Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Grateful Dead—
Aoxomoxoa


Released 1969 on Warner Brothers
The Seth Man, October 2002ce
Why The Grateful Dead returned to their own Alembic Studios in September 1971 with the master tapes of “Anthem Of The Sun” and “Aoxomoxoa” for a remix and subsequent re-issuing of the two later in the year is a mystery: for they were both already perfect in their erratic, sloppy, understated and cosmic studio executions.

By some wrinkle in the fabric of decision-making that governs re-issues, the CD of “Anthem Of The Sun” boasted the original mix, while the CD version of “Aoxomoxoa” did not. Which is a pity, because the original mix of “Aoxomoxoa” (only available as a long-deleted album) is immaculately imperfect in its state of EQ’ed up the wall/verging-into-red imbalance from errant mix-during-live-playback sessions and is consequently filled with all manner of organic blunders: warm ups, false starts, off-mike vocal directives and a decided lack of fade outs which leaves in each and every ragged ending. It’s the aural equivalent of the cluttered ‘attics of my life’ collage from the back sleeve of their later “American Beauty” LP. Both reflective and sensitive to its own space, “Aoxomoxoa” is a kaleidoscopic shuffle of shifting tempos and textures that combines with the density of Robert Hunter’s imagery rich lyrics and whose considerable gnostic word horde trickled down to alter The Dead’s musical chemistry as both tailored themselves in a poet’s forge in turn tempered by deft arrangements of loose and yearning earth rhythms and laid to rotate slowly upon the ever-turning wheel of fortune. “Aoxomoxoa” marked the point where The Grateful Dead’s final, faded old San Franciscan Art Nouveau touches re-arranged themselves in between country/western overtures (reflecting the then current state of Mr. Spacemen everywhere evolving into space cowboys witnessed in contemporary releases like “Music From Big Pink” and “Nashville Skyline.”) And it was during this influx of country honk in the aftermath of three years of freewheelin’ juggernauting that a similar shifting in style occurred for The Dead from psychedelic manic panic to down-home sonic tonic.

The original “Aoxomoxoa” has the same tracks in the same order but from the moment “St. Stephen” begins, it’s clear that this is an album made in a different state of mind than its remix two years later. Everything occupies totally different positions in the sonic hierarchy, and the band is in a near state of stumbling over itself to allow things to grow between their unfamiliar 16-track sonic spaces. The clatter of the twin drum sets of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart in particular operate in a near state of suspended animation, as though holding back because they know their kits are being recorded too loud. A simple snare pattern tramples all over the musical place, as they will continue to do throughout the rest of the album (But come to think of it, Phil Lesh’s latticework bass fans out with an equal prominence.) An original workout of “St. Stephen” featured a cello arrangement, and more of it is revealed in the drumless vocal bridge and adorned with tinkling bells. Without “The Eleven” suffixed afterwards, “St. Stephen” here is laid bare and raw as can be. Mining the rich vein of American folk blues, “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” gets a cheesy Warlocks-style organ workout with Jerry Garcia delivering the vocals in old-tymey conversational mode about a crime of passion with a moral ringing as true today as it did -- and always will -- that “jellyroll can drive you stone mad.” Or so the story archetypically goes.

The brief and gently picked acoustic ode “Rosemary” switches the mood from one of lightheartedness to one as mysterious as the overgrown, enclosed garden from which its watery vocals croak of so desolately. Then it’s back to the old tymey tomfoolery of the prankish “Doin’ That Rag” -- here a completely different take from the one used in the remix and again with loud Warlocks-styled organ, louder drums and the ridiculously loudest of all hi-hat punctuations. It’s a gloriously stoned goofball moment, like watching the earliest Mickey Mouse animations on acid while listening to the second album by The Band, though more playfully giddy and buoyant. The mood readjusts again to somber beauty with the broken waltz directed by lacy, moonlit harpsichord, called “Mountains Of The Moon.” Accompanied by acoustic guitar and swelling background bass, ghostly female voices hover behind at all times as mysterious lyrics speak in symbols beyond interpretation. No drums here and no fade out like on the remix, either.

Side two continues the contrasting of light and shade as “China Cat Sunflower” and the acoustic country blues of “Cosmic Charlie” flank the darkly windswept epic "What’s Become Of The Baby” with sunshine daydreams as though to buffer its singularly impenetrable weirdness. An eight and a half minute long trail of audio effects stumbling over Garcia’s electronically processed death rattle/embryonic gurgle of a vocal delivery, it is tempestuously minimalist and densely packed with aleatory freak-out organ runs, clambering percussion, piano string zings, guitar fiddling, creaking from fuck knows what and wailing wisps of feedback into a terrifyingly still and becalmed recitation of...rebirth? Garcia drags out each syllable to infinite lengths of infinite dawns plaintively and quavering, as though approaching the dawning of...birth? Death? Either/and/or both? When his Leslie amplified vocals start twittering with live effects manipulation all background instrumentation assembles to stir up into a wayward noise jam causing them to strangulate and strain into fast motion passing clouds over the darkened December morning. “What’s Become Of The Baby” is a sublimely smothering piece set in a veritable darkened room of pillows and lavender with a deep sense of foreboding (Whereas The 1971 remix wiped away all the weirdness and smoothed out all of the intermittent flashes of noise except for the incidental tapping of gongs as Garcia’s vocals were drawn down into distant cavernous reverb.)

Like the orange and apple crate artwork featuring the sun setting stylistically over an orchard or plenty dotting hillsides that part for the open road, “Cosmic Charlie” easily walks in a resurrection shuffle to light the lantern to pave the way spiritually and subconsciously through the universal dance of life, death and love. The final lyrics beckon hello/wave goodbye to the past/future at the same time:


“I just wonder if you shouldn’t feel
Less concern about the deep unreal.
The very first word is ‘How do you do?’
The last: ‘Go home, your mama’s callin’ you...’”


And with a knowing wink at the Universe, continues in a spry gait down that lonesome highway heading forever into tomorrow.


Note:
The album’s unpronounceable title came from the legendary Rick Griffin, the psychedelic artist whose San Franciscan concert posters and contributions to underground newspapers and comics were consistently distinctive and always pushing the freak envelope furthur. Creating (not so much cartoons but) mind-blowing graphic panels which reflected his current ‘Beatle Bones’n’Smokin’ Stones’ obsessions with suns, scarabs, eyeballs, skeletons, eggs, hearts, light bulbs and stylised spermatozoa flowed forth upon his page as though he had dipped his pen into the very inkwell of the universal life force itself. These images of life, death and rebirth were co-joined by his visualisations of letterforms and together hotwired into his illustrations of Kabalistic principals of balance between light and darkness creating an ultimate zygotic mindfuck, with the yin-yang placement of that year’s last two digits -- 69 -- the very cosmic cherry on top. The central figure of a skull/penis head clutching a pair of testes/eggs sending its seed upwards into the sun mirrors the music within, as though they both sought to unify and illuminate the interconnectedness between the universe’s active and passive principles. The cover was originally conceived as a Dead concert poster with the black border’s identical smoldering urns and palindromic title added later.