Click here for the PMO frontpages! Click here for the PMO frontpages!

The Musical Imagination of Phil Lesh: The Grateful Dead's Difference Engine 

Brent Wood

Lecturer in Departement of English and Drama
University of Toronto at Mississauga


While the significance of the Grateful Dead as an American cultural phenomenon has been explored in great detail, the very musical textures and unusual compositions at the heart of it, in large part the product of the musical imagination of bassist Phil Lesh, have rarely been the focus of analysis, even among the band’s devoted audience. Lesh’s desire for difference propelled the group’s overtly experimental soundscapes, and also manifested itself in an unconventional approach to harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment which, paradoxically, produced rhythmic complexity by avoiding repetition. It also resulted in idiosyncratic compositions involving irregular rhythmic patterns, asymmetrical forms, non-repeating phrases and unexpected chord and key changes, usually while remaining strangely within the mode of popular song. This essay provides a detailed analysis of Lesh’s approach to accompaniment, his contributions to group compositions, and his own solo compositions, showing how the ever-shifting foundation for the group’s complex improvisations motivated complex polyphonic textures, often beyond the abilities of listeners to fully comprehend, even in the context of ostensibly standard popular forms.

Since the death of lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia in 1995, the academy has begun to acknowledge the Grateful Dead’s place as the centre of an important cultural phenomenon (Weiner 1999; Adams and Sardiello 2000; Merriwether 2007; Tuedio and Spector 2010). In spite of both the obsessive nature of Dead Heads and the unprecedented quantity of easily–accessed documents of the band’s live performances, however, its formidable musical catalogue has been subjected to surprisingly little musicological analysis.[1] Garcia himself has been the primary focus of most discussions of the group’s unique musical achievements, while the musical imagination of bassist Phil Lesh remains its secret ingredient, a “difference engine” powering variation from the inside. Of all Garcia’s musical gestures, the invitation of intellectual trumpeter and would-be avant-garde composer Lesh to become the bassist in an ensemble performing electrified dance music from African-American and European-American folk traditions would prove to be of the greatest historical significance.

The primary musical axis of bass and lead guitar melodies was an almost entirely improvised conversation begun anew at the first bar of each concert for the band’s entire thirty-year career. As Garcia once remarked, Lesh “plays the bass as though he invented the instrument and nobody ever played it before him” (Jackson 2000: 261). In his autobiography Searching for the Sound (2005), Lesh acknowledges his primary influences to be European art music, experimental American orchestral composers such as Charles Ives, and the harmonic, melodic and timbral experimentation of improvised jazz. Tempering this jazz sensibility was the fact that Lesh had never played the blues to any substantial degree. Lesh’s pragmatic response to the improvised polyphony of a jugband turned electric in the midst of psychedelic exploration, driven by his desire for the ever-changing and by his uncanny ability to hear multiplicities of voices, became the key to creating a unique kind of dance music.

Elsewhere I have demonstrated that the bassist’s idiosyncratic approach to performing popular dance music was integral to both the band’s anarchist ethos and its continually-evolving polyphonic textures and improvised arrangements (“The Eccentric Revolutions of Phil Lesh,” 2010). Here I will attempt to clarify the paradoxical way in which Lesh’s avoidance of repetition enabled unusual and powerful rhythmic dynamics in the band’s performances, show how his interest in “polymusic” led the group’s forays into experimental soundscapes and compositions, and explain how his desire for difference within standard popular music forms helped give the Grateful Dead’s original compositions in the folk, bluegrass, country, blues and rock genres their unique flavour.[2]

Rhythm without repetition?

As a student, Lesh once conducted a Luciano Berio piece entitled “Differences.” Later, his bass work with the Grateful Dead would exemplify the modernist impulse to “make it new” taken to its unavoidable limit, resulting in post-modernist, de-centered, continuously varying musical structures based on difference that nonetheless managed to act as a kind of center for an ever-growing peripatetic following. James Tuedio’s discussion of the Grateful Dead’s music in terms of deterritorialized refrains, nomadic gestures, and becomings-other, ideas popularized by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s conversation in A Thousand Plateaus (1987 [1980]), confirms the usefulness of these ways of conceiving its ever-changing properties (Tuedio 2010). Garcia’s interest in aleatory music, the embrace of chaos in the seeking of new kinds of musical order, is highlighted by Tuedio’s essay. But it was Lesh’s desire for essential plurality in musical composition and his refusal of repetition in favor of difference in every facet of his musical contributions that most powerfully drove the group’s paralogical experimentation with the dissolution and re-crystallization of musical form and arrangement.

The Grateful Dead first gained fame for their emphasis on extended collective improvisation which, not unlike the work of their fellow experimentalists in the world of jazz, pushed the limits of how far a musician could play “outside” while still ostensibly remaining within the compositional confines of popular song. “Dark Star,” a two-verse meditation based on a simple mixolydian riff and two-chord progression typical of Garcia’s style, became their most famous such piece, often stretching out for more than twenty minutes, at some points disposing of the original rhythmic, harmonic and melodic patterns altogether.[3] Several other compositions were subjected to this same treatment, in which bridges and codas could be extended, varied and distorted beyond recognition before morphing back into themselves – or into another song entirely. “(That’s It For) The Other One,” a 6/8 composition by rhythm guitarist Bob Weir but typically dominated by Lesh’s relentlessly varying, driving bass, was often used in this way, and usually began and concluded via segue to or from other pieces (including, in the early days, “Dark Star”).[4] “Becoming-other” in the Grateful Dead’s music is manifest not only in the transformations of one composition into another, but also in the ever-changing multiplicity of musical stylings within a single song, with the aim to “get inside” one another’s minds common to audience and musicians alike. The Grateful Dead’s music at any given point was always becoming other-than-it-had-been and other-than-we-expected-it-to-be, its trajectory lending a flexible consistency by a tension between desires for what Deleuze and Guattari call “molarity” (discrete songs and individuals) and “supermolecularity” (diffuse, plural, chaotic yet organized, ever-evolving motion of music and dance).

In folk, blues, and dance music of all kinds, the role of the bass guitar is typically to play simple repeated patterns at a steady pace, reflecting and motivating the cyclical rhythms of dancing and singing. The subtle rhythmic variations of the bass against a steady drumbeat (or vice versa) become powerful in the context of extended and anticipated repetition, as the tension between different cycles creates a “rhythmic harmony” between implied patterns. Phil Lesh’s bass parts represent the very antithesis of this standard. Significant degrees of repetition are present only with respect to the underlying harmonic-rhythmic core of the compositions, rarely within or across his own phrases. By his own admission Lesh finds it impossible to play exact repetitions of a bass line. Because he never repeats a passage exactly, the sense of “homecoming” when any given familiar musical passage returns is always tempered. The listener is returning, but also moving ahead into new and alternate versions of the familiar.

Lesh’s playing, in a general sense, relies on long, non-repeating phrases composed of series of brief melodic figures which swing around the main harmonic downbeats, forming obtuse counter melodies to the implied central melody. At times the bass melody gives the impression that it knows in advance the harmonic changes to come and is playing through them irreverently while offering comment on the guitarists’ more conventional interpretations of the same progression. Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir observed that Lesh “can hear you thinking and make sure he’s not supplying what you’re expecting” (Jackson 260), while Garcia noted that “the required stuff is about one percent of what he plays” (261). Seldom does Lesh articulate a chord change with a root-note punch on time, or support a specific guitar riff rhythmically.[5] Most significantly, Lesh’s unpredictable phrasing pushes all the band members to “dance around” their expected parts, creating a kind of generative absence at the center of the band’s arrangements.

Due to their oblique relationship to the perceived main melody and harmonic progression, and also to the delicacy and intricacy with which the melodic and harmonic variations are approached, Lesh’s counter-melodies sometimes sound like voices one might expect to hear as internal to a polyphonic texture rather than at its foundation. Busy and bubbly, seldom employing long rests or sustains longer than an eighth note, Lesh’s lines comprise many off-beat articulations, often making unusual choices of which off-beats to accent. Sudden shifts in register occur frequently, the bass sometimes intruding into the guitarist’s spheres for prolonged periods, or at moments one would least expect, creating tight, often dissonant, harmonic and rhythmic interplay with the other instruments in the middle register. While high-register soloing on the bass is hardly uncommon in jazz and funk music, it is an oddity in the folk-rock style with the entire band continuing their parts.[6]

Although the orbits Lesh implies in his approach to expected cyclical regularity are eccentric, they remain harmonious in unusual ways. And although unable to generate the same kinds of rhythmic dynamics as conventional bass parts, they nonetheless manage to create an unexpectedly high degree of rhythmic interest by producing continuous variation in the music’s rhythmic cycles from the smallest to the largest. The implied minimal divisions of the music’s pulse seem to shift continuously, and with them the optimal dancing subdivisions. Because the bass part is experimenting with melodies and implied harmonies which in conjunction with the rest of the band members’ choices may not result in a desirable effect, it is important that it keep moving and avoid creating a sense of rest on any regular pulse or pitch beyond the absolute minimum required. In this, Lesh’s sense of harmonic freedom motivates a rhythmic freedom. Including hardly any extended repeated articulations of a single pitch in a rhythmic figure, his playing maintains over longer passages a self-consistency which ebbs and flows in proportion to the demand to act as a unifying factor for the music as a whole.[7]

That the Grateful Dead were one of the most successful bands of their era in motivating huge audiences to free-form dance in spite of unusual time-signatures, the frequent use of slow tempos, and the absence of predictable bass parts is a phenomenon whose unique qualities can hardly be overstated. While not a single member of the band played in a conventional dance music style, their live performances were entirely focused around dancing and rarely failed to stimulate the vast majority of large audiences in this respect, often to ecstatic heights and over marathon durations.
[8] Paradoxically, it was Lesh’s unwillingness and/or inability to play a basic rhythmic and harmonic foundation to their songs that allowed the Grateful Dead to evolve into one of American’s most successful and most rhythmically complex dance bands. Lacking the “bottom line,” the listener’s musical and physical awareness is forced “out” and “up” into the polyphonic interplay “above” where the bass is expected to be, where it sometimes encounters Lesh himself, playing the bass, but not the bass part unconsciously anticipated.

“Help on the Way”: Lesh’s approach to funk music

Recordings of the Garcia-Hunter composition “Help on the Way” provide a worthwhile study of the bassist’s idiosyncratic approach, demonstrating the full range of repetitive density and the different ways Lesh uses rhythmic contrast and complementarity to maximize the possibilities of a simple composition. Originally recorded for the album Blues For Allah (1975), “Help on the Way” is mid-tempo piece comprised of a relatively simple repeating strophe in standard time based around F-minor, C-minor, and Bb-major, colored with sevenths, ninths and thirteenths, framed by and including a number of non-improvised recognizable lead guitar riffs by Garcia. It opens a suite of three pieces played without interruption, including the complex instrumental “Slipknot!” and the three-chord dance/folk-song “Franklin’s Tower.” The suite itself opens the album, and was usually used to open concert sets as well. An interpretation of “Help on the Way” by the quartet Jazz is Dead (on Blue Light Rain, 1998; title drawn from Lesh’s composition “Unbroken Chain, discussed below), with a bass part by veteran jazz-rock bassist Alphonso Johnson much more conventional in its rhythmic approach, provides a ready comparison that highlights Lesh’s peculiarities and their effects.

The song’s signature opening lead guitar motif approximates a stacked horn figure acting as a “fanfare” in a jazzy rhythm-and-blues mode. An F-minor triad with a suspended 2nd added is articulated three times – a sixteenth-note on the opening downbeat, followed immediately by a dotted eighth, then an eighth-rest, and finally a sustained articulation on the seventh sixteenth-note beat of the opening measure. The lead guitar then rests for a measure before repeating the figure again. This occurs a total of four times (twice in the original studio recording). The obvious role for the bass in this context would be to double the guitar part rhythmically, an approach taken by Johnson in the instrumental version of the song on Blue Light Rain. Instead, Lesh created a responsive part for the studio recording which he varied anew for each of the Grateful Dead’s roughly one hundred live performances of the piece while maintaining essentially the same function. Lesh begins his phrase immediately following the first two articulations of the guitar chord with a rhythmic echo that sounds as if he is continuing Garcia’s sentence for him, but not in the direction the guitarist might have intended. The bass phrase continues through the opening two measures using short note values (often the same rhythmic motif: a sixteenth-note followed by eighth or dotted-eighth), seeming to ignore altogether the way the third articulation of the guitar chord completes the opening rhythmic figure. As the guitar does complete the figure, Lesh offers an alternative rhythmic pattern in stark contrast to the R&B-style fanfare, implying a quite different rhythmic conception of the opening two-bar unit. The bass part taken on its own seems to be oriented around the second beat of each measure, creating a peculiar rhythmic tension with the guitar part oriented around the downbeat. This deliberate, improvised counter-rhythmic phrase puts the standard, funky three-over-two rhythmic pattern implied by the guitar in an utterly different setting. Each time the guitar repeats its lick, the overall rhythmic configuration of the arrangement changes, as the bass prompts the other musicians to vary their parts accordingly in addition to casting the repeating aspects in a different rhythmic relationships.

Example 1:

This easily recognizable introduction provides a necessarily simplistic example of the rhythmic complexity built up along these same lines in all the Grateful Dead’s performances, a complexity far in excess of that achieved by any other band working in a rock music mode, and one which defies detailed notation. As a result of this complexity, interpretations of the Grateful Dead’s genre-specific compositions by other artists inevitably simplify the music rather than taking it further.[9] Johnson, for example, assumes a standard funk-rock approach throughout Blue Light Rain, causing Jazz is Dead’s versions of the songs to sound less “jazzy” than the Grateful Dead’s original performances, despite virtuoso playing by all the group’s members, including highly respected jazz-rock drummer Billy Cobham.

In contrast to the offbeat expectation established by the song’s introduction, Lesh’s attention to the downbeat is unusually high during its verses. He would maintain a relatively consistent part throughout the years of performing the piece, including a distinctive descending run of eighth-notes responding to each short vocal phrase of the third line of each verse. Following the verses, the piece reprises the introduction, and then there is a transition to the next composition in the suite (“Slipknot!”) composed of a series of complicated semi-arpeggiated sixteenth-note riffs on the guitar. Lesh improvises against these riffs while they last, and when “Slipknot!” begins he makes a rare gesture of simplicity, landing squarely on the downbeat and sustaining the note. The rhythmic shift here, as he plays a most basic part, is unexpectedly startling.

Johnson, on his way through the same piece, takes an approach in many ways opposed to that of Lesh, and although Johnson’s playing is technically excellent and much more deeply “in the pocket” than his counterpart’s, the ensemble’s performance as a whole is less rhythmically interesting. The bass’s doubling of the opening guitar fanfare eliminates the spooky quality achieved in the Grateful Dead’s versions, exposes the guitar part’s clichéd rhythmic dimension, and makes the four iterations seem redundant. Johnson’s foregoing of Lesh’s characteristic descending lick during the third line of each verse causes the piece to lose its compositional integrity in mid-stream as the guitar and keyboards stray from the central motives. The doubling the transition riffs makes their repetition predictable, and the sense of drama at their conclusion and the transition into “Slipknot!” is lost as Johnson takes the opportunity to fill space rather than lay back.

“Polymusic” and Anthem of the Sun

The musical “magic” the Grateful Dead were able to create regularly in live performance resulted from the band’s emphasis on true polyphony, a texture heard only rarely in contemporary popular music. Seldom do rhythm guitar, keyboard or drum parts vary at the same time as the bass and lead guitar; even less frequently are there two kit drummers interacting at the same time; and still more infrequently are all six parts being improvised. While listeners with well-developed ears will be able to hear three parts simultaneously, few will fully appreciate four-part polyphony in an arranged piece of music, let alone six-part polyphony in an improvised piece.

Lesh’s polyphonic musical imagination was highly developed prior to his involvement with the Grateful Dead. He recalls composing a piece called “Foci” for “four orchestras with the audience in the middle” (Gans 1991, 105) shortly before joining the band, pursuant to a session studying composition with Luciano Berio (in a class with postmodernist composer Steve Reich). Lesh also recalls starting a composition meant to be in four keys at once. “I was into polymusic,” he reported. “Polyphony traditionally means many voices; but what I was into was many musics” (105).

After joining the band, playing many Acid Tests,[10] and listening to early-twentieth century experiments by Ives involving multiple bands playing different tunes across one another, Lesh desired to hear multiple “Grateful Deads.”[11] This desire drove his attempts to mix together multiple recordings of live performances of the same piece of music on the band’s second album Anthem of the Sun (1968). He described this effect as the “thousand-petalled lotus,” an audio reproduction of the simultaneous opening up of several possible musical realities from a single instant in time, challenging our sense of a singular reality and creating an impression similar to that sometimes perceived under the influence of psychedelics (Lesh 2005, 128). After venturing into several potential realities, the mixer focuses on one, and the others fade away. This strange effect can be heard as multiple live versions of  “(That’s It For) The Other One” evolve out of the studio portions of the recording immediately following the conclusion of Garcia’s vocals for the “Cryptical Envelopment” portions of the piece. As Lesh puts it,

suddenly we can see all the possibilities at once, and hear time from the standpoint of eternity, as if the music had broken through into a higher dimension of awareness. This lasts just long enough to engender a feeling of disorientation; it’s then faded back down, allowing the core performance to emerge, as if this one, this particular musical universe, had evolved inevitably out of the probabilities generated by the many . . . .  (128).

Group improvisation while under the influence of psychedelics led to an awareness of the way the band could consciously, albeit not in a controlling fashion, actualize realities from the virtual world of possibilities which exists at every microsecond. As Lesh comments in Searching for the Sound, “a sure way to tell if you’re listening to collective improvisation is if the music is so jaw-droppingly intricate and flexible that no single mind could think it all up in such detail” (114).

Lesh’s own compositions for the band reveal much about his sense of what music can or should be. His musical sensibility is front and center on the first side of Anthem of the Sun, one of the band’s most ambitious and interesting studio productions, and the last Grateful Dead LP-side not to feature the contributions of lyricist Robert Hunter in any way. Lesh spearheaded the delicate instrumental soundscape which gradually replaces the jam out of “(That’s It For) The Other One” and eventually fades into “New Potato Caboose,” a collaborative composition by Lesh and long-time friend and poet Bobby Petersen, sung here by rhythm guitarist Weir. Also obvious is the influence of avant-garde keyboardist Tom Constanten, who was with the band during this period, as prepared piano and a wide variety of electronically manipulated sounds coalesce and finally explode and decay, clearing the way for the opening figure of “New Potato Caboose,” played on celesta. This soundscape presents itself as having been composed in a kind of earnest, in contrast to the wildly goofy psychedelic collage “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly” on Bathing at Baxter’s (1967), recorded several months prior by fellow San Francisco psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane. And yet it retains a sense of wit and humour, implying a musical imagination attuned to both the finest overtone patterns and the loudest intrusions of noise, pre-figuring the band’s “Space” jams of the late 1970s and beyond. Here the modernist high-art musique concrète of Edgar Varèse has been put into a pop-art context which, unlike the analogous work of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on Absolutely Free (1967), also of the same vintage, is neither ironic nor comic.

The lyrical structure of “New Potato Caboose,” composed by Petersen, is that of a modernist exercise in free verse. Images and image-metaphors dominate the brief and economical piece which demonstrates a typically modernist “organic” form, unique to itself, without recourse to a predictable pattern. Instead of a repeating stanzaic form or regular meter there is ample assonance and consonance, as established by the repetition of liquid consonant sounds “l” and “r” in the first two lines: “Last leaf fallen / bare earth where green was born.” There is also a single rhyming phoneme which all the rhymes echo – “stone,” “known,” “crone,” “alone,” “own,” and “sown.” A kind of refrain, “all graceful instruments are known,” concludes the second and fourth stanzas, but Lesh subverts this musically, giving a variant vocal arrangement to the second iteration.

This short, unusual and beautiful piece, performed on stage by the band for only a brief period, showcases some of Lesh’s most important musical aesthetics: irregular-length phrases, non-repeating passages, subverted harmonic expectations, circuitous routes between tonic and dominant, and the compacting of a large number of musical ideas into a single composition by exploring several possible paths from a given starting point over a series of iterations. Those various “possible musical universes” simultaneously featured in the mixing of the “The Other One” earlier in the suite are here displayed as successive alternate compositional pathways.

The opening musical passage of the piece, on a D-major chord, is followed by a quick descending melodic figure around the major chords of F, G and C, the upper voice played by a celesta. The passage is then repeated, but with a detour: before the F / G / C figure arrives, the music takes the second stanza into a dramatic C#-minor motif for ten beats before moving to the expected dominant chord, A-major. The “refrain” then begins with a half-tone slide up to Bb-major, shifting to its relative minor (G-minor), before resolving to the D tonal center and repeating the F / G / C figure. The third stanza begins again with the opening melody in D major, this time moving to the A-major triad without the C#-minor intervention, which never occurs again in the song. However, just as the expected transition to the Bb “refrain” is about to occur, set up by the rhyming “you’re all alone,” the music returns to the opening D major melody again. The final time through the music moves not to A but to its dominant, E7, before returning to D and then concluding with a plagal (IV-I) cadence.

Lesh’s influence as co-composer

In collaboration with other band members, Lesh’s desire for difference within familiar, repetitive folk, blues, and rock patterns lent a unique flavor to the Grateful Dead’s early original repertoire. A case in point is “Alligator,” featured on side two of Anthem of the Sun. Working with Hunter and vocalist-keyboardist Ron McKernan (“Pigpen”) on a highly symmetrical blues-based dance-piece, Lesh creates a subtle sense of harmonic difference as the song moves from verse to verse. The first verse is based on a repetition of the song’s introduction: a measure of C alternates with a measure in which F (IV chord in the key of C) moves to A-minor (the relative minor). The second verse reverses this motion: F now moves to C in the same repeating rhythmic pattern. The third verse modulates this motion up a major third, so that A-major now moves to E-major. The transitions between the verses are equally unusual. Both use A-major, G-major and D-minor under identical lyrics, but in two different progressions: at the end of the first transition, D-minor leads to F, its relative major; in the second it leads to A, its dominant.

“Doin’ that Rag” (from Aoxomoxoa, 1968)[12] also betrays Lesh’s influence in a modulation up a major third, this time from the key of G major to B major. This occurs during the second chorus at an important point in the melody, whereas modulations generally occur between otherwise identical iterations of a given strophe. Lesh has initiated its placement at a harmonic crux where an Eb-major chord (a bluesy variation appended to the preceding C-major chord in the key of G) transits via a tri-tone movement to the secondary dominant, A-major, which then resolves via D-major to G-major. Instead of completing this same pattern the second time through, the Eb-major chord moves down one whole step (rather than a tri-tone), to C#-major. The song continues as before, but now in the key of B major. This modulation creates a sense of increased tension, though the listener can barely tell why this should be the case because of the way it is buried in an unusual chromatic movement. Another interesting facet of the song, possibly attributable to Lesh, is that although the chorus is played twice in succession each time through, the second iteration in each case occurs at double the tempo.

One of Lesh’s techniques for injecting difference into the band’s music was to insert measures of three beats into the usual four-beat patterns.[13] “The Eleven,” one of Lesh’s own compositions, was originally a waltz-time three-chord rock piece which then had its main pattern’s final measure shortened by a beat, reducing the total number of beats from twelve to eleven. One can easily hear the progression of “The Eleven” from Live Dead (1970) as a 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2 pattern in which the basic motif from the first three measures is sped up and crammed into two beats for the final measure. Characteristically, Lesh reportedly wanted to take the possibilities of rhythmic variation into new levels of complexity, imagining the band split into two halves playing different-length patterns against one another – an idea he seems to have pursued later with “Unbroken Chain.”

Lesh’s influence could not be kept at bay even when the band began to move away from overt experimentalism to focus on more conventional folk-pop-rock styles. “Saint Stephen,” an unusual rock number originally recorded on Aoxomoxoa which became a fan favorite and also appeared on Live Dead as the precursor to “The Eleven,” includes an introductory harmonic progression and bridge composed by Lesh. His comments on the beauty of the change in tempo necessitated by his bridge reflect the tension between Garcia’s pragmatism and Lesh’s desire for difference:

Jerry was never happy, though, with the fact that the bridge had to be played and sung in a slower tempo than the rest of the song: He felt it lost momentum, and that’s probably true. Be that as it may, that’s the aspect of the song that I liked best; we had to slow it down for the bridge, and then accelerate it back to the original tempo for the next verse. If done well, it could be very exciting. (Lesh 137)

The characteristic herky-jerky opening rock riff of “Saint Stephen” is emblematic of Lesh’s approach to actual rock-and-roll, as what could be a very basic three chord figure is immediately spun out of its expected orbit by rhythmic variations. Lesh is also responsible for the song’s peculiar coda. “Cumberland Blues” (from Workingman’s Dead, 1969), one of Hunter’s most convincing impressions of Appalachian bluegrass-style folksong, is subverted by a highly chromatic and largely dissonant chord progression under the first two choruses (from the tonic G-major chord to Gb, Bb, B, Bb, A, Ab, and back to G). “Uncle John’s Band,” from the same album, features a three-beat cadence following each of the first two lines of each verse, which is otherwise composed in four-beat measures. The song’s instrumental coda is a seven-beat phrase, repeated and varied at the liberty of the band as a whole, which became the basis for extended high-energy seven-beat jams in concert. Even the country-blues number “Truckin’” (originally recorded on American Beauty in 1970, also appearing on Europe 72), among the closest approximations of conventional popular music originated by the band, features a time-switch to triple-meters in the instrumental cadences in the bridge following “sometimes the light’s all shining on me” and subsequent lines.

Solo compositions

“Truckin’” concludes American Beauty, and Lesh’s “Box of Rain,” a collaboration with Robert Hunter, opens it, framing an album marked by the symmetry of Hunter’s lyric phrasing with Lesh-inspired difference.[14] “Box of Rain,” his best-known and most successful attempt at composing a popular song, features an exceptionally high degree of internal variation for its genre. Yet due to Hunter’s gently balanced phrasing and the regular pace at which the chords change, the listener is barely conscious of it, or aware of why the song manages to evoke such a complex and subtle mix of feeling. In comparison, Garcia’s own bittersweet farewell from the same album, “Brokedown Palace,” which features three different musical strophes and the soulful and unexpected use of A-major and B-major chords in the key of G major, seems almost simplistic. According to both Lesh and Hunter, the bassist came to the lyricist with the music already composed and with strong feelings around the imminent death of his father. The lyric, which is quite repetitive and uses many conventional images typical of Hunter’s work, is made poignant by the sweet and subtly varied asymmetrical harmonic progressions. The synthesis of feelings of joy and loss engendered by “Box of Rain” prompted Lesh to initiate its performance at the end of the final Grateful Dead concert in July 1995, when it was obvious to all that the lead guitarist was near the end of his life.

Lesh establishes a familiar-sounding musical phrase-pattern in the song’s first verse, then proceeds through a series of variant versions of its completion. The first verse comprises a harmonic progression hovering between the tonalities of D major and G major, the first two lines resolving on G-major and the second pair ending up on A-major. Not satisfied with the complex interrelationships of line to line in the first refrain, however, Lesh modifies the second part of the second refrain (beginning “what do you want me to do?”), using the same set of chords but in a variant progression: the C / D / A-minor / G of the first instance has become A-minor / C / G / D. Hunter has at this point provided a variation on the lyric of his first refrain, which comments on its predecessor: “please don’t be surprised when you find me dreaming too.” The third refrain sounds as if it’s going to return to the model of the first by opening with C-major again with a lyric that almost repeats that of its predecessor: “it’s all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago.” However, this time the motion is C / E-minor / D / G, modifying the feeling of the nearly identical words. The fourth verse repeats the pattern of the second, creating an abcb form, culminating in the first appearance of the title “box of rain” in its finally-identical concluding cadence. Yet at this point in performance the band would pause and emphasize the vocals, thereby distinguishing it from its previous iteration.

The final two verses (of six) both begin with the lyric “just a box of rain,” but use different chord progressions in the keys of G major and D major, extending the sense of harmonic ambiguity. The fifth verse begins on the tonic G-major, again refreshing the feeling of an identical lyric with new harmonic support, in this case contrasting the A-minor chord under the line’s earlier presentation. The first half of the fifth verse concludes on D-major and our expectations are momentarily fulfilled as the second half of the verse almost repeats the first half – until the D-major chord arrives prematurely, then moves to the secondary dominant A-major. This sets up the focus of the final verse on D-major, with which it begins for one measure before moving to E-minor for the word “rain,” creating first a moderately tense brightness then a darker but relaxed tenderness. As the second half of the final verse repeats the lyric one last time with the same music as the previous iteration, the listener senses that this long string of variations may finally be winding to a conclusion. However, neither D nor G sounds like the definitive resolution in this progression, and so the final cadence resolves on an ambiguous A chord, neither minor nor major due to the suspended fourth.

From this point on in the band’s career, the more symmetrical Hunter-Garcia compositions dominated the original repertoire, and Lesh’s injections of difference were felt mainly in the live interpretations of the band’s repertoire. His subsequent recorded compositions “Pride of Cucamonga” and “Unbroken Chain” (on Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel, 1974), were not performed in concert after their release, partly due to Lesh’s retirement from vocal duties; “Unbroken Chain” finally made its debut a few months before the end of the group’s performing career in 1995. The instrumental “King Solomon’s Marbles” (a.k.a. “Stronger than Dirt/Milkin’ the Turkey,” from Blues for Allah, 1975) was performed only a few times, while “Passenger,” sung by Weir and vocalist Donna Godchaux (from Terrapin Station, 1977; also on the live album Dead Set, 1980) remained in regular rotation until the end of 1981. “Pride of Cucamonga” demonstrates an approach to folk-pop song similar to that evident in “Box of Rain,” overlaying a relatively familiar set of rhythmic phrases with harmonic progressions around an ambiguous tonal center, often beginning with chords other than the tonic. “King Solomon’s Marbles,” a high-tempo jazz-rock instrumental, features seven-beat riffs and fourteen-beat improvised phrases. For “Unbroken Chain,” which is in many ways the quintessence of his musical aesthetic, incorporating enough ideas for at least six different songs, Lesh has admitted to having a special fondness. By contrast, he referred to “Passenger” as something he’d written mainly to get the guitarists to play with some “raunch,” claiming that he’d “sort of done it as a joke” (Jackson, 260).

“Passenger” is a kind of inversion or parody of the Fleetwood Mac song “Station Man,” with words by a friend of the band, a Buddhist named Peter “Monk.” The original “Station Man” dates from 1970, at which time Fleetwood Mac was touring the U.S. and met the Grateful Dead repeatedly on the road. The song is a blues whose verses move from the dominant down to the tonic via a III chord on slide guitar based on the ambiguous blues third. Lesh retained the vocal melodic motif for the refrain lyric “station man” for the verse of “Passenger,” (sung “firefly” and “passenger”), then took the blues arpeggio and turned it into a series of chords for the chorus, moving up from A-minor to C-major to E-major and back to A-minor. Indicating how far his sensibility remained from that of the blues, Lesh opted to eliminate the loose bluesy feel of the ambiguous third, turning it into a standard I-III-V-I progression in diatonic minor with the leading tone in the dominant E-major chord. The verse in Lesh’s version simply sits on A-major throughout, with whole-tone slides up from G in the guitar part. The straight major verse followed by the minor chorus on the same root lends a distinctive moodiness to the standard rock setting. The meter is straight 4/4 throughout, an anomaly among Lesh compositions, and it is one of the band’s handful which are in a conventional rock idiom.

“King Solomon’s Marbles” is a high-energy number which exemplifies many of Lesh’s favorite musical elements, including seven-beat riffs which recur asymmetrically, several chord progressions which do not repeat at all, and sudden key changes. This piece is distinguished from the band’s other compositions in odd time-signatures by its extremely high tempo, which in tandem with the seven-beat phrases create a “hurry up” feel (not unlike that achieved, for example, by the seven-beat phrases employed by Andrew Lloyd Webber in Jesus Christ Superstar [1970] as Jesus is bombarded with demands: “Tell me Christ how you feel tonight / Do you plan to put up a fight?”). Most noteworthy here are the shifts between seven-beat and fourteen-beat phrases which occur unexpectedly, and the opening and closing riffs, which double the tempo yet again, sounding like three-and-a-half-beat phrases. The piece was interpreted by Jazz is Dead on Blue Light Rain and has was performed in 2009 by Lesh with The Dead, an ensemble reuniting Lesh with surviving Grateful Dead members Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman.

The folksy-yet-jazzy feel of “Unbroken Chain” is typical of the early-seventies Grateful Dead, but its complexities far exceed even the most highly developed compositions of Garcia and Weir, which are themselves often quite complex relative to those of most of their peers. “Unbroken Chain” is distinguished from the ornate jazz-pop of Steely Dan by the absence of a blues underpinning and memorable refrains, and from the work of other mid-seventies “progressive-rock” bands such as Yes and Rush by a lack of dramatic effect, a turning away from the showcasing of virtuosity, and the juxtaposition of styles without ironic intent. All these features are characteristic of Lesh’s work in general, highlighting how far it wanders from the beaten paths of even the most elaborately constructed popular music. Petersen’s lyric meets Hunter’s “Box of Rain” halfway from “New Potato Caboose,” using a plethora of natural imagery including sun, wind and rain in a way that is more detailed and less obviously metaphorical than either of those songs, yet remains highly suggestive.

The first six verses follow a pattern of variation not unlike that in “Box of Rain,” as the opening chord progression appears in two alternating variations: D-minor / F / C-sus4 / C; and D-minor / F-sus4 / C / A-minor. There are four different second parts to the verse, alternating in an abcbdb pattern. In the a part, the progression is A-minor / Eb / F / E-minor / G. In the b part, the progression walks down all the way from C to E-minor before culminating in an identical G / A-minor / C turnaround. The c and d parts resemble the a part, with the c part substituting an F-to-G motion for the A-minor-to-Eb, and the d part substituting D-minor7 and C-major7. Like so many of Lesh’s transitions, the A-minor-to-C turnaround comprises a three-beat measure.

Following a descending F, C, G pattern making use of another suspended fourth, the song launches into an instrumental bridge composed of two different parts, one a pentatonic rock riff eleven beats long, and the other a jazzy chord progression fifteen beats long which moves from D-minor7 to C-minor to G-minor to F to E-minor in a 4-3-3-3-2 beat pattern. The eleven-beat rock riff is played fifteen times through with increasingly frenetic variation, recalling some of the style displayed by the band during the late 1960s. It is very difficult to dissect the variant rhythmic phrases going on here, but the effect perhaps resembles what Lesh had in mind during his earliest explorations with rhythmic multiplicity.

Coming out of the rhythmically eccentric bridge, the listener hopes for a gentle return to the song’s opening – precisely the reason Lesh doesn’t provide it. Instead, the piece moves from a solid C major center to an ambiguous tonality, beginning with C-minor7 moving to F-major7 under a vocal line which rhythmically mirrors the song’s opening: “lilac rain, unbroken chain.” There are four iterations of this new verse form, which move on from F-major7 to D-minor7, and then to E-minor and G. The rich seventh chords provide a lulling, sweet sensation, as if we are wealthier for having come through the maelstrom of the bridge together. But we are not done yet – the song concludes with a unique coda comprised of a non-repeating series of chords taking us apparently through the key of D major, but ending on an E-minor triad.

Later years with the Grateful Dead

One of the least pleasant aspects of Searching for the Sound is the chronicle of Lesh’s slide into alcoholism in the mid-1970s. He indicates quite clearly just how much his life had revolved around the Grateful Dead in discussing his reaction to the band’s 1975-76 hiatus, during which he felt himself adrift. Lesh had only ever played the bass in the context of the Grateful Dead, and his unique style did not make for an easy fit with other musicians.[15] Without any major musical projects in which to engage while other band members were busy with their own side-bands, Lesh began to drink daily. Though the band’s development of complex material using different modes and rich harmonies using 7th and 9th chords should have made this an exciting period for Lesh, his creative output suffered drastically. He was to contribute only “Passenger” to Terrapin Station, and nothing at all to the band’s subsequent studio albums. Lesh reports that drug abuse took its toll on the band’s musical energy and creative chemistry during the late 1970s and early 1980s, his own alcoholism one of the major problems, along with Garcia’s dependence on opiates. He remembers this period as one in which the band members could truly break their mutual isolation only in musical conversations during the instrumental passages in and out of songs. Indeed, recordings demonstrate that even during this relatively stagnant time the band continued to create great musical interest and power in these interstices.

Over the same period advances were made in audio reinforcement technology that brought the band’s sound to new levels of clarity, especially in amplifying the very low bass tones, finally doing justice to the power, nuances and rapid articulations of Lesh’s playing. The introduction of keyboardist Brent Mydland brought new electronic timbres to the regular repertoire, and the experimental spirit of early pieces like “Dark Star” returned with the evolution of the mid-second set “Space” jam. The experimental drum duet which preceded it grew longer and broader in scope during this time as drummer Mickey Hart introduced more and different kinds of percussion sounds into his ensemble. As the drummers’ subsequent breaks grew correspondingly longer and the brew of possible sounds proliferated as electronic technology advanced, “Space” provided a playground for the guitarists’ and keyboardist’s sonic imaginations. Finally spurred out of his alcoholism by the beginning of a new, long-term personal relationship with his wife-to-be in 1982, Lesh’s renewed creative energies found an outlet in those absolute free-form electronic soundscapes. The “Drums-Space” portion of concerts ran the gamut from earth-shattering to navel-gazing, boring some audience members while entrancing others. Over the course of the band’s ups and downs during the 1980s, “Drums-Space” was often the most dynamic part of the concerts, richly imbued with the pure, innovative musical energy at the heart of the Grateful Dead. Lesh’s wide-open sensibilities made “Space” a vibrant cauldron of the unexpected and unfamiliar, even when Garcia’s scalar noodling scattered human footprints through the otherworldly or primordial chaos of sound. Digital sound engineer, composer and keyboardist Bob Bralove, who joined the band’s crew in the late 1980s, began supplying sophisticated MIDI systems to each member, extending further the timbral spectrum available to the band.[16]

By the late 1980s Lesh and Garcia had to a great extent thrown off their chains, and the results were tangible in the 1987 studio album In the Dark, produced by Garcia, and the 1991 live album Without a Net, produced by Lesh. Now happily married with children and diagnosed with hepatitis-C, Lesh quit drinking altogether and assumed a healthier lifestyle. While his performances on In the Dark are a far cry from his live treatments of the songs, the general principles of his style remain intact. The bass part to “Touch of Grey” is highly conventional while retaining the characteristic Lesh effervescence. The result was the band’s only hit single, which helped accelerate its growth in popularity to levels that ultimately threatened the sustainability of the entire Grateful Dead project. Without a Net is a testament to the band’s mature style and captures some of the last performances keyboardist Mydland would make before his untimely death. Thick with long, energetic instrumental improvisations on generous Weir and Garcia vehicles such as “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider,” “Help on the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower,” “Cassidy,” “Let It Grow,” “Eyes of the World,” “Feel Like a Stranger” and “Bird Song,” Without a Net exorcised whatever demons may have been lingering around Lesh’s psyche as a producer after the debacle of the 1976 live album Steal Your Face. Lesh’s choices of material are indicative of his musical values as the band’s extended interpretive conversations are made the centerpiece of the album.

“Bird Song,” a Hunter-Garcia composition wistfully recalling the departed spirit of a female singer (originally inspired by the passing of fellow Bay Area musician Janis Joplin), is one of the few folk-pop songs from the band’s American Beauty period to evolve into a medium for extended improvisation. “Cassidy,” a Weir-Barlow composition from Weir’s first solo album, also recalls a prematurely departed friend (Neal Cassady) and similarly became a vehicle for energetic musical exploration. Both songs use the image of birds in the wind metaphorically suggesting the soul, and instrumental passages which evoke a sense of flight. These natural complements are among the album’s most successful pieces. The long instrumental section of “Cassidy” explores the darker modes of the aeolian and dorian with a B tonic, eventually modulating into B-major/G#-minor/C#-minor territory over a driving sixteenth-note pulse, while “Bird Song” moves through the brighter E-mixolydian with a swing feel that mutates into triplets and then into 6/8 time. These long instrumental passages, which initially sound as if they are single-chord jams, soon reveal themselves as explorations of modal possibilities commenting on and shifting the moods and musical subject matter of their original compositions. In these passages, Lesh takes best advantage of his creative abilities as a manufacturer of endlessly new melody while listening closely to the other players.

One can hear instances of the unusual relationship Lesh’s bass has with the kick drums at two points during Garcia’s MIDI-“flute” solo in “Bird Song.” After a long period of apparent indifference to the kick drum (typically a bassist’s closest interlocutor), Lesh suddenly integrates himself into its pattern, but via a rapid-fire call-and-response with it rather than locking in sync. Lesh also indulges in a little MIDI play of his own, using a setting that imitates a pitched tom-tom, adding a “drum solo” to the portion of the jam which has by this point has virtually transformed into the 6/8 riff from “The Other One.” The music continuously morphs through subtle rhythmic combinations on the way to this point, as there are many instances in which Lesh implies a swing feel while the drummers play triplets or move into a syncopated 6/8 feel, and vice versa. At the same time, through his choices of melodic phrasing, Lesh takes the nominally single-harmony jam into several related harmonic areas using the same set of tones. Moreover, the song’s dynamics range from whispering to thundering, indicating that by this point the band, particularly Garcia and Lesh, had overcome some of their interpersonal isolation and were listening acutely to one another. Near the end of the piece Lesh employs a familiar technique of suddenly dropping down an entire register to a low E root note on a downbeat after conditioning the listener to hearing his mid-range melodic figures, amplifying the psychological effect of this deep “bass bomb”. As the guitarists play their standard coda licks, Lesh, as always, creates a counter melody different each time through the guitar phrase, and finally climbs up to the fifth of the scale, B, to leave the song’s resolution gently suspended.

The band’s tendency to slip from their typical swinging groove into 6/8 patterns, as in “Bird Song,” is due largely to Garcia’s predilection for triplets and Lesh’s attraction to groups of three beats. Not only do performances of  “Bird Song” often sound as if they are going to mutate into “The Other One,” but also into “Truckin,’” another of the band’s E-mixolydian jams verging on 12/8 time. Paradoxically, the musical identity subverted by the band’s devotion to internal difference begins to lead back into sameness, and the group’s jams start to resemble one another more as they resemble themselves less. The Grateful Dead always sound different from every other band, but always the same as themselves, even as they seek to play something new every night. Variety in the Grateful Dead’s music is firmly rooted in actual polyphonic texture, not in mere timbral contrast more readily perceived by the listener.

These paradoxes of similarity and difference are evident in the band’s relationship with the “straight” musical world. The Dead borrowed from virtually every genre of American music and have inspired many “tribute” projects and millions of amateur renditions of their music, yet their music cannot be faithfully copied. Due to the absolute impossibility of imitating Lesh’s bass work or the unique interrelationship of the drummers, the unusual guitar styles of Weir and Garcia are by default among the more easily imitated aspects of the band. The Dark Star Orchestra, which specializes in playing set lists of famous Grateful Dead concerts in their entirety, exemplifies this strange paradox. Even if one were to laboriously learn a Lesh bass part note-for-note for a given piece of music, it would be pointless to play it without the rest of the band duplicating their respective parts. But if this were to be attempted, the very spirit of the music would be absolutely undermined.

While most successful re-interpretations of popular songs (such as The Band’s or The Byrds’ versions of Bob Dylan compositions) bring more complex arrangements to the original pieces, interpreters of Grateful Dead songs are always obliged to bring simpler, more familiar arrangements to their subjects. As discussed above, jazz players Johnson and Cobham make the Dead’s mid-70s material turn toward straight-ahead rock, while the “tribute” album Deadicated (1991) can’t help but sound more conventional than the Dead’s own versions of these songs in spite of a variety of arrangements and timbres far in excess of those available to the Dead themselves. The American Beauty Project, in which a collection of popular American musicians (led by former Lesh and Dylan sideman Larry Campbell) working in styles with traditional roots such as blues, country, gospel and bluegrass perform songs from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, is successful not only because the singing is orders of magnitude better than the Dead’s, but because it positively revels in a conventionality of arrangement the Dead could never have achieved, making the familiar seem strange and new in exactly the inverse way that Lesh and company did.

On March 12, 2010, Lesh celebrated his seventieth birthday with a San Francisco concert by Furthur,[17] his current collaborative project with Weir in an ensemble resembling the Grateful Dead in instrumentation and material. The concert’s third set featured extended jams on Lesh favorites such as “Playin’ in the Band,” “The Other One,” “Saint Stephen” and “Unbroken Chain.” Since the year 2000 Lesh has been touring regularly with his own band and with various combinations of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, continuing to create new bass melodies every night for a wide range of material covering the band’s extended career, often on Garcia’s compositions (some of which he has assumed lead vocals for, in spite of having sung little during the latter half of the original band’s existence). While Garcia became the band’s most recognizable face, vocalist and instrumentalist, and eagerly facilitated the group’s experiments in generative chaos, his ability to give that chaos a semblance of order through his melodic guitar lines ultimately helped define his role in the music’s exploration of difference. At the heart of the chaos was a “difference engine” stoked by the imagination of bassist Lesh, continually challenging his upper-register partner and the rest of the band to take the music “further.”


[1] At thousands of live recordings made by audience members over the course of the band’s career have been posted for streaming. Studio recordings may be accessed through, and a complete discography at

[2] Although I have endeavored to be as thorough as possible in this review and analysis of Lesh’s work with the Grateful Dead, I have not considered his compositions for the band in the 1990s or his work with other incarnations of the band since then.

[3] Graeme Boone’s pair of analytical essays “Tonal and Expressive Ambiguity in ‘Dark Star’ (1997) and “Dark Star Mandala” (2010) provide a detailed case study of the collective compositional processes involved in the piece and the resulting complex structures.

[4]  The title of “The Other One,” Weir’s homage to Cassady, was originally a joke, distinguishing it from “this one” and “that one” (Lesh, 101). The name persisted and became the song’s title after the lyrics were complete, characterizing the willful evolution into “otherness” in the living experimental theatre of the Merry Pranksters, sparked in part by Cassady. Indeed, one may hear Lesh’s bass work in the Grateful Dead as a living testament to Cassady’s “seeing-around-the-corners” approach to high speed city driving while working the radio from station to station at high speed. When Lesh joined Weir, drummer Mickey Hart, pianist Bruce Hornsby and a collection of side musicians to perform several years after Garcia’s death, they called themselves “The Other Ones.”

[5] Lesh’s treatment of the R&B-style “shots” on B-minor and A-major (which resemble those in the Smokey Robinson song “I Second That Emotion”) on the turnaround between lines of the verses of “Eyes of the World” typify this approach. In the studio version from Wake of the Flood (1973), he plays only the first two of the expected four sixteenth notes, leaving the listener to anticipate the remainder, then plays alternate pitches off the beat for the rest of the phrase. The next time around, a few bars later, the phrase is different again. The same holds true for his performances of the song in concert.

[6] This effect may be heard on popular commercially released recordings, such as in the final verse of “China Cat Sunflower-Know You Rider” from Europe 72 (1972) in which Lesh comes right up under Garcia’s vocal as he sings “I wish I was a headlight.” The instrumental coda to “Here Comes Sunshine” from Wake of the Flood (1973) provides another example, as does the fade-out of the subsequent track on that same album, “Eyes of the World.” In the studio recording of “Friend of the Devil” from American Beauty, Lesh sounds as if he’s parodying the song’s conventional bluegrass elements, entering after the opening guitar phrase with a high-register, rhythmically complicated “flat-picking” pattern.

[7] Lesh’s bass work is also open to criticism for many of these same reasons, not least because his avoidance of repetition precludes the development of certain kinds of rhythmic tension which many musicians and listeners would feel integral to certain kinds of music, especially dance music, whether of European or African heritage. His quick melodic variations can be perceived as interfering with the middle and upper voices as they shift the background overtone patterns in the sea in which the guitar and vocal parts are swimming. Lesh’s timing is often not as precise as that of the guitarists, and his rhythmic variations often lack the precision needed to really syncopate the underlying beat, an effect that may be exacerbated by his use of a pick. His quick figures were often obscured by the indistinct bass-register sound typical of large echoing arenas, exaggerating the impression of sloppiness.

[8] The Grateful Dead were key players in the San Francisco dance renaissance of the late 1960s, one unprecedented, as journalist Ralph J. Gleason observed, “since the heyday of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey” (Gleason 2000, 18). Garcia told Gleason at the time that “our function is as a dance band. We feel that our greatest value is as a dance band and that’s what we like to do” (27). Audio evidence of the band’s dedication to dance may be heard on a 1967 performance of “In the Midnight Hour” on Lesh’s CD compilation of live Grateful Dead recordings Fallout from the Phil Zone (2004). Pigpen can be heard walking through the crowd exhorting various audience members at length to dance, at one point offering Weir as a dance partner to one young woman. The emphasis on danceable music continued unabated throughout the band’s entire performing career, such that even folk ballads and odd-time jams were played with the expectation that the audience would dance to them.

[9] One may hear abundant evidence of this effect on Deadicated (1991), an album featuring Grateful Dead songs performed by a wide variety of appropriate commercially and critically successful artists, including Midnight Oil, Burning Spear, Dwight Yoakum, and Elvis Costello. Whereas a reggae ensemble such as Burning Spear would typically take a rock song and dramatically increase the rhythmic complexity and dynamism, in this case they are forced to reduce the complexity of “Estimated Prophet,” not only by making the fourteen-beat phrases into sixteen but by using a proper reggae bass part. This is the case for every track on the album, and also for the work of Jazz is Dead (and other attempts at taking the Dead into a “jazz” setting, such as Joe Gallant and Illuminati).

[10] Acid Tests were parties organized by author and social-experimentalist Ken Kesey and his cohorts the Merry Pranksters in the San Francisco bay area and elsewhere at which the Grateful Dead were the featured musical accompaniment and the then-legal substance LSD was the preferred intoxicant. The Acid Tests were brought to the popular American imagination by Tom Wolfe in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).

[11]  Shaughn O’Donnell discusses the influence of Ives in his essay “American Chaos: Charles Ives and the Grateful Dead” (O’Donnell 2010).

[12] The  music for “Doin’ that Rag” is credited to Garcia alone in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics (Dodd 2005, 79) and on the original recording, but is listed as a Lesh-Garcia collaboration on What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been (1974).

[13] Lesh credits a meeting between tabla virtuoso Alla Rakha and drummer Mickey Hart with stimulating interest in new rhythmic combinations among the band members. By combining phrases of three and four, and extending one or both of them, the band arrived at many odd rhythmic patterns of seven, ten or eleven beats. Garcia reports in an interview with Gleason that “Viola Lee Blues” was played as a pattern one-half measure short of the standard 12-bar blues (Gleason 2000, 21). Another example is the Weir-Hart composition “Playing in the Band,” based on a ten-beat phrase that evolved by adding an extra three beats to a seven-beat phrase the band had been previously working on. Weir’s compositions from the mid-seventies, “Lazy Lightning/Supplication” and “Estimated Prophet” are based around seven-beat and fourteen-beat phrases.

[14] The symmetry of Hunter’s lyrics, and many of their other qualities, are the subject of my essay “Robert Hunter’s Oral Poetry” (2003).

[15] The one project Lesh did involve himself with during this period was an electronic soundscape collaboration with Ned Lagin, a musician and computer scientist whom Lesh had met years earlier on a visit to MIT, which resulted in the record Seastones (1975). The album’s manipulation of noise-textures resemble those sometimes achieved by composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis, and appeared at the same time as Brian Eno’s first minimalist soundscape records. With Seastones Lesh gave notice as to just how “far out” his musical sensibilities could go.

[16] Bralove has reported verbally that Lesh encouraged his additions to the “Space” texture, asking him to extend the sonic backdrop he’d developed to envelop Hart’s playing of “the Beam” toward the end of the “Drums” segment right into “Space.” In 1991, Bralove produced the album Infrared Roses, a digital collage of “Drums/Space” live recordings which Lesh notes as capturing a period during which the timbral combinations made possible by MIDI technology “began to border on the surreal” (Lesh 2005, 293).

[17] “Furthur” was the name of the brightly-painted, renovated school bus driven by Neal Cassady which carried Ken Kesey and the rest of the Merry Pranksters on their trips around America, and to which Weir refers in the lyrics to “The Other One.”


Adams, Rebecca and Robert Sardiello. 2000. Deadhead Social Science. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira.

Boone, Graeme. 1997. “Tonal and Expressive Ambiguity in ‘Dark Star.’” In J.Covach and G.M.Boone (eds.) Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. 171-210.

-- 2010. “Dark Star Mandala.” In J.Tuedio and S.Spector (eds.), The Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Live Improvisation. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 85-106.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1987 [1980]. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol.II. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dodd, David. 2005. The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Gans, David. 1991. Conversations with the Dead. NY: Citadel.

Gleason, Ralph J. 2000. “Dead Like Live Thunder.” In D.Dodd and D.Spaulding (eds.), The Grateful Dead Reader. NY: Oxford. 17-19.

Jackson, Blair. 2000. “Introduction to We Want Phil! An Interview, and In Phil We Trust: A Conversation.” In D.Dodd and D.Spaulding (eds.), The Grateful Dead Reader. NY: Oxford, 2000. 248-264.

Lesh, Phil. 2005. Searching for the Sound. NY: Little, Brown.

Meriwether, Nicholas, ed. 2007. All Graceful Instruments: Perspectives on the Grateful Dead Phenomenon. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

O’Donnell, Shaughn. 2010. “American Chaos: Charles Ives and the Grateful Dead.” In J.Tuedio and S.Spector (eds.), Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Live Improvisation. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 58-70.

Tuedio, James. 2010. “Pouring Its Light Into Ashes”: Exploring the Multiplicity of Becoming in Grateful Dead Improvisation.” In J.Tuedio and S.Spector (eds.), Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Live Improvisation. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 133-151.

-- and Stan Spector (eds.). 2010. Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Live Improvisation. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Weiner, Rob (ed.). 1999. Perspectives on the Grateful Dead. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Wolfe, Tom. 1968. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

Wood, Brent. 2003. “Robert Hunter’s Oral Poetry: Mind, Metaphor, Community.” Poetics Today 24/1: 35-63.

-- “The Eccentric Revolutions of Phil Lesh.” 2010. In J.Tuedio and S.Spector (eds.), Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Live Improvisation. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.


Grateful Dead, 1968. Anthem of the Sun. Warner WS 1749.

-- 1969. Aoxomoxoa. Warner WS 1790.

-- 1969. Live Dead. Warner 2WS 1830.

-- 1970. Workingman’s Dead. Warner WS 1869.

-- 1970. American Beauty. Warner WS 1893.

-- 1972. Europe ’72. Warner 3WX 2668.

-- 1973. Wake of the Flood. Grateful Dead Records GD 01.

-- 1974. From the Mars Hotel. Grateful Dead Records GD 102.

-- 1975. Blues for Allah. Grateful Dead Records LA 494.

-- 1976. Steal Your Face. Grateful Dead Records LA 620.

-- 1977. Terrapin Station. Arista AL 7001.

-- 1977. What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been Warner 2W 3091.

-- 1981. Dead Set. Arista A2L 8606.

-- 1987. In the Dark. Arista 8452.

-- 1990. Without a Net. Arista AL2 8636

-- 1991. Infrared Roses. Grateful Dead Records GDCD 40142.

-- 1997. Fallout from the Phil Zone. Grateful Dead Records. GDCD 4052

Jazz is Dead, 1998. Blue Light Rain. Zebra 44009

Jefferson Airplane, 1967. After Bathing at Baxter’s. RCA LSO 1511.

Lagin, Ned, 1975. Seastones. Round Records RX 106.

Mothers of Invention, 1967. Absolutely Free. Verve V-5013.