A Grateful Dead classic still shines a half-century later
American Beauty was a monumental album in many ways.
The Grateful Dead’s second landmark release of 1970, it not only showcased a band at the height of their proficiency and a decidedly prolific prowess, but also a group that had made what was in many ways a startling transition, from acid-fueled psychedelic scene-makers to an outfit fully immersed in their own down-home designs, folk-like finesse and a winsome array of hard-luck tales filtered through a mix of patchwork and patchouli. Like its immediate predecessor and musical cousin, Workingman’s Dead, it was not only a remarkable turnaround, but also one of the seminal efforts in the ongoing trajectory towards the sound that came to be regarded as classic Americana.
Even so, those easily identifying elements pale in comparison to the album’s essential importance as not only one the Dead’s most important albums overall, but one which fully defined the band both at that point in their career, but also as they made their way forward. Indeed, its set list alone would provide a wellspring of standards that rank among the Dead’s classic cuts — “Box Of Rain,” “Friend Of The Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Candyman,” “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace,” “Attics Of My Life,” and “Truckin’,” among them. The majority of the tracks were written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, whose descriptive lyrics provided a rich narrative, comparable in many ways to the works of author John Steinbeck given their character studies of lovers and losers firmly entrenched in the rich soil of the firmament of America’s heartland. “Sugar Magnolia,” a sole contribution from Bob Weir, also written with Hunter, provides the album’s most relentlessl rocker, while the funky groove of “Operator” marks Ron “Pigpen” McKenan’s only composition to find a place on one of the Dead’s albums.
Still, the track that defines the Dead in all their renegade regalia is “Truckin’,” a song that acts as both a travelogue and essential narrative that hews to the band’s outlaw image.
“Busted, down on Bourbon Street
Set up, like a bowlin’ pin
Knocked down, it gets to wearin’ thin
They just won’t let you be…”
A staple of their sets, it captures the notion of a band on the run, adored by their fans and iconic insurgents as far as the mainstream masses were concerned, an outfit that was always able to persevere even though they were never able to achieve viable commercial credence. Ironically, the single version of “Truckin’” provided the Dead’s first credible placement within the Billboard Top 100, a feat that wouldn’t be duplicated until they scored their first true Top 40 hit with “Touch of Grey” some 17 years later.
AUDIO: Grateful Dead perform “Truckin'” at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY, featured as the bonus material on the new 50th anniversary deluxe edition of American Beauty
Nevertheless, the Dead had all the elements in place to create what is arguably their most polished and cohesive album within their entire catalog. It found Garcia largely relinquishing his role as the band’s lead guitarist in favor of playing pedal steel, an instrumental ability he famously shared with Crosby Stills, Nash, and Young when he added the luminous tones of his steel guitar to “Teach Your Children” that same year.
CSNY returned the favor, reportedly coaching the band on how to harmonize on the forlorn ballad “Attics of My Life” and the jubilant and effusive rocker “Till the Morning Comes.” American Beauty saw other significant outside contributions as well, both from musicians with whom Garcia would find a further connection through his solo efforts later on — Howard Wales, whose rich organ tones added a new element to the overall sound and David Grisman, a refuge from the psychedelic bluegrass band Earth Opera and the player responsible for those lovely mandolin flourishes on “Ripple.”
VIDEO: The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” featured in the last episode of Freaks and Geeks
Looking back now, as two highly touted rereleases with varying numbers of bonus tracks will attest, American Beauty remains a monumental achievement and an album that lives up to all its title implies.
Consider it an essential effort even now, 50 years on.