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New Speedway Boogie

The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead were the second band to have an album in my collection. The first was Creedence Clearwater Revival. To Creedence’s self-titled first album, I added The Dead’s Anthem of the Sun … immediately doubling my collection.

It is somewhat inaccessible, Anthem of the Sun. Track 3, Born Cross-Eyed, opens with a descriptive couplet:

Seems like I’ve been here before
Fuzzy then and still obscure – goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Although there were parts of the album I loved, it meandered a bit much – a Dead trait I was not quite ready for. So, I said goodbye, goodbye, goodbye to The Dead.

I don’t think I even heard their next two releases – two of their best Aoxomoxoa and Live/Dead. Live/Dead remains one of the best live albums (well, if you ignore the 7m 49s of Feedback) … and definitely the best titled one.

My “Dead” hiatus came to an end in 1970 when they released Workingman’s Dead. They had been hanging around with Crosby, Stills & Nash and the influence was pretty clear.  Workingman’s Dead had 8 great tracks making up a great album – although for some of my mates it was perilously close to country.

The Grateful Dead circa 1970

The Grateful Dead circa 1970

New Speedway Boogie is track 4, it was also on the B-side when Uncle John’s Band was released as a single.

The song is supposedly about the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in December 1969 – four short months after Woodstock a dark curtain dropped on a colourful decade. The events at Altamont are well known. Perhaps less known are the circumstances that led to the staging of Altamont and its subsequent notoriety. But its impact has been most succinctly expressed in a verse of Don Maclean’s anthem:

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

The Rolling Stones were the headline act. The Grateful Dead were scheduled to go on before them. The Dead refused to perform because of the escalating violence – apparently the final straw was hearing that Marty Balin (Jefferson Airplane) was knocked out by one of the Hells Angels.

New Speedway Boogie was written by Robert Hunter (lyrics) & Jerry Garcia (music), supposedly as an answer to the Ralph J. Gleason’s indictment of the Altamont affair. It must have been written pretty quickly because apparently it was first played at the Fillmore (SF) on 20th December – just 2 weeks after Altamont.

I know it is a device used often but I really like  the “I don’t know but I been told” military cadence – I think the attraction is the feigned ignorance followed by a “pearl of wisdom”. In this song:

Now I don’t know but I been told, it’s hard to run with the weight of gold
Other hand I’ve heard it said, it’s just as hard with the weight of lead.

Now I don’t know but I been told, in the heat of the sun a man died of cold.

Now I don’t know but I been told, if the horse don’t pull you you got to carry the load

The middle line reminiscent of the ambiguity, even paradox – maybe nonsense – found in Stephen Foster’s Oh Susannah (at Crossroad 14):

Rained all night the day I left
The weather, it was dry
Sun so hot I froze to death

 This idea of being hot yet freezing to death dates back a lot further. Geoffrey Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde wrote:

Alas! What is this wonder malady?
For heat of cold, for cold of heat, I dye.

Where am I going with this … buggered if I know. But I do wonder if writers like Robert Hunter “sample” works from centuries ago – I’m sure they do. Also I just love this sort of ambiguity …

As Ken Kesey once said:  “Some things aren’t true, even if they did happen.”

It wasn’t long after Workingman’s Dead that I wrote in and enrolled as a Dead Head.

What do New Speedway Boogie and What Are Their Names have in common?

Jerry Garcia.

Isn’t that enough?


Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Live Performance of New Speedway Boogie from 1970The Grateful Dead (6m 28s).

* Cover version by Melbourne band Black Cab from their 2004 debut album, Altamont Diary.

* Official Grateful Dead Website

* Listen to a swag of live versions of New Speedway Boogie at Heady Versions – a website dedicated to finding the best versions of Grateful Dead songs.

* Saturday Night At The Speedway subtitled Exposing Altamont in a TexturaI Analysis of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie”  – a mouthful I know, but a very interesting essay.

* San Francisco Chronicle clippings – Ralph J. Gleason’s columns from 1969 – 28th November and 5th, 12th, 18th December. Interesting reading from just before and just after Altamont.

* The Rolling Stones@Altamont | We’re Not In Woodstock Any More … a blog post with some great photos. The entire blog is well worth a look. It is called: The Selvedge Yard – a historical record of artistry, anarchy, alchemy, and authenticity

* Gimme Shelter (1h 31m 41s) – the film chronicles of the Rolling Stones 1969 US Tour which finished with their performance at Altamont.

And the next road takes us to?

North:  What Are Their Names – they’re back at the last stop.
East:     Long Black Veil by The Band
South:   Train Round The Bend  by The Velvet Underground 
West:    Piece Of My Heart by Big Brother & The Holding Company

Crossroad 17