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Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead

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Few recording groups in human history have left behind a wholly worthless legacy. But then there’s the Grateful Dead, who are remarkable for their ability to poison an entire music scene with their catalog of half-baked, consumerizing, milquetoast wannabe-radical jam band masturbation — and then get praised by music journalists from 1960 to 2020.

The Grateful Dead is the ideology of laissez-faire boomers condensed into a few strums of the guitar. They had a solid business model: Pilfer from your talented contemporaries, remove everything of real merit or sentiment, and then repackage this cultural detritus in a brand you can sell to your drug-addled peers. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much else.

On the topic of drugs, the Grateful Dead’s most unforgivable sin may have been the damage done to the psychedelic subculture that had begun to spread its wings in the 1960s. A far cry from the spiritual-intellectual studies of enigmatic minds like Huxley, the Dead succeeded in marketing drugs like LSD to the masses, leading to its complete cultural irrelevance as an entheogen, and turning public favor against hallucinogens in general on account of their association with gross, smelly hippies. One of the most remarkable substances on Earth was now simply a rite of passage on the road to being an insufferable, braindead normie. Let me tell you, dear reader, every time I see that ridiculous bear on a blotter of acid, I am filled with murderous rage.

Most popular music groups end up contributing something to the artistic corpus of the society they were famed in. Sometimes, they even do this unintentionally. The Grateful Dead, however, merely consumed artistic capital. They devoured jazz, psychedelia, folk, country, and blues, birthing nothing but a pointlessly long discography and a massive fanbase of generally useless people. A Deadhead sticker on the back of a vehicle nowadays is a surefire sign that the individual in question is either unemployed or in possession of obscene amounts of cannabis. Likely both.

Put simply, the music of the Grateful Dead has no exigence. There is no reason that it should exist, and yet it does, almost as if they merely intended to spite God. It is the spontaneous assemblage of the rapidly deteriorating culture of the 1960s if it were to be thrown inside a washing machine and run on the rinse-spin cycle. Ask a zoomer if they listen to the Grateful Dead, and they’ll emphatically respond in the negative. Ask some old man who reeks of body odor at a Bernie Sanders rally the same question, and you’ll be blessed with hours of him blustering about how much better things were when he was tweaked out of his gourd in San Francisco during the Vietnam War.

Eschewing their previous electrified, hallucinogenic sound, much like a criminal fleeing the scene of the crime, the Grateful Dead recorded and released the lackluster Workingman’s Dead in 1970. It’s a strong contender for the most forgettable album of the decade.

Workingman’s Dead begins with “Uncle John’s Band.” Like every song on this album, it contains absolutely nothing interesting. Both instrumentally and lyrically, it comes across as some kind of Walmart-brand Simon & Garfunkel. Major chords on an acoustic guitar with periodic licks in between have rightfully been resigned to the dorm rooms of college students unsuccessfully attempting to impress the girls they have over. The reason that the same lack of creativity has been given eternal life on this record remains a complete mystery to everyone with a taste in music more refined than that of a stoner.

“High Time” helps to define the album. The definition in question, however, is a competition in mediocrity. Where “Uncle John’s Band” was uninspired, “High Time” is downright lazy. Torn directly from the pages of somber country, but entirely devoid of any substance, “High Time” slides along at a painfully slow rhythm. Also of note is the presence of the word “baby” in reference to one’s lover; correct me if I am wrong, but the presence or absence of “baby” in a track’s lyrics seem to be a highly reliable test for quality. Jerry Garcia whining over the top of the most sanitized twang in the world is no recipe for good music.

“Dire Wolf” follows the exact same formula as the previous two tracks. It seems that the Grateful Dead were comfortable in referring to a grand total of two palettes for their compositions, varying only tempo and the lyrical content of the song. The same vague bluegrass influence meanders about “Dire Wolf” like a lost child looking for his parents. Garcia repeatedly pleads some folkish beast to refrain from murdering him on this track. It’s a shame that his cries were heard.

Perhaps the most insulting of the songs on this record is “New Speedway Boogie,” a lifeless attempt at a honky-tonk standard by a bunch of floozy Californians. The Grateful Dead are seemingly content to plop a generic instrumental down and begin waxing lethargic about anti-heroes. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced — in fact, all popular music can cite influence in its production style — but to appropriate the style guide of a particular genre and then change nothing makes you a cannibal of culture. “New Speedway Boogie” is unrelenting in its mediocrity. Were it not for Garcia’s fan-favorite whining over the top, this track could easily be mistaken for thousands of others.

“Cumberland Blues” again rips off the blueprint for jazz-influenced redneck music. It is slightly quicker than the last track, though! Perhaps the reason why the Grateful Dead’s rendition of this music comes across as so trite is on account of the band’s inauthenticity: They posed as counter-culture but made handsome profits by selling oblivious San Franciscans the music originally produced by working men in the nation’s heartlands. The Grateful Dead were the Elvis Presley of their times, peddling an unhealthy lifestyle coupled with music that was never their own.

“Black Peter” is constructed around the same five chords, with no changes in rhythm or melody between the chorus and the song’s verses. The only texturing present on this cut is the faint whistling of an organ. One curiosity of the Grateful Dead is their track lengths: “Black Peter,” for instance, rambles on for five minutes and forty-three seconds without so much as a discernable change in pattern, absent the smattering of additional or absent sounds to guide the listener. Much of this album is like that; it’s one thing to write simple music, but to gleefully repeat the same bar over and over again is tantamount to the autistic behavior of a sound engineer. Conversely, it does also make it easier for normies to recognize a tune. The Grateful Dead certainly have nostalgic sticking power; probably because their music was simple enough for a drugged-out boomer to comprehend, and therefore remember.

“Easy Wind” is another toxic tune about a folk character of ambiguous morality. He drinks too much, chases women, and ostensibly lives nearby a “bayou” of some kind. The track is a tortured imitation of the work put in by other American bands prior to the Grateful Dead, such as the modernized interpretations of The Animals, and the traditional music that this band cheaply copied their themes from. Old folk music had some amount of soul to it, in the sense that its oft-autobiographical plights could spark some sympathy. The Grateful Dead, eager to discard meaning at every turn, instead chose to write songs about nonexistent, abstract notions like speaking rivers and other nonsensical babble that would only be of groundbreaking significance to an average-IQ man on some mind-altering substance. We can at least thank the Grateful Dead for encouraging hordes of boomers to obliterate their critical thinking capacities, thereby preventing them from doing any real damage requiring forethought.

Finally, after about 30 minutes of flagellation, we arrive at the final track. “Casey Jones” is, again, another song about a folk anti-hero over bluesy riffs. Casey Jones, driving a train while high on cocaine, is one more entry in a long, long book of pointless parables. “Casey Jones” contains multiple instrumental breaks, where short plucks on guitar strings are placed on a pedestal as if they were some sort of spectacle worthy of beholding. The guitar solos on Grateful Dead songs are a superb reflection of the band’s output as a whole: They are typically unremarkable, easily identified by their influences, and unworthy of the space they occupy.

The work of the Grateful Dead is often classified as “psychedelic,” which may be partially true of the instrumental soundscapes on their other work. However, to call the output of a band “psychedelic” simply because of its nonsensical lyricism and endless references to drug use is shallow at best, and dishonest at worst. The Dead’s philosophy, if one could even call it that, was informed exclusively by illusory and transient pleasures that a softened mind would experience in the midst of an acid trip, or an acid-washed society. Nothing on this album implies the existence of a spiritual sublime, a higher-order, or even a sense of interconnectedness with the machinations of the universe — all hallmarks of “psychedelic” music. Rather, they churn out fake Southern standards and sing twisted versions of nursery rhyme tales.

There is little to be said about the Grateful Dead other than listing their sins. Whether it was the hollow theft of their musical style, their commercialization and subsequent ruination of psychedelics in the West, or simple blandness, the Grateful Dead do not make a strong case for themselves. Their music is seldom heard outside of establishments pandering to washed-up Boomers, or as the background noise to a period piece of some sort. The bands that cite the Grateful Dead as an influence are also, as a general rule, insufferable themselves. They are the index case of how truly mainstream the “counter-culture” of their era was; an easily marketed, easily digested piece of pop bunk, with a boatload of merchandise to accompany it.

It’s not an accident that Ben & Jerry’s, the favorite ice cream of suburban Democrats, has a flavor called “Cherry Garcia.”

 

18 Comments

  1. Mary
    Posted February 1, 2020 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    How many minutes of living did you lose writing this diatribe? Think you’re an intellectual, don’t cha?

    You went to a Grateful Dead concert, got stoned and had a great time. I think financially they did ok. They could care less what you think but obviously you felt it necessary to spend your time explaining it anyway. Geesh.

  2. classic
    Posted February 1, 2020 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    It is strange that Ann Coulter is a huge Grateful Dead fan when she is too young to have experienced them in their heyday, and she’s not a drug user

  3. A. Nailer
    Posted February 1, 2020 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Thank you Scott Weisswald for this excellent and overdue critique of this rambling, claptrap of a band. Unlike some (many?), I never had a leftist/normie period in my youth. I thought the GD sucked then, and I think they suck now. Hilarious review of their brain-dead music and “scene”.

  4. D.M.
    Posted February 1, 2020 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    My department chair (who eventually became a dean) almost forty years ago was a New York Jew of the guru type who wore a pony tail. He was always praising the Dead. One night we had a battle of the bands. I put up The Allman Bros. Band against the Dead. After listening for awhile, astonishingly, he conceded that the Allmans were better. He was eventually caught going through the university president’s appointment book. The president asked faculty to write evaluations of this person, and after he received them promptly fired the man and had security escort him off campus. The evaluations were so eloquent and eviserating we used to read them on “(His name here) De-Deaning Day” anniversaries.

  5. Happy Larry
    Posted February 1, 2020 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    Not going lie, I’m an English ‘Zoomer,’ and I used to listen to American Beauty alot in my early teens. It wasn’t CCR standard or even that Beau Brummels country rock album everybody has forgotten about, but it was a good listen.

  6. Jud Jackson
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article. I certainly don’t agree with lifestyle, philosophy or anything else about the Dead.

    However, I simply think that the songs “Uncle John’s Band” and “Ripple” and “Breakdown Palace” from the American Beauty Record are really pretty. I am not a musicologist and I certainly wouldn’t say these songs are anywhere near Mozart or Beethoven, but in my humble opinion, they are as good or better than any of the the pop music songs from the 1960s on including anything by the Beatles.

  7. Randy
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    I liked the album back when I listened to rock. Hippies aside the grateful dead music has hardly any left wing moralizing in at all but is more a celebration of traditional American frontier values. Bob Dylan is somewhat the same way but with the incessant moralizing.

  8. Eihwas
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I also chime in with a bemused groan. Since I’m here, where is the article on Air’s Moon Safari?

  9. haddox
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Scott. Quite a nice surprise to read the brutal opening paragraph after thinking from the title that this might be a tribute article. Chuckling and nodding in agreement throughout. AMEN!!!!

    I have always been firmly in the hate ’em camp (save maybe the song “Ripple”). And their fans are usually as insufferable as the band itself . . . As we used to say back in the day, “I’ll be grateful when they’re dead.”

  10. Jerome G
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Arguing with a passionate Dead hater or Dead fan is an absolute waste of time. They never clicked with me for a long time. Psychedelics helped. Not sure why this is included on a site like this though. The jam scene (which i dont get into besides the Dead) is one of the whitest groups around. They were distinctly apolitical, unusual in 60s counter culture.

  11. Franz
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Odder thing about the Dead:

    Marginalized in the 60s (they got no radio airplay, sold few albums) they were suddenly hip… in the late 80s-90s. Had a family member who went to their “concert” in I think 1989. The amazement was palpable: What for? Why them?

    Felton Newisher’s comment about an intel project really does answer that. A good workingman’s rock group, the Dave Clark Five, had a string of solid hits in the mid-sixties (MUCH radio airplay) but was forgotten before the decade’s end. The Dead, on the other hand, made most of their rep many long years after the 60s were over.

  12. HamburgerToday
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    This sounds like something I could have written about the Grateful Dead in my 20’s. Now I know better. The only reason anyone hates the Grateful Dead anymore is because they are the band that will not die. When it comes down to it, the Grateful Dead assimilated and reinterpreted a huge corpus of American musical styles and inclinations from which the created a musical tapestry that is deep and rich and, above all, White people’s music.

  13. Felton Newisher
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    By the way, the Grateful Dead do have the earmarks of having been an intel project, all along (the whole hippie/LSD/eastern religions thing).

    Investigate their lyricists Robert Hunter and John Barlow, furtive, self-important and self-consciously oblique. The musical improvisations and the psychedelic drugs were the set and setting for making the impressionable boomer kids susceptible to whatever notions were embedded in those lyrics that they hired those two guys (whom nobody would be able to identify on sight) to put to their music.

    • nineofclubs
      Posted January 31, 2020 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Barlow makes me nauseous. I can’t decide whether he was incredibly gullible or a Machiavellian genius. Or, to borrow a phrase, whether he was a fool or a tool.

      Like so many of the 68 generation, The Dead were hip because they postured as fighting against ‘The Man’. But the Man in the Deadhead narrative was always the State. Never business or the market. The ‘68ers, with their focus on personal liberty issues, gave global business a free pass to attack workers wages and conditions and undermine national borders and identities. Many of them – including Barlow – went on to become darlings of the corporate world.

      Thomas Frank’s book, ‘One Market under God’ explores this relationship more fully. His preface is – tellingly – titled ‘Deadheads in Davos’.

      In a largely unsympathetic review of Frank’s book, Salon magazine says;

      “Surveying literature on the ostensible left and the business right, Frank paints a disturbing picture of a society that has neutralized most kinds of dissent through irony, fatuous theorizing and the transformation of alienation into a niche market. So if Frank’s analysis is so right on, why is “One Market Under God” occasionally maddening? Partly it’s because his master narrative of the symbiosis between hipsters and capitalists stamps out ideological nuance. Sure, if you believe that things like abortion rights, gay marriage and free speech online are simply distractions from economic issues, then there is no real difference between Grateful Dead lyricist-turned-cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow and Newt Gingrich.“

      Indeed.

      https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/www.salon.com/2000/10/26/frank/amp

      .

  14. Felton Newisher
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    NOW review their follow-up album “American Beauty” — I dare you!

    Workingman’s Dead always seemed to me (a boomer inundated with near-Deadhead social connections) a sort of joke (“I bet you didn’t think we could do (an album of actual songs with words, sort of, instead of spaced-out jams only!”).

    American Beauty was a sort of re-do of it, with 10 somewhat better songs, and definitely a finer hand in the production of it.

    Grateful Dead, it appears to this lifelong professional folk and jazz performer, had been a positive influence early on, promulgating the open-mindedness that led young people in their group to be receptive to jazz, electronic or other musical styles. Ultimately, the emphasis on the drug experience and the non-analytical and apathetic ‘non-conformity’ of their milieu turned them increasingly into a stupid, irrelevant thing.

    With apologies to David McGowan, my feeling from this distance is that the Grateful Dead were all about leading a generation AWAY from awareness, activism or anything to do with the intellect.

    • Anthony Kimball
      Posted January 31, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      I definitely agree with what you and some other conspiracy-minded authors have been saying since jerry garcia died in the mid-1990’s: the dead’s music was totally non-political and it almost seemed like they were a secret government project to lure American youths away from getting involved in real political activity that could have led to positive social change. Related to this, I’m also inclined to believe that LSD was deliberately introduced into the youth culture in the mid-1960’s to more or less prevent that generation from focusing on who the real enemy was and acting accordingly. That said, I still enjoy a lot of the dead’s music, at least up to the late 1970’s. Even if they weren’t a government-sponsored band, they definitely DID go on waay past their musical expiration date. A prime example of a band that didn’t know when to call it a day.

  15. John Wilkinson
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Cannabis culture has always disgusted me. Sure, Cheech and Chong did some funny gags, but I despise people who reduce their purpose in living down to chasing the next high.

  16. James J OMeara
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I haven’t listened to that album in about 40 years, but I vaguely recalled it as the Dead jumping on some kind of country-rock roots thing, a la Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. This review makes me think it was, in fact, a deliberate attempt to ruin the White folk-soul music of the Old Weird America, as collected by Harry Smith’s Anthology, which sparked the Folk Revival.

    However, I must say that the amount of sheer tedium you’ve indicated here makes me want to go back and check it out. As Constant Readers will recall, I have a sweet tooth for boringly bad movies, and this sounds like the Red Zone Cuba of LP’s.

    Speaking of whom, another landmark of tedium is, coincidentally, The Dead Talk Back, a film so dire it was left on the shelf at a film lab for 40 years, until revived (as it were) by MST3k. They, in turn, were inspired by the title to pay “tribute” to The Dead, of course, and the result was Crow’s legendary Jerry Garcia endless guitar lick, which continued on for several segments.

    https://youtu.be/RhcEXk_pJ9c

    “And then the moon came out, and it was like Jerry WILLED IT!”

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