Improvisation and complex polyrhythms are long standing characteristics of The Grateful Dead’s music. They learned how to play both through long hours of practice and experimentation. The band flirted with improvisation and odd time signatures somewhat in their first two years, but according to David Malvinni, it was the addition of a second drummer, Mickey Hart and the subsequent creation of their song ‘The Eleven‘ that elevated both aspects to an entirely new level. Hart’s book Drumming at the Edge of Magic, explains how the band came to explore and incorporate polyrhythm.
Malvinni is a musicologist at Santa Barbara City College, and asserts these ideas in his essay ‘Now Is the Time Past Believing: Concealment, Ritual and Death in The Grateful Dead’s Approach to Improvisation.’ His is the lead piece in the 2007 compilation, All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon edited by Nicholas Meriwether, now Grateful Dead Archivist at the University of Santa Cruz. Read the Introduction for free.
Written by poet and longtime friend of Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter (lyrics) and Grateful Dead founder and bass player Phil Lesh (music), the band first performed The Eleven January 17th, 1968 at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco, CA. The song title comes from the fact that it has 11 beats per measure, counted as 3-3-3-2. A major portion of the lyrics for The Eleven were originally part of another Hunter composition for The Grateful Dead, China Cat Sunflower, written around the same time.
This version of the interview features several short excerpts from Grateful Dead concerts used to exemplify what Malvinni is saying. Excerpts from the following shows are used, in this order (click dates to access the whole show):
clips 1 & 2 March 16, 1968, Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, CA
clip 3 December 29, 1968, Gulfstream Park Race Track, Hallandale, FL
clips 4 & 5 February 3, 1968, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR
clip 6 October 10, 1968, The Matrix, San Francisco, CA
clip 7 July 19, 1974, Selland Arena, Fresno, CA
Lastly, here are 11 of ‘the best’ versions of The Eleven according to Grateful Dead Projects.
A longer version of this interview originally aired on KBOO Radio January 19, 2008.