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Five for the Record: The Grateful Dead, “Infrared Roses.”

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?”

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Bankrupt in Boston.

Search the Boston Herald archives for my name, and you’ll find three bylines going back sixteen years, to the last half-year or so of my time in Massachusetts.

In baseball terms, my career as a reporter in big-city papers was very much a cup of coffee. I worked 12 years at small to mid-size papers. Along the way I accumulated maybe a half-dozen clips from large-market papers — the equivalent of a journeyman infielder’s half-dozen trips to the plate in The Show.

It’s always felt like a mixed blessing to me to have had my name in the Herald.

And when I heard today that Boston’s No. 2 newspaper had filed for bankruptcy and reached agreement to be sold for about the same amount it takes to buy a really nice condo on Beacon Hill, that was bittersweet too.

See, Boston is to daily newspapers what New York City is to baseball teams: In theory, they’re fortunate to have two, but each is cursed with deep flaws.

The historical knocks against the Globe, Boston’s largest paper, are soft-headed liberalism, elitism, blandness, and letting its shoe-leather local reporting slide as it pursued status as a National Newspaper of Record.

(The Globe’s Features section has also run some of the most dreadful, self-absorbed, navel-gazing crap I’ve ever read — though it by no means holds a monopoly on that sort of writing.)

The Herald falls far to the other end of the scale. It’s conservative, sensational, provincial, way too into its friend-of-the-little-guy shtick, and just plain yapping-dog annoying. (When I go to hell, I expect to find the waiting room papered with Boston Herald front pages.)

I never worked for the Herald. Never wanted to — it was always the Globe or the Providence Journal I daydreamed about, in terms of the ultimate last step.

But when the Herald bought the chain of suburban papers I worked for, that propped the door open just a shade.

If the grunt reporters in the suburbs unearthed a story that the Herald found interesting, they had a shot at getting it into the big paper. And so it was that I got my three at-bats — er, bylines — in the Herald between August and October of 2001.

(According to today’s news coverage, the Herald employed about 900 people then. Today it employs 225. Its prospective new owner wants to cut 50 of those who remain, and get rid of union representation for the rest. If the tone of this post suggests to you that I’m happy about any of that, you are incorrect.)

I’ve known good reporters and good people who worked for the Herald, and to a (wo)man, they’ve reveled in the underdog role.

At its best, the Herald has accomplished remarkable things, fueled by little more than piss, grit, and resourcefulness. Those who have bought into the ride wouldn’t have it any other way, by their telling.

Still, as much as I respected the Heraldites in my orbit, the paper is and always has been just too trashy and obnoxious to read.

One anecdote: In my days in Massachusetts, the Herald was quietly regarded to have had an excellent business section. Unfortunately, it came with the rest of the Herald wrapped around it. I chatted one day with a business leader who gestured to the front page — with its revealing photo of Britney Spears — and told me the Herald’s business coverage ultimately couldn’t compete with the Globe’s, just because business people didn’t want a tawdry rag like the Herald visible in their offices.

Also, a lot of the Herald’s much-ballyhooed state and local political reporting seemed to spring from a endless well of backstabbing and score-settling. The quintessential Herald story arc would run something like this:

  • State Senator A learns that State Senator B returned a rented car four months late, but pulled strings to get the fees waived. Friend of State Senator A drops a dime to the Herald. Hammer-to-head front-page headline ensues.
  • Three or four years later, Friend of State Senator B hears that Senator A has been taking long lunches with a coed who’s enrolled in the poli sci class Sen. A teaches at a local college. Friend of B drops a dime to the Herald. Hammer-to-head front-page headline ensues.
  • Friend of A crosses paths with Friend of B — preferably outside a bar, preferably in Southie — and they attack each other with plastic ice scrapers. Howie Carr column ensues. (If you don’t know Howie, all you need to know about him is that he coined the phrase “hacko di tutti hacki.“)

If any of my old Herald acquaintances see this post, they’ll probably get sweaty palms reading that sequence of events, wishing they could write about it.

Maybe it says something about me that I don’t. I guess I lack the esprit de corps, the adventure, to really play. I’m just too boring, too staid.

Still, this says all you need to know about the Boston Herald: It is one of the only underdogs I’ve ever encountered that I cannot root for.

If it goes, it goes. Its foot soldiers are skilled, smart, and seemingly tireless. They’ll catch on at something, somewhere.

Kinda like I did, after I took my at-bats, hung up my spikes and moved on.

America’s (third) choice.

News item: Former independent presidential candidate John Anderson is dead at 95.

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In my travels, I’ve met a whole bunch of people — co-workers, friends, in-laws — who voted for John Anderson in 1980. I sometimes think I’ve met at least one-quarter of everybody who ever voted for John Anderson.

Or maybe I just happen to cross paths with people who think like I do … because, had I been of voting age in 1980, I would probably have joined them.

I wouldn’t have gone for Reagan; I wouldn’t have bought into four more years of Carter; and, as my flirtation with Bernie Sanders shows, I’m game for a good third option when things get bleak with the major parties.

(Also, Anderson forged an unlikely partnership with Todd Rundgren, which only adds to his credentials in this space.)

I don’t like everything Anderson ever said, and I’m sure some of his stances would have given me heartburn in 1980.

But from this distance, it does not matter. He will always occupy a nostalgia-warmed niche in my political imagination, as upright and dogged as a Plymouth Reliant K-car, chasing a waning hope through a waning autumn.

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Don’t touch that dial.

It was a good day at work: I got a fair amount of stuff done (or at least moved forward), and things slowed down enough in the last hour or so for me to spend a couple minutes chasing a random brain-bubble.

Today’s subject was the “More To Come” bumper illustrations that used to appear before commercial breaks on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

I remember them fondly, but never gave two thoughts until today as to why they were there.

Was it once common for TV shows to actively remind people they’d be back in a minute? Was Carson truly paranoid (in the days before remote control) that viewers would switch during commercial breaks and never come back? Or was the whole thing an excuse to keep NBC’s staff of graphic artists busy?

I can think of plenty of other shows that have used, and continue to use, bumper images — SNL has raised it to a high art — but the insistence on including reassuring messaging seemed unusual to me.

I never did find out why they were there the way they were. But along the way I stumbled on a discussion of TV-show bumper practices that was way more interesting than I expected it would be. I’ve often enjoyed hearing radio DJs talk about the behind-the-scenes skills and tricks of their trade; this made me think that the engineers who work in TV studios are probably just as interesting.

I also looked for, but couldn’t find, examples of the bumpers my local PBS channel used to show in the ’80s during nightside programming.

In between shows, these random images (I distinctly remember a seal, or maybe a sea lion, was one) would pop up and hang out for a minute or so, to the accompaniment of mellow music of the Grover Washington Jr. variety. They may have been more-to-comes as well, or they might just have had the station’s logo.

Years later, when there was an Internet, I learned how the BBC and other British TV networks would fill time between scheduled programs with continuity announcers, clocks and spinning globes.

Since my local PBS station seemed to rely heavily on the Beeb for its programming, it only makes sense that they would also have to fiddle and fill in similar fashion to plug gaps between shows. (Why the BBC and PBS seemed to have this problem and others didn’t, I still don’t know.)

This is just obscure enough a topic that I’m sure the Internet has the answer someplace — probably more answers than I really need to know.

Until then…

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They took blood from my hand.

I miss Pissed-Off Middle-Aged Lou Reed; America needs more like him.

Today’s earworm is “I Believe,” from Songs for Drella, in which Reed calls for the execution of Valerie Solanas (who was already dead at that point, but never mind) over some jaunty off-Broadway piano-playing from John Cale.

Years ago I read an interview in Musician magazine with Ice Cube’s producer, who said something along the lines of, “If you’re making a song called ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,’ your beat better sound like the most wanted.”

If you’re wishing death to someone in song, your guitar better sound like the most furious … and Reed’s guitar barks and spits throughout “I Believe,” peaking with an angry coal-black smear of a solo.

(Once upon a time I kept a list of 10 Favorite Guitar Solos actively updated in my mind. It’s been some years since I thought of it. If the list still existed, this solo would be a candidate for the lower reaches.)

I disagree pretty thoroughly with what Reed says here, but I will defend to the death his right to say it … especially when his guitar puts the “crank” in “cranky.”

Starless.

I saw King Crimson last night at Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown. Talking points:

They did the old stuff quite well — including “Starless” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part II,” the two songs I’d most want to hear if I were going to see King Crimson perform.

They did the newer stuff well enough to convince me that I don’t need to dive into the albums I don’t already own.

They had three drummers and I don’t feel like I need to hear another roto-tom for about five years.

Tony Levin is still an unbelievable musician, and a capable backup singer too.

I only saw one person get kicked out for violating the band’s strict (and repeatedly expressed) no-photos, no-recording rule. Miller Symphony Hall is a pretty small place, which made spotting scofflaws easy, and most people opted not to risk it.

If there were any one picture I would have taken, it would have been the point in “Starless” when the stage lighting, appropriately enough, went entirely red. The musicians looked like devils, and played rather like them too.

Mel Collins, at age 70, sounded remarkably good all night as he shuttled between soprano, alto and baritone saxes and flute. Collins goes back the longest of any current Crimson member besides Robert Fripp, having played and recorded with the band between 1970 and 1972. (After leaving Crimson’s orbit, he played the solo on the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” serving as Roger Moore to Bobby Keys’s Sean Connery.)

I believe this is the first show I’ve ever been to in which no guitar or bass amplifiers were visible onstage. (I have heard of ampless systems before — Rush apparently used them for several years — but have never seen one in my infrequent concertgoing.) Sounded perfectly fine.

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In unrelated news: Those who still doubt that I will follow the Grateful Dead down any path might want to know that I am currently downloading a two-hour-plus recording of nothing but Bob Weir’s rhythm guitar.

Yup. Apparently, on Aug. 19, 1989, at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, the crew recorded an isolated feed of Weir’s guitar straight from the board for the entire concert (allegedly to check it for unwanted distortion).

This tape has made its way into traderland and onto my external hard drive, where it will probably grab my attention and ears ahead of 40 or 50 other shows that are more interesting and deserving.

Weir is a relatively offbeat and creative rhythm guitar player, so it might actually be kinda interesting to hear him and nothing but him.

We’ll find out now, anyway.

Haven’t we met?

The last time I saw Joe Musgrove, reigning champion of the (American) baseball world, he was trying to work his way out of a jam in front of four thousand people in Fishkill, New York.

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Musgrove pitched in four World Series games this fall for the champion Houston Astros, winning one of them. His name sounded familiar when I read it in the news, but I couldn’t place why.

Today I remembered. In August 2014, while vacationing in western Connecticut, I saw a Class A New York-Penn League game between the Tri-City ValleyCats (an Astros farm team) and the Hudson Valley Renegades (a Tampa Bay Rays farm team.)

Musgrove, who nowadays works out of the bullpen, started that game for Tri-City. He pitched into the seventh inning, didn’t allow a run, but didn’t get the win either. (Tri-City ended up winning 2-0 on two runs scored after he left the game.)

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Three other members of the 2017 Astros also played on the 2014 ValleyCats — outfielder Derek Fisher, third baseman J.D. Davis and first baseman A.J. Reed. Fisher played the night I saw them, and also appeared in the 2017 World Series; Davis and Reed didn’t do either.

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Meanwhile, only one member of the opposing Renegades has made the big leagues to date — and he spent just about the minimum time there, appearing in one game and pitching one-third of an inning. (He got his man, anyway.)

Most people who tout minor-league baseball as a place to see the stars on their way up probably keep close track of who they’ve seen — through programs, through autographs, whatever. That, or they make it a point to go see the hot prospects.

I like my method better. Go spend a night under the lights in an unfamiliar town, have a beer and soak in the scene. And then see what comes back to you after a couple of years have traveled their course.

That night also happened to be Superhero Night at the ballpark, and the interns and summerhelp were decked out in all kinds of costumes.

Perhaps there were people in the building that night who remember nothing of Joe Musgrove but have always remembered the time they saw Spider-Man.

That’s fine too.

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