A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: 1991 live double album by the Grateful Dead, compiled (almost) entirely from the “Drums” and “Space” free-improvisation portions of Dead shows in 1989 and 1990. Produced by Bob Bralove, the Dead’s keyboard tech and programmer. Did not chart.
And here’s why I like it:
1. “Crowd Sculpture.” The Dead’s relationship with its colorful fanbase was unique in mainstream rock. It makes gracious good sense, then, that this most distinctive of Grateful Dead live albums should begin with two-and-a-half minutes of crowd noise — not arena roar, but rather the conversational buzz one used to hear walking around the parking lot outside a Dead show.
The crowd was an integral part of the live Dead experience, and here they get their own moment. (There are no vocals on any of the songs, so the voices of Deadheads are the only voices you hear; the band members are represented solely by their fingers, strings, sticks and keys.)
The first thing you hear is people trying to score tickets. As I listened to the rest of the album, I periodically found myself wondering whether the miracle-seekers had managed to make it into the show, or whether they’d been shut out. Had producer Bralove, like some sort of fatalistic Russian novelist, introduced us to these characters only to kill them off in the first act?
Perhaps they are there in the parking lot to this day, hoping for admission.
2. Their walls are built of cannonballs. The Dead’s lyrics, written mainly by Robert Hunter, are loaded with references to American cultural icons, from Billy Sunday to Stagger Lee.
Hunter chose the names for the “tunes” constructed on Infrared Roses, and many of them evoke themes or figures from the past as well. Some of the references seem to share a theme of personal or musical disorientation — fitting, for an album full of space jams:
-“Little Nemo in Nightland” is directly reminiscent of Little Nemo in Slumberland, the pioneering comic strip about a small boy’s adventures while dreaming.
-“Magnesium Night Light” suggests Charles Ives’ Calcium Light Night, one of those distinctly Ivesian pieces in which multiple melodies collide and clash.
-“Silver Apples of the Moon” is a reference to William Butler Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” whose title character is bewitched by a trout that turns into a glimmering dream-girl. (It was also the title of an album of electronic music by Morton Subotnick.)
– Regrettably, the cover image of Infrared Roses is not actually an infrared rose — too obvious, I guess — but that seems like something that might be disorienting to look at, as well.
As for what “Post-Modern Highrise Table Top Stomp” means … well, you’re on your own there.
3. Historical significance. This depends a little bit on eye-of-the-beholder, but I’d argue that Infrared Roses is the Dead’s last album of original material.
By 1991, the Dead had already begun ralphing out an endless series of CDs and downloads recapping single concerts (occasionally breaking the monotony with multiple-concert box sets). This pattern of releases continues to this day.
Infrared Roses, in contrast, is not a relive-one-night affair, but a creative attempt to package multiple sessions’ work into a distinctive whole. And while there are no riffs and no lyrics, I’d still classify the music here as original and unique.
Certainly, playing something from the Dead’s first album — say, “Cream Puff War” — next to, say, “Magnesium Night Light” is one way to trace the group’s quarter-century evolution from little ol’ Hashbury jam band to Arena-Filling Life-Changing Sociocultural Institution.
Also on the historical front: Infrared Roses is the only original album of Vince Welnick’s stint as Dead keyboardist (assuming you buy my argument that it’s an original album), and the Bruce Hornsby-Welnick keyboard duet “Silver Apples of the Moon” is the only track the Dead released during Welnick’s tenure on which he plays.
4. The sounds. My arguments in favor of Infrared Roses are not just based on cultural riffs, references and close readings: I like the music too. If you happen to enjoy the free portions of Dead concerts — as I do — the album is a satisfying reproduction of same.
I’m not sure the music on the album is exactly as it went down on stage on any given night: Bralove, for instance, gets credit for drum machine on one song, and he wasn’t an onstage performer.
But the music isn’t heavily processed by someone trying to simulate an acid trip, either. It sounds like the Dead, on good tuned-in nights, doing what only they did.
There’s a bunch of good Jerry Garcia noodling here that reminds me how much he’s missed. The feedback rhino-howl that arises from nowhere to begin “Magnesium Night Light” especially sticks in the mind.
5. The yuxx. Even at their best, the Dead were never able to pull anything off 100 percent correctly. (This, after all, was the band that turned the phrase “just exactly perfect” into a running joke of 45 years’ duration.)
It seems fitting, then, that after 11 tracks of perfectly acceptable space music, the band should wrap up Infrared Roses with a clinker.
Free jams are slippery beasts — some work, some don’t — and the last track, “Apollo at the Ritz,” doesn’t. The members of the band (including special guest Branford Marsalis) never really seem on the same page, and they sound like a Holiday Inn band that spitefully decided to swap instruments on its last night on the gig.
(Required caveat: Deadheads seem to revere anything on which Branford shows up, so your mileage may vary. Of course, we’re talking about a 58-minute album of free improvisation here; your mileage was probably vastly different from mine, right from the start.)
After almost eight minutes of aimless toytown wandering, Bralove ends the track by fading up a huge, improbable, arena-sized cheer. It’s impossible to believe the roaring throats are responding to the music. The crowd doesn’t even really sound like it’s in the same room as the band.
It’s not a triumphant way to go out, I suppose. But even an album of experimental wandering wouldn’t be a Grateful Dead album if it didn’t make you shake your head at least once and sigh, “What the hell?”