What Aoxomoxoa shows is that there is no emblematic Dead record.
It is an often repeated truism that, if one wants to experience the best music Grateful Dead ever made, one has to seek out their live recordings. These recordings, originally passed around in bootleg form by fans—but now firmly part of the reissue and re-release cycle of official “bootlegs” that nearly every important rock group the ‘60s and ‘70s indulges in—take on numerological monikers like 5/8/77, 8/27/72, 7/7/89, or 3/29/90. Enthusiasts not only have their favorite shows, but favorite performances of individual songs from particular shows. The arguments are endless, though mostly good-natured. This is what makes Dead fandom so appealing, the amount of material is seemingly infinite, virtually no one has heard all of it and there are always new discoveries to be made.
This leaves their studio output somewhat forgotten, or, at least, under-theorized. Nearly everyone has heard “Touch of Grey”—the Dead’s only Top 40 single—off In the Dark. Perhaps the biggest oddity of the band’s endlessly odd lifespan is that, more than 20 years after forming, they inexplicably had a Top 10 album and a Top 10 single. But their most popular studio recordings are seemingly the least emblematic of the Dead’s output. “Touch of Grey” is pure pop (if a bit long). The 1970 duo of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead are stripped-down folk-oriented affairs. The band’s psychedelic qualities are minimized here, as is their predilection for improvisation. The workshop of the studio was limiting for the Dead in a way it wasn’t for, say, the Beatles, because so much of what the Dead did well required length—space to stretch out and explore the songs. So there is no gospel when it comes to Grateful Dead studio recordings.
Which brings us to Aoxomoxoa (a nonsense palindrome pronounced ox-oh-mox-oh-ah). Only the band’s second true studio album—1968’s Anthem of the Sun is a fascinating blend of live and studio recordings—it was the first time the Dead were given the space to work out their sound in the studio. It also marks the first record to feature lyricist/poet Robert Hunter as a full-time contributor. “What’s Become of the Baby” is the longest song on the record. If a lullaby is normally meant to lull the listener into sweet dreams, this is its opposite, meant to unsettle the listener into a nightmare state. Hunter’s contributions as lyricist are front and center here, as is the farthest fringe of the Dead’s psychedelic impulses. There is little traditional instrumentation. Occasional bursts of percussion break through. Moans and hisses and hums of indeterminate provenance circle in the background. A chair can be heard creaking. Garcia’s vocals are distorted (though they are more legible here than on the similar “Rosemary”) as he sings things like “Eyes sparkle like waterfalls/ Lighting the polished ice caverns of Khan/ But where in the looking-glass fields of illusion/ Wandered the child who was perfect as dawn?”
Elsewhere, the band flex their dynamic playing. “St. Stephen” trips ecstatically until it hits its baroque bridge. This baroque tendency is more evident on “Mountains of the Moon,” where Garcia, like some travelling bard, sings “Hi ho the carrion crow fol de rol de riddle.” A more playful, blues-y side of the band appears on “Dupree’s Diamond Blues”—something like a cousin to Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime.” The band unifies these impulses on the fantastic “Doin’ That Rag,” which opens with a prog-rock fanfare before transitioning lightly into the titular rag. The song builds over its five minutes into a section that the band would, in a live setting, turn into an extended jam, but on record, this build gives way to a tongue-in-cheek barbershop quartet outro that is no less beautiful for being funny.
“Cosmic Charlie” closes out the record with a full-band effort, but special commendation has to be given to Phil Lesh’s bass playing on the track. It bounces around lightly under the sometimes aimless composition, always giving it a sense of propulsion. “China Cat Sunflower” is the only track on Aoxomoxoa that would become a live staple. In this setting, it was eventually joined up with “I Know You Rider” to create one of the most anticipated and transcendent portions of any Dead show that featured it. On record, the song, despite being half its usual live length (and certainly much shorter than the suite it would eventually comprise), does not feel like a sketch. It is fully formed, giving space for every member of the band to have their moment across the song’s four minutes. One can hear the spaces that would be stretched out when played live, but as the song draws to a close and the band drops out—descending into noodling—it feels like a fitting ending.
This year’s reissue offers two versions of the album: the original mix and the 1971 remix done by Garcia and Lesh. It is noticeably brighter than the original mix, but the percussion often feels like it’s coming from down the hallway from the other players and some of the rougher, more interesting edges are sanded off while the guitars and vocals are pushed to the front. “What’s Become of the Baby” is stripped of all its oddity. “Mountains of the Moon” loses the choir. “Doin’ That Rag” loses its lovely a cappella outro. “China Cat Sunflower” and “Cosmic Charlie” do benefit from being less wet in the 1971 remix, however. The reissue also includes previously unreleased live recordings from the Avalon Ballroom shows on January 25th and 26th, 1969. These will be of interest to diehards, of course, but they also offer an interesting view of the band’s live presence during this early period (though, if this is your first spin with the Dead, I would recommend Live/Dead as a better-considered introduction to this era of live shows).
What Aoxomoxoa shows is that there is no emblematic Dead record (or live show, for that matter), no microcosm that one can point to and say this is what Grateful Dead is about. The only constant in the band’s nearly 40 years of existence was change. Despite the breadth of their catalogue, this makes the barrier of entry pretty low—all you have to do is jump in somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is Aoxomoxoa, which showcases the Dead in an important moment, at the beginning of their legend. On it, one can hear an alternate path, where the band hunkered down in the studio, finding ways to transcend the limits of recording technology to capture their singular sound, getting lost in abstract lyricism and psychedelic sound-effects. In the end, the record is just one of the infinite mirror-versions of the band, different from but related to the band that would get up on stage, night after night, and create a new version of itself each time.