Wednesday, October 15, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 288): "PLAYING IN THE BAND" (1971) The Grateful Dead

Tomorrow is the birthday of Bob Weir, the other primary vocalist and songwriter for the Grateful Dead, with Jerry Garcia, and the rather irregular rhythm guitarist. Weir has an immediately recognizable singing voice and, as in today’s song, sometimes indulges in unusual inflections. Weir generally represented the rocking—and rockabilly—side of the Dead while Garcia handled more of the blues and the sometimes hymn-like vibes they’d get into. Though both could switch off quite effectively too. Weir, for instance, is responsible for the sequence of meditative tunes called “Weather Report Suite” on In the Wake of the Flood (1973).

Today’s song became a favorite of mine from The Grateful Dead, the early album—with Europe ’72—that epitomizes to me the Dead sound. They were pretty much magical in that 1970-73 period. “Playing in the Band,” according to wikipedia is the fourth most-played song in the Dead’s extensive repertoire, so that’s saying something about it’s recognizability among Deadheads, even if most of the rest of the earth probably never heard it. I could’ve picked a perhaps more widely known song, like “Truckin’” which actually got airplay and is an autobiographical portrait of the band c. 1970, what with life on the road and drug busts and the like, and the great lines that seem to sum up the Dead’s outlook: “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me / Other times I can barely see / Lately it occurs to me / What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Or I might've picked “Estimated Prophet,” which is the Weir song of my era of Dead concerts, beginning in 1977. It's a song that plays into the, shall we say, delusions of grandeur that come with a regular diet of enhancing substances, but it's also a spooky song from a time when nuclear—as opposed to climate change—apocalypse was still a thing.

But “Playing in the Band” also encapsulates the attitudes I associate with the Dead. It plays as well into this little string of songs I've got going about “being a man”: When it's done and over / Oh, a man is just a man. That's the kind of naturalist fatalism I can get behind.

The song is also—on the first recorded version anyway—a nice showcase for bassist Phil Lesh as it owes so much to his melodic bass providing what I have to call the funk of the song. And it is a funky song, in the sense of a kind of “what, me worry” glimpse of how music fulfills us and makes lots of other things not that big a deal. The point of view of the song is of one who simply keeps playing in the band, no matter what. “I can’t stop for nothin’ / I’m just playin’ in the band.”

The world just rolls right off his back: “Some folks trust in reason / Others trust in might / I don’t trust in nothin’ / But I know it come out right.” I’m with him till the fourth line, not being one who trusts reason or might or anything else to make things come out right. But, unlike Weir’s savant—actually Weir and lyricist Robert Hunter—I don’t have trust it “come out right.” Though, hearing it put like that, strikes me as a kind of folk wisdom rather than, say, a starry-eyed hippy who just accepts whatever is.  The chorus, with it’s “daybreak, day-yay-break on the land” does pack a bit of the bliss you can find in a simple sunrise into the grooves. It’s like that in Deadville. Putting the beat into beatific for three decades.

I should say too that today is the birthday of the main man of my teens to twenty era, Freddy Nietzsche, and my sense of the Dead’s “mind only what matters” outlook came fueled with Nietzschean detachment as well, noting a bit of ├╝bermenschen moxie in “Standing on a tower / World at my command / You just keep on turning / While I’m playing in the band.” And for every “it was thus” say “but I willed it thus!” Y’know?

Which leads me to the thought I had in the early moments of “daybreak on the land” today: there are the songs that recount the vagaries of the love-life, and God knows there are lots, for every ripple in its stream. But there are also songs that are more existential, that recount the vagaries of one’s own attitude toward life, to being alive, to having to do something in this world, and to whatever one takes this world to be—and not simply in some easy to maintain “us vs. them” fashion. I’m with Rimbaud, of course, in recognizing my wretched upbringing in the fact that I see the world as “fallen” or as not ever what it might be—and I’m not a believer in Utopias either. Rather, it’s this slavery to time that makes things never quite hunky dory. And which is why, since time is going to pass anyway, the best way to play along with that inevitable succession is to be playing in the band. You can’t improve the world much, really, and you can’t improve your soul much either, but can you improve on silence? Can you keep time?  Can you make the air resonate and sing?

And if a man among you / Got no sin upon his hand / Let him cast a stone at me / For playin’ in the band.

Happy birthday, Bob.

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