The Grateful Dead’s Grand Experiment, Half a Century Later

Posted by

Anthem of the SunI was among those who felt some affection for the Grateful Dead’s 1967 debut album, but perhaps that’s because I hadn’t seen them live by the time of its release. Most people who had—including the group themselves—said that the record paled in comparison. It barely made a dent in the charts and garnered weak reviews.

The gap between the Dead’s live shows and their studio work bothered the band, but the lack of commercial success apparently didn’t. Instead of looking for a hit in the wake of their disappointing debut, they focused on capturing the improvisational nature of their concerts and on innovating. They spent so long on these pursuits—half a year—that Joe Smith, the Warner Bros. A&R man who’d signed the band, wrote to them to insist that they promptly wrap up and send over the masters. The Dead responded by underlining the passages they most disliked in his letter, writing “FUCK YOU” on it, and mailing it back to him. 

The July 1968 album that finally resulted represented a radical departure from the debut LP. It was not only less commercial than its predecessor; it was arguably the least mainstream, most experimental record the group would ever make. Sounding a lot more like the Dead’s unpredictable concerts (and even incorporating material from them), it seemed at times like dance-party rock and roll, at times reminiscent of John Cage or Edgar Varese, and pretty much always like something that had been dreamed up on LSD trips, which it probably was.

The album—which marked the addition of lyricist Robert Hunter and second percussionist Mickey Hart—sold no better than its predecessor; but I wasn’t the only listener who appreciated its sprawling jams, surprising twists and turns, and clever incorporation of everything from kazoos and organ to electronic feedback. There were, however, a fair number of reviews like the one in High Fidelity that stated, “There really is no excuse for this kind of junk. But there is an explanation. Drugs.”

I have some fond memories of High Fidelity, for which I wrote, but it’s worth noting that while that magazine died almost 30 years ago, people are still listening to the album it called “junk.” In fact, that record has just been rereleased in a 50th anniversary deluxe edition. 

That edition—which boasts a psychedelic 3D cover like the one on the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request—features the album’s original 1968 version as well as a marginally better Phil Lesh–supervised 1971 remix. It also includes new notes that chronicle the Dead’s career up to the time of Anthem of the Sun’s original release and, on a second disc, a previously unissued October 1967 concert from San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. There you’ll find readings of the first album’s “Cold Rain and Snow,” “Beat It on Down the Line,” and “Morning Dew” that suggest what that LP could have been. Also on the Winterland disc are renditions of Anthem of the Sun’s “New Potato Caboose” and the wild, four-part “That’s It for the Other One” that run nearly 10 and 15 minutes, respectively; and infectious covers of Elmore James’s “It Hurts Me Too” and Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light.”

This concert sounds good to me—and after all these years, the original album still does, too. Granted, many of the lyrics (and even most of the song titles) are impenetrable; and some of those that aren’t, such as the line in Bob Weir’s “Born Cross-Eyed” about “feelin’ groovy,” sound anachronistic. I can understand if the electronic excursions, especially those near the end of “That’s It for the Other One,” strike some listeners as pretentious. I can even appreciate why some people might call this a bit of a mess. But if it’s a mess, it’s a bravely constructed and rather glorious one. The group’s inventiveness—not to mention Jerry Garcia’s signature guitar work—is all over this album, and even when the proceedings get sloppy or a little silly, there’s a cohesiveness and charm to their work that keeps me listening and cheering them on. 

BRIEFLY NOTED

SeculariaEliza Gilkyson, Secularia. Austin, Texas–based singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson delivers some of the best work of her long career on this 20th album, which addresses spiritual questions and draws musically on everything from country and bluegrass to gospel and classical. The CD features performances with Austin’s Tosca String Quartet as well as cameo vocals by Shawn Colvin, Sam Butler (Blind Boys of Alabama), and—on the traditional “Down by the Riverside”—the late, great Jimmy LaFave. The record is a bit of a family affair: Gilkyson’s son provided the lush, atmospheric production; her grandmother cowrote a track with her; and the singer’s father, folksinger Terry Gilkyson, and grandmother, wrote another number. (Eliza wrote or cowrote everything else.) Standouts like the gorgeous “Reunion” benefit from emotive melodies, liberal use of piano, intimate vocals, and introspective lyrics that are poetic and memorable, though often abstruse. (Without an explanatory press release from Gilkyson’s record company, you’d probably never guess that “Lifelines” describes “the coming together of like-minded people after the last U.S. presidential election.” No matter; I liked it before I knew what it was about.)Rasta No Pickpocket

Junior Byles, Rasta No Pickpocket. Though Junior Byles was a Jamaican reggae star in his heyday, he never managed to attract much attention outside his country, largely because of mental problems that resulted in a series of hospitalizations. He is alive today but has not released an album since this one, which first appeared in 1986. For this reissue, Rasta No Pickpocket has been remastered from the original tapes, coupled with five bonus tracks, and packaged with new notes by the album’s original producer. The music is as infectious as much of what issued from such better-known artists as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Toots and the Maytals. It’s difficult to believe that Byles was living on the streets within about a year after the record’s release, but that’s the sad reality. 

Lonesomest SoundClay Parker & Jodi James, The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound. Clay Parker and Jodi James have been performing together for about eight years but until now had apparently released only one EP. I have no idea what took the duo so long to make a full-length album, but I’m glad they finally did, because this country-influenced folk/Americana CD is terrific. Parker and James are both fine vocalists and their harmony work here, which reminds me of the Kennedys, is sublime. The production and understated instrumentation are just right and the 12-song, all-originals program is loaded with evocative lyrics and indelible melodies. You’re going to be hearing a lot more from these folks, who will likely expand their fan base via their musical role in Ethan Hawke’s new film, Blaze.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.