I’ve not been a fan of the last few books in the 33 1/3 Series, finding them unusually cold and joyless, and a bit too academic for my tastes. But Workingman’s Dead by Buzz Poole showed up just before a trip and I happily stuffed it into my bag on the way out the door. I plowed through the book in two days and spent another week trying to figure out what I thought about it. That’s a good thing, in my opinion. Ironically, it reminds me of any one of the hundreds of Dead shows I attended. It has its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, and rabbit-holes that are both worth exploring and, alternately, lead nowhere.
Poole sets the book up with a brief history and overview of the Grateful Dead, followed by a chapter for each song, in sequence, of the band’s breakthrough album (along with American Beauty). Poole takes an interesting approach providing some contextual band history that he applies to the song cycle of the album and, although I think some of it is a stretch, it’s interesting reading.
The biggest downfall — perhaps frustration is a better word— is this: Poole makes a point of closing the “Dire Wolf” chapter with “some listeners might want to decipher the literal meaning of a song…but such an exercise misses the point of what makes this music timeless,” which I agree with wholeheartedly. He then, of course, does precisely that in various chapters. Poole’s viewpoints are interesting , but there are surely other interpretations and applying specific meaning 46 years after the fact can be risky. Part of the beauty of the Dead’s songs are their obliqueness; they can mean many things to many people. And unfortunately, I won’t be able to listen to “Looks Like Rain” the same way, (which isn’t even on Workingman's…) after what Poole posits is behind the line “Ever wake up to the sound of street cats making love?” Poole is at his best when he talks themes behind the songs, rather than focusing on the lyrics themselves.
So…tripping through the book/record in order: “Uncle John’s Band” concentrates on the relationship between the band and their legion of fans. Fair enough. “High Time” is a bit more all over the place, but essentially focuses on the rising popularity of the band and the problems that brought with it: the decision to move out of the Haight, their issues with Lenny Hart’s embezzling and, according to Garcia, “all this heavy bullshit (that) was flying around us. Only the studio was calm.” Make of that what you will, but I never read that much into that song, and although it was clearly a lament of sorts, it never felt like “The Ballad of the Grateful Dead” to me.
In “Dire Wolf,” Poole picks up the tale nearly 30 years on, near the end of the Dead, and the bad juju that was Highgate, VT, Washington D.C., Deer Creek and MSG, involving gate crashers, lightning strikes, pavilion crashes and death threats to Garcia. Those are all really interesting paths to consider and contrast against the song’s central metaphor of inviting your own killer into your house while begging “please don’t murder me.” Charles Manson and Kent State also figure into it. Just go with it.
“New Speedway Boogie,” is one of the best chapters and, ironically, one of the most straight-ahead narratives the Dead have provided. Poole provides an excellent backstory, and insight from Robert Hunter into his take on the Altamont disaster. “Cumberland Blues,” on the other hand, is a rabbit hole I almost didn’t make it back from.
“Black Peter,” one of Hunter’s darkest dirges (and one that could really put the brakes on a live show), is the product of a horrific acid trip where “death made its promise known” to the lyricist, and he saw “blood pouring from Janis Joplin’s mouth” and experienced every assassination he could know of,” dying with JFK and Lincoln. Good god…talk about high times. Poole somehow tries to tie this into a painter (who I’ve never heard of) and his work, and that was a dead-end for me. The “Easy Wind” chapter is, not surprisingly, as perfunctory as the song.
Finally, there’s “Casey Jones,” and the folk/blues genesis of the title character Poole provides is good stuff. But is it or is it not an explicit drug warning, or is it more a general notice to slow down on all fronts and just check yourself? Garcia has famously described the chorus as “that sing-songy thing” that gets into your brain, like cocaine, but has always be been careful not to pass judgment. You decide.
Hindsight is 20/20. Strict lyric interpretation can be annoying and robs the listener of personal connections. But many of Poole‘s backstories and thematic projections are interesting. So….is this book for everyone? Probably not, but neither was the Dead. However, I also remember a lot of non-believers going into Dead shows who came out with a smile on their face, their notion about the band forever changed.
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