read John Darnielle’s (Mountain Goats) essay on Grateful Dead’s ‘Reckoning’ & hear the audiobook
As mentioned, Vinyl Me, Please released a new Grateful Dead 8-album, 14-disc vinyl box set (order yours), featuring essays by modern musicians on each of the albums in the set, including Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Avery Tare of Animal Collective, Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, Margo Price, MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, Scott Devendorf of The National, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists, and Hunter Brown of STS9. The Jim James and Dave Longstreth essays are also available to read online and we're now excited to be sharing John Darnielle's essay on the Dead's 1981 live album Reckoning -- recorded in 1980 at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre and New York City's Radio City Music Hall -- along with an audiobook recording of John reading the essay.
"All I'd known of the Dead before were bare bones I'd gleaned from radio, which weren't much, and some stray exposure here or there," John writes. "I'd seen them burn 'Casey Jones' to the ground on Saturday Night Live, and 'Alabama Getaway' had gotten some play on Portland stations. On a K-Tel compilation, I had the FM radio edit of 'Truckin'.' Armed with these and the received wisdom that the Dead were one of the most spaced-out, turned-on bands around, what did I find when I dropped Reckoning onto my turntable?"
"Acoustic guitars, understated percussion, hushed vocals, lilting piano, flat-top throwdowns, folk songs, rock-solid melodies, tight storytelling, and a reverence for the wonder of shared musical moments in time. It was a revelation to me then, and it remains one today — unique in the Dead's catalogue, a set in conversation with their entire body of work in all its tendencies: country both cosmic and earthbound, blues borne gladly or bitterly, joy in life and ever-present shadows of death."
Read John's full essay and listen to him read it below.
For (much) more Dead, there are over 14,000 (and counting) free Grateful Dead concert recordings available online. Also, tonight they continue their weekly Shakedown Stream series at 8 PM ET on YouTube. This week, they'll stream video of their 4/21/1972 show at West Germany’s Beat Club, one of the shows from the tour that was recorded for the iconic Europe ’72 album. The pre-show will feature Sam Cutler, who managed the Dead on that tour (and famously also worked with The Rolling Stones and others). Tune in here.
There's also a Workingman's Dead 50th anniversary reissue on the way with remastered, previously unreleased recordings of their 2/21/1971 show at Port Chester, NY's Capitol Theater. You can hear "Casey Jones" from the live portion here.
John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) on the Grateful Dead's Reckoning:
You could get 11 albums for a penny from the Columbia Record Club in 1981 — and, in 1981, I was a 14-year-old music freak without a lot of cash, so I sent in my penny and camped out by the mailbox. I remember getting two late-vintage Jethro Tull albums (A and Stormwatch, both of which I'll still defend) and seven other records whose memories are lost to history... plus Go to Heaven, which was the most recent album by the Grateful Dead, and Reckoning, their latest live set.
Before that, all I'd known of the Dead before were bare bones I'd gleaned from radio, which weren't much, and some stray exposure here or there — I'd seen them burn "Casey Jones" to the ground on Saturday Night Live, and "Alabama Getaway" had gotten some play on Portland stations. On a K-Tel compilation, I had the FM radio edit of "Truckin'." Armed with these and the received wisdom that the Dead were one of the most spaced-out, turned-on bands around, what did I find when I dropped Reckoning onto my turntable?
Acoustic guitars, understated percussion, hushed vocals, lilting piano, flat-top throwdowns, folk songs, rock-solid melodies, tight storytelling, and a reverence for the wonder of shared musical moments in time. It was a revelation to me then, and it remains one today — unique in the Dead's catalogue, a set in conversation with their entire body of work in all its tendencies: country both cosmic and earthbound, blues borne gladly or bitterly, joy in life and ever-present shadows of death.
Across two LPs, the band argued, persuasively, for a continuity between timeless classics of early blues and country and their own far-reaching explorations. There was Elizabeth Cotten’s "Oh Babe, It Ain't No Lie," presented here in a rendition so delicate and sensitive that it still takes my breath away, 39 years after the first time I heard it. There was "The Race Is On," an old George Jones hit whose vocal harmonies ride over a locked-in Tennessee Three rhythm. And alongside these and others like them, there was the Dead's own music, rooted in older styles and moods, but attuned to the aches and pains of the present day, to the particular needs of its audience — which is the function of music: to meet its listeners where they are, to speak their language.
The wonder of Reckoning is this reconciliation: between "Dark Hollow"'s bluegrass plaint, rooted in Garcia's sterling picker credentials and to-the-stars-and-beyond visions like "Bird Song." Between "China Doll”’s kaleidoscopic ache, and "Been All Around This World" stage-winking at the grave. In near-universally familiar tropes of American song, the Dead, after better than a decade of highly amplified wandering, came home to the music that had inspired them as young men. And they found, in it, something very near the essence of who they'd become over 15 years on the road, playing and living and winning and losing together. They didn't stretch out, as they'd been doing all summer on "Estimated Prophet" and "China Cat Sunflower"; they settled in, finding comparable galaxies in compressed packages like "Jack-A-Roe," whose solos rise like sparks from a forge, or "Deep Elem Blues." What is this syncopation if not road-workhorse "Samson and Delilah" dressed down to denim and boots? Here, the band conspires to draw connections like this in tune after tune.
But for me the heart of the set has always been "China Doll," five minutes of careful, shared exploration that resolves in an epiphany. Coming out of "Dark Hollow"’s irresistible roll, it opens slowly and mournfully — picked minor chords blossoming into a huge major seventh that feels like, and is, the beginning of a journey. Brent Mydland's harpsichord recalls "Mountains of the Moon" from Aoxomoxoa, but the lyric trails 13 years of highway dust behind it: "If you can abide it / Let the hurdy-gurdy play / Stranger ones have come by here / Before they flew away." Garcia delivers a wounded, cautious vocal, its lyric steeped in the wild-west murder ballad mood that Robert Hunter often favored, but here finding not rebellion and defiance, but resignation, and hope of the sort we find in reckoning damages and finding a little less than we'd feared. When the baroque arrangement gently modulates from minor to major for that final chorus, the audience cheers in response: a familiar motif has resolved into something new, which was the engine of the Dead's practice: locating the unseen in the familiar, the unexpected in the known quantity.
The wonder of Reckoning lies in hearing first-hand the versatility of that engine, the adaptability of its gears: because it's not the instruments you play that account for the music you make on them, in the end. It's the tunes. There are sixteen of those here, and they all still take me where I want to go.
Pick up your copy of VMP Anthology: The Story of the Grateful Dead here.
Check out photos of The Mountain Goats in NJ in 2017: