It took me eight years, but I finally did purchase and read every word of Phil Lesh’s autobiography, Searching for the Sound. I am glad I did, as Phil offers us his humanity and his immense mind with this telling. It’s also the only first person account of the formation of Grateful Dead by a band member.
As a fan of the band and its legendary bass player, I wanted to like this book. As a student of the 1960s, I wanted to like this book. And Lesh is an eloquent spokesman for his generation. The man is smart as a whip, which comes across in his music, naturally, but it also sails through in his prose.
I wanted to play in a way that heightened the beats by omission, as it were, by playing around them, in a way that added harmonic motion to the somewhat static chord progressions of the songs we were playing then. I wanted to play in a way that moved melodically but much more slowly than the lead melodies sung by the vocalists or played on guitar or keyboard. Contrast and complement: Each of us approached the music from a different direction, at angles to one another, like the spokes of a wheel.
I have long been astonished by Phil’s musical mind and his ability to play what’s in it. He invented a new way to play bass, and his new, inventive style fit perfectly with what Jerry Garcia was playing. Bring in the other spokes and you’ve got an extremely potent form of heavily amplified improvisational music.
Phil also writes candidly about his, and the band’s, use of LSD.
At one point, I looked over at Jerry and saw a bridge of light like a rainbow of a thousand colors streaming between us; and flowing back and forth across that bridge: three-dimensional musical notes—some swirling like the planet Jupiter rotating at 100 times normal speed, some like fuzzy little tennis balls with dozens of legs and feet (each foot wearing a different sock!), some striped like zebras, some like pool balls, some even rectangular or hexagonal, all brilliantly colored and evolving as they flowed, not only the notes that were being played, but all the possible notes that could have been played.
Throughout the text Phil’s ability to recall in detail the people, places, events and yes, even the psychedelic adventures of his youth, some 40 years after it all happened, is pretty amazing.
Later in the the book when my own direct experience of the band is a factor, I realize that while Phil’s finely honed details are plentiful, they are also highly selective, as well as totally personal. As it should be, the point is how plentiful and rich this narrative pool is. For instance, when Phil discusses the band’s Europe tour in October 1990, it’s a story about his family vacation. Nothing wrong with that, but my own (undocumented) stories from that particular trip are slightly more adventurous.
Today, we have books about Jerry from skilled biographers, we have Phil’s own take and there’s a smattering of efforts from fans, and from the academic community to describe and catalog the Grateful Dead experience. I feel like what’s missing is a platform for Deadheads to tell their own tales. I am envisioning a data-based structure where hundred of stories from each show can be curated, and possibly edited into a group writing experiment.
What really happened between the notes on a given night? Ask the hive mind. With so many real life stories, photos, video and drawings to pull from, the hive delivers fractal-like reflections of a place in time and space, 2000-plus times over. Also, these narrative accounts of Grateful Dead shows would be fun to match up against the audio recordings. We know what it sounded like on a particular night thanks to soundboard and audience tapes, but what did it feel like? The liner notes from fans can help answer that.