Book excerpt: Workingman’s Dead

Here is an execerpt from This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead, by Blair Jackson and David Gans. You can order a signed copy here.

BOB MATTHEWS: After the experience of Aoxomoxoa — so much time, so much loss of direction, so many hands involved — on Workingman’s Dead we went into the studio first and spent a couple of days rehearsing all the tunes and recording them on 2-track. “Before we even start, let’s have a concept of what the end product is going to feel like.” We learned from Sgt Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band] that every album had a beginning of side one and an end of side one that segued mentally into the beginning of side two and out through the end of side two.
I gave copies of the proposed album sequence on cassette to each of the band members, and they went back to the rehearsal studio in Point Reyes and practiced with that concept in mind. So when they came into the studio, there was a vision in everybody’s mind about the continuity and the emotional feel of this project, ending up with the next to last one being one of my favorites, “Black Peter.”

BETTY CANTOR-JACKSON: Bob would handle the board most of the time, and I would do all the setup, handle the room, set up all the microphones, and I would run the machines. I got to do my first solo mixing on it, and it was the first record I got to master by myself.

BOB MATTHEWS: When I delivered the Workingman’s Dead reference lacquers to Joe Smith at Warner Bros., he gave me a hug and said, “I can hear the vocals!” He was also very pleased with the fact that we did the whole album in less than twenty-eight studio days, delivered. And he loved it.

ROCK SCULLY: That was a different Grateful Dead, really, from what it had been before. It showed how tight they were getting with Crosby and Stills, and Jerry playing pedal steel and working in the same studio as them [Wally Heider’s in San Francisco]. [Graham] Nash is the one who brought in that English thing of stacking vocals — building out the harmonies on top of each other and keeping the songs short and simple. That’s what Hunter was writing and it translated great to that. Jerry liked it simple, and he liked that presentation. He liked singing together, those harmonies.

ROBERT HUNTER: It’s what Garcia and I wanted to do. It gets back to our folk roots. It’s what the first album was supposed to be, actually. A lot of the songs on that are really just folk tunes rocked up. “Viola Lee,” “Cold Rain and Snow” – those are folk songs. Garcia and I knew we could write better songs than that; we knew that idiom cold. It shocked the public [when we turned in that direction], but they were just songs to us.

JERRY GARCIA: We didn’t mean for people to start taking a lot of cocaine when we put out [“Casey Jones”]. It’s clearly an anti-coke song. The words aren’t light, good-time words — it’s just the feeling of it. We were manipulating a couple of things consciously when we put that song together. First of all, there’s a whole tradition of cocaine songs, there’s a tradition of train songs, and there’s a tradition of Casey Jones songs. And we’ve been doing a thing, ever since Aoxomoxoa, of building on a tradition that’s already there. Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.”

BOB WEIR (1970): You try to make an album as good as you can and hope it will be salable. Workingman’s Dead came out with ten cuts on it as opposed to three or four [like on Live Dead].

[In the late sixties] we got into more extended improvisational stuff. Then, after a couple of years of that, we found sort of a happy medium, where we could do both extended improvisational stuff and songs. From a record company standpoint and the way the media’s set up these days, it’s easier to sell songs than it is to sell improvisational long pieces. That’s one of the restrictions of the art of making a record [that] encompasses the music, how long the piece is going to be, how appealing and how accessible it is to the audience. By accessible I mean easily understood. As opposed to John Coltrane, who played some dynamite music — I mean some really fantastic music — but he was never any superstar. And he had not much of an audience, because not many people could understand what he was playing. It bugs you if you are playing music the best you can play it and not many people are listening. And just because you’re a performer, a performer wants people to listen. Generally, you might consider changing your material or finding a new sort of material that more people will be interested in listening to and at the same time you will be interested in playing it. That’s kind of where we settled down, at least with Workingman’s Dead.

[Workingman’s Dead] was a sudden change for the record-buying public, but it was a gradual change for us, because over the period of months before that, inasmuch as we’ve been hanging out with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, particularly, and listening to them sing together, and just blown out by the fact that they really can sing together; and we began to realize that we had been neglecting our own vocal presentation for instrumental presentation. And so we started working on our vocal arrangements, and choral arrangements. As it turned out, the next record we did had a lot of that on it. And it represented a marked change from the way we had sounded in the past, though none of us had really given it any thought. We were just going straight ahead and doing what we’d been doing. It was a lot of fun to make that record. It happened very quickly, and there was a spontaneity about that record that was just beautiful.

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