Thursday, June 15, 2017

American Beauty

In a fair world the Grateful dead would have been as big as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and bigger than Jefferson Airplane. In a fair world this would be on desert island disc lists everywhere. In a fair world the Dead would be remembered for something more than that live band followed on tour by hundreds of Deadheads. Like Rubber Soul or Pet Sounds, this is an album of one great song after another; whether it's Phil Lesh’s wonderful "Box of rain," Jerry Garcia and "Friend of the devil", "Ripple and "Attics of my life", or Bob Weir's "Sugar Magnolia." The Dead were among the first bands to pick up the country/folk/rock/blues fusion alongside Dylan and the Byrds. Worthy of the accolades as the Dead's single finest studio recording, and one of the top rock albums period, American Beauty (or American Reality, as the cover art alternately reads) is an AM9 (a near perfect 10, but for a couple clinkers that, although fun, maybe funky, sound a little too much like the Country Bear Jamboree).

The casual listener wouldn't suspect the band responsible for American Beauty to have formed out of Ken Kesey's infamous Acid Tests. There's nothing necessarily psychedelic here; rather, the Dead sound like a rootsier CSNY. While their studio albums are often less respected than the more heralded live shows, American Beauty feels organic, and more importantly, filled with stellar songwriting and heartfelt performances, beautifully produced. Specifically, "Box of Rain" is one of the most poetically incisive rock songs ever written (along the lines of "Thunder Road" and Paul Simon's "America"); effortless and beautifully nuanced.

There are very few bands as polarizing as the Grateful Dead, you know, the licorice thing, but even their most rabid fans and harshest detractors can agree on one point: they personified a type of relationship a band can have with its audience. It' simple today to forget how pervasive the Deadhead phenomenon was, all parties, after all, must come to an end. Looking back, particularly to my Dead Days in the 80s (yes, the 80s, mid-decade, when the whole new wave thing was waning and bands like REM were grasping at a clearly American vibe, I went back to The Dead), it's clear now that the band's cultural impact often eclipsed their music, yet as the shows become fading memories and as a new generation of listeners discover the Grateful Dead, the focus returns to the band's rich musical history. Are the studio albums more impactful than the shows? Not a chance. Doesn't change the fact that the shows are no longer tangible, translating poorly to film; the legacy of The Dead must be American Beauty or Aoxomoxoa and not disolve as a mere memory for the old. A hardcore Deadhead can likely recite the set-list verbatim from a 1987 Alpine Valley show, but if you ask her if the original "Fire on the Mountain" is on Terrapin Station or Shakedown Street, you’re likely to be met with a spacey stare. 

The Dead's natural habitat was onstage, for sure, but even during their best years (late 60’s and early 70’s), their exploratory jams didn't always take flight, they could be sloppy and meandering just as easily as they could be virtuosic (?) and transcendental. Often the controlled environment of the recording studio helped the Dead reign in their more excessive tendencies and focus their creative energies into making grand and cohesive musical statements, important and lasting ones. That's American Beauty

Maybe when the last Deadhead passes on, the bones of the music will bleach in the sun and become a classic part of our musical landscape, instead of a beast in a rolling sideshow that many shun, not embracing the licorice.