It's hard to think of these two iconic albums as being "radical" in any way; they're such easygoing records, warm and friendly... but a peek at what was on the charts at the time gives a hint as to how visionary The Dead were. In June, the top 20 albums included The Beatles Let It Be, Paul McCartney's solo debut, the Woodstock soundtrack, Jethro Tull Benefit, and live albums from The Who, Cream and Iron Butterfly. The closest thing to the quieter visage of Workingman's Dead was Deja Vu from CSNY or Bridge Over Troubled Water from Simon & Garfunkel; even there, the former kicked off with "Carry On" and had several rockin' tracks, and Bridge had strayed far from S&G's folkie roots into the realm of huge mega-production. It's hard to recall a mindset where "Uncle John's Band" or "Casey Jones" were bold statements, but using country and Americana influences as the root of your work wasn't a popular notion at the time. The vibe on the album must have been strong within the band, because they did the unthinkable - they used their own instant classic as a base point, refined and even upgraded the approach and released a second defining moment only five months later. The musical climate around them hadn't changed much in those five months; James Taylor's Sweet Baby James was a strong album at the time, but otherwise, Led Zeppelin topped the chart; Santana, Creedence, The Stones, Joe Cocker, Free, The Guess Who... all of them were cranking out their superb mostly-blues based mostly-high-energy breed of rock. American Beauty must have stood out like a beacon in the dark; not surprisingly, it still does.
The Dead seemingly took everything amazing about Workingman and pushed it just a little bit more. Jerry Garcia had become less of a flash guitarist with that album and he backed off even further on American Beauty, choosing instead to fill the space with tasty and appropriate work on pedal steel guitar. The songwriting seemed to become even more focused, perhaps an outgrowth of having lived with Workingman for a while and just plain old getting better at something they were already real good at. There's ten songs on American Beauty, and five of them are mainstays to this day on even the most rigid classic rock formats - "Ripple" and "Truckin'" were both released as singles (!!), and "Box Of Rain," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Friend Of The Devil" are undeniable cornerstones of a brilliant era. Looking back on both of the albums from 1970, I'd say in retrospect that Workingman was the more daring and radical of the two albums, being the first one so heavily rooted in country, folk and bluegrass, and Beauty is the more comfortable and accomplished of the two.It was obvious the band was happy with the niche they had found, and even just the few months between albums was enough time and experience for them to show The Dead in a more complete, communal light - a stellar example of the whole being greater than the sum of even the most magnificent of parts.
"Lately it occurs to me... what a long, strange trip it's been"
For me, American Beauty is one of my two favorite Dead albums (In The Dark is the other). I think all the music people I know have a half dozen or so albums in their life that they have bookmarked as "everything is okay" records - albums that give you the perfect, warm feeling conveyed by music which is part of the fabric of a person's life; this is way high on my list. "Box Of Rain" sets the entire tone of the album masterfully. I've looked at this track in a lot of way in my lifetime; I love the idea of having a box of rain that I can call on when I want it or need it, even if that strays a tad from the focus of the song. Come to find out, it was created to be a very therapeutic piece of music (always has been for me). Phil Lesh's father was a victim of cancer, and Lesh was dealing with the impending loss of his dad at the time. According to lyricist Robert Hunter, Phil "wanted a song to sing to his dying father," and had composed "Box Of Rain" in it's entirety except for the words. Hunter went on to say it was one of the easiest lyrics he ever wrote; Phil did indeed sing the song to his father and, appropriately enough, it also became the first Dead song to feature Lesh on lead vocal.
"Friend Of The Devil" is as perfect a song as you can get for a variety of reasons. Easy on the ears, fun to sing along with, and the outlaw-running-from-the-police lyrics work on so many levels. They're allegorical to what the band must have felt at the time - doing things their own way, having to stand up for the right to do so, aided by the devil who betrays them in the end... and beyond that, it's just a damned fun story. "Sugar Magnolia" would have to be in the top ten all time feelgood songs from the Dead (or anyone). The gorgeous melody line is complemented with beautiful, restrained playing and one of my favorite collective vocal performances from the band ever - such a study in harmony singing! Lyrically, it's as pretty an ode to a lady as you're going to find - "She's got everything delightful, she's got everything I need / A breeze in the pines and sun and bright moonlight, lazing in the sunshine, yes indeed..." are a lovely contrast to "She don't come and I don't follow," giving a nod to both the beauty and independence of the lady. Sunshine, daydream, sunshine, daydream...
Both "Operator" and "Candyman" fall into the category of Comfortable Songs. They don't get mentioned anywhere near as much as the album's Big Five... and what an amazing record when these are the filler tracks! They're standard Dead beautiful, lush in harmony and melody, and I can't imagine the album without them. "Ripple" is, to me, the perfectest diamond on the perfect necklace, a song that embodies everything good about The Dead, the hippies and my utopian vision of how life could and should be. "Reach out your hand if your cup is empty... and if your cup is full, may it be full again" is as simple beautiful as it gets; the vocal and musical treatment invite the listener to the porch to set with friends and laugh long into the night. "Brokedown Palace" has always hit a place deep inside of me, and when I moved to Memphis, it became even more personal (if that was possible). I left a place I had lived for decades that no longer felt like home, and the first time I stood on the banks of the Mississippi River after moving, I sang "Goin home, goin home, by the riverside I will rest my bones... Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul" to the river itself. I felt like I was home... and when I turned to walk back to my apartment, there was somebody I had never seen before (and probably haven't seen since) who smiled at me and said, "That was nice." I was right. I was home.
"Til The Morning Comes" and "Attics Of My Life" are, again, Comfortable Songs. They pair so well together, and though they go at it from different angles, they seem oddly similar to me. Both songs reach inside to play off the combination of memory and anticipation, and again, both do so with such beautiful harmonies! The Dead get a lot of credit for a lot of things, but in my opinion not enough credit for their vocal work. The album closes with "Truckin'" - and could you BE any more Dead than this? It's as close to a rocker as the album gets, and the lyrics are completely autobiographical (for an awful lot of bands who are constantly on the road). Can't help but to love Garcia's melody lines on this one, of course, and the vocals are a mishmash of storytelling and whimsy. There's a lot of trial and tribulation to the song if you look at it in a literal sense, but there sure doesn't sound like a whole lot of regret here... and, of course, we get to take "what a long, strange trip it's been" with us as one of our last memories of the album.
I've been listening to American Beauty since shortly after it was released, and I don't think there's any accurate way to measure the pleasure and joy I've taken from the record. While reading about it for this post, I learned something that I imagine most Deadheads have known for most of forever; if you look at the album cover, the wording spells both "American Beauty" and "American Reality," by design. I grinned like a fool when I read that - more than forty years on, and I can still see a little something different that I never saw before in this album. But then again... masterpieces are like that.
American Beauty was at the center of one of my all-time favorite moments in my record store. It was a bit of a lazy day in the middle of a week, and Beauty had just started playing in the store; it felt right for the day, and it was in high rotation forever and always anyways. A mom and her daughter came into the store, and momma was dealing out a ration of grief. She was lecturing her kid up one side and down the other about her devil music, and how it was going to lead her down the wrong path. I rankled particularly when I heard her use The Grateful Dead as an example, as in, "And what's with listening to bands with names like The Grateful Dead? Can't you even see how evil that is?" The grief went on and on for fifteen, twenty minutes. Finally, as they were leaving (no purchase made), momma looks at me and says, "Thank you for playing such nice music in your store. I wish my daughter would take a lesson from you. What is this you're playing now?" "It's the Grateful Dead, ma'am." I snuck a peek at the daughter who was out of her skin with glee and having a hard time masking it. Momma looked at me and said, "No, really. What is this?" I took the CD out of the player and handed it to her. She looked at it, handed it back to me, and said angrily, "You did that on purpose!" Now, even though the album was playing when they walked in, you can't pass up that golden an opportunity, so I replied something like, "Sorry, but sometimes people need to have their face rubbed in their own stupidity." I never saw either of them again. A shame... I was sure hoping daughter would stop back in some day...
A few trivia bits about the album... This was the first time David Grisman and Jerry Garcia had worked together in any capacity; they bumped into one another at a baseball game, and Jerry invited David to the studio to help work on the album... It was recorded at Wally Heider's studio, which Phil Lesh describes as being "jammer heaven" during that era. The Dead, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, Santana and CSNY all regularly hung out at the studio. Now... there HAVE to be tapes somewhere, right?... This was the final Dead album for Mickey Hart until he returned to the band in 1974... According to Deadbase X, "Sugar Magnolia" was the second most-played song by The Dead in their concert career, logging 596 performances ("Me & My Uncle" was their most played tune in concert with 616 performances)... I don't know why I find this to be so hilarious, but "Truckin'," with all the drug and arrest and outlaw references, was recognized by the United States Library Of Congress as a national treasure in 1997...