For the Grateful Dead, 1972 was the year. The band's early-'60s bluegrass roots, its mid-'60s electric-blues jams, its late-'60s psychedelic-improv experiments and its early-'70s Americana songwriting all came together to produce a sparkling peak. A year or two later, drugs, death and fatigue dulled the songwriting and slowed the rhythms to a narcotic ooze. But in 1972, everything was working.
On Sept. 17 of that year, the Dead came to the Baltimore Civic Center. I was fresh out of college, teaching high-school English. I bought a ticket, down on the floor about 30 rows back, and I had to stand on my rickety folding chair for the three-hour show just to see the stage.
I've never been a Deadhead. I've always loved Jerry Garcia's guitar work, and the songs from the band's 1970-'71 albums ("Workingman's Dead," "American Beauty" and "Grateful Dead"), but I've always been skeptical of the Dead's vocals and I have a low tolerance for their spacier jams. But the Civic Center show still stands as one of the great concert experiences of my life.
Youthful memories are notoriously unreliable, however, and mine were tested last year when Grateful Dead Records released the three-CD set "Dick's Picks Vol. 23: Baltimore Civic Center 9/17/72." My heart sank at the first disc's stumbling start. I didn't remember these clumsy rhythms, these tentative vocals. It sounded like the many Dead shows I've seen during which the band floundered around, trying to find an elusive groove.
But then, five minutes into the sixth number, "Bird Song," as Garcia's guitar solo gains momentum, there's a drum fill, and the music gels, as it did on the group's best nights. Suddenly, the five musicians are no longer playing five separate parts; they're playing one, achieving the negotiated, unspoken consensus that is the democratic genius of group improvisation. When the meditative ease of "Bird Song" gives way to Johnny Cash's "Big River," the Dead crackle with hillbilly recklessness, which carries over into "Tennessee Jed" and "Mexicali Blues." And that sets up the "China Cat Sunflower"/"I Know You Rider" medley, the highlight of many a Dead show.
To understand how the Grateful Dead reached this peak, there's no better textbook than the new 12-CD box set "The Golden Road (1965-1973)," which includes all nine albums (five studio, four live) the band recorded for Warner Bros. Records. The original sets are supplemented by studio outtakes and/or live recordings; three extended, free-form jams from the "Aoxomoxoa" sessions are an especially valuable discovery. Also included are a CD of pre-Warner studio demos and a CD of pre-Warner live performances from 1965-'67.
The box comes with a 75-page booklet with a 15,000-word excerpt from Dennis McNally's forthcoming biography of the band. McNally, one of Jack Kerouac's ablest biographers before becoming the Dead's longtime publicist, is one of the rare Deadheads who can actually write; and his story is as clear as it is fascinating. Each of the discs also comes with a 16-page booklet of notes and credits. As box sets go, this one is especially well done.
With its chronological approach, "The Golden Road" makes strikingly clear how mediocre this group was early on. From 1965 through '67, the Dead sounded like a hippie-band parody: ramshackle rhythms, off-key vocals, sophomoric lyrics, few solos. They had good taste in material, covering tunes associated with Bill Monroe, Slim Harpo, Allen Toussaint and Bob Dylan, but they didn't know what to do with it.
But three things happened in 1968 to transform these earnest wannabes into a genre unto themselves. Most obviously, Garcia stepped forward as a soloist; basically, he took Doc Watson's Appalachian flat-picking, slowed it down, amped it up, and let the lines meander like a Sonny Rollins solo. Less obvious but just as crucial were the contributions of Mickey Hart and Robert Hunter. Hart, who joined the band in 1967, was a Brooklyn veteran of Latin and swing; he developed a rolling, clave-flavored rhythm with fellow drummer Bill Kreutzmann that was as essential to the Dead sound as Garcia's guitar. And Hunter, Garcia's longtime novel-writing pal, became the band's in-house lyricist, making the words as interesting as the music.
These changes bore fruit on 1968's "Anthem of the Sun." The following year's "Aoxomoxoa" was a project of intense studio experimentation, more interesting for the collective mind-set it produced than the music on the record. That mind-set made possible the band's first great album, 1969's "Live/Dead."
Sensing that the group was leaning too far in an experimental direction, Garcia pulled the Dead back to its folk and blues roots for two 1970 albums of stripped-down Americana. "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty" are Hunter's finest moments; drawing from the vocabulary of 19th-century ballads, legends and tall tales, he created a set of myths to match the old-timey echoes in the Dead's music.
The two poles of the "Grateful Dead" sound -- roots and experimentation -- finally were integrated in 1971 and '72. The first payoff was 1971's two-LP set Grateful Dead, largely recorded at a handful of New York shows. Even better was "Europe '72," a three-LP live set and the Dead's most impressive capture. They introduced such unrecorded gems as "He's Gone," "Jack Straw," "Tennessee Jed," "Brown-Eyed Woman" and "Ramble on Rose." But in contrast to the laid-back studio vibe of "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty," these songs were given full-blown rock & roll treatments, as were "Cumberland Blues," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Truckin'."
There would be other, smaller peaks between 1972 and the band's final dissolution with Garcia's death in 1995, but there would also be plenty of valleys and ravines. "Grateful Dead" and "Europe '72" are the Dead's two best albums because they were compiled from the best moments of the band's tours. Unfortunately, it has become a tenet of Deadhead ideology that you have to hear a whole show on tape to appreciate it fully. This is an interesting philosophy, but it makes for very uneven albums, as the 23 volumes of the "Dick's Picks" series proves.
If the folks at Grateful Dead Records were smart, they'd go back to their 1972 tapes and cherry-pick the best moments from the U.S. shows to create an America '72, a companion to "Europe '72." And they'd be sure to include several songs from the Sept. 17 show in Baltimore.