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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.