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By late 1984 and into early 1985, I was becoming more familiar with the Grateful Dead’s music. Around that time, my brother turned me on to Skeletons From The Closet, a greatest hits collection released in 1974. After that discovery, I spent most of my time learning about the Dead, reading about them and, most importantly, listening to as much of them as I could. Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, though, meant the record store shelves carried very little, if any, of their recorded output. Thankfully, my mom and I were active participants in the great Canadian pastime of cross-border shopping. With Watertown, New York’s Salmon Run Mall and its two record stores only two hours away from Ottawa, I was able to very slowly amass a collection of most of the Dead’s studio and live records.
The first two records I acquired were Workingman’s Dead and Terrapin Station, both of which I immediately loved. Two sides of the Dead but identifiably and uniquely Grateful Dead music. My next trip down to Watertown saw me bring home Dead Set, Shakedown Street and Live/Dead. The first title in that batch gave me a sense of what the current Grateful Dead sounded like; the second showed me a band that could be even slicker than they were on Terrapin Station; the third was, well, life-changing. At this point in my neophyte Dead-Headism, I was enthralled with everything I heard them do, but Live/Dead was a whole other level. I listened relentlessly and was barely able to make sense of what was going on. It was dense, open, loose, tight. It was, to my ears, the greatest music ever created. This was the Grateful Dead for me. An album recorded more than a year and half before I was born sounded both timeless and as though it came from the future. I needed to hear more.
Thanks to Blair Jackson’s book Grateful Dead: The Music Never Stopped, I had the Dead’s full discography at my fingertips, and I was now targeting specific albums based on Blair’s descriptions. I wanted them all, of course, but with the limited resources of a 14-year-old, I had to be selective. Next on my Watertown list was Anthem Of The Sun. Blair made it sound like it was inaccessible, but if you liked weird, you’d love it. That was me! On my next trip south of the border, I was disappointed the first store I hit didn’t have it (I did score For The Faithful, aka Reckoning, though), but at the last-chance store, I was successful. To this day, I remember pulling Anthem from the stack, mesmerized by the artwork. OK, there were all the guys. And on the back? So many credits with more insider information: live sessions, studio spaces, kazoos, “prepared piano”? As much as I loved collecting records, even then, the one frustration I still sometimes feel is the excruciating drive home to hear my new purchases.
When I got home, I went straight to my turntable and put on Anthem. Immediately, I recognized Jerry’s beautiful voice on the opening track, hearing him sing, “You know he had to die.” As soon as I found myself settling into the refrain, the Dead changed direction like a freight train, and within seconds we were deep into “The Other One” (or whatever it was called on the album; “Quadlibet for Tenderfeet”? “The Faster We Go the Rounder We Get”? Nah, we’ll just go with “The Other One” for that part). I heard bits about Cowboy Neal, the bus, getting busted for smiling on a cloudy day. The first time I remember hearing a song and being visually enthralled with its imagery was “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” I heard that song like it was a movie, every lyric clearly visualized in my young mind. “The Other One,” though, was even more clear. These were my people. I had found a musical home. As abruptly as “The Other One” started, we were back to Jerry singing his part of the song. From the ashes of the final sonic chaos of “That’s It For The Other One” came one of the most beautiful song introductions I’d ever heard. Then Bob comes in with a remarkably strong, confident lead vocal on Phil and Bobby Peterson’s “New Potato Caboose.” I’d never heard a song constructed like this, and every moment was thrilling. To this day, “New Potato Caboose” from this album is one of my favorite studio (well, sort of — more on that in a bit…) recordings in the entire Grateful Dead canon. All graceful instruments, indeed. The outro jam from this masterpiece was a beautiful jam, and one that was much more out-there than any of the studio recordings by other bands I’d heard.
After “New Potato” chugged along more like a locomotive than a caboose, it dropped into another dose of weirdness: one of Bob’s only solo contributions to the Dead’s entire recorded history, with words and music by none other than Mr. Weir. The original session tapes for this album — of which there are many — all refer to this song as “Weir’s Song” or simply “Weir’s.” Whenever I compile a list of my top 10 favorite Grateful Dead songs (which always ends up around 30 or 40 titles) many of the top songs on the list tend to be Bob’s quirkier numbers, with their odd time signatures or unorthodox structures — songs like “Estimated Prophet,” “Playing In The Band,” “Feel Like A Stranger,” and from this album, “The Other One” and this wee slice of excellence, “Born Cross-Eyed.” At only 20 minutes, Side A sure felt a lot longer, as it had taken me on many journeys, both sonic and visual. I was exhausted by the side’s complexity and its density of sound. Little did I know what would come next on Side B would rival Side A in the competition to blow my mind and steal my face right off my head.
By this point in my Deaducation, I could differentiate the three primary lead singers of this era, and having heard Pigpen on Live/Dead’s “Lovelight” and Workingman’s Dead’s “Easy Wind,” I knew “Alligator” was sung by Pigpen. He commanded the sonic palette; this was his world, being a lead showman. As the song devolved into various forms of musical chaos (this entire album is musical chaos, truth be told!), I was once again transported to wherever the Dead wanted to take me. As Homer Simpson once said while watching Barney the purple dinosaur: “I can see why this is so popular.” Before “Alligator” headed toward its musical brethren, “Caution,” I was reminded by the singers that this was, in fact, all I need.
I’d always loved the little feedback snippet at the end of Live/Dead but longed for more. Listening to Anthem Of The Sun for the first time, I was immensely satisfied with the album’s closing sonic cacophony, a longer, more developed feedback than that of Live/Dead. Sitting back, I spent a little while trying to decipher what I’d just experienced. Thankfully, all it took to read a little deeper into this music was to flip the record — which I did, again and again.
Blair Jackson’s synopsis of Anthem in his 1983 book included this intriguing description: “a grand psychedelic experiment that mixes live and studio recording.” What could this possibly mean? Some songs were live, some were recorded in the studio? That sounded unique to my novice record collector ears. But what Anthem offered was much, much different than that. As I later learned, the Dead’s methods on this record were, indeed, a grand sonic experiment that has never been replicated quite the same way. The Dead layered studio recordings atop live renditions of these songs. Even in 1968, the Grateful Dead’s live concerts were where it was at. The first album had captured a few moments that nearly matched the live energy of the Dead in concert, particularly on “Cream Puff War” and “Viola Lee Blues,” but the life-changing, transportational elements of the Dead’s music came in the live setting. On the back of the album, many live dates were listed, all from the West Coast: L.A., Eureka, Seattle, Portland, Lake Tahoe (!) and, for the bulk of the dates, San Francisco.
As I listened to the album dozens of times in those first few weeks after acquiring it, I tried to sift through the layers, but it was so deep, like an endless musical onion that never ends. And like an onion, it could move me to tears of joy and elation during some listening sessions. I came to know the Dead’s live archive after 1999, when I started working for the Dead. I was fortunate to listen to the live tapes from all of these shows from late 1967 through the winter and early spring of 1968, and it was a revelation. These listening sessions started to give me a sense of how Anthem was created and assembled. Listening to any of these dozen-plus live recordings, you can hear snippets of live performances — distinct and unique moments — that are layered throughout the album. It almost becomes a game to identify these moments. They can be quite short, a few seconds, but they’re unmistakably the pieces used throughout the album.
Before I was a Dead Head, I was a Bowie Freak, and am to this day. I’d read a magazine article from the early 1980s about Bowie’s two live albums, David Live and Stage. With great interest, I learned about the use of overdubs and how they were a huge part of every “live” album by any mainstream artist. After reading Blair’s Anthem passage, I thought maybe that was what was happening on Anthem, live recordings that were embellished and “fixed” with studio perfection. After a few listens to Anthem, though, I quickly realized that it was not that at all. This is not a live album. Nor is it a studio album. It is truly a hybrid, unprecedented at the time and never replicated. It is both types of album and was created through genius production techniques, exceptional musicianship and inspiration. They might not have captured the sound of thick air, as Bob wanted, but they were able to bottle a modicum of the live Grateful Dead magic in what is ostensibly a studio record.
As I learned more about the Grateful Dead’s recorded history, I found out that there were two versions of Anthem Of The Sun and also of Aoxomoxoa, the Dead’s 1969 follow-up to Anthem. With the comparative massive commercial success of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty in 1970 — and the influx of new fans these two albums brought into the Grateful Dead world — the folks at Warner Bros. were concerned these new converts to the Dead’s music would explore the band’s earlier work and be somewhat turned off by its, well, weirdness. Now, for me, weirdness is the draw, but I can fully appreciate the record company worry that folks who’d recently been turned on to the Dead in 1970 with “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil” might be slightly turned off by Anthem’s, and later Aoxomoxoa’s, sonic freakshow. So, the decision was made in 1971 to remix and reissue both albums to make them more “accessible.” The vinyl copies I’d acquired in the mid-1980s were these 1971 remixes, which I love. There’d always been talk in the Dead Head world of the original mixes, but it wasn’t until much later that I heard these. In Aoxomoxoa’s case, it was from a commercially procured cassette copy of the album, but for Anthem Of The Sun it wasn’t until 2001 that I was able to fully immerse myself in the original mix. And wow! I loved it even more. It was denser, more layered with sounds. As Blair Jackson described it, the original mix was indeed muddier, but to my ears, this was part of its draw. It worked well with the live vibe the Dead brought to their second studio album. Now, after over 20 years of listening to both mixes quite equally, I feel they complement one another perfectly. There’s plenty of room in the sonic landscape — and in my ears — to hear both mixes and appreciate them both for their subtle, and not-so-subtle, differences. This new Vinyl Me, Please slab of wax is the original mix and a rare opportunity to hear the 1968 intention mastered from the original analog tape. There’s always a lot to be excited about in the Grateful Dead world, and this is certainly one of those things.
Whether you’ve heard the album hundreds of times or if this is your first time hearing it, dig deep. This album, and its original mix, perfectly captures the real Grateful Dead of 1968, giving the home listener a glimpse of the magic that instantly converted showgoers into lifelong devotees.
David Lemieux has been working for the Grateful Dead since 1999. His first project with the Dead was cataloging their film and video collection. Shortly after, he was made their tape archivist upon the passing of the Dead’s longtime archivist Dick Latvala in August 1999. David soon became the Dead’s producer and was additionally made their Legacy Manager in 2010. David has produced many Gold, Platinum, multi-Platinum and Grammy-nominated albums and videos for the Grateful Dead. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
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