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“Grateful Dead” aka “Skulls and Roses” (1971)
Bertha/Mama Tried/Big Railroad Blues/Playing In The Band//(That’s It For) The Other One//Me and My Uncle/Big Boss Man/Me and Bobby McGee/Johnny B Goode//Wharf Rat/Not Fade Away-Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad
This week’s chapter dedicated to the wonderful world of news, views and music is all about dealing with the record company, Grateful Dead style. Back in 1968 and their second album ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ the Dead had already caused so many nervous breakdowns amongst members of the Warner Brothers staff assigned to work with the band that the Dead were – rather impolitely – told to get the job done themselves. Certain that these crazed hippies would never get their act together and would probably fold for good within a week, the company agreed to anything to get the band off their back, including full editorial control of their product. Come 1971, with the Dead’s massive record company debts repaid and their records selling better than almost anyone else’s on the label, Warner Brothers weren’t quite so sure they’d done the right thing. Then they got the phone call from someone in the Dead office warning them that their new double live album and a guaranteed heavy seller was to be titled ‘Skullfuck’. Remember, this was in 1971. When you couldn’t use the f word on the radio, on television, in the papers or for the most part in private conversation without being depicted as the harbinger of doom and destruction. Warner Brothers had no legal right any longer to stop the Dead calling the album what they wanted – and they didn’t want to lose the band either, whose strong sales were responsible for most of their profit that year. They were scared.
The Dead, however, knew full well the label would never let them use the title and were just having a little joke. After letting their bosses stew for a few weeks they offered a compromise; they’d agree to change the title if Warner Brothers would pay for a unique commercial enterprise, a series of concert broadcasts on national radio that their fans would love. The label were edgy – bootleg taping was a burgeoning industry back then and they feared that the band would simply play the songs from their new record and every Dead fan with a radio would promptly tape them. Worriedly, they asked the Dead to OK their planned setlists with them first which the Dead did, kindly agreeing to only plug one or two songs from the album. Warner Brothers had a sigh of relief. They’d finally got a good deal from those perishing San Franciscan hippies and come out best. What do those greasy hippies know about business anyway? They’d been so easily conned.
Legend has it the first radio concert went well. It was a big success in fact and album sales of what was to become known as ‘Grateful Dead’ (the chosen title despite the fact the Dead ha laready used it on their debut in 1966) were brisk. The band also kept their part of the bargain and played just ‘Bertha’ and ‘Wharf Rat’ to advertise the LP. However, all these plans went for naught when guitarist Bob Weir announced live, on air, to a kid in the front row with a microphone ‘no, no, if you want to tape us you’re going to have to move back a little to get the balance right...yeah, that’s right...tell you what, in the break you can plug your microphone directly into our mixing board and then you can have a tape of it to take home. And a big hello to all you tapers out there at home!’ In the ensuing interview Jerry Garcia then got kicked off the air for using the word ‘shit’ during a conversation about the Dead’s less inspiring shows that year and – despite the fact that no complaints were filed and no Dead fans probably noticed – the radio networks announced that they would never work with the band again. The score reads Grateful Dead 1, Warner Brothers 0.
This is the story behind how the Dead ended up releasing a second straight album titled ‘Grateful Dead’ just five years after their first. Some fans call this album its original jokey title ‘Skullfuck’ – others know it better as ‘Skulls and Roses’, after band artist friend Mouse’s iconic front cover painting of, err, a skull and roses (it looks mighty impressive on a gatefold vinyl sleeve, too, although it loses something reproduced in CD size like so many of these grand works). By any title, it’s the band’s seventh LP and came out at a time when they were about as celebrated as the Dead have ever been, coming after two straight commercial hits (‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’) and not that long after artistic classics (‘Anthem Of The Sun’ and ’Live/Dead’). The band, surely, were onto a winner.
Well, sadly not. ‘Grateful Dead’ or ‘Skulls and Roses’ or whatever we want to call it isn’t quite the Dead classic it should be. The Dead were on such a songwriting roll in 1970 that its hard to fathom why they should release an album the following year with only four original songs on it (one of which, ‘The Other One’, had first been released three years earlier). Nor indeed why the band should have decided to record live an album that is so obviously crying out for studio recordings (especially when the band went to all tat trouble to cut out the audience noise from the recordings). Had the Dead decided to ‘hang fire’ for a year in 1971 and released a ‘proper’ album in 1972 (made up of this album’s ‘Bertha’ ‘Wharf Rat’ and ‘Playing In The Band’ plus the ‘original’ songs from ‘Europe ‘72’ such as ‘He’s Gone’ ‘One More Saturday Night’ ‘Jack Straw’ ‘Ramble On Rose’ ‘Mr Charlie’ and ‘Tennessee Jed’ plus perhaps the best of the cover songs then this bunch of songs had the potential to be the best Dead album of all, or at least a match for the highs of ‘Workingman’s ‘ and ‘Beauty’. In the end, this album ends up coming off half-baked, without the finesse of their studio recordings and without the power of their more obviously live albums like ‘Live/Dead’. The 18 minutes of ‘The Other One’ may also be the most disappointing 18 of your life – or at least they were of mine – as one of the Dead’s career peaks, a thrilling cavalcade of noise, fire, turbulence, mystery, excitement and newness is relegated to a long and plodding drum solo that had poor Billy Kreutzmann on possibly the worst night of his career. Why filler like this made it to the album – never mind taking up a whole side of the original double LP – is unknown.
Yet you dismiss this album at your peril. Of the three new original songs, all three are superb, now Dead standards all three. ‘Playing In The Band’ isn’t yet the majestic gallant beast it will be on Bob Weir’s first solo record ‘Ace’ (in fact comparing the two is the difference between a sleek tiger pouncing on a mouse after careful planning and stealth and a one-man-band gorilla chasing it’s prey with a clash of cymbals) but its still an exciting, enervating, important song all about the Dead’s relationship with their audience. ‘Bertha’ is one of Garcia’s best rockers, with the oompah of the band’s Chuck Berry covers but with something extra decidedly Dead-like about the cryptic lyrics and the warning message at its heart (see below for just what unlikely subject this weird song is about). Finally ‘Wharf Rat’ is my favourite Dead song of them all, mournful and elegiac and amongst the best descriptions of poverty, futile dreams and hopeless characters ever written, a whole Dickens book compacted into song. All three tracks are highlights, not just of this album but of the band’s entire career and they all deserve better than to be slung away on a double live LP that doesn’t even have a ‘proper’ name.
Some of the covers aren’t that bad either, even if none of them come close to the poise and significance of the originals. ‘Mama Tried’ is a classic guilt-ridden in-prison song that’s a clear ‘sister song’ to Dead classic ‘Friend Of The Devil’, with a narrator on the wrong side of the tracks and agonising over how to bridge the gap (I’m amazed Johnny Cash never covered it as this Merle Haggard song is right up his street). ‘Big Railroad Blues’ is a strange song arranged superbly, Garcia and Weir uniting on a song that’s like a coda to ‘Mama Tried’. Pigpen’s near-farewell song ‘Big Boss Man’ is a welcome chuckling take on an old blues classic, the band revelling in the hint of menace and one-upmanship in the words rather than the betrayal and heartbreak. Even the two old 1950s songs that every band together more than five minutes has at least tried to cover (Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’ and Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’) sound better here than in almost any other permutation.
The main problem of this record is one that was summed up in m ny reviews of the time: why, after two of the most groundbreaking records of their age, were the Dead suddenly so directionless? I’ve read several books on the Dead and I still don’t really have the answer. Sure ‘Skulls and Roses’ or whatever its called was cheap, recorded live in three or four goes rather than clocking up expensive studio time over weeks with the tapes running at huge cost and most Dead fans agree that the band always sounded better live. But the Dead had already released two previous live albums, each superior to this, simply because they don’t ‘sound’ like live albums; ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ is a glorious collage which cross-fades between several different versions of the album songs from second to second, stretching out in thousands of directions at once; ‘Live/Dead’ is structured around its four core songs which last a minimum of 10 minutes each and sounds so different to the restricted studio Dead sound that it might as well be a different group playing. Here the Dead don’t know whether to simply make another studio record like the last two albeit recorded out on the road) with little of their trademark improvisation or make another extended Dead opus, ending up with an uneasy hybrid between the two. It doesn’t help that, sonically, this live record is actually better than any of the Dead’s studio records thus far, remarkably clear and well balanced and a real credit to engineers Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor.
One sop to studio perfection was an overdub session added later featuring organist Merl Saunders, a friend of Garcia’s. For years I thought this was another slight on the ailing Pigpen’s behalf, as the band attempted to cover up their once lead singer’s failing health with a pointless revivalism (Pig was by far the band’s best keyboard player, wrong notes and all), but I was wrong: Saunders was actually brought in at Pigpen’s request, who loved his style of playing. Legend has it that Saunders didn’t know any of these songs – he only knew a handful of old Jerry originals after playing in the Garcia band – and was simply told to ‘play’ over the top of the tape. The result is odd: the playing is often superb (the organ part in ‘Playing In The Band’ is particularly spot on and suggests Saunders could have been a major part of the 1970s Dead) but its mixed too high and in places its obvious it doesn’t follow the same natural ‘flow’ of the other musicians. There’s a long standing quote that the Dead members play ‘like the fingers on one hand’ which is largely true; adding a sixth bionic finger seems like a genetic intervention too far.
One positive, however, is that this is one of the few chances Dead fans have to hear Billy Kreutzmann’s superb drumming solo. This is the same period that second drummer Micky Hart has left the band, having discovered to his horror that his oddball father – hired by the band as manager to ‘keep it in the family’ – has run off with the band’s money (The pained Europe ’72 track ‘He’s Gone’ is at least in part about this affair: ‘you know better but I know him’). Hart was well loved by the rest of his colleagues who felt no blame on his part (indeed Mickey will join the band in full after their 18 month hiatus ends in 1975), but Micky felt too guilty to be part of the group. The task must have been especially difficult for Billy, who has lost his ‘soulmate’ within the band (people forget that Micky only joined the band at Billy’s urging) and yet has to make enough ‘noise’ to cover his absence. He handles the job superbly across this album, switching styles depending on whether the band are playing country, blues, rock or one of their more psychedelised originals and its an awful shame that its his worst drumming on the record (‘The Other One’) that makes the album as a celebrated ‘solo’. Just listen to his inventive and complex part on ‘Big Boss Man’; the joke about doing traditional songs is that the 1930s and 40s only differ from the 1960s because they didn’t have good bass players; I add here that it’s the drummer that makes all the difference, giving what in the original Jimmy Reed version was a rather tame, throwaway joke a real power and frustration. I’m also mighty impressed with Billy’s playing on more traditional Dead fare like ‘Playing In The Band’ (where the band listen to him for when to come in, rather than Garcia like normal) and ‘Wharf Rat’, where a less sensitive player would have smothered the song with sound rather than leaving meaningful empty silences. It’s not for nothing that the ‘Golden Road’ box set booklet records how Billy was playing ‘like a little God’ by Phil Lesh (actually in the sleevenotes to next record 'Europe '72' but more applicable here I think); much as I love the joint percussion work of Billy and Micky together it’s almost a shame when the band go back to business as usual in 1974-5.
The other distinguishing feature of this album is the impressive cover art by ‘Mouse’ (as regular artist Stanley Miller is better known to Dead fans) of a skeleton adorned with roses, based on the original cover illustration of the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ series of poems (a thousand in total – and you thought I wrote lots!) which date back to the 11th century. Like the Dead, it could be argued, these poems are left elusive so that they have been open to almost as many interpretations as they have been read over the years. Scholars have argued that the poems are evidence of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and atheism and have even spent whole books arguing whether the poems are ‘for’ or ‘against’ such differing subjects as alcohol, religion and fatalism. The sense you get from the few I’ve read is that the compilers (allegedly just Khayyam but probably the work of several writers) aren’t trying to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ anything; they’re merely trying to portray life as they see it around them, without comment or bias (of course a writer always has some form of ‘bias’ simply by what he chooses to include or miss out, but hopefully you get my gist all the same). The fact that translations into different languages almost always throw up new translations every time adds to the hazy, confusing feel of the work. Who does this sound like? Why the good ‘ol Grateful Dead of course, weaving folk tales round the concert campfires that might or might not be traditional in origin, might have a message or might not and are really just a description of their times, without the outrage and politicism of Jefferson Airplane and CSNY or the social poetry of a Paul Simon or Ray Davies, rather earthy in description but also quite possible full of mystical, spiritual importance too. The cover was a good choice.
One other distinguishing feature of the album artwork was a rather novel questionnaire asking Dead fans to get in touch with the band. And not just in a fan club-get a badge and a free picture- way either, but a fully blown attempt to organise Dead ‘happenings’ and get their fans to meet up with each other way from the concerts. As it turns out this invention (probably Garcia’s according to most books) wasn’t all that successful a) because the Airplane stole its thunder with its poetic message to fans to be ‘ready’ when the starship of hippies call for them on Paul Kantner and co’s ‘Blows Against The Empire’ a few months before and b) because the Dead never quite got it together enough to let the invite be anything more than a glorified mailing list. But still, how many other bands were even thinking about their fans as an integral part of a band’s appeal at this point? And how many were simply prepared to be the passive means by which their fans got together, started new friendships, new interests, new revolutions? The wording, you see, is very Dead: ‘Who are you? Where are you? How are you?...Everybody ought to think of ways to get together with other Dead freaks. At any rate, we know where you all are, we have all your addresses and WE HAVE YOUR NAME!’
Overall, then, ‘Grateful Dead’ aka ‘Skullfuck’ aka ‘Skulls and Roses’ aka ‘That weird album with the cover that looks like it comes from some zombie film’ is a poor album with some very good ideas. The cover, as discussed, is superb - everything a Dead artwork should be. The three new originals are as good as the Dead ever got, full of pathos, sensitivity and performed with that natural, eerily natural spontaneity that only the Dead can bring. The Dead performances of some of the covers also proves what an original, inventive band they could be, featuring the debut recordings of several songs that went on to be regulars in their concerts for over 30 years. Yet for all that imagination and verve there’s something hollow about this album. The 18 minutes of ‘The Other One’ may be the longest of your Dead listening life, packing only three ‘new’ songs onto a ‘new ‘record seems like career suicide after two strong albums full of strong material that have had the world at your feet and at 72 minutes this album is short for a double record. Half of the album has you asking ‘why?’, even if the other half of the album is so terrifically amazing that you feel you’ll never have to ask ‘why?’ about anything ever again. Surprisingly, this album won over the critics of the day almost as much as career highlight ‘American Beauty’ (if you think my writing is OTT try this review from ‘Rampart’ music magazine in 1971: ‘[This album’s] neo-Rousseauvian ruralism is exposed as possessing severe limits, with violence and despair in cities, with conventional politics and economics worse than irrelevant, nobody seems to know where to turn...’) and good as parts of it is I’m not quite sure why this album won so many people over. Superb in part and featuring some of the best work the Dead ever did – but woefully, inexplicably inconsistent.
‘Bertha’ is one of Garcia and Hunter’s rockier songs, with a chunky rhythm guitar lick, a booming Motown-ish bass riff and a killer catchy chorus. On first glance its lyrics are about a pesky woman who keeps chasing the narrator and makes his life a misery – but actually the inspiration was a lot more prosaic than that, it was inspired by a fan (no, not that sort!) In the hot summer of 1971 the Grateful Dead office had a large electric fan installed which, for reasons best known to themselves, the staff nicknamed ‘Bertha’. Unfortunately, like many things in the Dead universe, Bertha was slightly wonky and its motor was far too powerful for the stand it was on, which meant it would occasionally chase people around the room when it span out of control. No wonder this song has a chorus that runs ‘I really had to move!’ The second and third verses are weirder, though, and unusually simplified by Bob Hunter’s standards, with the narrator being chased to some cliffs and the escaping to first a bar and then in jail. There is no ending to the song either – you sense that Bertha is still waiting for Garcia when ‘the sun goes down’; and he’s released once more. Trust Garcia to turn such an oddball story into a song, but ‘Bertha’ is one of the Dead’s finer rockers of the period, giving him plenty of space to stretch out on his guitar solos. However, there’s something slightly rushed about this early live performance that made the record – like many Dead performed the song much better when it had been around for a few years and the many live gigs from the mid 70s featuring this song are generally superior to this one.
‘Mama Tried’ is one of the better choices of covers on the album, with the Dead electric power giving this Merle Haggard song a bit more clout than most cover versions (the song is only three years old when the Dead sing it, though, so this is one of the earlier cover versions of it around). The narrator is a ‘rebel child from a family meek and mild’, lured by the bright lights of the city and easily corruptible. By the time the song flashed back to the present day he’s ‘turning 21 in prison, doing life without parole’ and feeling guilty about all the people who tried to warn him about this day (his ‘mama’ especially). (Haggard admitted later this song was partly autobiographical, as the songwriter did indeed turn 21 when serving time in San Quentin, though it was for a minor misdemeanour rather than a crime deserving ‘life without parole’). Haggard’s original is sincere and heartfelt and one of his better songs; the Dead’s performance, though is a little ragged and Bob Weir’s vocal tries too hard to sound like a faithful country boy to match the original (Garcia’s rockier ragged harmonies are pretty good mind) although the Dead win out slightly thanks to the ensemble playing when the band hit the chorus (‘And I turned 21 in prison...’). The song seems like a terribly strange choice for the Dead to do (guilt for being different and slightly rebellious isn’t something you’d expect them to take to readily), but the band seemed to love it, totting up some 300 performances of the song across 25 years or so.
‘Big Railroad Blues’ carries on the same theme, with Garcia’s troubled narrator homeless and sleeping rough on a train, desperately trying to escape the ‘jailor’ come to put him away. Realising that ‘I should have listened to what my mama said’ the narrator seems to be on the run, the clever melody mimicking the hop from carriage to carriage as the man is pursued. While slightly more Dead-friendly than the last song (this is more of a straight forward rock and roll tune than a country and western) and with plenty of space for some more fiery lead guitar work from Garcia (who is exceptional across this album), the same problems apply. I’d love to know what the Dead audiences made of these two songs which, to some extent make a mockery of the ‘run away with the circus and turn your back on capitalism’ magical pull of the band. I’ve never actually heard the original version of this song (its by the ‘Cannon Jug Stompers’ apparently) and I’ve not been unable to unearth where the Dead might have learned it (most sites quote the Dead as the first band to formerly record the song), although AAA fans might be interested to learn that Jorma Kaukanen’s group ‘Hot Tuna’ (a spin-off from Jefferson Airplane) also recorded the song in 1999.
‘Playing In The Band’ is the next key song on the album, a gorgeous (and rare) collaboration between Weir, Hunter and departing drummer Micky Hart that sounds more like a Who composition in the way it tried to understand the relationship between band and audience. Weir’s narrator admits that he’s a hopeless, typical human being whose life is full of mistakes and missed opportunities, but that he – and his audience – all get to the real ‘truth’ of life when they join together at a Grateful Dead concert. A series of witty parables infiltrate the song like a musical version of Aesop’s fables (‘Some folks look for answers, some folk look for fights, some are up in treetops just looking at the sights’) while the band truly get behind the song musically to make it sound like a revelatory, almost religious experience. Everything in this song sounds guided by some greater hand, as the band pass through section after section and yet somehow get back to the same place all together at the same time. Not bad for a song that started off as an interesting rhythm part Micky improvised during one bored recording session! (It’s a measure of how forgiving the Dead are that they still credit the drummer for kick-starting the song despite the fact that he’s not in the band anymore and the fact that its his father whose put them in such a precarious financial position that this album had to be released at all). However, the band are still clearly learning the song by the time of its appearance on ‘Skulls and Roses’ and their playing and especially their harmonies are quite ragged in parts. If you’re a fan of this song then I strongly urge you to dig out the studio re-recording on Bob Weir’s first solo album ‘Ace’ where various members of the Dead family and new-boy pianist Keith Godchaux excel themselves with a breathtaking performance that’s amongst the band’s strongest on record. How the band manage to get that atonal and yet all hit the same reprise when it matters is one of those glorious Dead mysteries that make you feel that this band clearly aren’t human! The two performances also have a few little lyrics changes: the people ‘just lookin’ for their kites’ has become people ‘lookin’ to see sights’ by the time of ‘Ace’. The song became something of a Grateful Dead standard down the years, outperformed only by ‘Sugar Magnolia’ across the band’s 30 years on stage.
‘The Other One’ has already been covered by us on our review for the Dead’s second album ‘Anthem Of The Sun’. However here’s a short precise: Garcia’s strummed minstrel opening embraces destruction and death (ie the 1950s), Bob Weir escapes to run away with the circus (‘A bus came by and I got on, that’s where it all began’, while watching ‘children learning from books that they were burning’, thus neatly summing up the mid 60s) before the whole thing spirals out of control and leaves us back where we began, facing annihilation again circa the end of 1967. The song is called ‘The Other One’ because it was the band’s ‘other’ big improvisatory song after ‘Dark Star’ and no one could come up with a proper name (have a look at the four min-suites listed on ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ to see why...) Of course, if you’ve tuned in simply to read about the ‘Skulls and Roses’ version of the tune then you won’t need to know any of that. All you need to know is that drum solos suck – especially when they take up 8 precious minutes of one of the Dead’s career best songs. Not that this performance gets any better when the rest of the band chip in – this version of ‘The Other One’ is the most ragged, slow and downright uninteresting variation out of the 20-odd Dead performances of the song I have in my collection. If the band wanted to use the song so badly why couldn’t they have included the extraordinary Fillmore West performance from 1969 (included in the ‘So Many Roads’ box set), by far the best performance of this song the Dead ever did (that I know of) and one of their best full stop (the band mean every word they sing and the guitar solo flight at the end, desperately trying to stave off destruction before finally falling crumpled at the band’s feet, is a tremendously powerful experience). Alas this version doesn’t pounce on your emotion – it simply rambles, like the band haven’t played this song in a while and are trying to learn how it goes. They seem to have forgotten entirely by the end of the song too, falling part in a squeal of feedback and noise which is a whole lot interesting than the usual direction-filled use of feedback and noise on most Dead performances. Learn on your own time guys – we want to hear this song played the way it was meant to be! What a waste...
‘Me and My Uncle’ is another curious cover song, a John Phillips original written just too late to appear on a ‘Mamas and Papas’ album. It’s an unusually strident, rockabilly number that again sees the Dead playing around with country and western influences. In the song the narrator is a cowboy in the ole’ wild west and comes to the aid of his uncle when a bunch of crooks accuse him of cheating in a card game and try to shoot him (the narrator gets in first). The uncle dies too, but instead of rushing for help for him the narrator reflects on all the life-lessons his uncle taught him and decides to use them (‘so I grabbed the gold and left his dead ass by the side of the road’). Given the strange turns Phillips life took in the 70s (drug addictions, prison, an alleged incestuous relationship with daughter Mackenzie) this song sounds like an uncomfortable bit of self-realisation about where is life was heading and how powerless he was to stop it. Weir’s lead is a lot more impressive this time around and the song suits him much better, rattling off the words at a real gallop, although again its Garcia’s double-time guitar solo that steals the show. A curious song, this one, quite different to anything the Dead ever do again, and one that is only a qualified success.
‘Big Boss Man’ is more like it, a fairly famous song from the 60s that’s best known for covers by Elvis and Jimmy Reed (although The Animals’ lesser known version is about the best). Pigpen’s tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the song is delightful and he sounds like the blues hollerer of old, not the frail figure he was on stage at the time (Pig dies from liver failure 18 months from here). The song is sure to chime with many, telling the tale of a powerful boss whose corrupt and lazy, relying on the hard work of his underlings to see him right day after day. Realising that his boss is all mouth and no substance, the usual interpretation of this song is anger or frustration. The Dead, however, go in for mockery, slowing down the tempo, relishing the dreams of escape (‘I’ll work hard in the daytime, but I’ll sure get stoned at night!’) and taking the mickey out of the bosses’ attempts to restore order. The ‘feeling’ in this song is that both band and audience have already ‘seen’ through the lies of the capitalist system and have found their own alternative way to life, as represented by the Grateful Dead. It’s just a shame that this way of life will see the early death of so many of the band – not least poor Pigpen whose at his mesmerising best on this song, playing some wonderful blues harmonica and a guttural vocal caught somewhere between a taunt and a chuckle. Probably the best cover on the album.
‘Me and Bobby McGee’ is a Kris Kristoffersen song that was big in the news in 1971. Fellow AAA member Janis Joplin died mere weeks after recording the song which, when released as a single, became her only #1 hit. Legend has it that the Dead started singing it on stage as their tribute to their fallen comrade, as well as the Garcia-Hunter original ‘Bird Song’ (‘She sang for a little while and then flew off’). The song is apt in both versions for the pained chorus (‘Freedom’s just another word for ‘nothing left to lose’) and the rather bittersweet verse lyrics that seem to suggest that everything ends so don’t get too close to anything or you’ll get stung (‘I’d trade all my tomorrows for one yesterday’) – except music (‘feeling good was easy when Bobby sang the blues’). Janis barked the hell out of the song, which is why it became so associated with her – alas the Dead don’t have the same investment in the song and theirs is slow and unusually cautious, tentative rather than thrilling and sweet rather than memorable. The fact that the Dead had two Bobbies ‘singing the blues’ in Weir and Hunter makes for a sweet band-and-fan chuckle, but that’s about it. Oh by the way – in Kris Kristoffersen’s original ‘Bobby’ is a woman; Janis changed the sex when she covered the song and the Dead stuck to it, making it more of a ‘brothers in arms’ song than a love song.
‘Johnny B Goode’ was the band’s 1971 ‘rock song’ (there was usually one in the set-list somewhere) and the band play their cover version super fast, matching almost Chuck Berry’s original for speed. However, the band don’t have the same finesse so that the ‘clear ringing sound’ (as if you were ringing a bell) of the original is substituted for noise and power. Garcia sounds surprisingly at home on the solo, though, getting to grips with Berry’s riff even more than Keith Richards does on the Stones’ records and the band are clearly relishing the fact that they are playing something fun rather than something meaningful or substantial. Like the last song, it’s another piece about how music can cure all ills – like composer Chuck Johnny is born in poverty and hopeless in school, seemingly born for a life of drudgery and emptiness. Instead he overcomes it all by his ear for music, living to see his name ‘in lights’. A more apt choice for the Dead than many critics assume, then, with most of the band (expect perhaps the university student Phil Lesh) coming from a similar background and using music as their stepping stone to all the success the education system denied them. One of the better covers of this song around, although still no match for Chuck Berry’s life-affirming original.
‘Wharf Rat’ is the real reason you need to own this album, however, my favourite of all the songs the Dead ever did. A melodramatic Garcia-Hunter original, on paper this song should be as boring as a maths exam: the song sticks to one chord more or less throughout and if its tempo slowed down just a smidgeon more it would be standing still. But the melancholy of the tune, the poignancy of the words and the power of the performance make up for everything. The narrator stumbles across a man at the wharf (‘way down,down, down by the docks of the city’, a line that neatly sums up his depressing situation). With no money himself he can’t offer aid to the man, but he can at least hear his story. And what a story it is, dear readers – the man named August West (visions of sun setting suns there) was sent to prison instead of a real killer and, when released back to nothing, becomes an alcoholic. However he still dreams of getting back on his feet, to the accompaniment of a terrific mock-gospel organ from Merl Saunders overdubbed later, and pleads with the God he’d only just dismissed out of hand (‘He’s no friend of mine’) to see him right. With a pained cry of ‘I’ll get up and fly away!’ the band launch into some of the best improvising of their career, locked into a prison of the same rigid key they can’t escape, Garcia almost levitating as he tries everything he can to find a way out of those prison walls, launching into perhaps his greatest ever solo with a squeal of feedback, tiredness, pain and injustice. The song reverts back to the narrator who, shocked by the story, goes back to thinking about his own life and seeing ther world through new eyes, questioning the previously safe and certain world he once saw around him, even wondering if his girls’ being true to him. ‘Wharf Rat’ is famously only the third song to ever use the ‘f word’ (the first two are both AAA songs: John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ and Jefferson Airplane’s still shocking ‘We Can Be Together’) but what else could the writers do? (‘Half my life I spent doing time for some other ducker’s crime’ hardly sounds the same without the word there). It should be even more famous for being one of the most moving Hunter-Garcia songs, with one of Bob Hunter’s most gripping and believable characters in August West, a character we know is trying so hard to better himself and yet never can, caught up in a cycle of inhumanity, fear and anger. Listen out, too, for the clever way Hunter balances the song on a tightrope between first and third person, so that you’re never entirely sure whose singing (the hint being that this sad life could happen to any of us at any time without any warning or reason). Garcia’s performance of this song is riveting too, clearly believing every word and with his voice even cracking at times as he tries to find a good point in this sad sad story. His music, too, is extraordinary – beautiful but in a fragile, doomed sense (no wonder this is the same partnership who came up with the ‘he had to die’ section of ‘The Other One’). In all ‘Wharf Rat’ is as good as music gets, saying so much more than its few lines tell us and conjuring up a whole world beyond the grooves in a record.
After such an extraordinary song the closing medley of ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad’ sounds like something of an anti-climax. Buddy Holly’s song was covered so many times by the Dead that they did in just about every form going, although this medley sadly isn’t one of them (its slight reggae-ish lilt is distracting and its shared Garcia and Weir harmonies too loose for comfort). Things liven up by the time the band are letting fly on the song’s end, somehow turning the stop-start quality of the song into the simple 4/4 time of Cliff Carlisle’s forgotten blues song. Unfortunately while these songs tail together quite neatly musically, there’s no link between these two thematically: the first is about love staying constant over time - the second is about a homesick band wanting to go home. The band are also just a fraction too loose to sustain interest in the song (had they made the push for the segue a few minutes earlier this medley would have fared better), but then loose jamming is after all something of a dead speciality. Still, this isn’t the Dead at their best and makes for a pretty limp end to the LP.
In fact, this is a pretty limp LP overall. Fans expecting another ‘Workingman’s Dead’ or ‘American Beauty’ must have been furious at having to spend double their money for a double record that featured only half as many songs as those LPs. Had the Dead had the patience to wait and combine this batch of originals with those destined for ‘Europe ‘72’ then we fans might have had a treat on our hands. After all, the originals on offer here are all superb and among the best the Dead wrote (indeed, as songs all four of them are of a higher standard than the more famous songs the Dead cover on this album) – there just isn’t enough of them. However, it would be unfair to dismiss the cover songs here merely as filler – cover songs were always more integral to the Dead’s setlists than most band’s and varied from night to night without much warning or rehearsal, hence the roughness of some of the performances. The band could have taken the easy route and made this a single album quite easily, but by giving us 70 odd minutes its like having half a Dead concert of our own to enjoy; one no better or worse than all the other Dead concerts they gave in this period. However, like many snapshot live albums it’s superseded as soon as the next one comes along and probably never played again (the Stones are particularly bad at this), just like snapshot photographs. For ‘Wharf Rat’ alone this album is still an integral essential part of any self-respecting Dead album collection – but newcomers be warned; if this your first stop on the Dead train then you might not stay onboard for the more interesting destinations (and that would be a real shame!)