Maybe every single album by The Grateful Dead could be on this list – they really did make some fucking stinkers eh? But I kinda love most of the ones that people say are shit. Though I can’t say I’ve heard every Grateful Dead album, I haven’t even heard every studio album – much less the loads of boxed-set reissues and bootlegged live recordings. But if anything it’s the studio albums that showcase the “shit” – it’s where polish was applied. And you can’t polish a turd. It didn’t stop these stoned buffoons from trying…
My own path to The Grateful Dead is kinda curious – that’s it basically, I was curious. I mean the iconography, the name…the knowledge I had in a post-peak, pre-internet world, as a kid just interested in music, was that that the Dead was (probably) a hardcore metal band.
I couldn’t have been more wrong – and yet it was still such a surprise when as an earnest young teen I dived right in at the wrong end of The Dead’s career and started listening to the geriatric final steps from this hippie jam-band. I loved it by the way. The late-80s/early-90s Touch of Grey-era with the big shows and guest spots by the likes of Branford Marsalis…that was a good time as far as I was concerned. And then I went down to the other end, the mid-60s starting point. But maybe the place I like to rest best is here in the mid/late 70s when there was this new version of the band (with Donna Jean and Keith Godchaux – and not because of them by the way). It’s just a weird, fascinating time for the band.
My absolute favourite thing about The Grateful Dead – to this day – is the book A Long Strange Trip. I read that when I was working in a music store so I started importing in more albums by the Dead than I’d ever need. But what a book! One of the all-time great music books. (The documentary of the same name/same subject is also really great). So I’m getting keyed into the albums I’d missed on my first pass through the band’s catalogue…
But Shakedown Street arrived even later for me.
In 2012 I was in America for the first time. And I loved it. I was frequently gobsmacked. Small-town America was wonderful. And though I was in blue states and even in a sort of quasi gated community with rich hippies (perfect modern-day Dead fans) it was still a case of my eyes being on stalks. Every single place I went to reminded me of a film adaptation of a Stephen King novel I’d seen (after reading) some 25 years earlier.
And we spent some time in Stinson Beach up north of San Francisco. Rumour was we were staying very near Phil Lesh’s house – and that maybe Mickey Hart was astral-projecting somewhere in or near the vicinity. So I was looking out big time. What I did encounter was that in every house we visited (4 or 5) there was a rather large selection of Grateful Dead CDs. I guess it was a bit like being in a student flat in NZ in the 90s and finding a Mutton Birds or Exponents or Dobbyn disc eh? Simply unavoidable.
There I was one day in Stinson Beach in a hot tub, reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island Of The Mind – very much on fucking holiday! – and I spied Shakedown in the CD rack. It was the only one in that person’s collection that I didn’t already know. So I popped it on the stereo and played it through twice. Great album. A dud, apparently. I loved it. I love it still. It’s been with me – here and there – ever since.
Look, there’s some garbage on there sure. It’s a bloody Grateful Dead album. I’m almost in love with how shit they often were. But there’s some magic too. Both the title track and Stagger Lee are mild Hunter/Garcia gems.
Bob Weir was sometimes great. And has been very good in recent years, growing into the old man role now. But he was often so bad on Dead records. Here he sounds appalling on All New Minglewood Blues – but intriguingly so. Same with the opening cover of Good Lovin’ a classic redundant rock’n’roll cover; one of the Dead’s great staples. What were they doing? And why did they bother? We’ll never know. And I sorta love them for that.
This late-70s non-classic is also produced by Lowell George. IE: The fucking man!
The final song is the real classic piece here though (Hunter/Garcia again) – If I Had The World To Give feels somehow perfect right now in locked-down 2020, and I’m sure it was sounding pretty great in a coked-up 1977/78/79 too!
Shakedown might almost have worked better if it was released as some odd side-project, under a fake name. And with Lowell actually contributing some of his searing slide eh.
But anyway, I dig it. I dig it a lot. And that’s because of how and when I heard it. Sure.
But also I love a lot of the weird stuff from this time. Not catchy enough to be labelled Yacht Rock and paraded around in boat shoes 40 years later by faux fans and huge hipsters. But maybe a better example of actual Yacht Rock – if it was ever an actual thing.
See also: Beach Boys albums M.I.U. and L.A. from – respectively ’78 and ’79 and which could both end up on this list down the track, and which, as I type these words feel like my own private acid-trip; as if I’ve already written about how much I love them without ever being able to explain them at all – knowing deep down they’re shit. But being even more pleased with them because of that full awareness. Or something. (Also, there’s a fair comparison to be made, but I’ll save it for someone else or another day, between the Dead and The Beach Boys as distinctly American phenomena).
I dunno. Sometimes I forget about The Dead. For months, even years, on end. But I can never forget about the impression they’ve made me on me. And I find my way back to them. And Shakedown Street is probably no one’s favourite Grateful Dead album. But maybe it’s mine now. And I’m not even saying that to feel quirky or different or just deliberately out of step. I just really fucking dig the best bits of it. But I’m happy with the fact that it’s also pretty blood terrible too. That – to me – was the true mercurial twist of this band.