Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jay and the Americans - Gaia and the Dead

If you like the website, maybe it's time to read the book! R.J. Stowell's Jay and the Americans takes what we all love - the music - and frames it around his memoirs. Order your copy today from: 


1978: I heard from Gaia. She turned 18 and became what her family once was. You had to figure; she had all the makings: a Topanga sensibility, a fondness for earth and sky, an aversion to red meat. It all led to following the Dead in a boyfriend's old Corvair. Gaia was a Deadhead poster child. They'd set up shop at concerts and collect signatures for marijuana reform. It was so intrinsically Gaia that it wasn't funny. She'd been a contrarian from square one. She said, "Gravy is so much better on French fries than ketchup, it's not worth talking about." It was one of the first quotations I collected. It was Gaia to a T. She always had a cause. When we were closest, it was gravy.

She'd send propaganda and pictures, and I lived a hippie lifestyle vicariously through her posts. We were in a really good space. We recognized that people's lives were squiggly lines with parallel junctures, however brief. I knew long ago that Laura and I would be close forever. Now I could say that was true of Gaia as well. I wasn't a math person, but I appreciated constants so much more than variables. She said we should meet them. She wasn't asking, she was telling. Constants can do that. Grateful Dead. San Berdoo. Swing Auditorium. I didn't want to ask at first, but it seemed the perfect opportunity to prove my dedication to Paige. She was "fine" with it, she said, "bring her along," and we drove out Route 66 through Cucamonga.
The Inland Empire was oranges and despair. Immigrants came and left again. Mormons didn't give it a chance. Missionaries came and failed, but stayed anyway. The railroads failed, the steel mills failed, but with each new wave a few more remained. We drove in and out of beautiful orange groves and abandoned industry. Gaia and her boyfriend were set up at a card table in front of the auditorium, a beautiful mission-style adobe building painted yellow. It wasn’t a great accomplishment to get Deadheads to sign a marijuana reform petition, but Gaia did it with fervor and dedication. Didn't hurt she looked cute as a button in a sari-styled mini dress and leather zories. She had a rose tattoo above her ankle and every guy swooned over the look. Somehow she'd woo the girls as well. "Sign here, please."


Paige punched me in the arm. "I knew she'd be cute." I didn’t respond. "Are you in love with her?" I didn't know how to reply. If I denied it I'd be lying. I was in love with her – for the moment, just for the day; parallel lines and all. "It's all right," she said. They played "Terrapin Station" and "Sugar Mag" and "Ripple," and I had to go to the bathroom. They played "Box of Rain."

From a smoke filled corridor she came. "Hi." "Hi." "And it’s just a box of rain, I don’t know who put it there." "You been all right?" "You?" "Believe it if you need it, or leave it if you dare." "He seems nice." "So does she." "But it’s just a box of rain, or a ribbon for your hair." "Your mom and dad all right?" "They don’t approve. They love me anyway." "Some things don’t change." "Such a long, long time to be gone." So much left unsaid. Silently: "Maybe someday?" Silently: "Someday, maybe," then aloud, "Guess we ought to get back." "And a short time to be there." 

It was a chilly desert night of a million stars. At the car I held Paige in my arms. I can't explain her smile. A little askew. An imperceptible shake of the head. The way home was banter, the way it is between friends. On a corner by the Santa Fe train terminal, another beautiful old mission-style building, there was a man standing beneath a streetlamp. She said, "The man with the gabardine suit is a spy." 

I said, "Be careful, his bowtie is really a camera." It was funny. It was a good night. We still had a buzz on. Paige had come a long way from "Billy Don’t Be a Hero" to Simon and Garfunkel, but if I had to put a mark on it, a place in which it all began to waiver and flux, when our lines began to diverge, this was it. It was as if I had made her, shaped her, turned her into what I wanted her to be, and now that she was what she was, she didn't need me anymore. That imperceptible shake of her head said it all. I said, "I’m sorry." 

She smiled. "For what?" 

"For everything." We drove a long way in silence, then she slipped in an 8-track. It was the Grateful Dead. American Beauty, or maybe it was American Reality.

By 1977, 40 years ago, the Grateful Dead were doing what few other bands had attempted: running their own record label and answering to no one but themselves. The upside to the venture was, of course, the high level of personal and artistic freedom it allowed. The downside were the headaches that came with running a label day to day and promoting the "product." Three albums were released on Grateful Dead Records, all of which have moments of brilliance: Wake of the Flood, From the Mars Hotel, and Blues for Allah. There lay the rub: how was a band known to stand for everything anti-Establishment supposed to enter the material world of record sale promotion and survive? This may account for why the three GDR albums are less known to the average listener. They simply weren't promoted as well as they may have been on Warner Bros. or Arista. 


From the Mars Hotel is a nearly seamless blend of songs that demonstrates that the Dead were still a potent creative force throughout the mid-70s. The satirical "U.S. Blues" manages to showcase the band's patented psychedelic blues boogie while featuring lyrics that can easily stand next to Stevie Wonder's "You Ain't Done Nothin'" for expressing the outrage many felt over the still-unfolding Watergate scandal. "Pride of Cucamonga" (regrettably never played live) is a nod of sorts to the sounds of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. "China Doll" is the kind of ballad only the Dead could do: a lament over a murder set to a beautiful, lilting accompaniment, while"Unbroken Chain" is the album's musical and psychedelic center. This is the Dead at their best, making what Gram Parsons called "Cosmic American Music" that takes touches of any number of genres and creates something new. The Grateful Dead were much more endeared by their fan base and their endless live jam sessions than for their studio albums, but each of the classic Dead Albums (Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, Mars Hotel) brought the band to life for the merely casual Deadhead. These are the albums you must own.

A bit of bear trivia: There are a myriad of stories with regard the dancing bears (who, by the way, are actually marching and not dancing), but the story is documented and quite simple. The bear design comes from Bob Thomas' cover art. The bear itself was Thomas' psychedelic interpretation of a generic bear often used in post-war graphic design, in particular the Travelodge Bear and the Bear Alignment Services mascot. Thomas had a printer's 36 pt. lead type "slug" and transformed the slug into the famous graphic.