Thursday, July 5, 2012

Grateful Dead -- "U. S. Blues" (1974)

Red and white
Blue suede shoes
I'm Uncle Sam
How do you do?

Today, 2 or 3 lines celebrates the Fourth of July -- one day ex post facto, thanks to the retards and spazzes at Comcast, who are my home internet service provider.

(Wow, I haven't used those words since eighth grade.  I know that is really politically incorrect stuff, but don't blame me -- blame Comcast!  They drove me to it!)

Actually, Comcast became my internet service non-provider beginning last Friday, when a fast-moving derecho storm bitch-slapped the Washington, DC area.  Unlike at least one million people in the DMV (the District of Columbia, Maryland, and northern Virginia), I and the other good people in my neighborhood never lost electricity.  But that didn't stop Comcast from blaming the local electric utility for our service outage.  

It's funny that no one in our 'hood who had Verizon internet/cable TV lost service for even a minute.  Maybe Verizon doesn't use electricity -- maybe their servers and routers and whatnot run on natural gas, or solar power, or old cooking grease.

I second that emotion
Or maybe the people at Comcast are retards and spazzes.  That's where I'm placing my bet.

When I was a senior in college, I remember my girlfriend asking me why we had never been "into" the Grateful Dead.  (We were at a party at the time, and the host was playing a Grateful Dead song, and we probably somewhat impaired -- which is almost a necessary condition to being into the Dead.)  She was almost as big a music fan as I was, but I don't think either of us owned a single one of their albums.

Chick magnet Jerry Garcia (circa 1974)
I did buy a Jerry Garcia solo album (Garcia) when I was in college on the strength of a couple of tracks I had heard on the radio, but I'm not sure I was even aware that Jerry Garcia was in the Grateful Dead.  (Hey, we didn't have the internet back then.)

I still have never listened to an entire Grateful Dead album straight through, and I'm not conversant with very much of their prolific recorded oeuvre.  But that won't stop me from expressing authoritative-sounding opinions about their body of work.

My impression was then (and remains today) that the Grateful Dead produced a few really good songs, but that life is too short to listen to much of their music.

I would say the same thing about Bruce Springsteen and Elton John -- and Paul McCartney and John Lennon as solo artists.  Each of them produced a little gold but a lot more dross.  I don't think any of them has produced a CD's worth of worthwhile music.

Along with "Bertha," "Truckin'," "Casey Jones," and a few others, "U. S. Blues" is a Grateful Dead keeper.  The song (which was the first track on the group's seventh studio album, From the Mars Hotel) is peppier than the usual Grateful Dead dirge -- the honky-tonk piano makes all the difference -- and the lyrics are clever and funny and not too political.  

The song's lyrics really remind me of rap lyrics -- it's more about the way the words sound and fit together than their meaning:

Gimme five
I'm still alive
Ain't no luck
I learned to duck

The singer seems to be some kind of hustler, but he's a charming, lovable hustler -- think Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man -- and he's very, very cool under pressure:

Check my pulse
It don't change
Stays seventy-two
Come shine or rain

Saying "shine or rain" instead of the more familiar "rain or shine" to make the line rhyme is a very hip-hop thing to do -- the rhyme is paramount, and inverting the usual word order gets your audience's attention.  (It's certainly true to say that the Grateful Dead's pulse "don't change" -- it may get up to 72 in this song, but it's usually much lower than that.  Much of the time, it's barely perceptible.)

Wave the flag
Pop the bag
Rock the boat
Skin the goat

Now we're really rolling -- that verse is 100% sound and . . . not fury, exactly . . . but it sure signifies nothing.

I'm Uncle Sam
That's who I am

I hear a hint of Popeye's "I yam what I yam, and that's what I yam" in that line.

Shake the hand
That shook the hand
Of P. T. Barnum
And Charlie Chan

P. T. Barnum began his career as a showman in 1835, when he bought and put on display a slave who claimed to be 161 years old (and George Washington's nurse to boot).  He went on to exhibit General Tom Thumb (a midget who was less than three feet tall) and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese (conjoined) twins, and organized "The Greatest Show on Earth."

P. T. Barnum with Tom Thumb
Given Barnum's history as a mountebank and his utter contempt for the common man -- his famous catchphrase was "There's a sucker born every minute" -- it's no surprise that he went into politics, becoming mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and then entering the Connecticut legislature.  

I'll drink your health
Share your wealth
Run your life
Steal your wife

Of course he'll drink your health -- especially if you're picking up the bar tab -- because there's no better way to make a sucker out of you than by getting you drunk.

And of course Uncle Sam will share your wealth -- the government shares your wealth every time you get a paycheck, but especially on April 15.

(Don't worry if he steals your wife.  If she's anything like most of the wives I know, he'll probably insist on giving her back to you very soon.)

We're all confused
What's to lose?
Wave that flag
Wave it wide and high

I hope none of you find it offensive that this song portrays Uncle Sam as a bit of a con man.   As the saying goes, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

That certainly doesn't mean all patriots are scoundrels, of course.  But it does mean that scoundrels often exploit patriotism -- or religion, or economics, or science -- so they can pull the wool over your eyes.  When all else fails, wave that flag!

And I hope none of you find it offensive when I say that the Grateful Dead has to have been one of the most overrated live bands in history.  Here's a 1978 performance of "U. S. Blues" at Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University:  

The audio is taken from a live Dead album -- an official one, not a bootleg -- so this performance was selected as a particularly good one.  Plus it appears to be the closing song of that concert, and you would think the boys would have pulled out all the stops.

Despite all that, this is a pretty ho-hum rendition of the song.  Jerry Garcia keeps forgetting to sing into the microphone, and the band reduces the volume when they get to the chorus instead of belting it out -- just the opposite of what they should have done.  (The verses are sung by Garcia, but the the backup singers join in for the chorus -- usually, more voices equal more volume, but not here.)  

I'm not the first person to come to this conclusion: the popularity of the Grateful Dead as a live band can only be explained by the fact that about 90% of their typical audience was high as a kite.  (The other 10% was either comatose or expired.)

Here's "U.S. Blues."  The animated part of this video was produced by the U. S. Information Agency around the time of the Bicentennial, and it very trippy -- it will remind you a little of Yellow Submarine, but patriotic.

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment