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Musical Mines Dead Catalog

Deck the Great White Way in tie-dye.

April 26, 1998|Steve Hochman

A musical built around songs of the Grateful Dead is in development, aiming to follow "The Who's Tommy" (a huge hit) and Paul Simon's "The Capeman" (a major flop) to Broadway.

"I wonder if people would go night after night, hanging around outside, the way they did for Dead shows," says Robert Hunter, whose Grateful Dead lyrics inspired the show, referring to the Deadheads who followed the band on tour around the country.

That vision is still a ways off. The show is only in the beginning stages, with a production being assembled for a June 5 opening at the San Jose Stage Company, just south of the Dead's San Francisco home base. But Michael Norman Mann, the award-winning playwright and latter-day Deadhead who wrote the musical, titled "Cumberland Blues," says that there have already been inquiries from larger San Francisco theaters about picking up the show after the San Jose run.

The show is not about the Dead or the Summer of Love scene often associated with it, though. Springing from the title song, told from the point of view of a miner and originally heard on the Dead's 1971 album "Workingman's Dead," the musical is set in 1930s Appalachia, where a mine owner is alone and dying in his abandoned company town. Mann has threaded the story around 19 songs--including "Uncle John's Band," "Ripple," "Black Peter" and "Friend of the Devil"--with lyrics by Hunter and music mostly by Jerry Garcia, the band's guitarist and leader, who died in 1995.

"When I was first pitching the idea around, everyone jumped on the Haight-Ashbury stuff and assumed it was about that," says Mann, 31, whose "Box 27," a play about gays in the military, won several honors, including a 1997 GLAAD award. "But there's a lot more to these songs. I wrote what I wanted to see not just as a Deadhead, but as a fan of musical theater, classic musical theater."

That approach appealed to Hunter, a longtime Broadway fan, and others in the Dead organization, who are anything but indiscriminate about the use of their music.

"Often when people want to use Dead lyrics and songs, it's drug-related or something," Hunter says. "But most of my songs come from the folk tradition as it existed around the '30s, so there's a very strong resonance in this for me. [Mann] picked a very nice context for that."

ALL MIXED UP: With most records, the only control you have at home over the sound is with volume and tone settings. But "The Ghetto Electro Chronicles," a new album from Bay Area techno artist Darwin Chamber being released through L.A.-based Moonshine Music's Bottom Heavy label, allows you to completely remix tracks, changing the pitch and tempo of instruments and even adding your own sounds.

The disc is the first to feature a new software program from San Francisco technology company Mixman. Jason Beaver, who helped design the program says that it works via a CD-ROM drive on any computer with a Pentium 90 or faster chip, at least 16 megabytes of RAM and a sound card.

Beaver says that he has taught grade-schoolers with no musical training how to work it in less than five minutes. Discussions are underway with other artists, including Peter Gabriel, for releases that would allow the interactive participation at home.

FLIP, FLOP & FLY: There's no greater indication that music has penetrated the cultural mainstream than its use in athletics. So with an ear to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, there were some very intriguing selections used in the floor exercise competition at the recent NCAA women's gymnastics finals at Pauley Pavilion.

Given the generally conservative nature of this milieu, though, it was a shock to hear music associated with Scottish junkies and raw sex. Individual finalist Heather Kabnick performed to a medley from the soundtrack to "Trainspotting," the film about wasted Glasgow youths, and a Utah competitor during the team finals used Nine Inch Nails' "Closer.' Yes, that's the one with the "[expletive] you like an animal" lyric--though only instrumental passages were allowed.

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