From Bonehead To Deadhead

My late discovery of the Grateful Dead

For a guy who has listened to music for now more than 40 years, I have to make a somewhat embarrassing admission: Until a few days ago, essentially, I hadn’t known anything about the Grateful Dead. Then, fellow blogger Intogroove, who had done a two-part series on the Dead, was kind enough to give me a few recommendations to start my long overdue exploration of the band. While after two days of fairly intense listening to some of their albums I certainly haven’t become a Dead expert, I’m ready to boldly declare myself a Deadhead – even if all the music I’ve yet to hear (and there is plenty left!) should turn out to be horrible, which I highly doubt!

So why the hell did it take me so long to realize how grate, I mean great, these guys are? For some reason, I always thought that with their marathon concerts and endless instrumental jams, the Dead would be a hard-to-acquire taste. Sure, some may find a 15-minute-plus jam of Fire On The Mountain on their Cornell 5/8/77 live album a bit heavy, and I know there are even longer tunes, but I don’t find anything terrible about it – on the contrary, I actually love that song! And then, of course one needs to realize there’s a significant difference between the studio Dead and the live Dead.

Grateful Dead Press Kit for 1967 Debut Album
Press kit for Grateful Dead eponymous 1967 studio album. From left to right: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman, Ron McKernan and Phil Lesh

At least I had been aware of Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), who together with Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ron McKernan (keyboards, harmonica), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) founded Grateful Dead in the San Francisco area in 1965. I’m not going to recap their history here. I had first heard of Garcia in connection with the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, one of my all-time favorite records, for which he played pedal steel guitar on Teach Your Children Well. According to Wikipedia, in exchange CSNY helped the Dead with their harmony singing on their albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Both are among the Dead records I’ve listened to and come to dig immediately.

Following is a playlist of Dead songs I like, based on what I’ve heard thus far. Obviously, this is by no means meant to be complete. Considering the band’s prolific output, I don’t think it’s even possible to come up with a playlist that’s completely representative, unless perhaps one does the equivalent to some of their live jams! So here we go.

One thing I noticed is that in addition to original tunes, the Dead had some great covers. One I like in particular is Good Morning, Little School Girl from their debut The Grateful Dead released in March 1967. The tune, which has been covered by many artists, was written and first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson in 1937.

Casey Jones is from Dead’s forth studio album, the above mentioned Workingman’s Dead, which appeared in June 1970. The track was co-written by Garcia (music) and Robert Hunter (lyrics), who frequently worked with the band. I was also happy to realize that I had heard the tune before.

The follow-on album to Workingman’s Dead was American Beauty from November 1970. Two records released with barely six months in-between is pretty amazing, especially by today’s standards! Anyway, here’s the seductive, groovy Truckin’, which is credited to Gracia, Lesh, Weir and Hunter.

Now, I’m going to make a big jump to July 1987, when Dead released what became their most commercially successful studio album In The Dark. Among others, it includes the catchy Touch Of Grey, another song I had heard before, which made it into the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 9 – the Dead’s only top 40 single. I also had known Throwing Stones. The tune I like to highlight here is Black Muddy River, which was co-written by Garcia and Hunter. Gregg Allman covered this beautiful song on his final studio album, which is where I had heard it initially.

Since I realize no Dead playlist could be called as such without any live material, I’d like to include two tracks. The first is from Europe ’72, a triple album released in November 1972: Jack Straw, a co-write by Hunter and Weir.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the epic Fire On The Mountain. This is the version from Cornell 5/8/77, which appeared in May 2017. Initially, the song was included on Shakedown Street, Dead’s 10th studio album from November 1978. It is credited to Mickey Hart, who became a member of the band in September 1967 as an additional drummer, and Hunter.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube