The Darkest Star Shines the Brightest

Winterland

On December 31, 1978, the Grateful Dead played the last concert ever at San Francisco’s Winterland. Originally built in 1928 as a dance hall, Winterland had become the West-coast mecca of rock after promotor Bill Graham started organizing concerts there in 1966. The 5,400-capacity hall – most of the space was for standing and dancing, not sitting – hosted concerts by the biggest names in rock over the 12 years that Graham managed the venue.

This sold-out New Year’s Eve concert was a big event in San Francisco, and it was broadcast live on KSAN radio and KQED TV. (It is now available on DVD as Closing of Winterland. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)) At one point, a TV camera shows a banner in one of the balconies, saying “1535 Days Since Last SF Dark Star.” The Dead had not played this signature song in more than four years, and the capacity crowd was hoping to hear this song.

At the start of the third set of this marathon concert, the band came out and played the four-note sequence that begins Dark Star, to the rousing applause of the tired, sweaty fans. At this moment, they had tapped into a song that had provided continuity for the band since they first played it in 1967[1], then recorded it in 1968, as a single[2].

But Dark Star was not a “single” song; it was an epic. In 217 (or 232) live performances[3], the song was more often 20-30 minutes long rather than the 2:45 sped-up version that appeared on a 7” disc in the early days. It’s the same song, but since the Grateful Dead improvised extensively, the single version contains a rough framework of what Dark Star would become.

Dark star crashes

From their birth in 1965 as a scruffy San Francisco band playing rhythm and blues and psychedelic music, providing the soundtrack for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, the Grateful Dead went on to become the biggest concert draw in the United States. In their 30-year career, the band proved to be the most American of music-makers, playing a broad range of songs from rock to the blues, from acoustic roots music to jazzy jams.

Grateful Dead concerts were special. The adage said that "there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert," because of the unique atmosphere that developed when this band and their fans met. Concert promoter Bill Graham said, They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.”

The Dead helped spread their music, early in their career, by allowing spectators to tape concerts; eventually setting up a special “tapers’ section,” and, in some cases, allowing people to plug recorders directly into the soundboard. Because of this, the experience of Grateful Dead concerts was disseminated throughout the United States – and the rest of the world – piquing interest in this distinctive band. Over time, the Grateful Dead developed a huge, loyal following, and became the biggest-grossing concert band in the United States.

To Deadheads – fans of the band – the music was important, but there was also a sense of community. People were welcome to trade tapes, but selling them was anathema. Concerts were friendly experiences, with people sharing their beverages and other sundries. These events were large parties, places where people would get together and have a good time, relax, get high and dance.

The Dead were a reliable top-100 band, but only once did they reach the top ten, when the 1987 Touch of Gray became a hit, propelling its album, In the Dark to number 6 is the charts. They did a few TV appearances, from a 1969 Playboy After Dark performance, that embodied the meeting of hippiedom and Hefnerism, to a 1978 Saturday Night Live gig, and a few stints on Letterman. They made a few videos, as did everyone from the mid-80s onward, but none of their filmed songs stand out. They also made a movie, ingeniously titled The Grateful Dead Movie (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), filmed during a series of 1974 concerts at Winterland, and released in 1977.

In spite of all this, the Dead were never truly mainstream, but that’s the nature of jam bands; the 20- or 30-minute songs they play, such as Dark Star, don’t fit on the radio.

Pouring its light into ashes

What is it about Dark Star that makes it such a popular song, and perhaps the Grateful Dead’s signature song? It’s a catchy tune, with a danceable rhythm, and it’s got psychedelic lyrics[4] by Robert Hunter, who would go on to write dozens of songs for the Grateful Dead. But above all, it was a vehicle for the band’s extended improvisations.

Unlike the single version of the song, live versions take time to develop, and sound almost like symphonies. There is no rush to state the themes of the music, and there are extended sections where the band was free to jam. Much of the Grateful Dead’s attraction was their jamming, where no two versions of a song sounded the same, and where no two concerts were the same. The band played without setlists, deciding which songs to play as they went along, and Dark Star was a song that fit this improvisational ethos.

A version of Dark Star could stand on its own, though most didn’t; most segued into or from other songs, or both. In the early days, the sequence was most often Dark Star > St Stephen > The Eleven, but there were a number of other common couplings. In the spring of 1972, Dark Star > Sugar Magnolia and Dark Star > Morning Dew were common. One of the classic Dark Stars, that of 8/27/72, segues into El Paso; an odd choice – El Paso was one of the many “cowboy songs” the band played – but one that was not uncommon, and which may have worked well with the scorching heat of that afternoon. The band also played Dark Star > Eyes of the World sometimes, or even Dark Star > Bird Song, on 7/31/71.

Dark Star could also be part of a sandwich, with the band playing the first part of the song, segueing into something such as The Other One, then coming back to finish Dark Star. But more often than not, it was a beginning, not an ending; the jams usually ended with a different song.

This song could run less than three minutes, as in the single version, or over 48 minutes, as with the epic 5/11/72 version from Rotterdam; though, to be fair, that version includes a long drum solo. But it wasn’t uncommon for Dark Star to be a half-hour long. Some of the jams that began with Dark Star ran as long as many bands’ entire concerts. For example, on 2/13/70, at the Fillmore East, the Dead played Dark Star > The Other One > Turn On Your Love Light, riffing for just over 90 minutes without a break.

Mirror shatters

Live dead

While listeners can now hear dozens of versions of Dark Star, thanks to the Grateful Dead having released more than 100 of their live concerts on CD and by download — I have 90 versions of the song in my collection — the ur-dark Star has always been the 23-minute version from their 1969 Live/Dead album (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), recorded at the Fillmore West on 2/27/69.[5] This version was recorded early enough in the band’s career that it is an excellent example of the primal versions of the song. In those days, the Dead didn’t have a large repertoire, so most of their shows featured Dark Star; they played it 65 times that year. This would change later in 1969 as they developed new material, which would appear on two albums from 1970, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, both of which showed a folky, country-tinged side of the band. In 1972, there were 31 Dark Stars, including eleven during the band’s 22-date European tour of that spring, but after 1973 (19 performances), it became a rarity until the Dead dusted it off again in the 1990s.

Unless you collected Grateful Dead tapes, the Live/Dead version was the only one you could hear for a long time, and it’s imprinted on most Deadheads as being the cornerstone of the never-ending song that is Dark Star. The Grateful Dead never again released another version of Dark Star on a live album until 1992[6], when they went back to their tape vault and started issuing CDs of concerts, in what would become a long series of live releases.

Through these many releases, we can hear dozens of versions of the song, including eleven versions from the Dead’s Europe ’72 tour, the great 8/27/72 version from Veneta, Oregon, the above-mentioned 2/13/70 from the Fillmore East, and the 2/8/71 version from the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY. There are also the four versions from the February/March run at the Fillmore West, one of which was included on the Live/Dead album, and the poetic 11/11/73 version from Winterland, with what is known as the Mind Left Body Jam section.

Every Deadhead has their favorites, but all of these are part of a larger Dark Star, one that is always present, and that the band tapped into each time they played the song.

Shall we go, you and I while we can?

Grayfolded

The ultimate Dark Star may be the mash-up version mixed and “folded” by John Oswald called Grayfolded (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Oswald used what he calls “plunderphonics”[7] to mix together dozens of different versions of the song. Approached by Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh, Oswald decided to go long. Instead of making a number of short mixes, as he had with other works, he created two long versions of the song: Transitive Ashes and Mirror Ashes, respectively 59:59 and 46:46.

Oswald understood that Dark Star has no end and no beginning, and used dozens of different versions from three decades of performances. Each snippet, long or short, fits in this overarching work like a fractal, where each part reflects the whole. Seasoned Deadheads can recognize the bits and pieces of this work as coming from specific classic renditions of the song[8], and, while these long mixes don’t sound like self-contained versions of the song, they have all the characteristics, and the structure, of the song as it was performed.

Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds

Whenever I listen to a Grateful Dead concert recording, I enjoy almost all the songs, but when Dark Star comes on, it feels like I’m coming home. This song is a link between the Grateful Dead’s many concerts, and each version is just a glimpse of the magic the band was able to perform. As Jerry Garcia said [9], “…I have a long continuum of Dark Star which range in character from each other to real different extremes. Dark Star has meant, while I’m playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine.” Not many bands play songs that are so different in each version, and that’s what made the Grateful Dead so special.

This music can take you places; Dark Star was a journey, a voyage through time and space. As drummer Mickey Hart once said, “We’re not in the music business, we’re in the transportation business – we move minds.”


  1. The first known live version of Dark Star was performed on 9/3/67, at Dance Hall, Rio Nido, California.  ↩

  2. Born Cross-Eyed was on the B-side of the single.  ↩

  3. The Grateful Dead web site claims there were 217 performances. Deadbase, a database of live Grateful Dead shows, lists 232 performances. Since some tapes are lost, there may have been a few dozen more than that.  ↩

  4. I can’t reproduce all the lyrics here, but see The Annotated Dark Star for full lyrics and an extensive analysis of them.  ↩

  5. This is also available on an out-of-print 10-disc set, Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings.  ↩

  6. Two from the Vault, a two-disc album with music from 8/23 and 8/24/68.  ↩

  7. Read about plunderphonics on Wikipedia.  ↩

  8. If not, two fold-outs with timelines, showing which performances were used in each section of the piece, can help.  ↩

  9. Garcia: the Rolling Stone Interview by Charles Reich and Jann Wenner; Plus a Stoned Sunday Rap with Jerry, Charles and Mountain Girl. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972  ↩