Of all the things for which the Grateful Dead are famous, I’m not sure their albums even make the top five. For me, though, this one was a way into a band I’ve always had a hard time getting into. I’ve spent an awful lot of my life in and around Boulder, Colorado, where I believe lack of enthusiasm for the Dead is technically considered illegal. I can’t help it, though. I’m just not a jam band guy. I find 30-minute versions of 12-bar blues songs interminable rather than exhilarating, and consequently could not care less about the endless vaults of concert recordings, taped with the loving approval of the band.
I dunno, maybe it’s better when you’re stoned, but considering that my pot intake is best measured on a per-decade basis, they just haven’t had a lot of chances with me. Deadhead Nation is a foreign country, and while I have nothing in particular against its residents, I also have no interest in visiting. The iconography, the cult following, the endless soloing… it just leaves me, not cold exactly, but pretty tepid.
Those aren’t my only barriers to this album. Rootsy Americana overall is a tough genre for me to connect with. I have the same issue with The Band — so much of it feels like monologues from the inner lives of white Southern hillbillies, not a terribly sympathetic demographic for me. Especially in election years.
Women in these songs are held either as saviors or objectives, often of pathetic or despicable men. “Sugar Magnolia”, who “takes the wheel when I’m seeing double / Pays my tickets when I speed,” might as well be the same woman from “Up On Cripple Creek”, who’s “a drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” “You’re my woman now” from “Till The Morning Comes” is an imperative similar to “Jemima Surrender”, except in the former song it seems like maybe he’s going to kick her out the door after the night is over.
Finally, there are the harmonies. I’m a huge fan of harmonies, but I find them frequently getting under my skin on this album. I’ve read that the Dead were inspired by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young during this period, and I can see the comparison, but where CSNY feel like a smooth braid, the Dead have stray hairs sticking out every which way. Jerry Garcia’s unsteady voice doesn’t blend easily those of with his bandmates, who sometimes start or stop singing at different times than the people they’re harmonizing with, giving the whole thing a ragged feel. The top note often wavers in falsetto over the foundation of the harmony, sliding in and out of pitch like a wandering eye.
And yet, even with all those negatives, I found myself enjoying American Beauty quite often. For one thing, the musicianship is just impeccable, and often sublimely beautiful. The pedal steel solo on “Candyman” stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it — haunting, angelic, and with a tone unlike any other guitar solo I’ve ever heard. Similarly, when I put on headphones, laid my head back, and listened to the opening of “Friend Of The Devil”, it took my breath away. It was just so intricate and yet perfectly constructed — it takes a rare combination of songwriters and players to create something so complex and gorgeous. Phil Lesh in particular does a remarkable job with melodic bass lines throughout the album.
Then there are the songs themselves. Unlike the Dead’s reputation for extended jams, American Beauty‘s songs are tight and to the point. “Sugar Magnolia” and “Friend Of The Devil” are straightforward pop singles, and “Truckin'” is a rollicking rocker with a sense of humor. One of the best songs is “Box Of Rain”, which brings together the intricate musical approach and surreal lyrics from Robert Hunter, with lovely images like “walk into splintered sunlight”, and the title itself. “Attics Of My Life”, too, has lovely lyrics, and a great rhythmic motif of finding the impossible present in love:
When there was no ear to hear, you sang to me…
When there were no strings to play, you played to me…
When I had no wings to fly, you flew to me…
When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me
The capstone is “Ripple,” easily my favorite Grateful Dead song of all time. That’s not just because it plays during the most emotional scene in the movie Mask, although that is where I first encountered it, and that scene still has a powerful effect on me. More than that, though, this song brings together all the best parts of the Grateful Dead. There’s a gentle, sweet accord among the instruments — soft drums, warm bass, lyrical guitar, and ethereal mandolin. Most of all, there are the lyrics, a heartrending poem about yearning, destiny, love, and the essential mystery of life: “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.”