Today is the darkest day of the year and my new favorite satellite radio station is doing something amazing to celebrate.
In observance of the winter solstice, the Grateful Dead Channel has lined up an endless stream of what most heads see as the pinnacle of the Dead’s repertoire: “Dark Star.” At some point in the late 1960s, members of the band set out to write a song without rules, something that would free them to play any structure or mood they felt — or play without structure entirely if that’s where the music took them.
The song was a staple through about the mid-1970s, and then virtually disappeared from the GD lineup until the late 1980s. I got to hear a couple versions live; they were both shorter take, not at all like the sprawling versions they played in good old days. No matter; the versions I heard were still adventureous, full of evidence that the telepathy among the members of the band was still alive and well.
It’s difficult to describe “Dark Star,” because the song changed each time it appeared. There are a couple of verses and a bridge, and a dark, shifting melody that served as the jumping-off point for whatever the band wanted to do. There were a few themes and jams that appeared more than once; a good way to hear some of those — and a good way to introduce yourself to “Dark Star” in general — is to listen to Grayfolded, a double-CD peice assembled from the Dead’s vault by John Oswald. It’s a little like listening to a Grateful Dead orchestra, with layers of Jerry Garcia solos dancing in and out of the melody Oswald constructed for the record.
It’s dark outside now, and the wind is howling — appropriate for the darkest day of the year. I was ready for a short break from Christmas; listening to “Dark Stars” all day — and all night — seems to be about perfect to me.