Sep 11, 2018

June 1969: Aoxomoxoa Reviews


The Grateful Dead’s album is called “Aoxomoxoa” (Warner Brothers 1790) and it is an ambitious work, as all their albums have been. It does have the sound of the Dead and it does have a good deal of that hard to describe but warm feeling which they produce in their personal appearance, but the album somehow leaves me unsatisfied. This has been happening in recent concerts by the group, too, and it puzzles me.
It seems to have something to do with the fact that there is a kind of warm, pre-natal formlessness about their work. This is something of a contradiction because their music, any music almost, certainly has some form. I think it is a question of internal structure rather than the kinds of form which involve length, juxtaposition of movements and segments. The Dead ramble and the kind of excitement of creativity which they can get in person is difficult to capture on records at all and may be impossible.
On the other hand, the shifts in mood and feeling from track to track may be too subtle for some (i.e. me!). It is a disturbing thing. In some ways the Dead seem to personify the best and the worst of the permissive music concept which, I suspect is also reflected in their life style. It’s not that the album is bad; it is rather that having had such moments of enjoyment from the Dead, the album, as was its predecessor, is a disappointment.

(by Ralph Gleason, from the San Francisco Examiner, 15 June 1969)



I received a letter the other day from my seven year old brother Luke, who is in England, about a conversation he overheard in a pub in the village of Worcester-on-Sauce between the worldly British aristocrat, Sir Clancy Crigginsborsh, and his close friend the noted country blues guitarist Big Blind Broken-Legged Bill:
Sir Clancy: "Oh I say old chap, what is your opinion of all this new music being produced by the younger generation, all this rock and roll?"
Big Blind Broken-Legged Bill: "Oh man, what is this? I don't think nothin' of it, man. That stuff ain't music, it ain't got no feelin'. Now you take the blues..."
Sir Clancy: "Yes, it's all rather juvenile, eh wot?"
Big Blind Broken-Legged Bill: "I'm hep, man. Bunch of corny dudes trying to play somethin', but all they does is make a lot of noise. Sorry motherfuckers. Nickel-dime, lemon-lime."
Sir Clancy: "My feelings precisely, old chap. The decibel level is so excruciatingly high, isn't it? And the lyrics are so adolescent, why it all just..."
At this point my brother took his thumb out of his mouth and interrupted with: "Aw, you're bunkers you are," and proceeded to put on the new Grateful Dead record. The reactions were not long in coming.
Sir Clancy, eyes shut, rocking back on his heels: "I say, oh I say, it's so...refined."
Big Blind Broken-Legged Bill: "Blues that swing."

Well now the point of my brother's story is that the Grateful Dead is one group that should appeal to all persons, no matter what their personal persuasions. Some people refuse to recognize the greatness of the Stones because they are afraid of dirtiness or too much overt sexuality or roughness or some such thing. Others shy away from the early Beatles because they are afraid of being sentimental. Still others stay away from Otis because of his open emotionalism and lack of intellectualism. Everyone limits himself in one way or other.
But now the Dead are not only one of the very few groups around who are as good as the Beatles, the Stones, and Otis, but also they have a style of playing and express a mood which most and perhaps all people should be able to accept. I think it has something to do with the pleasantly uplifting quality of their music and the purity of their tone. There are people in this world who are afraid of all kinds of legitimate feelings, but I doubt that there are too many who are afraid of lyricism and uplift.
Last weekend at the Fillmore East, the Dead gave the best concert this reviewer has ever attended. [6/21/69]  They even beat out Sam and Dave, and that's going some. Sam and Dave, and the Grateful Dead, definitely the two best live acts around these days. And both of them will be in New York this summer. Enough said about that.
The thing about the Dead, of course, is that they are all such fine musicians. Phil Lesh the bassist is perhaps the best anywhere. The only ones I can think of off hand who might possibly compare with him are Jack Cassidy and Bill Wyman. The organist, Tom Constanten, is also one of the best around, and very sneaky. He just sits there, with everyone else moving around, smoke bombs going off, things going on, and throws in these tricky little things with perfect taste. He must be good, since he replaced Pig Pen, himself one of the best organists around.
Of the two drummers, one is very good, the other can hang with anyone.
The lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, is certainly the best guitarist around today. There is no one else who can be compared with him even for a moment, except maybe Lightning Hopkins. But you mention B.B., Clapton, Cropper, Keith Richards, and popular chumps like Jeff Beck, and they're all nothing compared to Garcia. If Django Reinhart were alive today maybe he could compete. I don't know though. It is truly amazing that a guitarist could so dominate a group of such top-notch musicians.
At the Fillmore concert, and also at a free Central Park concert the next day, Garcia played steel guitar on a couple of country songs. He isn't as good on that yet as he is on a regular guitar, but he still might rank with the best.

Which brings me to the new Grateful Dead album, Aoxomoxoa (spelled backwards is...). The new album, their third, is better than their second but not as good as their first. Which means that it is very good. One of the best albums released so far this year. The back cover is the picture that this article is writing around. When I first saw this picture it made me a little afraid to play the record. It made me wonder if the Dead were on a bad trip. But they aren't, and even if they were it wouldn't matter actually. They're so comfortable. Like Ray Charles.
There is something about the new album that is very confusing. The music doesn't make complete sense to my ears at first on some of the cuts, and I think it has to do with the Dead breaking through to a new kind of music. The first thing I noticed about this record was that the music seems to be more horizontal somehow, more stretched out on a line than earlier Dead records or other rock. It seems to do with the fact that every member of the group is good enough to be a soloist, and so they all solo at once. The result is that, especially on the first songs on each side ("St. Stephen" and "China Cat Sunflower"), one no longer has the traditional vertical set-up of rock with the drums and bass underneath, the lead guitar on top, and the vocal on top, out front, or in the middle. All a very big generalization, of course, especially since rock has been moving away from that set-up for the last few years. The Jefferson Airplane, for instance, have always been somewhere between the vertical and the horizontal.
But, getting back to Aoxomoxoa, the point is that the bass and drums are not underneath, at least on the two songs mentioned. They are just sitting up there at the same place as the other instruments. And with everyone soloing at once, and the instruments stopping and starting at different times (another non-rock idea), the effect becomes a little avant-garde jazz-like, and you're not completely sure what's going on. In fact the whole concept is analogous to avant-garde jazz. But it still flows from rock and although confusing, it still sounds nice right away the first time you hear it. St. Stephen has become one of the Dead's favorite concert numbers, and has become an audience favorite as well. Which shows that this stuff is easy enough to get into. It's just confusing, that's all. You don't know what it is, but you like it.
The most traditional, and also the best song, is "Dupree's Diamond Blues," possibly the best song the Dead have ever done. It is absolutely necessary to buy this album just for this one cut alone. This song is simply a joy to hear every time and any time. It opens with the best words on the album: "When I was just a little young boy/Papa said to me, son you'll never get far/I'll tell you the reason, you want to know/Because child of mine, there isn't really very...far to go." It's cool the way boy rhymes with far. Then the song goes on to be a love song about a man who steals a diamond ring because he likes his jelly roll, and well I won't spoil it by telling the whole story now. I'll just add that the music is awfully kinetic.
The rest of the album includes a cut which is all bottleneck guitar and not much else but which is still rock, I think, and good, and a long piece of electronic music over and over again, because it usually seems so intellectual. But this selection is all right, because it seems to express a mood pretty well. It's like the back cover a little bit.
The song most like the back cover though is "Mountains of the Moon," a harpsichord song about a carrion crow among other things (see what I mean?).
So all in all it's a really nice album, and unique too, a must for any record collection. For that matter their first album is a must too, a straightforward rock album that anyone can appreciate, and their second album might be a must too. It's a near must anyway, if only for its fine kazoo playing. And now I'm waiting for their fourth album, and I hope it contains a live version of "Turn on your Love Light," the song they now use to close their concerts, with Pig Pen telling his story about how his mother told him that he shouldn't keep his hands in his pockets, that he should get his hands out of his pockets and go out and get what he wants, and the song just going on and on, thirty minutes? Forty minutes? Long enough anyway.

(by Mark Blumler, from the Columbia Daily Spectator, 27 June 1969)

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1 comment:

  1. Came across a couple more Aoxomoxoa reviews. Gleason's review was in his regular column reviewing new album releases from San Francisco bands. The Daily Spectator was the student newspaper of Columbia University in New York.
    Gleason and the student reviewer both find Aoxomoxoa confusing...but their reactions are otherwise very different. Gleason's unsatisfied, and thinks their "formless" rambling music doesn't work well on records. (He now calls Anthem "a disappointment," even though he'd raved about it back in '68.)
    Blumler, on the other hand, seems overly thrilled about everything, and is full of praise. (Even What's Become of the Baby is "all right," which is his harshest criticism.) He calls the Dead "as good as the Beatles, the Stones," a band full of "the best" musicians, and feels Aoxomoxoa will be accessible to everybody. (Even old rock-hating Brits.) But even though he calls it one of the best albums of the year, he still thinks their first album was better!
    His opinions aren't just formed from the studio albums, though, but definitely influenced by seeing them live, as he says their last Fillmore East show was "the best concert [I've] ever attended." (It appears he saw the 6/21 show we have on tape, since he mentions Stephen, Lovelight, and Garcia on pedal steel on a couple tunes.) Unlike Gleason, who felt their records didn't capture their live excitement, Blumler doesn't distinguish between live & album Dead.
    But he's not altogether simple, as he's struck by their odd, loose, "horizontal" style of playing on the album, the band all soloing at once in non-rock fashion, which he relates to avant-garde jazz.
    I wish he'd written more about the concert, since his reactions to the live show are most interesting - note his description of Constanten, calm & sneaky amidst the smoke-bombs & mayhem. He says that St. Stephen is "an audience favorite" and "one of the Dead's favorite concert numbers" - and this is the week it was released on album! This makes me think he'd seen the Dead play it in earlier shows, or the people around him at the show had, and this is an early example of a song making an impression on fans before its release.
    He'd get his wish about a live Lovelight being released on the next album; he was particularly struck by Pigpen's pockets rap. Lovelight was the clear audience favorite at the time - Gleason had also said, in reviewing 4/6/69, that Lovelight was "almost too much to bear. I don't know how long it went on... One of the best things I have heard in some time... When it was over, the audience didn't want to stop. They cheered and whistled and clapped and then began stomping their feet on the floor."