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2 Deadheads, From 2 Generations, On 'American Beauty' At 50

Nov 1, 2020
Originally published on November 2, 2020 9:06 am

When I started working at NPR last year, I asked Alt.Latino host Felix Contreras if we could grab a quick coffee to talk about his show, of which I was a long-time listener. That coffee turned into an hour-long conversation on the office patio — not about Alt.Latino or anything work-related, but about what we discovered was a shared affinity for the music of the Grateful Dead.

Felix and I come to the Dead's discography from two completely different backgrounds. He grew up during their heyday — the golden dreamscape of California in the '70s and '80s. As an avid jazz head, he learned to appreciate the Dead from a technical standpoint: the synchronicities in Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir's guitar playing, the percussive partnership of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, the band's collective ability to improvise for hours on end.

I fell into the Dead from a completely different path: I was a bored teenager looking for something weird and exciting to consume my newfound free time when I graduated high school in 2015. That opportunity manifested in the creation of Dead & Company that same year, in which surviving members Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart were joined by John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti to keep playing the Dead's music to packed-out arenas and amphitheaters.

I hopped on the bus, metaphorically speaking, and started going to shows. But I'm still fascinated by the stories of the people who were there from the very beginning. And for Felix, it's intriguing to see how a generation of people born after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995 still find their way to these songs.

There are countless versions of the Grateful Dead to tap into, hundreds of bootlegs and remastered live recordings to queue up. Many bonafide Deadheads would say it's not even worth bothering with the studio recordings. But American Beauty, released Nov. 1, 1970, and lined with back-to-back classics that earned them the title of the great American jam band, stands out from all the rest.

For American Beauty's 50th anniversary, Felix and I had another one of our chats — this time over Zoom, given the times — about the long, strange trip of how this album made its way into both of our lives. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Isabella Gomez Sarmiento: Hi, Felix.

Felix Contreras: Hey Isabella, how are you?

Gomez Sarmiento: I'm good, thanks. I'm excited to be talking to you about this album. I'm 23 years old, which means that American Beauty is more than twice my age. I was not around when the Grateful Dead were originally playing music — I discovered them through a Netflix documentary about guitarist Bob Weir's life. You were actually there, when it was actually happening. So what was that like? How did you discover this band?

Contreras: I'm 62 years old. I grew up in California, came of age in the late 1960s, early '70s , and they were all over the underground FM radio stations that I used to listen to and discover music through.

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Gomez Sarmiento: I'm so jealous. So what was it like, going to see the Dead perform live?

Contreras: It was that spirit of adventure and the spirit of improvisation that always, always spoke to me. And of course, Jerry Garcia, as a guitarist, I think he epitomized what concert promoter Bill Graham once said about the Grateful Dead: "They're not the best at what they do, they're the only ones who do what they do." That's what it means for our generation — but what about for your generation, the younger generation? What is it for you about this album specifically?

Gomez Sarmiento: For young people, it can be really intimidating to get into the hundreds and hundreds of archives of live recordings. But American Beauty is a very accessible entryway into the Dead's music.

There's actually this moment in Freaks and Geeks, the Judd Apatow-produced show from the '90s, where the main character is really struggling to fit in, and her hippie guidance counselor gives her a copy of American Beauty. There's a scene of her dancing around her room to "Box of Rain": She's totally blissed out, and she lets go of all her anxieties about being a teenager and about being in high school. I watched that in my senior year of high school and it really resonated, because as I've become an adult and grown into this person I'm becoming, it feels like American Beauty has been with me throughout all these transitions of my life. It's kind of like a hug in album format for me.

Contreras: Is there a specific song from American Beauty that speaks to you more than the others?

Gomez Sarmiento: So I immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela when I was 7, and I've always had a kind of complicated relationship with the idea of having a place that I can go home to. I feel like as I got older and I started listening to the Dead, the song "Ripple" kind of became a metaphorical home for me.

I remember, after the 2016 presidential election, I decided to follow Dead & Company, which is some of the surviving members who still play music together. I followed them across the country and I would see so many young people at shows, so many people my age. It really made me realize, all of these people are just looking for a little bit of refuge from reality, looking for an American tradition that's rooted in love and kindness and looking out for one another. And I feel like "Ripple" really encapsulates that as a song, with everybody singing together at the. That last line, "If I knew the way, I would take you home," always makes me want to cry. So that's my top song on American Beauty.

Contreras: For me, one of the songs that stands out is "Friend of the Devil." You hear that piano weaving guitar and bass lines; as a musician, I appreciate the musicality of that intro. Phil Lesh's melodic bass — he's almost taking the lead at places. And then when Billy Kreutzmann's drumming comes in later, just like in everything he does, it's exactly what's needed for the music at any particular moment, nothing more, nothing less.

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It's an interesting time for boomers, my generation, in general. At this point, we're spending more time looking back: Looking back at our lives, looking back at some of the things that we've experienced. I think it helps us appreciate what we have lived and how we have lived it, and also to remind us to continue to live with the rebellious and adventurous spirit that American Beauty invoked when we first heard it. It all comes together in a classic album that both young and old can enjoy.

Gomez Sarmiento: Felix, I loved talking about the Dead with you and it's so great to hear what American Beauty means to you.

Contreras: Thanks for doing this, Isabella. Keep on truckin'.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It was 50 years ago today the Grateful Dead released their album "American Beauty."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR MAGNOLIA")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming. Head's all empty, and I don't care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Sugar Magnolia," "Box Of Rain," "Truckin'," "Ripple," "Friend Of The Devil" - "American Beauty" was a collection of 10 songs that range from high-energy, hip-swaying anthems to slow and tender ballads, all destined to become classics. And it's a record that cemented the band's status in American rock music history. Five decades later, "American Beauty" continues to bring together generations of Deadheads, including two of our own right here at NPR, Felix Contreras and Isabella Gomez Sarmiento. They shared their appreciation for this album, of course - where else? - over Zoom.

ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Hi, Felix.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey, Isabella. How are you?

SARMIENTO: I'm good, thanks - excited to be talking to you about this album. I'm 23 years old, which means that "American Beauty" is more than twice my age. I was not around when the Grateful Dead were originally playing music. I discovered them through a Netflix documentary about guitarist Bob Weir's life. But you were actually there when it was all happening. So what was that like? How did you discover this band?

CONTRERAS: I'm 62 years old. I grew up in California, came of age in the late 1960s - early '70s, actually. And they were all over the underground FM radio stations that I used to listen to and discover music through. And actually, I didn't start going to shows until I saw Garcia, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir sit in with Santana at a benefit show. I think it was early '80s. And I kicked myself because I missed out on so many years of seeing so many shows. But I did manage to squeeze in a handful up until the point when Jerry Garcia died in 1995.

SARMIENTO: I am so jealous. So, like, what was that like, going to actually see the Dead perform live?

CONTRERAS: It was that spirit of adventure and the spirit of improvisation that always, always spoke to me. And, of course, Jerry Garcia as a guitarist - I think he epitomized what concert promoter Bill Graham once said about the Grateful Dead. They're not the best of what they do. They're the only ones who do what they do. And I'm always fascinated because that's what it means for our generation. But what about for your generation, the younger generation? What is it for you about "American Beauty" specifically, this album?

SARMIENTO: For young people - I mean, especially for myself, it can be really intimidating to get into - like, hundreds and hundreds of archives of live recordings. But "American Beauty" is, like, a very accessible entryway into the Dead's music.

There's actually this scene in "Freaks And Geeks," which is a Judd Apatow show from the '90s. And the main character is really struggling to fit in. She's having, like, a really hard time, you know, just being a teenager and being in high school. And her hippie guidance counselor gives her a copy of "American Beauty." And there's a scene of her just, like, dancing around her room to "Box Of Rain." She's, like, totally blissed out. She lets go of all of her anxieties about being a teenager and about being in high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOX OF RAIN")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Look out of any window any morning, any evening, any day.

SARMIENTO: And I watched that show my senior year of high school, and I feel like it really resonated because as I've become an adult and sort of grown into this person I'm becoming, it feels like "American Beauty" has been with me through all of these transitions of my life. It's kind of like a hug in album format for me.

CONTRERAS: OK. Now, is there a specific song from "American Beauty" that speaks to you more than the others?

SARMIENTO: So I immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela when I was 7, and I've always had a kind of complicated relationship with the idea of having a place that I can go home to. And I feel like as I got older and I started listening to the Dead and to "American Beauty," the song "Ripple" kind of became, like, a metaphorical home for me - you know, like, this really tender intro on the acoustic guitar and just finding joy in something as simple as listening to a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIPPLE")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine, and my tunes were played on the harp unstrung...

SARMIENTO: I remember after the 2016 presidential election, I decided to follow Dead and Company, which is some of the surviving members who still play music together. I followed them across the country.

And I would see so many young people at shows, so many people my age. And it really made me realize that it's - like, all of these people are just looking for a little bit of refuge from reality and looking for an American tradition that's rooted in love and kindness and looking out for one another. And I feel like "Ripple" really encapsulates that as a song - you know, everybody singing together at the end and that last line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIPPLE")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) If I knew the way, I would take you home.

SARMIENTO: I feel like it always makes me want to cry. So that's my top Dead song on "American Beauty." Is there a song for you that stands out specifically?

CONTRERAS: For me, one of the songs that stands out is "Friend Of The Devil."

(SOUNDBITE OF GRATEFUL DEAD SONG, "FRIEND OF THE DEVIL")

CONTRERAS: You hear that - the interweaving guitar and bass lines - you know, as a musician, I appreciate the musicality of that intro. Phil Lesh's melodic bass - he's almost taking the lead at places. And then when Billy Kreutzmann's drumming comes in later - just, like, and everything he does is exactly what's needed for the music at any particular moment - nothing more, nothing less.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIEND OF THE DEVIL")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) I ran into the devil, babe. He loaned me 20 bills. Spent the night in Utah, in a cave up in the hills. I set out running, but I take my time. A friend of the devil is a friend of mine. If I get home before daylight, just might get some sleep tonight.

CONTRERAS: You know, one of the things that makes this album interesting for me is that it's an interesting time for boomers, my generation, in general. And I think at this point, we're spending more time looking back - looking back at our lives, looking back at some of the things that we've experienced.

I think it helps us appreciate what we have lived and how we have lived it and also to remind us to continue to live with the rebellious and adventurous spirit that "American Beauty" invoked when we first heard it. And it all comes together in a classic album that both young and old can enjoy.

SARMIENTO: Felix, I love talking about the Dead with you, and it's so great to to hear what "American Beauty" means to you.

CONTRERAS: Thanks for doing this. Keep on truckin', Isabella.

SARMIENTO: You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRATEFUL DEAD SONG, "TRUCKIN'")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Felix Contreras and Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, two of NPR's resident Deadheads, talking about the Grateful Dead album "American Beauty," released 50 years ago today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUCKIN'")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Truckin', got my chips cashed in. Keep truckin' like the doo-dah (ph) man. Together, more or less in line, just keep truckin' on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.