My Morning Jacket’s Jim James praises American Beauty, his “gateway” into the world of the Grateful Dead, in this exclusive excerpt from Vinyl Me Please’s The Story of The Grateful Dead, a 14-LP box set culled from the legendary jam band’s career.
The Story of The Grateful Dead, the latest installment in the VMP Anthology series, contains eight classic Dead albums — Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, Live/Dead, Europe ’72, Terrapin Station, Reckoning, Without a Net and Wake of the Flood — each remastered from the original tapes and pressed onto an assortment of 180-gram colored vinyl.
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Each album in the VMP Anthology set is also accompanied by liner notes featuring an artist paying tribute to that Dead LP, including Animal Collective’s Avey Tare on Live/Dead, Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth on Workingman’s Dead, Margo Price on Wake of the Flood and more. Members of the National, the Decemberists, STS9, Hiss Golden Messenger and more also pen odes to their respective Dead favorites.
In his liner notes for American Beauty, James writes that even though he was exposed to the Dead at a young age the band didn’t connect with him… until he purchased his own copy of the 1970 LP during a My Morning Jacket tour.
“I listened to the album two or three times that night just taking it in, living in its world and loving it, trying to understand what this feeling was,” James writes. “It wasn’t happy, nor was it sad. Yet, it reflected the presence and possibility of every emotion in the rainbow, and the recording was unbelievable. The talent and musicianship were undeniable. The lyrics melted my mind.”
James continues, “And then one day it hit me: When someone hears the Grateful Dead, in whatever state or form it may hit you in — and there are many — they feel the way they WANT to feel.”
The Story of the Grateful Dead follows VMP Anthology collections dedicated to Stax Records, the women of Motown, Ghostly International and more. The set is available to order now through Vinyl Me Please.
Read James’ entire American Beauty tribute below:
American Beauty. This was, for me, the grand gateway arch into the wide, weird world of the Grateful Dead. In high school, when I first heard of the Dead, it was always in seemingly negative surroundings — I didn’t fit in with the punk rockers, I didn’t fit in with the jocks, and I never quite fit in with or felt welcome by the “hippie” kids at school — and of course, all they ever listened to or talked about was the Grateful Dead. Whenever I would hear the Dead in passing, it never really hit me.
For years, folks were like, “Yo, but dude, you gotta check out the Capitol Theater show or the Columbus ‘71 or such and such bootleg!” An amazing friend I worked with at the zoo even lent me a huge collection of her bootlegs on cassette, with beautiful hand-done artwork and stickers and everything. We would sit together selling tickets for elephant rides, and you could really feel the love she had for the Dead — you could see it in her eyes: the Dead and their scene was like family to her. So, I felt committed to listening and trying to hear what she was hearing. I would pop those cassettes into my car and go for long drives, but again, they never really HIT me.
I remember in high school when Jerry died: how sad everyone was and how much they loved him, and how much his music was in the air. Many more times, I tried to be captured and pulled in by the music of the Dead…but still, it did not hit me.
Later on, I remember one day listening to “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — really listening to it over and over, just being in love with the song, and particularly the pedal steel. Talking about the song with a friend around time, he told me, “You know that’s Jerry on the pedal steel, right?” My mind was blown. If someone could put this much expression and power into a performance like this, I had to give them yet another chance.
My Morning Jacket was playing The Fox Theatre in Boulder at the time, and I was out walking around before the show. I popped into a cool little record store, and after browsing for a little, I picked up American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead based on our drummer Patrick’s recommendation. Having been friends with me since 4th grade, he knew of my struggles to get into the Dead and he knew me well enough to say, “Man, if these records don’t do it, I don’t think anything ever will!”
I remember that night, after the show, we were on the road in our 15-passenger van, and I was laying in the back seat coming down from the show. I popped American Beauty into my CD walkman and pressed play: “Look out of any window / any morning any evening any day…” something about it, for the first time, started to hit me. The possibility of it all…I’ve always been into a wide variety of music, but there was just something about this music I had never felt before.
I listened to the album two or three times that night just taking it in, living in its world, and loving it, trying to understand what this feeling was. It wasn’t happy, nor was it sad. Yet, it reflected the presence and possibility of every emotion in the rainbow, and the recording was unbelievable. The talent and musicianship were undeniable. The lyrics melted my mind.
A few days later, we were staying at a friend’s house in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles. It was late at night, and I took a walk down to the beach by myself with my CD Walkman containing my new favorite album at the time, American Beauty. I’ll never forget sitting back against a lifeguard shack just watching the waves when “Candyman” came on again and just SENT ME REELING.
I listened to it on repeat for hours: the harmonies, the guitar solo, OH MY GOD, the way those guitars melt and blend. And then, I became obsessed with the trio of “Candyman,” into “Ripple,” into “Brokedown Palace,” into the rest of the record — over and over again. Sweet Lord.
Those songs became a place where I was safe. I could live inside this album and get hit with waves of emotion all over the spectrum. Feeling joyous and dancing in the sunshine daydream. Reminiscing deep and feeling sadness. Feeling loss. Feeling love. But all of these familiar emotions were contained in this new emotion I was experiencing with the Dead — just what was this emotion? I still had no name for it in the attics of my life.
And then one day it hit me: when someone hears the Grateful Dead, in whatever state or form it may hit you in — and there are many — they feel the way they WANT to feel. And in wishing to feel how the music sounds, eventually you DO start to feel that way! Whenever I hear Jerry or Bobby’s voices, or the shifting sounds of the band hit me, the emotion that registers is limitless possibility. This is how I wish I could feel; this is how I want to feel. And, if I listen hard enough, this is how I can feel. And I have listened. And I have felt. And I am forever changed.
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