I can’t rightly call myself a Deadhead. I may even be a Grateful Dead philistine (I can’t name a favorite bootleg). But I am a Grateful Dead fan, from the time I was in middle school, when I was blanketed with their music in my older brother’s car, up through when I saw the Dead—as the post-Jerry Garcia touring unit is officially known—perform in 2009.
There are many people out there just like me. (“Out there” being New England and the Northwest.) And there’s a certain conventional wisdom available to folks like us—the ones whose boomer parents (or, like me, older siblings born to boomers) introduced them to the Dead, who have never seen Jerry Garcia on a stage, who maybe owned a CD copy of the 1974 best-of Skeletons in the Closet. And this conventional wisdom holds that Shakedown Street sucks.
Shakedown Street is a Grateful Dead studio album from 1978, and the title track provides a key example of “Disco Dead.” (All of the band’s studio albums have just been remastered and made available on iTunes.) The phrase “Shakedown Street” has come to refer to the corridor of vendors, legal or otherwise, outside of a concert or festival. But it was a dubious distinction from the start. The critic Robert Christgau gave it a C when it came out. And Rolling Stone’s reviewer wrote, “ ‘Fire on the Mountain’ and ‘Shakedown Street’ suffer from too much strain and not enough revving up musically. The disco tinges in the latter merely add to the catastrophe.” (He concluded with, “Maybe the band’s energy is still in Egypt, partial payment perhaps for sending King Tut to America,” whatever the heck that means.)
And the bad rap held. The 2004 edition of The New Rolling Stone Album Guide gave Shakedown Street two stars out of five, mentioning the album only to say that, “The late ’70s and ’80s saw the Dead struggling to remain relevant amid unfriendly commercial trends, hitting its nadir in disco experiments such as Shakedown Street.”
So the Grateful Dead made an album no one liked. Shouldn’t we be ignoring the studio stuff in favor of Dick’s Picks and Betty Boards, anyhow? Not if we want to hear Disco Dead in its slithery, arch-’70s glory—a moment any great American band was right to indulge, and that you’re not going to hear the same way on live tapes.
What we’re really talking about here is the album’s title track, which the band reworked as they began playing it in concert. On record, “Shakedown Street” (which Jerry Garcia wrote) grooves like the archetypal porno soundtrack, mellow and anticipatory, as if good, unhurried sex is imminent. (The happy tension this kind of funk provides would never work with the gonzo porn of today—not that it has any soundtrack.)
But contrasted gently against the groove are the resigned, almost melancholy vocals, and the descending oh-ohhhs of the chorus. Longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter sets up a sort of back and forth about inner-city decay: “Nothing shakin’ on Shakedown Street/Used to be the heart of town. Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart/You just gotta poke around.” But you suspect the one poking around has a black heart—or some sort of illicit score—in mind: “Nothing here that could interest you/Well, well, well, you can never tell.”
So let’s say the song’s about a sleazy appreciation for cities in decline. In that sense, it fits in well with the Grateful Dead’s warped brand of Americana. Robert Christgau praised the widely admired Workingman’s Dead this way: “The sparse harmonies and hard-won melodies go with lyrics that make all the American connections claimed by San Francisco’s counterculture; there’s a naturally stoned bemusement in their good times, hard times, high times, and lost times that joins the fatalism of the physical frontier with the wonder of the psychedelic one.”
There was certainly more fatalism going around in 1978, but “Shakedown Street” insists on the bemusement and wonder, too. And if you’re tempted to dismiss the disco touches as cynical or opportunistic, consider this: Would you call the Dead’s bluegrass, jazz and country borrowings cynical? Americana is Americana, whether or not it’s got folksy roots. (And it should go without saying, but “disco sucks” is a relic of a more reactionary era.)
There are nine other songs on the album, including the bawdy “I Need a Miracle,” balmy “France,” and loopily high-spirited “Good Lovin’.” But “Shakedown Street” embodies its time better than any of them—it’s a vivid specimen from a band that’s fiendishly difficult to pin down. For a fringe fan like me, that makes it all the more precious.