Dead Best: 10 Performances of “Space” You Need To Hear

by Steve Spohn
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DeadSpace“Space” is most definitely an acquired taste – and most people never quite get it. If you want a surefire way to rid yourself of late-night stragglers, just put “Space” on the stereo and watch them scatter.

“Space” is where you separate the Deadheads from the other humans – and even other Deadheads. “Space” is the “endless noodling” that is often referred to by non-fans in the most unflattering of terms. Understandably so, it was primarily created for an in-person, in-the-moment experience. That’s not to say there aren’t more than a few versions of “Space” that hold up to further listening because there are.

The band had always played long extended jams that disappeared into deep-space territory. To take it one step further, Phil teamed up with Ned Lagin in ’75 to produce “Seastones” – a “Space”-like experiment with early computer noises that they “performed” a few times. However, the segment that became known as “Space” was much different than the extended jams. The Grateful Dead started their traditional “Drums”-into-”Space” format in early 1978, and was fully incorporated into shows by the early-’80s.


Mickey Hart [photo: Christopher Michel]

Exactly why they started doing “Drums” and “Space” this way can likely be linked to the partying ways of various band members – some or all wanting to re-up during the 2nd set on whatever substance they were ingesting that particular night.

So what is “Space”? What it is not is a song in any traditional sense of the word. One definition is simply the assembling of notes, scales and feedback. “Space” is organized chaos, and other times it’s just plain chaos. The segment usually consisted of Jerry, Bobby, Brent and Phil, while the drummers took a break. Toward the end of “Space” the drummers would join back in, sometimes with Mickey playing the “beam” – an 8-foot in length aluminum I-beam strung with 13 bass-piano strings all tuned to the note of D.

Space was where pure improvisation was the only rule. There were times when a member of the band would say a word or phrase before they went back onstage, like “breaking glass” or “space shuttle take off” or “tornado” and that would be the theme. As an audience member, sometimes you could guess the theme – most often times not.

SpaceStealyThe segment of “Space” meant something different to each member of the audience. Most seemed to use it – as did members of the band – to take a break during the show. Maybe use the bathroom, find friends, get a drink, sit down, grab a smoke, or like the band re-up on whatever substance you might be ingesting that night. Some in the audience would continue dancing while others would just listen while staring off into “Space.”

Every version of “Space” was truly unique. It couldn’t be duplicated even if the band tried. Performing “Space” in front of packed houses was truly an invention of The Grateful Dead. There was nothing like it before they did it – not even in jazz.

These are some of the more memorable versions of “Space” in chronological order – the greatest hits of “Space” (if you will). These all tend to have a theme that can be identified. They aren’t necessarily the best-played versions, but they are the most entertaining to listen to for the first time (or again), or they are representative of something the band often did during the segment.

January 22, 1978 – McArthur Court, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Very early “Space” with Jerry doing a “Close Encounters” jam as an intro to “St. Stephen.” Listen here (archived track 17).

July 8, 1978 – Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, CO
Here is an early representation of “Space” – the second show of a two-night stand at Red Rocks. Listen here (archived track 16).

April 18, 1982 – Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, CT
This one is known as Phil’s “Earthquake Space.” Lesh whisks us off to the Barbary Coast – ranting – just before the earthquake hits in 1906. Then all hell breaks loose as the band mimics the earthquake and its aftermath. Phil breaks into his Barbary rant at 2:55.

April 19, 1982 – Baltimore Civic Center, Baltimore, MD
More nitrous! A classic “Space” in the world of spaces. Armed with a tank of N2O side stage, band members are sucking on a tube while Phil starts to recite “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe – the author and poet who had a thing for dark, sinister writings – died in Baltimore, under rather mysterious circumstances, at the age of 40. Oh no, not the dentist…

March 9, 1985 – Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley, CA
In 1984, Jerry’s old friend and bandmate, Merl Saunders, was asked to put together some music for the new TV version of The Twilight Zone. Merl called up The Dead, and they produced a soundtrack for the show. You can’t make this stuff up. Here are several minutes of the “Space” studio mixes from February 1985. Then Merl joins the band for Twilight Zone-inspired “Space” exploration in Berkeley. Listen here (archived track 12).

March 29, 1990 – Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
Very few people could walk into “Space” – without knowing anything about it – and completely meld like it was built into their DNA. Yet Branford Marsalis did just that. After Mickey plays the beam to a very eariy affect, Jerry, Bob, Phil and Brandford explore the craziest “jazz” this side of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.

May 30, 1992 – Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, Las Vegas, NV
This is an example of Jerry sampling his MIDI, making a trumpet sound as “Space” goes in and out of “Spanish Jam.”

May 31, 1992 – Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, Las Vegas, NV
While technically still during “Drums,” Billy K brings out a loud horn and Mickey is sampling a slot machine. It qualifies more as “Space” than “Drums” as Mickey starts working on the beam and the rest of the band joins in.

March 11, 1993 – Rosemont Horizon, Rosemont, IL
Ken Nordine “Space” – this is definitely worth a listen. Nordine, the American voice-over sensation, sounds like a Beat poet with his renowned baritone vocals as he recites his own work, “Nothing’s Boy.”

June 2, 1995 – Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, CA
The Gyuto Monks of Tibet have a hand in this one. Mickey brings them out to chant during “Space,” truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Gyuto Monks are throat-singers who make noises using their vocal chords to form musical chords. The monks appear just after “Drums” as the beginning of space. It’s very spooky. Listen here (archived track 15).

If you’ve listened to every version of “Space” just detailed, please go watch a double episode Friends or something to ease you back into society.

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Steve Spohn is a former Saturday Night Live and Nickelodeon Television executive. Growing up near Princeton, NJ, led to a musical addiction, with WMMR in Philly and WNEW in NYC providing the daily dose. When not attending or planning to attend Bruce Springsteen concerts, he's plugging away as a screenwriter in Beverly Hills. Reach Steve at