There are some years that are hallowed amongst the Grateful Dead faithful. 1968 was the peak of primal Dead, featuring a transition out of the garage rock basics and into the full embrace of psychedelia. 1972 featured the Dead’s famed trek to Europe, where they achieved a new level of chemistry with the help of new pianist Keith Godchaux. 1977 featured all of the band’s best-loved material at a point when over ten years of experience had refined the Dead into a well-oiled machine.
Favourite years will always be a personal obsession for Deadheads, and the most obsessive fans will easily be able to tell which year is which by the subtleties of the recordings and tapes. An easy giveaway is the guitar tone that Jerry Garcia happens to be using at any given time: the late ‘60s is often raw and cutting, the early ‘70s is twangy with Garcia’s Stratocaster, the later ‘70s are jazzier, and effects play a much greater role in Garcia’s sound starting with the ‘80s.
In terms of pure tone, it’s hard to beat Garcia’s 1972 setup: a Fender Stratocaster dubbed the “Alligator” guitar plugged into a silverface Fender Twin amplifier. For the most part, Garcia had ceased using fuzz pedals that he favoured the prior decade, with his only foot pedal often being just a Vox wah-wah.
One especially dedicated Deadhead has created a complete isolated experience of Garcia’s guitar prowess at this time by isolating Garcia’s guitar channel from the Dead’s November 12th, 1972 performance at Sailor’s Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Culled directly from the soundboard recording of the concert, Garcia’s guitar took up the right channel of the recording, leaving it perfect for isolation.
‘He’s Gone’ was an essential track for the Dead at this time. Giving a poetic spin on the tale of the band’s former manager Lenny Hart absconding with hundreds of thousands of the band’s dollars, ‘He’s Gone’ was a seriocomic response to the hardships and wild happenings that surrounded the dead. The incident caused drummer Mickey Hart, Lenny’s son, to depart the band in embarrassment, and ‘He’s Gone’ was originally a pointed kickback at Lenny.
It didn’t stay that way for long, however. Only a year after the song was introduced into regular rotation, foundation member Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan died from effects related to his lifelong alcoholism at only 27 years old. The band was devastated, and unintentionally, ‘He’s Gone’ transformed from a bitter recollection of stolen funds into a heartfelt tribute for their fallen brother. As the Grateful Dead experienced a fair amount of death throughout their 30-year run, ‘He’s Gone’ became the dedication to all who lost their lives throughout their long and strange trip.
Check out Jerry Garcia’s isolated guitar on ‘He’s Gone’ down below.