We’ll set the stage for this review with two quotes. First, let’s hear from Jerry Reed:
When you’re hot, you’re hot.
American Beauty was released a mere five months after Workingman’s Dead, in large part due to a collective songwriting hot streak. Of course, Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia led the way in that area, but Hunter also collaborated with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir on two equally superb songs and both Phil and Bob received songwriting credit for the album’s lead single. Even Pigpen joined in the fun with a solo composition. Having abandoned the however-long-it-takes orientation of their experimental period on Workingman’s Dead, the recording process consumed a grand total of three action-packed and emotionally-heightened weeks.
The second quote relates to the emotional milieu surrounding the recording and comes from Phil Lesh, whose father suffered from terminal cancer and died near the end of the recording sessions:
Thank the Lord for music; it’s a healing force beyond words to describe.
The quote appears in Phil’s readable and insightful biography, Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead. Phil wasn’t the only member of the Dead dealing with parental loss; Jerry Garcia’s mother also died during this period. The spectre of death seemed to haunt the band: while playing a gig at Fillmore East they learned of the sudden passing of Jimi Hendrix; a few weeks later, their show at Winterland was interrupted by the news that Janis Joplin had died of a heroin overdose, a death that hit much closer to home. “By this time we were all in a state of extreme apprehension, metaphorically looking over our shoulders and wondering: What next?”
The Dead dealt with the shocks by immersing themselves in the healing powers of music and collaboration. Early in his book, Phil describes the unique bond forged by the members of the Dead:
The Grateful Dead has always been collectively dedicated to many ideals: family, community, freedom, risk-taking—but for me it was always the music. With all its ups and downs, it’s an exhilarating experience to improvise—onstage and in life—with one’s fellow humans, who after forty years of living, working, disagreeing, and completing one another’s thoughts musically and conversationally, are connected by a bond that’s ‘thicker than blood,’ as Bob Weir likes to say.
In addition to the tight bond formed by the band, Wally Heider’s recording studio proved to be the perfect place for collaborative immersion: “Some of the best musicians around were hanging there during that period . . . At the same time as I was arranging to take over my mom’s support, I was playing on albums made by David Crosby . . . and Graham Nash; I was making music with artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Paul Kantner, David Freiberg, and Mike Shrieve, and working on American Beauty with the Dead.” Since the Dead were already in the midst of a creative burst with their songwriting, the manifestation of collaborative immersion on American Beauty is most obvious in the exceptional care devoted to the arrangements, especially the vocal harmonies. The healing power of music is undeniable, but that power is enhanced to the nth degree when one shares the musical experience with others.
While I’ve never been in a band as personally and musically tight as the Dead, I have experienced the healing powers of music and togetherness courtesy of my father’s Irish ancestry. Unlike typical funerals that define the term “dreary fucking drags,” Irish wakes are a gas! People tell funny stories about the dearly departed, drink like fishes, eat like there’s no tomorrow and engage in spirited, spontaneous singalongs. Emotional suppression is unthinkable: tears, laughter, anguish and remorse are all acceptable. It’s a tradition that recognizes that the worst choice anyone can make when dealing with the death of a loved one is to mourn in isolation. The death of someone close to you unleashes a range of contradictory feelings—survivor’s guilt, regret, fear, anger, the painful awareness of mortality. Holding all of that inside corrodes the soul; a shared experience like the wake allows you to let it all come out.
Such shared experiences are near-impossible at present as this damned pandemic rages on. Literally millions of people are part of a collective deathwatch right now; too many people have had to say goodbye to loved ones without one last hug, one last kiss. Though the technology will never replace in-person communication, Zoom and other apps give us access to oral and visual communication, and if you are unfortunate enough to lose a loved one, any kind of human contact is better than struggling with grief alone.
And as for music that heals the soul, I’m reminded of one of America’s greatest contributions to the arts: The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode, “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” If you haven’t seen the episode, Wikipedia has provided a pretty good synopsis of the story behind the tragi-comic death and funeral of Chuckles the Clown as well as Mary’s display of competing and contradictory emotions. For those of you who have seen it, I’ll just remind you of Mary’s epiphany at the end of the episode:
Back at Mary’s apartment after the funeral, she and her friends discuss how they envision their funerals. Sue Ann says she just wants to be cremated and have her ashes thrown on Robert Redford; Lou says he doesn’t want anyone to “make a fuss” about his death, explaining “When I go, I just wanna be stood outside in the garbage with my hat on”; and Mary says she just doesn’t want “an organ playing a lot of sad music” at her funeral.
The last thing you need to help you process any form of grief is a façade of solemnity and “an organ playing a lot of sad music.” We are indeed fortunate that Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia worked through their grief by making and playing great music while surrounded by a group of supportive, caring friends. The result was American Beauty, an album that merges a broad emotional landscape with seamless integration of Americana to form an uncommonly impactful healing experience.
Phil Lesh had written the chord structure and melody for “a song to sing to his dying father,” turning the task of fleshing out the lyrics to Robert Hunter, the Dead’s poet-in-residence. Fortunately, Hunter possessed a unique gift: “I’m able to translate peoples’ scat . . . I can tell from the rhythms, or lack of rhythms, from the disjunctures and the end stoppages, what they’re avoiding saying—the meaning that they would like to not be stating there, comes rushing through to me.”
One of the aspects I find so fascinating about “Box of Rain” is that the chord structure mirrors the avoidance Hunter picked up in the scat. Though the song is most definitely in the key of G major, Phil takes several circuitous paths to avoid resolution on that root chord, as if coming to resolution would somehow hasten the inevitable outcome of his father’s struggle with cancer. The intro opens with A major variants; the first chord in the song pattern begins with the fifth (D major), then follows a sequence of Am-Em-Cmaj before a brief stay on the G major root. The chorus begins and ends on D major, further extending the emotional tension. The only time the G major chord opens a segment is in the fifth lyrical verse, which sets up a key change to A major for the outro—and even there he delays resolution by ending the melodic line on D major before ending the song with the ultra-ambiguity of an Asus4 chord. The music expresses the sea of emotions Phil had to confront at the time—the natural denial of anticipated grief, the fervent wish for a last-minute miracle. That such an unusual structure produces such a comforting musical flow is a tribute to three factors: Phil’s determination to honestly express his emotional state; his deep knowledge of off-the-beaten-path musical possibilities (free jazz and avant-garde composition a la Stockhausen); and the three-part harmonies organized around Phil’s lead vocal, unintentionally but effectively reminding Phil that he was not alone. It also helps that there’s no obvious drama in the arrangement; as is true for most of the tracks on American Beauty, the arrangements contain what the song needs to support the text and not a scrap more.
Hunter’s translation came rather quickly; Phil was able to practice the song in his car on the long drive to Napa to see his dying father. The verses form a series of yin-yang opposites, one of the fundamental dynamics of existence. Each chorus begins with the question, “What do you want me to do?” reflecting the anxiety and feeling of helplessness that accompany the death watch. Hunter has reluctantly admitted that “By ‘box of rain,’ I meant the world we live on, but ‘ball’ of rain didn’t have the right ring to my ear, so box it became, and I don’t know who put it there.” The themes come together in the final passages, which consist of a variant of the chorus, a transitional verse and the almost unbearable melancholy of the outro, summarized in two short lines that speak of the awful permanence of death and the precious brevity of life:
What do you want me to do
To do for you to see you through
A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through
Just a box of rain
Wind and water
Believe it if you need it
If you don’t, just pass it on
Sun and shower
Wind and rain
In and out the window like a moth before a flame
And it’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
Or leave it if you dare
And it’s just a box of rain
Or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
And a short time to be there
“To this day, I’m asked to sing and dedicate this song to those who are recovering, sick, dying, or who have already passed on,” Phil noted in his book, and I can fully understand why. Revisiting this song in the midst of the pandemic triggered contradictory emotions similar to those expressed in the music and lyrics, particularly the fear of losing my 70-something parents to the virus and a commitment to appreciate life despite the endless series of lockdowns and the temporary loss of so many things that made life worth living. Though marked by melancholy, “Box of Rain” reminds us that life is always worth living and that the prospect of death makes living one’s life to the fullest an essential act. . . a deeply existentialist sentiment.
Next up is one of the Dead’s outlaw songs, but before I go there, I want to tell any anti-maskers in the audience that refusing to wear a mask does not make you some kind of outlaw hero fighting for freedom but a selfish, stupid, insufferable asshole. Thanks for listening.
The American fascination with outlaws receives first-class treatment in “Friend of the Devil,” a tune that makes me long for a house with a front porch big enough to hold enough gee-tar and mandolin pickers for an all-night hootenanny. I just love the sound of pickers in unison, their fingers painting musical pictures all over their fretboards in harmony or in counterpoint with one another, and the combination of stereo guitars and David Grisman’s mandolin on this piece is simply unbeatable. But while I’d love to have an instrumental-only version on standby, I’d certainly miss the sound of Jerry Garcia’s warm and expressive voice as he spins the tale of a guy running from the law while having to deal with the consequences of forgetting to stop at the drug store and pick up some rubbers:
Got a wife in Chino, babe
And one in Cherokee
First one says she’s got my child
But it don’t look like me
That’s one horny bastard, traversing the great state of California from Butte to San Bernadino counties. We don’t know whether or not “sweet Anne-Marie” is one of the wives, but given his M. O. to “set out running but I take my time,” I wouldn’t bet on it. Beyond a likely prison escape that caused the authorities to set the hounds on him, we don’t know what he did to earn himself a trip to the prison yard in the first place, but I’m quite comfortable not knowing. The focus of the story is on his endless flight from the authorities, an angle more likely to trigger empathy from the anti-authoritarian listeners of the era (and certainly this writer).
Though Robert Hunter wrote most of the lyrics, credit for the line “a friend of the devil is a friend of mine” goes to John “Marmaduke” Dawson of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, who also collaborated with Jerry on the music. In this particular tale, the devil appears in the role of loan shark, financing our anti-hero’s escape but showing up out of nowhere to collect the usurious interest. Not the best deal with the devil ever struck, but I doubt Bank of America would have been much help to our fugitive (unless he decided to rob his way out of his mess).
The combination of electric guitar, vocal harmony and the warm everyman voice of Bob Weir drives the utterly delightful “Sugar Magnolia,” an ode to a woman who has it all—but in this case, not the cliché version of “all” that ruins many an otherwise pleasant love song, but a well-rounded wench with personality to spare:
She’s got everything delightful
She’s got everything I need
Takes the wheel when I’m seeing double
Pays my ticket when I speed
She comes skimming through rays of violet
She can wade in a drop of dew
She don’t come and I don’t follow
Waits backstage while I sing to you
She can dance a Cajun rhythm
Jump like a Willys in four-wheel drive
She’s a summer love in the spring, fall and winter
She can make happy any man alive
I love the line, “She can wade in a drop of dew,” describing a woman of endless fascination with nature’s simple gifts. Living up to her billing as a happy-maker, she also manages to convince Bob to take some time “rolling in the rushes down by the riverside,” further confirming her oneness with nature. The 4/4 time described on the sheet music is technically correct, but the Dead bless the song with high levels of danceability through constant and consistent syncopation. The chord pattern and baseline tempo provide a perfect opportunity for extended exploration, so it was almost inevitable that the live version would be split into two segments (the song proper and the “Sunshine Daydream” coda), with the gap between the two varying from seconds to days (they’d pause the piece at one show and pick it up at another).
Pigpen’s contribution to the festivities, “Operator,” is unique in that it’s the only track on American Beauty with no vocal harmony and the only song with no lyrical contribution from Robert Hunter. In the sub-genre of “operator songs” it’s not as memorable as Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” or even Jim Croce’s “Operator,” and though it certainly has a down-home feel to it and is competently performed, doesn’t fit particularly well with the other tracks on the album. I did have one realization when I listened to the song, though: I have never spoken to a telephone operator in my entire life. Do they still exist? What about collect calls? Person-to-person? Are there operators manning switchboards somewhere?
On the other hand, I am absolutely certain that gigolos and candymen will never die out, but free-agent candymen have certainly been metaphorically fucked by the pandemic, to say nothing of the usual occupational hazards involving STD’s. It’s too bad because my partner and I haven’t been with a man in over a year and I could really use WHAT I CONSIDER ESSENTIAL SERVICES.
As you can tell from that stirring lead-in, the Dead’s version of the “Candyman” isn’t the drug dealer but the gamblin’ man who travels from town to town in search of a good poker game and horny broads cursed with workaholic husbands. Hunter’s rendition of the tale is structured like a Greek tragedy, with Garcia handling the dramatic monologue of the Candyman and the vocal trio of Garcia, Weir and Lesh serving in the role of Greek chorus. Hunter’s spare lyrical approach captures the essentials of this iconic character: confident in his virility and in his ability to exploit suckers:
Come all you pretty women with your hair hanging down
Open up your windows ’cause the Candyman’s in town
Come on boys and gamble, roll those laughing bones
Seven come eleven boys, I’ll take your money home
The chorus serves its function as detached observer, focusing exclusively on his erotic prowess while warning the ladies of its fleeting nature:
Look out, look out, the Candyman
Here he come and he’s gone again
Pretty lady ain’t got no friend
Till the Candyman comes around again
As on “Friend of the Devil” there’s some nimble picking going on in both sides of the stereo field (with piano entering the mix in the second verse) but the real treat is Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel solo, a soaring series of cries and bends that manages to capture the devil-may-care confidence of the character as well as his essential sleaziness. I also love how the pedal steel dissolves into Howard Wales’ organ, giving the piece a touch of melodramatic excitement.
The controversy surrounding the song involves the tiresome American obsession with guns. The Candyman is also an outlaw, and The Man (Mr. Benson of “Midnight Special” fame) is after him. The intensity of the Candyman’s reaction tells me that something else is in play here; perhaps his interactions with Benson involved some kind of embarrassing humiliation (like having to pull out of the honeypot before the train left the station):
I come in from Memphis where I learned to talk the jive
When I get back to Memphis be one less man alive
Good Mornin’ Mr. Benson, I see you’re doin’ well
If I had me a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to Hell
David Dodd on Dead.Net covers this passage in the context of an emerging cultural development:
Hunter commented on this line in an interview with Blair Jackson, as part of a conversation about crowd reaction to certain lines in his songs.
“Then there’s the line in ‘Candyman’ that always gets the big cheers: ‘If I had a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to hell.’ The first time I ran into that phenomenon was when I went to the movie Rollerball and aw the people were cheering the violence that was happening. I couldn’t believe it. I hope that people realize that the character in ‘Candyman’ is a character, and not me.”
Dodd then opines that the crowd wasn’t cheering the violence but the anti-authoritarianism of the act. That sounds like a uniquely American rationalization of violence and ignores the emotional satisfaction many felt when Dirty Harry or Rambo or any of those other macho jerks blew away the bad guys. Take a good close look at the cover of American Beauty: the text was deliberately designed as an ambigram so that the words also read American Reality. I’ve always interpreted that in two ways; first, through the Keatsian equation beauty = truth; second, that America has a long way to go before achieving the ideal of “America the Beautiful.”
The Keatsian take comes to the fore when we flip the disc to side two and encounter the gentle spirituality of “Ripple.” You can find excellent interpretations of the song on American Songwriter and The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics site that cover the mingling of East-West spiritual traditions, the unusual use of haiku for the metric structure of the chorus and the complex relationship between poet and listener/reader. Hunter was rightfully proud of this verse, which affirms the existence of a lifespring beyond the biological:
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
Though I am not the least bit religious (duh), I do have a sense of some unifying force behind existence that has nothing to do with Cartesian logic. Still, the verse that moves me the most is the one that follows:
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Combined with the haiku chorus (“Ripple in still water/When there is no pebble tossed/Nor wind to blow”) the passage validates the worth of the individual, something I have to believe in if I’m going to make some kind of positive contribution to humanity. I have a hard time with “otherworldly” spirituality that suggests we forget about the world-as-is and seek a higher truth—I can’t imagine ignoring the suffering of billions of people while I take a pleasure trip to the astral plane. I’m much more comfortable with and motivated by the Bobby Kennedy vision of a ripple, a quote I saw every day of my youth whenever I entered the dining room:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.
I always wanted to cross out the word “man” and replace it with “person” but my mother told me to get over it.
Still, “Ripple” is a beautiful folk song, with the acoustic guitars giving way to David Grisman’s gorgeous mandolin backing in the haiku. I also love the spiritual lift I get when the crowd of thirty or so people enters the studio to sing the melody in glorious unison.
Continuing in a similar vein, “Brokedown Palace” stands out as the album’s spiritual, and even more so because it’s a secular spiritual that makes no mention of god or other personifications of spirit. The central figure of the song is the river, as Hunter borrows one of the über-symbols of American literature for inspiration. It’s followed by one of the more upbeat songs on the album, “Till the Morning Comes,” and though the lyrics fall short of Hunter’s other efforts on the album, the feeling of good cheer that comes through makes the song a keeper.
The strongest evidence supporting the assertion that the Dead worked their asses off perfecting their vocal harmonies is “Attics of My Life,” a song that describes the challenge faced by the poet in interpreting external sensory data through the essentially internalized process of creativity. The song proceeds at a solemn pace, each vocalist carefully attuned to the underlying rhythm and to each other’s voices, strengthening the impression of a hymn. The background is largely unintrusive, but Phil’s nimble, isolated bass adds an earthy texture to balance the soaring vocals. My favorite passage comes at the end, where Hunter celebrates union with the muse, the mingling of two souls who share all secrets:
When I had no wings to fly
You flew to me
You flew to me
In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me
I love how Hunter responded to a request from an English major for some explanation as to the meaning of this song: “I guess I have to give the stock answer: if I could say it in prose I wouldn’t need to write the song. Poetry is evocative – it’s meant to communicate to deeper levels and approach the levels of non-verbal experience.” I’m happy to report that the English major liked the answer, too.
I’ve tried to imagine American Beauty ending with “Attics of My Life,” and . . . I just can’t. There are certain songs that simply have to close albums. Try to imagine Sgt. Pepper without “A Day in the Life,” with the Fab Four waving goodbye to the fake audience as the reprise fades into nothingness. Or try to get your head around Who’s Next ending with something other than “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Imfuckingpossible.
More than any other song on American Beauty, “Truckin'” validates the use of the adjective “American” in the album’s title through its link to key themes in American mythology. It also leaves the listener with a palpable lift, affirming that life, with all its twists, turns and hassles, still flows on. Ironically, “Truckin'” also confirms the status of the Dead as the most authentically American band of them all.
I’m sure that any self-styled patriots in the audience will bristle at the notion that “counterculture hippies” would even be considered “real Americans,” but that’s because most self-styled patriots are culturally illiterate morons who know nothing about American history or literature and whose thinking (such as it is) is limited to the either-or absolutes demanded by the fragility that inevitably accompanies any nation that has the great misfortune of becoming the most powerful nation on the planet. Sacred notions of freedom and liberty have been twisted and defiled to the point that they have become disconnected from their original purpose: to explore new possibilities, to discover oneself and reach one’s potential, to move forward, to learn, to grow.
The more positive take of American history is the story of a restless people in search of something better. That this history is contaminated by genocide, deception and racism doesn’t invalidate the motivations of millions of ordinary people who just wanted a better life for themselves and their families or who had to migrate in order to survive (the Okies of the Dust Bowl; the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north). The rivers, trails and roads became literary symbols of this irresistible restlessness (Melville was way ahead of his time in recognizing that America was surrounded by oceans). In “Truckin’,” the Dead follow the footsteps of Twain and Kerouac, setting out on their own journey of self-discovery. Bob Weir made this connection very clear in the documentary film Classic Albums: Anthem to Beauty:
There was a romance about being a young man on the road in America, and you had to do it! It was a rite of passage. And at the same time, it was the material that you drew from to write about. We were starting to become real guys, and really enjoying the hell out of it. We toured more or less four to six months out of the year. It was our bread and butter-we weren’t selling that many records. And we had a lot of fun out on the road, got into a lot of trouble . . . We left some smoking craters of some Holiday Inns, I’ll say that, and there were a lot of places that wouldn’t have us back. All of this is absolutely autobiographical, all the stuff in “Truckin.”
Yeah, it was more of a guy thing, but America has always been kind of a huge man cave. I will say this for the Dead: their desire to keep on truckin’ has nothing to do with escaping the clutches of the evil, civilizing female as it did for Twain and Hemingway.
The song features a 12/8 shuffle and an unusual structure featuring three distinct musical passages. There is no fixed chorus; the passage that functions as a chorus is in the key of E major, features group harmony and always begins with a two-syllable word, most often “truckin.'” The verses sung by Bob Weir are musically linear, alternating between the E and E7 chords, giving Bob lots of room to riff on mood and melody. The bridge involves a key change to D major, eventually making a smooth transition to E major. The lack of a “proper” chorus usually means that the song lacks a hook, but the Dead cleverly placed the hook at the end of the bridge. That sounds totally weird, but try to tell me that this isn’t one of the most memorable hooks in music history:
What a long, strange trip it’s been
This odd structure holds up due to the steady sway of the shuffle, the band’s excellent feel for build and Robert Hunter’s facility with American vernacular. The journey is the story and the journey tells the story—what makes our ears perk up is the language and the street wisdom imparted through that language:
Truckin’, like the doo-dah man
Once told me, “You’ve got to play your hand”
Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a damn
If you don’t lay ’em down
That passage speaks to risk-taking, a quality very much valued by Americans throughout history. We know that the Dead took a lot of musical risks (see above passage), but their risk-taking and disdain for the tried-and-true extended to every aspect of their existence. Here’s a tip for those still resistant to the idea that the Grateful Dead is the American band par excellence: google this phrase: “Grateful Dead entrepreneurs.”
That’ll learn ya.
My favorite passage in the song involves the New Orleans drug raid of January 31, 1970. Members of the Dead were arrested at their hotel, made bail and performed the next night. Eventually, the charges were dropped for everyone except the legendary LSD manufacturer and sound engineer Owsley Stanley. As Bob tells it:
Sittin’ and starin’ out of the hotel window
Got a tip they’re gonna kick the door in again
I’d like to get some sleep before I travel
But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in
Busted, down on Bourbon Street
Set up, like a bowlin’ pin
Knocked down, it gets to wearin’ thin
They just won’t let you be
The first thing I love about this passage is Bob Weir’s delivery on the line, “I’d like to get some sleep before I travel,” where he conveys an undeniable irritation as in, “For chrissake, can’t you get a guy get a little shut-eye?” The outlaw in “Friends of the Devil” also yearned for a good night’s sleep, but Bob is only just learning that winding up on the wrong side of the law deprives the accused of common courtesies. He immediately shifts to resignation in the next line, wisely avoiding the urge to resist arrest. The voices in the chorus convey the same sense of resignation, conclude that they’ve been “set up, like a bowlin’ pin” (great line), grudgingly accept the fact that the cops will have them in their sights for a long time and realize that it’s time to keep on truckin’.
The thing about truckin’ is that when you’ve been doing it for a while you get the urge to go home; once you get home and replant your feet on the ground, you get the urge to go truckin’ again. It’s in the blood:
Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home
Whoa, whoa, baby, back where I belong
Back home, sit down and patch my bones
And get back truckin’ on
And on that note, the song fades . . . the cycle will continue, the restless drive for new experiences and new meanings will ebb and surge . . . Americans gotta keep truckin’ on and on. “Truckin'” is a song that has it all—an irresistible sway, a compelling storyline, excellent musicianship, loads of memorable lines and more than its fair share of life’s wisdom. It certainly deserves the status of “national treasure” bestowed by the Library of Congress.
We’ve all been on the long, strange trip of our lives for almost a year now, and this trip still has a ways to go before it’s over. There isn’t a day that goes by when I fail to scream “I want my life back!” We haven’t just been victimized by a deadly virus—our suffering has been exacerbated by stunning incompetence on the part of our leaders, who seem more concerned with the visuals of politics than displaying the substantive courage that comes with true leadership. And though it goes without saying, I’m going to say it anyway, we’ve been victimized by the anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers and other right-wing loonies whose very identities are tied up in some of the looniest conspiracy theories ever invented.
Let’s all take a deep breath. The human race has survived pandemics, crappy leaders and more than its fair share of lunatics. We will get through this. We will be able to enjoy live music again. We will be able to resume our pursuit of questionable sexual partners in bars. We will be able to go to a proper theatre and see plays and movies again (the latter with plenty of butter on the popcorn). We will be able to hug each other again.
I don’t have much to offer in terms of advice, but music always helps to nourish the soul, and there are few healing experiences as enjoyable as a spin through American Beauty. In closing, I just want to borrow a couple of lines from “Brokedown Palace” and say to my readers, who continue to provide me with ample motivation to explore music history, “Fare you well, fare you well/I love you more than words can tell.”
[…] The Grateful Dead – American Beauty […]
Your analysis and breakdown of “Box of Rain” was outstanding. The healing power of music is practically the lifeblood of American Beauty. In “She’s Your Lover Now”, Bob Dylan sings, “pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?” In this case, it sure did for the Grateful Dead. I think this is their finest studio effort; it’s something that makes for some very lively debate among myself and my fellow Deadhead friends (as well as my Deadhead wife) who bestow that honor upon Workingman’s Dead. I think WD is outstanding – after all, it’s the album that made me into a true Deadhead one stoned, sunny summer afternoon many moons ago. But American Beauty is the crystallization of the sound and identity that the band was steadily inching toward with WD. Hunter’s lyrics are beautiful, as they usually were. Robert Hunter was absolutely tapped in to what Jerry Garcia called, “old, weird America”, and in the era of Grateful Dead music I like to call their ‘psychedelic cowboy’ era (1969 – 1972) his lyrics are littered with delightfully odd and cool references to that bygone land that Jerry refers to.
Back to Box of Rain for a second: could anyone have come up with better lyrics for the purpose that Phil had in mind for that song? I remember Jack White, referencing certain legendary artists, said something to the effect of they seem like aliens; that they seem to come from somewhere beyond. I feel that way about certain song lyrics, too, many of them Hunter’s. It’s almost as if some ancient, otherworldly hand was pushing the pen, and Hunter was the vessel.
Thank you! Yes, both albums are outstanding but you’re right about AB as the crystallization moment. Love the comment about the “otherworldly hand,” as it’s something I’ve experienced frequently listening to various artists over the years—but more often with Hunter than most. The only other band I can think of with a full-time lyricist is Procol Harum, and Keith Reid was no Robert Hunter. A magical collaboration.
I’m a big clayssic jazz/classic rock and roll fan and I’ll have to say that most reviews of the genre are junk. I like that you take the time to research various aspects that make the albums what they were. If I could suggest an album to review – how about John Coltranes “The Gentle Side of Coltrane” – approachable jazz for even the non jazz fan.
Wow is this a great review…so well researched and filled with insight. I’m trying to connect with albums such as this that for some reason or another I have missed out on, and your reviews are perfect for finding the gems out in the music world. So much music and so little time to give the great albums the attention they deserve. But, I’m plugging away….thanks again for your great efforts!
ARC. I’ve been listening and enjoying this record for 50 years and it’s never let me down. Your review and critique have revealed details and layers that will only improve my relationship with this LP. Thank you
I’ve been listening and enjoying to this record for 50 years, your writing and critique have revealed new layers of meaning and detail that are truly insightful. Thank you.
Thank you, ARC. Just, thank you…
This is the most moving description of “American Beauty” and the Dead’s whole trip at the time that I’ve ever read. Fantastic writing!
That was a lovely review. I have always admired The Dead as a band and liked the band members as people. However, as hard as I have tried, I could never get into their music, except for American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, both of which I have returned to eagerly for over 50 years. There are songs here and there, live and studio, that I hear and say to myself “Philip, this is amazing, try again”, and I have tried. I get through a couple of songs and then give up. I need somebody to take a look at the music of my life and then plow through every single Dead album (what a daunting task that would be!) and send me a list of what she/he thinks would appeal to me. If I was 30 and not almost 72, I would undertake that mission. At this stage of my life I don’t have the energy, the patience or the time . There is so much old and new music for me to explore that this sifting for gold wouldn’t be worthwhile.
Like you (and, I suspect, many), my gateway to the Dead was Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty. If you haven’t given it ample opportunity already, I urge you to give Europe ’72 a try. It’s very much an extension of the Americana / Cowboy Dead that they committed to record in the two former studio albums. I’m not even talking about the live versions of the songs on those two albums (which are excellent), but rather songs like “Jack Straw”, “Brown Eyed Women”, and “Ramble On Rose”, which are fairly compact story-songs.
Thanks. I followed your recommendation. Europe ’72 is a logical progression from the previous two. I do like it, relaxed music for a relaxed Wednesday evening.