Graded on a Curve: Grateful Dead,
Infrared Roses

See this album I’m holding in my hands? It’s a copy of the Grateful Dead’s 1991 LP Infrared Roses. Now watch closely—I’m going to perform a magic trick. What I’m going to do is gently remove the record from its sleeve and dash it against the far wall, then puke into the empty sleeve. And presto! A new and improved version of Infrared Roses!

I would never be so unkind to do the same to any other Grateful Dead album, no matter how dreadful. But Infrared Roses is not your average dreadful Grateful Dead album. What it is, and I tremble just at the thought of it, is a compilation of the “drums and space” interludes the Dead performed between sets. Their purpose, so far as I can tell, was to give hallucinogenic casualties the opportunity to head for the freak-out tent to rehydrate, levitate, and communicate with Deadheads from distant planets, until the Dead returned to playing real songs such as, for instance, “Terrapin Station.” You know “Terrapin Station.” It’s the one that makes you want to throttle a dancing bear.

The twelve tracks on Infrared Roses are not jam sessions. Nor are they free jazz—I’ve been listening to free jazz since my younger brother forced me to do decades ago, and this ain’t that. Drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart establish the occasional groove, but I can’t say I enjoy them—they remind me too much of the early morning drum circle in the park I lived next to in Washington, DC which generally inspired me to scream out my window “Can it you fucking hippies!”

But when the drummers give up the ghost anything might happen, and that anything tends to be very, very bad. I’m talking Martian Muzak bird sounds, come-from-out-of-nowhere guitar riffs, brief flights of Garcia fancy, snippets of actual Dead songs, neo-classical brouhaha, dusty-piano-playing-itself horror movie music, and on and on until you drop your bong and barrel out the front door shrieking, “They’re here! They’ve come scramble our minds! Toss your children in front of them! It will slow them down!”

To be honest—and I’d just as soon ignore it because it would seem to undermine my entire argument—Branford Marsalis’ saxophone turn on closing track “Apollo at the Ritz” is excellent indeed. And his performance goads the Dead into making an attempt to lend shape to the gormless. But I would hold the song doesn’t belong on this album. It’s a one-in-a-million miracle, akin to being hit on the head by space debris only to discover it’s a winning Powerball ticket.

Your average fans looking for a first taste of the Grateful Dead will walk away from Infrared Roses disillusioned (to say nothing of fuming), your non-fanatic Dead fans won’t see the point, and your most frothing-at-the-mouth Deadheads will own bootleg versions of drums and space to last them through the Zombie Apocalypse.

Given all of that, does Infrared Roses serve a purpose? It sure does. I just happen to be holding a copy in my hands right this minute. Now watch closely, I’m about to perform a magic trick. What I’m going to do is gently remove the record from its sleeve and dash it against the far wall, then puke into the empty sleeve…

GRADED ON A CURVE:
F

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