*Photo of the Grateful Dead’s masterpiece ‘American Beauty’ on mint condition vinyl taken by your intrepid blogger. If you can read the words “American” and “Beauty” above, you’ve got better eyes than mine.
I can’t believe it’s already early March. I’m glad to see winter pass, but man, Dylan was right, “time is a jet plane.” The cold claw of winter has slowly released us and I’m beginning to feel the warm embrace of spring. Weather like this was made for sitting on the back patio with someone you love and a mason jar full of whiskey with Elvis on the stereo singing, “Gentle On My Mind.” We’re on the eve of the only religious holiday I still observe, St Patrick’s Day. One might say, all is right in my world… Naturally at this stage of the year, my thoughts have turned to the Grateful Dead. Mind you, this is after coming off a major Ozzy jag (Review: Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Ordinary Man’ – A Simply Extraordinary Album!). My musical appetites mirror the season… in like a lion, out like a lamb.
Why and how has my mind turned to the Dead? It’s been a circuitous route. I saw the documentary, ‘Echos In The Canyon’ (Movie Review: ‘Echo In The Canyon’ – Flawed, Enjoyable Look at Cali ’65-’67) and ever since then I’ve been enamored with that Southern-Cal, acoustic, folk rock/country rock sound. I’ve been addicted to the Byrds, Gene Clark and the Buffalo Springfield of late. Naturally that led me over to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Jerry Garcia hung out with CSNY and even contributed some sublime pedal-steel guitar on Deja Vu. Anything Garcia chose to play, he played well. Deja Vu led me up the California coast to the Grateful Dead. The rock and roll journey has many avenues to get you where you’re going.
As many longtime readers of B&V know, I often do a “look back” on certain eras in a band’s career. I’ve looked at Jeff Beck’s time with Rod Stewart as lead singer (Artist Lookback: The (Original) Jeff Beck Group – Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood) and Muddy Waters’ late career albums with Johnny Winter (Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records). However, in this case where I want to look back at a specific period of the Grateful Dead’s storied career – specifically 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty – I have to admit to feeling quite a bit of trepidation. First and foremost, I’m not a Dead expert. I’ve never been a Dead Head. I can’t help but think of Don Henley’s line, “Saw a Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac, a little voice inside my head said, “Don’t look back, you can never look back””… but I digress. Secondly, the Grateful Dead have such a committed, almost cult-ish following that if I say anything wrong here, I may face unprecedented hippy backlash. The last thing I want is some acid-damaged septuagenarian ranting at me. I usually write with a ton of confidence but the Dead is a subject I’m not as steeped in…
My experience with the Dead was always a bit stunted. I don’t remember them getting a lot of airplay on the KC radio stations other than “Casey Jones” and “Truckin'” when I was growing up . Even when I got to college I didn’t hear a lot of the Dead. There was a guy named Bruce (name changed to protect the guilty) who liked to smoke a lot of pot and listen to the Grateful Dead and to Bob Dylan. He was probably the only one happy with that live album Dylan & The Dead. Bruce was always sorting through different cassettes trying to find me the right live version of some Dead song. I think he flunked out. Even my erstwhile roommate Drew, while into the Dead, didn’t really turn me onto them. Although I bought American Beauty on vinyl and that had to be his influence. My dad’s investment guy was a Dead Head and I think he ended up in rehab. I dated a girl from the Dead’s homeland of San Francisco and she talked me into buying a live bootleg from the Dick’s Picks series. It was the wrong way to try and get into the Dead. I didn’t have the background. She tried to get me into Indian food and that didn’t end any better.
The Dead always had this aura around them that surprisingly didn’t draw me in. The image of a bunch of barefoot hippies with dirty clothes and well, dirty feet, dancing around in circles, seeking acid-fueled enlightenment just kinda put me off. I saw the Dead once (“I need a miracle” is etched in my mind) and it just seemed like endless noodling on guitar. Of course that may be the whiskey talking. Looking back, I just didn’t have the knowledge of the Dead’s music to enjoy them in concert. There were songs by them that I liked along the way, “Alabama Getaway,” or anything off In The Dark but I never had that switch in my head turn to “yes” where their music just clicked for me. The whole psychedelic thing was “take-it or leave-it” for me. I finally forced myself to go back and check out the early Dead and I was surprised how much I liked it. While Live/Dead has been a favorite of mine for a while, I really dug into the studio stuff.
The Dead (genius Jerry Garcia on vocals/guitar, Bob Weir guitar/vocals, Phil Lesh bass, Mickey Hart drums, Bill Kreutzman drums, Rob “Pigpen” McKernan keyboards/vocals and lyricist Robert Hunter) were an amazing set of musicians. They played rock and roll with more of a jazz ethos, a bit like the Allman Brothers Band. I went back and listened to their eponymous debut but it clearly didn’t capture their true spirit. Anthem Of the Sun is the trippiest psychedelic record I’ve ever heard. I felt like I’d taken a few hits of blotter acid just listening to it. The music moves around the speakers, left to right and back again. I started to really warm to their stuff on Aoxomoxoa. “St. Stephen” may now be one of my favorite Dead tunes. Those two albums, Anthem and Aoxomoxoa have been described as the zenith of the Dead’s psychedelic music. They had really carved out a sound for themselves.
But then in 1970, they took a stylistic left turn to say the least. They recorded two albums in the span of months that to me mark the zenith of their studio work. Sure you can find many, many live albums by the Dead that are amazing, but I’m not sure you can point to more than a handful of their studio records that reach that height. This guy who worked for me once told me, if I was looking for studio stuff by the Dead, I was missing the point. He didn’t work for me long. 1970 was the year of the Dead in my mind. They went from psychedelia to folky/country rock. Long, electric guitar solos gave way to acoustic guitars, pedal steel and beautiful vocal harmonies. Their focus turned from jams to actual songs. The songs were shorter and more concise. Best of all their focus turned toward beautiful harmonizing. The vocal harmonies on these two albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty rank up there with anything CSNY did. These are two of the greatest “Americana” albums ever recorded. Everyone should have these records.
There are many who wonder how the Dead were motivated to make such a change in their sound. I’ve heard people theorize that the Dead’s 1970 albums reflected the zeitgeist of the times. By ’70 the hippy dream had largely died. The psychedelic movement hadn’t led to the enlightenment many sought. Nixon had been elected president, the bad guys had won. Altamont, where the Dead were supposed to play with the Stones but didn’t because of concerns about violence, went down in December of ’69. The Kent State massacre went down in May of ’70 just before Workingman’s came out. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own,” to quote Neil Young. I think the explanation is much simpler. Garcia had been hanging out with CSNY and was really drawn to what those guys were doing with the vocals. He was into pedal steel guitar which tends to be better placed in a more folk or country idiom. And finally, Robert Hunter had joined the band as a lyricist, causing a sharper focus on the songwriting. Hopefully the Dead Heads out there won’t crucify me for my dime store analysis. I know one reader in the B&V family who is sure to comment at length… Let’s look at these phenomenal albums…
I can only wonder what a surprise hearing this album was for the Dead faithful back in ’70. The album starts with an acoustic strummer, “Uncle John’s Band” which to me, serves as an invitation to fans to join the band on this musical journey. I was blown away at the acoustic playing and singing on songs like the ballad “Dire Wolf” and “High Time” which has beautiful vocal harmonies. “Cumberland Blues” has a galloping country thing happening and I love it. You don’t really hear any electric guitar until “New Speedway Boogie” (purportedly about Altamont), which is a nice shuffle. I love the lyric on that song, which perhaps points to that zeitgeist thing, “one way or another this darkness got to give…” The album’s standout track, that you’ll find on the greatest hits packages is “Casey Jones” which is a great tune but there is a lot more to this album to like. I hear a ton of blues in tunes like the acoustic “Black Peter” or the electric “Easy Wind.” They make this stylistic change look easy.
In terms of studio recordings, this to me, is the Dead’s masterpiece. While they’d successfully executed their stylistic change on Workingman’s Dead, this album is where they perfected it. The songwriting is tighter. The vocal harmonies are even more soaring. This album is stunning. The opener, “Box of Rain” is a fucking perfect song. It’s my all time favorite by the Dead. They go from that to two of their signature songs, the lilting country of “Friend of the Devil,” and “Sugar Magnolia” that has a melody that just bores into your soul. After the hint of blues in “Operator” they unleash more beautiful vocal harmonies on “Candyman” which also has a fierce pedal-steel guitar solo that is transcendent. “Attics of My Life” has harmonizing that sounds like the Beatles (well, almost). “Brokedown Palace” is a beautiful lament. “Ripple” is a more upbeat acoustic song and again, it’s perfect. The album also ends with another signature Dead song, “Truckin’.” I love the line, “Like to get some sleep before I travel but if you’ve got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.”
It would be another three years before the Dead would put out another studio album, 1973’s Wake of the Flood. In between they’d released several live albums. Wake took them to more rock/jazz fusion place with a lot of electric piano. It’s not a bad little record, but for me, it just doesn’t have the shine of the 1970 albums. If you’re one of those people who find the Dead’s live stuff too “unwieldy” I implore you to check out these two Americana masterpieces. For you Dead Head’s out there… don’t hate on me too bad! I want people to hear this stuff.