Book Review: “All the Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows” — Grab a Bong
By Scott McLennan
All the Years Combine is best approached as yet another voice in the ever burgeoning conversation about the evolution of the Grateful Dead.
All The Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows by Ray Robertson. Biblioasis, 240 pages.
Somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area there’s an old guy who, for decades, has been complaining about Jerry Garcia’s decision to quit playing jug band music, swapping his banjo for an electric guitar in order to launch the Grateful Dead in 1965.
Probably not far down that very same road is a savvy someone who’ll tell you that everything the Grateful Dead did after the death of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in 1973 was just a cash grab.
And there are those who insist that the Grateful Dead’s decline started in 1978. Or maybe it was 1984. Then again … it might have been 1992.
Despite all these varying opinions and bugaboos about when the Good Ol’ Grateful Dead were at their absolute peak or when the band sounded more ol’ than good, they must square with the fact that the Grateful Dead enjoyed a great deal of commercial and critical success throughout the entirety of its original run from 1965 to 1995. Today the band has a devoted fan base that is as large as it has ever been.
The Grateful Dead absolutely and unequivocally had its ebbs and flows, both artistically and commercially. But the truth is that the band never combusted as completely as many of its peers did; neither did it ever sink so low as to merit a genuine “comeback story” narrative. All of that said, the Grateful Dead remains an unusually fertile entry in the “what does it all mean” category of rock lit.
Writer Ray Robertson has decided to feed what has become an insatiable appetite for all things Grateful Dead with his book All the Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows.
Robertson, who has written fiction and nonfiction, including books and articles about music, sets out to capture the essence of the Grateful Dead in a series of short essays about 50 concerts (well, we get a “bonus” 51st show too) laid out in chronological order. His goal is not so much to point out the band’s best work as to support the claim that Robertson makes in the first line of the book’s introduction: “I believe that a Grateful Dead concert is life.”
What does this mean? Robertson explains that everything woven into the history of the Grateful Dead — its periods of growth, its infuriating wipeouts and triumphant highs, its debilitating decay and tragic deaths — are symbolic, metaphorical, and authentic representations of life writ large. Trust me, any two Deadheads with a bong have had a similar conversation.
What makes Robertson’s project a bit different than your typical dorm-room philosophizing session is that the writer never actually saw the Grateful Dead live, he explains in an epilogue chapter. While Robertson was developing his musical tastes as a kid growing up in Canada the Dead bus drove by but he did not get on. He passed on the Dead he had sampled; instead, Robertson fell for Neil Young and various other singer-songwriters and roots/country acts.
It was decades later, when he was in his 40s, that Robertson fell in love with the sound of Jerry Garcia’s guitar after listening to the live albums made by the quartet Garcia formed with keyboard player Merl Saunders.
Thus, All the Years Combine is essentially one man’s journey through the past, relying on officially released live recordings of entire concerts (of which the Dead have churned out dozens) and well-regarded or popular bootleg recordings easily accessible on websites that archive live music.
Robertson is open about the tastes that have shaped his opinions: not a fan of the drum jams that become concert staples; big fan of vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux’s work with the band during her tenure from 1972 to ’79; not a fan of the band’s heavy use of Chuck Berry covers or the cover of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.” Most dogmatically, he asserts that the band pretty much sucked all through the ’80s, limping along until Jerry Garcia died in 1995.
In about five seconds I could assemble a team of passionate debaters to challenge any one of those points. But to be fair, Robertson never claimed to be writing an authoritative history or providing serious critique. So it is helpful to patiently listen to where the guy is coming from — even if in your heart you know how wrong he can be at times.
Robertson does get a lot right in the way he traces the changes in the music, especially through the band’s most formative years and subsequent periods of artistic growth and exploration throughout the ’70s.
Writing about McKernan, the band’s early focal point, Robertson astutely notes in his entry devoted to July 29, 1966, “it’s as if he were keeping the customers happy until the rest of the band could catch up.”
And Robertson aptly traces Garcia’s development as a singer when writing about the song “Morning Dew,” Bonnie Dobson’s existential lament that remained in the Dead’s concert repertoire throughout the band’s entire career. As he perceptively notes in his entry on the Dead’s May 2, 1970 concert at Harpur College: “ ‘Morning Dew’ has arrived (although I could do without the gong, as would the band eventually), has found the right forlorn cadence and been shorn of Garcia’s previously affected delivery (You can hear how he’s delighting in his newly found phrasing, luxuriating in hitting all the high notes.)”
Robertson frequently drops in parenthetical commentary in lieu of fleshed-out critique or detailed historical analysis.
The writer’s emphasis on opinion over informed reporting and research opens the door to some shaky claims. While drug use among the members of the Grateful Dead is not a secret, asserting without substantiation that particular performances were affected by drug consumption undermines Robertson’s authority. That said, he does cite sources elsewhere referring to this aspect of the band’s story, and when he does it adds credibility to his commentary.
The other thing that takes getting used to is Robertson’s penchant for bizarre prose, particularly some very weird phrasing. Of a 1969 version of “Dark Star,” he writes: “This one is a mere twenty-one minutes long, but it packs everything that makes ‘Dark Star’ great during this period into a jamming junkie’s dime-bag wet dream.” He describes “Playing in the Band” as a “big sloppy bowl of hot sound soup.” Discussing the band’s transformative year of 1976, Robertson observes that “beer and creative growth are always best when they’re organic.”
Robertson contends that, when the band became overwhelmed by business concerns, it weakened the impact of the Dead’s music. It’s not an unusual critique, but it is suspect given that the band achieved its biggest commercial success in the mid-’80s with songs that sounded like Grateful Dead songs — it’s not like Garcia sat down with Diane Warren and asked for a hit single. And before playing football stadiums in the ’90s, the Dead had its relative share of mega-shows at stadiums and racetracks during the ’70s and ’80s.
Unsurprisingly, Robertson is limited by his tastes and preferences, so All the Years Combined is best approached as yet another voice in the ever burgeoning Grateful conversation, shedding new light on classic performances as well as providing an opportunity, here and there, to call out some Dead wrong bullshit.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.
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