Approximately half of The Squealer staff was elated when the recent Grateful Dead documentary was released this past May. Many Deadheads—like the aforementioned half of our editorial staff—have spent decades obsessively listening to, deciphering, hallucinating to, marking life milestones with, and studying the band’s music and collective history. The Dead’s influence is pervasive, whether the haters like it or not. If you decide to fully hop “on the bus,” your taste in music, lifestyle, and how those two can blend into one weird hybrid are almost certain. Of course, the Dead were as notorious for their unapologetic use of drugs as they were for their unorthodox approach toward performing music. Deadheads are equally unrepentant about following the same blueprint the band wrote out more than 50 years ago. Yet to compartmentalize both the band and their (admittedly sometimes-annoying, Trekkie-like fans) would be shortsighted. Love them or leave them, both the Dead and their diehard followers have long-since imprinted their presence on the consciousness of the international music community.
Currently streaming on Amazon, Long Strange Trip is a four-hour journey through the roots of the Dead, from their seminal days of folkie-turned-psych-improv pioneers, their rising popularity in the ‘70s, and up through the ‘80s, and closing with the band’s end in 1995, following the death of band spearhead and icon, Jerry Garcia.
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev and produced by Martin Scorsese, Trip boasts some impressive footage – some of which has never been seen before – as well as candid, humorous, and even somber accounts from the surviving members of the band. The doc surely captures the Grateful Dead’s fierce abilities at being fearless improvisers, indifferent to the demands and conventions of music, record labels, the music industry, and ultimately, even their fans. Ironically, it was that same “fuck it” approach to playing that garnered the Dead that very same audience.
While many a punk rocker has slagged the Dead, make no mistake: covering a three-minute Sonny Boy Williamson song in the late ‘60s and stretching it out for 15-20 minutes into a rubbery, serpentine form, only to then spiral back to the song/launchpad was, by definition, total punk rock.
“Play something we can dance to!”
“Sure – dance to this sonic shape shifter for 20 minutes.”
Long Strange Trip features home movies and professionally shot footage of the band and their notable, fellow freak associates from the ‘60s onward. Many Deadheads and music obsessives will be familiar with the film clips, featured storytellers, and the band member’s explaining the evolution and eventual entropy of the Dead. Long Strange Trip surely drives home the universal refrain: the Grateful Dead began and ended in the same way, leaning on improvisation, indeterminacy, openness, and an inclusive relationship to chaos.
This kind of egalitarian conceptualism that the band tried to practice more than ever truly preach even permeated their approach towards their roadies, sound crew, etc. Longtime roadie Steve Parish is prominently featured, as is former Stones tour manager-turned-Dead-handler Sam Cutler; the latter adding a blunt and sardonic flavor to his anecdotes of trying to guide and direct a couple dozen stoned people from concert to concert.
But there are a few glaring omissions in Long Strange Trip’s entertainingly weird odyssey. The band’s early to mid-seventies forays into jazz-rock and fusion- leaning music are omitted completely. Which is odd, since many feel that their 1975 release Blues for Allah is one of their crowning achievements in creating newer song forms constructed through denser jazz chords and more unorthodox time signatures. And the Dead’s all-for-one camaraderie and hive-mind-driven unity is surely questioned with the complete nub of Betty Cantor-Jackson.
While still in her teens, in the mid-to-late-‘60s Cantor-Jackson was already running live sound at protean, Bay Area acid-rock-ballroom venues the Avalon Ballroom and the Carousel. It was during this time when she was pulled into the Dead’s wall-breathing orbit. From 1968 to the early ‘70s, Cantor-Jackson engineered and/or produced four of the Dead’s undoubtedly most crucial and beloved studio and live albums: Anthem of the Sun (1968), Aoxomoxoa and Live/Dead (both 1969), and one of their most popular, “break out” releases, Workingman’s Dead (1970).
All Hands on Deck: Betty Cantor Jackson recording The Grateful Dead in concert at Winterland Arena, in San Francisco, 1971.
The Cantor-Jackson recordings are arguably the most “present” and well-mixed albums of the Dead’s entire career, ultimately codifying the group’s subsequent standards towards capturing their sound, while never added any superfluous color to their prism. Totally audiophile without being watered down by ornamental effects, Cantor-Jackson’s approach to production techniques rivals that of any of her peers of the same era. Considering that Cantor-Jackson was essentially corralling acid-tripping cats, recording — and successful in capturing the sound of — a band that took pride in never playing any song the same way twice… is a minor miracle in itself.
Long Strange Trip features roughly seven minutes of Al Franken talking glowingly about his experiences of being a longtime fan. While his stories are entertaining and it’s nice to know that at least one Democratic State Senator lives an “openly” Deadhead lifestyle, the fact that Cantor-Jackson, the sole woman who worked so closely and creatively with the Dead on the level of recording, production, and live sound engineer, never appears over the course of the film’s four hours — is as baffling as it is fucking outrageous.
Director Bar-Lev’s decision to not invite Cantor-Jackson to share her take on the band’s history is aggravating, and by the amount of sausage party brethren rolled out for the next anecdote, straight-up sexist. She stood right with the band during their most fertile period, guiding their mercurial sound onto magnetic tape. The fact that the surviving members of the band apparently didn’t stress her importance to the director — or even demand that she be featured — is inexcusable. Thankfully, backing Dead vocalist Donna Godchaux is featured in Trip, diluting some of the testosterone. While Godchaux’s contribution to the band is certain, it has also been chronicled extensively in any notable historical account within the ongoing hagiography of the Dead. However, the omission of Cantor-Jackson from the film’s message adds a tandem message that is as clear as one of her innumerable and pristine live board tapes of the band: “One Broad Per Band, Please.”
Psychedelic Sausage Factory: Betty Cantor-Jackson with a few of the Dead’s sound and roadie crew.
Perhaps the slight of Cantor-Jackson was in fact ordered by the band, possibly embarrassed by their treatment on their one-time sister behind the mixing boards. In 1986, Cantor-Jackson was evicted from her home and forced to move her possessions into storage. Among those items were more than 1,000 reel-to-reel recordings of the Dead. This giant cache of tapes also featured live recordings of Kingfish, Keith and Donna Godchaux’s band, and similar Dead peers. When she contacted the band for help, they did nothing to help her. Consequently, all of Cantor-Jackson’s assets were put up for auction; including the tapes.
Keeping in mind that during this era, after the Dead had attracted a whole new following of second wave, Generation X Deadheads, the band was pulling in tens of millions of dollars a year from concert sales. In fact, by the end of the ‘80s, the Grateful Dead were one of the highest grossing touring bands in the world. “What Would Jerry Do?” Apparently turn up the amp to drown out any guilt or accountability.
When Cantor-Jackson’s possessions went up for auction, thankfully those bidding on the reel-to-reel tapes, along with being fans of bootleg recordings, were savvy to the band’s music. Quickly disseminated among the Deadhead tape community, these recordings became known as the “Betty Boards.” Like her definitive, commercially available recordings of the band, these soundboard mixes feature the same high fidelity tone. Check out the Dead’s show from 5/18/77 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta to get taste of the audio flavor Cantor-Jackson always brought to the mix. The band is in full flight and she is behind the board, catching all of it on tape in pristine, clear sound.
Last year, Rhino Records released the 12-CD set, July 1978: The Complete Recordings. Limited to an edition of 15,000 sets, the collection features the July 1-8 recordings of the band’s run of shows at Red Rocks Amphitheater. Conveniently available at the band’s online store, the press release praises “Betty Cantor-Jackson’s always-pristine soundboard recordings” – while omitting her voice from the liner notes. The fact that she was essentially forced to sell these very same tapes more than 30 years, makes it highly doubtful that Cantor-Jackson is earning any income from yet another monolithic collection that the surviving members of the Dead, millionaires all, have released and are now also profiting from. Trippy, man…
Most recently, Cantor-Jackson has been invited backing into the music scene not by the Dead, but rather by a group of Deadhead musicians. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood have released what is hopefully a series called Betty’s Blends, where the seasoned engineer once again proves her skills at recording and navigating in real time, high-level, slippery, and improv-heavy rock music.
Whether or not the erasing of Betty Cantor-Jackson from Long Strange Trip was a direct slight, major oversight, or edit room decision is unclear. Cursory online searches draw a blank when looking for a statement from the band explaining her absence. But considering the undoubted dude rodeo that the documentary conveys, looking for any historical acknowledgement of a key player in the band’s sound and early commercial appeal, who happens to be a woman, the answer is loud and clear.
Chris Robinson and Betty Cantor-Jackson.
“You’re Dead to Me Now.”