I enlisted my partner to write introduction to this review, for reasons that shall become obvious. Take it away, Alicia!
When we lived in the United States, Ari and I used to love going to Las Vegas to dance, to gamble and to take in all the different kinds of people who pass through that very unique place. One night we had a lovely dinner at Bouchon and instead of following our usual post-dinner routine of espresso and a shared dessert, we decided to sample some of the liqueurs on the menu. All through dinner we were engaged in deep conversation about future possibilities in our lives, and when Ari gets excited about something she tends to disconnect from everything else. So, whenever the server returned to ask if we needed anything else—and I believe he came back four or five times—Ari ordered “Whatever you brought last time,” while I politely shook my head. This proved to be a good strategy, as by the time we paid our check, Ari was thoroughly sloshed and needed to lean on me to exit the restaurant.
I’d never seen her drunk before, as she is usually very disciplined and likes to feel that she is in control of her senses. Lucky for me, she turned out to be a happy drunk instead of a mean drunk, laughing at her image in the various mirrors that lined the passageways, making jokes about the hideous hair-dos and fake lips we encountered, and once kissing me passionately while grabbing my breasts in full view of the constantly moving crowd. “Fuck them,” she said and continued to fondle me until she suddenly broke off. “I’m hot!” she said, and stamped her feet like a spoiled child and broke out in hysterical laughter. “Let’s go outside,” she said and marched off in the wrong direction, back towards the casino. I caught her and turned her towards the exit, but I cautioned her that it was probably warmer outside than indoors (it was early summer). She looked at me and started stamping her feet again, giggling until she cried. When she was done, I led her outside, stopping now and then to regain her balance.
We went down the moving walkway at The Venetian to The Strip and stopped for a moment. She wanted a cigarette but I had to light it for her as she couldn’t line up cigarette and flame. “Oh, that’s good,” she said after she exhaled, then suddenly took off, heading south down The Strip. Cut off by the crowd, I followed as closely as I could, but she disappeared into Harrah’s and I lost her. I decided to wait at the other end of Harrah’s, hoping she would take that exit, and that was a good call. “Fuckers won’t let me gamble without money,” she said when she walked out. “What the hell is this world coming to?” Then she broke out into peals of laughter and continued south. This time I held on tight and tried to talk to her but she was in her own world.
When we reached Margaritaville, they happened to be playing the theme song. “Oh, I love this song—hold my purse,” she cried, and started dancing away right there on The Strip, singing the few words she could remember in her condition, adding her own lyrics like, “You bet your ass it’s your own damned fault!” She broke her heel about a minute into her performance, kicked the shoe into the crowd and continued to dance on one high heel and one bare foot (I managed to rescue the shoe). Then she saw that the entrance was located up some stairs slightly above The Strip and shouted, “I want my beads!” So she climbed up the stairs to the landing–really just a couple of meters higher than the sidewalk, yanked her blouse and bra up and showed the crowd her tits to great applause. I ran up as quickly as I could because the very large bouncer behind her did not look happy, so I covered her body quickly and pushed her away from the entrance. “What’d ya do that for? Where are my beads?” “Ari, we’re not in New Orleans.” “No? Then where the hell are we?” “Las Vegas. Remember? We’re going to go back to our hotel now.” “Can we fuck?” “Yes, we’ll fuck.” “Oh good. That’s my favorite thing!” I had her take off her other shoe so she could walk easier, and all the way back to The Bellagio she would stop people at random and say, “We’re going to go fuck. That’s my favorite thing!” When I managed to finally get her to our room, she teetered over to the bed, said, “Fuck it” and collapsed. She lay in that position all night, the feet of her stockings ripped to shreds, her legs dangling in mid-air, her arms spread unevenly across the bed. Every so often she would enter a half-waking state and sing, “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville” and fall back to sleep.
The last thing I remember was the second drink. Of course, we changed our plans for the next evening and had dinner at Margaritaville, where Alicia showed me where I broke my heel and the hardly-a-balcony where I exposed my tits to the throngs. Nothing registered, but I still felt a strange sense of disappointment that I didn’t get any beads for my effort. I have beautiful tits, people! They should have been honored accordingly!
We had a great time at Margaritaville. They do make pretty good Margaritas, but I limited myself to two. After that we danced and sang along to the Jimmy Buffett songs they play between breaks in the action. Now and then I sat there musing about the incredible power of one hit song, and how it transformed Jimmy Buffett’s life from Key West bum to corporate mogul. From the New York Times:
His newest showstopper, a 17-story hotel near Miami, has three pools, a full-service spa and eight restaurants, including a seriously upscale steakhouse. That electric blue sculpture in the lobby? You’d swear it was by Jeff Koons.
Over near Orlando, work has started on his $800 million family resort, which will include a 12-acre water park and 1,200 homes priced at up to $1 million apiece. His company, which had $1.5 billion in sales last year, is introducing a line of jewelry. He has one of America’s fastest-growing craft beers. A team — led by a former Google executive — is working to transform his digital media business.
The man is Jimmy Buffett. And it’s time to toss whatever you thought you knew about his lazy, hazy Margaritaville out the window.
Forget the ville. This is a Margarita World. “People are always shocked when they find out how big we’ve gotten,” Mr. Buffett said recently over lunch, grinning and splashing Tabasco on a modified Cobb salad. “We just kept quietly doing our thing. Not saying much. And now — bam! — here we are.”
Margaritaville, with its themed restaurants (erupting volcanoes, boat-shaped booths), started as a tropical cousin to T.G.I. Friday’s. Through trial and error, Mr. Buffett and a partner, John Cohlan, have since expanded Margaritaville Holdings to include four booming divisions: lodging, alcohol, licensing and media. Now, as they pursue growth for the first time overseas, where Mr. Buffett has a much softer fan base, they are trying to recast Margaritaville as a broad, aspirational brand — the Ralph Lauren of leisurely escape, if you will.
And his new musical, Escape to Margaritaville, just opened in Chicago.
I don’t begrudge Jimmy Buffett’s success one bit. He was just trying to string together some kind of music career after failing to make it in Nashville when “Margaritaville” turned into one of the most iconic songs in American history. When you hit the big one, you’d be an idiot not to ride that pony as long as you can. And unlike most American products, “Margaritaville” actually makes people happy and can be played over and over again with minimal wear and tear. What I can’t figure out is this: how did a song about a half-depressed loser and his addiction to a Mexican cocktail become the ultimate American party song? Do workaholic Americans secretly want to say fuck it all, head for the beaches and drink themselves silly all day long?
Right now, the world would be a lot better place if Americans did just that. I hope there are plans for a Margaritaville on every corner in every city in the United States so Americans can get drunk, be happy, sing Jimmy Buffett songs and leave the rest of the world the hell alone.
The downside to the overwhelming success of “Margaritaville” is that Jimmy Buffett’s brilliant insights into cultures and culture clashes have been buried in a drunken frenzy. Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes is a surprisingly perceptive work, where Jimmy displayed the unique ability to satirize sacred American notions and common human failings without pissing anyone off in the process. The two cover songs he chose fit right in with the general tones and themes of the album. The music isn’t complex but it’s played well and The Coral Reefer Band never wavers from its commitment to creating a laid-back, tropical island feel. Jimmy’s not the greatest singer in the world in the technical sense but he hits all the notes with an Everyman’s voice that is naturally appealing. I’m not surprised the album represented his breakthrough—but I think most people missed the social critique in their pursuit of a good time.
The title track gets the party started, a pleasant trip down memory lane supported by a full string arrangement that they really could have done without. The social dysfunction described in this song involves “vacation deprivation,” a uniquely American problem. While the rest of the civilized world ensures that people have plenty of time off to rest and rejuvenate, most Americans get by with a lousy two or three weeks a year if they’re lucky, and half of them spend at least part of that time checking emails and taking phone calls. Jimmy urges us to submit to the changes in latitudes—the sacred shift in perception that comes when you have disconnected completely from the bullshit back home and just go with the flow of life:
It’s those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Nothing remains quite the same.
With all of our running and all of our cunning,
If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.
That is so true, people! We need laughter and freedom from obligations from time to time! My favorite moment on any vacation is when I go somewhere and no one on earth knows where I am except the people I’m with. That’s liberty!
What I love most about this song is its healthy, forward outlook. While recalling old memories usually leads to either regret or hopeless nostalgia, the hero in this story has no regrets whatsoever and uses his cherished memories as inspiration to create new, memorable experiences:
Oh, yesterdays are over my shoulder,
So I can’t look back for too long.
There’s just too much to see waiting in front of me,
And I know that I just can’t go wrong
When you stop looking forward, you might as well set up the appointment at the mortuary, because your time on earth is drawing short.
The only thing I have trouble with this song is the implication that changes in latitudes change attitudes. Not necessarily. I’ve been to Cancún and found myself hassled by mean, aggressive drunks who wanted to put their hands all over me—nothing a swift knee to the nuts won’t cure, but still irritating. I’ve also been to places like Minneapolis and Quebec in the dead of winter and found the vibes and people absolutely charming. I get antsy sunning myself on beaches, so I don’t associate “tropical” with “relaxing.” That said, I realize that most people in the world view the tropics as the ultimate getaway and will accept that as a given as I work through this review.
“Wonder Why We Ever Go Home” is a somewhat mournful number that deals with the mindlessness of modern existence. The arrangement is dominated by rising swells of harmonica and slide guitar that sound fabulous, mirroring the feeling of dreams going up in smoke. As the narrator faces another lonely night on his own, worried about whether or not he can (or even wants to) “race to catch up with my dreams” and present himself to his girl as a reliable breadwinner, he pauses to wonder if society is going to hell in a hand-basket:
People are movin’ so quickly.
Humor’s in need of repair.
Same occupations and same obligations;
They’ve really got nothing to share,
Like drivin’ around with no spare.
Jimmy Buffett wrote this in the 70’s, and the speed of life has increased a thousandfold since then. This song makes me wonder just how much of our lives have drifted away from normal rhythms as we burn our days as captives of digital technology. Although “Wonder Why We Ever Go Home” doesn’t seem to fit the escape-to-the-tropics theme, it establishes the reason for the desire to leave it all behind. It’s a beautifully reflective piece that deserves more attention.
The first cover song on the album is Steve Goodman’s “Banana Republics,” a painfully insightful number about American expatriates. Goodman is best known for “City of New Orleans,” one of Arlo Guthrie’s hits, but Jimmy Buffett recorded several of his less commercial but richer compositions. The acoustic guitar passage that opens the song (a partial duet) is absolutely gorgeous, establishing a sense of melancholy that underpins a sad tale of cultural disassociation. After establishing the various motivations for leaving the land of the free for foreign climes (which all come down to “Tryin’ to find out what is ailing/Living in the land of the free”), the song shifts to the existential reality of the daily lives of American expatriates—who learn pretty quickly that Americans are neither welcome nor respected:
First you learn the native customs
Soon a word of Spanish or two
You know that you cannot trust them
Because they know they can’t trust you
Feelin’ so all alone
Telling themselves the same lies
That they told themselves back home
Down to the Banana Republics
Things aren’t as warm as they seem
None of the natives are buying
Any second-hand American dreams
I’ve noticed more and more that Americans who travel outside their country seem so . . . out-of-place. It’s like they come in with either a defensive and superior attitude expecting the natives to be difficult, or they come in fearful that they won’t be accepted no matter how hard they try because of the poor reputation that precedes them. This awkwardness has been captured in literature by Henry James, Hemingway, James Baldwin and others, a character flaw probably grounded in the geographical isolation of the United States and reinforced by a substandard system of public education. Now that America is turning sickeningly inward, and replacing awkwardness with bluster, the situation is unlikely to get any better. Congratulations to Jimmy Buffett for choosing to record what has proven to be a timeless song about a long-standing problem.
Geez. We’re a third of a way through the album and I’m still not feeling those party vibes . . . I’m hearing some great stuff, though.
“Tampico Trauma” lightens the mood a bit with a more upbeat arrangement featuring solid lead guitar and sharp harmonica from Greg Taylor. The song’s message is consistent with the theme of American ignorance in foreign countries, but some sympathy is called for as the Mexican police are notoriously inconsistent and more than happy to take a few pesos from you to help resolve legal problems that you didn’t even know you had. The rock-and-rollers in this song don’t last long in Tampico, as there are few countries anywhere who take kindly to drunks who like to pick fights. It’s followed by “Lonely Cruise,” a song Jimmy picked up in Nashville from songwriter Jonathan Baham, a very sleepy number without a lot to recommend it . . . and I can’t imagine anything more boring than a cruise ship.
At last! We have arrived at Margaritaville!
As mentioned above, “Margaritaville” is about a loser. All this guy does is eat sponge cake, watch the tourists, fuck around on a guitar, make shrimp, get drunk, wreck his shoe, cut himself, get drunk again and ponder a long-lost love. Not exactly the most productive motherfucker in the world.
Still, he’s a lovable loser, and all of his fuck-ups and wasted moments are archetypal human behavior. We can relate to this guy because we’re all guilty of pissing away our time and fucking up. And though it goes against the Puritan work ethic that still influences life in the USA, the truth is that sometimes the best thing we can do is say “fuck it” and let the world go to hell. What’s so admirable about our anti-hero is that he chooses to waste his time and his life. And why not? What’s the point of returning to the daily grind with all of its “running and cunning?” And what’s the fucking hurry to do anything? Note how he deals the injury he suffers in the last verse:
I blew out my flip-flop
Stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home
We laugh at the clumsiness and bad luck of the first two lines, but it’s his reaction to the attack of the pop-top that’s worth noting. He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t freak out about blood poisoning or hepatitis. He doesn’t scream, “Shit! Oh fuck fuck fuck!” and hop on one leg back to his porch. He cruises. He responds to the mishap with a shrug, knowing that “there’s booze in the blender” and everything will turn out in the end. His attitude towards life is the exact opposite of one who lives life on the rodent wheel. Why bother? We ain’t going anywhere anyway, so let’s kick back, have a drink and enjoy the sunshine.
Pretty subversive stuff in a society geared towards sacrificing human sanity in the quest for higher productivity and stock prices.
As things turn out, appearances can indeed be deceiving. There is a method behind our anti-hero’s apparent madness, and he’s actually doing the most important thing he could be doing if he’s ever going to get out of his funk and move on. He’s engaging in self-reflection. The progression in the shifting final lines of the chorus is that of a human being moving from denial to acceptance of his own contribution to a failed relationship—a relationship that mattered a lot to him:
- First chorus (denial): “Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame/But I know it’s nobody’s fault.” (Shit happens, no point in blaming anyone, total avoidance).
- Second chorus (another possibility). “Now I think—Hell, it could be my fault.” (Maybe if I’d listened a little more and stuffed my male pride up my ass . . . )
- Third chorus (acceptance of responsibility): “And I know it’s my own damn fault.” (Yeah, I really fucked this one up. Can’t blame anyone but myself. Shee-it. Now I know better.)
We can now answer the question posed in the intro: how did this song become so outrageously popular? Yes, it has all the basics of hit: great hook, easy-to-sing melody, engaging instrumentation, solid build to the finish. But what really makes “Margaritaville” a beloved cultural icon is that it expresses what many Americans yearn for—to let it all go, to have the time to do absolutely nothing, to escape the rat race and start to enjoy life. Yeah, the guy’s a drunk who can’t even remember how he got a tattoo, but that’s a much more interesting story than any response to the standard operating question, “How was work today, honey?”
“Do nothing and there is nothing that will not be done,” says the Tao-Te Ching. Jimmy Buffett was imparting ancient wisdom to overworked, over-busy Americans who need to unstrap themselves from the clock and stop trying to control everything—time, careers, each other. Let it go, have a good time, learn something about yourself in the process—that’s what makes “Margaritaville” such a great and perpetually relevant song for Americans. As far as I’m concerned, “Margaritaville” should be the national fucking anthem.
And I mean that. America needs to CHILL THE FUCK OUT.
Tough song to follow, but Jimmy does a great job with the reconstruction of an older song from his repertoire, “In the Shelter.” He’d recorded it in classic country style with a quicker tempo on the album High Cumberland Jubilee; here he shifts to a relaxed reggae beat that makes the song a better fit on an album where many of the characters have slipped out of mainstream society. The character here is a young runaway who has no idea where she’s headed but refuses to even consider returning home, a world of “forced repressions” and “angry questions.” The key line in the song appears at the end of the second verse—after raising the ultimate “if only” (“if you could only tell them how you feel”), the narrator reads her mind and concludes that patching things up with the parents is a dead-end: “But they’re too real to understand.” Her parents are too firmly grounded in the shared reality of “the way things are” and all the behavioral expectations of a conformist society to have any concern for her feelings or dreams. The girl’s path forward is unclear; she leaves for the city knowing “that this could be her final fall.” Once she gets there, she heads past the shops to the river, where she “takes off her boots and socks” and starts to cry. Jimmy sings this song with a tone of sad regret, fully empathizing with the girl but unable to offer any solutions, for there are none in the present, and no viable answer to the question, “What’s it all about?” All she can do is play it out and hope that somewhere along the way she’ll find some answers. Far superior to the sentiment-and-cliché loaded treatment of the runaway problem in The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” “In the Shelter” is one of Jimmy Buffett’s finest and most sensitive works.
“Miss You So Badly” is one of the quirkier songs about a musician’s life on the road, but also one of the most descriptive. Most songs in this category rarely rise above the level of bitching, eliciting a response in the listener something like, “Fuck you, you entitled prick. You’re whining about getting driven around in limos, staying in first-class hotels and ordering room service and broads at the touch of the finger and you want me to feel fucking sorry for you?” The Stones “Goin’ Home” captures the emotional impact of road travel exceptionally well, but is rather sparse when it comes to the details. Enter Jimmy Buffett to address this deficiency:
We’re stayin’ in a Holiday Inn full of surgeons
I guess they meet there once a year
They exchange physician stories
And get drunk on Tuborg beer
Then they’re off to catch a stripper
With their eyes glued to her G
But I don’t think that I would ever let them cut on me
Okay, now I get it—that sounds horrible! Oh, you’ve got more? “And I’m just watchin’ The Gong Show . . . ” Stop! Stop! Not Chuck Barris! Not that parade of cheesy no-talent losers! Omigod! Call 911 immediately!
And I love the reverent, respectful reference to the greatest of them all:
I got a head full of feelin’ higher
And an earful of Patsy Cline
There’s just no one who can touch her
Hell, I’ll hang on every line.
Damn straight, Jimmy!
“Biloxi” was written by the recently departed Jesse Winchester, a man who had the courage to escape the United States to avoid military service in Vietnam. Courage is not only measured by how willing you are to take a bullet, my friends, and when it came to Vietnam, that kind of courage was wasted on a no-win situation. If America were a truly healthy, confident country, it would honor those who manifest the courage of their convictions as much as it honors the courage of those willing to go to war.
Jimmy recorded this song because of his own pleasant memories of the town where he got his start in music and because “Jesse Winchester got it right.” The imagery in the song integrates the natural setting and human activity through the use of memorable visuals—the persistent boy who begins by filling his pail with salty water but graduates to forming a pool from the incoming waves, the girls dancing in the sea, the couple “splashing naked in the water” and the repeated image of storms and sun moving towards New Orleans. Jimmy sings each line as if he is savoring a treasured memory, using the slow tempo to take his time and re-immerse himself in the experience. The only break in the stillness of the song is an extended instrumental passage before the last verse; here, the strings are used to perfection and Michael Utley’s piano runs sound like twinkling stars over the ocean. It seems that every album in the 70’s had to have its “opus,” a long-form slow song that often turned out to be a bore. Not so with “Biloxi.” It’s a beautiful song, tenderly performed.
But it’s too slow to serve as the closer for this kind of album. Hence we have “Landfall,” a rock-oriented number proclaiming the virtues of sailing, seafood, boogying and drinking. Especially drinking.
‘Cause I’ve seen incredible things in my year
Some days were laughter, others were tears
If I had it all to do over again
I’d just get myself drunk and I’d jump right back in
Before the prohibitionists in the audience go nuts, it should be pointed out that Jimmy has more than a valid reason for immersing himself in the party life of good times and good cheer, and it all comes back to the bullshit of daily life. In the song’s most fascinating verse, he describes living in a space so cramped it must feel like a prison, but Jimmy knows damn well that the real prison is in the mindset and rituals of the conventional world:
I lived half my life in an eight-by-five room
Just crusin’ to the sound of the big diesel boom
It’s not close quarters that would make me snap
It’s just dealing with the daily unadulterated crap
So Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes comes full circle, and “Landfall” reinforces the dominant theme: why do we put up with “the daily unadulterated crap?” Why do we have to be slaves to the economy? Why can’t we figure out a way to do our fair share of the work society needs us to do while leaving us more time for the good times? Aren’t you tired of the “unadulterated crap” in our lives—I sure am! Let’s start a revolution, dammit—a special kind of revolution. I’ve quoted this passage a couple of times in other reviews but in case you missed it, here again is the first verse of “A Sane Revolution” by D. H. Lawrence:
If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t make it in ghastly seriousness,
don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.
Commit yourself to the fun revolution! Raise those salt-encrusted margarita glasses in a glorious toast to a better future!
It’s been almost three years since I wrote my first and only Grateful Dead review, a piece in The Psychedelic Series covering Anthem of the Sun. I ended that review by saying that while I didn’t care much for the second half of the record, I had “sort of a warm feeling about it.” That warm feeling arose from the superior quality of musicianship I heard on that record, especially when compared to the sloppiness of other psychedelic-era bands. And though I had seen the Dead live in my early teens and had a warm feeling about that experience as well, I ran into an insurmountable math problem:
(warm feeling + warm feeling) ≠ motivation to explore the Dead’s extensive catalog and rich culture
The sheer size of their catalog is more than enough to intimidate all but the most committed Deadhead, but even more challenging is nature of the “long, strange trip” represented in that catalog. It is an eclectic mix of style and sound, a history marked by bursts of intense studio activity followed by long silences, and a discography chock full of live recordings that serve to remind us the Dead were more than a band but the organizing principle of a sustainable culture within a culture.
I carefully avoid the use of the word “sub-culture” when referring to Deadheads, as the prefix “sub” has a connotation of “inferior.” I would argue that Dead culture is far more vibrant and alive than the dominant culture, i. e., “American Culture,” and that Deadheads have greater awareness of self and culture than most Americans. Show me the average non-Deadhead American who can say this about what it means to be an American citizen:
[They] had only one thing absolutely in common: Each had experienced some inner click of affinity, some overwhelming sense of ‘here I belong’ . . . It was the recognition of an essentially spiritual experience that bound them together.
—Dennis McNally, A Long Strange Trip
The Deadheads I’ve met are a far cry from the stoned-out-hippies-who-never-grew-up stereotype. Some of my dad’s best friends in San Francisco often planned their vacations around Dead tours, and that group included one lawyer, one therapist and one welder. When I was working in Seattle, I had lunch one day with our Billing Supervisor, a woman twice my age who spent all day sorting out invoices, payments and immersing herself in other boring, tedious shit. I had labeled her “retired on the job” and the only reason I met with her was utilitarian—I needed to understand our billing system so I could do my job. Somehow the conversation drifted towards “best vacation experiences,” and without hesitation she described a six-month period where she followed the Dead from city to city, often in the company of new friends she’d met along the way. “It started out as a two-week vacation, but after the two weeks was up I knew I couldn’t go back. I’d found something I’d never found anywhere else.” She abandoned a job she’d held for a dozen years, giving up the privileges of seniority and breaking the flow of her résumé to follow the Dead and immerse herself in its culture. “It was the most meaningful experience of my life,” she concluded, and I could not only tell that she meant it, but she was also conscious about it—I didn’t see the glazed stare of a cult member, but a person who had truly found herself.
The solidity and vibrance of Dead culture has been strengthened by its members, who are active participants in sustaining that culture. There are quite a few Deadheads who have spent a good part of their lives documenting, interpreting and discussing The Dead’s music, history and cultural impact. While I’m too much of a butterfly to devote my free time to a single artist, I will say that when the idea for another Dead review crossed my mind, I immediately moved it to the top of the list, largely because of all those wonderful Deadheads and their exhaustive research. Unlike most artists who are limited to a fan website, Wikipedia page and a few tidbits on Songfacts, the research on The Grateful Dead is extensive, accessible and very well-organized. The Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz is a treasure trove of Dead history for the serious researcher, complemented by its online companion, Grateful Dead Archive Online. The fan forums are equally valuable, filled with extremely knowledgeable people who have documented their personal journeys with the Dead, sharing their experience and interpretations in an environment marked by respect and curiosity. Because I spend at least ten times more hours on research than on writing, it is a near-orgasmic experience to start the review process with easy access to an abundance of information about the music I’m trying to cover and the people who created it.
The strength of the culture and the accessibility of information helped me overcome both the math problem and the intimidation factor. I decided to approach the Dead in the same spirit they brought to their musical journey: “Hmm. This path looks interesting. Let’s take it and see where it goes.”
So, here we go with Workingman’s Dead.
Workingman’s Dead was the first of two albums where the Dead allegedly “went country.” While there is no doubt that the Dead took inspiration from the Bakersfield honky-tonk take on country music favored by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Jean Shepherd—and that Workingman’s Dead arrived at a time when American rock had shifted away from psychedelic styles and British-influenced baroque pop back to “American roots music” thanks to John Wesley Harding, The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival—to call Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty “country” is both superficial and inaccurate. As lyricist Robert Hunter noted in the foreword to The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics:
Most bands can be copied, but bands that have tried to mimic the Grateful Dead in a creative way, other than note-by-note reproduction, tend to fall short of the mark because there is no specific style to mimic, rather a range of styles that the band members have individually mastered and integrated into the music. Pigpen played blues and was accepted as a regular in the black nightclubs of East Palo Alto in his early teens. Phil studied composition with the great Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio to augment his classical training. Garcia’s knowledge and facility with American folk forms and instrumental styles was compendious. Mickey Hart was a titled world-champion rudimental drummer from a family of drummers and studied Indian rhythmic intricacies with Zakir Hussein and Ali Akbar Khan. Several of us were veterans of regular jazz sessions by sterling musicians such as Lester Hellum, Bob Pringle, Rudy Jackson, and Dan Barnett while living at the Chateau.
Free Press (2014-12-16). The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics . Free Press. Kindle Edition. Note: To simplify matters, I will refer to this book as TCAGDL going forward.
These influences are obvious throughout Workingman’s Dead—there are chord patterns, melodies and rhythms you would never hear in classic honky-tonk.
Hunter’s lyrics are another defining feature that distinguishes Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty from traditional country music. A gifted poet who translated Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, Hunter is also an experienced, knowledgeable musician and multi-dimensional thinker. The foreword cited above is one of my favorite commentaries on music by anybody, ever. Hunter’s integration into the band as full-time lyricist and fellow traveler resulted in richer, deeper lyrics exploring a wider range of subject matter than you’ll find in the work of any of the Bakersfield guys and gals.
Recorded at Pacific High Recording Studio in the City in a little piece of SoMa before it became SoMa, Workingman’s Dead came to fruition during a time when The Dead were attempting to navigate between mountains of debt, a drug bust and management hanky-panky. No wonder Jerry Garcia described the experience as “definitely an upper,” and when you listen to Workingman’s Dead, you get the feeling of listening to a band of temporarily lost souls seeking salvation through music. The version I chose to review is the 2001-2003 release, which includes live versions of six of the original tracks, an alt-take on “New Speedway Boogie” and a radio pitch for the album. The live tracks are particularly interesting because most were recorded before Workingman’s Dead was released, giving the listener the opportunity to get a sense of how those songs evolved.
Workingman’s Dead opens with the clean, clear sound and beautifully-executed three-part harmonies of “Uncle John’s Band.” The song is something of a musical feint, a piece that certainly sounds country but whose melodic origins lie in the Balkans, not Bakersfield. Jerry Garcia had been immersing himself in the music of Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece when he heard a pennywhistle tune that caught his fancy. “So I stole it,” he confessed, as noted in TCAGDL. I heartily approve of his criminal act, in part because I love Bulgarian folk music, but largely because he had the sensitivity to realize that folk music from different traditions share common threads and themes. When I hear “Uncle John’s Band,” I think, “Gee, this would make a great Mariachi tune.” Great folk music often has a cross-cultural quality about it, and “Uncle John’s Band” certainly qualifies as great folk music.
While the singable melody, sweet guitar fills and engaging harmonies capture one’s attention, the lyrics of “Uncle John’s Band” brilliantly reflect folk traditions. Folk music is often used to teach its listeners important aspects of the culture through stories and pearls of commonly-accepted wisdom. The first verse contains one of those pearls—“‘Cause when life looks like Easy Street there is danger at your door.” Good, comforting advice, yes, but the two lines that follow establish both the theme of the song and what today we would call the “core values” of the culture:
Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?
These lines describe a culture that values and respects individual choice, and recognizes kindness as a prerequisite to successful dialogue. The next verse introduces the symbolic presence of the buck dancer, the man who can choose to dance alone, with a partner or with the group (as in square dancing). The reference in the second line to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” is a gentle reminder that we’re all fucked anyway due to the limits of mortality, a condition of existence that should encourage the individual to embrace life and its essential quality of free will (see Koestenbaum’s “The Vitality of Death”). When the singer poses the question, “Will you come with me? Won’t you come with me? Wo, oh, what I want to know is will you come with me?” he is welcoming the person with open arms while at the same time respecting the right of the individual to make that choice.
Respecting choice doesn’t mean we can’t put up a strenuous argument in favor of our position, and the opening line of the third verse bursts through the speakers with a tone of delightful incredulity: “Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?” One of the great belt-out lines of all time, ranking right up there with Roger Miller’s plaintive cry of “I ain’t got no cigarettes,” the expression of frustration in that goddamn is as universal as universal gets. What causes the frustration is the unveiling of one of the cultural choices under consideration:
Their walls are built of cannonballs, their motto is ‘don’t tread on me’
So, one choice is the defensive warrior culture of the USA; the other is a kinder, more timeless version of life, centered around music and nature:
Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
Come with me, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.
The choice within a choice—“Come with me or go alone”—reinforces the importance the culture places on free will. It is what H. G. Wells referred to as “community of will” as opposed to a “community of obedience.” The last two verses and the opening lines of the final rendition of the chorus reinforce the themes of the fragility of life, of kindness to one’s fellows and of conscious, active participation in the culture:
It’s the same story the crow told me; it’s the only one he knows.
Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.
Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?
I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar’s tomb;
I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune,
Anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?
Come hear uncle John’s band by the riverside,
Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide.
So, what is this culture and who the hell is Uncle John? My take is “Uncle John’s Band” is a vision of the counterculture that emerged during the 1960’s in response to the war-mongering Establishment. If that is the case, it’s certainly the clearest and most coherent vision of the counterculture in existence; most attempts to describe it come across as vague, ethereal propositions that haven’t been thought through. As for Uncle John, David Dodd uncovered the mystery in this piece on dead.net: Uncle John is John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, a string band launched at the dawn of the Folk Revival of the 1950’s that also featured Mike Seeger and Tom Paley. The reference is symbolic, of course; the vision of this new culture is one where we take the time to celebrate life, music and each other, where every act is a conscious choice and where respect and kindness guide behavior instead of rules, regulations and dogma.
A comparison between “Uncle John’s Band” and “St. Stephen,” the song that opened their preceding release, Aoxomwoxoa, is instructive. “St. Stephen” begins as a boisterous honky-tonk number and in less than a minute transforms itself into a gentle, psychedelic ballad. “Uncle John’s Band” follows a straightforward chord pattern through most of the song, inserting a brief Spanish flair in the instrumental with a key change from G to D minor providing a nice change of pace that fits perfectly into the overall flow. All the songs on Workingman’s Dead display a discipline that had eluded the band in many of their previous recordings; here deviations from established patterns are beautifully integrated into the mix. It’s also important to note that the shift to more of a “roots sound” was not a 180 but a natural result of the groundwork laid in Aoxomwoxoa. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” features a banjo, and if you change the tempo a bit and eliminate vocal effects and organ, “China Cat Sunflower” isn’t all that different from “New Speedway Boogie.”
“High Time” is a fresh take on the honky-tonk torch song, notable for more sweet harmonies and Jerry Garcia’s masterful performance on the steel guitar. What makes the song fresh is the unusual chord pattern; the song resolves to the key of E major, but the route to get there is like trying to navigate the streets of Florence without a map. Despite the numerous key shifts, the song is as smooth as silk, thanks in large part to Phil Lesh’s subtle but complex bass patterns—a clinic on how to make the extraordinarily difficult sound so goddamned easy. When faced with a song with the complexity of “High Time,” most bass players would say, “Fuck it, I’ll just stick to the root notes.” Phil does that and a whole lot more, throwing in some unexpected fills from time to time that simply blow me away.
“Dire Wolf” combines modern and ancient mythologies in a riveting piece of poetry supported by a contrastingly relaxed musical background. The dire wolf is an extinct species that trucked around North America eons ago until climate change sent it into fossil land. Before slinking off into oblivion, this wolf was the all-time bad ass wolf, with the highest bite force in mammalian history. Using this motherfucker as the model intensifies the evil darkness of the wolf myth—the sneaky animal who dresses in sheep’s clothing and then gobbles you up for dinner. The wolf is the projection of our darkest fears, and during the years leading up to Workingman’s Dead, the entire Bay Area felt preyed upon by a maniac known as the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who taunted police and public through occasional letters to the San Francisco Chronicle. In TCAGDL, Jerry Garcia described what everyone feeling during the Zodiac’s reign of terror, and how it influenced the song:
I wrote that song when the Zodiac Killer was out murdering in San Francisco. Every night I was coming home from the studio, and I’d stop at an intersection and look around, and if a car pulled up, it was like, ‘This is it, I’m gonna die now.’ It became a game. Every night I was conscious of that thing, and the refrain got to be so real to me. ‘Please don’t murder me, please don’t murder me.’ It was a coincidence in a way, but it was also the truth at the moment.’
When I showed the quote to my parents, who lived in the City during that period and beyond, my usually unflappable mother shivered with the memory. My dad stepped into explain, “There was some ugly shit going down back then. After the Zodiac went into hiding, the Zebra murders started, and everyone who didn’t have black skin was a target. We spent a lot more evenings at home during the early seventies, and when we went out, we were always on our guard.”
What’s curious about the song is that it’s not dark at all—on an album loaded with songs that are fun to sing along to, this is my favorite. The song features a snappy rhythm, more superb steel guitar and clean spot harmonies that communicate a sense of joy in contrast to the frequent appearance of the dire wolf in background and foreground. We’ve got wolves hanging out in swamp, a wolf showing up at the door, a wolf waiting for the right moment to strike—and there’s still an eerie sense of joy about the song, a sort of “Well, I’m fucked, but since there isn’t a goddamn thing I can do about it, I might as well play along.”
I sat down to my supper, ’twas a bottle of red whisky,
I said my prayers and went to bed, that’s the last they saw of me.
Don’t murder me, I beg of you, don’t murder me. Please, don’t murder me.
When I awoke, the Dire Wolf, six hundred pounds of sin,
Was grinning at my window, all I said was “Come on in”.
Don’t murder me, I beg of you, don’t murder me. Please, don’t murder me.
The Wolf came in, I got my cards, we sat down for a game.
I cut my deck to the Queen of Spades, but the cards were all the same.
Don’t murder me, I beg of you, don’t murder me. Please, don’t murder me.
“Dire Wolf” is another affirmation of our human condition: we’re all living with the fear of death, but it’s silly to let that fear dominate our lives. Pour me another whiskey and let’s get on with it! The live version, recorded at Santa Rosa Veterans’ Memorial Hall several months before the release of Workingman’s Dead, features Bob Weir on lead vocal and lacks the extensive spot harmonies. I’m good with that—I love the sound of Bob Weir’s voice and the song just fucking works no matter who’s singing it.
“New Speedway Boogie” starts with one of my favorite Dead couplets: “Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack/If you’ve got nothing new to say,” originally directed at Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason but applicable to any person who yaps just for the sake of yapping. Jerry Garcia is in fine voice in this finger-snapping delight integrating Chaucerian references with the tragedy at Altamont and the classic gospel song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Now, I don’t know, but I was told
In the heat of the sun a man died of cold.
Keep on coming or stand and wait,
With the sun so dark and the hour so late.
I love that classic folk phrase, “I don’t know but I’ve been told . . . ” and the respectful uncertainty it communicates: “I could be wrong but let me run this past you.” Dylan used it to humorous effect in “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” but here it’s used as a reminder not to jump to conclusions when you hear a piece of news—good advice in the modern era of alternative facts.
“Cumberland Blues” is a snappy little number about a guy whose unsatisfying love partner keeps him up too late with her tales of woe, jeopardizing his status as a wage slave to the coal mine. Featuring a lead vocal shared between Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir marked by interwoven harmonies, the song feels like a stream-of-consciousness rap about the existential death awaiting our hero every day, hundreds of feet underground. He takes some solace in the fact he’s not alone (“Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues”) but like the character in The Kinks’ “Get Back in the Line,” the poor soul has to “walk the line just to pay his union dues.” The annotations in TCAGDL make reference to the Springhill Mine Disaster, but there is no reference to tragedy in this song except that of the existential variety. My response is “Goddamn it, Melinda, give this man what he wants so he can get his head on straight and figure out how to get the fuck out of that mine!”
In contrast to the hootenanny feel of “Cumberland Blues,” the tone of “Black Peter” is barren and bleak, as befits a dramatic monologue of a poor man on his death-bed. The background music is understated, largely a lazy-day duet with guitar and bass, with cold touches of organ and front porch harmonica to add some color. As noted in TCAGDL, the sad realization that Donne’s “death’s dateless night” is a day “just like any other day” is a recurring theme throughout literature, and the reference that resonated most with me was to Beckett’s Endgame, easily the bleakest piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. “Black Peter” is a challenging piece of poetry, but it does describe the way I want to go out when the time comes—conscious, reflective and close to those who made my life worth living:
Just want to have
A little peace to die
And a friend or two
I love at hand
The live version of “Black Peter,” also recorded long before The Dead entered the studio, is even more compelling than the recorded version, with greater variation in dynamics. The extended jam at the end adds a blessed shot of power to the piece, allowing Peter to leave this world with one last burst of energy before fading into sweet sleep.
“Easy Wind” is the strongest “workingman” song on the album, featuring a superb lead vocal from Pigpen as he takes the role of a guy whom David Dodd accurately labeled “perhaps the character of the Working Man in Workingman’s Dead.” Robert Hunter composed both words and lyrics, but more importantly, he captured the attitude, spirit and conversational style of the hard-working stiff facing the capitalist paradox in which all working people are trapped in one way or another: I have to work to survive, but I ain’t gonna survive too long if I have to work like this:
I been balling a shiny black steel jack-hammer,
Been chippin’ up rocks for the great highway,
Live five years if I take my time,
Ballin’ that jack and a drinkin’ my wine.
I been chippin’ them rocks from dawn till doom,
While my rider hide my bottle in the other room.
Doctor say better stop ballin’ that jack,
If I live five years I gonna bust my back, yes I will.
The use of the phrase “ballin’ the jack,” a phrase most people connect to the elegant fox trot number once popular in ballrooms filled with well-heeled dancers, accentuates the social chasm between workingman and those who reap the benefits of his work. Instead of chilled champagne served on a tray, all this Louisiana boy asks for is a bottle of country wine and a woman willing to shut up and serve it:
Gotta find a woman be good to me,
Won’t hide my liquor try to serve me tea,
Cause I’m a stone jack baller and my heart is true
And I’ll give everything that I got to you, yes I will.
The man’s obsession with female loyalty and fear of betrayal is echoed in the chorus with the line “There’s a whole lot of women out in red on the streets today,” a likely reference to the woman in red who ratted out Dillinger to the FBI. So . . . this asshole either is a sexist pig who bought into the modern version of the Delilah myth and is bent on reminding the woman he has wage-enslaved just how lucky she is to have a guy like him providing for her simple, trivial needs . . . or he’s your typical average guy trying to make it through the game of life with the shitty hand he’s been dealt. I think both are true, but the second explanation is more consistent with the character’s acceptance of the Sisyphus role. Instead of pushing boulders up hills, he’s crushing boulders to make roads he’ll never be able to ride—largely because he sees no way out of the capitalist paradox:
And the river keeps a-talkin’,
But you never hear a word it say
At this point in the Dead’s history, Pigpen was fading into the background, but goddamn, did he ever nail this vocal.
It’s more than appropriate that the album closes with “Casey Jones,” like “Cumberland Blues” a fascinating masquerade of a song where the upbeat music masks a more serious message. Before we begin looking at the song, let’s review the story of one Jonathan Luther Jones, aka Casey Jones, a real human being who was sort of the Captain Sullenberger of his day. Casey was by all accounts an honest, hardworking railroad engineer who sometimes broke the rules (the speed limit in particular) in order to meet the railroad’s demanding schedules. One night Casey and a pal went on a late night run from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi on the No. 1 train, their start delayed by over an hour due to its late arrival at the station. Using all his smarts and experience, Casey had made up the time and then some when new orders came in to wait for a train to pass and hook up with another train in a town called Vaughn. Once again, Casey found himself behind schedule, but felt confident he could get the No. 1 train to Canton on time. Unbeknownst to Casey until he turned a blind curve just before Vaughn, the rear cars of parked train were sitting smack dab in the middle of his track, due to a slowly-executed track switching maneuver. What happened next was reported in a Jackson, Mississippi newspaper article preserved by The Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum.
The south-bound passenger train No. 1 was running under a full head of steam when it crashed into the rear end of a caboose and three freight cars which were standing on the main track, the other portion of the train being on a sidetrack. The caboose and two of the cars were smashed to pieces, the engine left the rails and plowed into an embankment, where it overturned and was completely wrecked, the baggage and mail coaches also being thrown from the track and badly damaged. The engineer was killed outright by the concussion. His body was found lying under the cab, with his skull crushed and right arm torn from its socket. The fireman jumped just in time to save his life. The express messenger was thrown against the side of the car, having two of his ribs broken by the blow, but his condition is not considered dangerous.
Casey saved the life of the fireman riding with him by ordering him to jump, and the lives of his passengers in the rear cars by slamming on the airbrakes to reduce the speed of the train before impact, giving up his life in the process. Now, let’s look at the Casey depicted in the first verse of “Casey Jones”:
Driving that train, high on cocaine,
Casey Jones you better watch your speed
Trouble ahead, trouble behind
And you know that notion just crossed my mind
Since there is no evidence in the historical record that Casey Jones was a cokehead, we can assume right off the bat that Hunter and Garcia are using his mythological persona to communicate something more relevant to modern listeners who couldn’t give a fuck about some dead railroad guy. Casey Jones is the modern metaphor for the undisciplined drug user, the one who combines coke, speed and whatever else is handy to experience the thrill of a chemically-induced ride, and can’t see far enough ahead to know when to stop:
Trouble with you is the trouble with me
Got two good eyes but you still don’t see
Come round the bend, you know it’s the end
The fireman screams and the engine just gleams
The lady in red makes another appearance here, emphasizing the seductive nature of stimulants and the simultaneous danger they present. Essentially, “Casey Jones” is as much an anti-drug song as Paul Revere & The Raiders’ “Kicks,” but instead of the preachy and paternalistic tone of that still-great song, The Dead, consistent with their values, present the choice and the consequences while allowing the listener to decide for her or himself.
From a musical perspective, “Casey Jones” is a tightly-played, well-arranged number with solid harmonies and a cleverly faked key change in the first line of each verse (C to D, then back to the C major key). That little musical head fake really makes the song, breaking up the very simple chord pattern and encouraging the singer (Garcia) to amp it up a bit in the vocal.
Workingman’s Dead, a 1970 release consisting of nine songs recorded in nine days, was something of a game-changer for the Dead. The album’s commercial success redefined their audience and expanded their reach. Shedding the limited stereotype associated with psychedelia while still retaining the explorer’s spirit that drove that movement, The Dead gave us a series of timeless songs that qualify as quintessentially American in the most positive sense of that cultural label. In a time when both Americans and non-Americans look at the country as place that is quickly losing its mind and its soul, it’s nice to remind ourselves that during an equally divisive and dangerous era forty-seven years ago, there were artists willing to sing openly about the virtues and defects of American culture, and offer a vision of a safe place to ride out the storm . . . there, by the rising tide, sharing each other’s company and the timeless regenerative power of music.