Rock 'n' roll is an old person's thing these days; at least that's what its partisans will tell you. While there's always exciting new music about, somehow it seems more profitable to delve into what we were listening to 50 years ago (if we were around 50 years ago to listen).
The Grateful Dead is hardly a forgotten band, its place in our lore is secure. It is the original jam band, the hippie conglomerate whose tours were followed by a sizable contingent of Deadheads who were encouraged to bootleg the band's performances and swap the tapes. (It was only years later that the process got commodified and the "Dick's Picks" compilations made their way into the above ground marketplace.)
But, the conventional wisdom goes, to get the Dead, you really had to be there. The band could be recorded, but the recording was never the prime experience. Its music was fluid and subject to drifting; changeable as Arkansas spring weather. The band members never played two shows the same, they never played a song the same way twice. It wasn't just the notes and the chords that mattered, it was the way that the music seemed to come wrapped in a sense of community. Drugs and sex and cosmic politics were as integral to the scene as rock 'n' roll.
Some people liked that about them; most people — Deadheads will agree — simply didn't get them. The Dead had — still has — its cult, but it only had one Top 10 single — 1987's "Touch of Grey," which was probably as notable for the video the band's new record label (Arista) pushed onto MTV as anything else. Most Americans of a certain age know a couple of the band's songs — "Truckin'," "Ripple," "Casey Jones," maybe "Uncle John's Band"— but the Dead is by and large considered an acquired taste.
There was a moment, 50 years ago, when the Grateful Dead could have, probably should have, broken through to the mainstream. On June 14, 1970, it released an album called "Workingman's Dead" that pulled together various strains of American roots music in a radio-friendly series of tightly constructed, happy-sounding songs. In retrospect, "Workingman's Dead" feels like a close cousin to two other albums released that summer: the Band's anxiety-drenched "Stage Fright" (August) and Creedence Clearwater Revival's last great record "Cosmo's Factory" (July). The feeling that "Workingman's Dead" holds its own with its 1970s contemporaries isn't completely revisionist — the readers of Rolling Stone voted it the year's best album, though it never got any higher than No. 27 on Billboard's album charts.
But the only single from the album, an edited version of "Uncle John's Band" never rose higher than No. 69 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. The Dead's Jerry Garcia blamed Warner Bros.' remix of the single; lyricist Robert Hunter often put the blame on the Nixon administration, suggesting that any radio station that dared to play the music of the infamous druggie band would face licensing problems. (Though non-single "Casey Jones" got such significant airplay on album rock FM stations that it has become a kind of classic rock standard.)
For whatever reason, the Dead was not destined to ever be a band that sold a lot of records. "Workingman's Dead" (and its remarkable follow-up "American Beauty," which was also released in 1970) remain under-appreciated gems, largely because the Dead is seen as a band whose records weren't representative of their best work.
Last Friday, Rhino Records released a "50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Workingman's Dead," available as a physical three-CD set ($34.98 list) and a digital download ($14.99), that contains a remastered version of the original album plus a previously unreleased live recording of the band's Feb. 21, 1971, show at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. As a supplement to that, Rhino has also released to streaming services "The Angel's Share," two and a half hours of unreleased studio outtakes from the "Workingman's Dead" recording sessions.
While the casual listener is unlikely to find "The Angel's Share" (the project takes its title from a term of art used by whiskey distillers to refer to that portion of the whiskey lost to evaporation during the aging process) interesting, for a certain kind of record geek it's a deeply fascinating glimpse into the recording process. (It's similar to genuinely revelatory "The Pet Sounds Sessions," the 1997 four-CD set by Capitol Records that contained instrumental tracks, vocals-only tracks, alternate mixes, and edited highlights from the Brian Wilson-led recording sessions for the Beach Boys 1965 "Pet Sounds" album.)
According to the press notes for "The Angel's Share" (does anyone else think that should be "The Angels' Share" — surely there's more than one celestial consumer to satisfy), the 64 tracks were compiled from dozens of 16-track reels recently discovered in unlabeled boxes and contains outtakes for every song, often complete instrumental versions without vocals (though fans of the band's occasional vocalist Ron "Pigpen" McKernanget to hear him lead the band through 15 attempts at nailing his signature song, "Easy Wind").
Of course, this seems excessive. Unless it's the sort of rabbit hole you've been looking to dive down.
From my perspective, "The Angel's Share" lends credence to my theory that "Workingman's Dead" (and the even better realized "American Beauty") represent the best of the Dead on record precisely because they were collections of tightly constructed songs — material that the band had perfected in concert. (The exception to this rule is "New Boogie Speedway," which was essentially finished in the studio.)
Here you can hear Garcia taking the band in hand, critiquing their choices, giving notes on tempo and pacing of the tracks. "Workingman's Dead" isn't the documenting of a jam band noodling, but an intentional attempt to make a rock 'n' roll record that incorporated elements of folk and country music at a time when such Ur-Americana acts as the aforementioned Band and Creedence were riding high. I'm not saying that the Dead was looking to cash in on a popular trend, I'm saying that the musical sensibilities of Garcia, Hunter, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann had arrived at a place coincident with popular tastes and that "Workingman's Dead" should have been the album to bring them a wider audience.
While their first album, 1967's "The Grateful Dead" (alternately known as "San Francisco's The Grateful Dead") is a decent record for a band that was still discovering its own identity, I've long held that the band's second and third albums "Anthem of the Sun" and "Aoxomoxoa" sound to me more like pressing mistakes than the vital rock-jazz fusion experiments their supporters claim. Both seem dense and weirdly sullen to me.
But "Workingman's Dead" owes a lot to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard; Garcia and Weir imagined their band as a kind of northern California echo of Owens' Buckaroos and Haggard's Strangers, a country music derived more from the honky-tonks than the church choirs, with stinging guitars and pealing steel guitar lines.
When Garcia died in 1995, his old friend Pete Grant, who'd taught guitar to members of the Jefferson Airplane and went on to play with Hoyt Axton, remembered the beginnings of Garcia's romance with the steel guitar:
"Before the Grateful Dead or even the Warlocks, Jerry and I were driving in his Corvair up from Palo Alto to Berkeley to see the Kentucky Colonels play. [Buck Owens'] 'Together Again' came on the radio, with that memorable solo by Tom Brumley. We both listened in reverent awe, and said, 'Man, we gotta learn pedal steel.'"
Grant acquired both an instrument and proficiency on it first, so Garcia had him play it on "Doin' the Rag," a track on "Aoxomoxoa." Over the next year, Garcia had learned the instrument well enough to play it on "Workingman's Dead." (Garcia would become so infatuated with the instrument that he joined Grant and David Nelson in The New Riders of the Purple Sage largely so he could play it onstage. He also composed and played the pedal steel intro to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song "Teach Your Children," which may be the most popular and indelible pedal steel part outside of traditional country milieu.)
(There's a story that says Garcia had tried to learn pedal steel as early as 1966 but gave it up because he found his particular instrument difficult to play. It was only after he acquired an instrument custom-made by Arkansas native Zane Beck in 1969 — a double-neck ZB Custom he'd later give to Grant — that he really began to understand the instrument.)
"He got good real fast and had a wonderfully unique style," Grant understated in his memorial.
The Grateful Dead has never been my favorite band, probably because the Deadheads are right, you did have to be there. But "Workingman's Dead" is a remarkable, happy album that somehow feels fresher today than it did when it was new. It's 36 minutes of American music, a glimpse at an alternative kind of country-rock, one that didn't take off the way the Byrds-Poco-Eagles strain did. Whether it was smothered in its cradle by Nixon's FCC might be occasion for another piece for another time.