This article was Arthur bound, but now Arthur is in a state of peril - so f u c k i n g sad-
The idea was every month review an iconic album I've never listened to before then write about it.
Shooting Through the Cannon
By: Nikki Darling
I have never been well versed in the ways of ‘hippie’ culture. I enjoy it, peripherally, but always, I’ve been more of a punk rock, heavy metal, 90’s, indie rock, rockabilly, kind of gal. Leaving the Gram Parson’s and such to boyfriends, stoners and the hippie chicks who walked the hallway’s of my high school barefoot, wearing ridiculous flowers from the dirty parking lot tangled in their hair. It wasn’t that I disliked the clangy, melodic stuff I heard at parties and in hot-boxed bedrooms, sitting between piles of dirty laundry. The music, identified as United States of America, JJ Cale, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, et cetera, was, on the contrary, beautiful and easy to relax to.
I went to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, the free magnet located in East Los Angeles. Attracting every attention starved, painfully shy, class clown, theory nerd, quiet goth, gutter punk, queer, cross dressing, ghetto ballerina, from all over LA County- including Hollywood proper, heaven help those kids- and where trying to get noticed was like trying to be the biggest elephant in the circus. As an occasional high school stoner myself, and an inoffensive friend to all- I scuttled between cliques, picking out the shiny pieces that appealed most and moving on- I even went out and bought a few albums (this was before itunes) and would routinely make mix tapes for my busted 88 Honda, where, sandwiched between The Misfit’s, X, Elvis gospel, and the B52’s, might be a quick flash of Cat Steven’s. Just to mix it up.
But as the divide of high school politics widened, as the class of 99 raced toward senior year, you were pressured, subconsciously, to pick sides. Did you wear Betty Page bangs, red lips, silk stockings with sequined tigers embroidered on the side and date boys who looked like extras from Kenneth Anger’s, Scorpio Rising, or did you wear long peasant skirts, twist your hair into dreads, stomp around in platforms and date boys who looked like Fleetwood Mac, rejects? You could still socialize outside your chosen circle, but the message was clear: you liked certain stuff and they liked certain stuff, but all that other stuff that wasn’t your stuff, well, don’t bother.
As such, I moved into my twenties with all the lessons from high school stuffed into an attaché of ‘Things to remember fondly, but not repeat.’ The time constraints of being aggressively punk meant that I had never gone exploring the catalogues of nineteen sixties and seventies psychodelia, skipping over entire moments of musical transformation. As a music critic, it has been an uphill battle trying to make up for that lost time. Constantly, friends and fellow music enthusiasts offer (as someone who is honest about their somewhat stunted, self taught, musical education) the names of albums that I ‘must’ listen to, who insist that said album, will ‘change my life.’ But where does one start? And how do you approach these iconic albums critically without the burden of that iconic status? Never having heard the album before helps, of course, but not so much that one can erase a cannon of imagery and melodies that have floated around the universe of pop culture since that albums release. I mean, why did those silly girls walk around barefoot? Why did I feel the need to purchase a nineteen-forties snood and paint my lips red?
Albums seep into the culture without our knowing exactly how or why, to the point that the music often gets forgotten. Finding it again, digging it out from beneath the pile of ephemera that has collected like a shrine, trying to forget all the bands that have been spawned and inspired since, is like deconstructing rock history itself. For instance, if American Beauty, is actually a piece of shit not worth listening to, than what does that say about Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Entrance or Viet Nam, or every other band that has come since? It’s like erasing a link that is vital to our musical existence, undermining its place in history by attempting to pull the wax out of our ears, can be dangerous. Luckily, American Beauty, is not and a piece of shit.
Recorded in the late summer months of nineteen-seventy, the album was the fifth to be released by the band, which had already established itself in the free-love subculture as a live show worth experiencing. Jerry Garcia was known for playing long meandering guitar licks that became so convoluted, one was hard pressed to guess which song they had originated from. The Dead though had failed to meet widespread, mainstream attention, and the music’s growing influence on what would later become the foundation for the great arena-rock phenomena of the mid to late seventies was already in place, and that would later spawn the documentary, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the film, Almost Famous, inspire thousands of kids from the heartland to pick up guitar’s and end in nineteen ninety-one, with Nirvana’s colossal, painful, execution of Guns n Roses, the last cat scratch fever, pickup truck, arena rock band to come out of America since The Dead had first packed up their gear into giant tour buses and rolled into the rainbow sunset, a cloud of drug dust kicked up beneath their wheels.
American Beauty, by all intents and purposes should not have been the band’s defining album. It was mixed by a hired producer, Stephen Barncard, because their regular producer Bob Matthews was traveling on the Medicine Ball Caravan Tour, which the Dead were originally slated to play, but pulled out of at the last minute. They had no sound crew, which was also on tour with Matthews and had just finished recording Workingman’s Dead, which many critics and fans were already predicting was the bands greatest artistic achievement, a few months earlier. Exhausted, in new hands and left mostly to their own devices, the recording of American Beauty would become an experiment in improvisation, mirroring the energy of the band’s live shows. Jerry Garcia also made the unusual decision of abandoning his lead guitar duties and instead relying heavily on a pedal steel guitar. He also invited Mandolin player David Grisman to join the recording, giving the album it’s signature sound.
What emerged was a kaleidoscope of songs so unusual and unique, even the band knew they had tilled new musical ground. A marriage of folk, rock and bluegrass, the album contained what would become the Dead’s anthem, Truckin, a little Meta ditty about life on the road, its trials, tribulations and rewards. It painted the picture of a country that was on the brink of political exhaustion and becoming bitter with the free love ethos that the Dead had helped popularize:
Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main street.
Chicago, New York, Detroit and its all on the same street.
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings
It’s the last song on the album and acts as a farewell to the sixties and foreshadowing to the drug obsessed seventies, the tide was turning and the tide was seedy and unfriendly:
What in the world ever became of sweet Jane?
She lost her sparkle, you know she isn’t the same
Livin on reds, vitamin c, and cocaine,
All a friend can say is ain’t it a shame?
But the Dead and it’s listeners were encouraged to keep on Truckin, until the next moment swooped in. The song itself would inspire it’s own genre: the road song. Epitomized by Bob Seger’s, Turn the Page and Guns n Roses, Paradise City.
Ripple is as close to musical perfection as a song can get intricate, layered, hopeful, yet sad:
There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.
Eerily poignant in today’s political tumult as it surely was, in nineteen seventy, a testament to the songs power and longevity. Box of Rain, carries the subtle, cautious optimism that the band was known for. A swell of opening chords that lift the listener up to bassist Phil Lesh’s, tin-y, lush vocal’s, and Robert Hunter’s impossibly beautiful lyrics. A swell of sound that builds walls and then crashes them back down, every word is annunciated so clearly it’s like listening to a sung speech, adding a sense of authority when, Lesh, informs you that ‘it’s just a box of rain’:
It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain.
American Beauty’s success, much like the first baby born on new years day, is in no small part due to timing, and the band’s ability to translate that into an album. It sits on the fault-line of an America tearing at the seams, oddly prophetic, it seemed to predict that the next decade would change the country in way’s that we are still experiencing aftershocks. The Grateful Dead’s fifth album captured the attention of the critics immediately and would eventually launch them into the mainstream, in a way, lighting a match on the string of the band’s own credibility. A mountain of merchandise, buffoonery and their own rock n roll excess waiting at the tail end of that dynamite. But for a moment in nineteen-seventy, they laid down the bones for what would become not only their own legacy, but also the building blocks for a new genre in rock n roll. A delicate balance of timelessness and innovation, it blisters from one generation of listeners to the next, bringing with it the stories it captures, so artfully, in ten, radicalized songs.