Kronomyth 1.0: ZANE GREYFULL DEAD. This record is the vinyl consummation of a relationship that began almost a decade ago in the San Francisco folk scene, where David Nelson, John Dawson, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter first met. The four reunited during the Dead’s psychedelic country-rock phase (1969 to 1970), and a mixture of Dawson, Nelson and the Dead became the band’s opening act in 1970. Soon after, NRPS added full-time members David Torbert and Spencer Dryden (of Jefferson Airplane), retained the services of Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, and released this album of John Dawson originals. The songs on the first NRPS album are typical of the West Coast psychedelic country-rock sound, inviting comparison to Buffalo Springfield (e.g., “Garden of Eden”), The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Dawson, Nelson and Torbert achieve nice harmonies, Garcia’s pedal steel playing is decent enough and Dryden makes for a surprisingly credible country-rock drummer. This album has always struck me as a simple, countrified cousin to Workingman’s Dead, especially on songs like “I Don’t Know You,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “Last Lonely Eagle.” The Riders dig even deeper into American folk myths than the Dead, with songs about outlaws (“Henry,” “Glendale Train”), miners (“Dirty Business”) and girls from the country (“Portland Woman,” “Louisiana Lady”). If you enjoy country-rock music with a psychedelic twist, you’ll find plenty to admire here among the purple sage. It’s not as pretty as American Beauty or as dazzling as The Gilded Palace of Sin, but it’s a pleasant ride from sun-up to sundown and, as an added bonus, one of the best of the ancillary Dead albums.
Kronomyth 8.1: ‘S EUROPE. This is the token single from the triple-disc Europe ’72 package, here trimmed down to a meagre four minutes. “Sugar Magnolia” has always been one of my favorites from Bob Weir, painting the picture (through Robert Hunter’s lyrics) of the ideal, down-to-earth woman: in tune with nature, supportive of her man (I didn’t say it was your ideal). The natural imagery from Hunter is really beautiful, focusing primarily on water, flowers and light. Although the song is purportedly about Weir’s girlfriend at the time (Frankie Azzarra/Hart/Weir), it appears Hunter may have taken some poetic license in casting the former go-go dancer as a woodland nymph. The B side on the original single is the live version of “Mr. Charlie” that appeared on Europe ’72 (right after “Sugar Magnolia,” in fact).
Kronomyth 6.1: TRUCKINDOSCOPY. The fun thing about the Dead is that, the deeper you dig, the more you discover. Take “Truckin’” as an example. This song has been subject to so much speculation on the part of listeners, some of it founded (the reference to New Orleans is obviously about that year’s drug bust, the title is inspired by R. Crumb’s Keep On Truckin’ cartoon) and some of it not (Is Vitamin C really a reference to acid? Is Sweet Jane a nomme de tomb for Janis Joplin? Does “soft machine” refer to Burroughs’ book, a Dallas club or something else?). Whatever your conspiracy theories, there’s no denying the song is an allegory in which we’re encouraged to get through life one day/city at a time. Originally released on American Beauty, “Truckin’” was edited, apparently remixed and released as a single at the beginning of 1971. Although it only reached as high as #64, “Truckin’” had the distinction of being the band’s highest-charting single for years (until “Touch of Grey” eclipsed it). It remains one of the band’s most identifiable songs, and the line “what a long, strange trip it’s been” has become something of a motto for the Dead and their fans over the years. The original B side, “Ripple,” is also from American Beauty.
Kronomyth 6.0: GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD FELINE BAND. Somewhere between Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street, Jerry Garcia and the Godchauxes found time to release a new album of material as the Jerry Garcia Band. Rounded out by some of Jerry’s regular sidemen (John Kahn, Merl Saunders, Ron Tutt) and featuring lyrics by Robert Hunter, Cats Under The Stars sounds a lot like those two Dead albums distilled down to their Garcia/Hunter and Godchaux songs. It’s not on a par with the last Dead album, and may be at least partly responsible for the subpar Shakedown (to which Garcia contributed only three new tracks), but it’s still a solid addition to the Dead’s Arista output (a period not synonymous with the band’s best work, lest you take that as a hearty endorsement). As for me, my heart tends to light up a little when I see the words Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter together, since the pair have been the source of much joy. “Rubin And Cherise,” “Gomorrah” and “Cats Under The Stars,” I’m happy to say, are right in line with what you’d expect from the Dead’s most enduring songwriting partnership. Although the album is a little light at eight tracks (including the short instrumental piece, “Down Home”), it makes up for it some with variety. The Kahn/Hunter reggae song, “Love In The Afternoon,” is one such surprise, Donna’s pretty pop song, “Rain,” another, and the airy “Palm Sunday” reveals that even Garcia and Hunter can still surprise us after all these years. Without a proper producer, the arrangements occasionally unravel (Run For The Roses, by contrast, felt overproduced), and you won’t find the same piquant instrumental interplay on Stars that you do with the Dead. On your way from the station to the street, however, there’s no harm done if you look this one up.
It’s 1967 and hippies are growing like mushrooms in the shadows of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, beneath the careless eyes of two burning black-light suns called Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. As for the Airplane, they crashed and burned because of internal bickering, then resurfaced as a commercial airline flying under the banner of the almighty dollar. But The Dead never did (die). Instead, their legend lives on today as fresh as the acid flashbacks of the loyal Deadheads who keep their lovelight lit in warm, fraternal vigil.
In the beginning (because everything must have a beginning), the Dead were a motley assortment of psychedelic upstarts with a four-fingered guitarist (Jerry Garcia), a couple of classically trained musicians (Phil Lesh, Tom Constanten), three singers (including Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan), a poet (Robert Hunter) and one too many drummers (Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart). Following the departure of Constanten–and, with him, much of the band’s experimental tendencies in the studio–they recorded Workingman’s Dead (1970). Influenced by the American folk/country/rock sound of CS&N, Bob Dylan and The Byrds, it was their strongest effort to date, featuring classic Garcia/Hunter compositions including “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones” and “Dire Wolf.” American Beauty (1971) was even better. Those two albums plus their live set at the time (which included “Dark Star,” “Playing In The Band” and “Wharf Rat”) constitue the bulk of what many would consider classic Grateful Dead.
After a world tour in 1972, the Dead got their own label (Grateful Dead Records) and begin releasing a mix of solo albums and group efforts that came together on stage. Dead albums from this period reflected the band’s live performances by finding equal time for the songs of Garcia, Weir and the rest of the band (which now included husband-and-wife Keith and Donna Godchaux). A Dead show wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by “Scarlet Begonias,” “U.S. Blues,” “Franklin’s Tower,” “The Music Never Stopped” or “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo.”
In the late 70s, the band signed with Arista Records and released the fan favorite, Terrapin Station (1977), but their next two albums received a lukewarm reception from critics and fans. After a six-year absence from the studio, the Dead surprised everyone by releasing In The Dark (1987), which went on to be their biggest seller and featured their only Top 10 hit, “Touch of Grey.” Lightning didn’t strike twice, however, and Built To Last (1989) proved to be their last. Still, the band continued to tour until a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995; it marked the official end of one of music’s longest and strangest trips.
Yet the Dead continue to live on through their live recordings and merchandising—from ties to teddy bears. Dozens of archival concert recordings have been released over the years, many of them under the Dick’s Picks title, so named for Dick Latvala, the Dead tape archivist who oversaw the series initially. Such is the immortal appeal of the Dead that even Latvala’s death in 1999 couldn’t kill the series, which now continues under the direction of David Lemieux (although it’s still called Dick’s Picks because I guess Lemieux’ Chieux would be hard to pronounce).
Kronomyth 11.0: BONER. What’s so great about Grateful Dead? Well, for starters, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion).” Oh, and let’s not forget “Rosemary,” “Mexicali Blues” (which isn’t even a Grateful Dead song) and the six-minute live version of “Turn On Your Love Light” that Warner Brothers lazily tacked on to the end of The Big Ball (a budget-priced, double-elpee sampler from the 70s). No wonder Deadheads don’t like this album. Skeletons’ shortcomings still didn’t stop three million Americans from buying it, although I’m guessing it stopped most of them from buying any Grateful Dead album after that. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 80 and own (or have access to) a radio, you’ve already heard the best that Skeletons has to offer. Better to spend your time/money/salable organs on Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty (which, together, form the better half of this Best Of). You can even buy Aoxomoxoa if you want, with my personal assurance that “Rosemary” is one of the worst songs on it. The thing about the Dead is that you can’t distill them down to 10 songs or one album or one show. And if you were going to try to distill them down to 10 songs anyway, you’d probably want to make sure that five of them didn’t suck. Which would make you a more careful caretaker of their legacy than Warner Brothers, who were simply looking to cash out now that the band was managing their own affairs with Grateful Dead Records. I would tell you this is the worst “best of” albums I own, but then I’d have to burn, bury or sell both Changesonebowie and Changestwobowie, which is more effort than they’re worth.
Kronomyth 4.0: OWSLEY, STEEL & NASHVILLE SKYLINE. The psychedelic acid test of Anthem and Aoxomoxoa was over. The Dead entered the studio to make an American country/blues album that echoed the recent work of Bob Dylan, The Byrds and, in its rich vocal harmonies, CS&N. The music on Workingman’s Dead, like its subdued sepia-toned cover, seemed a calculated contrast to the flashy excess of the past. Where once the band had been counterculture revellers, they now appeared to pay court to the American musical traditions of country, blues and the cowboy mythology. Robert Hunter’s lyrics drew from a rich American mythos of crows, dire wolves and runaway trains, with death a constant companion. Jerry Garcia gave a prominent place to the pedal steel guitar on songs like “Dire Wolf” and “High Time.” The songs offered complex musical interplay behind a folksy persona that was friendly and familiar; listeners dropped their guard and discovered that the Dead were breathing new life into their beloved country. Workingman’s Dead quickly became their best-selling record and set the stage for just about every Dead album after. “Uncle John’s Band,” “Dire Wolf” and “Casey Jones” are indelibly written in the great American songbook, and even songs like “Black Peter” and “New Speedway Boogie” feel like they’ve been with us from the beginning. Scratch the surface of these songs, however, and you’ll find the old spirit of subversion at work, as though the Dead (like Dylan before them) were picking and playing and winking at us all at once. More of that shone through on American Beauty, which in some ways made Workingman’s Dead sound like a dry run of that album. Both works are absolutely essential works that distill the Dead’s appeal into its purest studio essence, though on stage they burned purer still.
Kronomyth 9.0: A BEAR’S HITS (IN THE WOODS). The third live Dead album released in a row, this one features primarily Pigpen (who had recently passed away) at a handful of shows in February 1970 at the Fillmores East and West. Bear’s Choice is otherwise notable for being the first Dead live disc to focus on their acoustic show; the amps aren’t turned on at all until the second side. Now, you don’t really give a crap about my Grateful Dead reviews and I’m not a Deadhead, so let’s not lie to one another: this is not the first Dead live disc you need to own. And the death of Pigpen, while tragic on a personal level, didn’t represent a crippling blow to the Grateful living. You don’t need to be a Deadhead, however, to appreciate the history lesson. The original elpee is light on material, but the 2001 remaster adds four more tracks and contains some smokin’ playing, now anchored by two weighty versions of “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Pigpen, apologetic on guitar and unapologetic in his howlin’ delivery, is the bluesiest of the bunch, a point underscored on the twin smokestacks and the classic “Hard to Handle.” There’s plenty of amazing picking and drumming behind it all, from the early version of “Good Lovin’” to the electric solo on the second Smokestack. Since I find the electric Dead more interesting, I wouldn’t bother much with the original elpee version, which is half acoustic curios and half Pigpen tribute. The expanded remaster has a better balance and gives a more accurate impression of the Dead’s live show around 1970. If you’re looking for classic Dead tunes, though, you won’t find them here; only “Black Peter” will be familiar to the casual fan. Otherwise, this is part of the great, revolving American songbook that the Dead hauled with them from place to place, which on a given night could range from Bill Monroe to the Everly Brothers. Bear’s Choice is better than I expected, but in the wake of so many archival live releases it’s really your choice.
Kronomyth x.x: GIANT’S TEDIUM. You’re getting half a review out of me this morning, ass I’ve butt only heard the second of this two-disc set. Initially, I was annoyed that the first disc was in absentia, but it seems someone may have actually done me a kindness, as it was all I could do to get through the half I had. Nightfall of Diamonds is yet another in the neverending series of official archival Dead concert recordings, this time captured at the Meadowlands Arena on October 16, 1989. Recorded shortly before the release of Built To Last, this concert previews a few tracks from the Dead’s final studio album: “Picasso Moon,” “Built To Last” and “I Will Take You Home.” The band’s live appearances at the end of their career were hit or miss; Dylan & The Dead was terrible, Without A Net was actually very good. They definitely needed a net on this night, as the band is falling-down awful on most of these songs. The jams meander aimlessly and sometimes tunelessly, their voices are shot and they forget the lyrics on more than a few occasions. When they sing “How does the song go?” from Uncle John’s Band, it’s art imitating life. Of course, nobody but Deadheads buy these albums anyway, and for their trouble they’ll get a handful of keepsakes like the ancient encore “We Bid You Goodnight,” a creaky “Attics of My Life,” a great “Space” jam and yet another version of “Dark Star” to add to their collection. In the time it took you to read this review, however, they’ve probably issued at least two more archival concert releases, both of which are likely to be better than this one.
CronNaMyth 1.0: 2 OUT OF 3 AIN’T HALF BAD. After the initial flurry of CS&N solo albums, none of which mercifully featured tin pan alley standards or 30 minutes of therapeutic wailing, Graham Nash and David Crosby decided to re-form as a duo with the support of a band of session players dubbed The Mighty Jitters: Craig Doerge (keyboards), Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar (guitar), Russell Kunkel (drums) and Leland Sklar (bass). The results on Graham Nash/David Crosby were good enough to sustain the pair’s commercial momentum, going gold soon after its release and generating two singles including the Top 40 “Immigration Man,” which could be seen as a cross between The Beatles’ “The Ballad of John & Yoko” (thematically) and “Taxman” (musically and especially in Greg Reeves’ insistent bass track). Rather than re-create the soaring harmonies of CS&N, however, this reunion essentially amounts to half of a solo album each from Crosby and Nash shuffled together. Nash’s contributions favor the Bob Dylan/Beatles sound set forward on earlier songs like “Our House” (in fact, “Strangers Room,” originally written in 1969, sounds like that song filtered through Traffic), while Crosby’s songs suggest a male Joni Mitchell: jazzy and mysterious and troubled. Over their careers, many of these songs would be counted among their best: “Southbound Train,” “Page 43,” “The Wall Song,” “Immigration Man,” “Strangers Room.” The financial motivation for such a merger can’t be discounted, yet Graham Nash/David Crosby remains one of the most gratifying extracurricular outings from the CS&N axis, a snapshot of two artists still at their peak. Crosby and Nash were happy enough with the result to repeat the experiment in the mid 70s and even tour together, though neither Wind On The Water nor Whistling Down The Wire matched the success of their first.