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How John Oswald’s Grayfolded Brought The Grateful Dead Back to Life

on June 09, 2014, 2:03pm

Sensible Nonsense is a new column from Robert Ham taking us into the less-explored terrain of experimental music, giving us either a lay of the land or a map back home.

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Like it or not, if you’re an experimental music fan, at some point you’ll have to come to terms with the Grateful Dead. Not in the sense that you have to run out and buy as many editions of Dick’s Picks as you can. Rather, you have to accept that so many of your favorite artists working in the genre are casual fans or straight-up Deadheads. I remember quite distinctly hearing of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore’s appreciation for the guitar work of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir and feeling confused if not a little betrayed. That’s being a teenager for you. 

I came late to my begrudging appreciation of the Dead. I tried many years back to get on board, falling for the casual charm of their MTV hit “Touch of Grey” and the few songs I’d hear regularly on classic rock radio. Once punk rock and noise entered into my field of vision, I scoffed at them and, especially, their fans. 

What finally brought me around wasn’t some radical change in my person—I’m still suspicious of many Deadheads—but rather an entry point provided by the Canadian artist John Oswald. I was familiar with his work as a kind of sonic terrorist and social commentator via his compositional method known as Plunderphonics. He would take the various strains of modern music and, for lack of a better description, fuck with them. 

That could be something as ambitious as taking two-dozen recordings of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and layering them on top of each other so that the only time they meet is at the big two-note blast that occurs early on in the piece. Or it could be a fun exercise like reducing the entirety of Metallica’s …And Justice for All down to a minute and a half spurt of blast beats and riffs. It’s artful stuff, but it has a sharp sense of humor to it. 

Though Oswald’s work was not looked at too kindly by some lawyers (the Canadian Recording Industry Association put a stop to the distribution of a 1988 EP of plunderphonicized tracks), he impressed enough people to warrant some high-profile assignments. One was an EP meant to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Elektra Records—the Metallica piece was part of that—but it was quickly withdrawn by the label when they realized they didn’t get permission to let Oswald mess with some of the material. 

But the most fascinating was Grayfolded, a 1993 composition wherein Oswald took 105 different live recordings of the Grateful Dead set list mainstay “Dark Star” and turned them into two hour-long suites. Initially released as a single CD in 1995 with just one half of his efforts, the work has since been expanded to two CDs and was just released on six vinyl sides by Important Records. 

When I first heard of the existence of this album, I had a quick gasp of concern, but then had to appreciate the fact that the Dead would be willing to let someone make fun of their music. Yet, Oswald was not thumbing his nose at the San Francisco-based band; he actually embraced the strange beauty that the band imbued “Dark Star” with over the course of 30 years of shows. The vocals and the bit of choogle cooked into the track have mostly been eschewed in place of highlighting the free form playfulness of these various live versions. The work also follows the idea of the verb found in its title, folding together fragments from across the divide of the band’s existence into an ornate, origami-like construction. For a first-time listener and Dead neophyte, the shock to my expectations was palpable. According to Oswald, I was not alone in that. 

“When Phil Lesh got the first CD, he expressed surprise that it sounded so much like the Dead,” the 61-year-old artist said recently, speaking to me via Skype. “His imagination or expectation was that it wasn’t going to sound so much like them. It seemed like an interesting challenge to put out a good Dead record, particularly a good psychedelic Dead record. That’s all I set out to do, really.” 

Oswald had a similar connection to the Grateful Dead as I did. He owned a couple of their albums, including 1969’s Live/Dead, which opens with a lovely 23-minute version of “Dark Star”, but he fell outside their circle of influence. Instead, he fell under the sway of composers like Stockhausen and Cage, conducting his own experiments in tape manipulation and composition. 

He dove into the world of plunderphonics in the early ‘80s. He lectured on the subject of audio piracy and then conducted his own experiments by way of a short EP that included tracks featuring Elvis Presley backed up by an unhinged jam band and Dolly Parton’s voice pitched down to the tenor range so she could duet with herself. 

Those pop music-based works were what brought Oswald to the attention of Lesh, by way of mutual friend David Gans, the host of the syndicated Grateful Dead Hour radio show. 

“He called and asked if I would consider doing some sort of plunderphonicized version of a Dead song as a one-minute intro to the radio show,” Oswald remembered. “At the time, I wasn’t interested because nothing came to mind as being appropriate for that thing.” 

After some further nudging by Gans, Oswald insisted that the only appropriate way to tackle something like this would be to do a longer, album-length work. Impressively, the band agreed and opened their archives to the Canadian composer. 

He chose “Dark Star” for logistical reasons, as it offered up plenty of material for him to work with. “It seemed to epitomize the group doing a lot of improvisation,” he said. “And it would sometimes frame or segue into their ‘Drums & Space’ segment where the two percussionists would introduce a lot of stuff and the players would get out their electronic devices or guitar feedback and play with that for a while.”

Over the course of a month, Oswald spun through 30 years of tapes, often running them at double speed to cut down on time (much to the chagrin of the techs who worked there) and finding bits and pieces to copy to his digital recorder. 

“The first thing I listened to was whether the band seemed to be playing together in an interesting way,” he said. “There were quite often instances where I just felt like one or more of the musicians weren’t really into it that night.” 

The final tally of recordings was 105, spanning the entire career of the group. That said, the finished product does not move in any kind of chronological order, again part of the folding process. It was something like the ultimate Dead jam session with members past and present working together, with Oswald stitching together the pieces second by second. If you have the 2-CD issue of Grayfolded or the Important vinyl edition, you can follow along via a timestamped map that connects each piece back to its recording date. 

Even more striking than the fact that the Dead camp agreed to do this at all is the fact that they left Oswald completely alone to do it. Apart from a couple of notes from Lesh, what you hear has almost zero input from the band, even down to the track titles and how the songwriting was credited. 

“I also took extra effort to not have any direct contact with them,” Oswald said. “It seemed like it would be a ‘too many cooks’ situation.” 

Grayfolded has received almost universal critical acclaim, with the double CD edition ending up on the year-end lists of both Rolling Stone and The New York Times. Among Deadheads and fans of Oswald’s other work, opinions remain split. 

“Some of my fans were surprised that it was so different from other things that I’ve done,” Oswald said. “My point of view is that everything I’ve done is substantially different from anything else that I’ve done. I thought they would have gotten used to the fact that I do something differently each time.”  

For me, Grayfolded had the effect I’m sure some in the Dead camp were hoping for: it sent me on a curiosity-driven hunt through the catalog of the band, and their vast world of bootlegs, looking for something that would give me the same unmoored sensation as Oswald’s work. So far, those moments have been few and far between. And although I own a copy of Live/Dead on vinyl, I tend towards the work of bands that count the Dead as an influence. But I also don’t change the channel on Saturday mornings when my local community radio station does its weekly troll through the band’s live recordings. My long, strange trip is apparently just beginning. 

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