Rhinofy-American Beauty Primer

This is the one that made them a household name. Well, dorm room name. Prior to 1971 the Dead were San Francisco hipsters, with a small presence at the Fillmore East, where they most famously played at midnight.

But despite not appearing in the Woodstock movie, in the spring of 1970 the Dead made inroads with the general public with “Workingman’s Dead,” most famously with “Uncle John’s Band,” which was reminiscent of the work of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who were the most popular act of the season. The Dead never sang that well again, but the track played perfectly on FM radio, which was getting traction in all markets, and “Workingman’s Dead” was finally an LP that you could play for nonbelievers. Prior to this, the name scared them off. And if that wasn’t enough, the denseness of the music did. But not on “Workingman’s Dead.”

And then came “American Beauty.” Which arrived mere months after “Workingman’s Dead,” the latter coming out in June, the former being released in November. And despite “Box Of Rain” not eclipsing “Uncle John’s Band,” despite not having an obvious radio track, “American Beauty” had fewer rough edges than what had come before and a few tracks so lightweight and catchy that anybody in their bell bottoms could get them.

Yup, “American Beauty” was released in 1970, but it took months to percolate, to discover that everybody knew it and everybody wanted to go see the Dead live, long before Bruce Springsteen played for hours and it was about hangers-on. The Dead gave four hour performances, they were unlike the English superstars, they were rough and imperfect but the energy was palpable, especially as the show built to the end.

BOX OF RAIN

Look out of any window

Bob Weir was now seen as the primary vocalist. Hell, there were few photos and the ones that existed evidenced that Bob was cute, so he had to be the focus. But simultaneously people started to realize it was Jerry’s band. And there you have the Dead conundrum. Everybody believed they knew everything, even though most knew very little.

“Box Of Rain” delivers. You always want to put a catchy number first. But “Box Of Rain” was not “American Beauty”‘s catchiest.

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL

Sure, “Truckin'” is more famous, but one can argue strongly that the Dead’s career was built upon this ditty cowritten by John “Marmaduke” Dawson of New Riders of the Purple Sage, who Jerry played pedal steel with and at this point opened the Dead’s shows.

Never underestimate the inability of the audience to understand complicated/left field material. “Friend Of The Devil” was as palatable as “Teach Our Children,” and featured an exquisite middle section that made the track.

I hated this forever, because it was so lightweight and overplayed, but all these years later it’s refreshing. The Dead had no idea they were about to become underground superstars when they cut it.

SUGAR MAGNOLIA

Almost equally lightweight, but sung by Bob instead of Jerry, this one-two punch, “Friend Of The Devil” and “Sugar Magnolia,” cemented the Dead’s stardom amongst women. And you’re nowhere until you get the distaff sex. Sure, the band always attracted some females, but now guys could play the LP and drag their girlfriends to the show, and it was at the show that your fandom was fortified.

OPERATOR

Pigpen even goes mainstream. This was no “Turn On Your Lovelight.” The long forgotten Ron McKernan even played to the audience here, and it worked!

CANDYMAN

This was the sound that made Jerry Garcia famous. He was already Captain Trips, but it was this measured sound that got fans to follow him. “Candyman” was of a piece with the rest of “American Beauty,” only it was longer and slower and so much more like what would come later in Jerry’s solo career, which began in January of 1972 with “Garcia.” Furthermore, it’s got a killer chorus.

This is not music made for the radio, but for a slow afternoon, preferably stoned.

RIPPLE

I still hate it.

You’ve got to understand, you were a fan of these acts, bought the records, enjoyed them, and then the hoi polloi got bitten/glommed on and you heard them incessantly, never mind being subjected to the testimony of these punters late to the party.

“Ripple” is harmless. Which might be why I have a problem with it. And the fact that people with guitars used to play it everywhere. Remember that, when you bought an acoustic so you could play the songs of the day and sing along?

TILL THE MORNING COMES

Unheralded, but one of my favorite cuts on “American Beauty.” It’s a joyful tear. Just an album cut. But so upbeat, so endearing.

TRUCKIN’

A minor masterpiece from a gang that previously had problems shooting straight.

It’s the story of their life, traveling, getting busted, but what makes the track so infectious is the groove, it leaves the station and keeps going at the same pace, leaving the past and its problems in its wake.

Just like Peter Frampton needed “Do You Feel Like We Do” to rally his live audience and take his shows to a higher plane, “Truckin'” did this for the Dead. Whatever happened before in the show, however much they noodled, no matter how boring they’d been, when they locked into “Truckin'” the assembled multitude took to their feet, put their heads in the air, sang along and shimmied.

And there you have it. Oh, there are a couple of other tracks, but this as close to a perfect album as the Grateful Dead ever cut, people don’t make stuff this good today. And despite having a catalog before and after, the act’s entire career can be attributed to this one LP, showing the power of one great work. Do one indelible thing and people can never forget, they need to come back to the garden again and again and again.

Which is what the audience started to do. And the fact that there were no radio hits and the shows were such transcendent parties made the Dead a mystifying open secret you had access to, but those with power as the business consolidated passed over. As the seventies wore on radio became even more important, sales of albums stretched into the millions, and the Grateful Dead continued to be hippies playing not so much for the money, but the lifestyle, and the music itself.

Sure, Jerry Garcia drove a BMW. But if you were interested in the bottom line you didn’t go to Egypt, you played it safe, you didn’t test limits, putting out triple live albums and starting your own label and disconnecting yourself from the system, making yourself even more indispensable along the way.

And that’s the secret to the Dead’s success. There was no plan, they didn’t know what they were doing, they just followed their heart.

They did these two country rock records and then never replicated the formula again. Their records became less important to the legend, never mind the enterprise. They kept truckin’ along, gaining new fans along the way, who couldn’t believe this scene existed in corporate America.

But it did!

Rhinofy-American Beauty Primer

Summer’s Almost Gone

But that did not prevent it from being a hundred degrees for nearly a week in SoCal.

And it’s hard not to think about global warming/climate change, but what struck me so much was how early it got dark and how hot it was at the same time. As if the seasons were changing but someone was asleep at the wheel.

The thing about summer is it only lasts two months in Southern California, July and August. June is too foggy and cool. On the east coast exuberance reigns and everybody wrings out every ounce of hot weather before the leaves turn. But even though it’s oftentimes hot in early September, not so hot this late though, we in SoCal adhere to the fiction that life changes with the opening of school, vacation is over, we all must become more serious.

But live long enough and you start to disconnect from the education paradigm. You have no desire to go back to school, achievement is no longer paramount, and you slow down and observe the little things that have been there all the while, but you never seemed to notice.

The way the sun is orange in your rearview mirror. I was driving downtown to eat Mexican with Dawes and to the left of me is mountains, behind me is a radiant orb, and even though the thermometer is in triple digits, I don’t always need the air conditioning. Because with the angle of the sun lowering, hot just doesn’t feel so hot.

I know that sounds ridiculous. But so much of life cannot be articulated, only felt. Even though we have words, it’s astounding we can even communicate. We’re ruled by feelings. And we can be anxious or thrilled but sometimes we’re just in the sweet spot, when everything feels all right.

The songs sound better on the radio. You decipher lyrics you’ve been mystified by for decades. You gain new insight into your favorites. It’s like nature is offering its rewards up only to you. In the cocoon of your mind. And you’re stunned that you’ve never felt this way before, and won’t always be able to feel this way in the future.

As Don Henley sings, we’ve only got so many summers and so many springs. And life becomes more about missed opportunities than future successes. You make peace with yourself, who you are, know that soon you will be dust, it happens to us all, and as much as you’re caught up in the rat race, it’s an irrelevant league that can be ignored, just like baseball or football, no matter how much each of them is in the news.

This weather won’t last forever. Unlike most of the country, it’ll never get cold in SoCal. But the leaves will change, you’ll need a jacket, even if there’s no nip in the air. You’ll start to yearn for spring, for the longer days more than the warmth, the feeling of rebirth.

But right now we exist out here in a curious limbo. One in which the heat tells us we’re at the apex of the summer season, but the light tells us otherwise. It’s like going on your last date with the significant other you agreed to break up with, or the one shuffling off to college. It’s bittersweet.

Albums

Don’t confuse your core audience with the public at large.

If you’re happy speaking to a small cadre of folks, by all means make an album every two or three years which will speak to your tiny audience. But if you want to be ubiquitous, if you want to be rich, if you want to be known…

An album has nothing to do with it.

Most people are casual listeners who go deep on an occasional act. Do they need to go deep via an album? When every streaming service lists the most popular tracks you’ve cut? Of course not.

You’re hanging with other musicians. You grew up at the record store. You reminisce about the days of yore, spinning “After The Gold Rush” or “Thriller” incessantly. But that was back when music was scarce and the album was all you could afford. When we all tuned into the same radio stations and MTV and were banged over the head with the same stuff. To say things are different now is an understatement, in the pre-Internet era the only way I could reach you with this missive was via snail mail, which was expensive, and I couldn’t even find you.

First and foremost you’re an artist, hewing to your own vision.

But then you survive on your audience.

If anybody tells you they’re satisfied with a small audience, ignore them. They’re afraid. Of the Internet feedback, of the hate, of the rejection. That’s what comes with success, your old friends get jealous and abandon you and your initial fans reject you and you feel lonely and…

But that’s what music stardom is, that’s what you should sign up for.

So think of your career through the public’s eye. People are overloaded with information, they’ve only got time for great, and they salivate for more and more on a regular basis.

Imagine if you could only speak with your girlfriend once a year. Via twelve letters written over the course of twelve months. With no feedback in between. Would that be satisfying? OF COURSE NOT!

But you want to text all day and Skype all night.

Why should art be any different?

You want to ride right alongside your listeners. You want to be in their consciousness 24/7. Most albums don’t sustain, just look at the sales chart for edification, they enter high and go right down. But a few sustain, not because the tracks are put in album form, but people want more.

Labels want albums, it’s easier to charge a lot with the bundle.

Artists want albums, because they grew up on them and they want to emulate their heroes and make a statement.

But the album is meaningless to the listener who’s been brought up on the iPod which was just killed and replaced with flash memory in a phone. The fan wants access. Everything you think is relevant may not be. Like that inane Apple leak about a new album format. People don’t want to own, they want access.

But fans are insatiable. Connect and they want more and more. Not only the studio takes, but the alternative takes, the live takes, the covers. Don’t think of albums as a profit center so much as the glue that holds your career together. You’ll get paid by a streaming service, quite handsomely eventually. But the goal is to utilize your recordings and the bond they engender to create and execute in other arenas and platforms.

He who hews to the past is destined for the scrapheap.

Or irrelevancy.

Modern Rules

YOU WANT A HIT

It anchors your career. There are hitmakers and everybody else. A hit just means something ubiquitous that everybody listens to, chart numbers are unnecessary. Hits can come in a flash via inspiration, but oftentimes they require a huge amount of effort and craft. Are you repeating the verses? Is the chorus singable, is there a bridge? Strive for excellence in your own chosen genre, reaching the brass ring is what it’s all about.

DON’T LISTEN TO YOUR PEERS

They don’t want you to be successful, that would mean they are losers. They want to keep you down in the hole they’re in. Follow your dream, which is individual to you.

AMBITION

Without it, you’re toast. Today’s society is all about being a member of the group. Winners in art are singular. They stand alone, they endure the slings and arrows as well as reap the adulation. If you’re not dreaming big in today’s world, you’re not dreaming at all.

PUT OLDSTER ADVICE IN PERSPECTIVE

Wisdom comes with age and experience. But don’t forget the pre and post Internet eras are as different as the pre and post telephone eras. Not everything remains the same.

CREATE CONSTANTLY

There’s no such thing as a cycle in today’s world. Art is like life. Keep making, errors are tolerated as long as you follow them up with more work of quality. Today the key is to be remembered, because almost everything is forgotten. Don’t overthink and overlabor your efforts. Raw and honest works today, and it forges a connection between you and your audience.

DON’T GET LOST MAKING A LIVING

Don’t sacrifice your art to get paid, whether it be a day job or going on the road to fulfill your financial desires. Art is about sacrifice. You live on a subsistence level until you break through or you give up.

DON’T SCORN HITMAKERS, LEARN FROM THEM

Even if you don’t want to cut a Katy Perry-type tune, your career would be enriched by an hour with Dr. Luke or Max Martin. They understand the game, they understand a hit.

WORK WITH THOSE WHO’VE HAD SUCCESS

Cred in a producer is secondary to track record. Work with someone who’s been to the mountaintop and continues to journey there. They can give you a perspective no one else can.

COWRITE

Do it to learn, not to write a hit song. Those Nashville cats are the best in the business. Their songs might be saccharine or predictable, but they know the system. Once again, it’s all about learning.

DON’T CATEGORIZE YOURSELF

They rap in country songs. Avicii put country in EDM. Feel free to incorporate your fandom into your work.

THE WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY IS SMALL

You can only be the critics’ darling for a brief period. People will only check you out once or twice, then they’re done. Strike when the iron is hot.

CHANCES

People will listen to two new substandard works and then abandon you.

BODY OF WORK

It exists on Spotify. If you connect with a track, people will go deeper.

ALBUMS

Forget them. Unless you’re making a concept one, a statement. They don’t fit with today’s world. You drop one every other year when nothing in the news lasts longer than a week, in most cases barely a day? If you have a stiff album, it’ll take years to recover. Better to keep in the public eye by continuing to produce. You want to create a body of work, but it doesn’t have to be in album form, after all, the term “album” initially denoted a cardboard container for 78s.

YOU’RE ONLY YOUNG ONCE

You get worn down with age, you know too much. Test the limits. Follow your exuberance. Live and create to the limit.

SCREW THE SYSTEM

Unless you’re creating Top Forty hits, feel free to stand up to the powers that be. Too many businessmen, label people, agents and managers, are stuck in the old system. You can be dragged down by them, or stand up to them. This doesn’t mean you’ve got license to be a jerk, but standing your artistic ground is an asset. But it’s got to feel right to you, don’t be afraid to change or take input because you abhor criticism and believe everything you do is phenomenal, no one’s got that great a track record.