May 19, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Buzz Poole's Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead is another impressive entry in 33 1/3's series of books on seminal albums.
Dennis McNally wrote of the book:
"In 1969 the Grateful Dead executed an extraordinary pivot. While playing brilliant, deeply improvisational psychedelic music, they simultaneously began to create a series of traditionally-styled new American folk songs that would be collected in Workingman’s Dead. It is perhaps the key moment in their storied history, and Buzz Poole explores this evolution with insight and a profound understanding of how these songs fit into American cultural history."
Yes, I have written a book about the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead and, yes, the album's eight songs, both as recorded and in their varied live incarnations, have been listened to an obscene number of times by me over the past couple of years. But fear not, what follows is not a list of my twenty-five favorite versions of "Uncle John's Band." One of the many qualities that I appreciate about the Dead is they introduced me to so much of the music I love today. Below is a sampling of such music, some of it old, some of it brand new when I was writing the book – all of it part of my listening tastes that, one way or another, connect back to my many years of deep listening to the Dead.
"Greensleeves" by John Coltrane
I remember getting home and heading right up to my room to listen to it for the first time as a teenager. When I'd read the title of the opening track it didn't register with me. But I knew it. Or at least had heard it, numerous times, all sorts of versions, just never like this – Reggie Workman's thunder-walk bass foreboding something serious. I really had no idea about jazz apart from Count Basie backing up Sinatra or Ella, music my parents liked to play loud at night on the weekends.
"Greensleeves" is the first of songs on an album that, for me, is a sound, an atmosphere, a happy place. Coltrane's core quartet charged as ever, buttressed by Eric Dolphy's orchestral horn arrangements, shading and sustaining like a string section. The hybrid of so many tangled roots. The nature of humanity, the impetus for creation, something to honor, learn from, reject and ignore. Jazz. I didn't know about "standards" back then and had no clue just how committed the Dead were to honoring their musical roots. And in that spirit Workingman's Dead shares a great deal with Coltrane's "Greensleeves."
"Cole's Law" by Zero
I saw Phish not too long after first seeing the Dead and for all the associative similarities, and certain shared musical tendencies, the two bands and their music really couldn't be any different. But I also first saw Zero around the same time. The same friend who gave me my Dead baptism used to call Zero "the world's best bar band." Truer words have never been spoken. Though they were more than that. A strain of Bay Area improvisational rock ‘n' roll with deep connections to the Dead. Garcia once called the band's co-founder, Steve Kimock, his favorite unknown guitar player. Zero's sax player Martin Fierro had toured with Doug Sahm and ended up recording and touring for brief periods with the Dead and in Garcia side projects. Quicksilver Messenger guitarist John Cipollina was in Zero, and the drunken virtuosity of famed session pianist Nicky Hopkins passed through. Robert Hunter, Garcia's songwriting partner, wrote songs for Zero, the same as he has for Bob Dylan. But most people have never heard of this band, which is a huge part of why I was so drawn to them. For me it was like seeing the Dead in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. It didn't matter that the room was half empty. Unlike the Dead, Zero had more than one soloist, and they all could open up on the numerous instrumental tunes, like any great jazz band, but also top-down blaze through blues and New Orleans funk. "Cole's Law" is a soulful gentle instrumental that builds to an a-ha moment, shredding crescendo that never ceases to make me stop, listen, and smile.
"The Sun Roars into View" by Colin Stetson and Sara Neufeld
In the early part of this century there was a San Francisco venue called Storyville where a trio called Transmission played a free happy hour show every Saturday, for months on end. This is where I first heard Colin Stetson. Having played his battery of saxophones with numerous bands since then he is best know for his solo work. Coming off the success of his New History Warfare trilogy, in 2015 he teamed up with violinist Sarah Neufeld for Never were the way she was to make music like scar tissue, where the wound and the healing exist simultaneously. The cycles of decay and growth, life and death, are a core theme of Workingman's Dead and the same is true of this album, as heard in the frenetic sonic attacks of "The Sun Roars into View" that are tempered by comforting, ghostly string bowing.
"Sentimental Pieces" by Superhuman Happiness
The Dead delivered me to jazz, which got me to Colin Stetson, who is how I first heard reed player Stuart Bogie. The two met in college and like Stetson, Bogie has played with a Who's Who of contemporary musicians, from Kronos Quartet to David Byrne and TV On the Radio. The last couple of years, Supherhuman Happiness has been his focus and when I was working on the book I couldn't stop listening to "Sentimental Pieces." That's what it felt like I was trying to organize in the name of making them more meaningful to others, and I couldn't shake the lines: "Running to distraction, to the bathroom to the kitchen / Thinking only of the if and never when."
"Farewell Franklins" by Circles Around the Sun
This is a track off a collection of intermission music commissioned for the Dead's Fare Thee Well Fiftieth Anniversary shows. Tasked to guitarist Neal Casal he gathered three buddies and jammed in the studio for a couple of days. These pleasantly rambling riffs on recognizable themes don't imitate the Dead but very much have the band's music in their loose structures. These songs are in no rush to be anywhere other than the present, which makes for most excellent proofreading music. I particularly dig "Farewell Franklins" plucky bounce that sounds more like "Eyes of the World" than "Franklin's Tower."
"Revelator" by Gillian Welch
If you are going to spend time thinking about the Dead, you have to take California into consideration, on all sorts of levels. I adore "Revelator" for the associative power it has over me. I don't think it is a quintessential California song, but "I'll go back to Cali where I can sleep out every night / And watch the waves and move the fader" puts me in a Golden State frame of mind. I am on the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur late at night under a bright near-full moon, watching sea foam glow white as it tumbles onto the beach and then as the water recedes the wet turning metallic sheen. It's Manifest Destiny, California as a beginning and an end, ingress and egress.
"The Black Angel's Death Song" by The Velvet Underground
As I mention in the book, all of the members of the Velvet Underground made it a point to disparage and ridicule California, the San Francisco sound, and the Dead. Both bands, however, were scratching around for their places outside the mainstream. The Velvets wanted to engage head on with the beast and slay it, or at the least make listeners aware of the danger that lay in wait. The Dead took one look at the beast, shrugged, and just decided to go a different way. This is one of the fundamentals of the East Coast vs. West Coast divide. Between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean there was room enough to wander off and get lost. In the cities and suburban sprawl of the East, problems might very well have been ignored, but they couldn't be escaped.
Off the band's 1967 debut, the screeching viola of "The Black Angel's Death Song" and lyrics shunted together in a Dylan-esque gasp of lines demand engagement with the landscape carved up and bleeding from knives and razors – there is no escape from all of this, just an escapism that the Velvets viewed as part of the larger cultural ills plaguing the country: "And if Epiphany's terror reduced you to shame / Have your head bobbed and weaved /Choose a side / To be on."
"Compared to What" by Roberta Flack
Best known for ballads, the opening track off Roberta Flack's First Take is a deep, taunting groove, thanks in great part to legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter. Flack's gritty litany of unfortunate truths all hinge off the question: "Trying to make it real, but compared to what?" Written and recorded in 1969, the same year as all the Workingman's Dead songs were first performed, Gene McDaniels's lyrics explicitly express the seething anger plaguing the country at the time, and, unfortunately, ring just as true today.
Buzz Poole and Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)