Sunday, July 12, 2020

Workingman’s Dead 50th | Lefsetz Letter


I first heard “Uncle John’s Band” on WNEW-FM. It was June of 1970, the track was released as a single. Needless to say it wasn’t played on AM radio. Needless to say, most people had no idea who the Grateful Dead were. If they knew the name, they assumed it was a heavy metal band, what with a moniker like that. But if you were a student of the game, if you went to the Fillmore East and saw the band featured in the program, you knew who they were, even if you had never heard them, this was back in the day when you had to own it to hear it, and I didn’t know a single person who owned a Grateful Dead album other than myself, based on reviews I’d purchased the initial “Live/Dead,” and although I loved “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven,” and anybody could like the side-long “Turn on Your Love Light,” the truth is I listened to the double album long enough to get my money’s worth, but I did not love it, but I needed to know what all the hoopla was about.

But “Uncle John’s Band” was something different.

This was the spring of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Sure, the initial LP had come out a year earlier, you even heard “Marrakesh Express” on AM radio, and “Deja Vu” was released in March, and you might have been subjected to “Teach Your Children,” but it was the “Woodstock” movie that exploded the band, made them the biggest in the land, just as they were going on tour.

I.e., “Uncle John’s Band” sounded like Crosby, Stills & Nash. Not only was it not heavy metal, it wasn’t like what had come before, it was not psychedelic, it was not spacey or trippy, it sounded like it was made in California, and I bought it. “Workingman’s Dead” was released on June 14th, and I bought it the week it came out, maybe even the day, depending upon when I could get the car to drive to Korvette’s and buy it. And although I played it on my all-in-one stereo in my bedroom, I also put the disc on the Garrard turntable in the living room, the stereo with the ADC speakers, so I could hear the pure sound live, at least in the afternoon, when my parents weren’t home, when I was lazing around, before I departed for my summer job at the end of the month.

This was before “Casey Jones” became a standard. Sure, by the end of the summer, it got some of the aforementioned WNEW airplay, back when every market still did not have an underground FM station, but most people never heard “Workingman’s Dead,” if they were aware it existed at all, Grateful Dead consciousness did not arise outside San Francisco and the act’s limited fanbase until the November release of “American Beauty.” Actually, “American Beauty” did not explode immediately, it took a few months, but by the spring of ’71, every boomer who’d heard of the band knew the music, and many liked it, credit “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Truckin'” and the execrable “Ripple,” yes it’s the last track the hoi polloi embraced, a wimpy ballad that made my stomach turn, but this is when the Grateful Dead legend you know now truly began, when the band was still playing theatres, before it exploded. By the time of the release of “Europe ’72” in the fall of ’72, the Dead were a college institution, to the point where I bought the triple album set but nearly wanted to jump off the train, because once everybody else is in, I’m out, especially when they’re faux hip, growing their hair long because they no longer live at home and wearing overalls and trying to demonstrate they have a clue when they’re clueless.

Even worse is when Gen-X climbed aboard, following the band around as if the sixties still existed, when the truth was yes, the Dead were one of the few bands from the sixties not only touring and making new music, but if you thought it wasn’t about money, you did not know Jerry Garcia drove a BMW 3.0CS in an era where no one was saving for the future and there were no techies and successful musicians were considered rich.

Not that this was the Dead’s fault. I find a similar situation with Springsteen. I have no problem with the man, certainly none with his output up to around 1990, it’s his fans I hate. Music has always been about testing limits, pushing the envelope, it’s easy to climb on board after something has been established, but can you take a chance, embrace something before everybody else does, not only in music but in other venues? Most cannot.

The Dead formed their own record label and put out the unmemorable “Wake of the Flood,” Jerry Garcia released his solo album with “Deal” and Bob Weir released his even more listenable solo LP entitled “Ace,” with its soon to be standard “Playin’ in the Band,” and by the mid-seventies the Dead were everywhere, there was even the release of an album of recordings prior to the Warner Brothers years, which was next to worthless other than containing a great version of “I Know You Rider,” and we even had the New Riders of the Purple Sage,” with their initial, nearly perfect LP, with not only the opening “I Don’t Know You,” and “Glendale Train,” but the heartfelt “Portland Woman” and the dope-dealing “Henry.” Previously you could see the New Riders open for the Dead, with Jerry Garcia sitting in on pedal steel, but when the album came out the bands broke apart, and then New Riders missed with their sophomore LP “Powerglide,” and didn’t return to form until their fourth, the “Adventures of Panama Red,” but by this time only hard core fans remained, the Dead were the main attraction, and they sold out everywhere they went, they turned arenas into west coast nightclubs, with little atmosphere but a carnival of attendees, some in outrageous clothing, many stoned, who were there to have a good time, many hanging outside the bowl during parts of the band’s four hour show, but certainly reintegrating for the last half of the second set, when if the stars aligned the Dead levitated the building.

But there was never any AM radio play. But by this time, there was an alternative FM in every major market, but the Dead were still not a staple of playlists, it was a live thing, and a bedroom/living room thing, you might not hear the Dead much on the radio, but you’d hear them tons at people’s houses, especially on the east coast, almost more than any other band, at least until “Hotel California” and “Rumours” became ubiquitous. Yes, the Dead meant something in California, but by this time, the mid to late seventies, they were almost bigger on the east coast, where there were more people and more places to play, as for the Midwest…it lagged. In certain markets you could not get a ticket, and in others you could, but if you couldn’t…you begged for a miracle. What kind of person expects a free ticket? A member of a fanbase that exceeded the act that brought all the acolytes together, some people didn’t even need to go inside, outside was enough, as a member of the circus, and this reached its peak of debauchery in the late eighties and early nineties when the band started having problems finding places to play.

But it was different in the spring of 1970.

By the time of “American Beauty” and “Truckin’,” even casual fans knew the band had been busted in New Orleans, but the truth was in the time of “Workingman’s Dead,” most people had never seen cocaine, never mind tried it, we lived in a land of less than potent marijuana, the Dead were far ahead of their market, that’s one thing that made people glom on to them, they seemed to promise enlightenment, Jerry Garcia was dubbed “Captain Trips,” but the deification came later. All the punter had in the spring of 1970 was “Uncle John’s Band,” but if you bought the album it had a cover that felt like sandpaper, which promised a journey into something earthy and different, the Grateful Dead were always different, and still are.

Track 2 on “Workingman’s Dead,” “High Time,” immediately took a left turn from “Uncle John’s Band, it sounded more Bakersfield than Marin, this was when rockers looked down on country music, real country music, even Gram Parsons was a minor figure, and didn’t sound as wistful as Jerry Garcia here.

Track 3, “Dire Wolf,” was more palatable, a harbinger of what was to come with “American Beauty,” but less smooth and polished than what came on the later album.

Track 5, the opener of the second side, “Cumberland Blues,” sounds so similar to what the band sounded like live, but it was not the kind of earworm you got the first time through, but if you actually played the album, it endeared itself to you.

Track 6, “Black Peter,” hearkened back to track 2, “High Time,” this was more country than rock, but more authentic than what was recorded on “American Beauty,” it was as if Jerry Garcia was making music for himself more than the audience, he was not self-conscious, but make no mistake nothing on FM radio sounded like this, and this got no airplay whatsoever.

Track 7, “Easy Wind,” sounded like it came from a completely different album, because it was a Pigpen cut, closer to what came before as opposed to what came after, too rough for virgin ears. Sure, Pigpen had a song on “American Beauty,” but it featured chicken pickin’, it was more upbeat and was only two minutes and twenty two seconds long, less than half of “Easy Wind.”

Which brings us to “Casey Jones,” track 8. You got it the first time through, at least I did, but this was back when it was just another album track, not an anthem, when it was still private, before it was embraced by everybody.

But my favorite cut was track number 4, “New Speedway Boogie.”


Please don’t dominate the rap jack
If you’ve got nothing new to say

The first time I heard the term “rap” was the previous summer, in an un-air-conditioned second floor apartment of a semi-radical in Chicago, he said we were gonna rap, which really meant he was gonna tell us how it was and we were gonna listen and ask questions, and maybe offer some opinions, maybe…

It’s the guitar, the groove in “New Speedway Boogie” that hooked me. The lyrics could have been about anything, I still would have liked it, but they were about Altamont, back before the flawed festival was truly seen as the bummer Woodstock, before most people even knew what happened there, after all the Rolling Stones were still making the transition from singles band to album-makers, and despite the quality of “Let it Bleed,” it wasn’t until ’71 and “Sticky Fingers” that they became the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band, one which you could not get a ticket to see. But people knew who Mick Jagger was, and when they saw him staring at the concert footage in “Gimme Shelter,” horrified, contemplating his culpability, the band was seen as dark, the anti-Beatles, and their festival a complete misreading of American culture, never mind the Hell’s Angels. And everybody who participated in this debacle wanted to forget it, and not talk about it, but the Dead wrote a song about it.

One way or another
One way or another
One way or another
This darkness got to give

And soon it did. Sure, Kent State happened only a month before the release of “Workingman’s Dead,” but the truth is boomers started to tucker out, they moved to the country, back to the land, and when Reagan came along in the eighties and legitimized greed, they were all in, which is one reason the Dead blew up so big in that decade, the boomers wanted to remember the way it used to be and the youngsters wanted to see what they’d missed.

So when I saw there was a companion release to the 50th anniversary release of “Workingman’s Dead,” an album of studio outtakes entitled “Angel’s Share,” I needed to pull it up and listen to the development of “New Speedway Boogie.”

Unless you’re a Deadhead, you probably don’t know this album came out, never mind the 50th anniversary version of the released record, that’s how it is today, even if you think you’re paying attention you miss things.

But despite there being ELEVEN takes of “New Speedway Boogie” on “Angel’s Flight,” not one of them had the guitar sound of the final, released album. It was frustrating, there are 64 tracks on “Angel’s Flight,” I bounced around, listened to some of “Uncle John’s Band,” but I did not have the patience to listen to all of it, but I did have a need to listen to the actual released record, so I pulled it up on Spotify. And then I thought why not listen on Amazon HD, which promptly told me the tracks could stream in ULTRA HD at 24 bit/96kHz. Unfortunately, it turns out my iPad, never mind my iPhone, even though it’s an 11 Pro Max, can only stream at 44.1 kHz. Even still, boy could I hear the difference, I don’t know why Spotify doesn’t offer this quality, never mind Apple. Sure, the truth is most people listen on inferior equipment, but many people also have reasonable headphones, and ANYBODY could hear this difference.

So I’m listening to “Workingman’s Dead” and being brought back to the summer of 1970, my mind flipping through the memories, and then I scroll down to the bonus material, a complete concert from the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester in February of ’71, I was not there, this was not long before the venue closed, not to be reopened for decades.

And I bounced around, sampling, and then I decided to take it from the top.


The concert, the show, the recording, is two and a half hours long, who has got two and a half hours today, in an era where we have to check our phone every ten minutes, who knows, someone might be looking for us, we might miss something, but one can rationalize disconnecting a bit on Saturday and I ultimately decided to start from the top and let it play, as I surfed on my iPad.

And what immediately struck me about the music was…

It sounded like nothing else and it wasn’t always together. It was definitely live, but it was far from polished, imperfect at best, it was more akin to the best band in your neighborhood working it out on stage, this is so different from today, when seamlessness is expected on both sides of the stage, to the point a lot of the show is oftentimes on hard drive, but few bitch, as for the jam band/Americana scene, the truth is those niches are so small and they don’t cross-pollinate with the big scene, to the point where the music might as well be playing on Mars.

But back in the seventies, Mars was here on earth.

Other than the roughness, what strikes one first about this show is the covers, not one, but more than a few. Sure, the band ultimately became famous for covering the Rascals breakthrough “Good Lovin’,” but it never threatened the hit, it was more of the basis for a mutual celebration with the audience, merging their heritage to join in levitating the venue. And by this time, the uneducated might even think that “I Know You Rider” is a Dead original. But at this point “Me and Bobby McGhee” was fresh in the public’s mind, after all, the hit version contained on Janis Joplin’s “Pearl” was only released the month before, January of 1971. But it’s “I’m a King Bee” that’s the surprise, never a hit single, it was a bar band staple, and, once again, as you’re listening to this concert that’s what goes through your mind, this is a loose show, grease for the audience, the band is not focused on getting it exactly right, and all the instruments don’t have to be harmonious at all times, you can hear the guitar in one ear and…there’s plenty of air, the tracks breathe.

So, I’m settled in. And I don’t want to click off. I’m in the groove. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m not jumping from interest to interest, I’m just wasting time, listening to the Grateful Dead, the way it used to be.

It’s not like that today. We were bored, we had downtime, our albums were our companions, and we didn’t have many of them, so we knew them all by heart, and had to go to the show to hear them live, and sure that paradigm still exists today, but it’s a minor part of the landscape, if everybody knows the music you’ve got a sliver of fans, or you’re a true superstar, not just a star, someone who is a household name, even if many have not heard your music, welcome to 2020, when the brand is bigger than the sound, listening takes an effort, it chews up time, you feel like you’re left out, you’re disconnected from the flow, and you don’t want to fall behind.

And this Capitol show is just when the mania is beginning to build, the Dead are still playing theatres, “American Beauty” only came out a few months before, you had to be a true fan to go to the show, the looky-loos, the johnny-come-latelies, were still not in attendance, this was an insiders’ affair, all about the band and the audience communicating, joining together, the outside world not mattering whatsoever.

The version of “Ripple” is not as saccharine as the one on wax, the band is not yet influenced by outside forces, sees no need to deliver anything other than what it is, what it does. Everything is of a piece, nothing sticks out, this is a Grateful Dead show, this is the authentic experience.


There are people who only listen to the Grateful Dead. People who will cancel you if you don’t know the difference between Dick and Dave, even though they’re in their twenties and were never alive when Jerry Garcia was still walking the Earth. You see it’s a club, and they don’t want you in it, it’s how they make themselves feel good, exclusive, the hours they’ve dedicated to the Dead, no newbies allowed. So, newbies keep their mouths shut, or pay fealty to these wankers, who will tell you Dead & Company is nowhere near as good as the original act, it’s a pale reflection, when the truth is Dead & Company are much more together than the original band ever was. The original band was comprised of misfits enthralled with the sound, the money came last, they needed enough to get through, but they lived for the music and the lifestyle, and that was enough. They knew they were singular, weren’t competing with anybody and refused to accept the mantle of gravitas, Jerry Garcia kept saying he did not have the answers, he loved to talk, but please don’t think what he had to say was more important than what you did. Jerry Garcia was just a person, who happened to be a musician, who loved to play, did stardom kick him into heroin, probably, I’d say definitely, but then the Dead Nazis know for sure, even though they’ve never met Garcia, never mind seen him, they’ve got no idea what goes on on the stage and behind it, it’s all a simulation, and when done right, it resembles life itself.

At least at a Dead show, rarely today. Today it’s artifice. I like Pink, but I hate her acrobatics, that’s just spectacle, that has nothing to do with music. The Dead didn’t dress up, they looked like you and me, the only difference was they were musicians, in an era when musicians were gods, at the pinnacle of entertainment, when they blessed the public and your only desire was to bask in the sound and get closer, ever closer.

And if you listen to this Capitol show contained on the “Workingman’s Dead” 50th, you’ll get close to the way it was. I’m sure the diehard Deadheads will tell you there’s a better show, but that’s not the point, back then the only show you knew was the one you went to, and one thing about the Dead, the set list always changed, so every show was unique.

So, we have then and now.

But the strange thing is then doesn’t sound dated. You listen to the Capitol Theatre show and the recording is pristine, the band was famous for using Nagras. It’s real music on real instruments. The band is not always together, but when it coalesces it releases an elixir that makes you feel so good, that lifts you up.

It’s hard to get that feeling today, certainly hard to sustain it. And I’m not saying people should make the music of the Dead, I’m not saying the band should be copied, then again, following your muse, doing it your way, making it about singing and playing, stretching out… Most traveling musicians complain they’re only on stage for an hour, and the other twenty three are hell, but if you hit the boards for closer to four, the entire experience is easier to endure. And the show is not about singles, it’s one long continuum, you’re not going to hear everything you want to, but when the band is on, you’ll be on a natural high, and there’s nothing better, no matter what anybody says, it’s the atmosphere, the environment, the sound, it’s just not another show, it’s a religious experience. And somewhere in those four hours the Dead would hit that peak, three-quarters of the show could miss, but they always built to a peak, you wanted to be there to hear it.

Oh, what a long strange trip it’s been.

The Beatles broke open the business, acts came along to widen the acceptable sound and money rained down and now it’s all institutionalized, and everyone says it’s the same today as it was yesterday, but nothing could be further from the truth. Money was secondary to music, no matter what Gene Simmons says. We were in it together, drawn by the sound.

Music is something you hear, not something you see. Music can be enjoyed by groups, but you hear it alone. When done right, music gets you through. And it’s not background, but foreground, the most important thing to you. Listening to the Grateful Dead’s live performances you’re reminded of that again and again and again, which is why the Deadheads are such a fraternity, because nothing satiates them like this.

All the Dead wanted to know is if you’d come with them, would you follow Uncle John’s Band, and even though it seems an insurmountable task at this late date, the truth is it’s quite easy, just put on the music and relax and float downstream, tomorrow may never know, but the past is set in amber, and there are lessons there, listen and learn.


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