Essential Music: Dark Star, by the Grateful Dead

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As any Grateful Dead fan (aka Deadhead) will tell you, “Dark Star” is the ultimate Dead song. This cosmic symphony of rock was the optimal vehicle for the group’s improvisations, a template for the moods and feelings that the various musicians wanted to express in their music. Jerry Garcia said, “Dark Star has meant, while I was playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine,” and Phil Lesh called it “the one we tacitly agreed on where anything was okay.”

While the Dead jammed many of their songs, Dark Star has a special place. It stands aside several other classic tunes that often stretched on for 30 minutes or more–That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Lovelight, Playin’ In the Band–but always offered a less structured environment for improvisation. The Grateful Dead performed Dark Star at least 232 times, according to Deadbase.On an absolute level, there are no Dark Stars, but there is one long, discontinuous Dark Star, which was proven so adeptly by John Oswald in his Grayfolded, a melding and morphing of dozens of Dark Stars into a long, single piece that embodies the essence of Dark Star.

The ur-Dark Star must remain the 2/27/69 version, immortalized on the Live Dead album, which was released later the same year. This version has almost chamber-music perfection and subtlety, and its inclusion on the Dead’s first live release raised it to a special place in the Pantheon of Dead songs. It was the Dark Star that Deadheads (other than those who traded tapes) listened to over and over.

Every other Dark Star flows from that version. Whether it be the raucous 8/27/72 performance, recorded in the scorching Oregon heat, where Jerry Garcia’s notes spit from his amps like fire bolts; the sinuous 9/21/72 version (at over 37 minutes), with its long, mellow noodling; or the jazzy Halloween 1971 version, every Dark Star has its own character and mood. Other classic Dark Stars include the 2/13/70 Fillmore East recording, which is part of one of the Dead’s greatest concerts ever, and the 48-minute 5/11/72 version played in Rotterdam.

Dark Star will remain, for aficionados of the Grateful Dead, the hallmark of their work. While the Dead performed hundreds of different songs, the scope and breadth–and length–of Dark Star makes it the highlight of almost every live Grateful Dead recording.

3 replies
  1. Movieguy43 says:

    Great post. You covered all my favorites. The Dick’s Pick #4 you link to is a great starting point for anyone interested in testing the Dark Star waters. Many versions were too dark and/or spacy for a newcomer to get excited about, but the 2/13/70 version is upbeat and very accessible with it’s "Feeling Groovy" jam within a jam. Lots of other classics on DP4 as well.

    And being December, I don’t think it’s too early to wish you a very Jerry Christmas and a Happy Bob Weir.

  2. alph says:

    Seems the best of the Dark Stars mentioned are in the early days of the Dead with Pigpen still playing in the band. I wonder what he brought to the song in the way of keyboard or percussion? One of my favorites versions was recorded at a hall down the road not very far, Port Chester’s Capitol Theater, where Howard Stein (not Howard Stern) promoted shows for a few years. The February 1971 shows are especially good, and Feb 18 first set combo of Dark Star, Wharf Rat (first ever), the Beautiful Jam , and the finish of Dark Star is a masterpiece, a chef d’oeuvre, as it were. It is available to hear at www dot archive dot org, so go there and give a listen. There are other notable jam variations that fly like sparks off the many Dark Stars. Take a few moments to enjoy them.


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