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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!