Four things I learned last week

“It would be irresponsible not to speculate.” — Peggy Noonan

No doubt there were more important things to be learned; but here are four things that I learned. Maybe one thing I’ll learn this coming week is not to play the magpie and collect bright shiny objects; or perhaps I’ll learn that the feuilleton is not a form with which people choose to engage. Bold, persistent experimentation!

Phenology is cool. Late last week, “the most incredible spring heat wave in U.S. and Canadian recorded history” drew to a close. And for the ten days prior, up here in the great state of Maine, I was watching lilacs and forsythia bud absurdly early, hearing from friends in upstate NY that they had mosquitoes, from friends in PA of honey bees and flowering cherry and peach trees, from friends in LA of actual (granted, small) peaches, and from friends in GA of peaches and pears flowering a month early. Daffodils up and gone in Chicago. Butterflies in Madison, WI.

All these field observations are examples of phenology: “The study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate.” (Similar definitions here and here.) Phenology is interesting because its records serve as useful proxies: “Dates of grape harvesting in Western Europe, starting in 1484, allow a concise assessment of growing season temperature.” (Of course, you’ve got to pick your proxies!) Citizen scientists network to practice phenology rather like birders network; here’s a national networ; here’s one for OH. Phenology was founded in the UK in 1736, but only began to be practiced in the United States in the 1950s, funded by the USDA. There’s an interdisciplinary conference in phenology up in Milwaukee in September of this year; but a Google search on “phenology conference” yields only two hits from 1990 to 2004; a budding organizational phenologist might imagine that phenology, as a self-identified discipline as opposed to an institutional or hobbyist practice, is new to the United States. Readers, correct me on all this!

Now, phenology interests me not only as a gardener, but also as a citizen. We live in an age when all the official statistics are untrustworthy (unemployment figures; housing figures). On unemployment… Well, I was at a meeting the other day, and I looked around the table, and of five men, all highly educated and competent in their one-time fields, two had “normal” jobs, two had none, and one was scratching. I’d never experienced such a thing before 2008. It’s as incredible as flowering peach trees in March! Although not quite: We’ve got a field observation without a timestamp, because we don’t know exactly these people were disemployed. But here’s a housing event with a timestamp: Shoddy stucco facades causing moisture damage. In 2002. Taking shoddy construction as a proxy for financialization, I’m guessing the speculative rot in housing construction set in a good deal earlier than we imagine from the official statistics.

I guess I’m saying that in a world where the 1% jiggers all the numbers, we might think about developing a phenology for political economy, where field observations serve as proxies for what the numbers used to tell us. An interesting use case for twitter. But, again, you’ve got to pick your proxies….

Rents and rentiers, as a meme, has finally, successfully, propagated. Mark Ames’s headline says it all: The One-Percent’s Doctrine For The Rest Of Us: We Are Not Human Beings, But Livestock Whose Meat They Extract As “Rent” (eXiled; NC. See also ‘Economics and society: Barrier to a breakthrough‘ FT 2012-02-22 (hat tip reader Eddie Torres). In the vulgate, rent is the money people with power over you squeeze out “because they can.” The classical example is the robber baron who puts a chain across a river. You row your boat up, pay the fee, the baron lifts the chain, and off you go. What value did the baron add? None. Examples are legion: Absurdly high ATM fees. The entire health insurance industry. And on and on and on. Readers will doubtless correct my oversimplifications!)

The nice thing here is that people from “all walks of life” can hit the rentiers — who, after all, run the country — where it really hurts them: Take away their rents. Don’t give Big Food the rents on its trademarks or its patented gene modifications: Buy local. Garden. Don’t give Big Media the rents for its rotten entertainment: Turn off your teebee and get rid of cable. Give Big Money as little as possible: move your money. But don’t just “move your money.” Move everything. As Bill Black says elsewhere today, “The only winning move is not to play.”

The Grateful Dead are a really great band. I ran into some full-length Grateful Dead concerts on YouTube, and so I’m reliving my long, long lost youth under the headphones.

The Dead were at all times about improvisation: Jamming, and taking one song and, through subtle and dynamic changes, transforming it into another song. And then perhaps into another. More, because they played together for hours, they possessed near telepathic skills; a friend tells a story of being close to the stage when Garcia was in the middle of a solo, and some lunatic leaped on the stage and unplugged his guitar. Weir, with a single glance and without missing a beat, picked up the solo and carried on. The Dead, beyond their astonishing musical skills, were about small group process: And that had to be so, because although the improvisations integrated structures, they were not themselves structured, but worked through on the fly: The interplay of glances and fingering — the communication through a single note or timbre — was always something to see at a Dead concert. From that day, a Dead performance has always been my ideal for group creation (and I never wanted to be Jerry Garcia; I always wanted to be Phil Lesh). Finally, Dead were also, of course, if not rent-free, at least rent-minimizing: Their very successful business was based on giving away intellectual property (the tapes).

I’ve been trying to think through the (to me, challenging) anarchist notion of autonomy; and since my waking mind is beginning to fray, I’ll say only what I’ve grasped from the threads: That autonomy seems very much concerned to make a firm distinction between a decision-making self and “outside forces.” “Don’t tell me what to do.” Are Garcia, Lesh, Weir, Kreutzman, Hart, autonomous, at least on stage? Certainly they seem to love what they do. Is that autonomous? If not autonomous, is it enough? The gift economy of “tapers” is surely prefigurative; was it achieved through autonomy, or some other value?

I grope toward the notion that a firm distinction between the self and “outside forces” isn’t especially useful descriptively or fruitful normatively. Where is autonomy when a group constructs a work of art, together, in real time? Where is autonomy when the music itself is a player?

[I posted an earlier version of this, with a different focus, at Corrente.]

And the fourth thing I learned is that it, well, it’s 4. :00AM. This feuilleton form is harder than I thought! So I’ll leave you some morning music. Heck, it’s only an hour long, so why not listen to this instead of poisoning your mind with NPR?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Eric

    The feuilleton may be a difficult form, but, you have done very well here, sir.

    I was reminded by the phenology suggestion of Japan’s response to a lack of trust in their governments representation of the radiation risk from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. There now appears to be a thriving open source hardware movement toward inexpensive and accurate do it yourself geiger counters and volunteer data collection and reporting. Of course, the open source hardware movement is nothing if not rent-minimizing. Watching this community of engineers respond to the needs of the Japanese was remenisent of the crowd at a Dead show pitching in to get the old Volvo started…

    1. Up the Ante

      Watch THESE engineers ..

      Fukushima Government Deleted SPEEDI Reports During Disaster

      This detector identifies specific isotopes fast. It’s the type people should pool their money for. [$]

      “In response to the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster, Berkeley Nucleonics has delivered 100’s of radiation detectors to US and Japanese nationals who are working in and around the contaminated facility. We have donated numerous shipments ..”

      Check out the Plutonium levels !

  2. Rex

    of five men, all highly educated and competent in their one-time fields, two had “normal” jobs…

    Lambert, just checking your meaning. I think you are saying by “normal” that these two had jobs in line with their skills and experience, as one might expect. So two of the 5 were OK and the 3 were un- or under-employed.

    Did I read that right? 2/5 normal isn’t good, but wanted to check that by “normal” you meant OK, or as one might expect.

  3. Jane

    OMG! I can remember those all night parties in London in the Seventies, listening to the GD. Sounded even better with the ‘additives’.

    Thanks for the memories Lambert…….

    1. tom allen

      The Grateful Dead were a musical version of the Marx Brothers. They’re anarchists. When something unexpected happened, they’d smile and improvise and make things even better, rather than frown and shut down. It’s sort of, you know, a lesson. :-P

      From the Marx Brothers wiki: “A famous early instance was when Harpo arranged to chase a fleeing chorus girl across the stage during the middle of a Groucho monologue to see if Groucho would be thrown off. However, to the audience’s delight, Groucho merely reacted by commenting, “First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger”. When Harpo chased the girl back the other direction, Groucho, calmly checking his watch, ad-libbed, “The 9:20’s right on time. You can set your watch by the Lehigh Valley.”

      1. just me

        Rapunzel’s hair in Tangled, the CG Disney movie — 70 feet long and a character in itself. I read about the years of programming that went into making it work, making it “luscious.” It looks like 70-foot-long Breck Girl hair and of course the animation is fabulous. But watching the blooper reel — how in the world did they not love what happened at 0:34 and go with that?

        I love the movie they made, but I long for the one they didn’t.

    1. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

      That was my first thought as well. I was ready to leave a comment suggesting someone should get his head examined….

  4. LeeAnne

    Enjoyable music to read by. Thank you Lambert. A few thoughts as I read -the people I knew who were ‘dead heads’ had wealthy parents that enabled them to travel, buy tickets and presumably buy whatever else they pleased that may have been available.

    And, I wouldn’t be communicating with you right now without cable.

  5. polistra

    “The classical example is the robber baron who puts a chain across a river. You row your boat up, pay the fee, the baron lifts the chain, and off you go. What value did the baron add? None.”

    I’m always struggling to understand the distorted language and mindset of economists, and I’ve never seen why they apply ‘rent’ to all sorts of processes that are not literally rent. Your example, specifically the ZERO ADDED VALUE, finally lit the bulb and illuminated the connection for me.


    1. ohmyheck

      My thoughts exactly. Putting it in a simple layman’s term was the lightbulb moment for me as well. Could I be called an “Economic Luddite”? When they get all technical here, I go cross-eyed. Oy.

  6. craazyman

    I’m with you two out of three, Lambert, but for 1970s Nostalgia I’ll take Abba.

    Those two white chicks couldn’t dance but they sure could sing.

  7. Susan the other

    Since MSM doesn’t do phenology very well, doesn’t mean we all can’t. Blogs are leading the way. And politics is nothing more than social phenomena, right? But when politics is so capricious it destroys economies and lives, well then it can no longer be allowed to run free. Agree. Completely. New motto: Land of the free, except for politicians. We need to regulate politicians.

  8. Scott

    Re building standards and fake stucco…

    How about fake contractors? Or, fake workmen?

    Here in California we saw the beginnings of it in the late 90’s. Skilled workmen were being supplemented and then later replaced with unskilled day laborers, almost all Central American, picked up from street corners.

    After a year or two the contractor realizes that Joe, who went to high school with him, who expects and demands a livable wage, weekends off, holidays off, time to spend with his family in emergencies, can easily be replaced with Jose who claims little of that. Then there is the issue of lower pay. Finally the contractor ends up with an all Hispanic crew which is a necessity because of language dificulties.

    The problem is that much of the money paid to the immigrant crews is sent back to their country of origin and does not circulate in the local economy. Their tenancy in the country is temporary and so are their allegiances to the contractor. The work that they build is often of the worst quality and the contractor knows that with this hiring scheme it’s far cheaper to do call backs to
    repair stuff than it is to do it right to begin with.

    Want to point out that I am mentioning those that have no intention of naturalization or citizenry.

  9. Walter Wit Man

    Agreed about the Dead. Phish was a similar band for me, and while Phish held my interest more than the Dead in the 90s, the Dead were the originators of this style and I am back to preferring the Dead.

    Btw, anyone seen Lenova Ballet Ruse around?

    Watched this related documentary on the Beatles last night and thought of her:

    The video speculates Paul McCartney and the Beatles are a psy operation of some sort. There does appear to be some strange facts surrounding the Beatles and then the Laurel Canyon scene in L.A. (which Paul has some association with–like a place in Laurel Canyon L.A. that Mason frequented and lyrics were drawn on a door there one year before they were released on a Beatles album).

    Were the Dead the real deal or were they part of a pys operation as well?

      1. ctct

        watch the movie ‘magic bus’ about ken kesey and the merry pranksters.. basically where the dead and the post beat, hipster movement got a lot of it’s fuel… i guess if you’ve read thom wolfe’s electric kool aid acid test you already know most of the story(read it when i was kid in the early 90s…)(tw must be a cia paid hack as well!)… im not of the conspiracist mind set, or the new age one- i think they are closely related… i would not view every synchronicity as a ‘psy-op’… i dont believe in zeitgeist… historical nihilism uber alles… pink monkeys arent that powerful

        1. Walter Wit Man

          Yeah, I am familiar with these theories and strange facts but I haven’t incorporated them into my working knowledge yet–as I have begun to incorporate many of the other secret operations over the last 60 years or so into my working knowledge (which is why I am becoming more and more cynical).

          Maybe the implications are once again so staggering it is hard to accept so we resist going there (a few perps have had huge control over music and entertainment industries and they brainwash us).

          I agree that there is a slight danger to seeing patterns in everything and assuming all facts have been coordinated by a few perps. But there is a value to seeing patterns and being able to look at the bigger picture. Plus, many of these conspiracy theories do not necessarily need everyone to be in the know. There were probably some lead perps who knew almost everything. Maybe Paul McCartney was one of those. Actually, maybe he knew less and it was a Sergeant Pepper character, like Aleister Crowley, who was the lead perp.

          There were also probably victims who internalized the propaganda and became unwitting accomplices. Maybe Charles Manson himself was used in this way.

          The lyrics on the door is one interesting fact. Maybe there is an innocent explanation . . .

        2. tom allen

          Meh, I don’t know if anybody could pull off the Merry Pranksters today. You’d probably need a Tom Allen Ginsberg or somebody, and I don’t know where you’d find such a freak. :-P

          1. ctct

            the striking thing of the the mp is that they were basically just a bunch of normal kids.. with a little too much of a certain chemical… the paranoia at the end of the film is a different, but oh so contemporary twist… i thought the enamoration with amt was interesting… you could buy that legally until about 2002 (online)… like a mix of lsd and mdma(roughly, but not as pleasurable as either)… i think they(the pranksters) loved it so much because it was a mental break from the intesity of lsd 25… i think the cia found lsd-25 to be totally useless as a drug of control… they started with lsd-6 as a sort of brainwashing, truth serum type drug/catalyst long before…
            if one wants to think that the cia was creating lsd-25 and selling throughout the decades to disarm gifted, curious youth.. well, so be it…(i heard the rumors as a 14 yr old virgin tripper-cia labs in nevada, etc) i doubt… more like rogue contractors black-profiteering if anything…
            the ‘system’ is quite self-sufficient without such pissant scheming
            the profit motive more than accounts for any of the nefarious outcomes of social engineering…

          2. Walter Wit Man

            Right. More than likely they quickly figured out it wasn’t a good tool for mind control. But they did appear to use it to try to control people.

            Then, as you surmised, after they realized they couldn’t use it to control, they probably decided to traffic in it.

            But evidently the spigot has been shut, no?

            So maybe they took the unusual step of foregoing a profit and stopped peddling the drug precisely because it ‘turned on’ young Americans.

          3. Up the Ante

            “Meh, I don’t know if anybody could pull off the Merry Pranksters today. ”

            They are. They’re suppressing media discussion of the Fukushima disaster.

            They’ve ’rounded the corner’, and are found “Out!”, here.


      1. Walter Wit Man

        That is interesting and right on point! Should I have heard of uncyclopedia before? I do need an alternative because I now realize Wikipedia is not good for this type of research. Wikipedia is compromised.

        But I’m trying to verify some of the facts and having a hard time. Not that I don’t believe it. Actually, I am seeing some basics confirmed, like Garcia spent a year in the military but saw a report he wasn’t suited for the military so I guess he left to start a band . . . . yeah, okay.

        So this actually makes me suspicious that there doesn’t appear to be a lot about their history out there. I mean I knew the basics but that’s it.

    1. aletheia33

      anyone know of a good site where good phenology is being done on this –and regarding not just to independent contractors but treatment of employees?

      i read a year or so ago that a study found that of topics people talk about, most common is “complaining about their jobs”.

      an effort at such phenology could channel some of that despair in a useful direction.

      on a different note, re: apotheosis of short-term revenue targets, i received this about exodus of talent:

      quote: ‘Unfortunately, as Archan himself told me, “My old company doesn’t care about me and my work, they just care about meeting short-term revenue targets.” … In the past year, I’ve had a half dozen of my friends quit or prepare to quit their jobs in a bad economy–well-paying, high-profile positions–to pursue their entrepreneurial vision.’

      it is remarkable how much people will give in exchange for a modicum of respect.

  10. El Snarko

    The music of an age is always its key refelection of its intellectual state. Not the tech or the buildings, but the music. It best reveals the spirit, the vibe that animates and orientes. It may structure, but that can be quite besides the point, it is as was mentioned in Yellow Submarine, bringing “the inside out.”

    The Dead engaged in interactive contextualization of tunes on the fly. Sensitive contributory autonomy is how I always thought of them. They danced in and around the structure of a tune like an expert practitioner can around the Tai Chi form. Few things are as rigid in practice, or as beautifully flowing when imporvised. They had leadership with transitory hierarchical structures. The strongest or most novel idea/accident could be followed and made into something new. They always got out of the way when they had nothign new to say. Conscious fractal like elaborations from essentially simple components allowed deliberate cincensus or individual steering.

    Looking into current practice, I get ill. We blew it, because we thought we had to. If you noticed they did not starve.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      You said this better than I did. “transitory hierarchical structures”… Is that generalizable as an organizational form? And how does it relate to “autonomy”? It seems to me that “the music plays the band” and so a clear distinction between inner and outer forces is not the most useful analytical tool.

      1. patricia

        “the music plays the band”.

        “What happens” shapes action.

        You all were raised on the Dead and learned about improvisation through their experience, but jazz has always been foundationally responsive to “what happens”. Yet jazz can become entirely band-focused, and sound plain awful when improvisation is the only goal, because, in the end, “what happens” shapes but doesn’t define.

        Reality includes both the interior of self and all that is exterior. So autonomy (as self-governance) is fundamental but it is alive (vital) only when properly understood as one element of larger reality.

        If “other” is understood to be as important as “self”, then “transitory hierarchical structures” become automatic, part of the dance.

        This is discussed in many human endeavors, but in my small context, it’s been most simply stated in “Love God [whatever is great enough to embrace the known universe] above all, and your neighbor [other] as yourself. On these two principles hang all the laws and the prophets.”

        And this is why I, too, love the idea of phenology. It’s another way to respect “what happens”.

    2. Walter Wit Man

      Good comment.

      The song “I Know You Rider” by the Dead and “Divided Sky” by Phish remind me of your comment:

      I like these songs because they contain simple imagery that is very evocative A northbound train, headlight shining in the rain, and a “divided sky, the wind blows high.”

      The players then can take this basic imagery and run with it.

  11. paul bley

    I listened to a lot of Dead in years past, especially the early stuff, before their “retirement” at the end of 1974. In those first ~10 years the band was much looser and less drug-addled than the last twenty. Not that there weren’t lots of drugs then, too; but it’s not until after the retirement that coke, heroin, and booze started to really negatively affect their performance. (You can denote “eras” in their live style after the retirement, to some degree, based on who was addicted to what during those years.)

    What the Dead did improvisationally really wasn’t very remarkable. Their major “jam” vehicles almost all just sat on one chord for an extended period of time. When you sit on one chord like this, you can noodle just about anything and it will sound more or less okay. Any musician worth half their salt should be able to pick up on somebody else’s solo in A major by continuing to solo in A major. There is nothing telepathic about it. Nor is there anything exceptionally anarchistic or autonomous about what they’re doing.

    Despite their appearances and legacy, their jams were limited by a very small range of musical possibilities. The occasions on which they did get downright anarchistic with their “space” jams only further revealed their improvisational limitations. In these moments they acted not as an autonomous unit with parts that telepathically respond to each other (the improvisational ideal), but as a disjointed jumble of parts doing stuff which didn’t have much musical meaning by themselves or in relation to each other.

    Meanwhile, what the Dead did around their more structured tunes aren’t that remarkable. If you know what key your tune is in, and you know how to play in that key, it’s not very difficult at all to do slightly different things with that tune each time around, or play a longer solo one night than the other, since the solo, again, is probably just going to be a bunch of semi-melodic noodling in one key. It’s not wizardry, it’s just seven notes plus the occasional chromatic entrance into a chord done.

    1. Walter Wit Man

      “Nor is there anything exceptionally anarchistic or autonomous about what they’re doing.”

      Maybe not musically. Maybe they were just average musically, while jazz musicians, for instance, may have been more truly anarchist or autonomous in their art.

      Maybe they hijacked the signatures of the truly anarchist and autonomous art forms; like the blue note and extended improvisational jams. They played some of the same standards.

      But the Dead did create an autonomous and anarchistic culture. Their tours were like a traveling circuses, complete with a traveling villages that would spring up in each locale. There were unique rules of conduct.

      As the uncyclopedia link about the Dead notes above, there was a large black market for drugs that accompanied the tours. There were also other alternative markets here, like bartering goods.

      Going to a Dead show one feels like they have entered a different society. It is interesting that there weren’t the massive crackdowns by police that one would think are possible.

      Maybe the unique culture surrounding the Dead is not as “anarchistic” as I originally thought. It is interesting to think of the Dead as being subtly fascist. So I may have to reassess my previous conception of the Deadheads as being leftist.

    2. Walter Wit Man

      “In these moments they acted not as an autonomous unit with parts that telepathically respond to each other (the improvisational ideal), but as a disjointed jumble of parts doing stuff which didn’t have much musical meaning by themselves or in relation to each other.”

      How is this different from blue notes or discordant sounds in Jazz?

      For instance, like Miles Davis in Witches Brew? Or maybe a Thelonious Monk?

      How are the discordant sounds in the jams of Phish or the Dead different than those found in jazz?

      To me, the main difference is that Phish and the Dead are much more light-hearted and merry. They joke around more. So, for instance, the discordant notes in Phish’s Divided Sky,, include a riff from ‘Merry had a Little Lamb.’ (at 1:28)

      1. paul bley

        The “space” segments in Dead jams are for the most part not at all like discordant jazz. By “space” segments I was referring to the spacey, wandering breakdown segments that comprised the bulk of their 20-30 minute jams on tunes like Dark Star, The Other One, Playing in the Band, etc in ’72-’74, as well as the “Space” segments in every second set after 1982 or so. Those jams now and then sound sort of like an imitation of free jazz, but for the most part it’s just a lot of them playing with guitar effects.

        The bulk of the Phish song you posted is composed — everything up until the 10:00 mark, including the ‘Little Lamb’ quote. The ‘Little Lamb’ segment sounds like a conscious affected nod to an atonal free jazz or contemporary classical sound, but it’s not anything more than a conscious affected nod. There’s also a composed section (8:00 or so, maybe? shortly after the long break he takes) that sounds a lot like “lite jazz” in the ballpark of the Pat Metheny Group.

        The improvisation which begins at 10:00 sounds like classic jamband. Listen to how confidently and clearly Anastasio plays the composed melody leading up to that section, and compare it to how he sounds after 10:00. He sounds to me as if he is not really “hearing” most of what he’s playing before he plays it. He knows the rules of what notes will work in the key he is in, and he has some idea of the directions he wants his lines to go, but he is not a good enough improvisor to hear full ideas and play them as confidently and clearly as he would a pre-composed melody. His time feel gets weaker, his lines “sing” less, his volume even comes down a little. He is not helped by Fishman, who is playing a bunch of stuff on the drum kit with an apparent indifference to anything Anastasio is doing, or Falkenberg, who is pounding away piano chords with a similar indifference. Now and then one of them will consciously and obviously mimick something another band member is doing, to make it seem as if they are “listening” to each other.

        Jamband music sounds much “happier” and more “playful” to you than jazz because jazz improvisation is much more chromatic than jamband improvisation. Meaning — the bulk of jamband improvised sections utilize the seven notes of the diatonic major scale, which sounds simple and happy, and most jamband compositions are built mostly on triads, chords which sound simple and happy (or simple and sad, in the case of minor triads; but most jamband music is major, not minor). Meanwhile, so much of the jazz improvisation language since bebop in the 1940s is about chromaticism — finding ways to use the notes in between the seven notes of the diatonic scale. In the 40s and 50s, chromaticism was mostly an ornament, although an important one — improvisors would step out of the diatonic scale for only a beat or two. In the 60s and 70s, improvisors began to play much more chromatically, stepping outside of the diatonic scale for measures at a time. Miles does this a lot on that recording of him you posted. This makes the music less instantly singable and less happy-sounding. The chords used in jazz also are more dense and chromatic — compare the kind of chords Monk plays, or the chords the keyboardists play on the Miles recording, to the triads Page plays.

        Miles’s solo on the recording you linked to is much more confident and intent-ful than anything Anastasio plays. For much of the time Miles sticks to simple, singable ideas — he hears it before he plays it, and then he plays it with confidence and intent. In so doing, he leaves lots of room for the other musicians to respond. The keyboards and drummers are busy, but because Miles leaves space they can actually listen to each other and respond, instead of just jumble on top of each other in a disjointed pile. Eventually Miles’s lines to get longer and more complex. This is where he draws more on his orthodox jazz context, where he learned to “hear” long, chromatic lines before he played them, so that he could improvise with compositional intent rather than just noodle. The context here is less structured than in conventional jazz but an improvisor needs a developed ear just as much to play lines that mean something instead of just being a bunch of stuff. It doesn’t sound anywhere near as happy as jamband music, and you don’t have to like it, but there is much more spontaneous creation and interaction going on here than in any jam band music ever made.

        Miles’ studio sessions in the “electric” era were strange experiments. Miles would take 10 or 11 of the best jazz musicians of the time, some of whom were working with him on the road, some of whom had never worked with him before, and throw them all into one room. Then, he would give them all very simple sketches — a four-note idea, a chord voicing, a bass riff — and tell them to start playing. Jazz musicians, for the most part, work with much more structure, and up until then nobody was really using electric keyboards or electric basses or rock feels. He made it so that nobody could just mindlessly play what they were familiar with. Instead, they had to draw on the skills they had developed — to listen, to “hear” before they played — and apply them to a new and strange context. But then Miles also had a larger compositional vision which the individual musicians weren’t aware of. He was like a crazed expressionist painter, throwing together a riff he gave to the bass player and a chord he gave to the keyboardist and then telling the bass clarinet just to play something against it for a little while, before coming back in and playing more himself. That, too, is very different from what happens in a live context, both for jazz groups and jam bands.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          Thanks to all for this discussion. I’m pleased that posting something a little bit out of band (heck, it was the weekend) elicited all these interesting responses.

    3. citizendave

      Lambert, your foray into GD and leaderless society deserves continuation into future days. I hope you will bring it up again from time to time.

      I tell a slightly different story about how the Dead functioned during a show. One of the great joys for me over the years was sharing the experience with other strange people in the audience, looking around, watching people dance, striking up conversations — during a song — and the band would be doing a workman-like job, giving the fans what they came to hear, old favorites — and then a hush would fall over the crowd, and all eyes would turn toward the stage, en masse, as the band hit their groove. It was always electrifying (no matter what state you were in), and it was like the crowd was always waiting for it. I think I recall some shows when the entire show was mechanical. But there were some shows when they were in that zone almost the whole time, and we felt like we could see into the future, and sure enough, it would happen just as we envisioned, everybody on the beat and in tune. It was like the heart and soul of Nature had become manifest, and it was glorious, and it felt especially good to be alive.

      I especially loved the shows at Alpine, when Bill and Mickey would do their percussion set during the intermission, playing for fifteen minutes or so. I always imagined that the First Americans who lived there centuries ago would have approved.

      But you kinda had to be there. Some comments here today remind me of the people who criticize OWS, when it is evident that they don’t know sh!t about OWS. My first show was late summer, 1968 at Filmore West in SF. I was in the Army, dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, with short hair. Everybody else in the place was in full summer of ’68 Haight-Ashbury regalia. But nobody gave me a hard time — I was deeply impressed and moved — not knowing any better, I half expected to be shunned and tossed out on the street. The last time I went to a show was a year or three before Gerry died. Over the years I went to shows on both coasts and various places between, especially Alpine Valley, which is nearby. If the members of the band were into bad drugs, I didn’t know and didn’t really care — I always felt like I was in a different, peaceful and happy society at a Dead show.

      Reacting appropriately to changing conditions without waiting for leadership is one thing in a narrowly-defined situation such as a Dead show. Acting appropriately in a leaderless society, in concert with others, is a somewhat bigger problem. It would help if we all knew the song, if we all shared a vision of the future we want to live in. Many of us do have similar visions of a society ordered along humane principles, with low environmental impact, non-toxic air, water, and food, etc. In that sense, many of us are already acting in concert, despite never having met. But it’s those who insist on mountaintop removal, and mucking about in the affairs of sovereign nations, who pose the problem. How do we restrain them, or dissuade them? Certainly we should stop playing their games. If only mainstream society could see a popular movie that illustrates what life could be like in the world we desire.

  12. Rick

    Like Grateful Dead :) check out for tons of their shows. Also tune into (all dead internet radio)

    Best Band EVER!

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