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Peter Stenshoel reviews American Beauty by The Grateful Dead

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In the midst of this bruising, polarizing, pre-election stretch, may I interject a reminder of American Beauty?  This album, which also reads “American Reality” thanks to the cleverness of the Kelley-Mouse Studio’s cover art, is one of the most universally-loved studio efforts by The Grateful Dead. KPCC’s own Susanne Whatley graciously sold me her copy. This is my first time to own a vinyl version of it.

As divided as our country’s electorate seems now, in 1970, when American Beauty was recorded, The United States was suffering the strains of a pitched battle between supporters of the Vietnam War and increasingly active antiwar protesters. A good number of late sixties recordings, like the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” and Jefferson Airplanes “We Can Be Together” focused on the protest ethos. Even the Grateful Dead’s just-previous Workingman’s Dead had lyrics emphasizing the “us vs. them” mentality prevalent in the youth culture of the day.

All the more surprising, then, is the way American Beauty eschews the bitter polemics, a full three years before U.S. military involvement in Indochina ends. Yes, the album includes a couple outsider ballads, one portraying a bigamist on the lam and the other an amorous gambler. We also have a charming plea to a telephone operator to help locate a lost love, a nature-drenched paean to womanhood, and the original “Trucking,” with its iconic refrain, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

That leaves fully five pieces in which Robert Hunter seems to look back to the distinctly American Transcendentalist movement. One can argue that the so-called hippies had flirted with the movement, especially Henry David Thoreau’s back-to-nature ideas, but, true poet that Hunter is, his evocative lyrics boldly embody the spiritual philosophy set forth by these 19th Century New England intellectuals. German Idealism, Vedic wisdom from India, Emanuel Swedenborg’s mysticism and Immanuel Kant’s theology were just a part of the information comprising Transcendentalism. In “Box of Rain,” “Attics of My Life,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Till the Morning Comes,” the idea of divine agency as something which can be met with and benefitted from shines through: “Maybe you'll find direction around some corner where it's been waiting to meet you,” “In the secret space of dreams/Where I dreaming lay amazed/When the secrets all are told/And the petals all unfold,” “Mama, Mama, many worlds I've come since I first left home,” “Till the morning comes, like a highway sign/Showing you the way, leaving no doubt,/Of the way on in or the way back out.”

Finally, to “Ripple.” In my less educated days, I assumed this was a song about a cheap wine of the same name. When I finally paid attention, it was clearly about the immanence of God, or whatever you would call the Agency whose being causes water to ripple “when there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow,” an almost Zen koan. One winter morning before work I listened again and had a peak moment. To use C.S Lewis’ phrase, I was surprised by joy. “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine/If my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,” – the sun was shining through my window just right – “Would you hear my voice come through the music?” It was in that moment more than a rock band on a cassette tape, it was a Voice brimming with the certainty of the ecstatic. “Would you hold it near, as it were your own?” Of course, this was my own hearing, perhaps the Agency my own agency. But the joy lasted all day; longer. I can still conjure it up. I think I happened upon the Transcendentalist’s raison d'être. And yes, it was a thing of beauty.

The Dead would be revving up critiques of America in future albums. American Beauty, though, brought bipartisan solace, reaching into an American past and carrying some light into the future.