Graded on a Curve:
Grateful Dead,
Shakedown Street

Some albums are born to ignominy; others have ignominy thrust upon them. 1978’s Shakedown Street was born to it. An album this lukewarm, piss-poor, and downright vapid required the collective efforts of a band of once-innovative musicians turned consummate studio hacks, deadicated to the lowest possible common denominator. “France”? “If I Had the World to Give”? Didn’t anybody bother to inform the Grateful Dead you can’t smoke ‘em if you ain’t got ‘em?

No wonder Dead Cheerleader in Chief Robert Christgau was moved to write sadly, “I remember Robert Hunter when he was making up American myths.” And Bob Weir, whether he knew it or not, was speaking for the entire band on “I Need a Miracle.” Unfortunately, “I Need a Miracle” wasn’t the miracle the Grateful Dead needed. What the Grateful Dead needed was something more along the lines of a burning bush.

Shakedown Street hardly marked the beginning of the Dead’s slow decline from greatness. The slide began with 1973’s Wake of the Flood, and went from slide to freefall with 1977’s Terrapin Station, with its slick prog-rock, album-side-length title track and awful dancing turtles. To say nothing of the abominable “Dancin’ in the Streets,” which is less song than generally acknowledged symptom of complete artistic defeat.

I considered myself a Deadhead back then, and remember dutifully purchasing and listening to Shakedown Street and thinking something was wrong with me. Namely, that I was hallucinating. Could the Donna Jean Godchaux tracks be for real? Was the band’s cover of that hoary old atrocity “Good Lovin’”—which isn’t quite the last refuge of a band in the grip of utter creative exhaustion that “Dancin’ in the Streets” is, but you couldn’t slide a needle into the mediocrity gap between the two of them—really coming from my turntable? And was it possible this sad excuse for a Dead album was actually produced by the great Lowell George?

I finally figured out that the Grateful Dead’s tenth studio LP was a piece of dreck, aside from its sometimes interesting drum work and percussion, which had much to do with the contributions of Jordan Amarantha and Mickey Hart’s return to the fold after a 4-year absence. I had a particularly disturbing eureka moment when, after listening to the title track over and over, I realized it was a… a… disco song. Disco Dead! The Apocalypse had come, not in the form of Four Horsemen, but in the guise of Seven Totally-Out-of-Ideas Hippies surrendering to the Zeitgeist!

There is no easy way to do this. The dissection of an abomination is ugly business, akin to those cinematic alien autopsies that always go horribly, terribly wrong. We can dispose of “Good Lovin’” in the slops bucket in three sentences. It features some interesting percussion. I’m not interested in said interesting percussion. And Bob Weir sounds smug and slick, just as he does on “I Need a Miracle” and “All New Minglewood Blues,” the last of which I bust out anytime anyone wants proof positive that white guys have no business singing the blues.

As for “I Need a Miracle,” it features a nothing-special Garcia guitar riff, some annoyingly smarmy vocals by Weir (although he sure does project ‘em!), and two saving graces in the harmonica work of Kingfish’s Matthew Kelly and the natty piano playing of poor deceased Keith Godchaux. Meanwhile, “All New Minglewood Blues” might well be the LP’s highlight, Weir’s smarmy vocals notwithstanding. Garcia plays some almost up-to-par guitar throughout, the drumming is solid, and the song has ballast, which is more than I can say about any other song on the album except “Fire on the Mountain,” which has other problems. And Kelly contributes some more decent harmonica; ditto for K. Godchaux on keys.

Which brings us, oh la la, to “France,” which bounces along to the sound of lots of funky percussion (steel drums, congas, the University of Texas belltower bell), which I don’t much like, although I like it better than the combined vocals of Donna Godchaux and Bob Weir, who together start out on the wrong vocal chord with the jejune lyrics, “Way down in the south of France/All the ladies love to dance/Kick their heels up in the air/Snap their fingers for romance.” This treacly tourist brochure of a lyric (hard to believe Hunter had a hand in it) leapfrogs from one banal cliché to another, which I could almost tolerate except for (1) Weir’s “Hah!” at the 2:12 mark and (2) Jerry Garcia’s solo, which to paraphrase Fear is alright if you like saxophones.

“From the Heart of Me” could well be the worst Grateful Dead song ever, although a little voice in my head insists this esteemed honor should go either to Built To Last’s “I Will Take You Home” or disco fiasco “Shakedown Street.” “From the Heart of Me” is Donna Jean Godchaux’s disaster from start to finish, and one can only imagine how hard up—or dedicated to a specious notion of democracy—the Dead must have been to include it. It features some pretty Garcia guitar work, and I’ve heard worse melodies, but this baby could be by anybody, and never in a million years would I identify it as a Grateful Dead song. It’s a trite mediocrity, and its inclusion on a studio Dead album is proof positive of just how far from 1970—and such classics as “Box of Rain,” “Dire Wolf,” and “Ripple”—they had traveled, albeit in the wrong direction down a one-way street.

The same goes for Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s “Serengetti,” a short, percussion-driven instrumental track. As an artificial and foreshortened snippet of “Drums & Space” I suppose it’s not half bad—it builds, and the boys on their drums and their space know what they’re doing, but who really cares? “Serengetti” is filler, pure and simple, as is “If I Had the World to Give,” one of those lugubrious, mid-tempo numbers that only Jerry Garcia is capable of pulling off. Except he doesn’t pull this one off. He puts heart into his vocals, which is something, but “If I Had the World to Give” drags on and on, even taking a turn into glorified lounge territory, and I’m hard pressed to think of a J. Garcia tune I like less. Garcia ought to have recalled the sage advice from “New Speedway Boogie,” to wit: “Now, I don’t know but I been told/It’s 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.” Because he’s definitely trying to run with lead on this one.

Garcia better acquits himself on “Stagger Lee,” putting some extra oomph into his vocals and playing some fine guitar while he’s at it. The tune is credited to Garcia-Hunter—which is curious given that everybody from Mississippi John Hurt to Jerry Reed to Taj Mahal to Wilson Pickett to Nick Cave has performed the song over the years, albeit with lyrical variations. Garcia’s also in fine vocal form on “Fire on the Mountain,” a tune that first appeared as an instrumental (entitled “Happiness Drumming”) on Mickey Hart’s 1976 LP, Diga. Personally I’m not crazy about the song’s syncopation or Garcia’s reggaefied vocal stylings, but “Fire on the Mountain” is at least a solid tune, solid enough to rank as my No. 2 favorite song on Shakedown Street, not that that’s any great honor.

Which leaves us with the Garcia-Hunter imbroglio, “Shakedown Street.” The opening guitar/drum work is unspeakable beyond words, all disco vamping leading to Garcia’s vocals, which are seconded by some unfortunately slick backing vocalists. And on it goes, Garcia’s guitar work too syncopated and jazzy—he plays well, mind you; I just happen to find what he’s playing disagreeable—for my tastes, and the drumming and percussion too Brothers Gibb by a nonexistent Australian mile. “Shakedown Street” my keister; the Dead recorded this one during a Night on Disco Mountain, after first chasing off David Shire with a deadly barrage of Birkenstocks.

Bottom line: Almost the only good thing about Shakedown Street is its cover by underground comics artist Gilbert Shelton. And that it marked sayonara to the feckless Godchauxs. Sycophantic Bobby Christgau wasn’t the only critic to heap opprobrium upon the LP; Rolling Stone’s Gary Terch snarked that “it comes across an artistic dead end” and “the disco tinges… merely add to the catastrophe.” And catastrophe is the apposite term. Boondoggle doesn’t nearly do it justice, and “tuneless wonder,” while accurate, somehow doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, which is that Shakedown Street doesn’t just lack quality tunes, but memorable performances as well.

Unless you’re a die-hard Deadhead or hopeless sentimentalist, you have to concede that Shakedown Street effectively marks the demise of the Grateful Dead as a viable creative songwriting collective. Unless (in which case you really are a hopeless sentimentalist) you consider such second-rate fare as “Alabama Getaway” and the truly last-gasp offerings off 1987’s In The Dark and 1989’s (which is really pushing it, bubba) Built To Last worthy successors to 1970’s double-whammy of unfettered genius, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, in which case I have to wonder about your higher cerebral functioning. To quote Bobby Christgau one last time, “One problem with the cosmic is it doesn’t last forever.” Or, in the Dead’s case, even for a decade.


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