Graded on a Curve:
The Grateful Dead, Workingman’s Dead

The Grateful Dead: God invented ‘em at the same time he invented the sloth. They were renowned for their shambolic jams, lethargic grooves, and endless noodling—when I saw them I saw ‘em with Bob Dylan in 1987, they played a version of “Joey” that lasted longer than The War of Jenkin’s Ear. One critic wrote of the show I attended, “Pity anyone who actually sat through [it]… with a clear head.” Well, my head was about as clear as stained glass, and it didn’t much matter. There simply aren’t enough narcotics in the world to make “Drums and Space” anything but torture. I’d have asked for my money back if I hadn’t seen, with my own eyes, an acid casualty try to snort a Birkenstock.

Truth is, I saw the Grateful Dead decades too late. Because it’s a cold hard fact that the Dead were a spent force in the studio by the mid-70s, and definitely dead in the water by the time they released those twin abominations, 1977’s Terrapin Station and 1978’s Shakedown Street. Even their famed live shows went downhill—Donna Godchaux, anyone?—as they cycled through keyboardists the way Spın̈al Tap went through drummers and Jerry Garcia gradually dedicated more and more time to his various pharmaceutical side projects.

Still, theirs is a fascinating history. The Grateful Dead began their career playing Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, and through their connection with Merry Prankster Neil Cassady bridged the Beat Movement of the Fifties and the Hippie Culture of the Sixties. The early Dead played a psychedelic soup of the blues and acid-trip-length explorations of inner space, but by the late sixties had tightened things up to become a stellar, if notoriously erratic and self-indulgent, live act. I love large chunks of 1969’s live Grateful Dead (which the band wanted to call Skull Fuck) and Europe ’72, but my favorite Grateful Dead albums were both released in 1970—namely, those two studio masterpieces, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

During that brief Golden Age the Grateful Dead stopped noodling and wrote some real songs—country-flavored tunes with great pedal steel guitar, crisp melodies, tight playing, and evocative lyrics—and without a single 19-minute noodle-fest between them. Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are both American classics and fecund miracles of concision and profundity, and so much better than what came before and after them that I’m still not convinced they weren’t recorded by aliens who just happened to sound like Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Company.

That said, my favorite of the pair is Workingman’s Dead. I bought it when I was working at the Littlestown foundry operating a jackhammer—usually with a living death of a hangover—and I could relate to its songs about killing labor, such as “Easy Wind” and “Cumberland Blues,” more than I could to the prettier tunes like “Sugar Magnolia” and “Attics of My Life” off American Beauty. Workingman’s Blues—with its sepia-tinted cover of the band standing on the curb, presumably waiting for day work—also has a much darker vibe than American Beauty, and I could relate to that too.

Workingman’s Blues has the whiff of the grave about it, as personified by the Dire Wolf—“six hundred pounds of sin”—and “Black Peter,” and death was definitely in the air when the band recorded it. The murder of Meredith Hunter at the debacle that was Altamont and the Tate-LaBianca murders of the Manson Family—those twin stabs of the knife that put paid to the Age of Aquarius—were still fresh in everybody’s minds, and it couldn’t have lightened the band’s mood that Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the Dead’s biker-looking blues belter and keyboardist, was drinking himself to death before their eyes.

Before I go on to review the album, I would just like to say I love Deadheads. I know guys who can tell you precisely which of 986 soundboard recordings of “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” they like most, and that is both stark raving madness and true love. As for their unwavering allegiance to a band that went so precipitously downhill within the space of a few short years—by 1977 the GD were reduced to recording the dreadful “France” and “Dancing in the Streets,” that song musicians turn to (just ask Mick Jagger and David Bowie) when they’ve completely run out of ideas—what can one say except that love is blind, and all that extended staring into the sun they did while tripping couldn’t have helped.

Anyway, Workingman’s Dead opens with “Uncle John’s Band,” a song I always felt belonged on American Beauty. It’s melody and lush vocals harmonies are too far too pretty for Workingman’s Dead, although its opening lines, “Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more/’Cause when life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door” fit the darker mood of the latter LP well enough. “Uncle John’s Band” may be my least favorite cut off the album, if only because the vocals remind me of CSN&Y, whose baroque vocal harmonies and smug hippie posturing always make me wish it had been them, and not Lynyrd Skynyrd, who went belly-up in a swamp. That said I love Jerry Garcia’s subtle guitar fills and the understated drumming of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, as well as the brief drums/guitar interplay near song’s end, and when push comes to shove I infinitely prefer “Uncle John’s Band” to any song the Dead recorded after “Scarlet Begonias” and “Pride of Cucamonga” off what amounted to their last half-decent creative gasp, 1974’s From The Mars Hotel.

“High Time” is the Grateful Dead’s answer to Dylan and The Band’s “Goin’ to Acapulco,” namely one mighty bummer of a number about having a good time. Just as Dylan sings “Goin’ to Acapulco/Goin’ to have some fun” as if he’s actually going there to be shot, Garcia sings, “I was having a high time/Living the good life/Well I know” as if he’s standing by the highway in the pouring rain 20 miles from Bakersfield without a hope to his name. A slow and quiet tune, it’s just Garcia and an acoustic guitar at the start, then some electric guitar and delicious pedal steel guitar join in. As for the drummers, they might as well not be there, while the chorus features some slightly ragged ensemble singing. Garcia had a weak but expressive voice—he could convey just about every emotion except rage—while Bob Weir’s voice is stronger but seemingly incapable of expressing any authentic emotion whatsoever. And Garcia’s in tip-top form in “High Time,” managing to hit the perfect note of sadness and resignation, and sounding just as lugubrious as the licks from his pedal steel guitar.

“Dire Wolf” is an up-tempo, death-obsessed folk song of sorts, and rather reminds me melodically of CSN&Y’s execrable “Teach Your Children,” although that’s probably because Garcia’s pedal steel work dominates both songs. Garcia’s vocals once again hit the mark and the drummers’ very low-key shuffle is nice, as are the vocal harmonies on the grim plea for mercy of a chorus: “Don’t murder me/I beg of you don’t murder me/Pleeeaaase, don’t murder me.” The song’s about a man who discovers the dire wolf at his window; he inexplicably invites him in and they play poker with a deck of cards containing only the Queen of Spades, which symbolizes death, and the poor man’s doom is sealed. Garcia sings, “I sat down to my supper/Twas a bottle of red whiskey/I said my prayers and went to bed/That’s the last they saw of me.” It’s a great song and an example of lyricist Robert Hunter at his prime; within a few short years he would be writing dreck like “Loose Lucy” (“She’s my yo-yo, I’m her string/Listen to the birds on the hot wire sing”) and “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away,” making him as inexplicable a lyrical casualty as the Dead were musically.

“New Speedway Boogie” is a dark salute to the fiasco that was Altamont, which the Grateful Dead absconded from (chickenshits… afraid of a few measly murderous Hell’s Angels!) the moment they got a good whiff of the sulfur in the air. Featuring a gigantic bass riff by Phil Lesh and a wonderful shuffling groove, complete with handclaps and lots of lightning quick guitar riffs by Garcia, the song takes a philosophical look back at that grim day, thanks in large part to Garcia’s vocals, which manage to express puzzlement and acceptance all at once. He sings, “I saw things getting out of hand/I guess they always will.” And, “Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will/Now, I don’t know but I was told in the heat of the sun a man died of cold.” As for Hunter’s lyrics, they’re vague on details but quite evocative: “Now I don’t know, but I been told its hard to run with the weight of gold/Other hand I have heard it said, it’s just as hard with the weight of lead.” Garcia ends the song on a resigned but hopeful note, repeating the lines, “One way or another/This darkness got to give,” then as the song fades out he plays a frantic flurry of notes and you can hear him cry, way off in the distance, “Yeeeah!” It says something about Garcia’s low-key, seemingly imperturbable approach to life that “Yeeeah” is the most excited he probably ever sounded.

“Cumberland Blues” is a very up-tempo but grim portrayal, sung by Weir and Garcia, about slaving away in the Cumberland mines. Garcia plays electric guitar while David Nelson, co-founder of The New Riders of the Purple Sage, plays an acoustic, and together they play about 90 miles per minute, while Phil Lesh plays a cool climbing bass line. Meanwhile, Garcia and Weir complain to their woman that she’s keeping them up all night, ending, “I gotta get down/I gotta get down/Or I can’t work there no more.” Then Garcia plays a cool mountain stream guitar and Weir sings, “A lotta poor man make a five dollar bill/Keep him happy all the time/Some other fella’s makin’ nothin’ at all/And you can hear him cry, ‘Can I go, buddy, can I go down? Take your shift at the mine?’” By this time Garcia has shifted to banjo, while Weir sings, “Lotta poor man/Got the Cumberland Blues/He can’t win for losing,” before the song comes to an end with Weir repeating, “I don’t know now, I just don’t know/If I’m goin’ back again.”

“Black Peter” is one beautiful downer of a ballad, slow as dying, which is what the narrator is busy doing. Garcia sings, Pigpen plays some doleful harmonica, and Lesh and the guitarists play just fast enough to keep the song from going the way of Black Peter. And you’d never know this band has two drummers. A philosophical discourse on dying in the Dylan mode, it features some great ensemble singing: “See here how everything led up to this day/And it’s just like any other day that’s ever been/Sun going up and then the sun going down.” Meanwhile Garcia—and I think I’m ready to take back what I said about his having a weak voice—sings in a woebegone voice, “The people might know, but the people don’t care/That a man can be as poor as me/Take a look at poor Peter, he’s lying in pain/Now let’s come run and see, run and see,” his voice growing stronger and more urgent as he goes along, as Pigpen plays some great Garth Hudson-like organ in accompaniment. As for the song’s close, it’s so Dylanesque I found myself searching the album’s liner notes for one Bobby Zimmerman as a co-writer.

“Easy Wind,” a propulsive song about “chippin’ up rocks for the great highway,” features Pigpen in one of his final (and best) performances, some oddly staggered and primitive-sounding drumming, and great guitar by Garcia, not to mention some fantastic lyrics by Hunter. Garcia tosses off delectable licks while Pigpen gruffly sings, “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.” (As fate would have it, he didn’t last five years, but was dead from alcoholism by 1973.) As for the chorus, it goes, “Easy wind cross the Bayou today/Cause there’s a whole lotta women, mama/Out in red on the streets today/And the river keeps a talkin’/But you never hear a word it say.” Then Pigpen plays a killer harmonica solo, joined by Garcia who goes on to play a fantastic and bluesy solo backed by that staggered Kreutzmann/Hart drum beat, and it’s sheer magic and as fine an instrumental passage as I’ve ever heard. Then Pigpen returns to sing, “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.”

Everybody’s heard “Casey Jones” to death, me included, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fine song, from its opening coke snort to its look-like-we’re-all-gonna-die close. A cautionary allegory about the dangers of the overconsumption of certain illicit nose candies, “Casey Jones” features a Garcia riff so well known it gives me a headache, and opens with Garcia singing those lines that even some hardcore Dead haters know it by heart: “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.” That said, I like a good train crash song as much as I like a good air disaster song, and the lines, “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…” never fail to cheer me up, as does the way the song speeds up like an out-of-control locomotive as disaster looms, with Garcia repeating the chorus over and over again like a man futilely waving his arms in warning as one coke-fueled engine and its doomed engineer sail off a very precipitous pharmaceutical cliff.

Like ‘em or despise ‘em, the Grateful Dead were as American as apple pie and the porta john, and produced a whole slew of timeless songs like “Bertha,” “Wharf Rat,” “Jack Straw,” “Mexicali Blues,” and “China Cat Sunflower.” So what if Terrapin Station and the albums that came after it are turds in the shape of LPs, too many of their 16,000 live LPs sound like a band doing the Thorazine shuffle, and those cutesy dancing bears and terrapins make me want to blow chunks? The Grateful Dead still bequeathed us Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, two slices of country rock genius that the Deadheads have had them to themselves for far too long. They belong to everybody, and you owe it to yourself to check them out. They pound just about every other country rock LP ever recorded into dust with a “shiny black steel jack-hammer.” And you can even listen to them with a clear head, although they sound better on ripple and reefer. But then again so does everything, including Minor Threat.


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