Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) Talks the Grateful Dead’s Sunshine Daydream

To start with the pertinent facts: the new concert documentary Sunshine Daydream (just out on DVD) is the early-'70s Grateful Dead as I love...

To start with the pertinent facts: the new concert documentary Sunshine Daydream (just out on DVD) is the early-’70s Grateful Dead as I love and remember them, in fine form musically, all three string-players singing in good voice, unhurried, digging deep into their music. I do love all the various early modes this band moved through — although I lost the thread, as did, some would argue, the Dead as well, by the mid ’80s — and this is one of my favorite periods.

I dig the early amphetamine-fueled psych-outs of the Dead’s first album, the Stockhausen/Berio collage aesthetic of Anthem of the Sun and the fantastic deep-space and feedback of the incomparable Live Dead album. But the early ’70s saw the Dead consolidate what they had learned, combining their early experiences as the house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Test freak-outs with the folk and bluegrass elements that came to the fore a few years later. By this point they had hit a stable stride, and many of their most enduring concert gems, as evidenced on Grateful Dead (aka Skull and Roses) )“Bertha,” “The Other One,” “Playing in the Band,” “Not Fade Away”/”Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”) and Europe ’72 (“He’s Gone,” “Jack Straw,” “One More Saturday Night,” “China Cat Sunflower”/”I Know You Rider”), came out of this period.

My entry to the Dead coincided with many other significant events in my young teenage life — initial exposures to sex, drugs, cars, girls, music — all had, at least in part, the Grateful Dead as a soundtrack. I smoked my first joints over Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, listening across many lazy afternoons in M’s backyard, leafy green, with the speakers propped up against the window screens, blasting out the tunes. By the time Europe ’72 came out, just a couple years later, it seemed the band was in its healthiest state to date (not counting the ailing multi-instrumentalist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, for whom the tour in Europe would be his last). The band was writing vibrant new songs and the musicianship was at a real high. I saw them for the first time myself shortly after Pigpen stopped touring with them, about half a year after this concert was filmed.

On August 1st, what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 71st birthday, there were theatrical screenings of Sunshine Daydream all across the country. It would be the first time in quite a while that I’d really sit down and absorb the Dead’s music. I wondered how I’d react, and I dutifully prepared myself (ahem!) for the experience that lay ahead. At the entrance of the theatre was a happy guy with his finger in the air — he needed a miracle, as they say. The couple in our row had put their toddler to sleep in the seat next to them and were seriously going at it during some of the jams. It was the full concert experience! Well, almost: it was lacking the smell of weed. What are the chances of getting a roomful of Deadheads together for a concert movie and not smelling weed in the theatre even once? Was everyone on baked goods or what? I really couldn’t figure that one out.

Revisiting the Dead certainly massaged old memories, but I had a more contemporary reason to see how I’d react to seeing them again, in their prime. I finished a new album over the last few months — it’s called Last Night on Earth; and it comes out in early October. On this album, I worked closely with my band, the Dust — drummer Steve Shelley, guitarist Alan Licht and bass player Tim Luntzel — spending lots of time in rehearsal, getting inside the songs. Two or three of the new compositions are quite open-ended, and some of the free playing involved put me in mind of the Dead, mostly in an inspirational, aspirational way. One of the highlights of their music, for me and for many others, is their ability to flow freely from song forms to deep improvisation and back again. They weren’t afraid to examine musical terrain over extended time, without worrying about the verse and chorus. The verse and chorus can always take care of themselves anyway. They seemed keenly interested in creating these… cinematic… soundscapes. Everyone was contributing and, in spite of Garcia’s figurehead status, it was a fairly leader-less band, playing together. I used to claim that Sonic Youth had, on occasion, a similar template — our musical excursions may have been (on occasion) a bit more on the noisy side, but nonetheless explorations in sound. And like the Dead, our fans were usually willing to take the trip with us. So I was looking at them as a model for some of the exploratory passages that the Dust and I have recently been attempting. Watching the Dead up on the screen was a real lesson in how it’s done.

For better or worse, this is a “concert movie.” But mostly for the better — Sunshine Daydream is a treat. The film showcases a Grateful Dead concert hosted by Kens Kesey and Babbs in Veneta, Oregon on August 27, 1972. The concert was a benefit to save the then-fledgling Springfield Creamery of Eugene, Oregon, which was co-founded by Kesey’s brother Chuck in 1960 — their dad was in the dairy business and the Kesey brothers worked for him in their youth — and was possibly the first dairy in America to produce yogurt with live cultures, playing a part in the early days of the health food movement which has now, half a century later, led to that Whole Foods down the block from you. Yes, while Ken was dishing up the Acid Tests, brother Chuck was putting live acidophilus cultures into his co-worker Nancy Hamren’s grandma’s yogurt recipe, creating the Nancy’s Yogurt brand that still thrives today. But in the early ’70s the business was in danger of going under, just as they were having their first bit of success. The Dead jumped at the chance to help.

And that was kind of a big deal — by the early ’70s, the Dead were in full-on populist mode, tours growing bigger, audiences growing larger and the whole scene around them growing so big and unwieldy that just a few years later they would have to suspend operations for a year or two and regroup.

The show in the theatre started while the crowd was filing in, with a kaleidoscopic film of beautiful tie-dyed fabrics (what else) soundtracked by a 1972 live version of “Bertha” playing. It was pretty cool, and got the crowd pumped. When the lights finally dimmed, there was first a 20-minute mini-documentary, a DVD extra on the Creamery and the story behind the concert. Lots of hippie-speak and talking heads over vintage footage, with the Dead in the background playing “China Cat/Rider.” In hindsight it was informative, but at the time it threatened to crush my vibe. I wanted to see the band! I’m just glad I didn’t peak early…

The day of the concert was a scorcher, unusual for Oregon. It’s amazing to see the band playing in the blinding sun in the early sections of this film, before a crowd of 20,000. There’s a fair amount of obligatory rock-concert-film-footage in the beginning, with the Dead heard but not seen — hippies with hammers and saws raising the stage and preparing the concert site, people filing onto the field, little kids running free in the grass. A bunch of classic voice-overs of the “Woodstock bad brown acid” variety, PA announcements and Merry Prankster/Firesign Theatre hippy-babble complete the scene. All this stuff is well done, and it sets the stage and defines the day that this film attempts to capture, but I wanted to see the band! And eventually you do see the band, and they are in fine form and very well recorded.

In some sense this was Kesey’s show — at that time, all that country around Eugene was Kesey Country, and the legend “Furthur” that adorned the Merry Pranksters bus spoke for the general forward-thinking/renegade outlook/commune-living/vegetarian/whole grains-and-yogurt/head culture that was thriving there. There’s a montage of Prankster footage (including some of the same good footage of the bus rolling down 5th Avenue that was also used in the excellent Magic Trip film about the Pranksters) and images of the bus pulling up to the site. Kesey was the MC, supposedly, but he’s got a very low profile in the film, hanging out in the background with fellow Prankster Ken Babbs and erstwhile Dead co-manager Danny Rifkin.

The band were just a couple months back from their big sojourn to Europe, and, being on sympathetic territory up there in Eugene, they were just relaxed and playing, even in the scorching sun. It’s a great sight to see. An almost invisible Keith Godchaux hides in the wings on piano. (You see him on screen for the first time about two-thirds of the way through the film, and then only rarely after that.) His wife Donna Jean is present only on the last number, as the sun fully sets, adding a nice gospel touch to “Sing Me Back Home.” I know she’s considered by some a controversial presence in their lineup during this period, but here she is in just as fine voice as the three guys. Nice.

Mickey Hart was on leave at this point in the band’s history, and I do love the double-drummer Dead, but Billy Kreutzmann is great on his own too, and his playing is sublime here, focusing the songs, whether propelling Chuck Berry riffs or venturing off the deep end during the extended jams. Nothing flashy, but never dropping the beat either. He’s a very underrated drummer.

As for Jerry, Bob and Phil, all three are playing and singing at the top of their game. How effortlessly they played together! No one is jumping around on the stage, everyone’s locked together in the music. Garcia’s playing is so beautiful here — and, really, that goes for each of them. Lots of good shots (and good audio) of all of them too. Weir is laying down his weird rhythm-lead over Garcia’s lead-rhythm and Lesh weaves in and out melodically between them, like Paul McCartney on, well, acid. When their sound is on and locked in tight, it’s wonderful, and it is here. It was that effortless, unhurried quality that got me. Sometimes the music just hung there, inching along in beautiful magistery, and no one felt the need to rush anything. “Let It Grow,” indeed.

Bob Weir leads the band through a lively hot-sun version of “Promised Land,” which Garcia follows with a smokey rendition of the enigmatic “Bird Song.” Very cool. There’s a sweet “China Cat Sunflower,” and, as the band moves out of that song and into “I Know You Rider,” there’s a very sensitive film portrait of Neal Cassady that I really enjoyed, though it’s not fully clear if he was present at the event physically or just in spirit. In order to keep the concert film flavor, there’s tons of cutaways to audiences grooving, naked ladies dancing, backstage antics, etc. And there are also a few animation and “filmic” sequences that recall mid-’50s avant garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith and Joseph Cornell, rather than ’60s psychedelia, which was a good and smart move.

It was great to hear Phil putting in the high harmonies with such gusto. I think it’s partially why I like this period of the Dead so much. The great three-part harmonies from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty carried over to the Europe ’72 material and onto the stage. When they play “Jack Straw” it’s fascinating to watch as they trade lead vocals and duets — Jerry solo, Bob solo, Jerry and Bob, Bob and Phil, all three together. It’s a great version of a great song.

I’m pretty particular about watching rock bands on film — I really like wide shots that show a whole band onscreen (not fingers on fretboards!), and sometimes I wanted a little more of that. Phil would be singing three-part harmony along with Bob and Jerry, but off camera. Slightly frustrating. But mostly, the band sequences are filmed with a nice sensitivity. For one long sequence there’s a bearded, naked hippie high up on a post behind Garcia and Weir — over a long series of shots, he hangs in the upper left corner of the frame like a vulture or talisman. This guy was a big part of the film for me. He disappears for a song or two, then after a while he reappears, but someone has obviously asked him to put on shorts if he was going to be in the shots! It’s a comic moment. Here he is:


As the sun sets, the band really settles in and stretches out, deep into the space of a lengthy and quite remarkable “Dark Star,” truly sublime. It’s so cool to watch them playing this stuff, not just hearing it but watching them onstage, and the filmmakers stay with the music as the band moves into some deep space, and let the playing unfold without trying anything goofy or tricky. There are no histrionics from the players either, or even any stage patter, really, just the music. You can feel them get more comfortable — and more out there — as the bright sun fades to red dusk and then enveloping darkness.

A good version of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” brings us out of the jamming, and the film closes out with a sublime version of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” that is just as slow and sweet as the sunset. I guess the organizers forgot that it would get dark out, and brought no stage lights, so that this last passage of the film gets grainier and grainier, more ghostly, through the length of the song, very abstract and hip in its underexposed way — the band reduced to dark shapes atomized against sky, and Garcia’s vocal so plaintive on the verses, Donna Jean adding her voice to the chorus. What a great way to go out.

Sunshine Daydream was a reminder of how much I’d appreciated this band at various points in my past, and how much ground they covered and how much beautiful music they made. I know they are a band many love to hate, but many of their best qualities are in evidenced in this film. Anyone who loves the Dead will surely want to see this — a “High Time” is pretty much guaranteed. Happy birthday, Jerry.