June/July 2010~ The Grateful Dead need to be rescued. Rescued from paunchy, balding nostalgia, rescued from the tribute bands, rescued from the scumbags who sold drugs in the parking lot at their concerts. Most of all, they need to be rescued from their hyper-recorded live career, spinning the same fifty songs again and again like prayer wheels lining a street in Tibet. That feat of endurance–for both the band and its fans–had its moments. But it means that the songs themselves have been played and heard so many times that they’ve lost the sharpness that made them special in the first place.
I’ve lived with the two 1970 Grateful Dead records for 40 years. Every time I’ve tried to put them away as childish things, they come back to haunt me. Though they were written and recorded at ground zero of hippiedom, they were a return to American roots music and themes of Western frontier life. The giddy Golden Gate utopian dream for which the Dead were poster children was by then pretty much gone, burned up by the rise of speed and junk in the Haight and the ugly political climate in the United States. The Dead, buffeted by legal, financial and personal problems, had to turn the page and try something new, and like Huck Finn, they lit out for the territories to recreate themselves.
Workingman’s Dead begins with “Uncle John’s Band,” whose multi-part harmony was a conscious homage to Crosby Stills & Nash’s sound. But the way they failed to hit that target–veering out of tune half the time–gives it a more human, homespun texture. It contains my favorite couplet in all their work: “I live in a silver mine and I call it ‘Beggar’s Tomb’/I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune.” This song is usually heard as a cheery call to hippie cameraderie, but it has milleneal, apocalyptic undertones: “Come hear Uncle John’s Band/by the riverside/got some things to talk about/here beside the rising tide.” Uncle John is a pied piper leading the innocents away, “he’s come to take his children home.”
“Dire Wolf” highlights Garcia’s newfound love for the pedal steel guitar. The cheerful country bounce is belied by this sinister lyric: “When I awoke the Dire Wolf/600 pounds of sin/was grinning at my window/all I said was come on in.” Has there ever been a better chorus than “Don’t murder me?” The Dead were graduates of the early ’60s folk revival and knew their murder ballads. In “Dire Wolf,” they flipped the script, going from minor to major, and from murderer to victim, begging for their lives.
“Easy Wind” was one of the last songs the Dead recorded that was sung by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and it’s maybe his best. The loose-limbed boogie driven by dueling drummers banging their toms is a unique groove that any present-day beardo rocker should despair ever equaling. “Doctor say better stop ballin’ that jack/if I live five years I gonna bust my back.” Pigpen has a baritone bellow, similar to but rougher than Jim Morrison’s. The song is a sideways retelling of John Henry, with some of Neil Casady’s hard living Dharma bum mixed in. Where John Henry was a hero, the protagonist of “Easy Wind” is just a guy who likes to drink, fuck and break rocks.
In contrast with the sepia-toned retelling of folk tales that Workingman’s Dead embodies, American Beauty seems to push deeper into the Dead’s own hermetic imagist symbology, beginning with the epic “Box of Rain.” “Sun and shower/wind and rain/in and out the window/like a moth before the flame.” Even when they were young, the Dead seemed to spend a lot of time contemplating death, the way Buddhist Monks will meditate focused on pictures of decaying corpses. “Box” ends with “such a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there.” Though they claim to have not put much thought into the choice, they chose their band name well. The Devil in “Friend of the Devil” isn’t so much evil as capricious, giving and then taking away 20 dollars; like the Buddhist demon Mara he’s a nuisance, distracting the singer with desire, keeping him awake with visions of “sweet Anne Marie.”
Which puts into focus the paradox implicit in the Dead’s music: They chase some kind of transcendence, while at the same time celebrating earthly pleasures. They may try to pierce the veil in “Attics Of My Life,” but they can’t leave desire behind. They want to have it both ways–don’t we all?–and we all learn sooner or later that we cannot. But they have the compositional skills and musical chops to make it seem possible, at least for the duration of a song. They were much ridiculed for extending a three-minute song to a half hour or more in concert, but I don’t think it was just self-indulgence at work. Their project was to stop time, to hold the feeling of the three-minute song suspended for as long as they could manage.
American Beauty also has less evocative moments, like “Sugar Magnolia.” It has a clever lyric, but it is about an idealized hippie’s “old lady,” and it comes off now as naive and cloying. “Till the Morning Comes” has a similar pre-feminist feeling. “You’re my woman now/make yourself easy” is not an imperative statement Gloria Steinem would embrace. I’m more enamored of the exhausted decadence of “Candyman,” in which they return to frontier myth-making. “Good morning Mr. Benson/I see you’re doing well/if I had me a shotgun/I’d blow you straight to hell.” Things get even slower and sadder on “Brokedown Palace,” which echoes the 19th-century melodies of Stephen Foster. “Gonna leave this brokedown palace on my hands and my knees I will roll.” The image of the riverside echoes “Uncle John’s Band,” alluding perhaps to the biblical Jordan of gospel music. But the Dead got religion with Ken Kesey riding in the legendary bus Furthur–they visit the river but they never cross to the promised land.
The centerpiece of the album is “Ripple” which combines a simple folk melody with a lyric of lapidary perfection. “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty/If your cup is full may it be again/Let it be known there is a fountain/that was not made by the hands of men.” Against the darkness of many of the other songs, “Ripple” evokes a feeling of spirtuality, but it alludes rather than explains. “There is a road, no simple highway/between the dawn and the dark of night” recalls the bird flying through the light and warmth of Beowulf’s mead-hall from darkness to darkness. But it’s also a drinking song, Ripple being the brand name of a cheap wine much favored by Pigpen.
The record’s closing song, “Truckin'” is as close to a hit as the Dead achieved until “Touch of Grey.” It has been nearly worn out by overexposure, but it does have a delicious edge of paranoia, being the tale of a traveling man drug dealer. He’s not who you imagine Lou Reed was waiting for, but he’s no mellow hippie. After the hymnal earnestness of “Attics Of My Life,” “Trucking” seems to both celebrate drug culture, while paradoxically putting the lie to any hippie ideal of endless mellowness. “What a long strange trip it’s been” has turned into a cliché–I’ve heard it quoted by Fox News anchors–but it’s a comment with layers of meaning way beyond the drug-slang double entendre. It’s the perfect summation of the entire decade of the 1960s.
As much as the Dead were a touchstone to generations of hippies, tie-dyes and twirlers, I’m not sure those fans were listening that closely. The Dead’s music became the soundtrack to their own hazy hedonism, but these records are anything but mellow. They synthesize folk, blues and country music and forge it into a new vernacular music. They turn again and again to death: the death of dreams, myths and innocence. Lyrically they recapitulate the imagery of the 19th-century American West, evoking the loneliness and precariousness of life on the wild edge. They update the Beats’ fascination with Buddhist thought and try to combine it with the outlaw frontiersman’s resolute independence. These two records refuse to pass into dated nostalgia because they tell the story of America in a way that looks both forward and backwards.
American Beauty’s name is lettered on the cover so that it can also be read as “American Reality,” and that duality is right there in the songs. I’m not sure any musical group ever produced music that so perfectly distilled the American experience, and did it with such gentle, sly, glancing blows.