“Dirty business down in coal creek”
COAL CREEK? Where was THAT?
The past is starting to blur, but I’m here to tell you the seventies were different from the sixties. The sixties were about testing the limits, pushing the envelope, the seventies were about licking our wounds, there was the back to the land movement. Yes, everybody lost faith in their ability to move the needle when it came to the government and the war and they retreated to the country. It was the opposite of today, where you go to the city for the action, fifty years ago people had enough, they moved to Vermont, Oregon, upstate New York, long before the era of the internet and smartphones, even before cable, you were out in the boonies not only physically, but emotionally. And life was slower…
The soundtrack to this movement? The Grateful Dead.
The Gen-X’ers who came on board during the eighties, who are convinced they know the history because they’ve listened to all the tapes, don’t. You had to be there.
The Grateful Dead were not a hit band. And really, the only impact they had was in the San Francisco area. They got no radio play. Most people had no idea what their music sounded like, most believed it was heavy, a la Black Sabbath, Consider the moniker!
But then there was a concerted effort to push them on the east coast. Credit Bill Graham and the Fillmore East. They started with a full page photo on the back of the program, with a caption about 2,600 people being happy during the Dead’s show. All to promote the shows that began at midnight. They’d play…until they could play no more, until the sun came up, this was something new.
And then came “Workingman’s Dead” and everything changed. You’d hear “Uncle John’s Band” on FM radio, when you were hankering for more of those Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies, we didn’t yet know the Dead’s vocals were never close to pristine in real life. Get started to spread. And then “American Beauty” was released fewer than four months later, in November, or 1970.
I feel the same way about “Ripple” as I do “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” if I hear it I’ll have an uncontrollable urge to hit someone. “American Beauty” was softer, even more accessible than “Workingman’s Dead.” But “Truckin’” was very radio-friendly, and it got played, and was continued to be played. Unfortunately, as it sustained we had to hear “Sugar Magnolia” and “Friend of the Devil” too.
“Workingman’s Dead” had its own “Truckin,’” also closing the LP, “Casey Jones.” But it also had “New Speedway Boogie,” the band’s story of Altamont, and “High Time” sounded like country, the real thing, not the stuff from Southern California. “Cumberland Blues” wasn’t sappy. “Black Peter” was the flip side of “High Time,” there was no bow to commerciality, it was this authenticity that allowed the Dead to swerve from an experimental electronic sound to something more understandable by the hoi polloi, and Pigpen’s “Easy Wind ” was the connection to the first “Live/Dead,” where he was still primary instead of secondary, never mind gone.
So there started to be a groundswell. In cities, but really the word was spread on college campuses. It’s not like you could not get a ticket, but the venues were bigger, and people talked about them, the religion was beginning, and it was ultimately cemented by the three-disc “Europe ’72,” now if you were out of the loop…you were gonna stay out of the loop.
But while the band was ascending, they had an opening act, it was de rigueur, the show started with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. There was little info about its members, the main story was that Jerry Garcia had learned pedal steel and sat in with them. The New Riders were seen as an adjunct of the Dead, the fact that they ultimately recorded their own album and went their separate way was a surprise. They were part of a cohesive scene, now what?
It was all about the first album. Word was the fourth record, “The Adventures of Panama Red,” was a return to form, the title song ultimately became an FM standard, anything about dope ultimately did. But by that time I was gone. Many of us were gone. Because of what came in between.
“Power glide.” I bought it. I didn’t need another version of “Hello Mary Lou,” never mind an almost seven minute version of “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Where was that originality of the first album? Back then every album was a statement, and if you failed, if you bunted, didn’t give it your all, it hurt your career.
The follow-up, “Gypsy Cowboy,” didn’t penetrate the radio sphere whatsoever. It was for those still hanging on, and there weren’t that many of those.
But that first album…
It started with “I Don’t Know You,” a perfect opener, a jaunty number that got you moving, it appealed to your emotions as opposed to your brain, it was not intellectual. And it made John “Marmaduke” Dawson a star. We thought he was just that blonde guy on stage playing with Jerry Garcia opening for the Dead. It was a lark. But “I Don’t Know You” demonstrated it was no lark, one could argue quite strongly that what the New Riders dropped was even more commercial, more radio and audience friendly, than what the Dead had released by this point.
“Glendale Train” was “American Beauty” adjacent, but somehow more credible. You didn’t feel like the New Riders were trying for a hit, they were just doing what they did. “Last Lonely Eagle” was closer to the Dead’s output, but it fit perfectly in that oeuvre, and in truth Marmaduke had a better, more consistent voice than Garcia or Weir.
“Henry” was another dope runner song. You heard it all the time. Dope has always been cool, even though it ultimately killed so many. You’d be surprised who never survived the sixties and seventies, even if they didn’t die, they missed the mainstream and never caught up.
Then there’s my favorite from the debut, one that I sing to myself all the time to this day, “Portland Woman.”
“I wanna get me a Portland woman
Portland women treat you right
Portland’s gonna be mine tonight”
This was back before cheap air travel. You might drive cross-country, looking for America, but Oregon was not at the top of the list, it wasn’t until Microsoft that people saw Seattle as a legitimate outpost, never mind hip.
So “Portland Woman” is wistful. It’s what he hasn’t got. And when I went to college, no one had. With only 1,800 students on campus it was like going to school with your brothers and sisters. That paradigm of leaving home and sowing your wild oats, having relationships, didn’t exist at Middlebury. You saw the same people every day, it was unavoidable, make a mistake and it would confront you until the end of your tenure.
Not that we realized this immediately. But by time the first New Riders album came out, we did, and the goal was to get out of town at every opportunity, looking for action we never found. And we’d drive south on Route 7 in John’s Catalina and when we got to Pittsford, we’d sing:
“Gonna meet me a Pittsford woman”
That was a joke. I don’t think I’ve ever even stopped in that one gas station town, but the memories are still vivid.
But there was one more track on that initial New Riders album, it finished the first side, at length, 8:19 in fact, and it was entitled “Dirty Business.”
“Dirty business, dirty business
Dirty business down in coal creek
Dirty business down in coal creek”
There was nothing fast about the song. It was a slow, lumbering number. Just like living in the country, which so many of us were now doing, or were talking about doing. It was about the working class, when they were still admired, before they were put down, seen as ignorant.
“Well I make two bucks a day
And that ain’t a healthy pay
My kids are just beginning to get sick…”
Life was tough.
They don’t make tracks like this in the streaming era. “Dirty Business” was an album cut, for those who bought the album, they weren’t going to cherry-pick tunes, it was too much of an effort to get up off the couch and move the needle, and you came to like the slow pace of “Dirty Business” anyway. “Dirty Business” is in my DNA, I don’t have to hear it to know it, I can never forget it. And today I heard it on Deep Tracks and…
It didn’t end.
I’d been pushing the buttons. I didn’t catch it from the top. And then I started to wonder…was this a live version? But it was too perfect. Immediate in sound and accurate singing and playing, no one sounds this perfect on a live recording. I’m studying the cut, listening for differences, and it was still playing when I got home. And then I fired up Amazon Music and found out…
There’s a brand new New Riders live album, entitled “Lyceum ’72,” that just came out last Friday. I fired it up to compare and…
It had that same immediate sound. Sure, it was just the tiniest bit different from the studio take, but it was just as satisfying, I’m still not absolutely sure which one I heard on SiriusXM.
But I’m listening to this new live version of “Dirty Business” and it’s stunning how it seems so alive, but Marmaduke is dead, has been for quite a while. There are still New Riders, but it was the Old Riders who truly comprised the band. And they were still alive on this recording.
You can’t write about the Grateful Dead. Because you don’t know enough for the aficionados. You might get a minor point wrong, and in any event you’re not entitled to an opinion. Yes, Dead super fans are akin to Trumpers. It’s anything but a big tent. If you weren’t there before, you can’t get in now. But I talk to these people and they weren’t even alive when “Workingman’s Dead” came out, never mind seeing the band. They’ll criticize my view of the New Riders. With some cockamamie story. Telling me how it really was.
But I was there. The New Riders weren’t equally-rans. They were a concoction of players who opened Grateful Dead shows. And then they put out an album every bit as successful as those of the Dead, if not even more so. And if you were around back then, you know the New Riders’ debut, you couldn’t escape it. It was perfect stoner music, and a bit less serious, a bit lighter than the Dead, with even catchier numbers, a mellow act that fit the ethos perfectly, this was the soundtrack of the back to the land movement. When you didn’t move fast and break things, you moved slow and there weren’t many things to break.
“There’s talk been goin’ ’round
How they’re gonna shut it down
If the man don’t come and fix things
It ain’t much different today. But back then the anger was more cerebral. It was not a one note life. We played our records and talked. Analyzed the issues. The music was not superfluous, it red shotgun, there were no video games, TV was anathema, it was the musicians who were the leaders, on our side, not that of the corporations, the goal was not to be a brand, rather to speak your truth and make enough money to continue doing so.
Most people didn’t even own cassette players back then, 8-tracks were what was in cars, and they were bleeding edge. The home recording scene was years off. The Dead may have been recording their performances on Nagras, but it was years before tape trading became a big thing. All we had was the records. Which we played over and over again. The show was a pilgrimage, to commune with the seers. The Dead didn’t perform, they got on stage and played, and there’s a difference. Same deal with the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
It was dirty business. Everybody was getting ripped off. But they soldiered on, because it was about more than money.
It was the culture.
“Dirty Business” was part of the culture.
And if you listen to this live take you’ll get a glimpse of the way it used to be…
And never will be again.