The Cracked Guide To The Grateful Dead, Part 2: The Seventies Get Wild, Man
This week on Cracked, we'll be taking a look at the history of The Grateful Dead, or the reason your grandfather's memory skips from 1969 to 1999. Check out our first part here.
As 1969 turned to 1970, the Grateful Dead were among the quintessential “sixties” bands. Their set at Woodstock was a notorious bummer, but they were there, man, and you can see Jerry holding a fat J in the movie. (They were supposed to play at Altamont, but split when the vibes got harsh.) Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix maybe got more headlines in the mainstream press, but they’d all be dead real soon. The Grateful Dead, as we’ll discover, were built to last. And they were ready for the Seventies.
Already beloved for their live performances promising a different setlist each night (and the potential for an R&B tune like “In The Midnight Hour” to blast into space for 40 minutes of freeform psychedelia) the group headed into the studio for one of the great pivots of 20th century music. In February 1970, Jerry Garcia and his lyricist partner Robert Hunter took things down a notch to focus on consonant songcraft and Crosby, Stills, and Nash-inspired harmonies.
The result was Workingman’s Dead, a blend of acoustic country-rock that today we’d call Americana. (Though they were never part of the Outlaw Country scene that would emerge from Austin with artists like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, there was more shared DNA than people realize.) When they recorded the album, there was some bad stuff going on with the band. First of all, they had just gotten busted for drugs, again, in New Orleans, which put their sound technician (and personal LSD cook) Owsley in the clink. Second, they were flat broke, partially because they were living like rock freaks who didn’t understand money, but also because their manager had been ripping them off.
To make things worse, the manager was Mickey Hart’s father. Soon thereafter Hart, the second (and more “far out”) of the two percussionists, would split the group for a few years because he felt guilty. (This led him to be the first in the band to branch into solo work, which ended up being a great tool for bringing new material back into the core unit.) Despite this aggravation, things were humming in the studio. Two songs you probably know are this infinitely hummable hit “Uncle John’s Band,” that opens the album …
And then this groovy rocker that starts off with a sniff, “Casey Jones,” which closes it. This is a classic track that traditionally opens with the hushed vocals, “Quick, turn it down before my mom hears.”
Workingman’s Dead came out in June, and by July the group was back in the studio to record their masterpiece, American Beauty. It’s another experimentation of old Americana and then-modern rock, heavily influenced by The Band and Bob Dylan, and every track on there is a winner. Nothing nails the “old, weird America” vibe better than the Garcia-sung track “Friend of the Devil.”
The album's opener is one of the few in which bassist Phil Lesh sings lead, “Box of Rain,” written for his father on his deathbed. If you can’t connect with this song in any way, I dunno, man, take a walk around the block and try again.
Bob Weir sings lead on the country-rocker “Sugar Magnolia,” which is mellifluous on the record, but turns into a hard-partying scorcher in concert (especially the ending bit.)
The album ends with what is possibly the most beautiful song in the group’s repertoire, “Ripple,” the lyrics to which have been found in the yearbook quotes of hippie chicks ever since. I apologize for the cheesy imagery in this official video. Oh, hell, who am I kidding, it rules.
Recording American Beauty led to some important connections for the band. One was mandolin player David Grisman, who would collaborate with Garcia on a number of bluegrass projects over the years. (One such band, Old & In The Way, included “the Father of Hillbilly Jazz,” fiddler Vassar Clements.) They also worked with a young computer geek named Ned Lagin, an early experimenter in electronic music out of M.I.T. He was never an official member of the band, but he and his early synthesizers sometimes made their way to the stage to take shows from the mere interstellar to intergalactic. During set break, he’d stay on stage to improvise soundscapes with Phil Lesh thrumming along on bass. There’s far out and then there’s beyond far out.
And this is what’s key to this period of the Grateful Dead. They were putting short, beautiful country-rock songs on record, but when they came to your town it was still the traveling psychedelic circus. “There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” was a commonly seen pin and bumper sticker on the scene.
The band did have its first casualty. Pigpen, their R&B ace in the hole, was never really into the whole expand-your-mind LSD scene. He was a drinker. And he, like his one-time girlfriend Janis Joplin, essentially drank himself to death. He became less and less involved on the albums, and on stage he only did a number or two. Another keyboardist was brought in (Tom “T.C.” Constanten, an old friend of Lesh’s, who was classically trained) and having Lagin on hand from time to time helped cover for Pig, too.
Eventually, though, a permanent replacement came in, Keith Godchaux. With this came a shift from that fuzzy, “sixties” keyboard to a grand piano, using the Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ only from time to time. Keith also brought along his wife, the absolutely irreplaceable Donna Jean Godchaux.
Donna Jean, like hundred proof whiskey, is an acquired taste. For a lot of the time, she’d mostly stand on stage and dance (not the only one! At Dead shows from this era, there would always be a lot of people just hanging around!) but she’d then come in on cue to sing backup when needed. Her most noticeable moment would come at the climax of “Playing In The Band”—a song that emerged from Mickey Hart’s first solo album, but was then reworked for Bob Weir’s first solo album—in which she’d find a note from deep in her shoes and WoooOOoooooOoOOoooAAAAAHHHHHHHHH it out for everyone to hear.
You have two options in life when you hear Donna Jean caterwaul. You can wince or you can cheer. Let your heart guide you.
Anyway, with this new spring in their step, the Grateful Dead left for Europe in spring of 1972 and conquered the U.K., France, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium, and even Luxembourg. They came back to the states and for a few years were just absolutely perfect. I mean, just take a look at this, from a gig in Oregon in August 1972. And be sure to hit the 3:29 mark to catch the naked freak behind the stage.
I feel bad saying this, because so much of what makes the Dead the Dead is Mickey Hart grooving with the spheres, but he had yet to rejoin the group at this point, when they were on so much fire. There’s something to be said about one deep-in-the-pocket drummer. But there was a new albeit temporary addition: the Wall of Sound.
Beginning in 1974, Owsley “Bear” Stanley (free at last) was back with the band, and was unhappy with the way the live shows sounded. He devised a ludicrous system of enormous towers that worked with a system of feedback tubes and compressors and, well … to be honest, I don’t really understand it myself. All I know is that it doesn’t sound too different in audience recordings, but if you were there, man, it was out of sight.
Naturally, it was prohibitively expensive to lug around, so it didn’t last too long, but, yeah, it sure helped build up the lore of a Grateful Dead show. The Sixties were over, but this holdout of a band had their own furnace to keep the torch lit.
You can find the rest of Cracked's essay series on the Dead here:
Top image: The Grateful Dead/Dead.net