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Classic Music Review: Hail to the Thief by Radiohead

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Although the title Hail to the Thief refers to the stolen 2000 U. S. presidential election and the subsequent madness known as the War on Terror, Thom Yorke has strenuously denied that the album is in any way a political statement.

Hmm. Let’s check the veracity of that bold assertion, she said, admiring her facility with pompous synonyms.

If you compare the songs on Hail to the Thief to the protest songs in Phil Ochs’ catalog, Yorke has a point. Phil’s anti-establishment songs fall into three categories: those dealing with current affairs (murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, the Chicago convention riots, the Vietnam War); those celebrating the people who “fought the good fight” against the moneychangers and warmongers; and those calling for systemic upheaval. If you use those three qualities to define the protest song genre, none of the songs on Hail to the Thief qualify as protest songs. “I Will” and “Sit Down. Stand Up” come closest, but the lyrics make no mention of the specific events motivating the lyrics—you have to research the backstory to figure it out. There are no references anywhere to heroes of the Resistance, and unlike Phil Ochs and his fellow travelers, Radiohead doesn’t spend a second arguing for massive socio-political change.

Score one for Thom!

Stronger support for the argument that Hail to the Thief is apolitical can be found in the songs themselves. If there is an underlying theme to Hail to the Thief, it’s helplessness. Many of the songs capture the common human reaction to the nightmare of modern politics and governance—WHAT THE FUCK?—and the natural consequence of that reaction: LEAVE ME THE FUCK OUT OF IT. Screw trying to make things better with these clowns in charge; I can’t do a damn thing about it so I’m just going to blow a big protective bubble around me and the people I love and wait this shit out. Ah, but there’s a catch! As we’ll see when we explore the individual tracks, there are unpleasant consequences to crawling into the cave and sealing the exits. If there’s a dominant mood on Hail to the Thief, it’s angst, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.”

For the last year, I have existed in a constant state of helplessness and angst because I chose to become politically active, something I never thought possible. Check my bio—my life priorities are sex, music and baseball, not fucking politics! The appalling rise of xenophobic, homophobic hatred in the form of Donald Trump led me to actively support Hillary Clinton, and we all know how that turned out: the day after the election, I renounced my American citizenship. I hardly had time to catch my breath when xenophobic hatred reared its ugly head in France through the fear-mongering fascist Marine LePen, so for the last three months I’ve spent most of my spare time supporting En Marche to secure the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president. Now that Macron has won and I don’t have to sell the house and find another EU country where I can hang my whips, chains and extensive collection of leather lingerie, I am completely done with fucking politics . . . at least for the next five years.

Here’s the thing—I know that my efforts didn’t make one fucking bit of difference: Macron still would have won had I slept through the whole campaign. My activity was simply a psychological reaction to a perceived threat, and I chose the fight response instead of the flight response. Like Prozac, it probably helped ease the anxiety, apprehension and insecurity a bit, but guess what? In the end, I still feel anxious, apprehensive and insecure about the state of our world today, as do most people. We live in a world of systems where individuals don’t matter; the only way to deal with it is to create tiny worlds where individuals do matter and relationships are the center of our universe. The risk is that by disengaging from the real world and all its cacophony, we may wind up making things worse.

Score another for Thom and a bonus point for presenting us with an unresolvable paradox!

The album opens with a chilling argument for staying engaged in the real world, no matter how fucked up and unchangeable it appears to be. “2 + 2 =5” uses the dramatic monologue form to demonstrate the negative consequences of mass exodus into escape pods: you wind up with stupid people who pride themselves in their ignorance, drench themselves in paranoia and believe ludicrous conspiracy theories like Pizzagate that wouldn’t make the cut for a B-grade film. In other words, you get Trump voters. The speaker considers any effort to make the world a better place a lost cause, and consistent with his denial of reality, grounds his belief in the superstitions of Christian mythology:

Are you such a dreamer
To put the world to rights?
I’ll sit home forever
Where two and two always makes a five

I’ll lay down the tracks
Sandbag and hide
January has April showers
And two and two always makes a five

It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now

The music supporting the opening passage creates the necessary tension through half-step chord oscillation and harmonic intervals that defy classic harmonic rules by drifting away from the chord. The eerie falsetto in the third verse, floating over lower, indistinct voices and a mandolin-like riff, underscores the sense of the unreal and its inherent fragility. Radiohead breaks the tension with a sudden shift to all-out bash as the character explodes with a defensive response to those who question his sanity—“You have not been paying attention!” As he never reveals exactly what we should be paying attention to, we can classify this and the lyrics that follow as the ramblings of a very frightened human being who lacks confidence in both generally-accepted reality and the alternative reality he has created (hence the subtitle, “The Lukewarm”):

Oh go and tell the king that the sky is falling in
When it’s not
But it’s not
But it’s not
Maybe not
Maybe not

The most disturbing thing about this Orwellian message is that the source of the alternative fact 2 + 2 = 5 is not the state in the form of Big Brother, but most likely the bullshit you find on Fox News, Wikileaks or InfoWars.

“Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders.)” is indeed a protest song but you’d have to consult Songfacts to understand why: Thom Yorke wrote the song in response to stories about the Rwandan genocide. When you know that, the song becomes quite moving, but there aren’t any crumbs in the song that form a trail to get you to Rwanda, Burundi or anywhere in the vicinity. The African-influenced beats and what sounds like an electronic version of a mbira do give the song an African flavor, particularly in the more intense “raindrops” passage where the bass feels like it’s going to burst your eardrums. Like “2 + 2 = 5,” the song is split into a quiet and loud sections, but unlike the Pixiesque use quiet-loud in their earlier works, the quiet sections are extended builds (extended to three minutes on “Sit Down. Stand Up.”) that set up the full power display. In both songs, the meaning is intensified by this building technique—in “2 + 2 = 5,” the shift to power dramatizes the character’s self-generated instability; here the power shift reflects the overwhelming, unbearable fear of those waiting in line to meet a horrible death.

Obviously we could use something a bit more soothing right about now, and despite valid arguments concerning the track order in Hail to the Thief, the boys nailed this transition. “Sail to the Moon” is a gorgeous piece of music, featuring a guitar-piano-ondes Martenot trio that is lush and lovely, winding itself beautifully around Thom Yorke’s high-register vocal. The song is in part a search for clarity (the subtitle is “Brush the Cobwebs from the Sky”), partly a father’s wish for his son and partly an updated take on the mythology of Noah’s Ark where instead of a god sending a deluge to destroy all the sodomizers and moneyfuckers, we have a human being longing for escape from the man-made catastrophe of modern existence. The present is never far from Thom Yorke’s mind, though, as expressed in the passage where he defies citizenship barriers and reflects on his recently-born son’s future:

Maybe you’ll
Be president
But know right from wrong

I can’t believe we live in a world where we are forced to feel nostalgia for leaders with a moral compass.

“Backdrafts (Honeymoon is Over.)” is a fascinating piece where Yorke uses the imagery of being stuck in a snowstorm to reveal the psyche of a group of conspirators whose political hanky-panky is about to be exposed. The lyrics could have been borrowed from Wikileaks’ unpublished hack of the Republican National Committee:

We’re rotten fruit
We’re damaged goods
What the hell, we’ve got nothing more to lose
One gust and we will probably crumble
We’re backdrifting . . .

All evidence has been buried
All tapes have been erased
But your footsteps give you away
So you’re backtracking
Oh oh oh

I love the muffled electronic beats and throbs in this song and how the cottony sound contrasts with the largely unfiltered voice of Thom Yorke, forcing the listener to absorb the lyrics. The piano solo is also placed in the background, underscoring the sense of nefarious things going on behind the scenes. And—not that I have anyone particular in mind—how I wish that one gust could be enough to get rid of all the crooks who use public service for personal gain, but I think it’s going to take multiple gusts and some kind of revolution in human consciousness.

It’s time for that dominant female matriarchy, boys! We won’t let you get away with shit . . . and you’ll love it!

And if I were fortunate enough to earn the exalted position of Almighty Mistress of the Earth, I would immediately order a review of all music videos on YouTube and ban any and all that failed to contribute to greater understanding of the fucking song! That would eliminate 99% of the music videos in existence, restoring the basic truth that music is primarily an aural experience, and is not to be used as a soundtrack for incoherent stories filled with random shots of fake lips, fake tits, fake orgasms and BAD ACTING! I bring this up because one of the videos I intend to preserve is the video for “Go to Sleep (Little Man being Erased.),” the second single released from Hail to the Thief. I was immediately intrigued by this song the first time I heard it because of the 10/4 time signature in the passages driven by acoustic guitar, but the lyrics seemed impenetrable—a strange ramble with references to Gulliver and a classic lullaby. Once I saw the video, everything clicked into place. The scene opens with an overlay of a full red rose over the background of a city marked by classical architecture. A CGI rendition of Thom Yorke enters the scene, sits on a park bench and begins rambling and waving his arms while all the busy, busy people completely ignore his existence. Suddenly the buildings begin to collapse in what looks like a series of controlled demolitions (progress!); neither CGI Tom nor the busy, busy people pay any attention. Once the city is leveled, restoration begins with the construction of replacement buildings in characterless modern architecture. The video ends with the rose returning to foreground, its flower now closed tightly against the cold environment.

Having grown up in San Francisco, a city where busy, busy people on their way to work routinely step over the homeless sleeping on the streets and in the doorways as if they were piles of dogshit, where progress in the form of the digital age capitalism and the invasion of the nouveau riche have transformed the city into another characterless financial center, the video really hit home with me. The blind indifference we show to other human beings who have either had a bad break or suffer from treatable mental illness is something I find deeply appalling. When you combine that blind indifference to suffering with blindness to the destructive effects of progress—a condition facilitated by cultural norms that encourage greed—you create stratified communities where dehumanization is just part of the social fabric. “Go To Sleep” is a title dripping with sarcasm—the song is a wake-up call to face our self-destructive tendencies before it’s too late.

The Greenwood brothers knock it out of the park in “Where I End and You Begin,” where Jonny demonstrates his skill with the ondes Martenot to create an irresistibly eerie soundscape while Colin’s sinuous bass line gives the piece its forward movement. The dominant image of the song is the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail, a symbol found in Egyptian and Greek mythology, in the worlds of alchemy and gnosticism, in the practice of Kundalini and in the mythological analyses of Carl Jung. The image symbolizes the cyclical nature of growth and the re-creation of self; the act of becoming involves “swallowing” (accepting) the old self and integrating it with the new. Jung linked the symbol to the process of individuation, where the integration involves acceptance of the shadow—all those dark features of our personality we do not want to accept. Given the themes explored so far, I don’t think Jung was what Thom Yorke had in mind. My take is the “gap in between” in this song is the gap between self and other. In a society in denial about the consequences of its actions, relationships—both casual and intimate—are likely to be contaminated by denial and garden-variety bullshit. The repeated fade lines—“I will eat you alive (4)/There will be no more lies” is a cry for intimacy, for unconditional love without barriers. Music and lyrics reflect the mysterious, paradoxical nature of human relationships, making “Where I End and You Begin” one of the richest pieces on the album.

Up to this point, I would argue that Hail to the Thief is worthy of inclusion in the best Radiohead album debate—and we haven’t even covered my two favorite songs! Alas and alack, before we get there we have to deal with the album’s fundamental flaws. The original approach Radiohead adopted in recording Hail to the Thief was a good one for a band who needed to balance the use of digital manipulation that dominated their two previous releases with more human spontaneity: lay down the tracks as quickly as possible and do more “live” recording in the studio to create a sense of immediacy. What tripped them up more than anything else was song selection: Hail to the Thief contains a few really bad ideas that they should have saved for that time in the distant future when Radiohead no longer releases new material and fans suffering from Radiohead withdrawal will ingest anything to relieve the jonesing. Hail to the Thief consists of fourteen tracks, and both listeners and band members have complained about the length of the album. Well, the only reason that length is the problem is that some of the songs flat out suck! Really, would you have complained about the length of a Radiohead album if all fourteen tracks were outstanding?

I’ve seen some argue that the right length would have been ten tracks; I’m going to argue for eleven. The first of the three I would cut is the song I consider the worst thing Radiohead has ever done: “We Suck Young Blood (Your Time is up.).” I’d rather have a double root canal than listen to this fucking song again. Radiohead’s fascination with slow tempos is taken to absurd extremes here—the song slithers like a slug on a cold winter’s day, in large part due to handclaps that make the song seem even slower than it is. We’re talking frozen fucking molasses here, folks! The subject matter—Hollywood exploitation—seems completely out-of-place and trivializes the more significant universal messages on the album. “We Suck Young Blood” . . . well, it just sucks.

The second track I’d wipe from the tape is definitely a thematic fit but is as boring as a guy who only knows the in-and-out move. “The Gloaming” deserves inclusion only for its symbolism, which is a piss-poor excuse if there ever was one. The slow, tape-loop only track destroys the sense of immediacy Radiohead wanted to create, and its placement after the dreariness of “We Suck Young Blood” was unconscionable. Colin Greenwood would have cut this track as well, arguing that it was one of those songs that worked live but collapsed in the studio. Having created playlists where these two tracks are eliminated, I guarantee you will have a better listening experience without them.

And since you can’t get a better listening experience than “There, There (The Boney King of Nowhere.),” eliminating the two draggy songs gets you there a helluva lot faster! The image of the sirens calling you to your death on the cold, hard rock cliffs of the treacherous passage tells us this song is about not falling prey to illusion (“Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there). However, even the presence of mythological horror figures fails to dampen the underlying gestalt of the song: this is one of the sexiest pieces of music ever created. Those pounding jungle drums, that rough, ripping guitar, the deep groove of the bass, Ed O’Brien’s background vocals adding a touch of 21st century Fleetwoods, Thom Yorke’s flowing lead vocal peppered with underlying tension ready to explode—shit, I’m ready to explode every time I hear this song! Let me check—where’s my fucking iPhone? Got it. Clock app. Got it. Now all I have to do is hit the stopwatch and the play button at the same time. Shit, I can’t do this—Ali! Come here! Okay, now—on the count of three, hit the start button. One, two, three! Okay, stop. Got it!

It takes 2.3 seconds for my hips to grind and my sweet spot to start glistening once “There, There” begins. Please excuse me for a few minutes—my partner’s right here, half-naked, and I never miss an opportunity. Watch the nice video from Glastonbury and I’ll be back in about six orgasms.

Uh, I’m not done. Can you please watch the official video while I finish? It’s quite good, and the song has enormous replay value. See ya in a few!

Whew! That hit the fucking spot! I’m having a great time with this review! Let me have a cigarette and change into a mood that’s less comfortable in preparation for the next track. Back in ten.

Ten minutes would have meant a lot of wasted vinyl, but Radiohead would have been well-advised to insert thirty seconds of silence between “There, There” and “I Will,” as I can’t think of two songs more fundamentally different. The first makes you want to get down and dirty while the second brings you to tears. Thom Yorke describes “I Will (No man’s Land.)” as “the angriest song I’ve ever written,” and his feelings of shock and outrage are more than justified. “I Will” is in some ways a companion piece to “Idioteque” on Kid A, answering the opening question of that song: “Who’s in the bunker?” The answer is families with children trying to protect themselves from American bombs, not realizing that the Americans can deploy “bunker busters” at the drop of a dollar. Having seen footage of such an attack from the First Gulf War (the one people refer to as “the good fight”), Yorke’s outrage focuses on the images of “little babies’ eyes” in an attempt to inspire a similar sense of outrage among listeners. The horrifying aspect of the song isn’t so much the imagery as it is the standard response to such barbarity: label it “collateral damage” and move on. “Were any Americans killed? No? Then who cares?”

There are things I miss about the U. S. A., but there are many more things that make me proud to say that I am not an American citizen.

“I Will” fades seamlessly into “A Punch Up at a Wedding,” where Yorke uses the ultimate social faux pas as a way to describe a world where all sense of civility and honor have collapsed into a pointless series of brawls. Sounds like a typical day at the office for the U. S. Congress! Hey! Maybe if they opened their sessions with Radiohead instead of a prayer . . . nah.

Musically, the song is pretty straightforward with a slight funk tinge, executed with precision and professionalism. The connection to the Bush-Cheney regime and their fawning supporters on Fox News can be found in the final passage—if you have access to Fox News, tune in, turn down the sound, watch the talking heads and listen to this verse—you’ll get it.

Hypocrite, opportunist
Don’t infect me with your poison
A bully in a china shop
When I turn ’round you stay frozen to the spot

The pointless snide remarks
Of hammer-headed sharks
The pot will call the kettle black
It’s a drunken punch-up at a wedding, yeah

My second favorite song on Hail to the Thief is “Myxomatosis,” and it’s not just because I’m a bass whore. Thom Yorke has demonstrated a long-standing affinity for strange characters dating back to “Creep,” and the character in this song is one seriously confused individual. Among his many ramblings is the claim that he suffers from myxomatosis, a disease that only affects rabbits. The claim is fanciful and while he may indeed believe that it’s true, the rabbit metaphor effectively describes his mental state:

I don’t know why I feel so tongue-tied
Don’t know why I feel so skinned alive

As to how he arrived at such a state, he seems to have engaged in some grandstanding designed to garner fame and fortune—an effort that failed miserably:

I sat in the cupboard
And wrote it down in neat
They were cheering and waving
Cheering and waving
Twitching and salivating like with myxomatosis
But it got edited, fucked up
Strangled, beaten up
Used as a photo in Time magazine
Buried in a burning black hole in Devon

He admits in the first line of the last verse that “My thoughts are misguided and a little naïve” (no shit), but goes on to confirm his unsuccessful attempt to make a name for himself:

Yeah no one likes a smart ass but we all like stars
That wasn’t my intention, I did it for a reason
It must have got mixed up
Strangled beaten up

Although there isn’t enough information to make a definitive interpretation, I read “Myxomatosis” as a powerful exposé of the modern obsession with gaining Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Consider the idiots who voluntarily humiliate themselves publicly on Jerry Springer’s show or various “reality shows” where the narrative is twisted by selective camera work to induce the maximum amount of embarrassment. This guy is such a loser he couldn’t even make Jerry Springer! That is a L-O-S-E-R par excellence!

The quirky story seeks extremely well with the fuzz bass-dominated arrangement, and Thom Yorke’s vocal is picture-perfect, especially in the stop-time segments where he goes monosyllabic. I may not know exactly what “Myxomatosis” is all about, but I love the feel of the song and the strange quirkiness of the incompetent hero.

Hail to the Thief should have ended with “Scatterbrain (As Dead as Leaves),” a perfectly lovely melody that describes the scattered state of nearly everyone living in the world today as we struggle to find ourselves amidst an information deluge coming at us at hyper speed. Unfortunately, the album ends with the odd waltz, “Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.),” which fits the album’s main themes from a lyrical standpoint, but feels musically disconnected from the rest of the album. Perhaps it’s the waltz tempo combined with rap, or the feeling that the more melodic chorus is incompatible with the monologue, or the violent scenes described in the lyrics. There’s also something about this song that makes me suspect that it belongs in a musical—and I hate fucking musicals.

Hail to the Thief may not be perfect, but I still think it’s a pretty damned good album, and even more relevant today than it was at the time of its release in 2003. If Thom Yorke thought the Bush-Cheney tag team was a WHAT THE FUCK moment to end all WHAT THE FUCK moments, I can’t imagine what he’s thinking now after another stolen election gave the American presidency to a perfectly horrid little man with one-twentieth the intelligence of GW.

But please, spare me the follow-up album. When Trump goes down, I never want to hear, read or watch anything having to do with that sad excuse for a human being.

Hey! Maybe he’s got myxomatosis! That would explain a lot!

Classic Music Review: Workingman’s Dead by The Grateful Dead

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.

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