“American Beauty” by the Grateful Dead (1970)
The line of demarcation separating the 1960s from the ’70s couldn’t have been more pronounced with regard to Grateful Dead albums.
The four LPs the band released on Warner Bros. Records from 1967-69 – “The Grateful Dead,” “Anthem of the Sun,” “Aomoxoa” and “Live/Dead,” presented the Dead in all its psychedelic glory. That’s fine for fans who are in a certain frame of mind, but some of the recordings aren’t all that accessible for the average listener.
With “Workingman’s Dead,” released in June 1970, the Dead showed it was capable of producing relatively succinct tunes with discernible melodies. Songs like “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones” became staples on FM radio, opening up the band to a wider audience.
“American Beauty,” which came out in November of the same year, sees the band continue to explore the rootsy-country themes that characterize “Workingman’s Dead,” in generally a more polished manner. Lyricist Robert Hunter helped the musicians realize some of their best-crafted compositions, such as in the opening track, “Box of Rain.”
As Blair Jackson wrote in “Garcia: An American Life,” bass player Phil Lesh “wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words.”
“If ever a lyric ‘wrote itself,’ this did—as fast as the pen would pull,” Jackson quoted hunter as saying. Lesh delivers the rather obscure words in a heartfelt manner for his first lead vocal on a Grateful Dead record.
Following is one of the band’s most popular songs, “Friend of the Devil,” sung by lead guitarist and rock icon Jerry Garcia. Mandolin player David Grisman, Garcia’s musical partner during the last several years of his life, guests on the tale of a man apparently beset by myriad problems with women.
Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir had been conspicuous in his songwriting absence since the bizarre “Born Cross-Eyed” on “Anthem of the Sun” (1968), but he returns on “American Beauty with perhaps his best-known composition. “Sugar Magnolia,” which represents one of Weir’s few collaborations with Hunter, actually is a compendium of two songs, with the coda “Sunshine Daydream” sometimes performed on its own in concert.
The role of the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the Grateful Dead had diminished since the days when the rotund teenager performed with Garcia and Weir in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. By 1969, he had been supplanted as keyboard player by Tom Constanten, and his appearances in concert were limited, although they invariably were highlights of the show.
In the studio, McKernan was absent on “Aoxmoxoa,” with the credits simply listing his role as “Pigpen.” On “Workingman’s Dead,” he sang Hunter’s “Easy Wind,” easily one of the gems of the entire Dead catalog.
The band finally gave Pigpen an opportunity to perform one of his own compositions with “Operator” on “American Beauty.” The brief, effective modified blues tune tells the story of him trying to reach on old girlfriend whose whereabouts are unknown.
The Garcia-Hunter song “Candyman” is one of several bearing that title; it has nothing to do with “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” or Sammy Davis Jr. The Dead’s “Candyman” continues in the vein of “Friend of the Devil,” with a colorful character chasing tail.
The LP’s second side opens with the one-two punch of “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace,” which remain among the Dead’s most-beloved songs. (I’ll put in the caveat that I heard the band play “Brokedown Palace” as an encore enough for me to get kind of tired of the guys doing so.)
“Till the Morning Comes” is an upbeat rocker that the Dead performed precious few times in concert before abandoning. The languid “Attics of My Life” kind of stalls the album’s proceedings, at least temporarily.
The comes the closing number, “Truckin’,” which chronicles the arrest of certain band members in New Orleans in early 1970, among other travails of being out on the road. Anone who’s taken even a remote interest in the Grateful Dead knows this is the song that contains the line for which the band is best known: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
That line, though, sort of seems out of place on “American Beauty,” which might be as close to a conventional pop album as the Dead ever recorded.