Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but, if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable. Marcel Proust
Estimated Prophet is the Grateful Dead’s finest song. Fears of the afterlife are not unreasonably predicated on the suspicion that it won’t compare. It contains everything they do brilliantly in a unique package. The Jam after the bridge has face-melting goodness worthy of The Eleven. Seeing it live was a vision quest, invoking episodes of what Proust called involuntary memory, when the past is suddenly recreated and you return to a previous self: the person who heard it for the first time, the person who first understood. Estimated Prophet is sui generis, not reminiscent of other songs, not molded from existing forms, some act of special creation, an anomaly without predecessors or siblings. Had they retired it in 78 the loss would have been grieved like Dark Star. The enthralling spell cast on crowds evades scientific explanation.
We have no compass, only the First Version, 2-26-77, first show of the year: The 1977 Manifesto. Talk about bold promises fulfilled. It’s also the first Terrapin. Estimated should have made more appearances in the first set. You join it already in progress, like it’s been waiting. There’s something special about the inflection during the chorus, a peculiar ring or emphasis or innocence it does not give its descendants, the enunciation of California and angel sculpted by external forces or some Platonic form sought and attained. The wah wah in Jerry’s guitar is the missing link between the physical realm and the void.
Not often does a song enter the world in a state of comparable perfection, as if created elsewhere. One reason for 1977’s greatness is that they played Estimated Prophet every night. (Almost. 50 times out of 60 shows.) It evolves in front of your ears. A meditative routine is the anchor of life and surest path to Quietude. Listen to one a day for fifty days. Join the Sentinels of the Chandelier.
Earliest Fossil Form on 2-22-74. Estimated could have been a country tune, kin to Sugar Magnolia. Missing links abound. Just as there’s a Library of Babel with all possible books, there’s an iPod with all possible songs. Would that we could hear the bouncing country prophet raise hell, like some preacher at a revival.
4-19-82 Chaotic seas part at 10:48 and a thematic jam appears like some vindicated prophecy. It’s the full equal of the Mind Left Body Jam or any jam you’d care to mention. It’s the ONLY time they played this. It’s Satori. And this version is ferocious long before the Light appears near the end: the harmony and its wild synergy, Jerry’s emphasis on California and angel diverging from Weir like prism rays. They’re both testifying. The Jam persists with noble defiance and what happens at 10:48 is shattering. Watkins Glen tier. Why did they not play this every time? 4-19-82 is spellbinding. Not essential, urgent.
Compare 1978 to 1988. The song does not remain the same. I’m tempted to say it improved. I will say it. Quote me. Weir did not attain True Bobness until the 80s. An easygoing confidence begot awareness that he was chosen. The sound-effects and howling descended from Acid Test madness. Some folks have dark nights of the soul here. Just remember you’re surrounded by people who care in a meaningful universe created by an act of love. Listen to Jerry light the way in both versions. Very different jams. The 88 one from 3:40 –> 5:20 will give you a sweet tooth. How to describe it? How do you write about music with metaphors and similes? Music isn’t like anything. Synesthesia here we come.
As a crude approximation: there’s sweet jam under the bridge, Jerry’s solo after “men gonna light my way.” Partake. Your face feels like a flag swept by lunar gusts. It has a bright sound, like some bioluminous entity emerging from a cocoon and soaring away, propelled by blasts from Weir and Lesh, vibrating with wah wah majesty, ascending and changing its form again. The solid state was merely a chrysalis. To describe its Presence we need a different explanatory paradigm: What intentions does it harbor? Contact is precarious and transitory. The gravity of the opening rivals black holes and returns everything to where it began. Bobby testifies but his tone has changed, wrathful like a prophet scorned, forlorn like the traveler from an antique land who saw a ruined statue and deduced the shelf life of glory.
Note the cyclic nature of the song. Or is it? Which type of Time is coming? There will be different meanings and interpretations if the messenger presupposes the A Theory, B Theory or Heap. Look closer. Patterns emerge and vanish, icebergs of data drifting in an ocean of static. Some people break codes. Some codes break people. The line is slight and you won’t know you’ve crossed it. Others might.
I have no intention of listing best versions. I remain unimpressed by their objectivity. I remain unimpressed by Objectivity. What conditions could we ask this song to meet? We can only try to describe what we’ve seen. Heraclitus said no man ever listens to the same Estimated Prophet twice, for it is not the same song and he is not the same man. This bespeaks nothing of subjectivity, only the insufficiency of our concepts and measurements. Just as consensus does not entail truth, a lack of it does not mean there is no truth. Writing about the Grateful Dead’s “finest song” is an unlikely pursuit for a relativist.
5-10-78 astounds. Acquire Dicks Picks 25 for this alone. Angelic moments from Donna and the absolute perfection of everything else. Note the soaring disarray instantaneously contained like an eruption reversing itself as Weir returns to testify. Note the song that so often follows, as if in theological clarification.
VIP VSV (very slow version) on 5-19-77, filled with chunky reggae goodness. Seriously consider the acquisition of Dick’s Picks 29. This is how Celibidache would have conducted the Dead. (Allusions like that keep my book sales safely under 1,000,000.)
A surreal existentialist crisis … driving page-turning force Publishers Weekly
Listen to the crowd on audience recordings. The only barrier separating Then from Now is a distance finite and definite, measurable by the hands of a clock, each minute connected to the next like a series of steps leading inexorably between two towns. Yet that time could just as well be Atlantis. And you’re visiting. They were living their lives like you are now, that time just as real to them. What became of it? How can something so vivid and tangible become the dream of a shadow? Maybe this moment will be different. They tell you to seize the day but they never say how. Does Home Depot have special gloves?
The Rocks so Red on 7-8-78, and not only the rocks. It coagulates from simple elements and crystallizes into a temple. Everything that consists of parts is less fundamental than the parts of which it consists. Plotinus said. This EP might be a non-contingent composite.
Estimated was less a work in progress than a species evolving, shifting its shape via random mutations or cryptic teleology. It’s vaguely Dark Star-ish in this respect, only more structured, a fragile haiku splitting its seems.
You would not believe me. You will now: 11-13-87. Weir’s vocals will bring out the True Believer in you. This is a level of testification unheard of in the 70s. The song became a Tasmanian Devil. We already knew it was a chameleon.
Is there an alchemist in the house? How does 12-31-91 coalesce such discrepancies, lumbering through verses alien and dysphoric, then igniting a celebratory chorus? (Check the date again. Yes Virginia, there was great Dead music in the 90s.) Estimated is all about the Bridge where the prophet declaims, “Shining on the beach, the sea will part before me. Then you will follow me, and we will rise to glory.” This one is special. He’s telling you the truth. There is no derangement in his voice. He’s convinced but not zealous, as many are inclined to interpret these lyrics, which you should not.
2-26-79 was two years to the day since the first appearance and a full solar eclipse. Coincidence? Please. Symphonic pulses of energy appear from the dusky brim of existence. Dick’s Picks 5 warms their chilling glow, perhaps too much. Soundboards can have an antiseptic studio vibe. The Dead were in fine company by preferring the magic of Now to the studio. Sergiu Celibidache felt their pain:
Celibidache’s focus was instead on creating, during each concert, the optimal conditions for what he called a “transcendent experience”. … He believed that musical experiences were extremely unlikely to ensue when listening to recorded music, so he eschewed them. As a result, some of his concerts did provide audiences with exceptional and sometimes life-altering experiences.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the studio. This version has its charms. (Don’t look at me like that. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.) Why this never became a commercial hit is best explained by Divine intervention. What if they’d had a Touch of Grey experience in 77? Estimated had the potential. It’s “catchy.” I heard it on the radio once. Seriously, once.
The Valley of jewels, Alpine. The obscurity and magnificence of 6-26-87 set two. 89’s life-changing run is not superior to the prior years by some order of magnitude, if at all. 86’s Estimated and Tom Thumb’s deserve attention. In 85 Healy mixed in a strange choir during the bridge. O to peak in the Valley, the valley of the Dead.
Dear Deer Creek, I’d trade all my tomorrows to see a single run again. (This offer does not include 95 and is not valid in New Jersey and Alaska.) The Prophet from 6-6-91 approaches like some shambling traveler on the road, a refugee from sights beyond your horizons. He walks with you and tells you things as if each is a performative utterance like let there be light. Then he wanders off, his empathy disarming. He’s concerned about your state of mind, about you worrying about him, as if afraid what impact his company will have. You’ll soon find out. 92’s Estimated shook the hills with cosmic grandeur. It comes together from discrete elements in the way Democritus believed the universe was assembled from atoms swirling aimlessly in the void. Hear Smokestack Lightning. Say a prayer for a soul in torment. One of the best shows I saw.
Eyes of the Prophet. Was there a more perfect pairing than Estimated –> Eyes of the World? There were some fine contenders. Jerry said, “… the rhythmic relationship is very ‘off.’ So I can find a pulse in there that’ll be just a perfect tempo for ‘Eyes of the World’ regardless of what tempo ‘Estimated Prophet’ was at, and that makes it interesting for me ’cause it’s wide open.” Great article.
The Prophet came to Kansas 6-24-91. I remember looking forward to this show, the logistics and preparations and drive there and my stunned incomprehension at our proximity to the stage and how blown away I was during Estimated Prophet. And now I’m looking back from a great distance, through a shimmering haze like it was someone else who saw it, someone I couldn’t identify in a lineup, as if the thread of identity connecting us to former selves is an article of faith.
“Whereof one cannot speak, he should remain silent.” Too bad. We need to discuss 8-12-79 (released on the So Many Roads box). The casual delivery sounds more like a buddy sharing enthusiasms than a messenger of day-glow doom. But then the Jam jams, persisting and escalating with mellow dignity and the enthusiasms appear in a different light, cold and austere.
Whereof one cannot speak … shhhhhh!
Some call them trance versions. Understandably. Here’s one. The long and winding Jam on 5-28-77 stands as a paradigm of Great Trippy Dead Music. To Terrapin is not recommended; it’s essential. Deja vu and nostalgia arise, even though the passage of music is unique, as though it partakes of some deeper commonality only glimpsed in flashes. There it is. To describe Garcia’s guitar in the latter half raises baffling issues about the Private Language Argument. Should I rethink my statement that Estimated improved with time? Nor did Everest.
Purple People, seated under the purple lights in the Phil Zone like surfers of an eruption, we envy you on 12-31-80, the first Estimated of 81 and last of 80, the metaphysical glue of their connection. Focus on Phil during the Jam until some Helen Keller awakening shatters the shell of your mind and reveals to the stunned hatching within a world beyond all wonder. The intrinsic peculiarity of the song is never covered by the gray blanket of familiarity wrapping most things. It’s as different and mysterious and off-the-wall and triumphant and creepy as the first time you heard it.
Also hear Greatest Story Ever Told this night. In a parallel universe I’m writing about their most underrated song, how it’s strictures forced them to be more creative with face-melting jams, how its koan-like verses threw breakers upstairs, how the walls weren’t the only thing to cave in. This song is Zen. Favorite version. And this. Hopefully Hugh Everett was right about parallel universes being decoherent from each other. A compilation of shows where Estimated and GSET were played is underway. Strange patterns appear, ensnaring one.
You mean this was a jazz tune all along? It put reggae camouflage on to confuse us. 9-22-93 has David Murray, blistering and visionary. Remember the sax on Dark Side? There’s more than a contact buzz from that vibe here. Garcia’s MIDI jams sound like meandering androids provoked, ending in Zappa-worthy strangeness. Then there’s Dark Star.
Speaking of great Jams you missed. This is from Weir’s house in 75. Prepare yourself. Wear headphones. You’re welcome. Buy my books. All funds are donated to the Chandelier Press Institute of Estimated Prophet Studies. They have been graciously sponsoring my research. I’m composing my thoughts for a synoptic survey of these versions.
What’s the Greatest Jam of All Time if You Must Pick One? The China-Riders of 73 & 74 merged via the Feelin’ Groovy Jam. Consider this one. Enjoy your Peak Experience. My first impulse, like yours, is to list something from 68, but this discarded segue from 73 will change your life.
This sweeping cloak of sound …
As though the musicians were not nearly so much playing the little phrase as performing the rites on which it insisted before it would consent to appear, and proceeding to utter the incantations necessary to procure, and to prolong for a few moments, the miracle of its apparition, Swann, who was no more able to see it than if it had belonged to a world of ultra-violet light, and who experienced something like the refreshing sense of a metamorphosis in the momentary blindness with which he was struck as he approached it, Swann felt its presence like that of a protective goddess, a confidante of his love, who, in order to be able to come to him through the crowd and to draw him aside to speak to him, had disguised herself in this sweeping cloak of sound. And as she passed, light, soothing, murmurous as the perfume of a flower, telling him what she had to say, every word of which he closely scanned, regretful to see them fly away so fast, he made involuntarily with his lips the motion of kissing, as it went by him, the harmonious, fleeting form. Marcel Proust
What happened when you saw this live? Some events never recede on the horizon of Time. Dismissing them as the past is wishful thinking. That they occurred before other things is a trivial property, incidental and irrelevant to the sovereignty they wield over your life.
The Jam on 11-23-79 decelerates and diminishes like some great craft landing.
That head-bangin’ energy of the early 80s on 8-12-81 and 9-17-82. (The latter show has the first Throwing Stones.) 11-26-80 is beyond praise. (Also check out GSET. Deliverance from the jam is tectonic like the finale of Mahler’s Third.)
Spooktacular 10-29-80 at Radio City Music Hall (13:50) removes all flesh from the bone.
Bob’s guitar and only Bob’s guitar from 8-19-89 Greek Theater. Minimalism? Mesmerizing. Actively seeking more (or shows where his guitar is way up in the mix).
Petronius Jablonski saw about 100 shows between 1985 and 1995. He regrets it wasn’t more. Favorites include:
Rosemont Horizon 4-11-89
10-20-88 at the Houston Summit and you’ll have to take it on faith. Other than a poor tape of set II, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” The premier of Built To Last quaked the foundations, tragic and grand like some repentant Stagger Lee.
The Sandstone Amphitheater shows in 91.
The first Reuben and Cherise on 6-9-91. Buckeye Lake joined Alpine and Deer Creek as The Best places to see the band. Those afternoons spent watching festivals which could be mistaken for outtakes of the Satyricon or Frazer’s Golden Bough, they seemed permanent at the time, as if intrinsic to summer itself. What became of them? Pleasures do not accumulate, anymore than what you ate yesterday fends off hunger today. “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”
JGB 11-23-91. Some folks used to say, “On a good night they’re better than the Dead.” Allowances are made for failing to express the inexpressible. The JGB pulsed with a mysterious dynamism, primal and spiritual in a way that could make one consider the latter framework as a viable worldview.
Was Corrina the Prophet’s obnoxious little sister? Billy and Micky kept this beat like a Shiva Buddy Rich.
Enter the the Weir Zone. Chord changes from Bizarro Land. So counter-intuitive and eclectic. Like Victim or the Crime and Lazy Lightning and Esau and Lost Sailor and Greatest Story and the Weather Report Suite and Sugar Mag and this list could be extended. The Hendrix of rhythm guitar. The ground his critics stand upon is hollow. My only serious complaints: Why did he never play this with the Dead? And why no songs about Dachshunds other than the allusions in Estimated?
Not incidentally, this is the Dead’s finest moment in the studio and there’s an end of it. (Spoiler: The JAM!) That intro lick, as if the song emerges from a primal state into sound and fury before returning. The Wheel, too, has this structure. And Jack Straw. The pattern has precedents. A sparrow flutters into a banquet hall from a storm and flits around but a moment amidst the feasting before flying back into the storm. An ant crawls across a sliver of sun on the concrete between shadows, from darkness into a patch of light back into darkness. Sound like anyone you know?
First encounter with Playin’: better part of a summer listening to this version, hoping one more hearing would reveal the source of its primal, archetypal deja vu, finally realizing it wasn’t written; it was discovered. They didn’t create it anymore than Euclid created the infinitude of prime numbers. It was always there.
Is there a parallel universe where Pigpen sang with Zappa’s band?