Tuesday, February 13, 2007

News Briefs 02/13/07

Phish’s Phriend

Trey Anastasio told Rolling Stone that he’d like to do more work with Phil Lesh. That's what I'd like to hear from Bobby, Billy & Mick!

Tom Constanten

A Chris Azzopardi article about Reuben Butchart’s sophomore album “Golden Boy” talks about Butchart taking piano lessons from T.C.

“After weeding through piano teachers at the community center who rejected his unstudious style, he landed with Tom Constanten, the Grateful Dead's original keyboardist. "At that age I had no idea who the Grateful Dead was," he says, bashfully laughing.

Constanten knew the pop realm well and he also knew that Butchart, who created collages from other composers' musical notations, didn't want to practice. The keyboardist didn't care. He knew the youngster's passion was for composing. And so Butchart did.”

Mouse & Kelley

ArtDaily.com reviews a Minneapolis art show that includes work by Alton Kelley & Stanley Mouse:

"Two new exhibitions at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) celebrated the unique “San Francisco sound” that came out of the Bay area in the mid-1960s. Drawn primarily from the MIA’s permanent collection, San Francisco Psychedelic provides a rare opportunity for visitors to view sixty photographs of some of the seminal bands from this movement, such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Highlights include Mouse’s iconic 1966 Grateful Dead poster featuring a skeleton picking a rose..."

The Curse of the Keys

And here's an article by Martin Vengadesan about the Dead's "keyboard curse" (which is the only good reason why Bruce never became a "full time" member of the band).

The poisoned chalice
A succession of four tragic deaths underlines the cursed seat in The Grateful Dead.

By Martin Vengadesan

IT’S one of the classic jokes about the fictional rock band Spinal Tap that the drummer’s seat is something of a curse. While every other band member came through the “heavy years” relatively unscathed, the drummers succumbed to a variety of afflictions including a gardening accident, choking on (someone else’s) vomit and spontaneous combustion!

While Spinal Tap was indeed fictional, I’ve just found out about something that reminded me of a very real phenomenon that reads almost like a curse. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but earlier last week I found out that Vince Welnick had committed suicide last June. I admit that aside from the tragic loss of Welnick himself, I was rather spooked at how his fate seemed to echo that of his predecessors. For Welnick, who spent five years as keyboardist of the legendary improvisational psychedelic band The Grateful Dead, wasn’t the first Dead keyboardist to die.

He was the fourth!

Seriously, for all the theories that tend to pigeonhole a rock group’s keyboardist as its most intellectual and least wild member, the Dead sure had a habit of losing them to tragic early deaths.

Of the lot, perhaps none was quite so legendary as the man who first occupied the seat. A colourful character, Ron McKernan was obsessed with the blues, and his lifestyle reflected that. An intimidating appearance (which earned him the endearing nickname Pigpen) belied the fact that he was a rather shy fellow with an interesting outlook on life. A brief dalliance with the equally self-destructive Janis Joplin was followed by an interracial relationship with one Veronica Grant.

However, even while in his early 20s, Pigpen’s heavy drinking undermined his position in the band he helped form. While there are some classic recordings that feature him on lead vocals (covers of Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Smokestack Lightning as well as the original Operator), Pigpen’s talents were never truly captured by the Dead. Originally a blues harmonica player, he had moved on in the mid-1960s to the then in-vogue organ, but found that by 1968, his position was under threat.

Pigpen’s instability (ironic in that he was a heavy drinker in a band notorious for its use of psychedelic drugs) led to the addition of pianist Tom Constanten, and he was relegated to congas for a while. Even when Constanten (who despite playing on important albums like Aoxomoxoa barely figures in the group’s history) departed in 1970, Pigpen was unable to regain his original presence.

By the time of the seminal live album Europe 1972, the Dead had added Keith Godchaux on piano to supplement Pigpen’s organ-playing. However, despite being only 27, his drinking had aged him beyond his years, and he died of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, California, on March 8, 1973.

That meant that Godchaux took full rein. He had leapt on board the Dead train with his wife Donna-Jean, who a fine vocalist though she could be, always seemed wrong for the Dead. Keith, on the other hand, provided some much-needed impetus adding a jazz-rock touch to the group’s music, fuelling interesting albums like Wake of the Flood and Blues for Allah. However, by the late 1970s, it was all tired, and both Godchauxs were asked to leave. Keith died soon after his 32nd birthday, following a car crash in Marin County, California, on July 23, 1980.

Brent Mydland may have looked cool and been technically proficient, but his soft-rock contributions to the group were really quite lame. It may not have been his fault, but he sat through its weakest phase when the band cut just three studio albums (Go to Heaven, In the Dark and Built to Last) in 11 years. Nonetheless, he was the Dead’s longest-serving keyboardist, when at the age of 37 he died of a speedball (mixture of heroin and cocaine) overdose at his home in Lafayette, California, on July 26, 1990 (that’s right, almost exactly 10 years after Keith Godchaux’s death).

By that time the legendary rockers were on their last legs, more a touring concern than a viable creative entity (that’s despite a surprise hit single, Touch of Grey, in 1987). Band leader Jerry Garcia had his own battles with his health and there were some fears that the band would fold. Instead, pop star and long-time Dead fan Bruce Hornsby sat in while auditions were held.

Welnick was selected for the “hot seat”. Unfortunately for him, the Dead was no longer recording albums, and while his composition Long Way to Go Home became a crowd favourite, he never got to record as Garcia himself died of a heart attack in August 1995.

Unfortunately, Garcia’s passing and the subsequent disbanding of the Grateful Dead triggered a lengthy battle with depression for Welnick and he was hurt when he was not invited to any major post-Garcia reunions. When he slit his throat on June 2, 2006, he was 55. He died in Sonoma County, which neighboured Marin County and Contra Costra County where his three predecessors had died!

Martin Vengadesan, a music lover and history buff, combines his two passions in his fortnightly column. If you have any interesting stories you want him to research, do drop him a line.

***Late Addition***

Check out this cool bit torrent. It's called "Jamming At the Edge of Magic, Volume 3" and it features jams, jams, and more jams. These are "designer jams" with cute names like "Good Grief Jam" and "Moon Boots Jam." There are also classics like the "Mind Left Body Jam" (what did Dick call it? Mud Love Buddy?).


Blogger a.j. said...

"Brent Mydland may have looked cool and been technically proficient, but his soft-rock contributions to the group were really quite lame. It may not have been his fault, but he sat through its weakest phase..."

without getting in too deep here, it's safe to say that most heads would disagree with that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007  
Blogger SLC Library Boy said...

I've offended quite a few Heads by being less than reverent towards Brent, and it's mainly because of that "soft-rock" style you mention. But that being said, I asolutely love what Brent did right after he joined the band in '79, and right before he died (starting around September '89).

Tuesday, February 13, 2007  

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