Ben E. King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, North Carolina, on September 28, 1938, to two very smart parents.
Little Ben didn’t spend much of his life in his home state; his family was part of the Great Migration of the postwar period, abandoning the world of Jim Crow for Harlem when Ben was only nine. The move was serendipitous indeed—in addition to providing plenty of opportunities for a young singer to develop his chops in the choirs of neighborhood churches, Harlem was becoming the epicenter of the burgeoning doo-wop movement. From Wikipedia: “Blacks were forced by legal and social segregation, as well as by the constraints of the built physical environment, to live in certain parts of New York City of the early 1950s. They identified with their own wards, street blocks and streets. Being effectively locked out of mainstream white society increased their social cohesion and encouraged creativity within the context of African American culture. Young singers formed groups and rehearsed their songs in public spaces: on street corners, apartment stoops, and subway platforms, in bowling alleys, school bathrooms, and pool halls, as well as at playgrounds and under bridges.” The Apollo Theater sponsored regular talent contests for budding doo-wop artists—contests monitored by record company A&R men and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts—giving doo-wop groups an exceptional opportunity to attract industry attention.
During his high school years, Ben appeared at the Apollo with his group The Four B’s, and though those performances did not result in a recording contract or an appearance on the Godfrey show, Ben became a more familiar name in the music community. The real break came when a more established group called The Five Crowns had an opening and brought him into the fold. As luck would have it, the group known as The Drifters were in an extended free-fall that began years before with Clyde McPhatter’s departure. The unstable bunch that followed couldn’t hold it together, and after one of the itinerant members picked a fight with the emcee at the Apollo, manager George Treadwell fired the lot—and The Five Crowns found themselves transformed into The Drifters, with Ben E King moving into the role of lead singer. Later he would receive a promotion of sorts when the group became Ben E. King and the Drifters, but this particular employee retention plan failed to impress Ben, who had asked for a raise and a piece of the royalties. He left in early 1960 to launch his own solo career.
Once again, his timing couldn’t have been better. The deaths of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran had pretty much taken the steam out of guitar-based rock; except for a few hits by Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and Ricky Nelson, the guitar would fade into the background until surf music scene began to . . . make waves. Solo male vocalists (along with girl groups) would dominate the scene for the next few years, and most of those guys followed the lead of the softer, post-Army Elvis by focusing on ballads, extremely light rock and dance-oriented tunes. Although the quality of those male vocalists was highly variable (I wouldn’t even classify whatever Fabian did as “singing’), this period produced some of the greatest male vocalists of all-time—Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, Dion and Ben E. King.
It’s important to note that Dion and Ben developed their superb vocal abilities through doo-wop. It is a vocal style that demands exceptional melodic and harmonic precision as well as a highly developed sense of rhythm. The best doo-wop lead singers knew they had to clearly distinguish themselves from the group while remaining in perfect sync with their supporting cast. When you’re part of a cohesive musical group, you realize that it’s not all about you, even when you step up to the mic for your solo. Ben E. King certainly brought that sensibility with him when he launched his solo career, his distinctive voice mingling beautifully with his supporting instrumentalists and vocalists.
This compilation includes three Drifters songs and two Ben E. King and the Drifters songs, with the balance devoted to Ben’s solo career spanning the years 1960-1963 and 1974-1975. Thankfully, the ’60s recordings are presented in the original mono versions. As I reviewed the history and background of each song, I was struck by the sheer number of covers of Ben’s work and the diversity of the covering artists—everyone from Donna Summer to Lou Reed to Dolly Parton to Siouxsie and the Banshees. While you have to give credit to the A-Team songwriters Ben worked with (Lieber, Stoller, Spector, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman and others), it was Ben E. King’s voice that brought the best out of those songs.
The sad aspect of Ben’s career is he fell out of favor with the general audience only a couple of years into his solo career. Though most blame the British Invasion for his decline in the charts, the facts do not support that hypothesis: his last early-career hit to break the Top 20 came out in April 1962, almost two years prior to February 9, 1964 (I don’t have to remind my readers of the significance of that date). None of the other singers I mentioned were wiped out by the Invasion per se: Ray Charles and Roy Orbison continued spinning out hits; Dion developed a fascination with the blues and chose to abandon pop music; Sam Cooke fell victim to gun violence (but still managed to crack the Top 10 posthumously).
No, Ben E. King’s career took a dive because for several years he was given lousy material to work with.
“There Goes My Baby”: Depending on your source, this is either one of the worst-recorded songs of all-time or an innovative breakthrough in monaural recording. According to Songfacts, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler blew his top when he first heard it: “I’d never release shit like this. It’s dog meat!” When Jerry Lieber first heard the results of his co-writing effort on his push-button-operated car radio, he thought he was picking up two stations at the same time. His buddy Mike Stoller described the recording process as follows: “We slapped on soaring strings, and exotic baion beat, kettledrums, timpani and every other god-damn sound we could think of.” In an interview on his 70’s album The Beginning of It All, Ben noted that he and his mates entered the studio cold, had not properly rehearsed the song and lacked any studio recording experience. Because Ben co-wrote the song, Lieber and Stoller made a snap decision to reward Ben with the job of lead vocalist.
The finished product is somewhat disorienting the first time through. The Northern Brazilian beat Stoller referred to is very faint, as if it was recorded for the sole purpose of giving the singers a reference point. Ben is located on the left of the sound field (yes, you can employ panning in monaural recording), but oddly enough, he defies acoustic science by coming through loud and clear. The Drifters enter in their doo-wop supporting role close to center stage, and despite Ben’s best efforts, science reasserts itself, and The Drifters come close to overpowering Ben. As this was one of the first recordings to use strings to emphasize the emotional content of R&B (a hit-or-miss proposition indeed), the technique was still in its experimental stage. The first string segment swoop emphasizes the violins and abruptly comes out of nowhere, forming a kind of cleavage between Ben and The Drifters; when the strings return for a second go-round, rough-bowed cellos dominate, drifting to the bottom of the sound field like something out of Mussorgsky. And though there are technically verses and a chorus, the song feels more like blank verse due to the lack of rhyme.
After a few more whirls, though, it all begins to make sense. Ben’s relative isolation serves to enhance the utter loneliness of a man who just lost his baby, while The Drifters serve as the empathetic, “Yeah, man, we’ve all been there” supporting chorus. What is very clear from this first recording is that Ben E. King possessed a distinctive, memorable, gospel-influenced voice capable of carrying significant emotional punch. I’ll bet Jerry Wexler became quite enamored with “There Goes My Baby” when it shot to #2 on the Billboard charts (and #1 on the R&B side).
“Dance with Me”: For many teens in the pre-Pill era, dancing was the most practical way to ignite a little tingle in the nether regions. For the guys, dance also represented an opportunity for some chest-to-chest action and a chance to cop a feel when the chaperones weren’t looking. Dance was also a way to demonstrate one’s flexibility and/or grace, and those who couldn’t dance were often considered social outcasts.
A record’s danceability also had a lot to do with its commercial success. The Rate-A-Record segment on American Bandstand was wildly popular, and when the teenage judges honored a song with the legendary phrase “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it,” you could bet your bottom dollar that DJ’s around the country got the message.
“Dance with Me” turned out to be a respectable follow-up to “There Goes My Baby,” entering the Top 20. The recording is much clearer and cleaner, the latinate beats more pronounced and the lyrics actually rhyme (sometimes awkwardly). Ben sounds a bit more comfortable in the studio and the vocal arrangement is more balanced. Still, I can’t see this song passing muster with the American Bandstand crowd, as its mid-tempo pace falls somewhere between grab-and-grind and swing-your-partner. Using the AB scale of 35 to 98, I’d have to give it a 65.
“This Magic Moment”: The title turned out to be predictive, as this was clearly Ben’s first magic moment as lead vocalist. The mix is a vast improvement, placing Ben’s voice front and center while The Drifters do what they should be doing and doing it where they should be doing it—in the background. I would have dispensed with the flurry of strings that opens the song and reappears in a few awkward places; instead of conveying “magic,” the rising and falling notes are reminiscent of a police siren on the fritz. The song has no proper chorus; the hook is found in the repetition of the song title at the start of three of the verses. The best part of the song comes in the form of a bridge, featuring a brief moment of stop-time a capella where Ben tempers the passion he applied to the verses and delivers the line “Sweeter than wine” with appreciative tenderness for the magic in a kiss. Better still, the strings vanish completely for a moment, replaced by a lovely Spanish-style guitar played by big band jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (who himself sired another accomplished guitarist and an equally competent jazz bassist). Somewhat disappointingly, the strings return for the instrumental break, but Ben soon returns to delight the listener with his strong, confident vocal.
“Save the Last Dance for Me”: I’d heard this song a hundred times but could never quite get my head around it. Every other love song of this period and beyond clearly defined love as an act of possession—“You’re mine, baby!” I figured that the narrator was perhaps a superior, enlightened human being, an extraordinarily confident son-of-a-bitch or a complete fool for letting another guy move in on his girl:
You can dance
Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight
You can smile
Every smile for the man who held your hand ‘neath the pale moonlight
But don’t forget who’s taking you home
And in whose arms you’re gonna be
Save the last dance for me
Then I read the backstory. From Songfacts:
The songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote this song. In Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus, Alex Halberstadt explains that one night, Pomus found a wedding invitation in a hatbox, and back came his most vivid memory from his wedding: watching his brother Raoul dance with his new wife while Doc, who had polio, sat in his wheelchair. Inspired, he stayed up all night writing the words to this song on the back of the invitation. Shuman had played him a soaring Latin melody that afternoon, and he wanted the words to sound like a poem translated into English – something along the lines of Pablo Neruda. By the second verse, a hint of jealousy and vulnerability creeps in with the lyrics, “If he asks if you’re all alone, can he take you home, you must tell him no.” Pomus ended his night of songwriting by writing down the words that would become the title: “Save The Last Dance For Me.”
The song becomes even more poignant when you consider that Doc’s wife was an actress and . . . dancer.
Obviously, the song presents a challenge for the singer in terms of expressing complex emotional content, but Ben somehow manages to find the sweet spots between confidence and insecurity, passion and regret, joy in seeing his woman express herself through dance and a certain unease in regards to his competitors. His rendering of the lilting lines of the chorus (“But don’t forget who’s taking you home/And in whose arms you’re gonna be”) express both the fragility of a reminder and a quiet faith that all will turn out well in the end. His marvelous delivery of the “Hmmm” sounds like a man savoring images of intimacy once the night is over and the two are alone in the boudoir. Though other songs in the collection highlight Ben’s wide vocal range, “Save the Last Dance for Me” demonstrates his gift for phrasing that remains true to melody, rhythm and narrative.
The story behind the release of the song foreshadows Ben’s eventual decline. Ahmed Ertegün and Jerry Wexler considered “Save the Last Dance for Me” no better than a B-side, designating another Pomus-Shuman ditty, “Nobody But Me,” as the future hit single. The complete absence of “Nobody But Me” from this “very best” collection was not an oversight; the song has all the structural integrity of a Tinkertoy creation when you don’t shove the sticks in the holes all the way—weak melody, dumb chorus, mechanical call-and-response and an incredibly long instrumental break featuring (once again) a string section all a-flurry (amazingly, Ben sounds ab fab). Dick Clark wisely flipped the disc on American Bandstand, preserving the public reputations of Messrs. Ertegun and Wexler. This historical aside tells me that the suits at Atlantic/Atco didn’t have a clear grasp of Ben’s strengths and what sort of material would highlight those strengths. I would have collared Ahmed and Jerry and told them, “Look, guys. Just because Ben can sing anything doesn’t mean he should.”
“I Count the Tears”: This was Ben’s last hit with The Drifters, released (like “Save the Last Dance for Me”) after Ben had left the group. It’s not one of the best songs Pomus and Shuman ever wrote—it sounds like they gave it to Ben before they finished the lyrics:
And at na,na,na,na,na,na, late at night
Na,na,na,na,na,na late at night
I’ll sit and count the tears
It’s like McCartney saying, “Fuck it, let’s go with what we got” and recording those stirring lines, “Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs/Not as much as I love scrambled eggs.”
“Spanish Harlem”: Sigh. Another B-side that had to be flipped to give Ben his first solo hit. Written by Leiber and Spector with Stoller getting credit for the distinctive arrangement, Ben handles the extended, note-packed, rhythmically challenging verse lines with aplomb, hardly skipping a beat when he drops to the lower register to deliver the clinching line:
There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
With eyes as black as coal
That looks down in my soul
And starts a fire there and then I lose control
I have to beg your pardon
In the plethora of songs about romance with girls on the “wrong side of the tracks,” I’ll take “Spanish Harlem” over “Dawn,” “Down in the Boondocks,” “Hang On, Sloopy” or even “Poor Side of Town” any day of the week, largely because the narrator’s desire for this Latina is free from any hints of guilt or regret.
“Stand By Me”: While there are conflicting stories about the song’s origins and even more conflicting stories about the collaborative songwriting process, the one consistent thread involves Ben E. King’s transformation of a gospel song into a secular song that celebrates one of the most enduring themes in popular music: the concept that a relationship can serve as a refuge from a hostile, unfeeling society.
It was Ben’s idea to “update” a 1905 gospel hymn by one Charles Albert Tindley called “Stand By Me” that had recently undergone renovation courtesy of Sam Cooke and J. W. Alexander on behalf of the Soul Stirrers. Both gospel numbers call on the higher power to provide support in times of trouble: “When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.” Ben had the concept, the melody and some of the lyrics when he turned to Leiber and Stoller to help him put it all together. Leiber and Ben finished the lyrics while Stoller came up with the distinctive bass line that would open the song and serve as the song’s foundation. That bass line is built on the “50’s progression” of I–vi–IV–V, in this case A major, F# minor, D major and E major. Even the least nimble bass player in the world can play the four-note patterns without breaking a sweat—-further validation of my Count Basie Theory that simplicity is often more powerful than complexity.
The lyrics fascinate us with their mingling of the cosmic and cataclysmic with intimate-scale human commitment, but there is no doubt in Ben’s heart as to which is more powerful:
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid
Oh, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by meSo darling, darling
Stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand, stand by me
Stand by meIf the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountain should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry
No, I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
Ben delivers each line with distinct clarity and a deep sense of the awesome strength of the commitment inherent in unconditional love for another human being. Though in the first two verses he pleads for the support he needs, he offers the same in return as the song fades out, shifting the perspective from the cosmic to the daily world of toil and trouble: “Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me.” Ben spends most of the song in the upper part of his vocal range, the additional strain adding an irresistibly attractive grit to his voice, as it did for Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. The truly timeless appeal of “Stand by Me” has withstood the generational change test, as evidenced by the song’s reappearance in the Top 10 in 1986 following the release of the film carrying the same title.
“On the Horizon”: This is the B-side of “Stand by Me,” conclusive proof that Leiber and Stoller knew when to waste a song like Koufax knew when to waste a pitch. For some reason, this corny tune about a ship with golden sails calls up images in my brain of a shirtless, sweaty Victor Mature continuing to perfect his piss-poor approach to acting in horribly vivid Technicolor.
“Amor”: Premise: “We need a good strong follow-up to ‘Stand By Me’ and Ben sounded pretty good on those Latin numbers.” Conclusion: “Let’s give him that old Crosby number to work with. Latin’s all the rage now and so is Ben E. King. A marriage made in heaven!” Footnote: “Hey, I got an idea! We’ll have him do ‘Souvenir from Mexico’ for the B-side! It’ll be the first ‘concept single!’ You know how the guys got all hot and horny for Latin chicks with ‘Spanish Harlem.’ We’ll make a bundle on this one!”
The suits were technically right; “Amor” did make it to the Top 20, qualifying as a respectable follow-up. His voice having matured, Ben sings in a lower register reminiscent of Brook Benton that is intensely pleasing. The problem with the song is that it sounds like Ben’s turning into a square. If I were a gum-snapping teenager of the early ’60s, I’d say “‘Amor’ is something my parents would like. Yecch!” The cheesy B-side only strengthens that impression.
“Young Boy Blues”: This weird Pomus-Spector number makes the idea of shooting the piano player very appealing. I have no idea who is on piano or what the fuck that idiot is doing, but featuring a performance that has no rhythmic or melodic connection to any of the other parts of the song isn’t exactly a formula for pop chart success. The public wholeheartedly agreed, and this B-side peaked at #66.
“Here Comes the Night”: The A-side fared even worse (#81), and no wonder. It seems to be another attempt to capitalize on Ben’s Latin credentials, but runs into a couple of problems . . . booming timpani and triangle on the right channel . . . military snare rolls on the left . . . Ben slightly off-center in a desperate search for the melody . . . what a mess. Oh, wait . . . a distant memory appears on the horizon . . . it’s a music critic . . . the music critic has something to tell us . . . here it is . . . “Ben E. King’s career took a dive because for several years he was given lousy material to work with.”
Whoever said that was a fucking genius.
“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”: This was co-written by Betty Nelson, who would remain married to Ben for half a century. Unfortunately, her co-writer was an industry pro who happened to be the head of Atlantic Records: Ahmed Ertegün. Perhaps noticing that Betty had employed the ’50s progression in her song, Ertegün grabbed the opportunity to imbue the song with figures that would remind listeners of “Stand By Me,” most notably in the song’s introduction, a mimeographed copy of that famous lead-in. Producing follow-ups that bear a striking resemblance to the original mega-hit isn’t all that unusual in pop music history; “Standing in the Shadows of Love” replicated the arrangement of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and cracked the Top 10. “Don’t Play That Song” just missed the Top 10, and I think the miss was caused by two production flaws: one, the appearance of an annoying female chorus whose timbre clashes mightily with Ben’s; and Ben’s loss of emotional discipline, probably occasioned by an overwhelming desire to do right by his wife. As things played out, this was the last time Ben would come close to the top of the charts for quite a while.
“How Can I Forget”: I’m really pissed off that the song doesn’t answer the question in the song title because there’s nothing I would love more than to forget this awful song where once again Ben throws discipline to the wind.
“I (Who Have Nothing)”: In comparison to the two previous songs, Ben actually does a good job of reining it in—not an easy feat for a song so melodramatic that Tom Jones jumped at the chance to record it. It’s the classic “he buys you diamonds and takes you to fancy restaurants and that’s why I lost you even though I love you so much I could die” crap—crap because it’s the worst possible argument a guy could make if he really wants to convince the girl to come back. Who wants to hang with such a whiny loser?
Now, if a guy said something to me like . . . “Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied. Tell me that you want the kind of things that money just can’t buy. I don’t care too much for money—money can’t buy me love . . . ” then I’d thank him for metaphorically slapping sense into my little blonde brain, hop into his arms and wrap my legs around his torso and hope that something good pops up in a sec.
This brings us to June 1963, still months away from regular sightings of ships bearing the Union Jack in American waters. Ben spent the next eleven-and-a-half years in the mid-to-lower reaches of R&B charts and barely made any dents in the Billboard Top 100. For a while, his material oscillated in a nowheresville between pop, easy listening and soul, but his pop wasn’t particularly catchy and his soul frequently lacked the strong bottom of the material released by Motown, Stax and even Atlantic (“What Is Soul?” is an obvious exception). In 1970 he moved from Atco to another Atlantic subsidiary (Maxwell) and released the first of two albums produced by Bob Crewe of “Music to Watch Girls Go By” fame. Rough Edges is a curious work with a laid-back feel notable for its extended play mashups combining popular songs on single tracks (for example, “In the Midnight Hour” with “Lay Lady Lay”). Eighteen months later, Ben switched to yet another Atlantic label (Mandala) for the album The Beginning of It All where he covered Elton John, Dave Mason and Van Morrison and added a few compositions of his own. I have to say I like Ben’s version of “Take Me to the Pilot” a lot more than the original, largely because Ben didn’t have to go through all kinds of vocal pretzelizations to sound like a black guy.
Yay! I made up another word! Somebody call the O. E. D!
The Beginning of It All ends with a 40-minute retrospective on Ben’s career including an interview with Richard Robinson. Though he didn’t say it, I got the feeling that he felt boxed in by the powerful nostalgia attached to his early hits and somewhat slighted that despite his best efforts, people had generally ignored the music he had released in the previous ten years. Ben then took a three-year break from recording. I couldn’t find out how he spent his time during those years, but when he returned, he’d figured out how to break out of the amber of nostalgia.
All he had to do was avoid sounding like Ben E. King.
“Supernatural Thing, Pt. 1:” This catchy little dance number combining smooth soul, disco and funk features a smoother version of Ben E. King singing in a much higher register than his typical baritone. Looking at the list of musicians who contributed to the album Supernatural, it appears that Ben was supported by a much stronger cast of session musicians, including Carlos Alomar from Bowie’s troupe and Bob Babbitt of the Funk Brothers. He was also working with a new songwriting team; this two-part tune in the tradition of “What I’d Say” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was penned by Hamas Frye aka Patrick Grant and Gwen Guthrie, who wrote hits for Sister Sledge, Roberta Flack and Martha Reeves as well as half the songs on Supernatural. While this song and the entire album benefitted from superior musicianship and production quality, there is no doubt that Ben E. King had really rediscovered his groove (and then some). “Supernatural Thing” moved up the charts slowly but steadily, eventually peaking at #5. Ben was back!
“Do It In the Name of Love”: The second single released from Supernatural didn’t fare as well as “Supernatural Thing,” its potential possibly limited by the song’s religious overtones (“Try with all your might/Get your strength from/The Lord up above.”) Given his early training in gospel, I’m actually kind of surprised that Ben’s catalog doesn’t contain all that many non-secular efforts . . . but I’ll stop right there before I get myself in trouble.
Ben E. King passed away on April 30, 2015, at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey at the age of 76, survived by his mother, his wife of 53 years, three children and six grandchildren. In a moving tribute to Ben, Gary U. S. Bonds described him as “one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than 50 years.” That description rings true; in the interview on The Beginning of It All, he comes across as soft-spoken and gracious, eager to express appreciation for the people he worked with and deeply thankful for the rare opportunity to share his music with fans all around the world. In a time when we have been inundated with stories of disgusting, selfish, greedy, paranoid and thoroughly corrupt human beings, the music of Ben E. King is there to remind us that nice guys can succeed in this heartless world of ours and leave legacies certain to outlive the cacophony of human ugliness.
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.”