Graded on a Curve:
New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Adventures of Panama Red

What better time, now that marijuana has been decriminalized here in our Nation’s capital, to break out the old one-hitter and the decrepit tie-die t-shirt, and dust off your old New Riders of the Purple Sage LPs? If you’re unfamiliar with the New Riders, they were rock’s primo chroniclers of the chronic, and their Kush Kuntry classics “Panama Red” and “Henry” were essential listening at any glassy-eyed gathering around the old bong.

Originally an incestual offshoot of the Grateful Dead—NRPS’s 1969 line-up included Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Mickey Hart on drums—the members of the Dead gradually dropped out, and by November 1971 the New Riders’ line-up consisted of John “Marmaduke” Dawson on guitar and vocals, David Nelson on guitar and vocals, Buddy Cage on pedal steel guitar, Dave Torbert on bass, and Spencer Dryden on drums.

The band’s history is too convoluted to summarize in a paragraph, but here are some of your basic facts: Dawson turned on innumerable long hairs to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, while Nelson often played traditional bluegrass with Garcia. Acid turned Dawson towards a more psychedelic country sound akin to Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music,” and a union between Dawson and Nelson led to the formation of the New Riders, which eventually released a debut album on Columbia in 1971, with Garcia’s pedal steel playing an integral part of their sound.

Their most beloved LP is 1973’s The Adventures of Panama Red. A loose concept album about pot, coke, and both their users and suppliers, it anthropomorphizes weed in the character of Panama Red, a lovable rogue who will “steal your woman/Then he’ll rob your head.” As for sound, the instrumentation is as slick as the vocals are smooth, and while the New Riders leaned heavily towards country they weren’t above playing a lean and mean rocker, or tossing in a horn section here and there. And while previous LPs included an extended jam or two, on The Adventures of Panama Red most of the songs are shorter than three minutes. For the most part the New Riders keep the tempos fast, the melodies catchy, and the pedal steel front and center, giving the album that bona fide country rock sound.

I saw them at Gettysburg College about a million years ago, although I can’t I remember a single thing about the show. I do have a have a hazy recollection of walking the train tracks (where my grandfather once found a boot with a foot in it) from my brother’s apartment to the college, and then sitting down. Everything after that is a wonderful, bong-happy blur. But like I’ve always said: a concert you can’t remember is a great concert, which makes that New Riders show a very great concert indeed. I’ll bet you an ounce of wacky tobacky they kicked ass.

They undoubtedly played “Panama Red,” the opening cut off The Adventures of Panama Red. “Panama Red” is a great song you are hereby morally obligated to love, pothead or not. It’s one red hot hoedown, and the pedal steel blazes while the singer goes on about how everybody’s awaiting Panama Red’s return to town on his white horse Mescalito. And when he is in town “Everbody’s acting lazy/Falling out and hangin’ ’round” and your woman is telling you, “Hey Pedro/You’re actin’ crazy like a clown.” I can clearly remember those bleak dry spells in my youth when there wasn’t so much as bong resin to smoke, and the celebratory tone of this tune perfectly captures the mood of his arrival. Meanwhile, “It’s Alright for me” puts the rock in country rock, pedal steel and blaring horns and all. It moves like blazes, features a great chorus (“How about a country melody/My mama cooking something to eat/How about a rock’n’roll jamboree/You know it’s alright with me/You know it’s all right with me”), which is followed by a great pedal steel solo. It goes out the same way it came in, namely like Speedy Gonzalez on sinsemilla.

The perky but sad-at-heart “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” is a rodeo sweetheart of a song and the perfect anthem for the urban cowboy, early seventies Los Angeles division. When its singer isn’t dropping the names of famous clubs (Barney’s Beanery and the Troubadour); bands (Joy of Cooking); and celebrities (dollars to dirt grass this is the only country rock song to ever mention Martin Mull) he’s hanging onto the window ledge of the woman he loves, calling her name. I especially love the chorus, which goes something like, “I’ve been smoking dope/Snorting coke/Tryin’ to write a song/Forgettin’ everything I know ‘til the next line comes along/Forgettin’ everything I know ‘til the next line comes along” for the way he turns “line” into a double entendre. I also love the way everybody back then regarded snorting coke as a harmless recreational activity along the lines of playing Frisbee, as is made clear in “Important Exportin’ Man,” a chipper number with great horns that celebrates a coke dealer with “a nose for the business” named Cokehead Sam. Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux’s backing vocals are hot, as is the guitar solo, and when I finally put together my mix tape of drug-dealer songs Cokehead Sam will be on it, right beside the acid-making genius in Steely Dan’s great “Kid Charlemagne.”

“One Too Many Stories” is a mid-tempo jukebox bummer of a tune, with its singer lamenting his many betrayals at the hands of his of a deceitful girlfriend. It’s a bittersweet lament of a tune, with the singer drinking whiskey because it never told him any lies, and although it’s not my favorite on the album that’s probably because it’s followed by the great “Kick in the Head,” perhaps the best song Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter ever wrote. The song is kick-to-the-head fast, the lead singer sounds like Bob Weir, and the lines are totally cryptic (“A whole loaf is better than a kick in the head/If you tell me what you mean/I’ll tell you what I said/I sent you for jelly, you come back with jam/Who exactly do you think I am?”), while Buddy Cage’s pedal steel playing is crazed, as in get out of his way or get run down by one runaway train of a solo. “You Should Have Seen Me Runnin’” contrasts doleful verses with more upbeat choruses, and is a weeper in the great country tradition. Buffy Sainte-Marie provides backing vocals, while Cage’s pedal steel is woe personified, and the band does some tasteful picking and grinning until the end, when the singer really lets loose, and you know he’s really hurting.

“Teardrops in My Eyes” (which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also covered) is a Red Allen tune and purest country honk, and trucks along like an eighteen-wheeler hurtling downhill, brakes gone. The New Riders play it like they’re competing for millions in prizes, and the band’s guitars, pedal steel, and harmonica sound like they came straight from the Louisiana Hayride, while the group vocals are way up front. “L.A. Lady” is another cover, by Troy Seals of the same family that gave us Seals and Croft’s Jim Seals and England Dan and John Ford Coley’s Dan Seals. (There’s also a Brady Seals, and I don’t know about you but four Seals is at least three too many.) Anyway, “L.A. Lady” is a tearjerker of a country rock tune that has never done much for me, despite Cage’s great pedal steel work and Donna Jean Godchaux’s sweet backing vocals.

Still, it beats hell out of “Thank the Day,” the album’s sole stinker. A kind of country swing tune, I find its harmonica annoying, its singsong melody irritating, and its nautical lyrics out of place (cowboys are notoriously frightened of boats) on the LP. It’s only when the singer shuts up and lets Cage do his thing (old-school style!) that the song is bearable, and this one sounds like to me like a prescient example of what the Grateful Dead would become in its final years. “Cement, Clay and Glass” also sounds out of place on the LP, but it’s a pretty good tune, solemn and with tasteful horns, harmonica, and the vocal contributions of Sainte-Marie, to say nothing of some tasty (and uncredited) organ. A protest song against urban sprawl, it moves along at a stately pace, and reminds me more of The Band than the Grateful Dead, although I’m not sure a single human being will agree with that assessment.

You couldn’t swing a dobro without hitting a country rock band in Los Angeles and San Francisco back in the day, but time has not been overly kind to most of them, the New Riders of the Purple Sage included. And that’s too bad, because the band put out a slew of solid albums until the late seventies, when the bottom fell out of the genre. Who wanted to hear country rock when they could hear the glam emanating from Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, or God help us the fucking Eagles or Jackson Browne, or the punk revolution that followed on their heels? Life is tough, and the juke box doesn’t lie, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage weren’t on that juke box anymore, despite having given us songs like “Henry,” the smooth-as-butter “I Don’t Know You,” the grandiloquent and lovely “Gypsy Cowboy,” and the wild-as-Crazy Horse “Death and Destruction.”

And now to add insult to injury pot has been decriminalized, making Panama Red as obsolete as the band that invented him. Cuz who needs Panama Red when there’s a pot store on every corner? Still, I like to think he’s still out there on his white horse Mescalito, gladdening pot heads from here to Sausalito. And should you find yourself wondering where your woman is, I can tell you: up in bed with Panama Red.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • SteveRenfro

    I’m pretty sure we had “Panama Red” on the jukebox in my High School cafeteria.

  • Michael Little

    I still can’t believe you had a jukebox in your school cafeteria. I mean, c’mon!

  • SteveRenfro

    I can’t believe it had “Panama Red”, “Freakin at the Freakers Ball” and “Unerasy Rider” on it, except for the fact the Jukebox was left as a gift from the Senior Class of 1972, a truly righteous class.

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