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