Do You Hear What I Hear?
For many, the Grateful Dead will always represent the 1960s, the symbol for an acid-fueled utopia founded on a staunch peace, love and familial ideology. Lost among all these faraway fantasies, however, is one of the band’s most overlooked legacies—their music. Sure, fans recognize the power in their improvisational style, the symbiotic metamorphosis of musician, instrument and song. But with only one (“Touch of Grey”) or two (“Truckin’”) tunes recognizable to the non-Deadhead, it seems like the groups’ myth will always be formed out of ancillary, not artistic virtues.
Such a sentiment disappoints founding member Phil Lesh. For him, the Dead were all about the music, not just consciousness expanding or hippies draped in tie-die. In his newly released memoir, Searching for the Sound, the group’s bravura bassist proves that, if he loves anything in this world—aside from his actual and metaphysical family members—it is music. Not just the aural language, but the written lexicon as well. Page after page of this memoir/musing of his time in the Grateful Dead is filled with carefully constructed couplets, all celebrating the mystery and the sanctity that is sound.
Anyone coming to this tome hoping to learn all the backstage gossip about the group will probably leave feeling less than fulfilled. As he says in his epilogue, there are better books than his written about the history and hijinx of the Dead. Lesh is more interested in how the band came to make its joyful noise, not the sex and drugs that also defined - and eventually derailed—their long, strange trip.
When it’s not addressing augmented fifths, or diminished eighth notes, Searching for the Sound is a pleasant, if rather superficial read. As he walks us through 30 plus years of Grateful Dead dramas, Lesh provides more of a laundry list of highlights than a series of hard fought life lessons. Trying to sum up the personalities, the politics and the pharmaceuticals that surrounded and infused the Grateful Dead mystique would be a daunting task for any writer. So instead of tackling the job head on, or providing the important instances that would illustrate his larger themes, Lesh gives each episode a quick mention before moving on.
Everything, from triumph to tragedy is handled with the same perfunctory prose. When founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan dies as a result of alcohol abuse and liver failure, Lesh only offers up a couple of cursory paragraphs. The same goes for the deaths of later band mates Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland. It isn’t until his brother in arms, the enigmatic Jerry Garcia, passes away that Lesh finally opens up the emotional floodgates. It would seem only fitting that the man who represented the Dead’s diverse, intricate style would bring out the best in his lifelong friend. We are actually moved by the heart-heavy laments Lesh utilizes when discussing the legacy and the love of the man they called Captain Trips.
Lesh doesn’t shirk away from discussing the drugs (especially considering how substance abuse killed so many of his friends and associates). Still, he is more a reporter than an invested participant, even when describing his own raging alcoholism and cocaine use. The association with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the Acid Tests they made famous, do give the book a nice dichotomy, showing how LSD and other opiates were once viewed as beneficial, not baneful, to the Dead’s creative process. But Lesh is far too scattershot in his narrative approach. Toward the end, his style becomes incredibly rushed, as if he wants to address each and every element of the band’s history. But he never stops long enough to let it register, and it makes his anecdotes seem hollow.
Still, he can stir up the mind’s eye when he wants to. Perhaps the best realized sequence in the book is Lesh’s description of those dual defining moments of the Summer of Love—Woodstock and Altamonte. He uses the Dead’s association with each concert to illustrate the rise and fall of the 60s philosophy. From the idealistic Heaven of that three-day music festival to the chaotic inferno created at the hands of some of Hell’s own ‘Angels’, these sequences literally vibrate off the page.
Lesh is also skilled at describing the jam-based mannerisms of the Grateful Dead in concert. His imagery regarding the individual members layered and intertwined their playing to complement and challenge each other really brings the experience of group improvisation to life. But there are other times when one hopes for such literary electricity (stories regarding touring with their touted, technically impressive Wall of Sound setup, or the shooting of the “Touch of Grey” video) when Lesh lets us down. We want to be there, sitting alongside the other band members, as events both personal and historical pass before our eyes. Instead, we get another leap along the timeline, another cursory glance at the tensions and temperaments backstage and in the studio.
Lesh is not big on impact. As he says several times in the Searching for the Sound that he has had to learn to live in the moment, to let the past remain a memory while anticipating the potential of the oncoming day. This may explain why so many of the monumental events in his and the band’s myth are skimmed over in favor of further literary workouts over the merits of music. Since starting his career over forty years ago, Lesh has been searching for the sound. While he may have finally found a way to describe it, it may not be exactly what the legions of fans wanted to hear.