Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Jerry Garcia—

Released 1972 on Warner Brothers
The Seth Man, August 2003ce
(Note: this is a review of Jerry Garcia’s first solo album, not his second one from 1974 of the same name. To avoid confusion, Garcia’s first solo album is widely known as “The Wheel” album, taking its name from the last track and the front cover imagery.)

Some people just like liquorice...and some don’t.

I think it was Jerry Garcia himself who once said that and it illustrates his own loose and opened-ended optimism during the time of his first solo album. And although I’ve never considered myself a Dead Head by any means, I always reacted positively to Garcia’s responsive and sensitive playing on the earliest Dead records from the sixties. Not only because of where it went, but what it saw on the way, how it alighted loosely on rhythms and how it seemed to celebrate its own process through traversing a variety of musical terrain.

With that said, I like liquorice (not to mention Allsorts because they’re truly one of the best and weirdest confectionaries, ever) because it’s WEIRD CANDY like anything with menthol and all the other stuff you find easier in pharmacies than candy aisles. And “Garcia” is weird candy, too: because it holds qualities of both a confectionary and medicinal nature as it soothingly celebrates existence and all its attendant joys and pains; come what may -- win, lose or draw.

Being the very first solo album from a Grateful Dead member (excluding the Howard Wales/Garcia collaboration, “Hooterall?” from the previous year) “Garcia” was recorded over three weeks in the late summer of 1971 and it stands as a uniquely accomplished effort in its own right. It’s nearly a literal solo album as Garcia himself handled all the instrumentation (acoustic, electric, bass, pedal steel guitar, piano, organ and vocals) except for drums and percussion. These were handled by Grateful Dead drummer, Billy Kreutzmann and his drumming provides nothing except what is required without ornamentation of any kind. It is so steady and solid he could keep time during an earthquake AND make a becalmed and strong oasis among said cascading earth rhythms that tear apart everything else all around him. As in The Dead, his focus on the beat is consistently unswerving and effortless.

The album showcases Garcia’s intuitively-felt and skillful pedal steel playing throughout as well as forays on side two that are unexpectedly more experimental than those he was currently pursuing within the confines of The Dead. Comprising side one are four original Garcia/Robert Hunter tracks “Deal,” “Bird Song,” “Sugaree,” and “Loser” that had already been performed live in concert by The Dead since early 1971 and bear traces elements from The Dead’s previous two studio albums, “Workingman’s Dead’ and “American Beauty.” The album opens brightly with “Deal” as a rhythm similar in pace to “Truckin’” and Garcia’s voice brings to life the Hunter-penned imagery of fate as the eternal card game. Garcia sets out on both slide and pedal steel guitar, and it’s got a high stepping spring to its loose gait. “Bird Song” follows, the title itself perhaps a vamp on the Howard Wales & Garcia track “Da Birg Song” with Garcia laying down some well-placed organ lines as Kreutzmann favours the low floor toms to construct his distinctly boulder-sized, stepping stone rhythms. Both work in tandem to create a distinctly late afternoon vibe in summer, reclining in its patio chair as the sun settles slowly over the horizon. “Sugaree” follows, with a refrain of the rhythm from “Casey Jones” and the type of bouncy mellowness that characterized the direction The Dead favoured during their post-Altamont re-direction of the early seventies. “Loser” follows, far slower in tempo and tells the tale of the archetypal unrepentant gambler. It is melancholy itself, hunching over his unpaid, half empty beer in a dark and smoky bar as he clutches to what is wrongly believed to be a winning hand every time. Bummer...

Side two is a different and far freakier kettle of fish altogether. As it unfurls, a unique territory of soundscapes unlike anything remotely ‘Good Ol’ Grateful Dead’ starts to unveil itself when two curious instrumentals called “Late For Supper” and “Supergawd” enter with a spidery rake of piano innards soon followed by electronically-processed piano that erupt and resound like a super echoed gong, threading into pre-recorded sound loops, disembodied TV voices and percussion of a quietly freaky nature that crossfades together and into the majestic “Eep Hour.” Like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins meeting Island-period Eno on Quaaludes, this piano-led and cobwebbed waltz is resplendent with spook-o-rific organ that soon parts for the entry of a truly yearning pedal steel riff (No, wait: not ‘riff’ -- it’s far too beautiful to be called anything except the musical equivalent of compassionate optimism facing of the future...Something that was as much as no mean feat in late 1971 as it is today. But then again, that seemingly was pretty much the name of Garcia’s game for most of his career as a musician.) And that riff glides and sails gently across the waves of a musical stratosphere brimming with consciousness. “To Lay Me Down” is the final Garcia/Hunter composition of the album, and is a keenly soporific benediction as though Garcia is laying down his weary tune one last time under tall lonesome pines.

The brief and rightly-named “An Odd Little Place” is the quietly random drum and piano vignette that acts as a sonic plateau/prelude to the album’s fantastic closer, “The Wheel” which shifts jarringly from near quietude to a quickly picked acoustic guitar line and accompanying hurried bass with crashing hi-hats. The vista then opens up to the same ever-unfolding horizon glimpsed previously on ‘Eep Hour,” Garcia’s magically placed pedal steel sonorously sails ever onwards, upwards and forward. Impressive to behold, it speaks of the motivating force of consciousness; of trying just a LITTLE bit harder to get that momentum goin’ and to keep it flowin’.

‘A signpost to new space’ indeed.