The Grateful Dead in 1970
Workingman’s Dead was recorded over a couple of weeks in February 1970.
By Grateful Dead standards, this was incredibly efficient: they’d become notorious, as the ledgers at Warner Brothers Records might have showed, for futzing around in the studio and emerging with Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa, albums that at the time were greeted with less than wild enthusiasm. “You have to see them live,” the Dead faithful insisted, and so Live/Dead was the logical next step, but they couldn’t just keep putting out live albums, could they? So after being arrested on drug charges in New Orleans at the end of January, the band hightailed it back to San Francisco with a batch of new songs, almost all co-written by Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter.
The songs from the new album, prior to its release, popped up on the setlists of Dead shows, which began to include opening acoustic segments. Dead concerts started to feel like a kind of time travel; they headed out in musical covered wagons, clomping through dust and dirt, and ended up in space. If you saw them at any point in the first half of 1970 (as I did a number of times, at the Fillmore East, and at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, where my friends and I first had to sit through “Catfish#), you could watch this journey unfold in real time. The Workingman songs—“Uncle John’s Band,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Cumberland Blues”—felt grounded in the band’s roots. They’d always done things like “Betty and Dupree,” “Stealin’,” and “Big Railroad Blues,” songs that sprung from folk, jug band, and country music, but they didn’t have their own songs that tapped those sources. Now they did.
AUDIO: The Grateful Dead w/ New Riders of the Purple Sage Fillmore East 5/15/70
There was turmoil in America in 1970; it was, actually, like it is now. In late April, President Nixon decided to expand his Vietnam war effort into Cambodia, and on college campuses, the reaction was swift, with mass protests and sit-ins. The National Guard was called into action, and students were shot at Kent State (May 4) and Jackson State (May 15). As it happened, the Dead were doing a bunch of college concerts right about then; on May 2, they did a show at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, and on the recording from that show, you can hear tension, especially during the acoustic set. In fairness to the crowd, the Dead were futzing around a bit, taking long huddles. After “Friend of the Devil,” a new one that wouldn’t show up on an album until American Beauty, there’s a restless murmur. “Everyone just relax, man” one of the Dead (Jerry?) says. “We have you all night long.” YAY!! More waiting. “How do you expect us to play music when you’re screaming?” (Suggestion: if you played music, the screaming would stop.) Then Weir says, “Cool it, you guys. You gotta start acting like a mature, responsible audience.” Huh? The band starts playing “Dire Wolf,” a song no one in the audience knows.
Eventually, everyone settles in, and that’s the thing the Grateful Dead taught us: have patience. It was a life lesson: You’re going to have to endure a lot of nonsense as a mature, responsible person; deal with it. At Harpur, the electric set included Weir singing “Good Lovin’” and Pigpen doing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World.” Too bad, Harpur students. You want to hear “Morning Dew” segue into “Viola Lee Blues”? Fine, but first, here’s the least funky “Dancing in the Streets” you’ve ever heard. That’s life.
AUDIO: Grateful Dead Dick’s Picks Vol. 8: Harpur College Binghamton, NY 5/2/70
The Dead couldn’t have known what was around the bend when they cut Workingman’s Dead in February, but the album, when it finally came out that summer, captured the sense of futility and foreboding. It’s all over the album. “New Speedway Boogie” is their “Altamont song,” eluding to the disastrous rock festival in December ’69, but it could also be about the quagmire the county was in: “One way or another,” Garcia sings, sounding resigned and weary, “this darkness got to give.” “Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.” Or “Uncle John’s Band”: “When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.” “Nothing’s for certain,” a line in “High Time” goes, “it can always go wrong.” (Also, “Tomorrow come trouble, tomorrow come pain.”) The album ends with “Casey Jones”: “Trouble ahead, trouble behind.” After their run of college dates in early May, the Dead came back to the Fillmore East on May 15, the day of the Jackson State shootings. “Don’t murder me,” they sang that night on “Dire Wolf.” “Please, don’t murder me.”
The message of Workingman’s Dead is pretty dark (“Black Peter” is sung from an actual deathbed), but musically, it was remarkably (for the Dead) concise and focused. It shows the influence of The Band and Crosby, Stills and Nash—although no one would compare the Dead’s vocal frontline to Helm-Danko-Manuel or CS&N—and there was happiness throughout Warner Brothers, because they saw an opportunity to make some of that Dead money back. A promo flyer WB sent out a promised 3,281 “hard-sell AM radio spots,” 36,450 “square inches of unavoidable space advertising” (note: this doesn’t mean ads airing in space, but in newspapers and magazines), and a “two-continent Caravan of Love tour” (the Dead didn’t make that one, but they did do the Canadian Festival Express train tour in early July). There was a consumer ad that had a picture of the album cover and these words: “Good New Grateful Dead. It’s Different.”
WB edited down “Uncle John’s Band” for radio play, cutting out over a minute and a half from the album version, and snipping the word “Goddamn.” That edit had recently come out when I hitchhiked from San Francisco (where I was spending the summer with my cousin) to San Anselmo to see a show at the Lion’s Share. When I got to the club, Garcia was in the parking lot; I approached him, we shared a joint, and I asked him what he thought about the record company’s tampering with his work. He didn’t seem to care much, and how Garcia is that? Take everything in stride.
There was a big Workingman’s Dead billboard over Fillmore West when I got to San Francisco in late July. By that time, the album had been out about a month, and it was spreading through the rock cosmos. The Dead played the venue August 17–19, and I went, of course; they were already doing a bunch of songs that turned up at the end of the year on American Beauty, which was still being recorded at Wally Heider’s Studios. That summer, a time when an acoustic Dead set might include “Dire Wolf,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Ripple”>”Brokedown Palace,” and “New Speedway Boogie,” and the night could end with “Casey Jones”> “Uncle John’s Band,” there was danger at the door. The war would keep dragging on, the Black Panthers’ Huey Newton would still be in prison, Nixon was in the White House, and the Silent Majority was flocking to see the hard-hat wish-fulfillment film Joe.
“One way or another,” the Dead sang at the end of side two of Workingman’s Dead, on what might be their best song from this period, “this darkness got to give.” “I saw things get out of hand,” the song says. “I guess they always will.”