by Marshall Bowden
In honor of the 50th birthday of the Grateful Dead’s classic album Workingman’s Dead, the band dropped an exotic release a week before the obligatory 50th-anniversary package: a streaming-only version of the album entitled Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share, featuring outtakes, false starts, and studio rehearsals.
This is one of the first times we’ve gotten a chance to hear the band working out its recorded material in the studio this way. For a band that made its name on the back of its live performances, seeming to treat the studio albums as an afterthought, this is a revelation.
The band was changing up its sound as well, moving away from the realm of psychedelic rock that had been fully present on their first two studio sets and into a mix of blues, country, bluegrass, and early rock. A sound that was known pretty much as rock back then, but which now would fall into a realm known as Americana, which unpacks the various influences that go into what we think of as late-twentieth-century rock and roll.
Workingman’s Dead is full of good songs–Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter wrote while the group was on the road and came up with lyrics that created an American landscape that was at once contemporary and yet somehow from an earlier, unidentifiable era. Songs like “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” and “Dire Wolf” all were written and incorporated into setlists almost immediately as they were written throughout 1969.
At the end of 1969, the group helped organize and was slated to play at a free concert headlined by The Rolling Stones. Initially planned for Golden Gate Park, the venue was moved to the Altamont Speedway located. The Hell’s Angels biker gang had a relationship with The Dead from the days of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, and they were hired as a security force, though what that really meant was securing the stage by parking their bikes and sitting on the side of the stage, drinking beer and swatting at audience members with weighted pool cues. Sometimes they would whip full beer cans at people’s heads.
By the time The Dead arrived at the speedway the mood had turned very ugly, if it had ever been anything else. While the Woodstock festival saw a crowd that was high on freedom, pot, and hallucinogens, Altamont’s crowd seemed fueled by alcohol and amphetamines. After hearing about how one of the Angels had struck Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin with a pool cue, knocking him out briefly, The Dead made a decision not to play the show and left.
When the dust had settled the next day, Meredith Hunter, a black man, was dead, stabbed and stomped by a group of Hell’s Angels. The incident happened during The Rolling Stones’ set and was captured on film as part of a documentary on the Stones tour that was being shot (eventually it ended up being Gimme Shelter). The film clearly showed that Hunter had pulled a gun, but it’s not clear whether it was part of an altercation or an act of self-defense.
The consensus was that Altamont signaled the end of the hippie era, the Summer of Love, the Woodstock generation. Call it what you will, many within the culture and the writers who covered it were all too eager to write the obituary for the ’60s counterculture. None of these was more noted than Ralph J Gleason, who wrote “Aquarius Wept,” an in-depth post mortem in which he recounts the events of the day with eyewitness accounts from a variety of audience members, Hell’s Angels, musicians, and their crews, local law enforcement, and facilities security.
The Dead had a different take, and recording Workingman’s Dead was a good experience for the group. “New Speedway Boogie,” which the band performed for the first time on December 20, 1969, fourteen days after the events at Altamont went down, was a commentary on what happened as well as what was being written about the event.
Listening to these tracks now, on the July 4th weekend makes it clear that Workingman’s Dead is an album for 2020 just as much as it was an album for 1970. The Dead’s change of sound to a more straightforward, song-oriented Americana style recalled their roots as a country jug band. It also harkened back to music from before the psychedelic rock era: blues in particular but also bluegrass and country and folk music.
Even the album cover, with its sepia-toned photograph showing the band on a street corner waiting for a bus. They’re dressed as working-class guys–Pigpen even has a standard-issue lunchbucket. We don’t know what work they do, but I can’t help but think about the meatpacking workers who often take the same transport to and from their jobs, often living in close quarters with extended family. They might be factory workers; one of the artists carefully drew in the shadows of the smokestacks that appear on the side of a Queen Anne house down the street from the band.
The place where they are standing is somewhere out of time–it could be someplace we can imagine, in our minds, to fit in with things we have seen before. It refers to an iconic America that existed before, but which is slipping through the fog of our collective memories just as surely as the Isle of Avalon did for post-Arthurian Britons. One of the reasons for the slippery quality of these memories is that the America that is ‘remembered’ is more dream than recollection. We can’t see it, but we somehow feel its presence in our current reality.
In tone, Workingman’s Dead is very much like The Band’s eponymous second album (the ‘Brown Album’), with music and lyrics and cover art that all seem to harken back to another time, though we aren’t sure whether it existed or if it’s a creation of the group. Songs like the Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band” or The Band’s “Across the Great Divide” use details and archaic words to build a world that is both familiar and yet decidedly not modern.
The album’s next to last track, ‘Easy Wind,’ was written entirely by Hunter (one of only two Dead songs like that) as a feature for the band’s keyboard/vocalist, and resident blues fan Ron Pigpen McKernan. It creates a character sketch of a working man, a bit of a roustabout. Could be a worker on the oil rigs or a carny or other seasonal worker, but ‘ballin’ the jack’ is railroad slang for going full throttle.
The Dead do a number of railroad songs, both traditional and written by Hunter and Garcia, but ‘Casey Jones’ is the most well-known. The folk hero engineer gets a remake as a cocaine-snorting, train-wrecking maniac. As we’re learning in 2020 America, our heroes can turn out to be a lot different than what we imagined, or what we were told.
“Black Peter” is a song about a dying man. A bluesy folk number it saunters at a very casual pace–after all, the narrator has all the time in the world. His fever ‘rolls up to 105’ and then back down again. The song does a good job of recreating the slowed-down, unreal experience of having a high fever, of being really sick, and perhaps (I can’t vouch for this one) of dying. Black Peter is left to contemplate ‘how everything/led up to this day’ as his friends visit and discuss the gravity of the situation. The song’s deathbed scene is a far cry from the lonely, mechanized death experienced by many ICU patients in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.
Then there’s “New Speedway Boogie,” sounding every it as full of wisdom as it did when they put it down in the studio in February of 1970. A nice barroom blues boogie that is the cousin of American Beauty’s “Truckin’”, it shuffles at just the right tempo–too slow and it drags, too fast and it sounds corny. We hear a take where, after deemed to be rushing on the previous take, Jerry has people clapping to keep him on the beat while he memorizes the feel of keeping the right tempo. It’s a song that tells us that you have to keep moving on and it throws down in the face of those who were critical of The Dead for not playing or trying to intercede at Altamont.
Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack
If you’ve got nothing new to say
If you please, don’t back up the track
This train’s got to run today
“I saw things getting out of hand” sings Garcia, “I guess they always will.” Workingman’s Dead is about staying the course, living the life, when the dark clouds roll in and threaten to wipe you off the planet. The work you hear on these newly discovered session recordings is of a band that knows it has only started on what will be a long and adventurous journey and that their work, as a band, is to continuously hone their craft.
Robert Hunter’s lyrics helped to push the band in the development of that craft. He wrote the lyrics that helped propel some of their psychedelic jams, but he also wrote songs that came from his love for American music in all its forms. The mixture of The Dead’s exploration of American musical forms and Hunter’s lyrical exploration of American mythology gave the songs on Workingman’s Dead a kind of time machine feeling. Their songs could take you to different eras and locales with just a couple of lines or a ringing blues riff.
What’s not here is the stuff the band added to make these songs really ring, the stuff that belies the handed-down wisdom that The Grateful Dead were not a studio band, not interested in the finesse and manipulation of the studio process: Garcia’s beautiful acoustic lead lines in “Uncle John’s Band” or the vocal harmonies throughout the record. Apparently the band had performed the songs enough that they had the vocal parts down cold and those were added with minimal extra tracks. Then there’s Garcia’s steel guitar on tracks like “Dire Wolf” and “High Time” that demonstrated the group’s interest in the Bakersfield school of country music, added afterward to great effect.
According to Bill Kreutzman’s memoir Deal, the group was consciously trying to emulate the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and early Merle Haggard. The Bakersfield sound was about getting country music back to its roots with the blues and without the background frills and smoothed-out sound that was emanating from Nashville. ‘Bakersfield’ became shorthand for a California country sound, and it influenced rock musicians up and down the coast, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and The Grateful Dead. It also led to the creation of country rock.
That darkness that followed the road out of Altamont, the rise of Nixon, the escalation of the Viet Nam War, that darkness had a name. On that roof behind the band, next to the drawn-in smokestacks, one of the cover artists drew in a figure that is supposed to be the outline of a star-nosed mole. Few people know what that is, so it is instead a sinister and vaguely malevolent presence. What else could the artist have been thinking? Maybe a dark creature from the netherworld dragged up through the bayou by Jerry Garcia’s swampy guitar on “Easy Wind”?
The band asked that the star-nosed mole be removed, and it was. Sometimes there can only be so much darkness. We know there is danger and we know we’re on a road “got no signs or dividing lines/And very few rules to guide.” Ultimately we’re on our own, moving down the road with the words, repeated like a mantra at the end of the song:
One way or another, one way or another
One way or another, this darkness got to give