Monday, January 5, 2009

Phil Lesh: Searching for the Sound (2005)

I don’t let myself read music books that often. It’s self-preservation: I’m such a music obsessive that otherwise I’d never get any work done at all. So I’ve had this for three years but never got around to reading it until a couple of months ago. I didn’t even buy it to read: I got it because it was being sold with a bonus disc. That was worth getting: a studio version of “Cardboard Cowboy,” still otherwise unavailable. Yessir, a music obsessive.

I imagine Phil might have written this himself, with no ghostwriter. It reads like he might have – a little more uneven, a little more gonzo, than a pro might have left it. In a good way: you get a distinctive voice, and sentences like this:

"As Jerry's roommate, I was reintroduced every night to one of the great stentorian snores of our time: immense, turbulent, Druidic; rising to a climax, subsiding; then, one last huge percussive gahznrmpf! and a whistling diminuendo."

The music-language overtones of that sentence point to this book's main strength. Phil was the member of the Dead with the most formal musical training, and his perspective on the band's formative years shows just how hard, and how consciously, they were working on their music. Non-fans will never see the Dead as anything but a bunch of stoned hippies - and of course they were that, but they were also tremendously skilled and tasteful musicians genuinely trying to pioneer and perfect their own unique art. That comes out in Phil's account, in passages such as as the one where he describes dragging the band members to a 1967 performance of Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony ("Invisible bands march across the soundstage in two different directions at different speeds; a solo viola mutters an occult hymn-tune as the rest of the orchestra sprays fireworks in all directions; the chorus intones wordless transcendental benedictions as the music fades away into silence"), or the one where he describes the jam sessions that followed Mickey Hart's indoctrination into North Indian classical music (resulting, Phil says, in the band's philosophy that "The always where it seems to be").

The book's main weakness is that this excitement lessens as the story takes us into the '70s, and then really disappears as the book speeds through the second half of the band's career. I don't imagine it's necessarily that Phil thinks, or thinks his audience thinks, that the band's later years were uninteresting; rather, this is a stance shared by most music bios I've read. The tendency is to concentrate on the formative years and climax with the moment of greatest success, and gloss over the later years. I suppose that makes a certain amount of narrative sense, but I'm more interested in an artist's mature years, what he or she does after the big breakthrough, even if it does happen to be a story of decline. Artistic decline is as interesting and instructive as artistic growth; failure can be as fascinating as success. You can even make a satisfying narrative out of it: I learned that from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

The real story of the Dead's later years has yet to be told; I for one would love to read it.

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