Graded on a Curve:
The Grateful Dead, American Beauty

Remembering Robert Hunter, born on this day in 1941.Ed.

How many Deadheads does it take to change a light bulb? Six hundred and one. One to score the acid, and the other six hundred to stare slackjawed at the dead bulb and say, “Looks lit to me, man.” I know, it’s a shitty joke, but there’s some truth in it. The chief problem with Deadheads has always been their lack of quality control. They see no difference between 1970’s brilliant American Beauty and 1978’s execrable Shakedown Street, and lack the discernment to recognize that the light of creative genius that illuminated the Grateful Dead at the dawn of the seventies had long since flickered out by the time Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995.

Drug burn-out was the culprit, that and the natural order of the rock creativity; virtually no one continues to make great album after great album—shit, by my accounting, even Bob Dylan did his best work between 1965 and 1967, and that’s if you count The Basement Tapes, which weren’t released until years later. As for the Dead, I think they did their best work between 1969 and 1972, when they released the lackluster Wake of the Flood, which a true fan, Robert Christgau, described as “capturing that ruminative, seemingly aimless part of the concert when the boogiers nod out.” As for when their live concerts finally settled into equal parts boredom and cult worship, I have no opinion, although I will say that the three shows I saw in the eighties were perfunctory and the Dead appeared to wish they were somewhere else.

Ah, but at their best they were sublime. My personal favorite is 1970’s Workingman’s Dead, but that same year’s American Beauty is a close second. On both LPs the Dead abandoned their free-form extended jams (1969’s Live/Dead had two sides with one song on them, and one side with two songs on it) for real songs, and on both they proved that they had plenty of great four-minute songs in them. As for American Beauty, it was prettier than Workingman’s Dead—a folk-rock LP that eschewed the doom-laden songs on its predecessor for songs that were, for lack of a better phrase, sunnier and more pastoral. From opener “Box of Rain” to the lovely “Ripple,” Jerry Garcia and Company sing and play their way down the Golden Road of Everlasting Devotion, and even the diabolical “Friend of the Devil” and paranoid “Truckin’” are more friendly nods of the hat than Workingman’s Dead’s dark forebodings in the form of such songs as “Dire Wolf” and the Altamont-inspired “New Freeway Boogie.”

On American Beauty, the Dead had the assistance of some of their friends, chiefly guitarist David Nelson, mandolin savant David Grisman, and keyboardist Howard Wales. Garcia wrote the better part of the songs, and on the LP his vocals, never his strong suit, are uniformly excellent. More importantly, on American Beauty the band discovered lush harmonies, and in so doing one-upped the overrated CSN&Y; just listen to the bouncy opener, “Box of Rain,” on which Nelson contributes guitar, Dead songwriter Robert Hunter contributes some mystical hoodoo in the guise of lyrics, and the group vocals are sweet as tupelo honey.

Garcia’s vocals are also excellent on the sweet and perky “Friend of the Devil,” on which Grisman’s mandolin and lots of great acoustic guitar work provide just the right coloration for Garcia’s lament that the devil took his 20-dollar bill and vanished into the ether. Garcia’s on the run, both from the law and female problems, but he doesn’t sound particularly blue; he seems to accept his Karma, and is just hoping to get some sleep. “Sugar Magnolia” is Bob Weir’s vocal showcase and a testimony to the perfect woman; i.e., one who will roll with him “in the rushes down by the riverside” and “take the wheel” when he’s seeing double. Meanwhile Garcia’s pedal steel fills the spaces between the words, and boy is it one happy song.

Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan, not long for the world due to his affection for rotgut wine, wrote and sings “Operator,” a homespun blues on which Garcia plays excellent guitar and the Pig provides some great harmonica. He’s looking for his woman, but the telephone operator isn’t being particularly helpful; meanwhile, on the slow “Candyman” Garcia sings lead and makes way for some wonderful group vocals on the chorus. Only the Dead could get away with a song this unapologetically shambolic; I would say it plods, but it doesn’t really—instead it does the Thorazine Shuffle but still works, while Jerry declares that had he a shotgun, he’d blow you straight to Hell. Meanwhile, his pedal steel solo is his only extended foray on the LP, and Wales contributes some really cool organ. I always assumed the Candyman was a dope dealer, but the lyrics don’t bear me out—gambling and womanizing seem more his thing.

“Ripple” may be the loveliest song the Grateful Dead ever composed; the melody is irresistible, and the group vocals are a thing of wonder. Meanwhile, Grisman makes the song, working his magic on the mandolin. As for the lyrics, I haven’t the faintest idea what they mean, but they’re moving nonetheless, and I love the way Garcia and Company close the song with a parcel of nonsense syllables. “Brokedown Palace” again features Garcia on lead vocals and lots of lovely vocal harmonies, but it has never been a favorite of mine, perhaps because it has the misfortune of following the great “Ripple.” Nor does it do as good a job at doing the Thorazine Shuffle as “Candyman.” Wales plays great piano, Garcia plays some nice licks, and this one is practically a lullaby, a good night to all, and why it isn’t the LP’s closing track is beyond me.

The band picks up the pace on “Till the Morning Comes,” on which they sound more like CSN&Y than themselves, which is why I’ve never particularly dug it. “Make yourself easy,” sings the band, which is exactly what they do on the desultory “Attics of My Life,” which both drags and includes some of the worst lyrics Robert Hunter would ever write. I can’t listen to it without wondering, “Who stole the melody?” Some friend of the Devil? The band almost sounds like a choir, and if I want a choir I’ll go to church; at least there I can steal from the collection basket. I put this one in the attic of my life decades ago, in a padlocked box I haven’t opened since 1973, and that’s where it’s going to stay.

As for closer “Truckin’,” it’s the ultimate road song, and has the propulsion of that famous psychedelic bus (“Furthur”!) Neal Cassady drove for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their lysergic Hajj to Timothy Leary. It’s not easy, the road; the band gets busted in New Orleans, counts up its friends who have gone down the road of hard drugs, and in general looks back and says what a long strange trip it’s been. Meanwhile Garcia lets rip on guitar, Wales plays some groovy organ, and the rhythm section keeps things funky.

The Grateful Dead remind me of The Band. Both produced a pair of great studio albums and then proceeded to go sadly downhill. It’s the general consensus that the Grateful Dead chose the road, and playing their old songs, to writing good new ones. If so, it’s likely because Garcia, whose burgeoning drug problems took an increasing toll on the band’s creativity, just couldn’t be bothered. It doesn’t matter much either way. The fact is that they put out two wonderful studio LPs in 1970, which is quite the accomplishment by anyone’s standards. Why, it’s almost enough to make me forgive Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street. But the key word in the prior sentence is “almost.” I hate to say it, but had the Dead Skynyrded out in 1972 they’d be one of my favorite bands. But I hear Shakedown Street and it puts me off my dinner, and I’m reminded that it’s the rare band that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the Grateful Dead—because a nation of Deadheads can be wrong—was not one of them.


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  • Brandon Jones

    Shakedown has some really good songs on it, but the album is straight cheese. I like some songs from Terrapin too, but they are definitely less accessible.

  • Jeff McKee

    You are a 20 year old American boy/man with a letter from your local draft board. You have been ordered to report tomorrow for your physical.

    You are scared sh*t-less. You seek the comfort of your friends and your music. In your case, The Grateful Dead.

    You summon a gaggle of like minded record nerds.

    You all know the drill.
    You and your friends will gather up their newest acquisitions & schlep them over to your bedroom for an all-night listening party to prepare you for what may be your last day of freedom.

    Our first consideration is to ensure that our spirited enthusiasm didn’t seep out of the wee little gap between the bottom of room’s door and the floor, which might annoy those in the house who were not part of our listening party by stuffing a towel or two into the aforementioned gap. Your Dad is a light sleeper, and the last thing you need right now is to wake your Dad.

    Please note; back in the day, this long forgotten act of fear of waking your neighbor, or family member soon became a kind of automatic etiquette practiced by a generation deeply concerned with peace, love, and not pissing off Mr. or Ms. Joe Straight who might not dig the volume at which we spun our sides or, heaven forbid, mistake the earthy odors of the portable compost heaps on wheels that were constant traveling companion of several of our
    clique’s ecologically-minded members for the totally
    harmless, but, let’s get real, rather illegal weed, known as Marijuana.

    In addition to not wanting to wake your dad, you are also afraid of the unfortunate misunderstanding that you are smoking Marijuana – it might bring the thin (more likely chubby) blue line – a.k.a. – the fuzz, the Blue Meanies, the PoPo, the 5 0, or the rather offensive, yet traditional term, which, my crowd was loathe to utter in public; instead we opted for the less inflammatory “say, does anybody smell bacon?”

    Enough preamble. Comforted by the stuffed towel, we’d take the “pause that refreshes.”

    No, I don’t mean we took a bathroom break.
    We were gathered for a listening party, and experience had taught us that the act of listening was enhanced by a little “attitude adjustment.”

    I’ll say no more about how that was accomplished and move on to the reason that we were gathered.

    The benefits of listening to actual 12 inch vinyl records, as opposed to the supposed technological advances of the myriad music delivery formats of the future are many.

    The warmth of sound that resulted when the needle at the edge of your turntable took a ride along the grooves in the vinyl is undeniable.

    Another benefit of listening to a 12 inch vinyl record is the intimacy of the act itself. The music that emerges from the speakers fills every square inch of the room – which is where you are.

    The music washes over you, and Zen-like so it may be, fella, the music becomes a part of you, just as the air that you breathe, the odors that you smell, and the visions that your eyes perceive in that moment all define you in that moment of your existence.

    And in that moment, adding to the intimacy, chances are you have the album’s cover in your hands. Unlike the impossible to bond with tiny square, cold plastic case of a CD, you’re holding the 12 inch square, soft cardboard protective envelope; the literal home of the record, whose music is, at present, riding the air, enveloping you.

    You admire the album art. The are messages that provide you with information that adds to your understanding and enjoyment of the album.
    “The Grateful Dead.”
    “American Beauty.”
    Or, wait!!! It doesn’t say “American Beauty.”
    There’s a shocking statement being made, and you realize that the intimacy of this moment – the adjusted attitude, the artwork in your hands; every aspect of your existence at that moment has conspired to make you privy to a secret that rides upon the warm sound, that changes the message in the album art. Let the others believe that they’re listening to “The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty.”

    Check it one more time and tell no one.
    Your experience in this moment no longer can be titled, “American Beauty,” no, you, and you alone are holding “The Grateful Dead, AMERICAN REALITY.”

    Close you eyes, do as another San Francisco band has instructed you do:”Go Ride The Music.”

    The doors of your perceptive powers have been flung wide open. The song is fading…

    When you open your eyes, the album art says, “American Beauty.” But you know the truth.

    You remember a quote from the King James Bible:
    “ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make
    you free.”

    In the days to come, you become confused, troubled. You tell your story to your school psychiatrist. His diagnosis: PTDD. Post traumatic Dead Disorder.

    You relay your tale to the doctor who examines you at your local draft board. You give him your psychiatrist’s evaluation.

    You have been branded 4-F.

    Another young American saved by The Grateful Dead. And that, my friend, is your very happy “American Reality.”

  • GuitarSlacker

    Very well put, about the Dead’s ’68 to ’72 peak, and then rather rapid and bloated decline. My view is the Quintet Period (sans Mickey) was their finest, in the studio and on stage.
    An exception to your comments: while Pigpen loved his sauce, which surely contributed to his demise, I think his death was caused by biliary cirrhosis which has family ties and killed him much faster than alcohol would have on its own.
    Another note: “Till the Morning Comes” is a horribly sexist song, one that even an un-enlightened 20 year old (me) saw as revoltingly insulting and demeaning, even for its time.

    A Dead Fan, not a Blinded Acolyte
    Guitar Slacker


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