Dealing with a record such as this (although I would be hard-pressed to imagine anything particularly similar) is a uniquely fucked experience. I first heard the one CD version. Then, a year later, there was a two CD version. Now, many goddamn years later (my kids are grown, my hair is gone) here's a 3LP version. And while I have tried like a duck to sort these variations out in my brain, I find that my synapses immediately adapt to whatever version is playing. So now it is dealing with this massive, annotated 3LP set, and my brain forgets anything else even existed.
“Dealing with a record such as this (although I would be hard-pressed to imagine anything particularly similar) is a uniquely fucked experience.”
In the back of my mind, I suspect this whole project began with Henry Kaiser. Henry is, among many other things, a brilliant guitarist. And actually, I mean he's a genius who also plays guitar. From his first recordings with the Harvard-based Monster Island, through whatever insane project he has most recently embarked upon (most current one I can see is his Antarctic improv duos with David Lindley), Henry Kaiser is one of the most intelligent musicians our planet has yet produced. Over the past 40 or so years, Mr. Kaiser has done more to connect disparate elements of underground apostasy than almost anyone I know. Jim O'Rourke might match him, but only barely. Suffice to say, both of them are insanely selfless apostles of good sounds.
Kaiser was a known Dead Head for a while. John Oswald was not. But the Californian Kaiser and the Toronto-based Oswald flew in the same improv circles in the late 1970s. Indeed, many of their early recordings feature each other, usually with Henry on guitar and John on alto sax. In the later part of the 1980s, John began releasing bits of his Plunderphonics experiments. First, there was a not-for-sale 12”, then a CD, then Oswald got a gig doing one for an Elektra anniversary release, and so on. What these experiments consisted of was radical recontextualization of extant musical material. Steve Fisk had been doing some amazing work in this area as well, but Oswald's stuff had a viciously surreal ferocity, making it more akin to the work Orchid Spangiafora had been doing with text-based ready-mades. The results were not subtle, but they were incredible and extremely disorienting.
“It is a singular meeting of psychedelic and avant-garde impulses, and a project whose loose madness rewards endless investigation.”
In the early '90s, Oswald met Dead archivist David Gans through Kaiser. Via this association, Plunderphonics recordings began to filter into the upper reaches of the Dead's hierarchy, and Phil Lesh eventually proposed something along the lines of what Grayfolded became — a full-on reimagination of the Dead's epic signature song, “Dark Star.” Oswald was granted total access to the band's tape archives and he began charting out the journey you can now enjoy on vinyl. It is a singular meeting of psychedelic and avant-garde impulses, and a project whose loose madness rewards endless investigation.
Oswald listened to every version of the song stored in the the Dead’s legendary Vault in the course of putting Grayfolded together. About 100 of these made the cut for at least a couple of seconds. There are charts of source usage on the inner sleeves. It's not always easy to figure out what the hell they mean — especially in the parts where Oswald has “folded” recordings in on themselves, crushing large chunks of music into dense patches of sonic whoosh — but they're good to look at. And even if you don't give a hoot about the band, you have to start wondering about what a gig like 9/2/68 at Betty Nelson's Organic Raspberry Farm, Sultan WA was really like.
The transfer of format from CDs to less time-flexible LPs probably makes some difference in the listening experience as well, but there's nothing that stands out as particularly jarring. Much of this surely has to do with the fact that Oswald's selection of source material tends to be more abstract than strictly linear. Shards of structure pop up all over the place, but a lot of the original performances are quite obtuse and after Oswald has his way with them, they achieve a whole new form of otherness.
“What is it the bozos used to say? “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” As it happens, they are finally correct. Grayfolded really is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. It's much better than that.”
At the time the original CD version was released, I seem to recall some Oswald fans griped that the sounds were not screwy enough. Listening to these LPs (which require physical interaction every 20 minutes or so, thus forcing a bit more concentration than the CDs did), it's hard to imagine what anyone was moaning about. Many of the individual notes seem possible to identify as having originated with the Grateful Dead, but they were obviously assembled by someone who had a genius for this sort of collaging. And if you really thought about it, you would eventually start to think maybe Oswald had some connection to the project. The whole notion might seem a bit unlikely, but then this album stinks of such apparent contradictions.
What is it the bozos used to say? “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” As it happens, they are finally correct. Grayfolded really is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. It's much better than that. And it's all John Oswald's fault. Damn his beady little eyes.