The stigma surrounding the Grateful Dead is hard to overcome. I’ve always associated the band and their spawn (Phish et al) with trust fund hippies in Birkenstocks looking for an excuse to take drugs and listen to 45 minutes of aimless improvisational circle-jerking. I never actually gave the music a chance, but in my defense 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 and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth 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 landed on 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 that dancing bear merchandise and pot smoke.
With that being said, I’m not going to pretend that I’ll understand what the Grateful Dead were about from just one studio album. By most accounts, the essence of the Dead was found in their live sets. Also, seeing as how there are literally volumes of material culled from live shows, a wise woman once said, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Regardless, on American Beauty I hthat the Grateful Dead could write some pretty poignant melodic songs. The album is a bohemian-meets-hillbilly take on traditional country, bluegrass, blues, and folk with a laid-back San Francisco vibe. It’s far removed from the band’s earlier shambolic psychedelic experiments (which I took a brief listen to and they sound like a completely different band). I feel like after the radicalism of the 60s the Grateful Dead along with artists like The Byrds, CSNY, Bob Dylan, and others turned to their Americana roots for inspiration.
I still can’t shake the feeling that American Beauty sounds like a bunch of hippies playing dress-up in country folk plainclothes.
At first, I hated the tuneless reedy vocals, but they took on their own weird charm.
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.
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.