I’ve accepted some truisms over the past couple of years pertaining to my taste in music. For example, carrying over somewhat from yesterday’s post, I can like various prog albums quite a bit without trying to become an expert on the genre and all of its sub-genres. I like what I like, in this case with a few exceptions they’re what you might call “the usual suspects.” Another realization: Gosh darn it, I like The Grateful Dead’s studio albums! I get that they’re best known as a live band, and around that one time I got to see them (I was 20) the idea of following them around for a couple weeks at a time sounded appealing. But I was late to the party and had to settle for a handful of nice soundboard tapes gifted to me by a bonafide Dead Head friend. So yeah, give me some of that Buffalo or Cornell ’77. I love it, and Donna Godchaux doesn’t even bother me anymore. But at the end of the day, my go-to’s will always be the studio work. And today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of their best, and one of the best by anyone in 1970 and beyond, American Beauty.
This release, appearing just four months after Workingman’s Dead, is considered a continuation of that sound, though with its emphasis on harmonies the album leans a little more in the folk direction of CSN than Bakersfield (though Jerry did increase his use of the pedal steel on this one). There was a good amount of cross-pollination happening with friends from CSNY, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana working or otherwise hanging out in the studio at the same time. The album also marked the first collaboration of Garcia with David Grisman, whose mandolin is heard on Friend of the Devil and Ripple. In addition to those songs, favorites of mine include Phil Lesh’s song for his father, Box of Rain, plus SugarMagnolia, ‘Till the Morning Comes, Candyman, and the warhorse Truckin’. Eight of the ten songs remained in the Dead’s live repertoire throughout their existence, while American Beauty was certified Gold in 1974 and Double Platinum in 2001.
Here we go with a prime example of how this little hobby of mine has opened my eyes and ears, not just to music I’ve never heard before, but to music I’m familiar with but have given short shrift to. In this case, pre-American Beauty Grateful Dead. I had no idea of the experimental degree of this, the band’s second album and first to include second drummer Mickey Hart, released on this date 50 years ago. It is comprised of multiple studio and live tracks spliced together. It is neither a live album nor a studio album per se, but not in the same vein as so many well-known live albums from the 70’s and 80’s that had their imperfections edited out in the studio, a.k.a. “Frankensteined.” This was planned madness.
I’m going to stop right here with my personal thoughts on the Dead and Anthem and turn it over to my friend Mitch, whose influence on my musical tastes I shared in Pt. 1:
I have some strong feelings about ‘Anthem.’ It was one of those rare albums of the Sixties mixed entirely to enhance hallucinations and confuse one’s senses of time, place, and space. The entire bouncing back and forth from free wheelin’ live recordings to tight studio freak sounds like the kazoos at the beginning of ‘Alligator’ leave you hungry for synesthesia. There is a sensation of being both wrapped in a comfortable LSD quilt and then being tossed airborne for your first solo mission. ‘Anthem’ crawls under your skin, finds your nerve endings and politely tugs and twitches to the Lesh powered thunder, Gracia driven lightning, Pig pulled vocals, and beatings issued from the dueling drummers Bill and Mickey, all synchronized in controlled chaos.
All in all, some say ‘Pet Sounds’ is the American ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ I disagree. The Dead nailed the Wild West insanity of the Bay without the pop perfection of ‘God Only Knows.’ This album was the beginning of weirdness for hire, inner exploration, and outer expression.
Not in a million years could I have described it better than that.
I’ve waded into these waters today with a minor sense of trepidation. I don’t consider myself to be an expert regarding all the music I write about, far from it. And I’m not quite sure how to approach artists like the Grateful Dead whose music, history, and legacy are held in such high esteem by their hardcore fans, yet completely misunderstood if not outright disliked by many others who haven’t spent any time listening to them. That is, beyond Truckin’ or Touch of Grey when heard on the radio or wondering what the heck all those now-fading stickers on the backs of those equally fading VW buses are all about. I consider Frank Zappa to be another such artist. There are simply too many layers to those onions for the uninitiated to offer a value judgement based upon a few songs or one album (or a perception of the fan base).
When it comes to the Grateful Dead, I consider myself a fan, but one whose education is rather incomplete. I had a very good introduction though. Besides my older brothers and my uncle, the most significant influence on my musical knowledge and taste to this day is my friend from my home state of Missouri, Mitch. He’s the older brother of my childhood best buddy, Doug. Mitch is by far the most knowledgeable fan of the Dead that I know, and while he most certainly is a Deadhead, I hesitate to lazily label him as such due to his crazy knowledge of everything from 1980’s Brit pop to bluegrass. When I was plastering posters of Madonna on my bedroom wall in the mid-80’s, Mitch was comparing/contrasting various bootleg recordings of Help On the Way–>Slipknot!–>Franklin’s Tower. (I’ve always been a fan of the classics even through the 80’s, but puberty does strange things to a person.)
But like many others my age, I finally began to wake up to the Dead due to the commercial success of 1987’s In the Dark, and let’s face it, MTV. That still seems so ironic. Around 1990, Mitch bestowed upon me a ten cassette sampler of shows which I have to this day. My favorites right away were the 1977 shows from Cornell and Buffalo, which put me in alignment with many fans who are much more knowledgeable than I. Where I probably run afoul, however, is that I’ve yet to gain a full appreciation for Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. And that’s to do with his vocals and not his musicianship. The Keith Godchaux years (sometimes despite his wife Donna Jean’s participation in the group) are the most audibly enjoyable to me.
One element of the Grateful Dead that I’ve never fully grasped is that there are really two separate bands we’re talking about: studio Dead and live Dead. At the risk of sounding like a social anthropologist doing field research, it seems that if one is a “deadicated” fan, i.e., a Deadhead, the band’s studio albums are more or less an afterthought. And I can see how that might be if one has followed them across the land and dived into the deep end of collecting/dissecting/trading shows. Mitch and my other Dead aficionado buddy Jason agree: The studio albums are but templates for what they could achieve on stage. It’s a different world altogether, and I’m slipping into territory I can’t speak intelligently about. But what about the rest of us more casual fans? There’s some mighty tasty stuff on those albums, too, and I’m glad we have them.
By the time I finally got a chance to see a Dead show it was June of ’91, and their latter year resurgence was peaking. Unfortunately, I was a walking tie dyed newbie cliché wandering around the grounds of that amphitheater in Bonner Springs, KS. I tried to make up for all those shows I never saw all in one day instead of just sitting there on the hill with a clear head enjoying some masterful improvisational musicianship from one of the greatest bands of all time. I own an audience tape from the show, but its quality I would deem to be, how shall I say, crap. It was the only opportunity I would have to see them live, and within a few years Jerry was no longer with us. Youth: wasted on the young. Or, in my case in June of 1991, youth: young and wasted.
Holy Moly, the Intergoogle strikes again! While thinking just now about the ’91 show I attended, it occurred to me to do a quick search to see if anything popped up. Sure enough, here it is. The cameraman must’ve been dancing, tripping, or both, but wow! I was there! Actually, at this opening portion of the show I was shuffling through the dusty Third World marketplace that was the parking lot, trying to get to the gate.