any woolly, drug-induced thinking or abstraction about deep and psychedelic meaningfuls, is that deep inside the Dead there’s an awesome good-time band just waiting to pop at any inspired moment. And that they’re worth following closely and attentively just to hear out for those moments, spread over so many gigs. And that a band with such phenomenal group mind also had to wait occasionally for group inspiration, but which takes them so much higher when it does.  And which fans can keep.

This essay is also available in the collection Song Logic.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor. Writer. Secret bass player.

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