Grateful Dead – American Beauty (1970)

This post is part of my Rewind Selector project where through a process of random selection, I listen to an album from each year starting from 1970 and write about it . This is my entry for the year 1970.

I used to hate the Grateful Dead. For most of my life, I’ve associated the band with caricatures of their painfully white fan base: burnout stoners whose critical faculties are so dulled, they sit slack-jawed while jerking off to 45 minutes of pointless instrumental noodling. Keep in mind that I came to this conclusion without having ever actually listened to the music but when you grow up identifying with punk, hating on hippies just came with the territory. However, recently the Dead have surfaced on my radar in ways that have caused me to rethink my outlook. For one, Animal Collective, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and George R.R. Martin have all cited the Dead as influences. Then there was the series finale of the short-lived but brilliant Freaks and Geeks which framed the Dead perfectly in the milieu of high school in the early 80s. And so when I picked American Beauty as my random album of 1970, I embraced the opportunity to finally set aside my own cultural and social baggage and discover the band behind all the dancing bear merchandise and pot smoke.

With that being said, I’m not going to pretend that I’ll understand the Grateful Dead from just one studio album. There are literally boxsets of material culled from live shows and as a wise woman once said, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” But for what it’s worth, I enjoyed American Beauty for what it was – a throwback to rustic Americana, a mostly acoustic homage to traditional country, bluegrass, blues, and folk.

 

 

 

with a easy-going bohemian vibe to it.

 

. I took a quick listen to their preceding albums and they sound like a completely different band.

 

 

. I took a brief listen to the band’s preceding albums

 

 

 

traditional country, bluegrass, blues, and folk.

 

. Compared to the messy acid-damaged experiments of their earlier albums, American

 

 

thought American Beauty was an enjoyable album with a chill bohemian charm. It’s a stripped down mostly acoustic take on traditional country, bluegrass, blues, and folk.

 

I feel that one of the main themes of this album is dealing with death. There’s this existential melancholy that hangs over the album. Jerry Garcia had lost his mother and Phil Lesh’s father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But I don’t only mean death in the literal sense,  but also in that by the turn of the decade, the hippie dream had died. Haight-Ashbury had become overrun and commercialized. In that context, American Beauty feels like a retreat into simpler times, a romanticized mythology of America.

 

 

Far removed from the messy acid-damaged experiments of their early albums or their sprawling live sets, American Beauty is a stripped down mostly acoustic take on traditional country, bluegrass, blues and folk. The songs have an easygoing boho charm to them featuring some pleasant vocal harmonies and rustic folk melodies. I can’t help but picture listening to this album on an 8-track in a VW bus on a cross-country road trip to San Francisco.

Oddly enough, if I had to pick an overarching theme to the album, it’s dealing about dealing with death.

There’s an existential melancholy that haunts the album. It feels like the morning after the excesses of the 60s, a retreat into a romanticized mythology of America. In the months leading up to its

 

 

“Box of Rain” in particular takes on a deeper significance when you find out the song was written for bassist Phil Lesh’s father who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Lesh would drive to the hospital every day and sing the song to his father. For a song that’s basically about human transience and the absurdity of meaning, it’s strangely comforting. Earth is nothing but a box of rain, a rock surrounded by nitrogen and oxygen. “Believe it if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on.” The song was co-written by Robert Hunter who contributes heavily on American Beauty. As the band’s  main lyricist and official non-performing member, Hunter gives the songs here a poetic quality.

One of my favorite songs has to be “Friend of the Devil”. It’s your classic outlaw on the run story, the lyrics not that far removed from the pathos of a gangsta rap song. The jaunty bluegrass-influenced guitar and bright mandolin give the song a brisk urgency as the narrator is relentlessly pursued by the sheriff across Nevada.

“Sugar Magnolia” is a hippie love song of sorts, but I’m not sure whether the object of affection is an actual woman or drugs personified as one. The song closely associates nature with a rose-colored femininity, evoking blooming flowers, sunshine and trees. The summery upbeat vocal harmonies and lilting pedal steel guitar capture a feeling of carefree bliss that makes you want to skip hand-in-hand through a meadow with a beautiful girl (drugs not included).

Both “Operator” and “Candyman” borrow heavily from tropes used in blues and other early 20th century African American musics, referencing songs like Lightning Hopkins’ “Give Me Central 209 (Hello Central)” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candyman Blues” respectively. The slinky insouciant swagger of “Candyman” sketches the portrait of a gambling, hard drinking womanizer. At six minutes, the song drags but half way through there’s a beautiful pedal steel guitar solo from Jerry Garcia.

“Ripple” is a zen koan wrapped up in a campfire folk song. Touches of mandolin flutter prettily beneath philosophical musings like “There is a road, no simple highway. Between the dawn and the dark of night. And if you go no one may follow. That path is for your steps alone.”

Written shortly after the death of Garcia’s mother, the gospel-influenced “Brokedown Palace” is a soothing meditation on death as homecoming. The vocal harmonies wordlessly hang in the background and join in on verses offering support to Garcia’s world-weary lyrics.

“Til The Morning Comes” is probably my least favorite song.

“Attics of My LIfe” is hymn-like, putting the vocal harmonies front and center, while sparse drums and bass are faint.

“Truckin” is a rollicking ode to life on the road.

Hunter – surreal, dreams, Eastern spirituality

 

 

 

 

The band had been hanging out around Crosby, Stills, and Nash a lot during this time and you can definitely hear their influence in the layered vocals.

A year ago, Jerry Garcia had picked up pedal steel guitar and he uses it here to color the songs.

  • Result of a prolific songwriting partnership between Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia.
  • The album was recorded at Wally Heider studio and Phil Lesh talks about how a lot of the best musicians were hanging out there at the time: Crosby Stills and Nash, Santana, Neil Young, etc.

 

The cover was designed by Kelly-Mouse Studios which I’m pretty sure I learned about in my art history class. They borrowed heavily from Art Nouveau to create the 1960s psychedelic aesthetic. The lettering on the cover is actually an ambigram that can be read as American Beauty or American Reality.  “American Beauty” is actually the nickname given to a particular rose cultivar that was very popular in the United States during the early 1900s. The back cover photograph was by George Conger and it looks like an odd assemblage of statues, framed images, and various plants.

 

 

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