Book Review: 33 1/3 Resurrects Workingman's Dead

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Dead & Company are returning to Colorado this summer with a special performance at Folsom Field in Boulder, but any time is ripe for fans of the Grateful Dead to eat up the band's music and history. To answer that call is Buzz Poole's examination of the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead. 

This book is the 112th volume in the 33 1/3 series, a collection which has gradually evolved into a wonderful and near-essential body of work, thanks to a rigorous selection process for authors and subjects. The latest three releases include this Dead book, plus hard looks at Blondie’s Parallel Lines and the New Kids on the Block’s Hangin’ Tough. Want eclectic? You got it.

That’s not to say that every title is perfect. At their best, these books treat the chosen album in the same way that an English-class study guide treats a great work of literature. At their worst, they use the subject matter as an excuse to write a shorter-than-usual biography of the band.

In his take on the Dead's fifth album, author Buzz Poole almost allows the latter to happen, but he is obviously trying to rein in his passion for the band. What he does do is dig into the subject matter on each of the album's songs, and uses that as a route into the larger Dead story.

For example, “New Speedway Boogie” is about the Altamont Festival, the tragedy that resulted, and the Dead’s billed appearance that turned into a non-appearance. Ideally this chapter would deal with the guilt that Jerry Garcia and the boys subsequently carried into the studio, and the way that the tragedy informed the song beyond a few pointed lyrics. But Poole doesn't do that.

Similarly, “Casey Jones” is a beloved tune with a whole heap of mythology behind it. It’s the sort of song that this series was created for – fodder for the music historians. Here, Poole uses the druggy subject matter as a gateway into the Dead’s general devotion to illicit substances. Yes, we learn that Garcia’s sniff at the start of the song is in fact the singer clearing his sinuses rather than a bump of cocaine. But that’s not enough detail to be satisfying. The recording process, deep thoughts from the producer and band members – we get none of that.
In addition, Poole puts himself into this story far too much. The first thing he says about “Black Peter” is that he has never liked it much. Frankly, who cares? In that same chapter, he says, “Endeavoring this project got me thinking quite a bit about why I love the Dead. What is it about the band’s music that unlocks for me so much of what interests me about the world?” That sort of first-person narrative surely belongs in the introduction, if anywhere.

All that said, there are some fun anecdotes about the band in here, and even a few tasty nuggets about “Workingman’s Dead.” At the end of the day though, the bar has been raised extremely high by previous 33 1/3 books, and this one falls short.

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