TELEVISION / Dead give away

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The Independent Culture
ALL ROCK bands must pretend that they feel like excluded and marginalised misfits no matter how rich they are. The Grateful Dead grossed dollars 34 m last year from touring alone, but one look at the way they dress on stage shows how they really are committed misfits. What is truly remarkable is the obligation they feel to other misfits who never made the money.

'The people who come to ask their local rock'n'roll band for help are the forgotten people. If you have to call the Grateful Dead for assistance, you're definitely falling between the cracks of the major charities,' explained Jerry Garcia in last night's Arena (BBC 2) about rich musicians being true to their roots as awkward Sixties nerds.

The band started to give away money in the early Eighties, when they became seriously rich, as the children of their first audiences acquired a disposable income of their own. The process now seems unstoppable: some of the babies filmed at their concerts, clinging in tie-dye and earmuffs to the shoulders of their dancing parents, must be grandchildren of the first generation of deadheads.

Lesh, the bass player, and the man who more than anyone else stops them from sounding like a normal, competent rock band, has a past as a student of avant-garde music under Luciano Berio. In college he himself wrote a work which would have needed three orchestras to perform and which he once described as sounding like 'great blocks of granite sliding past each other'.

In the mid-Eighties he joined the Havergal Bryan Society, formed to promote the music of an English composer whose work was almost entirely unperformed when he died. Another member of the Society was Chris Dench, a younger English avant-garde composer who was also an admirer of Lesh's music.

He wrote to him to say that there were living English composers who needed the money too. Shortly afterwards cheques for dollars 10,000 from the Rex foundation started dropping through the obscure letterboxes of people who would be horrified to hear the music of the Dead.

We cut from the postman's bicycle in an English village to Phil Lesh listening on his car stereo to the works of composers who have sent him tapes in the hope of patronage. They vary wildly. Some are hard to listen to as a point of principle. Others, like Robert Simpson, seem to be unknown to an audience that would want them if it knew of them.

It is a pity that the film missed the comic potential of the Dead's Wembley shows in 1991, when a number of recipients of the band's largesse were taken into the inimitable maelstrom of one of their shows, and a pity too that the concert footage of the Grateful Dead themselves managed to lose virtually every note Lesh played.

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