Sunday, February 18, 2018

Well a bus came by and I got on - Neal Cassady, The Other One

"That's It For The Other One" was for many years a key part of The Grateful Dead experience (after 1971, only the jam/instrumental sections were performed with regularity and referred to instead as "The Other One"). Each new iteration of the song reflected stages in the band's musical development, a proving ground for the band's dynamic musical exploration and experimentation. By 1973, this role was shifting to other songs, most notably "Playin' in the Band," "Eyes of the World," and most notably in the impromptu "Drumz" and Space segments that centered dead shows from as early as 1967, but most notably from the late 70s. "The Other One" began to settle into a more predictable format, exhibiting an ebb and flow of intensity and concentration that more or less matched the creative and dynamic energies of the band. "That's it for the One" in all its formulations was the catalyst for a Dead spirit that lasted into the 90s. It was the song that made The Dead The Dead.

The original suite of tunes, "Cryptical Envelopment," "Quodlibet for Tenderfeet," "Cryptical Reprise") arrived on the scene in a standout performance at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. on November 10, 1967, though abbreviated versions of the tune appeared even earlier. These early variants and the studio cut itself open with ambiguous, though heartfelt, storytelling; indeed a powerful intro to 1968's Anthem of the Sun:

The other day they waited
their breath was cold and bated
solemnly they stated
he had to die
he had to die...
And all the children learning
from books that they were burning
every leaf was turning
to watch him die
well, you know he had to die...
The summer sun looked down on him
his mother could but frown on him
and all the others sound on him
but it doesn't seem to matter...
And when the day had ended
the rainbow colors blended
his mind remained unbended
he had to die
well, you know he had to die

Then the band delved go into a brief version of "Quodlibet for Tender Feet," which in later versions is expanded into a movement of its own. It's pure psychedelic madness. In the midst of the "Quodlibet" jam, and on the LP all you want is more, comes a first-person account of a classically mind-unbending experience:

Spanish lady come to me
she lays on me this rose
it rainbow spirals round and round
trembles and explodes
left a smoking crater of my mind
I like to blown away
the heat came round
and busted me for smilin'
on a cloudy day."
"comin', comin', comin' around
comin' around...."
"Escaping through the lily fields
when I came across an empty space
it trembled and exploded
left a bus stop in its place
the bus came by and I got on
that's when it all began
Cowboy Neal at the wheel
of the bus to never ever land"
"comin', comin', comin' around, comin' around
comin' around, comin' around....

The storyteller seamlessly hems in the dramatic energy of this first person narrative account:

and when the day was ending
with rainbow colors bendin'
his mind remained unbending
he had to die, he had to die....

The first part, "Cryptical Environment," is an engaging Jerry Garcia piece where verses are sung over a background of Pigpen's mellow organ, Jerry's complimentary guitar and drum fills that frequently mirror the rhythm of the lyrics. The piece temporarily shifts to a heavily processed vocal passage with a pretty psychedelic pop melody that serves as a bridge before returning to a final verse. (Though The Dead were more or less a communal operation, this tiny passage makes it clear that their most promising path to broader recognition would be Garcia’s voice and guitar, a truth that would emerge later on American Beauty.) 

Quickly we move to a brief second passage, "Quadibet for Tenderfeet," an instrumental passage recorded at one of their live performances. The shift is timed to the descending notes of "Cryptical Environment," with the expected final note replaced by the first drum beat of "Quadibet." The timing of that beat is a just teensy bit rushed — much more noticeable than the barely indistinguishable cut that gave George Martin and crew grief on "Strawberry Fields Forever." The shift from one reality to another is surprising at first, as we move from the manufactured stillness of the studio to the acoustically-variable dynamics of a live performance and are vaulted from a gentle tempo into a rocking bash. 

“Quadibet” fades pretty quickly and "The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get," comes barreling in. The syncopated rhythms and rhythmic shifts are particularly well-executed and the weaving of the vocals during the chorus is terribly exciting. "The Faster We Go" then fades somewhat awkwardly (it was 1968 after all, and this wasn't a Beatles' budget) into a live fragment from the "Cryptical Environment." 

Garcia, Circa 1957
The fourth part is only for true Dead Heads or LSD peakers, "We Leave the Castle," a concoction of beeps, bells, growls, squeaks, noises, creaks and chimes courtesy of Tom Constanten, a friend of Phil Lesh who joined the party to provide piano and this barrage of effects. Again, it's 1968, and all is forgiven. "That's It For The Other One" is one of those Dead songs with a little bit of everything, Cassady, jamming, Jerry's timid vocals, storytelling, musicianship and experimentation. Want more? Better find an acid test.

Epic in proportion, the song is iconic in itself and, one would think an instrumental jam punctuated by intermittent storytelling, but let’s go back to the beginning. Here, from a Dead POV, is the Neal Cassady story. Bob Weir, Grateful Dead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter said, "Interesting story with 'The Other One.' It was one of the first tunes I ever wrote. Actually, we came up with the 'map,' basically, for the song in a rehearsal somewhere, just kickin' stuff around. And then I took it and started shaping it up, and things like that. We went on a tour in the Pacific Northwest, and I was - you know, I was not done with it, I was wondering what the song was about - and then one night it sort of came to me. Basically, it's a little fantastic episode about my meeting Neal Cassady. I wrote the two verses - that's all there is to it, really, is two verses - and we played the gig that night and came home the next day, and when we came home we learned the news that Neal had died that night…" As the story goes, Neal died counting railroad ties somewhere in Mexico on February 3, 1968. Though he never published a word of his own, Cassady was the Beat Generation. He appeared as a main character in many books, from Go by John Clellon Holmes to On the Road to Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Indeed, Cassady was the personification of Ginsberg's "best minds": "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,/ starving hysterical naked." His free-flowing letter writing style inspired the young Kerouac to break his ties to the sentimental style he'd picked up from Thomas Wolfe and invent his notion of 'spontaneous prose.' Without Neal Cassady, the Beat Generation, the hippies themselves, may never have happened.

"That’s It For The Other One" is an epic piece in four parts about a man marked for death, most likely the legendary Beat figure Neal Cassady, as verified by Weir, or Owsley "Bear" Stanley, the counterculture figure who was the LSD "cook" who was the first free citizen to manufacture LSD in large quantities. (Ah, American ingenuity knows no boundaries!)