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Dead Alive 

We chat with Phil Lesh, listen to a new kind of protest song and take a trip into the shadows of the Old School

Philly's Blunt
We were going to try to goad Phil Lesh into slamming Carlos Santana for his crummy duets with the likes of Rob Thomas and Everlast. Really, we were -- until the Dead bassist dialed us up. He's a prince of scholarly demeanor, simply unassailable. Turned us to fanboy putty. So we pitched him eephus balls instead, albeit really interesting ones that have more or less to do with Lesh's candid new memoir, Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead.

B-Sides: Was there ever a time when you guys seriously contemplated restructuring your record deal so you could just put out live albums instead of having to drag yourselves back into the studio?

Phil Lesh: No, because records were really secondary. We didn't become a band so we could make records. We did it so we could play in front of people. Making records was something that was expected of us and an excuse to work up new material. As far as live albums, we put out as many as we felt like putting out.

A fair percentage of our readership occasionally enjoys getting drunk before noon. You admit to having booze for breakfast in the book. What drives one to drink so vigorously in the morning?

You've got to get up and do something. I think the reason you drink at night is there's not much going on in your life that's satisfactory. And when you wake up, you feel bad -- so you start drinking again to take the tingle away.

While you're very critical of the toll drugs took on the band, you also give drugs a lot of credit for helping unite the Dead in its formative years. So if you had it to do all over again, would you have used drugs and alcohol differently?

There're drugs and then there're drugs. We started out with the entheogens [i.e., acid] and, over time, for whatever reason, it all changed. Other substances started coming around that were not so benevolent and life-affirming. Because of the pressures of our popularity, everybody sort of turned to self-medication: cocaine, alcohol, heroin, downers and pills of all kind. I'd like to say I wouldn't do all those drugs if I had it to do all over again, but I'm not sure I could say that with all honesty. There was a lot of pressure. It was a simple matter of when the time was right for me to walk away from those things. But again, I was motivated -- I was newly married and I had children.

Did you guys ever consider permanently replacing Jerry in the days and weeks following his death?

Not even one microsecond. When we did go out together in '98, and then '03 and '04, it took two or three guitarists to replace him. -- Mike Seely

More than Words
Abu Ghraib. Um, what happened there? I mean, I know what happened, but what happens next? So Charles Graner Jr., the "ringleader" of the abuses, was recently sentenced to ten years in a military prison, his former girlfriend Lynndie England is in and out of court as we speak, and both are essentially low-ranking foot soldiers. In spite of the tens of thousands of words spoken by all those photographs (not to mention the literal words written on the subject), zero responsibility has been taken by the higher-ups in the Defense Department who, it has now been thoroughly documented, formulated specific strategies for humiliating Muslim captives for the sake of making them more vulnerable to interrogations. Oops.

Why am I mentioning these events in a music piece? Blame "Abu Ghraib" -- not the prison or the scandal, but the protest song by Montreal musician Deadbeat, a.k.a. Scott Monteith. When I say "protest song," you probably think of acoustic guitars and Joan Baez, but this is different. Deadbeat makes tense, shadowy techno. "Abu Ghraib" is a protest song for the new millennium.

It's also a protest song with no lyrics. How do you make a protest song with no lyrics? Ah, let us see.

The track sets out with thumping bass beats, these fat, bulbous thrums that pick up speed, grinding and rolling and sending out sparks of synth chirps. Filled out with a pendulous bass line and a jittery bunch of electronic warbles and wisps, the song has a certain shuffle to it, but a mechanical one, like a bent wheel that spins with a lopsided limp. Insistently it careens forward, a piece of factory machinery that's been cranked up beyond its limits, bursts of steam shooting out, bits of metal pinging off the walls, the whole thing about to blow.

Where you locate the political content is up to you. Maybe it's in the image of a system on the brink of collapse. I like to think it's in the juxtaposition of the addicting groove against the title, how that unsettling combination parallels the horrific images we saw of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated even as our political leaders told us that everything was going just fine -- the party line they still toe today.

What I really like about this tune is that unlike something by, say, Country Joe & the Fish, something didactic and humorless, "Abu Ghraib" does nothing more than put the music in a particular context, namely the war. "Abu Ghraib" doesn't hit us over the head, but merely asks us to ponder its thumps and beeps within the framework of these atrocities; it's not trying to fix our attention on politics, but it's not allowing us to dismiss them either.

Monteith's song is off his latest full-length, New World Observer, another apt title. He's been quoted as saying, "I don't know how any artist in any discipline who has been reading the paper or watching the news over the last year could not have countless atrocities penetrate their work." Me neither, and "Abu Ghraib" does a commendable job of letting the sadder parts of the world seep in without letting them weigh the song down entirely. -- Garrett Kamps

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