Diary of A Bad Guitar Player: Playing in the Band

I never had a band, exactly. When I first started playing guitar, I played with anyone I could find to play with. This was mostly just jamming- though calling it “jamming” is probably generous. After a while, my cousin and I joined forces with a drummer and tried to start a band. We called it the Psychedelic Aliens and we played whatever Phish or Grateful Dead songs we could best approximate. We did this three or four times, never got anything down, never had set rehearsals and never sound like much. That was the closest I got to being in a band.

I really wanted to be in a band. I just didn’t know how to pull it off at that point. By the time I was in college, I had set my sights on other artistic ambitions and given up on the guitar as anything much more than a hobby. I played a few “gigs” at college functions as a solo act, covering Dylan songs, sounding bad and feeling awkward until I shelved the guitar as a mere hobby. It’s been a great hobby for my entire life. Now I play songs for kids when they will let me or around the occasional campfire. Mostly though, I just play alone.

But lately, this has started to change. When you reach a certain age- or more accurately, when your kids reach a certain age- you begin making new friends with the parents of your kids’ friends. Early this year, a few of us, realizing that we all play guitar, decided to set up a regular jam. That jam is slowly starting to evolve into something like a band. We have songs we rehearse. We have parts to those songs we are supposed to play. It is fun and energizing and a little bit awkward. There is a enough drinking and socializing to give it a relaxed feel, but there is enough focus on the music to make it more than just four dads hanging out with their guitars. It isn’t exactly a band just yet, but it isn’t not a band either.

The dynamics that shape a band have been memorized in dozens of movies and documentaries. They are fertile ground for stories for a good reason. There are extremes within those dynamics. Bruce Springsteen earned the nickname “the Boss” through his total and complete control of his band, while Jerry Garcia spent 30 years as the leader of the Grateful Dead insisting he would not be the leader of the Grateful Dead. The greatest rock band ever, The Beatles, disbanded fifty years ago, but the complex web of relationships in that band still fascinates the world. All of this is to say that being in a band is complicated, even if you are just four dads butchering classic rock tunes.

As my little jam session gets just slightly more ambitious, I find myself sympathizing with Jerry Garcia. Jerry famously just wanted to have fun. He hated authority and didn’t want to become “the boss” of his band. But he was only ever going to be the leader, if only because he was the musical genius of the group and paired with Robert Hunter, the primary songsmith. I am neither of those things, but I have started to feel everyone looking at me when it comes to “what should we play?” and other musical issues. I don’t want answer those questions, I just want to play.

The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa turns 50

On June 20, 1969, The Grateful Dead released their third studio album, the palindromic and nearly unpronounceable Aoxomoxoa. In celebration, a 50th Anniversary version of the album has been released featuring both the original 1969 mix and the 1971 remastered version along with a selection of live recordings from the Avalon Ballroom performances from January 24 through the 26th. The album, here in its original mastering next to the remastered version, is an incredible time capsule of the high-water mark of psychedelia and shows one of the greatest bands in rock music just on the edge of a massive breakthrough.

I had not realized previously that the album I knew as Aoxomoxoa was actually the remastered 1971 version and so when I jumped into listening to this anniversary release, I was excited to hear the songs in their original release. My first take-away after listening to the 1969 version of the album is that it is mixed horribly, and I completely understand why the band felt the need to remaster it when they could. Their struggles with the original mastering are understandable. This was the first time they were recording on a 16-track recorder and the first major studio album to do so as well. At the time, the Dead had an uncomfortable relationship to the studio struggled with trying to bring the energy of their live sound to the album to such a degree that they used both live tracks and studio tracks to cobble together their second album Anthem of the Sun. Adding new technology to the process was not going to help the band at that time and the original mix is proof of that. By the time they had remixed the album, the band had found their voice in the studio with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, their two best studio albums.

But even if the remastered version is a better listening experience overall, the original album feels more important, for both its overall historical context and its context in the history of the band. The summer of 1969 is laced with events of giant historical import. Human beings reached the moon, probably our greatest achievement to date. There was Woodstock and the Manson murders, the demon-and-angel twin children of the flower power era. Aoxomoxoa was not the soundtrack of that summer for most people (the soundtrack to Hair and the Beatles White Album probably share that title), but it is an album that has a sound that could only really exist in its context. From the reverby harpsichord underscoring the Tom-Bombadillian lyrics of Mountains of the Moon to the acapella ending on Doing That Rag to whatever the heck acid-test noise is going on What’s Become of the Baby?, this album is one of the last gasps of the psychedelic rock movement that began with The Beatles experiments on Revolver in 1966 and peaked with Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and then almost seems to officially end with Jimi’s blistering National Anthem at Woodstock. For all its imperfections, the original release of Aoxomoxoa is more true to its time than the cleaned up version of 1971.

It is also a more accurate representation of who the Grateful Dead were at that time than the ’71 remix. The band didn’t just improve their studio recording technique in the time between 1969 to 1971, they became a completely different band. Keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan may not have been the frontman he was when the band started as an electric blues band, but he was still a huge part of their sound. Aoxomoxoa signals the move away from him, with Garcia taking lead vocals on all the tracks and only Dupree’s Diamond Blues even remotely harkening back to the original blues concept. By the time of the remix, the Dead had possibly fired Pigpen once and seen him step aside from the band for health reasons for a stretch of time. The blues roots that had been the impetutus for forming an electric band were giving way to a broader blend of styles that drew from Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass roots, Lesh’s avant-garde background and even early bebop. The experimentation that began in the Acid Tests’ format-free musical searching was arriving in a new place that would be hinted at with the subsequent release of Live/Dead and fully released with the release of Europe ’72. As they were making the original Aoxomoxoa, the Dead were just on the edge of becoming the defining “jam-band,” the foremost masters of group improvisation in the rock band format.

The album shows the Dead in transition at the exact moment rock music was in transition. Apart from The White Album and the soundtrack to Hair, the best-selling albums of 1969 seem to point in a new direction for the next decade of Rock N Roll. Former ace studio musician Glenn Campbell released Wichita Lineman late in 1968 and it was a top seller in 1969 along with Johnny Cash’s masterpiece Live at San Quentin. Creedence Clearwater Revival had a top hit with Green River following Bayou Country and The Band followed up 1968’s Music from Big Pink with their self-titled second album. The psychedelic sound was clearly giving way to a return to where the decade had begun with more folk and country sounds finding their way into music from some of the artists who spearhead the psychedelic sound. Eric Clapton joined Steve Winwood for Blind Faith and played  with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. The Rolling Stones spent much of the year working on Let It Bleed, signaling their move to the more roots-based sounds that would be fully on display with Sticky Fingers with songs like Country Honk and Midnight Rambler.

The Grateful Dead followed suit the next year with their breakthrough studio album Workman’s Dead and made their best studio record, American Beauty, in the same vain right after. The wah-pedal and heavy reverb sounds that had defined rock in the late Sixties fade away as quick as they had arisen and Aoxomoxoa sits right at the edge of that transition. Between one version of Aoxomoxoa and the next, the overtly trippy sounds and lyrics of songs like China Cat Sunflower, Cosmic Charlie and Mountains of the Moon would give way to the more fully realized compositions that define the best side of the Dead’s songwriting ability, songs like Box of Rain, Tennessee Jed, Friend of the Devil, Truckin,’  Uncle John’s Band and Ripple.  Pop music was leaving the doors of perception behind for green grass and dirt roads and the Dead were on the same trip.

By the time the band remixed Aoxomoxoa, they were a better studio band and they were now using their studio albums as a way to provide templates for their songs before they were re-imagined and reinvented on stage nightly. The 1971 remaster sounds much better and the songs are much clearer, but that comes at the price of the album’s context. The better presentation cannot fix the fact that the songs are still not as polished as what 1970 will bring. Only China Cat Sunflower became a jamming staple, though Cosmic Charlie had its moments and St. Stephen is one of their best early live tunes, especially as presented on Live/Dead. The strangeness of the songs almost makes more sense in the stranger, harder-to-listen to mix. There is a fog that the songs can’t quite cut through and apart from St. Stephen and Dupree’s Diamond Blues (on which the vocal is really buried), a better look at the songs doesn’t make them much better. In 1969, they were going for something new and strange and by 1971, they were cleaning up an album that they had moved beyond.

It is incredible to think that things were moving that fast, for the band and for music in general. The best thing about Aoxomoxoa is that feeling that this is something from another world, that it is completely disconnected from what pop music in any conventional sense sounds like. I have seen it referred to as the peak of the Dead’s experimental phase. That is a strange idea to try to apply any one point in the history of a band that existed solely for experimentation, but it is not a foolish notion. The Grateful Dead began as electric blues band at the time when Eric Clapton and John Mayall were making that the coolest thing you could be. They took tons of acid and tried to find a new road through the amps to musical freedom. That road led back to where they began in country blues, folk, bluegrass and jazz. At the point where their parabola crested and began its return, they made this album and it remains an incredible listen and a trail marker in that journey.



Ten Albums that Influenced Me When I Was a Teenager

My rather extended thoughts on this little Facebook trend.

  1. The White Album- If I were to pledge some great impact from or allegiance to whatever was going in music when I was a teenager, I would be lying. I was a classic rock kid and dozens of albums that were recorded when my parents were teenagers meant more to me at fifteen and sixteen than the music that was coming out then. Then and now, no band has ever mattered more to me than the Beatles. This is not an original take on the matter or something unique to me. It is the default, but it is also the truth.

I first fell in love with the Beatles listen to my dad’s record of the 1967-70 collection. I was also a bit of Greatest Hits kid and admit with much shame (more on that later. I moved on to the albums in short order, however, and while Sgt Pepper, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, and Let It Be were just as heavy in the rotation in my teens, The White Album had the biggest influence on me then because it is so incessantly strange. Forget the hits on it. They’re great of course, but for me, this album is about Happiness is a Warm Gun, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and Piggies It’s about John, Paul, George and Ringo at their weirdest, indulging in being famous enough to be truly eccentric and still making some of the best Rock N’ Roll ever recorded. It is an album that seems full of cryptic messages and deep insights- so much that it obsessed one deranged man who built a murderous cult around it- but it is full of jokes and playfulness and infighting and self-deprecations too. Did I mention it also has approximately a million killer tracks on it, good enough to justify the persistent need to skip crap like Revolution 9? It is exactly the kind of thing you get obsessed with at fifteen, but unlike so many of those things, it is still enjoyable at thirty-five.


  1. Picture of Nectar- I didn’t get the nickname Hippie Matt as a freshman in college for ironic reasons. I was a Phishhead and a Deadhead and super into Bob Marley and constantly donned in tie-dye. That mostly all started with listening to Picture of Nectar after my cousin lent it to me. It was weird (not White Album weird, mind you) and totally different from the Classic Rock I was listening to, but also fun and full of great guitar and ripe for geeking out on, which I did in a very major way. I could follow this up with a list of the ten Phish bootlegs I wasted the most time on internet message boards trying to trade for, but it would be sad, sad reminder of just how little did with my life in those days and who needs that? I don’t listen to Phish much these days but I still enjoy some of it if I am I the mood. I cannot at all connect with the person who cared so much about it now, though, and that makes me sad. This was a big deal for me way back when.


  1. A Love Supreme- One of the things that might happen if you get super into jam bands is that you might slip down the improvisational music rabbit hole and land in the Wonderland of Jazz music. Jazz is mostly a punchline today, especially the more avant-garde versions like this. I love it though and Coltrane deserves at least 90-percent of the reverence that is laid before him. He is amazing and this album is amazing. As with Phish, I don’t listen to A Love Supreme much anymore. I listen to Coltrane’s Sound or Blue Train all the time, but not A Love Supreme. Maybe when you are young, you have more patience for the experimental, or maybe you find depth in things that seem deep that isn’t really there or maybe you miss the deep in the things that are less weird because strange things are strange and that seems important. I don’t know. I should probably listen to this album more, but I won’t.



  1. Nevermind- It feels obligatory to cite Nirvana, but it is a case of the cliché being true. Smells Like Teen Spirit was a watershed moment in music for my generation. Grunge was our Rock N’ Roll, the style that came of age with us and it was pretty great. I grew out of Nirvana before I stopped being a teenager and had to get ten years or so away from it before I could go back and remember it for being as important as it was. Some of that was the side of me that has to reject the popular thing and some of it was all the terrible shit that followed that was trying to sound like Nirvana. There was a ton of terrible shit. Nevermind was brilliant though and of all the Rock N’ Roll alternate histories you could make, I think Kurt Cobain not killing himself is one of the most fascinating. He was a brilliant artist in several mediums and a thoughtful and empathetic person. Things would be different today if he was alive. I’m not sure how, but they would be different.


  1. Ten- For all the incredible impact that Nevermind had, Pearl Jam’s Ten is the better album and was at least equally important to me as a teenager. As an adult, the resonance of songs like Alive, Even Flow and Black is so powerful that I often forget that Jeremy is even on this album, which given the fact that it was played approximately 20 times an hour on the radio and on MTV in defiance of the laws of space and time, is remarkable. Of all the music that is labeled “grunge” only Nirvana’s Unplugged and this album really seem to exist outside that time and trend.


  1. Recipe for Hate- I was just two or three days into high school when James Imonti passed me a cassette tape of this Bad Religion album. It blew my mind. It is another album that I have not listened to in years, but the melodies to American Jesus and Don’t Pray on Me, still linger in the back of my mind. If you aren’t going to discover punk through The Clash or The Ramones, this isn’t a bad place to get your start. I could have had much worse introductions in the form of the pop-punk wave that Green Day ushered in around this time, so I am grateful to James and to Bad Religion for sparing me that fate. Lyrically, it isn’t hard to draw the line between Bad Religion and the protest music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seegar that I grew up on. In that respect, this album is still quite relevant. American Jesus, in particular, seems to be as poignant as ever.
  1. The Ultimate Experience- Despite being obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, I didn’t own any of the studio albums until my late teenage years. Such is the foolishness of youth, I guess. At 13, I joined one of those scammy CD clubs that sent you eight CD’s for a penny (oh, things kids of the next generation will never know) and got Clapton’s Timepieces and this Hendrix compilation. It was probably one of the things I listened to the most as a teenager, much to my folky parents utter dismay. This was the music of their teenage years and they hated it then and hated it just as much when I was teenager. For all the uncoolness that comes with Greatest Hits compilations, this is a fantastic collection and covers the Hendrix catalog amazingly well.
  1. 24 Nights- I might judge myself as uncool for buying all those greatest hits albums, but the same impulse, which was to get the highest number of the songs I liked on one album, also steered me to live albums, so I would say my youthful ignorance paid off in the long run. This Clapton album was my absolute favorite Clapton album and I started playing guitar after hearing the original Layla for the first time, so that really is saying something. This album gets bonus points for the time when I turned a pretty girl on to Bell-Bottom Blues at age 17 and got to feel like someone who knew important secret things about music.
  1. Europe 72- I love the Grateful Dead. Along with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, they are a cornerstone in the soundtrack of my life. Today, I tend to listen to the studio albums, especially American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead more than the live stuff, but this album is still one of my favorites and may be the highwater mark of the entire jam band genre. Going back to my teenage days, I could justifiably pick another Dead live compilation- Hundred Year Haul- just as easily but Europe ’72 gets the nod if just for the China Cat> Rider jam, one of my all-time favorites.
  1. Sublime- I can’t really say that Sublime had a major impact on me the way that these other albums did, but if I was making a movie set between 1994-1998, my own personal Dazed and Confused, it would have to have What I Got, Santeria, Doin’ Time and Wrong Way all very prominently featured on the soundtrack. There is no other music on earth that transports me back to high school as much as Sublime. Maybe that because Bradley Nowell died and this was basically the entirety of their run as a popular band. Maybe it is because they got played to death on the radio. Maybe it is that this music- Sublime specifically, but also ska in general- was bright and fun-sounding (even in songs about teenage prostitution and being locked up) and fit with the carefree summer days of being a teenager in a way that the grunge of those days never could. Regardless of the reason for it, there is no music on earth that takes me back to riding in J’s beat-up, bird’s egg blue Chevy Reliant quite like Sublime.