CINEMA: Day Of The Dead


BY HERB GREENE HORTICULTURE EDITOR Oregon was weird long before the Grateful Dead trucked up there in August of ’72 to play it’s legendary concert at the Old Renaissance Faire Grounds near Eugene. It was that same freak-nurturing frontier where a young Ken Kesey roamed and grazed before going on to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and later, as head administrator of the Acid Tests, foment the cultural upheaval that defined the era that Time-Warner has branded and sold as “The Sixties” a million times over. The concert, widely-regarded by most fans as the band’s greatest ever, was staged as a benefit for the Springfield Creamery, the dairy and nascent organic yogurt concern founded by Kesey’s family and run by his brother Chuck. A documentary about the concert was long-rumored to be languishing somewhere in the Dead vaults but it has never been available for public conception. Until now. More than 40 years after it all went down the performance is finally available in Rhino’s new series of thoughtfully assembled Sunshine Daydream packages.  Though bootleg audio and video snippets from this landmark show have circulated amongst heads for decades, the Rhino DVD/CD marks the first official release of both.

The concert was something of a homecoming, despite the fact that the Dead was based in the Bay Area, and as they slip in and out of long, liquidy expanses of mind-expanding improvisations, scenes from the crowd reveal the usual suspects were in attendance, everyone from acid jester Wavy Gravy and Merry Prankster prime mover Ken Babbs, to Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia and Kid Charlemagne himself, aka lysergic mixologist Owsley Stanley, whose experiments in clandestine chemistry fueled the Summer of Love. In the 40-page booklet that’s bundled with some of the packages, one writer looks back on the show as the “Last Acid Test.” In much the same way that D.A. Pennebaker gave us a glimpse of Dylan’s backpages in Don’t Look Back with a quick cutaway to a snippet of him performing at a voter registration drive on a black-owned farm deep in Mississippi just a few years earlier. The Dead’s psychedelic pedigree comes through in Sunshine Daydream by way of flashbacks spliced in from original Kesey- and Prankster-shot footage. In one, Acid Test proctors are shown emptying packets of powdered Kool Aid into a bucket, presumably along with the blessed potion that makes that sugary poison become electric, while a baby-faced Bob Weir and a primordial, pre-Grateful Dead grooves mere steps away. In another, we’re taken even further back with a montage of beat avatar Neal Cassady piloting the Prankster’s technicolor carryall through a still square 1964 America en route to Timothy Leary’s lysergic lyceum in upstate New York. You’ll recognize some these scenes from 2011’s Magic Trip.

Much of the music performed is pretty standard stuff for most seasoned heads — it ranges from Dead classics and psych rock-tinged Chuck Berry and Merle Haggard covers to (then still new) originals culled from Garcia and Weir’s first solo efforts. Over the next few decades the band would go on to play a million crappy to mediocre versions of all these songs. But here they all seem to flow freer, and land on the ears a little livelier. At times, especially in the band’s far-reaching take on its classic “Playing in the Band,” Garcia’s guitar punches through the stratosphere with flares of pure liquid orange sunshine. Friends of Herb, and anyone else who’s ever inhaled, enjoyed it, and continued to over and over again, are strongly encouraged to check this flick out, no matter what preconceived ideas they may have about the Dead and their fans. Just as early psychonauts stressed the importance of the right set and setting before embarking on journeys to the center for the mind, this horticulture editor strongly recommends that viewers get properly hooked up — or whatever you want to call  it —  before playing the movie.

However, a word of warning for tourists, there is quite a bit of jamming included. “Dark Star,” one of the band’s holiest of long-form mind-melters, clocks in here at a half-hour. Twelve whole minutes of its deep space voyage drifts by as if paced for an imaginary Kubrick film before the first verse even starts. If that’s your thing, keep a fat doob handy when the song comes around. Spark it up and strap in for lift off. Those averse to lengthy freeform freakouts should consider a seventh inning stretch. Take a bathroom break. Pull a couple tubes on the way back. Check your messages. Crack a beer if you’ve got one.

It’ll still be going.

There’s a lot of nudity too. But not the sort of ribald debauchery that’s on display in the Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues, another seldom-seen rock flick from 1972. Here it’s a tamer, more benign form of ’70s drug-fueled rock n’ roll bacchanalia. Men and women. Fat and thin. Dicks flapping. Titties shaking. Blissfully unashamed about boogieing bare-ass while, literally, blistering in the sun on what was one of Oregon’s hottest days on record. This trek back to stoned Eden peaks with “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider,” but takes a turn toward Bummertown as one particular hippie, who looks a lot like Iggy Pop roasted a sunstroke shade of purple, comes into focus. Like a vibe-harshing Great Gazoo, he pops up over Garcia and Weir’s shoulders repeatedly through several of the set’s numbers. He will haunt your every psychedelic experience — real or imagined — going forward. As far as rock concert films go, Sunshine Daydream is by no means the best. But as far as capturing and recording the Dead’s mythical live presence accurately, a feat the band would attempt time and again with middling-at-best results through its storied history, it succeeds better than any other officially sanctioned release. Here’s hoping there’s more magic like this still awaiting discovery in the Dead’s vaults.