Twisted Systems

Workingman’s Dead…at 50

Issue 121

First off, I am proud to announce two projects of mine that you may be interested in:

I will start my own podcast in about a month. It will be called The French Connection and I’ll be talking about all things music and beyond…it will cover my many and varied interests such as: musical artists, the music business, motivational speakers, guitars, health, politics, watches, wine and more.

Coming in 2021, my first book will be published, titled A Twisted Business: The Soul of Twisted Sister and the Art of Reinvention.

And now, back to the business at hand.

So many great anniversaries,

So many great albums.

So many great artists…

This was not the one I thought I would be writing about but I have had second (and third and fourth) thoughts about my history with the Grateful Dead.

Recently, through the help of my friend Justin Kreutzmann, the son of Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, I had the great fortune to speak to Betty Cantor, the longtime Dead live sound engineer and co-producer of Workingman’s Dead. (More about that later.)  That album is now 50 years old.

Let’s, for the sake of this article, just pretend that I am writing about a band that had more of an influence on me than every other artist except The Beatles, Stones and Bowie and that I loved.

I can’t deny that I’ve spent more hours listening to the Dead, both live and on record, than any other band in my life. Period. It is with this background that I approach my opinion of Workingman’s Dead.

For starters, this is not about the remastered 50thAnniversary Deluxe Edition. Yes, the timing of this article feels right because it is 50 years ago this summer that the album came out, but this is also more about this band and this album at this time.

It’s not about how the remaster sounds or the bonus live LP of a 1971 GD concert at the Capitol Theater in Portchester, NY. (Sure, if you are a Deadhead, then you might just know that yes, I was at that GD concert that night…)

 

I had asked my record company president at Rhino, self-confessed Deadhead Mark Pinkus, to send me a copy of the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, but alas, COVID-19 has prevented the staff from going into the company building in LA to retrieve a copy for me.

I couldn’t wait.

I decided to listen to the high-quality version from the Warner/Rhino Dead vinyl box set released several years ago. I also listened to my original LP from 1970. My feelings about this album transcend whatever extra sparkle a remaster could give me anyway.

Why? Because, unlike the remastered Beatles albums that I have reviewed, and which I have listened to every month of every year over the last 50 years, I hadn’t listened to Workingman’s Dead in its entirety since October 1972, the month and year that I decided that I was through with the band.

Of course I had heard “Casey Jones” and “Uncle John’s Band” many times on the radio and in bars, but not the rest of the record. Also, back in those “good old days” one tended to listen to at least one uninterrupted side of an album, if not both. Most of the time, I used the album cover to roll my joints on. So, the occasion of the album’s 50th anniversary prompted me to re-listen.

In the summer of 1970 I was 17 going on 18 and staying with a drug buddy of mine named Jerry. We had met at a drug rehab clinic about six months earlier. We would sit around with three other guys who were drug addicts at various stages of addiction, listen to the counselor, then go back to my parents’ house to get absolutely wasted. It was a great time.

Fire Island, New York. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone.

Ah…the summer of 1970, hanging out in Fire Island. If you don’t know about Fire Island, then you have missed out on one of the great summer hangouts in the USA. It’s a barrier Island off of Bay Shore Long Island, accessible mostly by ferry. There are no cars allowed, just bicycles and wagons to carry luggage and food from the ferry docks and the local supermarkets. (If you’re a band playing there it’s quite a challenge to bring your equipment.)

Some of you may have heard of Cherry Grove. Cherry Grove is among the most famous gay communities in the US. It is on the east end of Fire Island and I mention it only to give geographical context to those not familiar with the area.

My friend Jerry had a house in Fair Harbour, the town just west of the largest town, Ocean Beach. My parents used to summer out there and I had been going every summer from 1966 onward.

The vibe of Fire Island is hard to describe. Kind of like Key West in its laconic summer feeling. Very few live there all year around because of its limited accessibility. When I was hanging out in the 1960s, cartoonist Jules Feiffer had the big house on the dunes, on the street that divided Ocean Beach and the community known as Seaview. That was always a local landmark.

To a teenager, free to just hang out and listen to (or play) music, it was paradise. Just get wasted, hang out at the beach to watch the sunrise to start the day, go to a place called Sunken Forest where there was a secret boardwalk path to a platform in which you could watch the ocean on one side and the bay (during sunset) on the other. This was done, on acid, with regularity all summer long…for us, it was paradise.

During that summer of 1970, Workingman’s Dead provided the soundtrack. The Grateful Dead lineup on that album included Jerry Garcia (guitars, banjo, vocals); Bob Weir (guitar, vocals); Ron McKernan aka “Pigpen” (vocals, keyboards, harmonica); Mickey Hart (drums, percussion); Bill Kreutzmann (drums, percussion) and Phil Lesh (bass, vocals).

That is why I know this record so well, and why I wanted to revisit something that had at one time meant so much and then…poof…just disappeared from my consciousness.

It is almost impossible to listen to this record now without recognizing it as one of the precursors of the music format known today as Americana. For modern-day Americana, this music style really began just two years earlier with the Band’s Music from Big Pink.

I can only imagine the pressure from the band’s record label, Warner Bros., on the Grateful Dead to somehow break through with some kind of commercial hit record. No one could argue how great a live band they were but…it just wasn’t translating onto vinyl. But according to Betty Cantor, the Dead had insisted on the release of a live album to follow 1969’s Aoxomoxoa. The label fought it.

Following the release of 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the Dead insisted that a live album be released prior to the next studio album (Workingman’s Dead). As such, Live/Dead was released November 1969 with Workingman’s Dead being released in June 1970.

Then-label president Joe Smith came down with the order. The next album had to have songs, real songs, four-minute songs.

The pressure was on the band, according to Betty. For the label to be satisfied, they had to achieve enough commercial success to have their music played regularly on FM radio. How ironic for Jerry Garcia, who had started out in a folk/jug band, to not be appreciated as a “true musician” and rather, be considered some kind of R&B acid-soaked improvising version of Syd Barrett (original guitarist for Pink Floyd). Add to this the fact that, for their vocals, the band had started to want to sound something like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But vocals, to the Dead, were always an afterthought.

The fact is, as was brought home to me as I listened to this album over and over, the Dead were never very good singers. They were passable on their best days.

They were earnest and well-meaning but compared to CSN&Y and The Band, not in the same league. In my opinion, The Band may have had the best vocals of any American band outside of the Beach Boys, with CSN&Y coming close behind. I remember reading articles about CSN&Y working with the Dead on their vocals at the time. Whether they actually did is not as important as the result, being a much more cohesive vocal delivery on Workingman’s Dead that really matured six months later on American Beauty.

Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape all had way better vocals than the Dead. I just didn’t think about it 50 years ago, but now it’s plainly obvious. Garcia’s vocals are really a matter of taste. I did like the whole package back then so I hadn’t really noticed the vocals in particular in those days. To be fair to the Dead, though, what they lacked in vocals they more than made up for by their incredible musical improvisations.

When it came to driving an audience crazy, the Grateful Dead could do it with the music. But knowing bands as I do, I know that they wanted to be more than just an acid soundtrack. Every band wants to have the kind of songs that become standards. They badly wanted to elevate to that level. Meanwhile, back on the east coast, The Band was about to go three albums deep by releasing Stage Fright that August.

Back to the present: here is the good news. My appreciation of the incredible playing of Garcia and bassist/vocalist Phil Lesh has only increased as I’ve revisited Workingman’s Dead. I always was a fan of Lesh, but with the resolution of my current system, his bass-playing foundation and unique style of improvising is just that, The Foundation of the Dead. With the perspective of a 50-year break, are my current observations of Workingman’s Dead:

The album’s first track, “Uncle John’s Band,” tells you that this is going to be a different album. It’s hummable and easily digestible. You can hear how hard they were working to make the vocals sound the best they could. It’s an opening track that tells you that the Dead were serious about having some kind of commercial success; something that would go down easy on FM radio, like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or “The Weight.” That was a tall order as CSN&Y pretty much had that road all to themselves by the summer of 1970. Well, “Uncle John’s Band” ain’t either of those songs but it’s good enough.

 

“High Time” is the track that’s the least impressive. Here, they try to convince you that their efforts to improve their vocals was really taking them to another level. Well, to me, it just wasn’t worth the waste of the wax, sorry. The following song, “Dire Wolf,” is, however, a great song, and brings to the fore the irony that Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter could impart to the Dead’s material.

“New Speedway Boogie” is not really a classic boogie as such, but it’s another very good track. However, If I was the album’s producer I would have had Pigpen sing it as he would have brought a much better sense of time and place to this track.

“Cumberland Blues” is truly the boogie song and Jerry and Phil kill it. This is the kind of song that tells you where the band could go if they were let loose, which they did live many times. I keep going back to this track, as it just really lets loose and you can hear the band push.

 

I asked Betty if both of the band’s drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, played on all the tracks. She said that Bill did and Mickey provided extra percussion when needed; sometimes drums, sometimes other percussion instruments. During the recording of the album, both sets of drums were set up, though. I’m mostly drawn to Phil’s playing, however. It all comes emanating from the loping bass lines of Dr. Phil. Phil Lesh is the glue and in rediscovering this album it has never been more apparent to me.

“Black Peter,” while a rather slight song, moves along in a bar-soaked haze that allows for a breather. Great albums pace themselves like this, or at least they used to.

The best natural singer in the band is also the least-recorded – Pigpen. Pigpen is the Ringo Starr of the band. The guy who brings the party. He isn’t only earnest, he’s totally authentic. The difference between Pigpen and Ringo however, is that Pigpen is actually a really good R&B singer. It’s in his blood and you can hear it. Pigpen was the best singer in the band and Betty agreed with me on that.

“Easy Wind” is a biker song if there ever was one, and Pigpen was the band’s biker rep. During the jam during “Easy Wind,” just floating below the surface, you can almost hear them wanting to slide into “Turn on Your Love Light,” Pigpen’s live-performance highlight, at a moment’s notice.

This whole re-listening experience is causing the remnants of all that acid that may still reside in my cranium to get released. It brings a smile to my face. My wife is stunned that I’ve been playing a Dead album. Not just once but 20 times…in a day.

“Casey Jones” closes out Workingman’s Dead. For those who never experienced the band live, “Casey Jones” is another beast entirely. Here, though it would become one of the band’s signature songs (along with “Truckin’,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Dark Star” and many others) it is just the closing track, however excellent, but live, it pushes and pushes like a locomotive, and takes the audience right along with it.

 

Been there many times…

For the techies among you, according to Betty, the album budget was roughly $15,000. It took three weeks to record at Pacific High Studios in San Francisco, and was done on 8 tracks on an Electrodyne/Quad-Eight console. The Dead trusted Betty to oversee the mastering and she had sole control over the final sound.

However, the latest Workingman’s Dead remaster was done without any consultation with her. This is not unusual. Steve Miller told me that his label doesn’t even tell him when re-releases are coming out!

As a recent subscriber to Tidal, I was able to compare the original vinyl mix of Workingman’s Dead with the 2013 remaster at 44.1/16-bit through Tidal. I also compared my original 50-year-old vinyl and a 2010 version from the 5-disc vinyl box released at the time.

I preferred the 50-year-old pressing. It had greater sonic range and better bass definition, and the volume levels were higher. Of course, given the fact that up to around 1,000 copies of any record can be pressed from a single lacquer, it’s impossible to know where these respective vinyl versions were in the pressing order. That can make a difference in many ways.

The 2013 remaster through Tidal was fuller-sounding with much better bass articulation, and the acoustic guitars had better separation.

I have no Grateful Dead CDs to compare to any other format and haven’t heard any of the latest 2020 vinyl remasters since they were not available to me at the time of this writing. [At press time, a 24/96 version is available on Qobuz if you have a subscription. – Ed.] And since I don’t have every remastering of Workingman’s Dead, this article is more about the song and album experience than a definitive statement on the relative merits of the album’s sonic evolution through various reissues.

What I can say is that, for me, this whole exercise was so much more than just revisiting this album. It brought back to me a huge portion of my life as a Deadhead and its impact on my musical journey.

Maybe it’s because of our current COVID-19 existence that the nostalgia of this album or the summer of 1970 has so much meaning. Regardless, it has been a great experience to revisit an album that meant – and again means – so much to me.

Workingman’s Dead at 50. It’s made me a Deadhead again!

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