Monday, March 19, 2007


The old story of the origin of the Grateful Dead's name is given a new twist in Mark Greif's "The Right Kind of Pain," a review of Richard Witts's book The Velvet Underground. Greif's most striking conceit is a long comparison between the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead (striking because the members of VU hated the Dead; I don't know what the GD's members thought of VU). He begins by arguing that "the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead started out, in an odd way, as basically the same band. In fact, both bands started with the same name in 1965: the Warlocks." As Greif later points out, "they both had to choose a different name because it turned out that a third band had already put out a record as the Warlocks."

But I wonder: what if there was no third band? What if each band changed its name because of the other?

In any case, Greif's article is a wonderful essay. I got to it through Jerome Weeks's referral to it at Bookdaddy.


SarahJane said...

and thank god - "The Warlocks" has got to be one of the stupidest names I've heard.... maybe it's just dated, like The Toadstools.

Andrew Shields said...

I meant to add also that the VU vs. GD contrast made little sense to me when I was going to Dead shows in the eighties. I thought both bands were simply great, and VU was definitely just as "psychedelic" (in a musical sense) as the Dead.

Andrew Shields said...

Two great bands. No need to argue about which is better!

Waiting for the Man: great song.
Friend of the Devil: great song.

Just thinking about comparing those two songs makes Greif's discussion of the similarities between the two bands even more convincing.

One thing Greif discussed is John Cale's art-music background. Phil Lesh brought the same thing to the Dead!

Donald Brown said...

I read as much of Greif as I could (goes on too long), and I see his point. But I still reject the idea that they "were basically the same band." They share the same role on the opposing coasts, but what "the milieu" adds to the difference is key. To say they each became a house band, fine. But to act as if Kesey and Warhol are the same kind of phenomenon is really stretching it. I don't know Lesh's background, but I feel certain it's not like Cale's. Also, what about the fact that such a key player departs after two albums vs. the cohesion of the Dead?

I catch the whiff of revisionism in such formulations: as though the "usual story" is based on unexamined assumptions and so "the new take" can displace it. However, the new take also tends to downplay significant matters with a kind of hindsight that ignores important facts (well, if SF were NYC and vice versa, then we could say... and if two drum kits can be equated to no drum kit... and viola and minimalism be equated with endless noodling... and three or four vocalists with essentially one... and then of course there's Nico... ummm, Moutain Girl? ...

Andrew Shields said...

To me, what's interesting about the VU/GD comparison is how productive it turns out to be, even if it is not as neat as Greif suggests.

That is, it's a surprise to have them compared at all, and then it's even more of a surprise to have the comparison make them seem at all similar, given the enmity between the bands (although, as I think I noted, the enmity was all on the VU side, as far as I know).

And as for Lesh and Cale's new music background: Cale was connected to Cage and Copland and Young, but Lesh studied with Luciano Berio in Oakland, and one of his classmates was Steve Reich. I'd say the "art-music" background is even!

Donald Brown said...

Didn't know Lesh was classmates with Reich, but ... what does being "classmates" with someone really amount to? Did they hang out together? Work on things in tandem? Cale isn't simply "connected to" LaMonte Young, he made music with him.

Still, I'll concede that there was more "artsy" music connection to Lesh than I was aware of.