Fifty years on, The Grateful Dead’s Anthem Of The Sun remains brilliantly under-realized
Some might argue that the Grateful Dead didn’t make a solid album until 1970’s Workingman’s Dead.
However, evidence abounds on this two-disc reissue of the group’s sophomore release, Anthem of the Sun, that those assertions aren’t all wrong. No, this isn’t a collection of out-and-out dreck. On the contrary, there’s plenty to love about the record. But there’s a chasm here between what actually works and what merely charms. None of that arrives in rapid succession, either. It’s a tough hill to climb, even for some stalwart fans. So how, then, did this thing endure such that we’re parsing its best and worst half a century after its arrival? Like virtually everything related to the Dead, attempts to pin these answers down seems pointless. This is a band and a particular strain of music that eludes easy categorization or rationale. You’re either a Dead fan or you’re not, and you can either wade through the mud to get to the golden shores or you can’t.
This isn’t the first Velvet Underground album or Television’s Marquee Moon. You can’t Monday morning quarterback it and say, “Wow, this should have been huge! You can really hear this stuff all over records now!” Neither is true. First, there was, especially on the first handful of Dead studio albums, an element of the esoteric. Sure, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir had jug band roots but Phil Lesh had some serious avant-garde credentials and operated as a composer and player on a level that the phrase “overqualified for a rock band” can’t accurately encompass. Secondly, there really isn’t another band like the Grateful Dead. Yes, Phish and Gov’t Mule can get into some intense jams and they’ve got the loyal followers but musically they don’t share much of anything. Mule is as close to our beloved Dead as Green Day is to The Slits.
So, what the hell are we writing for? Maybe mostly to appreciate the creative lunacy that serves as foundation for a career that endures to this day, a way of life that has impacted multiple generations and maybe to explain why a record that’s remained in circulation and found its way into many important record collections around the world really needs only be listened to once or twice a decade. (And, yes, there’s some Deadhead out there who will claim that Anthem is all they listen to. So be it.)
Let’s not kid ourselves. This album is important. It marked the studio debut of drummer Mickey Hart, a man who became as synonymous with the group and its sound as Lesh, Weir or Garcia. He joined the group in 1967, left in 1971 and arrived for a second time in 1974. Their bond is palpable when listening to this collection and their playing remains one of the record’s most cogent details. After a debut album devoted mostly to covers of hip blues tunes and a few originals that could have been relegated to the cutting room floor, this was a band that needed to establish its own repertoire, especially if it was going to do more than play hip ballrooms in the Bay Area. As charming as Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s singing and harmonica and keyboard playing were, he was not going to keep John Lee Hooker awake at night, fearful that he’d been supplanted in the realm of American music.
There was a need for the group to establish itself as something formidable and the best way to do that was by creating an album populated by music that stood out somehow. Lesh seized upon the opportunity, bringing in some of his complex compositional ideas as well as prepared piano, timpani and an avant-garde cohort in the personage of keyboardist Tom “T.C.” Constanten. He would contribute to the strange, fractured opener, “That’s It For The Other One,” seven minutes and some seconds of sounds that replicate the nonlinear nature of the psychedelic experience while, alternately, capturing the confusion-cum-boredom of a straight person faced with hearing details of a trip or particularly good high. In fairness, the piece comes close to replicating the madness and mind-boggling features of an early Mothers of Invention album—those same non-linear movements that were essential to Zappa’s pieces feel merely disjointed and overly ambitious here. If it’s true that Bob Weir once said he wanted “heavy air” in the studio, it seems unsurprising. You can almost hear the guys working out the math of these musical passages at times and it’s not always pleasant.
At best, though, the material cruises by you. Occasionally the Hart and Kreutzmann percussion duo makes your ears stand at attention; at other times Weir or Garcia provides some especially tasty guitar work. Pigpen seems somewhat at a loss, like Ringo Starr turning up to find out his mates have become Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return To Forever. The average white band at the Dead’s core ultimately triumphs here, especially on the imaginatively titled “New Potato Caboose” and the all but forgettable “Born Cross Eyed.” Once more, you can’t deny that the guys should have kept going and pursuing their passions, it’s just hard to imagine that they’d come out the other side with very much.
The closing “Alligator” and “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)” don’t fare much better and the story goes that the cooks were so abundant in the Dead kitchen that producer David Hassinger quit the project, frustrated with demands and indecision. However this lot was able to lock in and create the transcendental music that comprised later albums (even albums that appeared one or two years down the line) remains a great mystery and one that’s not solved here.
A 1971 remix appended to the original doesn’t provide further clues either, though it does add some bottom end and some increased definition, especially in places that make us wonder why we never heard more in the way of Phil Lesh solo compositions and/or if the medicinal acid of the 1960s was really all that much better than the street quality stuff that arrived in later years.
The good folks at Rhino expanded the original and ’71 version of the LP with a second disc of the Dead captured live at Winterland in October of 1967. The irony is, for all the attempts at sonic adventure, it’s Pigpen who saves the day with his soulful vocals and earthy realism. Hearing him here, you can’t help but wonder how this band weathered nearly 30 more years and created some of the most spiritually uplifting music of any rock band during the last century.
Maybe that’s the greatest part of hearing this collection. It’s not about finding answers, it’s about uncovering all the questions, the mysteries that must remain unsolved. If we knew precisely what made the Dead tick at the level and intensity it ticked when it was ticking at its optimal tick, maybe those levitation-worthy renditions of “Dark Star” and “Sugaree” wouldn’t be as remarkable, as memorable. Fifty years after Anthem of the Sun and more than 20 years after the death of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead remains a phenomena that eludes explanation, that continues to capture our imagination. Even when the material is taken to its most maddening extremes and darkest nadirs, we can’t help hoping that there’s light and another apex on the horizon.