The Amazing Aoxomoxoa
In 1969, The Grateful Dead swung from Psychedelic to Sylvan on their underrated third studio LP
Too seldom celebrated, The Grateful Dead’s 1969 album Aoxomoxoa was a surprisingly seamless transition between full-blown psychedelia and the band’s rootsier side.
A new deluxe 50th anniversary edition of the album provides the most comprehensive view of that moment ever offered. But the key to understanding the band’s third studio LP lies in looking first at the records that bookend it.
Anthem of the Sun was the acid-damaged magnum opus of the Dead’s trippiest phase, a big, glorious mess that combined crazily edited live recordings with baroquely overdubbed studio sessions. With the mind-bending suite “That’s It for the Other One,” the swirling, psychedelic potpourri “New Potato Caboose,” and more, the 1968 album is the dizzying apex of the Bay Area’s LSD-drenched counterculture of the period.
Fast-forward to 1970’s sepia-toned Workingman’s Dead, the band’s fourth studio album. By this point the Dead were leading the hippies’ “back to the land” charge, providing a soundtrack for those who wanted to come down their trips on a patch of farmland with a handful of goats and chickens for company. In place of the acid-inspired excursions of yore, the boys opted to come off like a greasier CSN, or The Band with muddy motorcycle boots, on concise, harmony-heavy folk/country tunes like “Uncle John’s Band” and “Dire Wolf.”
VIDEO: The Dead performing “Dire Wolf” and “Deep Ellum Blues” on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, 1981
But following Anthem and ahead of Workingman’s, there was Aoxomoxoa, dancing deftly in the space between. There was still plenty of psychedelic spirit left in the band when they cut the album in late ’68/early ’69, and “What’s Become of the Baby” in particular is arguably the most out-there composition (as opposed to improv) the Dead ever recorded. But even the headiest tracks here have significantly more concision than anything on Anthem, and some are settled into an organic, back-porch feel, albeit a back porch in a Lewis Carroll story.
The spare, drumless, acoustic cuts “Rosemary” and “Mountains of the Moon” are straight-up psych folk, similar in spirit to the woodland fantasies The Incredible String Band had recently been unspooling on the other side of the Atlantic. And no conventional instruments at all are audible on the aforementioned “What’s Become of the Baby,” with Jerry Garcia’s heavily processed voice crooning amid the ambient, electronic winds whipping around him, conjuring the image of a muezzin on a mountaintop beatifically tripping his brains out.
AUDIO: The Grateful Dead –”Mountains of the Moon” from Aoxomoxoa.
If the album-opener, “St. Stephen,” had been on Anthem of the Sun, it might have been twice as long and festooned with all manner of overdubbed Frippery. As it stands, it’s a relatively straightforward presentation, not sounding significantly different from the band’s live versions during that period. And in “China Cut Sunflower,” the Dead made a major leap forward, introducing a jammy but visceral tune that would exemplify a large swath of their aesthetic (and remain a live mainstay) for decades to come.
Meanwhile, tunes like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” “Doin’ That Rag,” and “Cosmic Charlie”–despite their relative structural sophistication–seem to tap into the Dead’s roots in jug-band music, simultaneously touching base with the past while foreshadowing the imminent shift to rootsier areas. Granted, it’s a far cry from the dust-bowl vibe of Workingman’s Dead tunes like “Black Peter” or “High Time,” but compared to the band that battered frenziedly at the borders of consciousness itself over the previous couple of years, the Grateful Dead that comes into focus on Aoxomoxoa is both forward-looking and firmly rooted.
AUDIO: The Grateful Dead – “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” from Aoxomoxoa.
The album is also more Garcia’s show than just about any other Dead record – it’s the only one on which he handled all the lead vocals and wrote all the music (with the exception of Phil Lesh’s assistance on “St. Stephen”) himself. This was probably due to the fact that there had been turmoil in the band right around the time the sessions started, with Bob Weir and Pigpen allegedly coming within a hair’s breadth of being kicked off the team. And with Tom Constanten seemingly handling the bulk of the keyboard chores, it’s possible Pigpen didn’t even play on the album at all. His picture appears on the cover, but instead of crediting him with an instrument, the personnel listing simply includes his real name followed by his sobriquet: “Ron McKernan – Pig Pen,” as though his persona and presence were his primary contribution.
But despite the level of Garcia’s stewardship over Aoxomoxoa, he was ultimately unsatisfied with it. So much so that in 1971, apparently still obsessing over it, he took it upon himself to drastically remix the album. We’re not talking subtle EQ tweaks and discreet panning adjustments — Garcia went whole hog, swapping out different vocal takes, removing instruments, even adding or deleting entire sections of tracks. The relative success of the endeavor is up to the listener, but the 1969 and ’71 mixes of Aoxomoxoa are quite different creatures.
For instance, one of the most overtly altered tracks is “What’s Become of the Baby.” The original version, featuring prepared piano and other overt avant-garde touches and electronic manipulations, underlines the influence of Constanten, the band’s resident avant-garde instigator. The song’s ’71 mix removes most of that, leaving only the most ambient aspects in place. The results are still plenty weird, but it’s a far cry from the all-out electronic assault of the first mix.
AUDIO: The Grateful Dead – “What’s Become of the Baby” from Aoxomoxoa.
For better or worse, Garcia revised take on the album became the only one available from 1972 until 2010. And to this day, the default version of the standalone digital Aoxomoxoa is the ’72 mix. One of the most appealing aspects of the 50th anniversary edition is its inclusion of both versions of the album in full, giving you the full historical context to absorb at your own pace.
An Avalon Ballroom show from January of ’69 is included as well, providing an idea of what the songs were sounding like onstage at the time. (Hint: things could get pretty rough-and-tumble). The show also offers up the rarity “Clementine,” a Lesh/Hunter composition played live only a handful of times and never recorded. And the booklet included in the set is full of inside info that provides even more context for this crucial point in Dead history.
Aoxomoxoa has never been the most celebrated denizen of the Dead’s early discography, but without it, the band’s story would have been a very different one that might not even have lasted into the ’70s.
AUDIO: The Grateful Dead – Soundboard recording of the Dead live at the Fillmore West 11/7/69
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