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Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: Anthem of the Sun by The Grateful Dead


Anthem of the Sun reveals The Grateful Dead were far more than a rock band. They were, in fact, masters of dynamics, timbre, pacing, and coherent musical organization, borrowing elements from wildly diverse sources but still making sense.

In 1968, Dayton's department store had a huge record sale covering the entire 7th floor. I was too young to drive, but my cooperative mother consented to drive me to Minneapolis from our suburb in Minnetonka.Having experienced the Grateful Dead live at The Labor Temple in St.Paul, I was delighted to score a bargain-priced brand new copy of their second release.

The Music

Puzzlement greeted me the first time I placed the needle on the disc. I was using my mother's old-fashioned hair dryer on my just-washed longhair. I wore a big pair of stereo headphones to minimize the hum of the dryer. Despite having seen them live, I still assumed the band was primarily a blues band. I kept listening for a guitar to start playing reassuring blues licks, but for every bluesy note there was an array of other delicious flavors, completely unrelated to standard blues structure.  

What I hadn't realized is that the band was using modes not usual to rock. That is, instead of minor or major or blues scales, they were trying out, say, Mixolydian or Dorian modes. Jerry Garcia's familiarity with the idiosyncratic folk songs of the British Isles and Appalachia probably accounts for this, and I believe they were emboldened by John Coltrane's modal experiments starting seven years earlier. Although I had not the technical grasp of the flow of music, I recall beginning to feel happy at certain sequences; happier than blues made me. I was a straight-laced teenager who imbibed nothing stronger than an occasional Dr.Pepper--this ecstasy derived from notes was a surprise.  

Further intense listening in the dark beneath our staircase only increased this curious reaction. I was discovering music's shamanic side. Amazingly, this is only one of the many features of this groundbreaking album. The influence of modern classical composers also strengthened the music. Iannis Xenakis's electro-acoustic work and JohnCage's prepared piano technique appear effortlessly and without a hint of pomposity. Jug band kazoos, Afro-Cuban rhythms, Tin-Pan Alley, and R&B informs side two, where "Alligator" and "Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)" seamlessly hold their own.

The Lyrics

I cannot neglect the lyrics. Garcia, Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann turn in some rare lyrics for the lovely requiem-cum-vision quest, "That's It for the Other One," a tribute to, among other things, Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Jack Kerouac's On The Road.  

Robert Hunter and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan each wrote parts for the funny and funky "Alligator."  
But for me, the peak, musically and lyrically, is during Robert Petersen's haunting poetry, set to music by Phil Lesh, "New Potato Caboose."  

From its "last leaf falling" to the images of wind yelling among stones and the "ground on which the seed of love is sown," this could be Blake or Wordsworth, with a sprinkling of gnosis:

The eye is art-lined, blue visions: All the seer can own. And touching makes the flesh to cry out loud. 

Lesh's orchestration celebrates timbral tension between xylophones,subdued feedback guitar, electronic organ, and his own lush electric bass. Not one, but two drum sets (Bill Kreutzmann and new member MickeyHart) make not cacophony, but a softened sound which turns beats around so there is no sure "1." Losing the tyranny of marshal drum beat-one of the Grateful Dead's finest achievements-allows for free-floating natural states to enhance both improvisation and the effect of the poetry.

The Mystery of the Third Line

What is the third the third line of Robert Petersen's poem?  The poet died in 1987, so we can't ask him. David Dodd, the author of theAnnotated Grateful Dead Lyrics hears it as  "Black Madonna, two eagles hang against a cloud."

Others claim it is "Above my doorknob, two eagles hang against a cloud."

I maintain it is neither. I originally thought it was referring to some painting of the Assumption of Mother Mary. But then I saw a Grateful Dead guitar book use the word, "Madona." I was confused about this, until I learned about Mt. Madona in Santa Clara County. It would be the perfect place for Petersen, a poet who liked to stay on mountains, and who documented his location in nature at the end of his poems, to spy two eagles "hanging" against a cloud. "Above Madona, two eagles hang against a cloud," is the only plausible solution. See what you hear: 

More about the little-known Robert Petersen can be found here.

The Approach (this last section is a bit more technical)

In the case of Anthem, the studio became like another instrument upon which to improvise. This was well before digital technology, but the band used 8-track magnetic tape in fresh ways. For one thing, they brought various live recordings of their shows and mixed them in with their studio tracks. A careful listening to the stereo field reveals the kind of sonic surprises we sound designers revel in. There is constant shifting of acoustic reverberation time, artistic use of phasing(rolling a tape against itself and letting slight motor variation enhance an ever-changing dimensional presence).  

When the original producer quit the job over the band's slow progress,the band hired their audio engineer, Dan Healy, to help them finish the job. The result? An album that Rolling Stone ranked 287 on the 500Greatest Albums of All Time. (There is a remixed copy of the disc which regrettably removes some of the charm. I suspect there is a third mix as well. If you buy a CD, make sure it's the original mix.) A well-done documentary, Anthem to Beauty, tells the back-story for this recording session and also the one for American Beauty, another beloved Dead record.

I'm grateful for the effort, people.