#261 – Grateful Dead – American Beauty

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The third of four Grateful Dead albums is the band’s sixth studio release.  The 1970 album reached #30 on the Billboard 200 charts.  The album continued the more Americana style the band adopted on Workingman’s Dead, although used even more folk harmonies and melodies.

Sara

You know when you run into an old friend that you haven’t talked to in years, have an amazingly good time, and leave thinking “man, how did we lose touch?!” That’s the feeling I had listening to this old pal. As I mentioned on our last Dead album, I listened to this album all the time in the 90s. The whole album is great, but I’m a fan of the more upbeat tunes “Friend of the Devil” and the closer “Truckin.’” 

‘Friend of the Devil’ has long been my favorite of their work, which is cliché but you’ll just have to live with it. Robert Hunter, who wrote the lyrics to Garcia’s music on this one, described it as “the closest we’ve come to what may be a classic song.” It’s widely covered, having been performed or recorded by such artists as Dave Matthews, Bob Dylan, Counting Crows, and even Ministry. It also includes the use of a mandolin, which we don’t hear very often.

The lyrics can at times be interpreted to be about religion or the law. It was written about Rock Scully, who was manager of The Grateful Dead, as well as playing several other key roles with the band over the twenty years he was with them. In those years, he also found several opportunities to have run-ins with the law, not to mention becoming addicted to drugs and being blamed for enabling Jerry Garcia’s addiction to cocaine and heroin. Scully was eventually fired for stealing money from the Garcia Band, which likely had to do with his addictions. Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow eulogized Scully after his death in 2014 by saying “though occasionally fraudulent, you were always the real thing.” Scully did, after struggling, find his way to sobriety and a positive relationship with the band before his death from lung cancer.          

Got two reasons why I cry 
away each lonely night 
First one’s named sweet Ann Marie 
and she’s my heart’s delight 
Second one is prison, baby 
the sheriff’s on my trail 
And if he catches up with me 
I’ll spend my life in jail

Got a wife in Cheno, babe 
And one in Cherokee 
First one says she’s got my child 
But it don’t look like me

You can borrow from the Devil 
You can borrow from a friend 
But the Devil will give you twenty 
When your friend only got ten

 The spread of talent on the Dead is amazing.   Lesh, Weir and Garcia in particular combine for a remarkable amount of skill packed into one band. Each takes turns singing lead, delivering masterful guitar solos, and backing up. On ‘Truckin,’ Bob Weir’s vocals lead, with Garcia and Lesh backing. This one is so good that it was literally deemed a national treasure by the Library of Congress in 1997. I think a big part of its success is due to the fact that it exemplifies the level of collaboration this band used. Another part is the distinct blues feel including an organ that just sticks in your brain. Here’s how Phil Lesh described the creative process that led to ‘Trucking:’ we took our experiences on the road and made it poetry. The last chorus defines the band itself.

“Truckin’” also birthed a single line that came to refer to an entire subculture for decades: What a long, strange trip it’s been.  That one’s probably a senior quote in every yearbook every year.

This album could be twice as long and I’d still love it. It leaves you wanting more, but in a good way.           

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been

What in the world ever became of sweet Jane?
She lost her sparkle, you know she isn’t the same
Livin’ on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine,
All a friend can say is ain’t it a shame?

Truckin’, up to Buffalo. Been thinkin’, you got to mellow slow
Takes time, you pick a place to go, and just keep truckin’ on

Sittin’ and starin’ out of the hotel window
Got a tip they’re gonna kick the door in again
I’d like to get some sleep before I travel
But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in

Busted, down on Bourbon Street, set up, like a bowlin’ pin
Knocked down, it get’s to wearin’ thin. They just won’t let you be

You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel
Get tired of travelin’ and you want to settle down
I guess they can’t revoke your soul for tryin’
Get out of the door and light out and look all around

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been

Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ on

I’ll miss this old friend until we meet again.

Steve

What an amazing album to listen to.  In addition to the two songs Sara discusses, two of the band’s best in both our opinions, there are several lesser known gems.  This is the kind of album you can start playing and just forget to stop it…ever.

One of my long time favorites is “Sugar Magnolia.”  The song was written by Robert Hunter and Bob Weir about Weir’s long time girlfriend Frankie Azzara.  The track is a really well written expression of love.  When the Dead played the song live, they often split it into two sections, returning to the Sunshine Daydream coda at a later point in the show.  After a friend of the band Bill Graham died, the band actually split the two sections for an entire week, resuming at a later show.

Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty and I don’t care,
Saw my baby down by the river, knew she’d have to come up soon for air.

Sweet blossom come on, under the willow, we can have high times if you’ll abide
We can discover the wonders of nature, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.

She’s got everything delightful, she’s got everything I need,
Takes the wheel when I’m seeing double, pays my ticket when I speed

She comes skimmin’ through rays of violet, she can wade in a drop of dew,
She don’t come and I don’t follow, waits backstage while I sing to you.

Well, she can dance a Cajun rhythm, jump like a willys in four wheel drive.
She’s a summer love for spring, fall and winter. She can make happy any man alive.

Sugar magnolia, ringing that bluebell, caught up in sunlight, come on out singing
I’ll walk you in the sunshine, come on honey, come along with me.

She’s got everything delightful, she’s got everything I need,
A breeze in the pines and the sun and bright moonlight, lazing in the sunshine yes
indeed.

Sometimes when the cuckoo’s crying, when the moon is half way down,
Sometimes when the night is dying, I take me out and I wander around, I wander
’round.

Sunshine, daydream, walking in the tall trees, going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose, breathing more freely,
Ride our singin’, I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine
Sunshine, daydream. Sunshine, daydream. Walking in the sunshine.

Another song I have always enjoyed is “Ripple.”  The song was the B-side for “Truckin’.” Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics to this song on the same day that he wrote “Brokedown Palace” and “To Lay Me Down.”  Apparently drinking Greek pine resin wine is a really good boost to the old creative juices.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken,
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

You, who choose to lead, must follow
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

If you have never listened to this album, take 42 minutes and do it.  It is a truly memorable experience.

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