The Dead, formerly the Grateful Dead, just kicked off their first summer tour since the 1995 death of legendary lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. But never mind this momentous occasion: All drummer Mickey Hart wants to do is talk on the phone about his recent book, Songcatchers.
"The stories are sort of Indiana Jonesish," says the elfin-browed Hart of his fourth book, an impressive collection of history-based world-music vignettes put out by National Geographic's hardcover publishing arm. "[Chronicling and playing world music] used to be my hobby; now it's my passion and life. If we didn't have this music preserved, there'd be no Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead allowed me to bring it back to the mother ship. That was and is the great strength of the Dead."
Indeed, it was and is. There are no two simpler verbs in the English language, yet these tiny words cut to the core of why this particular Dead tour ranks among the most semantically and artistically contentious of the summer lot. Despite the considerable talents of Hart and longtime bandmates Bob Weir (rhythm guitar), Phil Lesh (bass guitar) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums), Jerry Garcia was the Grateful Dead. Although the band was decidedly egalitarian when it came to sharing songwriting and vocal duties, ask any hardcore Deadhead to name the 20 Dead songs that he'd put on a greatest-hits mix tape, and smart money says Jerry's tunes occupy the lion's share of the audio reel. Two of the three songs touted by name on the band's current promotional materials -- "Fire On the Mountain" and "Uncle John's Band"-- featured Garcia on lead vocals (the third, "Box of Rain," was sung by Lesh).
Hence, it was and still is Garcia's band, eight years after his passing. That's why many Dead fans who tolerated the band under the name the Other Ones consider even a "Grateful"-free return to the moniker nothing short of blasphemy.
"That's poppycock," says Hart of such gripes. "There'll always be some people in that world, but it's a vocal minority. Out of respect to Jerry and to honor his legacy, we decided to call ourselves the Dead. It's all about the music. We built the Grateful Dead. Why turn your back on something you've built? Now that would be blasphemous. Jerry would be the first to tell you that the Grateful Dead wasn't all about him."
Except that, when push came to shove, it was -- especially in concert. This phenomenon had as much to do with Garcia's mercurial health and taste for narcotics as it did with his ingenious bouncy playing style. When he was fully engaged and on his A-game, Garcia added soaring, multilayered marathon solos that lifted the Dead's live performance to unparalleled heights. But when he was tipping the scales at close to three bills, subsisting on egg creams and nicotine, doing enough cocaine to disqualify an entire Kentucky Derby field and all but requiring stage hands to forcibly prop him up, the band was profoundly awful, even when Garcia's full onstage complement of musicians was razor sharp.
Nowhere was Garcia's alpha-dog vitality more pronounced than during back-to-back shows in Seattle and Portland during the band's final spring tour in 1995. In the shadow of the Space Needle in Seattle's Memorial Stadium, a spry, relatively expressive Garcia led the boys through spirited renditions of two crowd-pleasing twofers, "Help On the Way/ Franklin's Tower" and "Scarlet Begonias/ Fire On the Mountain," both of which had beach balls bouncing and blunts blazing beneath a pristine blue sky.
Some 300 miles and three days later, baking in an unseasonably searing sun at Portland Meadows, Garcia was asleep at his Fender, content merely to tease at solos and let the obnoxiously charismatic Weir take command. Frankly, "Rock Star Bobby" was always the Dead's weakest link, turning up the collars on his signature hot-pink alligator polo shirt to do cheesy renditions of Chuck Berry tunes and inviting bubblegum hacks such as Huey Lewis to play harmonica onstage whenever Garcia would slip into a set-long coma.
Perhaps it was Garcia's late, great Jekyll-and-Hyde nature that compels Hart to claim that the Dead's current lineup -- which includes keyboardists Rob Barraco and Jeff Chimenti, the vastly underrated Joan Osborne in the Donna Jean Godchaux role on vocals and ex-Aquarium Rescue Unit string-tickler Jimmy Herring attempting to fill Garcia's hole on lead guitar -- is "better than we left it."
"It's a hot version of the Grateful Dead," says Hart of the group's latest incarnation. "It feels like the Grateful Dead but without Jerry. I feel like he's riding shotgun with us. It feels really great. It's back to the way it used to be in the '60s. We're breaking these new guys in, so it feels really fresh."
There are the new guys, and then there's the new guy -- namely Herring, who knows what it's like to fill in for an ultratalented icon by virtue of his four-month stint standing in for a jettisoned Dickey Betts on a recent Allman Brothers tour.
"Jimmy is a southern-blues, jazz guy," Hart says. "He doesn't sound anything like Garcia. It'd be suicide to have him come in here and play like Garcia. He's got nimble fingers, and he's wide open."
Cardinal fans will recall that Tony La Russa, when justifying his decision to relegate aging Hall-of-Fame legend Ozzie Smith to the bench, said something very similar about a then up-and-coming shortstop named Royce Clayton. Clayton's numbers were respectable, but the kid could have hit .400 and still would have come out a loser in a Redbird-nation straw poll. Herring, Hart and the revamped Dead have a summer or so to prove that they don't deserve such a Claytonesque fate in the eyes of their devoted Heads.