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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