As the “core four” of the remaining members of the Grateful Dead play their final shows this weekend, I want to talk about something that I’ve been curious about for some time now. It all starts in 1970 when the Dead released two albums that not only redefined their musical careers but are two of my favorite records, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
The previous four albums were the very definition of psychedelia but on these two records, the band’s sound shifted from electric “space” music (one of the centerpieces of the band’s live sets was “Dark Star” for goodness sakes) to more acoustic textures and songcraft. The songs themselves reflected an innovative mix of rock with folk, bluegrass and country music. Garcia has commented that much of the sound of those albums came both from his pairing with lyricist Robert Hunter as well as the band’s friendship with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Jerry Garcia had said, “Hearing those guys sing and how nice they sounded together, we thought, ‘We can try that. Let’s work on it a little”.
So after putting out two remarkable records in one year, the Dead didn’t put out a studio record until 1973’s Wake Of The Flood. But the band was far from dormant during that time span. On the contrary, you can consider 1971 – 1972 to be a period of high artistic achievements. But many of the songs that were written in that time frame were never recorded in the studio but instead were released as part of the two live albums, Skull & Roses (officially titled The Grateful Dead after Warner Brothers refused to release it with the name the band wanted: Skull Fuck) and Europe 72. As a group these songs extend and further explore the world that we were first shown in Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter has said that he wished that the songs from this period could have gotten the studio treatment as it would have made a great follow up album to American Beauty. The last record of the American Beauty Trilogy. This hypothetical studio album would include “Jack Straw,” “Brown Eyed Women,” “He’s Gone,” “Ramble On Rose,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Mr. Charlie,” “Bertha,” “Wharf Rat,” and “Playing in the Band.” Additionally, this very strong collection of tunes could have been easily supplemented by other new songs that the Dead were regularly playing live but subsequently appeared on the solo records of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir (Garcia and Ace, respectively). In particular, I think “Loser” and “Sugaree” from Garcia and “Mexicali Blues” from Ace would have worked especially well in context with the other songs.
These songs highlight the amazing lyrical talents of Robert Hunter. Hunter and Garcia collaborated of a group of amazing songs that told the stories of cowboys, gamblers, outlaws, drifters, and other disreputable characters that took place in an America that seemed to be on the cusp of modernity but wasn’t quite there yet and wasn’t so sure that it wanted to be there either. The very idea of the music genre we refer to today as Americana can be traced to many of these songs. While being highly evocative of a time and a place they also exhibit a timelessness that is characteristic of the best of music and art.
I would love to hear that album.
The clip below is from the Dead’s Europe 1972 tour. While none of the songs from this particular show made the Europe 72 album, it’s a great bit of history and a fine performance. I always loved the sound balance between Garcia’s Fender Stratocaster and Weir’s Gibson ES-335 and you can hear it particularly well here during the China Cat => Know You Rider jam. You also get the legendary Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on his last tour with the band before his untimely demise at the age of 27. The original vinyl album also included a color booklet that contains photos from the tour. Among them were pictures of several band members playing with clown masks on. What was that all about? Go to about the 1:01 mark and see.
Grateful Dead 4-17-72 Tivolis Koncertsal Copenhagen Denmark