Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. The Grateful Dead had already been touring continuously for almost five years, first as The Warlocks and then as The Dead, when they began to bolster their live repertoire in the fall and winter of 1969 with songs from what would become Workingman’s Dead (“Uncle John’s Band”, “Black Peter”, “Easy Wind”). The prototypes for those songs sound great today, but they give only a small hint of the direction the band would take on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, released within five months of each other in 1970.
The two albums together chronicle the trajectory of the rural turn. Workingman’s Dead is the first and darker of the two, with its tales of ordinary men – miners, cowboys, railroad engineers, rock breakers - living heroic if also tragic lives. The album’s tone, at once foreboding and wise, is the result of a perfect union between the traditional texture of the music, the mythic American archetypes in Robert Hunter’s lyrics, and the world-weary expressiveness of Garcia’s singing (as well as Pigpen’s on the incomparable “Easy Wind”). ...The well-known line in “Uncle John’s Band”, ‘when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door’, sounds like a life lesson you might get sitting at Uncle John’s knee. It also expresses the washed out hopes of a generation disillusioned in the wake of Manson and Altamont, each of which is alluded to in “Dire Wolf” and “New Speedway Boogie.” In the latter we hear Garcia pleading for a way out of what the 60s have become. ‘One way or another,’ he sings, ‘this darkness got to give.'
American Beauty points towards an escape route from the madness of the Great Collapse. Hunter supplies impressionistic word paintings that create a sense of organic unity between man and nature, elevating the redemptive potential of the migration back to the land, or back to a place ‘between the dawn and the dark of night.'
‘…Walk into splintered sunlight, inch your way through dead dreams to another land…’
‘…Going home, going home, by the riverside I will rest my bones, listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul…’
On both records, Garcia handles Hunter's poetry with just the right shades of benevolence and vulnerability, and the words seem to become naturally entwined with the band's intuitive feel for folk and country music. ...Listening to Workingman's Dead and American Beauty back to back, one walks away - maybe in spite of knowing better - with a hopeful yearning for freedom and human connection. I guess this is the source of their power and longevity.
My experience has been that there are those of us who adore The Grateful Dead, those who can’t stand them, and there’s very little in between. The polarization has its roots in the Great Collapse. More than any other band, The Grateful Dead exited the 60s as an island unto themselves, taking their legions of fans with them to a place offering shelter from the storm. The band made some utterly phenomenal music in front of the audiences who remained behind the band’s protective walls. The period from 1970 to 1974, in particular, is arguably the most exciting five-year stretch of live Grateful Dead. But while the band gave rise to a community based on brotherhood and great music (at least in theory), there’s something conservative about the decision to 'opt out' from the craziness of the world... from responsibility... from the constraints of 'normal' living... etc. This is not only true of The Deadhead scene, but also the rural turn more generally. ...It doesn’t surprise me that hippie living has become more and more of a commodity in the marketplace of lifestyle choices as the 60s have receded further and further into the distant past. In a perverse way, the lifestyle is a kind of white flight or gated community for people who have been conditioned by the 60s, either directly or indirectly, and could never stand to live in dreary suburban tract homes, surrounded by people who aren’t Patagonia Progressives…
‘…Honey, don’t forget to pick up some organic tomatoes on the way home. Take the Prius, and call me on my iPhone if you need me…’
This gets to the heart of why there's that other group of people, too, those of you who hate The Grateful Dead (and/or hippies) with a passion that burns... I'm ambivalent. The Grateful Dead and the rural turn provided an escape that formed the basis for some of my favorite music, but they also held within them the seeds of some things I find distasteful.