Owsley > Nixon

10 06 2012

You don’t need the new Big Brother & the Holding Company if you’re looking for the great live performance from the band. That will always be Cheap Thrills.

But if you’re interested in a high-powered 1968 Big Brother performance at the Carousel Ballroom, then listen to this new release from Owsley Stanley’s vault of unreleased recordings, a mostly mythical place awash wonderment and curiosity for those who have listened in awe to some of his previous recordings by the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons, and the Allman Brothers.

The fashion of recording, reproducing sound to fit this year’s ears, has no place in his world. He reproduced sound to suit his ears only and assumed everyone else would like it the way he heard it — immediate and full. His best recordings conjure a band playing live onstage. It’s not balanced in the way most live recordings are; it’s a uniquely of-the-moment spitball of sound.

Owsley used omni directional mics, a quirk for rock but the norm for recording orchestras in large halls. Live rock recordings are typically cleaned up by sound engineers putting all the instruments into neat spaces where they can’t compete with each other. It’s a very defined way to introduce live performance into stereo. It works well and that’s why the practice has thrived in the past 50 years. For Owlsey, the step into a dirtier recording, by not targeting instruments and instead targeting the mass of sound a band produces, was clearly the correct choice. He was a product of the relatively small ballrooms of San Francisco during the ’60s and he obviously liked the noise they housed. It’s completely counterintuitive and of course that’s the way Owsley thought.

When he left the United States for the Australian bush in a typically Owsley-esque zag when everyone expected a zig, he held outdoor parties with sound powered by large speakers clustered together. Speakers are typically spaced as far apart as possible to enhance stereo. But Owsley’s clusters were designed to be faithful to his original, omni-directional recordings by focusing on the mass of sound. Those recordings, from his personal library, are becoming public, now several years since his death. The Big Brother recording follows the same eccentric path: Push your speakers together to play this 1968 Carousel Ballroom show. Not clustering them to hear this would be like watching a 3D movie without the glasses.

Sit back and enjoy an enormously entertaining slice of Bay Area music.

The newest  in the Grateful Dead’s current concert release series, Dave’s Picks, is 7-31-74 an outdoor show representative of a year of marathon shows chock full of improvisation. Owsley was in part responsible for how audiences heard these shows. He was one of the designers of The Wall of Sound, a 641-speaker, 24,600 watt, 3-story, custom-designed sound system. The Wall was carted around the country at great expense to the band and to the great luck of the audiences in ’73 and ’74. It was an enormous tip of the hat to quality live sound reproduction, but ultimately so cumbersome that even Owsley had to admit it was too much trouble to maintain.

The soundboard recordings from the Wall of Sound shows sometimes don’t mirror what the audience heard. Here’s an audience recording from that same date. Give it a listen and you’ll get an idea of what the Wall of Sound could do. 

The joy in the audience on this recording never comes completely through on the official live recordings. It’s nearly as much fun to listen to as the band. Drummer Mickey Hart summed it up in a recent Rolling Stone interview:

“The Grateful Dead were very kind. It was Santa Claus. It did good things. It allowed other people to benefit. The benefits that we played were enormous, and we played free. So you’ve got a band that loves to play free, and that was a wonderful thing. We played free so beautifully because we didn’t owe the people anything, so we just played out of our heads, and we just played whatever came into our heads and into our soul. There were very little restrictions. People didn’t blame anybody for making a mistake. There was no such thing. No one got yelled at when they got off the stage. Most of the time we never even talked about the music. We’d get into the van and we were talking about anything, but not normally the music. That’s magic, and it’s really hard to talk about something that’s invisible. And music is invisible. You can’t see it. You can’t touch it. You can hear it and you can feel it – you can be touched by it.”

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/mickey-hart-on-the-grateful-dead-we-werent-a-girl-scouts-troop-20120416#ixzz1sFv2udto

This dwelling on the late ’60s and early ’70s always pushes memories, and Richard Nixon returns to be kicked around some more. He too always seems relevant and he’s always ready to stun from beyond the grave. The latest comes from Woodward & Bernstein, who appear to have gotten the band back together again. Was the political snakepit of that White House as bad as we remember? Nope. Forty years on from Watergate, these guys say it was worse not only than we remember but than we knew.

Here’s an excerpt of this larger article, which is worth reading in its entirety:

On June 17, 1971 — exactly one year before the Watergate break-in — Nixon met in the Oval Office with his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and national security adviser Henry Kissinger. At issue was a file about former president Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the 1968 bombing halt in Vietnam.

“You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing,” Haldeman said, according to the tape of the meeting.

“Yeah,” Kissinger said, “but Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together for three years.” They wanted the complete story of Johnson’s actions.

“Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings,” Haldeman said.

“Bob,” Nixon said, “now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it. . . . I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. God damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Nixon would not let the matter drop. Thirteen days later, according to another taped discussion with Haldeman and Kissinger, the president said: “Break in and take it out. You understand?”

The next morning, Nixon said: “Bob, get on the Brookings thing right away. I’ve got to get that safe cracked over there.” And later that morning, he persisted, “Who’s gonna break in the Brookings Institution?”

For reasons that have never been made clear, the break-in apparently was not carried out.

Dragging Lyndon Johnson into this makes the mess messier. Robert Caro is one of the greatest American journalists and the fourth volume in his magisterial biography of Johnson is out a mere 10 years since the third volume came out. These are massive books but they are riveting. Caro believes that the public’s extreme cynicism of American government began on LBJ’s watch, as he told the Guardian this weekend:

“That’s a product of the 60s,” says Caro. “If you look at America on 22 November 1963 [the day of Kennedy’s assassination] it’s a very different place than the America you’re describing. That’s when Johnson becomes president. Five years later he leaves the presidency. America has changed into basically what you are talking about. Everyone thinks that distrust of government started under Nixon. But that’s not true. It started under Johnson. It started with Vietnam and the ‘credibility gap’. There used to be this feeling under Eisenhower and Kennedy and Roosevelt and Truman that government was a solution. Trust in the presidency fell precipitously under Johnson – real lows. And it’s never come back. It’s a trend that, if you’re liberal, is really discouraging.”

The result was a counterculture that started post World War II as a fringe bohemian group and grew into a sprawling youth movement that didn’t wanted to get sent to Vietnam and didn’t care for what they saw at the White House. The entertainment was the Grateful Dead, Owsley, and Big Brother.


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