Saturday, 24 March 2012
Grateful Dead "Workingman's Dead" (1970) (News, Views and Music 138)
Grateful Dead “Workingman’s Dead” (1970)
Uncle John’s Band/High Time/Dire Wolf/New Speedway Boogie//Cumberland Blues/Black Peter/Easy Wind/Casey Jones
You know the feeling. Your girl’s just run off with a refrigerator salesman and is giving you the cold shoulder. The only person returning your calls is the debt collector after your telephone. You’ve just been laid off at your job and replaced by a chicken in some bizarre Coalition scheme designed to ‘Get Britain Working’ even though the only section not actually working and taking things easy is the Coalition themselves. Your dog’s not only died but he’s been stuffed by someone on Workfare work experience at a taxidermy outfit that have made him look like an anaemic Huckleberry Hound. There’s an evil tyrant in power who was never elected and is taking all the things that made life worth living away from you (darn, that one’s real!)Your favourite sausage roll bakery shop has just shut (darn, this is true as well! Calamity!) Worst of all there’s just been an item on the news that says The Spice Girls are re-uniting. What are you going to do? Well, arguably most music fans would reach for a blues albums at this period, whilst most ‘normal’ people (whoever they are) would reach for either therapy and/or alcohol (both drains on funds that end up causing more problems than were there in the first place). Me, I reach for the Grateful Dead album ‘Workingman’s Dead’ (though Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album and Nils Lofgren’s ‘Damaged Goods’ are also correct answers already reviewed on this site). It’s not the blues so much as black-and-white, a stark monochromatic portrait of a world that not only doesn’t care, it doesn’t actually care whether or not you care. One way or another, this darkness got to give.
‘Workingman’s Dead’ is eight slabs of melancholy, dripping with world-wearyness, missed opportunities and failure. Lyrically, thematically and morally it’s not for the faint-hearted, even though conversely the very starkness of the backing and the lack of the band’s usual psychedelic power improvisations makes it one of the easiest Dead LPs for ‘outsiders’ to listen to. But be warned: few albums spend as long looking the grim reaper in the face (one track even gets fed up of listening to him outside the door and invites him in for a game of cards), contemplating murder mayhem and madness and how ordinary folk are born into their lives with nothing and have even that taken away from them by the end of an unhappy life. Despite being made by (partly) middle-class hippies (Phil Lesh and Bob Weir at least, with the latter being adopted by one of the richest families in San Francisco before leaving home to join The Dead) ‘Workingman’s Dead’ is the working class album par excellence, a world of have-nots struggling to keep their heads above water.
It’s also among the most lyrical of Dead albums, with the Jerry Garcia/Bob Hunter partnership in full flow (between them they have 18 Dead songs released in this one year and nearly all of them are regarded as classics by one fan or another). In fact, like follow-up ‘American Beauty’ (AAA review no 40), it sounds nothing like the other Dead albums, being much more mellow and closer to it’s roots (although, that said, the feeling of transcending everything in your normal everyday existence, common to all Dead albums to some extent, is here too). There’s barely an electric instrument played the whole album through and when there is they are mainly there for colour, not volume – if you, like me, own the ‘Golden Road’ box set of the first 12 albums you can’t help but be struck by how wide the chasm is between the earlier albums and this one. Usually when artists switch genres partway through a discography it’s to crack a certain market (Ray Davies) or to wind a career down slowly – in contrast the songs on ‘Workingman’s Dead’ are nearly all as ground-breaking and pioneering as the more outwardly outrageous improvised 20 minute masterpieces, just in a completely different way.
So why did these two albums turn out this way, after four years when The Grateful Dead became the first word in extended psychedelic madness? Well, here’s the existential high-falluting argument first of all. It was 1970, psychedelia was a few years dead and it was the year-after hangover of the 1960s, when the dreams of freedom and world peace had turned into a frighteningly unwinnable assault from a society that had progressed from treating the hippie dream as a sweet pitiable dream that was just a passing fancy to a genuine threat to the people in power. ‘Altamont’, the free rock festival organised by the Stones and attended by The Dead alongside CSNY and Jefferson Airplane came at either the right or the wrong time, depending which side of the free concert fence you were on, with the hippie dream knifed in the back alongside concert-goer Meredith Hunter. Un-coincidentally there’s a song about Altamont on this very album, as the Dead try to make sense of how so many people with so many nice thoughts could see their ideas of how to live alongside each other taken away. The two ‘folky’ Dead albums are simply a natural part of the process of bands going back to their ‘roots’ and starting a new world (and a new decade) over again in a simpler, more rootsy way (hence the success of The Band and CSNY in this period, both big influences on this album). Folk was also ‘honest’ in a way that rock and roll wasn’t (having been ‘corrupted’ somewhere along the way) and made the musicians feel they were part of telling a much bigger, generation-wide story rather than the story of the 1960s (predominantly rock and roll and everything that was ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ and ‘different’).
And now the practical reasons for the change. The Dead were broke, due to a combination of the hundreds of man-hours spent making their most intense but also probably weakest selling album ‘Aoxomoxoa’ (see news and views no 20) and manager Lenny Hart (drummer Mickey’s dad) absconding with the little remaining money the band had made from concerts bin this period (the band only found out they weren’t rich when a man came by to re-possess Pigpen’s beloved organ and things got so bad that drummer Billy Kreutzmann poached deer for a time to feed his family). Lesser bands would have thrown in the towel when told they were $1800 in debt (a fair bit of money back in 1970) and never darkened the doors of the recording studios again, but the Dead felt that they still had too much to say and too many places for their music to go. Alongside ‘Live/Dead’, a double album taken from a single concert (which made a huge return on the costs of just manufacturing, hiring one mobile recording unit and paying royalties on just five songs) ‘Workingman’s Dead’ was a definite attempt to make some money quickly.
There’s another two factors as well that don’t often get mentioned by music historians trying to make sense of this album. The first is a drugs bust, surprisingly the only one the Dead ever had but one that seemed to have big repercussions at the time, in late 1969, when this album was just beginning to be put together. In all the band spent just eight hours in prison but this didn’t stop the feeling that more might follow- like the recent Mick Jagger/Keith Richards and even more recent John Lennon/George Harrison busts the police had tried to heap up a great deal of charges, had threatened the band, milked the publicity for all it was worth and delayed releasing the band for as long as possible (despite the fact bail money was found within the hour of arrest). The Dead were very much feeling harassed and quickly realising that in order to do what they had to do they might have to change their style a little bit. When facing the very real possibility of being sent away for an amount of time the Dead must have felt that 1970 was their now-or-never year and naturally went back to linking themselves with tales of revels and troubadours from the past (although curiously the one drug reference, in Casey Jones, is heard as a warning despite being a novelty jokey song).
The second reason perhaps is that Jerry Garcia had just become a dad. In fact his girlfriend of the time Mountain Girl (the key figure of the Dead’s early period, as much as the band members themselves) went into labour the day the band were sent to prison. Fatherhood does funny things to some musicians, making them either grow up overnight (as per Ray Davies again) or shrink back to their own childhood (err, as per Ray Davies! I’ll stop witgh the references now I promise!) Together with the feeling that the 60s dream was over for now, not abandoned so much as postponed until the ‘kids’ of today became the ‘adults’ of tomorrow and put the world right, it may simply be that the Dead were growing up. The fact that Garcia had a baby on the way during the writing of this album might also have set him thinking about his family tree, the way that new births often do. Certainly there’s copious references to the past in his and Hunter’s songs for the first time (barring the failed experiment ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues’ anyway). Notably the characters in these songs are nearly all wise old heads, some of them lying on their death beds, with the two juvenile parts (Casey Jones and the narrator of Easy Wind) out of their depth and ‘playing’ at living in a world that’s gonna hound them down until they change. The one song that sounds ‘like’ the Grateful Dead in the present day as opposed to historical figures is ‘New Speedway Boogie’, that song about the Altamont disaster and death of the hippie dream and notably that sounds as world-weary and anxious as the 18th century train driver and the song of the men down a long-abandoned mine.
In fact, there are many similarities between ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘Sgt Peppers’, The Beatles’ attempt to align the movement of the late 60s with Edwardian and Victorian times gone by. Certainly that’s how co-producer Bob Matthews considered this album, putting the running order for it together in one long session after listening to ‘Sgt Peppers’ on headphones and trying to come up with the same juxtaposition between eras and sounds. I personally don’t think he got it quite right (as said, there’s not that many textures to deal with so it’s sad that the few different styles are all cropped together at the end), but then I never thought that ‘Sgt Peppers’ quite got it right, with the ‘band and audience’ idea dead by song three. There are similarities though: ‘Uncle John’s Band’ is a dead ringer for the title track of that album, with the Dead given an alter ego from about a hundred years before, calling for peace and harmony in a very 60s sense but in a style clearly taken wholesale from the past. ‘When I’m 64’ sounds more at home on ‘Workingman’s Dead’ than on its parent LP, with its tongue-in-cheek tale of growing old, whilst the drug-reference heavy old-folksong-referencing ‘Casey Jones’ is the ‘naughty’ song of the album that ‘Lovely Rita’ would have fulfilled had Macca both re-written the words at the last hour before recording. Both albums have their merits and faults but what they share is the feeling that music is the new updated form of sitting round the fire and telling stories, updating ideas that are generations old and making you feel that the album is panning across time. Garcia was born just two months after McCartney and seems to have come to this same feeling that all generations are part of some long ongoing unfinished story just a few years later.
Thus due to a large number of factors Dead studio album number four was recorded in either just nine days or three weeks, depending on the source (either way hardly any time at all by the standards of Dead albums two and three) and there are certainly signs of this hurriedness dotted across the album, from the odd messy harmony to the fact that there are only eight songs here (a ninth, ‘Mason’s Children’, was recorded but left unreleased until the 1990s, becoming the band’s most requested on-stage track among fans who managed to hear it during one of its few concert appearances. Thankfully there’s a live reading of it on the CD, although you need the ‘So Many Roads’ box set to hear the studio version – its a nice, obtuse song seemingly about the Manson murders and Altamont, but one that’s much more poetic and less direct than the sister-song ‘New Speedway Boogie’).
Perhaps that’s the reason why, unlike some Dead fans, I don’t rate this album as highly as sister-album ‘American Beauty’, which is about as good as albums come. That album features 10 tracks, nearly all of which are classics, poetic and beautiful as only Garcia/Hunter songs can be, but broken up by enough singalong rockers from Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Pigpen to give that album a rounded feel, so that you really feel as if you’ve gone on a ‘journey’ when you hear it from beginning to end. By contrast ‘Workingman’s Dead’ has only eight tracks of which only two are truly sublime pieces of music and Garcia gets an un-precedented seven of these to sing (with Pigpen coping well with ‘Easy Wind’, a song written in his ‘normal’ style by Bob Hunter). This album sounds more like a Garcia solo album than a proper band project and whilst that’s no bad thing (the first Garcia album is sublime indeed, although there are so many Dead personnel in the track-listing its hard to think of it as a solo work) ‘Workingman’s Dead’ too often sounds the same from one track to the next, only really varying in texture for the two songs at the end. Add in the fact that the band have clearly only just started singing together properly (they do a mighty fine job of aping good friends and harmony tutors Crosby, Stills and Nash on ‘American Beauty’ but are still learning their trade here after years of singing only occasional choruses over raucous electric sounds) and ‘Workingman’s falls flat on it’s a few times too often for me to consider it an out-and-out classic (hence its absence from our top 101 review list).
But there is much about this album to enjoy. The rough edges are entirely understandable and in retrospect its amazing that the band were confident enough to drop their usual style of playing almost over night and still come out with a harmony blend and intricacy that other folk-rock bands can’t hope to match. Garcia and Hunter’s songs are often extraordinary too, dealing with the terribly un-1970 subjects of death, murder and poverty without sounding remotely like anybody else (The Dead always quoted CSN and The Band as influences, but that’s arrangements not songs – CSN songs have depth in a quite different way to these songs, very much keeping rock and pop elements on even their folkiest of songs, whilst The Band never came close to offering up the depth and emotion of either of these two Dead albums, merely updating old stories to be set in the present day). Garcia wasn’t yet 28 when this album was released (hot on the heels of the recording sessions unusually) but he’s already mastered the art of sounding ageless, so convincing in his portrayal of no less than two aging OAPs approaching death that you wonder where on earth such insight came from. It’s often said by less-educated music followers that Garcia has a weedy, thin voice quite unsuited to being a lead vocalist - clearly they’ve never heard him sing ‘Black Peter’, in which the fragility of Garcia’s ever-believable vocals is the whole point in a song about a man close to death. However at least Garcia has shown flashes of this emotional feel before - lyricist Bob Hunter improves even more on his second real album with the band, bypassing songs that are all about imagery and wordplay for some of the most heart-tugging songs ever made.
Hear any of these songs back-to-back with ‘Aoxomoxoa’ and the change in style is incredible. All the experimentation of before and after (hit and miss on every Dead album, often at the same time) is entirely absent, leaving us with one song after another that sound like they could have come from another century entirely. Goodness only knows what fans of the time must have thought of the change of direction, but that said the album sleeve does a pretty good job at summing up the contents. Whereas ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ painted the Dead as a multi-headed Indian God in swirling cover and ‘Aoxomoxoa’ was an impenetrable collection of images about birth and death again in swirling colour ‘Workingman’s Dead’ is a black and white photograph of the band in a run-down part of San Francisco. Note not only the lack of colour but the fact that, for the first time, the Dead are using a photograph rather than a picture – this album is seen as being true-to-life and real, with the monochrome effect summing up an album of struggle, greyness and suffering. Like the music itself, the effect is unsettling at first and compelling later as the wash of textures and subtleties of the songs wash over you. As we’ve said before the Dead haven’t quite got it right yet but when they do (as on ‘High Time’ and ‘new Speedway Boogie’ especially) they make music as emotional and revealing as any ever made. Not bad for a load of hippies written off by the music press forced to work simply because of massive debt (most of which wasn’t their fault!)
The album starts with the rallying cry of ‘Uncle John’s Band’, a Garcia-Hunter song about struggles and danger lurking behind every door and sung in a style that wouldn’t have been out of place heard coming from a Dickens-era barbershop. Although this is clearly not the Dead by name or style this song does sound like a song for the band’s fans, perhaps all music fans from all eras given the traditionality of the backing. Hunter’s into his stride writing lyrics for the band by now and has already correctly worked out that songs about the band’s audience (the ‘seventh’ member of the band, even more than for other groups) is the way to go. The second verse asks us to ‘go with me’ (as per the start of ‘The Other One’, where as bus comes by for us to get on), the third finds the band singing so long and getting so into the music that time has disappeared and the band and audience have grown old together without realising it and by the fourth verse the fans are actively joining in and taking the band’s roles or perhaps this another link between past and then-present, with the Dead taking on the mantles of troubadours from earlier troubled times). Best of all, the song ends on a rallying call where Uncle John’s Band walk amongst the known lands, ‘calling children home’ who otherwise would have been seduced back into the grim reality of a corrupt world – as all Deadheads know the band weren’t just a band but an alternate way of life, far away from the mainstream and never did Hunter write a better lyric to sum this feeling up. ‘Band’ is also a kind of rallying call to the Dead themselves after their spell in prison, with an opening verse where ‘the first days are the hardest days’ – as the band are still together things can only get better from here on in. A classic song, then, but sadly for me the performance here is way too early in the band’s transition from occasional vocalists to a close-harmony group. The harmonies are more ragged here than on the rest of the album and compare badly with their heroes CSN (most of these harmonies are simple), although the a capella section is still quite impressive. There’s also a stilted feel about this whole song, undoubtedly in keeping with the traditional Victorian feel of the piece but hardly something that excites the blood or warms the heart. The slow canter of the song is also a little too slow, with even the song’s tales of danger accompanied by a slow relaxed trot that saps all the urgency out of the song. In short, Hunter’s lyrics deserved better from Garcia, who sounds like he doesn’t quite understand this song at times.
I have no problems with ‘High Time’, though, which is one of my all-time favourite songs in the Dead canon. Like many a song from this album its timeless and could have been recorded at any time in the past 500 years had it not been for the few occasional electric guitar washes of sound. The story is one of the ant and the grasshopper, with a high living quick-spending individual realising how much all that good cost living has cost him when his girl leaves in one of the best and most hair-raising couplets of all: ‘You told me ‘goodbye’, how was I to know you didn’t mean goodbye, you meant ‘please don’t let me go!’There’s a particularly moving middle eight – unusual for such a slow, simple song that otherwise consists of just three couplets (you would hardly call them verses) and a single-line chorus. The sudden switch from major to minor key is perfectly poised for the moment of true realisation that the narrator’s life should have been different, with lines about how the narrator was only having fun because of who he was with, not what he was doing. Perhaps the best line of all is the end, though, that finds us wondering whether the narrator really has changed his spots that much (‘Well, I know...’), his ego getting in his way all over again. Garcia was critical of his vocal for this song in later years, one of his favourites too amongst his originals, but that’s arguably what makes the song: Garcia is believable both as a young buck having to grow up suddenly overnight and as an older, wiser man shaking his head over his wayward youth. His vocal is fragile indeed, often breaking in the middle of a line, but he’s got exquisite harmonies from Weir and Lesh to cover the gaps, giving us the best of both worlds. Together with the bravely sparse but perfectly fitting backing (an acoustic, electric, pedal steel, a bass and Billy Kreutzmann doing a great job tapping the side of his drums rather than playing them fully) the end result is a fully convincing song about guilt in a country-ish mould that still manages to ring truer than almost any country song out there. Impressively serious given the band’s reputation as a party band, and as a result seriously impressive.
‘Dire Wolf’ is a fun song with a serious message. A third straight Garcia-Hunter song, it was started when the pair were watching a 1960s adaptation of Conan Doyle’s ‘Hound Of The Baskervilles’ on television one night and, having never seen or read it, tried to scare each other into what the ‘reveal’ of the monster might be. Hunter vaguely remembered something about a ‘dire wolf’ he’d read in the folk tale and the image tickled them both, although a ‘dire wolf’ is actually quite a small variation on the wolf species and one that was made extinct several millennia ago. In this song though the dire wolf is ‘a hundred pounds of sin’ and a strong intellectual challenge for the hapless coward of a narrator who offers up a chorus of ‘I beg of you, don’t murder of me!’ Like pretty much all the songs on this album its setting and its sparse backing (an acoustic, pedal steel and muffled drums), not to mention it’s extinct lead character mean this song could come from any era and it’s tale of people being outwitted at a card game (how did the dire world hold the cards?!) is a long-running Dead image of human beings out of their depth and meddling with powers they don’t understand. The song treated as a jolly tale, albeit one with enough edginess and doubt to make the listener appreciate just how quickly this cautionary tale could come true. Garcia sings it on the album but even by the time this album came out Bob Weir was singing it on stage and his growly delivery does suit the song better than Jerry, although all his vocals on this album are impressive. For Dead fans, though, the most memorable performance of this song was a rare outing with Jerry on lead, in the band’s final year of 1995 when a death threat against Garcia meant the band had to play with the house-lights up and police on stand-by in the auditorium. Tension before the gig was high until the Dead came on stage and opened with this track, the chorus of ‘please don’t murder me!’ causing much mirth!
Side one of the original album ends with ‘New Speedway Boogie’, the album’s second true classic and again its another song pretty much unique in the Dead canon. A philosophical debate trying to make sense over what happened at the Altamont festival earlier in the year, its largely stream-of-consciousness touching on whether the band and the hippie dream should continue when such nasty and unpreventable things can happen. The whole song could have ended up a long ramble but somehow manages to stay in focus, thanks to an often repeated chorus of ‘one way or another this darkness got to give’ – the perfect summation for a song about the tug-of-war between light and darkness, peace and hope versus death and destruction. Again Hunter’s lyrics deserve better from Garcia, who turns this truly great starting point into a curious hybrid of Motown and blues and Jerry’s harsher vocal isn’t quite as entertaining as his fragile ones. But that’s splitting hairs: somehow this song manages to take in the sheer weight and uncertainty of the period and still stay enough of a song for later generations to connect to, debating whether to ‘run away or stand still’ from a coming tragedy. It’s kind of the sister song to ‘St Stephen’, the song from ‘Aoxomoxoa’ that tried to make sense of the whole 1960s youth generational revolt in the context of the long history of mankind, suggesting that every generation that tries to head towards the light is never going to have things all their own way. The song doesn’t mince its lines either: the song ends with the whole movement of peace coming to a halt and the band breaking their own backs by trying to force the world into a movement it isn’t ready for (with the metaphor of a horse and cart). Incidentally, I don’t often like alternate mixes as bonus tracks on CDs (which are almost always an excuse for a record company to print ‘unreleased!’ on an album sleeve and con you into buying something you already own) but the unissued mix of this track is superb. The song opens with a witty conversation between the band about not wanting to go to jail that’s perfectly in keeping with the edgy vibe of the song, adds ghostly echo on the handclaps that are even more atmospheric and includes chanted harmonies from Lesh and Weir throughout in a perfect combination of angelic innocence and knowing sarcasm. They should have put this second version on the record.
The second side of ‘Workingman’s Dead’ is notably less successful than the first and ‘Cumberland Blues’ is probably my least favourite song on the record, despite appearing on more Dead live albums than any of the other songs! It’s a Phil Lesh song aided and abetted by Garcia and Hunter again and its another song about struggles from a past time that spells its subject matter out a little obviously. It stars a working class miner forced away from his soulmate to go down on a shift to a mine, dreaming about making ‘five dollars a day’, with a sly dig at the modern world with the man paying most of his pay packet on ‘union dues’. The words sound a little hollow and forced compared to the rest of the album and we never really get close to the heart of the characters in the song. The melody, too, is pure gold for the Dead improvisationary skills but suffers as a tune, being a little too sing-songy and obvious by their own high standards. That said, the performance of this song is terrific, with Garcia at last being able to let go on a rockabilly guitar riff and the group quite obviously bouncing off each other. There’s also a welcome change in texture, with the band singing the first two verses in three-part harmony, Weir taking the third and Garcia the fourth. Perhaps the best compliment paid to this song came from a man whose ancestors had worked the mines at Cumberland and rang up Hunter to complain. ‘What do you think the guy who wrote this would think if he knew a band like the Grateful Dead were gonna cover it?’ he’s said to have roared, only for Hunter to politely point out that all of the lyrics were his and there never actually was a traditional song called ‘Cumberland Blues’!
‘Black Peter’ is an interesting song, though, a bit too similar to ‘High Time’ for its own good but a still moving portrayal of a man on his death bed, wanting nothing more than a little peace to live out his final hours. Garcia is again perfectly cast as a fragile old man and his vocal is superb here, ghostly and consigned but still with enough proof of the raw pain of dying to make you understand how big and forceful a man he might have been in life before pain cast him so low. The song is so understated that at times its hard to hear until another wonderful middle eight rips through the song, with Garcia’s now powerful vocals looking back on how ‘every day been leading to this day’ and his disappointment that his life wasn’t important enough to change anything, with the world outside Peter’s window as full of the hustle and bustle as ever. By the end of the song people are running up to see Peter and bid him farewell, but more in a circus freak show way than as a noble last goodbye, something that causes Garcia to vent his anger with them once more before the song finally dies on a melancholy fade. To be honest I’d have loved to have heard more of that middle eight and less of the song’s main melody which is perfectly suited to the lyrics but is a little too subtle to get a hold on. Considering that songs about death were unusual in 1970 – and songs about death from nothing more glamorous than old age even more so – this is an impressive song, handled with care and subtlety from all concerned (especially Garcia), just sadly not one quite up to the high standards of ‘High Time’, with its similar structure and mood. Late-period live Dead versions of this song, when Garcia himself was close to death, are even more moving than this first version, with Garcia living rather than acting the part of a man on his last legs.
The narrator of ‘Easy Wind’ is very much alive, with Pigpen given a rare chance to strut his stuff and return the band briefly to their blues roots. A song written entirely by Hunter, its perhaps no surprise that the melody isn’t quite up to the words and for my money its nowhere near as good a song as the ones good ol’ Pigpen was writing in his final days (‘Two Souls In Communion’, sadly left unreleased till the 1990s because its author was too poorly to record it properly, is one of the band’s best songs I think). However, it’s nice to hear such a different sound breaking through on this album, with the Dead proving that they were still a remarkable improvisationary band with an outrageous break out between the third and fourth verses. Pigpen also turns in a great performance as the badboy narrator out enjoying himself after a hard time breaking rocks for a living, knowing he’s only got five years to live with the way he’s living and wanting to make the most of it. In fact the title of ‘easy wind’ is a lie – life for this narrator is hard, just as it is for pretty much every other character on this album, one whose spent his life fighting the currents of life to live it his way. Pigpen’s songs are generally subtler than this, with a sense of the emotional fragile figure wearing his take-no-prisoners attitude like a coat he can take off when he’s on his own, although there’s an all-time classic line with ‘gotta find a woman been good to me, won’t try to hide my liqueur, try to serve me tea!’ By the end, though, ‘Easy Wind’ has run out of steam (or wind-power anyway) and there’s at least one verse too many.
The album then ends on its cheekiest note with ‘Casey Jones’, an updated account of the old folk-story about the train engineer so out of it that he accidentally causes one of the biggest train wrecks of all time (the Dead also performed the wordy original in concert from time to time). The event, in 1900, was seen by many at the time as a rather ominous start to the 20th century, when as driver he accidentally drove his passenger vehicle ‘The Cannonball Express’ into a parked freight train, although it was also his bravery at the brakes that prevented the collision from being worse (there were many injuries but Casey was the only fatality). History generally records him as more of a tragic ‘hero’ figure than a ‘villain’ (certainly Casey was well regarded before the crash and known for his distinct train ‘whistles’ whenever anybody else was around to hear them), but the Dead come right out and say (probably unfairly) that the crash was all due to his drug use. Most fans see this song as a cute novelty song and laugh at the fact the band come right out and say that the driver was on ‘cocaine’ at the time of the crash (in the original, incidentally, and not actually a modernisation of the song – hard drugs were a societal problem long before the 1960s despite what the Daily Mail thinks) is also a bad pun on the line ‘Casey Jones you better watch your speed’. There’s something ominous about this novelty song, though, despite being set to another sing-songy riff and the oft-repeated line ‘trouble ahead, trouble behind’ is quite scary by about the seventh repeat played to the same riff, with the listener crying out for resolution instead of the band keeping so stubbornly to the same set of tracks. Given the context (the ‘warning’ to the 60s youth crowd to go alongside those in ‘New Speedway Boogie’ et al) it could be that this is Garcia and Hunter’s less than serious nod to the fact that the sixties train seems to be heading for a crash and that we’ve been here before (the First World War wasn’t long after the crash). The line about ‘cocaine’ is a throwaway detail in the original but it forms the heart of a much-repeated chorus in this version, sung a massive five times over and over in the elongated ending (there’s also a surprise ‘sniff’ at the beginning of the song, but you have to turn the volume up[ quite loud to hear it!) Garcia’s lead and Weir’s harmony vocal are superb, sung with all the relish you’d expect from a bunch of outlaws out to prove that ‘they’ are nothing new and have been around for generations. It’s easy to see why this song became such a hit with the band’s many followers and heard as a standalone ‘Casey Jones’ has a melody born for singing along to, but in context of the album it’s curious that the one genuine historical figure on the album is treated so slightly, given the real chaos and suffering his actions caused in 1900. It’s also odd to hear such a serious album mainly concerned with death end with a song about manslaughter that treats the whole thing as a joke – hear Kris Kristoffersen’s take (‘Casey’s Last Ride’), for instance, to hear a much more serious take on the same story.
So, all in all ‘Workingman’s Dead’ is an album of many hues, starting off in stark monochrome before exploding into colour by the end (and all the details of ‘Casey Jones’). By far the most memorable features of the album are the Dead’s lovely harmonies (more ragged than on ‘American Beauty’ but still amazingly proficient given that the band had hardly ever sung together before), Hunter’s memorable lyrics (among the best he ever wrote for the band) and the sheer bravery of releasing this kind of an album so badly out of time. While some songs here could be set any time, the suggestion is that all of these songs are ones from our past, mainly from the Victorian era and the moody black-and-white sleeve suggests that too. Considering that ‘Workingman’s Dead’ came out in the first half of 1970 that’s revealing indeed, the Dead going back to embrace a quite different era whilst most other bands who had begun in the sixties were more concerned in embracing the modern and the here and now. Somehow, though, many of these songs found their way to radio and the Dead had the biggest hit album of their career to date on their hands. It seemed like a whole new beginning for the Dead, but in the end sadly only ‘American Beauty’ followed this album’s mellow acoustic vibe (that said, had the ‘new’ songs from the following live records ‘Grateful Dead’ and ‘Europe ‘72’ been put together on a studio record they’d have sounded quite similar too). The end result is an impressive album, with much to admire, though in places this album is perhaps too dispassionate to embrace completely and does take something of a dip on the second side. Having just eight songs also means the experience seems over before it begins and although its overall running time of 35 minutes isn’t all that far off the average for the times it’s mighty short for a Grateful Dead album (where their long improvisations usually mean they struggle to fit their ideas onto two sides of vinyl). Successor ‘American Beauty’ is better I think, but if you love that album as much as I do then you’ll want to go back in time and hear the ‘stepping stone’ the band made putting that album together and how on earth the Dead managed to jump the chasm between that album and OTT psychedelic masterpiece ‘Aoxomoxoa’ so smoothly.