Friday 4 July 2008

Grateful Dead "American Beauty" (1970) (Revised Review 2015; Originally 'Core' Review #40)

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Grateful Dead "American Beauty" (1970)

On which the Dead celebrate Americana with their most beautiful record…

Track Listing: Box Of Rain/ Friend Of The Devil/Sugar Magnolia/ Operator/ Candyman// Ripple/ Brokedown Palace/ Till The Morning Comes/ Attics Of My Life/ Truckin’ (UK and US tracklisting) 

"Some forty-five years on and everything you know is aging, lost my spare teeth and they say I don't have any more bite, but you know what it's like in a world where everything's perpetually changing, your old age can't help feeling wrong when your youth it got things so right, sometimes the lights still shine all the day, especially when we're reviewed by the AAA, we never again had quite so much to say, except that - hey - what a long strange trip it's been..."

(Missing verse from parallel world versions of 'Truckin' as recorded by a still-touring Grateful Dead in 2015. The song's running to some 45 verse by now and takes an hour and a half to play!)

LONG haired psychedelic weirdoes they may have been, but the Dead still knew how to tell a concise, moving story in a three-minute pop song. The difference is that up till now the Dead haven't had to - the excitement has all been about the songs and ringing the most out of them  but as the sixties turned to the seventies and a more mellow laidback approach was the order of the day the Dead were at the crest of that wave too. American Beauty is probably the Dead’s most popular album full of several of their most popular songs, but interestingly it's also the most atypical to their traditional image, being a harmony-laden, easygoing moving masterpiece that brought a whole new dimension to the band’s already multi-pronged sound. To some extent this album and its predecessor Workingman’s Dead is a compromise, a chance to record an album quickly and hassle free that would appeal to American radio and help reduce the monstrous debts the Dead owed Warner Bros without scaring off too many long-term fans. Yet it's not as cynical an album as that makes it sound, because this is not in any way, shape or form the Dead’s most conservative album: the band confront several taboo subjects head on in their tightly packed lyrical songs, with thoughts about death, passing time and bad karma catching up with you with a maturity way beyond their years. Many critics would claim that the Dead simply discovered discipline, working these songs over and over until they were pared back to their essence. However for me the biggest change, as hinted in the title, is that the Dead have discovered beauty for the first time after years of writing about the more turbulent side of life: no one listening to the fevered frightening nightmare of 'St Stephen' or the bouncy jolly ride of 'China Cat Sunflower' could have guessed that a song as accepting and brilliantly pretty as 'Attics Of My Life' was round the corner.

There's a tale that nervous Warner Brothers executives listened back to this album in shock, amazed that the Dead could sound this good (and marketable!), nervously waiting till the end to see if the band would throw them a curve-ball at the end. Instead the Dead even went to the trouble of doing their job for them, putting the most marketable songs at the beginning and ends of the sides where busy disc-jockeys could 'find' them. To give them their dues, the record label played their part too and pushed this album in most of the right places, enabling people who'd either never heard of the Dead or long assumed they weren't their cup of tea to give them another go. Whilst still not that strong a seller (only in 1987 will the Dead come close to getting anything close to what most bands would consider a 'mainstream hit') 'American Beauty' fulfilled everything that could be asked of it: the record rekindled interest in the band, proved that there was more to them than feedback and thirty minute suites and it paid off all their debt. In many respects it's almost a shame that the album was quite as successful as it was - a couple more low-key on-the-cheap beauties like this one in the Dead catalogue and I doubt many fans would be complaining!

Immediately when you play this record you know that something has changed, even compared to stepping stone 'Workingman's Dead'. The performances are tighter, the songs more accessible, the whole somehow more beautiful than before. That's especially true of the vocals, with the Dead borrowing heavily from their friends in Crosby, Stills and Nash for a sound that's somehow very much of the time (lots of West Coast bands were doing this sort of thing in the early 70s) and yet still very distinctively Dead. For a start the three voices don't do what you'd expect: in every band from CSN on down Garcia's pretty high-pitched voice would be the top harmony; here he's the lead. Bobby, with the most commercial and middle pitched voice would normally be in the middle - but he's on the bottom (even when he sings lead on 'Truckin' and 'Magnolia' the choruses go back to this arrangement). Phil has the deepest natural voice, but he's on top with some alarming falsetto work that's awfully good (sadly he'll all but give up singing after this album, with 'Box Of Rain' his first and last lead vocal for the band until 1974). However the Dead are in perfect harmony with each other in far more ways than just vocally: the explosive telepathic runs of 1968-69 notwithstanding, this may still be the best performance the band ever gave in the studio, covering each other magnificently throughout this album’s surprisingly complex vocal twists and turns. All the band get showcases of sorts across the record and while Jerry is still very much the man with most of the ideas in this period this is far more of a 'band' record than 'Workingman's. While many critics compared the Dead's 'new' style to CSN and The Band they're actually wrong in one sense - CSN was all about how three very different voices could unite when they shared the same goal; 'The Band' too had various increasingly cynical takes on modern-day American living. By contrast the Dead all seem to be after the same things - namely peace, love and understanding - and only Pigpen's 'Operator' stands out on an album notably similar throughout in feel (it helps that Garcia's writing partner Bob Hunter wrote all the lyrics except that song, including the Lesh and two Weir songs for the one and only time).

The other major development is Garcia's new purchase of a pedal steel. Whilst he'll soon get tired of his toy and had already made a name when using it on sessions outside the band (CSNY's 'Teach Your Children' being the most famous example) it's here where Garcia will use it most. Sounding more like his fragile and thin but courageously gritty vocals than his more quick-flying electric guitar spins, the pedal steel really give flavour and atmosphere to this album, coating every song with a sense of nostalgia, tradition and melancholy. Jerry uses the instrument sparingly across this album - even the rock powerhouses like 'Magnolia and 'Truckin' don't actually have much of a solo on the studio versions - but the pedal steel is used often and well, especially the lengthy solo in the middle of 'Candyman' that's positively heartbreaking and may well be the best of his many jaw-droppingly spot-on solos in this book (hinting at everything the narrator has given up to score their next 'fix', of whatever it is they're fixed on). Elsewhere the other memorable addition to the band's bag of sounds comes in the shape of Dave Nelson, a comrade from New Riders Of The Purple Sage (a kind of countryfied version of the Dead with whom both Jerry and Mickey frequently guested) who plays some delightful mandolin on 'Ripple' and 'Friend Of The Devil' (a song that was initially given to New Riders before the Dead 'pinched' it - a demo with a slowed down pure country arrangement survives but sadly hasn't been released yet). All these extra sounds cut back on what the Dead were known for - guitar bass and two lots of drums - and Pigpen's ailing health and the loss of Tom Constanten mean there's less keyboards on this album than usual too (although session musician and AAA regular Nicky Hopkins plays some lovely choppy chords on 'Candyman' again).

Thankfully these sounds weren't mere gimmicks - the Dead most certainly had the songs to go with them. Garcia and Hunter had been heading towards the lyrical, dramatic, visually precise material on this album for several years now and the strong reception given to 'Workingman's Dead' has clearly invigorated them. Partly because of the debt still hanging over their head from 'Aoxomoxoa' but mainly because the songs came at speed, the Dead were back in the studio almost straight away and wrote, recorded and mixed this album within the space of a couple of months - a ridiculously speedy response. What's staggering is that the album is strong enough to build on even a promise as great as 'Workingman's, with Garcia and Hunter on the roll of a lifetime that will make this album their most consistent (with only 'Till The Morning Comes' under-par). Old college friends unexpectedly re-united in 1968, Garcia and Hunter are the perfect foils for each other on this album and their words and music fit together so well throughout this album that they might well have been by the same person. The two certainly had a greater writing bond than most pairings. They were living in the same house during this period, with Garcia choosing to flat-share while still trying to pay off his share of the Dead’s debts to Warner Brothers after three flop albums in a row at the beginning of their career. Garcia, downstairs, would often practise his guitar licks and play around with chords while Hunter upstairs would hear the songs through the thin floor of his room and occasionally be inspired by Garcia’s improvising enough to write, with the two often working on the same ‘song’ without the other knowing till they met up the next morning. So well does this arrangement work that you wonder why they ever moved out - or why the Deadhead community didn't build them their own millionaire's cottage so they could work together forevermore.  

Hunter’s words are more like poetry than lyrics and are never better than on this album, fitting Garcia, Lesh and Weir’s vocal characters snugly while offering Hunter’s own delightful poetic take on the universe in addition. Both narrow in its autobiographical scope (never has the history of a band been so comical yet moving as it has in Truckin’) and wide in its subject matter (Box Of Rain covers the grim reaper awaiting us all with unbearable poignancy and there are also debates about religion and mankind’s spiritual journey on Ripple and Attics Of My Life), American Beauty covers a staggering amount of ground. There's little on the surface that seems to unite these songs either - compared to earlier and later Dead albums that are all bases around a 'theme' - but after getting to know this record well I do see a theme of 'faith' cropping up. 'Box Of Rain' tries to find words of comfort in a situation where none can really be found and yet finds the right words anyway, simply by virtue of facing the darker side of life head-on in the hope that further down the road there will be an answer, that 'the sun will be shining and birds will be singing' and even this hardship will pass. 'Operator' and 'Sugar Magnolia' are love songs based around faith - the former is a Pigpen song about his faith that all will be well if only the narrator's crush will answer her bleeding phone, while the latter is a Weir song about how the narrator has come to rely so much on his partner being there whenever he needs her ('Takes the wheel when I'm seeing double, pays my ticket when I speed!') 'Candyman' is an addiction to...something (Drugs? Women? Booze?) based around the rather misguided idea that the drug dealer will always be around when the narrator calls. 'Ripple' goes to some very strange places indeed, being one of Hunter's most multi-layered lyrics, written in a sudden spurt of creativity during a trip to England that even the author can't explain. This too though is a hymn of faith that this world is all part of a bigger plan, that in the song's most quoted phrase 'there is a fountain that is not touched by the hands of man' (though whether planted by God alien or Deadhead time-travelling from the future is never explained). 'Brokedown Palace' and 'Attics Of My Life' both mourn a lost comrade that the narrator once had faith in. One reading of the former song is that a city-dweller turns their back on everything they know to re-join with nature, while the latter song is a nostalgic song about missed opportunities and a realisation that life was better with someone to share it with. Even the song's most famous moment 'Truckin' - originally intended as a song that would be updated with every tour and twist in the story - is a song about the band's relationship with their fans and their mutual faith that their shared journey was one worth taking, with every drug bust, bum gig and tiring tour worth it when added against the brilliance that was shared between the two over the years.

Many a fan has also speculated about the 'American' part of the title. The Dead never make any reference to their homeland again (bar a sparring 'US Blues' in 1974) and while they feature several 'outlaws' and 'cowboys' in their work there isn't the heavy sense of American History you get from, say, The Beach Boys or The Byrds. This album doesn't really have an Americana theme either (although 'Friend Of The Devil' features another Western setting and both 'Truckin' and 'Operator' make more sense with America settings of telephones, technology and outdoor concerts in the park) but it 'feels' American somehow, with all that could-have-been-recorded-in-alog-cabin monochrome about it and the similarity of many of the all-vocal arrangements to Appalachian Mountain folk songs. Perhaps that's why the band chose the cover, which starts a lifelong association with roses (often clenched in the teeth of skeletons). The rose pictured on the front cover is indeed an 'American Beauty' according to my resident botanist specialist (as for me the only plant I can name is the guy in Led Zeppelin) but regular artists Kelly and Mouse have been doubly clever here. The title, written in almost-illegible spidery writing, is just ambiguous enough to read ‘American reality’ if you squint at it hard enough - a clever double title reflecting on what could be as well as what is (either that, or my eyesight’s gone a bit wonky).

Pretty, picture-perfect songs of Americana then but still with the bite of old, this is in many ways the Dead album to rule above all others and the perfect introduction for non-fans scared away by 27 minute timings and Pigpen rapping about goodness knows what over the soundtrack of Armageddon. Funnily enough even the Deadheads who adored that sort of thing seem to have loved this album on the whole, perhaps rightly sensing that as there was no way the band could ever have topped 'Live/Dead' than at least they weren't trying. If only there were more albums like it – and the two records to come in 1971 and 1972 do include a highly respectable follow-up, albeit hidden amongst a double and triple record's worth of filler respectively. However, bored of the time needed to rehearse and develop these songs and never the most comfortable bunch of musicians when in the confined space of a cold studio, the band turned back to making live records instead. There’s a three year gap before the Dead’s next studio album and, surprise, surprise, that’s one of our 'core' reviews too. After all, what other Dead album contains as many songs as perfectly formed as this album? The lyrics to 'Box Of Rain' and 'Attics Of My  Life' are tremendous, being somehow realistic and life-affirming all in one go. 'Friend Of The Devil' is a cheery, cheeky song that's irresistible and in true Dead card game analogy plays it's cards so close to its chest we don't know whether the narrator really is the villainous rogue the people make him out to be or the tired boy whose gone too far to go back and can't run any further, his fiance and the town sheriff both after him for different reasons. 'Sugar Magnolia' is by far the best of Bob's goes at writing the ultimate rock song to have the crowd on their feet (even if here the song still shares some of its DNA with the other country-rockers). 'Truckin' is legendary for a reason, a postmodern self-referencing song that shouldn't work but does so wonderfully, getting by with a couple of classy couplets and sheer cheek. Both 'Attics' and 'Candyman' are right up there as the most exquisite Dead recordings of them all, poignant and moving without going OTT. Set against this the only ammunition the nay-sayers have is that Pigpen has written a better song for himself than 'Operator' down the years and misogynist chorus on the otherwise rocking 'Till The Morning Comes' is unfortunate, being so un-Dead like you wonder how it came about. Still, that's nothing - after all you couldn't have a perfect Dead album could you, or it wouldn't be the perfect Dead album because the perfect Dead album would show their imperfections and thus quid pro quo the only perfect Dead album can be an imperfect Dead album which of course means it isn't perfect. Or something like that - I got a bit lost. What I do know is that 'American Beauty' is that rare beast - an album that fans like, critics like and I like, a masterpiece in miniature that's rightly hailed as one of the greatest things they ever did and a record whose timeless radiance still shines as strongly all these years on.

The Songs:

Box Of Rain is a rare Phil Lesh outing, both musically and vocally, and it’s a fine outing to have, being one of the most moving songs about death in the American canon. A wistful, soul-searching tune written in the car one day while Phil was escaping from the album’s sessions to visit his father gradually dying in hospital, this song’s wistful sigh, down-casting lines and restless melody is moving enough on its own. Hunter’s words are the perfect fit, however: moving without being overly sentimental and forward looking as well as back, they encourage the listener that their grief won’t last forever and that life will carry on, just as it does for all the ‘other’ people the narrator enviously gazes at, going about their usual tasks because their life hasn’t just caved in by this terrible personal incident like the narrator feels it should have done. (The line ‘Maybe you’ll find direction around some corner where its been waiting to meet you’ after verses of the narrator aimlessly sleepwalking his way through life, stunned at the events going on in his life, is one of the best of the Dead’s whole career). Phil phrases his lines so that he sounds as shrugging off a big weight, even though the song is muted-jolly and bouncy, trying its best to recover and right itself throughout. The song ends with an added kick, however; reminding us of the shortness of life as the last line both (‘such a long long time to be gone, such a short time to be there’) hits the narrator with a new wave of grief and encourages him gently to move on with his life or he too will run out of time to have a family that care for him just as much as he cares for his missing relation now. One of the most moving songs in the Dead’s canon, this song was eerily revived towards the end of the Dead’s touring life after an absence of more than 20 years in the setlists (unusual for the Dead who revived anything and everything they could —even oddities like the Beatles’ fragment Why Don’t We Do It In The Road was performed in their shows for a time along with a good dozen other Beatles songs and thousands more oddities like this one over the years). Chosen as the second and final encore for the Dead’s last ever concert on July 9th 1995, a month to the day before Jerry’s own death, this was an eerily fitting song for the Dead to unknowingly bow out their thirty year career on, with their last notes to their fan-base being to ‘carry on’ without them despite the big hole their absence caused (and is still causing). Live performances: 157

Friend Of The Devil is one of several almost apologetic songs Garcia and Hunter wrote about hanging out with the ‘wrong’ crowd (classic anti-heroes, their song Dire Wolf on the previous album celebrates all of the wrongdoings most bands of the time were busy turning into anthems and then ending with the cowardly chorus ‘please don’t murder me’). The album’s country leanings are at their strongest on this song and its pretty tune is sweet enough to make you forget the troubles the narrator is hastily running away from. Lesh’s rumbling bass and the Garcia-Weir tricky guitar picking tries to give the narrator some urgency, but Garcia’s vocal is laidback in the extreme and seems content to spend his life running away from the law after succumbing to the temptation of the devil’s easy money in his youth. Despite fitting Garcia’s voice as snugly as a winter glove, the guitarist’s only songwriting contribution to this song was the lesser ‘sweet anne marie’ middle section; the rest of the song was written by Hunter with John Dawson of New Riders of the Purple sage and hijacked for the Dead when Garcia heard his friend’s demo tape and fell in love with it. Chances are you might too - its one of those infectious fun-loving songs with a performance that really gets to grips with the narrator’s laidback charm and the menace that lurks behind the piece. Live performances: 305

Sugar Magnolia is a similar Bob Weir magnum opus where heavy country and lightweight rock seem to meet head on and is one of both Weir and Hunter’s prettier songs (although the country lilt here soon gave the way to out-and-out rock on stage). A celebratory song about an imaginary fan-come-guardian angel the narrator spots bathing one hot summer, the title character seems too good to be true (she even pays the narrator’s speeding tickets, most memorably) and the song has enough humour to be pretty without being hackneyed. The key line of this song is ‘she’s my summer love for spring, fall and winter’, with the idea that even the harshness of life will somehow be dissipated by the presence of such a fun-loving supportive character by the narrator’s side, through thick or thin. The band’s delightful scat harmonies and the sudden melancholy key change in the last verse (‘Sometimes when the night is dying…’) are impressive too, throwing just the right spanner into the works at just the right time and show that the band had been listening to a lot of CSN records. The song’s coda ‘sunshine daydream’ became a whole new song in its own right in the 70s, when the band extended it a la Hey Jude into a rousing crowd singalong of optimism, a job for which this sweet song was well suited. Live performances: a ridiculous 589!

Operator is Pigpen’s showpiece and sadly not one of his best (Pigpen’s last batch of songs, especially Two Souls In Communion, would probably win that accolade but alas Pig died of liver failure before the Dead could make any proper recordings of them). However, the man born Ron McKernan’s bluesy wail and outlaw persona are always good to hear, even when stuck to the side of a decidedly simple song about the narrator’s increasingly desperate attempts to trace his sweetheart via an early version of directory enquiries. In truth, of course, the telephone operator would have hung up long before the end of the narrator’s spiel - and probably charged him extra for wasting her time in the process – and out of all the songs on the record this is probably the one fans have least ‘connected’ with over the years. However, stuck with only three minutes to make his mark, Pig’s vocal and especially his harmonic playing are impressive, adding a touch of earthy blues to the album despite this song’s pop trappings. Good on ya Pigpen, if only you’d lived a bit longer you’d be a much bigger hero to Dead fans than you are now and would undoubtedly have had a much stronger presence on this list. Live performances: 4

Garcia’s exquisite Candyman ends side one on top form. Shimmering, moody and with one of its composer’s loveliest sweeping melodies, Candyman is a haunting composition, eerily drifting its way through its multiple sections on a bed of ghostly harmonies. The melancholy of the song is added to by Garcia’s wistful pedal steel guitar playing - the sound of crying captured in an instrument - which plays one of the most heartbreaking solos you will ever hear. The ambiguous lyrics are some of Hunter’s cleverest too, about a woman’s awkward dependence on either an outside lover, liquor or drugs, depending on how you reads the deliberately ambiguous lyrics. Hunter’s un-named character in this song is a masterpiece of subtle writing, making the listener sympathise with her because her craving is not specifically for alcohol or drugs – its for the return of her ‘dealer’ who is a contact of the outside world in her lonely life. She may also be passing the illicit substances to her friends rather than taking them herself, seeing this as a way to get popular even though the friendships it makes are hollow and sporadic at best – ‘pretty lady ain’t got no friends till the candyman comes around again’ indeed. Like the song’s yearning tune, this ominous song craves to be a happier tale and Garcia’s grandfatherly vocal does its best to put us at ease, but its clear that despite the character’s elation when the candyman calls, it will only end in tears somewhere along the line. The band almost sleepwalk their way through this performance and Garcia sounds prematurely old, pre-cursing the paper thin vocals he will have for real on the band’s 80s recordings, a state of affairs entirely in keeping with this tale of reluctant addiction. Whether Garcia identified with the song or not (despite what you may read, any addictions he did have were never out of control until the late 1970s at the earliest) the song still seems to have brought out the best in him. Weary and sombre, yet audibly forcing himself to try to be happy, his brief heartbroken ‘oh’ coming out of the solo and into a verse about scrounging money for the candyman’s next visit says far more to the listener than what we get from just reading the lyric sheet. The band’s harmonies then add a final touch by enveloping the song in a fog of downbeat sympathy. All in all, Candyman is a lovely track and one of the best the Dead ever recorded. Live performances: 270

Ripple is more of the same but rather more upbeat this time, a wordy but beautifully expressed Garcia-Hunter song about moving forward against obstacles and with a tune that sounds like an old folk tale being told round a steaming campfire. Hunter’s lyrics are especially fine, touching on the fact that modern mankind is just as unsure about their purpose in life as their ancestors were. The song also taps into religious beliefs, drawing on the idea that the Earth has been handed on by some unseen force whose ‘ripples’ are still felt, even though this presence left long ago. This ‘presence’ can still be reached by spiritual beauty (via a ‘fountain that was not made by the hands of men’) that fills up the ‘life-force’ of the men left behind and guides them in the right direction - although ultimately the narrator reveals he is just as unsure about the whole thing as everybody else is (after telling us that each of us must follow their own journey in life he adds ‘If I knew the way I would take you home’). An impressive lyric then, and Garcia’s singalong tune is impressive too. However, the recording of this song is unfortunately one of American Beauty’s few lapses in taste: the band’s harmonies aren’t as tight as on other parts of the record and the choir that sings along rather flatly and wordlessly to the last verse sounds anything but inspired, whether by the band or mankind’s ambivalent creator. Live performances: 41

Brokedown Palace repeats the trick again, with a typical singalong Garcia melody matching the philosophical lyrics comfortably, although the funeral tempo makes it a bit more of a struggle to sit through than the other tracks that surround it. A song of goodbyes, with the narrator recovering from a social fall and finding solace in nature, the song makes nice use of the band’s growing harmony technique, although its emotion and melancholy are rather overdone and theatrical compared to the rest of the album. Desperate to create something lasting now that his old relationship has fallen through, the narrator gives us mixed messages by choosing weeping willows to plant and help flower, suggesting along with the mournful tune that he’s not quite got over his problems yet. Then again, is the narrator in fact committing suicide here – ‘river going to take me, sing sweet and sleepy’ suggests that the narrator has in actual fact had enough of everything and is in fact clocking off, not to the love of his life that has died but to us, those left stuck in the ‘real world’. The Dead don’t quite do this sweet song justice in their arrangement this time around and—given what this song might be about— the closing verse of doo-doo-doos make for a particularly unsatisfactory end. Live performances: 218

Till The Morning Comes is another of side two’s backward steps, without the depth of the other songs on the album. The tune is poppy and an acoustic Dead-interpreted version of Merseybeat if you can imagine such a thing, while Hunter’s lyrics are uncharacteristically sexist in the narrator’s insistence that ‘you’re my woman now’. The song just sounds so juvenile within the context of an album about the deeper mysteries of mankind and the music reflects that too, turning back not just to mid-60s pop but to the Dead's earlier electric feel (this and 'Truckin' are the only songs where Garcia picks up a guitar that isn't a pedal steel, something that would have been unthinkable even a year ago!) Still, the harmonies are impressive and the tune itself is likeable, moving between the very different verse and chorus structures with cohesion and ease, and even the verses about the narrator losing his tracks in the snow and being unable to retrace his steps have much to recommend. Live performances: 5

Even so, best to skip on to Attics of My Life, with the sound now totally dominated by the strained but noble harmonies of Garcia, Lesh and Weir on a courageous sparse arrangement that would test even the most experienced and professional of singers. The song also features Garcia and Hunter back to their compositional best. Garcia’s tune is simply gorgeous, even played at a half-speed funeral-tempo here to place emphasise on Hunter’s poetic lyrics. These are typically obtuse yet still accessible enough to be moving, with their very real devotion to a person who verse by verse sings when the narrator cannot hear, plays strings when there is no instrument to play, flies when he has no wings and dreams when the narrator’s imagination is empty. Like Sugar Magnolia, this is the soul-mate to end all others, the one who can ‘fill in’ the gaps that the narrator just can’t quite reach and making up for his faults by giving him the inspiration to overcome them. Almost hymnal in its use of chords, this gorgeous song of devotion is a tribute to someone who helped the narrator back from the edge at his lowest point, helping him to believe in life by believing in him first, helping him clear the ‘attics’ of his mind where his subconscious fears and doubts have been working overtime. Beautiful and simple, this is the acoustic Dead at their best and never have the Dead sounded, if you excuse the pun, more alive than here. Live performances: 51

Things close out on rocking form with the autobiographical Truckin’, a hilarious philosophically shoulder-shrugging song still perfectly in keeping with this album of universal ideas and gentle philosophy. Hunter only really knew Garcia well at this point in the band’s history and had been with the Dead a scant two years and three albums and yet his lyrics are perfectly placed to incorporate both the Dead’s outsider status and their down-to-earthness, always ploughing their own merry road despite authority figures, record labels and self-inflicted obstacles getting in their way. The tune, written by Garcia, Lesh and Weir between them (Weir takes the lead vocal for the second time on this album) is gentle grooving rock, perfectly designed for the dual purposes of being catchy and simple enough for airplay and exotic and spacious enough to leave gaps for long improvisations in concert. Another popular choice with fans, not least the tip of the hat to the dysfunctional band’s equally dysfunctional fans, this is also a great song about the love that flows between the two sides, as both sides get into trouble accidentally for their personal idiosyncrasies yet again. Bravely pointing out the lows of the journey as well as the highs, this is the band re-grouping and deciding that, despite being unable to wait until going home and ending the ride, the band members aren’t built for any purpose other than the one they have and while resting can’t wait to go trucking off again. Originally 'Truckin' was intended as an open ended song that the band would keep adding to over time, sticking in references to new incidents and  enabling the band to 'keep in touch' with their fans while partly controlling their own mythology from the comfort of the stage. Alas, though, that wasn't to be and 'Truckin' was received from the first as the closest to a 'perfect' song the Dead came up with - which meant everyone was reluctant to change it. That's a shame; it would have been fascinating to hear how a maturer Garcia and Hunter reflected on their youthful follies some twenty years on and could have become the best running joke on the business, updated for each new President/celebrity/lifestyle choice that was below par. Still, perhaps it was best to let things lie as those pithy four verses are inherently quotable and sum up nicely the Dead philosophy. ‘Sometimes we represent truth, sometimes we get it wrong’, the band say, ‘its up to you to decide whether you ought to follow us—’cause we haven’t got a clue whether what we’re doing is important or not’. Live performances: an extraordinary 521

Come on guys, how we can we not follow you after hearing this extraordinary album? Both pioneering and brave enough to win over the band’s old fans and beautiful enough to win the Dead a whole lot of new ones, American Beauty is a classic of its kind. Who would have thought back in the mid-60s that the Dead would create such a layered, polished, crafted and harmony laden masterpiece? The best proof available of how talented as musicians and writers the bands had to be to head off into the unknown stratosphere night after night in concert, this record has been single-handedly silencing the band’s critics and nay-sayers ever since its release.  Magic with lashings of pedal steel, this is the kind of Dead album everybody ought to own.

Other Dead related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

'Workingman's Dead' (1970)

'American Beauty' (1970)
'Blues For Allah' (1975)

'Terrapin Station' (1977)
'Shakedown Street' (1978)
'Go To Heaven' (1980)
'In The Dark' (1987)

'Built To Last' (1989)
Surviving TV Clips 1966-1994
The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1993
The Last Unfinished Album 1990-1995
Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1966-1976
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1978-2011
A Guide To The CD Bonus Tracks
Dick's Picks/Dave's Picks
Road Trips/Download Series/Miscellaneous Archive Releases

Essay: Why The ‘Dead’ Made Fans Feel So ‘Alive’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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