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LPs from the Attic: Grateful Dead — Grateful Dead

October 25, 2010

Grateful Dead — Grateful Dead (Warner Brothers, 1967)

I didn’t come by Grateful Dead fandom easily. As a matter of fact, I openly disliked them for years before I experienced a breakthrough moment while wearing out gateway album American Beauty during a Spring Break trip. Come to think of it, maybe I should call it an “excursion,” lest I confuse.

My hard-won appreciation notwithstanding, “Deadhead” is a term–an epithet, really–that I’d still never self-apply; I blame that more on Don Henley’s grossly overplayed “Boys of Summer” (he looks back wistfully, and then wryly, after considering a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac) than the monocultural miasma that afflicts many GD fans even fifteen years after spiritual figurehead Jerry Garcia’s death. Okay, I blame both equally. Fine. I blame the Deadheads. There.

Don Henley and the Grateful Dead both suffered for having only one or two songs played by DJs at the single classic rock radio station that reached where I grew up. Henley’s “Summer” and the Dead’s “Touch of Grey” were the only tracks that got air time. While “Summer” is arguably a solid ode to nostalgia for one’s youth (specifically, to be young in the idealistic part of the 60’s), and unlikely hit “Touch of Grey” ponders the inevitability of time’s creep and the need to keep looking forward, my ability to enjoy these songs or glean anything meaningful from them was ruined by repetition at the expense of sturdier tunes. Especially in the case of the Grateful Dead.

I’ve written about this station before. They had the shallowest catalog this side of mid-90’s corporate radio (for those of you who were too young, trust me: radio got really boring in the years after alt-rock’s initial rush). Not a deep album cut to be found, ever. Yes, I still bear a grudge (e.g., I heard Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” so often that I couldn’t appreciate Dick Parry’s sax solo at all. I remember changing the station every time it came to that part, wrongheadedly likening it to easy listening or Muzak. It’s now one of my favorite things, by Pink Floyd or anyone.). But my arms tire from working this old saw. Now back to the ranch.

So, yes, I finally worked through my issues borne out of the radio station’s weak playlists. Through the beneficence of a few fans with broad tastes who were in no way as myopically tedious as some of the first “hippies” who tried to sway me with the tools of the trade, I fell in love with “Friend of the Devil,” American Beauty, and ultimately the Grateful Dead.

But, my love is conditional and in no way blind. Nor is it deaf.

Other than Don Henley, over-zealous hacky-sackers, and Rock 105, the main reason I’d not been able to grok GD was that I just couldn’t cotton to some of the more indulgent and interminable jamming. Unfortunately, this jamming formed the cornerstone of many arguments made by fans: “Sit, Jay. I shall now make you an instant Dead fan by playing you a 45-minute-long intro to ‘Dark Star.'” Sorry, but it just wasn’t happening.

Sure, I didn’t know much about jazz or improvisation back then–hell, I only know just enough to appreciate good jamming now–but I knew this wasn’t the right way to make a successful argument. To me, these weren’t the best points of entry. I just wanted to scream, “Enough, already! Just play me a goddamned SONG! Something with a clear beginning and, for the love of Jeebus, an end! Maybe then I’ll bite the hook and come around to Drums and Space and all this epic noodling!”

And, at last, we arrive: songs. The Grateful Dead were very good at writing them (and interpreting those of others), and they honed this talent as a dancehall band back in the Fillmore’s glory days. American Beauty mightily displays this skill, as well as a startlingly proficient and fully formed roots-music synthesis, but many others have written about this gem in great detail and with keen insight of which I’m not capable.

I’m thrilled to have the chance to champion an overlooked treasure in their catalog: their debut album. While it doesn’t show the level of maturity they’d attained by AB, the band’s first album does share qualities of concision along with solid songcraft. These are two things that were occasionally lacking once the band developed instrumentally to the point where the level of communication needed to pull off extended jams and soloing made them seem effortless. So effortless that the band coasted, rested on their laurels, in later stages of the game, to the expense of shorter, well-written songs.

Grateful Dead’s strength lies in restraint, song focus, and frenetic danceability. You see, people used to dance at shows, rather than spend large sums to sit and watch their heroes. It was a participatory thing that no amount of singing along or posting to a Facebook account will ever replace. While the album features a few longer cuts with jams worthy of any career high-water mark (“New, New Minglewood Blues’), it’s thrilling to hear shorter, faster tracks that reveal this ballroom pedigree. Sure, Dead shows have always been about dancing, but here the pace is quickened, the spirit more lively.

The whole album is recommended, but if I have to single out one track for your consideration, it’s “Cream Puff War.” It’s a lean and mean garage tune that wouldn’t have been out out of place on a Rolling Stones album, and that’s due as much to Jerry Garcia’s edgy delivery as David Hassinger’s production. It’s a rare thing to hear real anger in Garcia’s voice, and it makes for a great single.

Aside from the virtue of focused brevity–only Viola Lee Blues clocks in at over five minutes–I’d be remiss not to give Ron “Pigpen” McKernan his due. He brought fervor and intensity (not to mention soul and a sense of playfulness) to any blues he belted out, and his track here does him justice (a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little School Girl”).

It should be pointed out that several of these tracks were edited down upon release due to the space limitations of vinyl. But, I have to say that this forced editing makes for a compelling listen that plays to the bands strengths while not becoming tiresome.

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