Happy 50th Anniversary to The Grateful Dead’s third studio album Aoxomoxoa, originally released June 20, 1969.
Allow me to reveal myself as someone who has seen Long Strange Trip, the four-hour documentary about The Grateful Dead, twice. The first time I accompanied my godfather to see it in theaters for a press screening. The second was at home on the couch with my partner, whom I’ve yet to convert into a Dead Head. At least now he claims to “get it.”
Long Strange Trip begins with an interview with Jerry Garcia telling us about the loss of his father when he was five years old. The next year, in 1948, Garcia went to see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. These two events, Garcia explains, inspired him to be someone who was concerned with “the weird” in life and nature. This narrative of having been exposed to loss and death, in life and through comedy, at such a young age is what frames the context of the Grateful Dead. Death, darkness, and LSD are the most important foils for the band. Long Strange Trip begins there and it feels important to start there when discussing The Dead.
The Grateful Dead’s legacy is a large interconnected superhighway of Americana and the supernatural. It’s hard to explain and is widely misunderstood, which is why the definitive documentary about them is four hours long. But if you spend some time engaging with the band’s history, you will find more than you expect. The Dead first and foremost are the most American of bands. Their music is a hybrid of blues, rock & roll, funk, folk, country, gospel, jazz, psychedelia, and, last but not least, experimental.
It’s on their third studio album, Aoxomoxoa, where they pushed this limit. The title is a palindrome pronounced “ox-oh-mox-oh-ah” and it’s one of the first LPs to use 16-track recording. The band actually recorded the record twice, first with eight tracks and then over again from scratch once sixteen tracks became available to them. They wanted to see what else was possible.
Aoxomoxoa marks the first official collaboration between Garcia and his longtime lyricist Robert Hunter. The album has two classic favorites on it, album opener “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower.” Both show up regularly in The Dead’s live sets over decades. But a great majority of the record is acoustic, setting the trend for their next two studio albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, both released the following year in 1970.
“Rosemary” is a lullaby. The reverb on Garcia’s voice sounds as if he’s under water. It’s the kind of sound that bends time with every syllable. It’s a short two minutes and the two acoustic guitars plucking underneath him are weaving in and out of each other at times in sync and as each others’ echoes.
The LP also marks the beginning of Tom Constanten as an official member of the band on keyboards. The percussive, melodic nature of keyboards, organs, and pianos add depth to any sound, and thanks to Constanten, The Dead get deeper into their groove. On “Doin’ That Rag,” he plays along with Garcia’s vocals and the pauses between the verses, bridge, and chorus.
As listed in the personnel credits, Constanten’s contributions are strictly “keyboards.” But on “Mountains of the Moon,” he plays an electric harpsichord, giving it a distinct folk sound from a bygone era. Alongside the low end of acoustic guitar, Garcia’s vocals linger in a dissonance matching the medieval instrumentation. Slight reverb dunks us in water, again, and it won’t be the last time.
“China Cat Sunflower” is a pure LSD tune, hard to decipher, with a slightly muffled Garcia singing nonsensical lyrics as the guitar and piano riffs wind up, down, and across each other: “Look for a while at the china cat sunflower / Proud walking jingle in the midnight sun / Copperdome bodhi drip a silver kimono / Like a crazy quilt star gown through a dream night wind / Na na na, na na na / Na na na, na na na / Ooh, oh, oh / Crazy cat peekin' through a lace bandanna / Like a one-eyed cheshire, like a diamond-eye jack / A leaf of all colors plays a golden-string fiddle / To a double-e waterfall over my back.”
Robert Hunter’s reclusion has always been a purposeful, mystic contribution to the Grateful Dead. Try to make sense of the story in “China Cat Sunflower” and you might go mad. Tuning in and dropping out is the way to go.
“China Cat” feeds into the eight-minute “What’s Become of the Baby.” This track is not for the faint of head and can pull you into a dark trip. With slow rumblings of the gong, Garcia’s voice is haunting, one letter barely separate from another. It’s absolutely unsettling and is the epitome of the band testing their limits in the studio. Jerry’s voice is the only sound, perhaps a guiding light or a guide of...some kind. It’s here that his voice finally submerges us under deep water.
Through all of their obsessions with death, there is rebirth. Aoxomoxoa’s cover celebrates both and features fertility imagery along with the sun, which also takes the shape of an egg, the wiggling rays at its edge not unlike sperm trying to break through. Below that center is a skull holding eggs between crossed bones. It’s a compelling, round image to get lost in. The roots of the trees are segmented eggs themselves, the flowers’ bottoms take the shape of a small human—what’s become of the baby indeed. Layers of red seep to neon orange. The deeper you dig, the brighter it gets.
Aoxomoxoa closes with “Cosmic Charlie,” a track returning to their blues rock basics with a refrain of melodic voices. Garcia shares vocals with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. They are often hard to distinguish from one another, which I assume is purposeful because the band is always moving as one. The slide guitar is a welcome electric feature on “Charlie” bringing us back up for air. The last lines close the record: “go on / mom is callin’ you” as if it was just a dip in the pool.
No other band has been able to remotely mimic The Dead. They started as a house band for Ken Kesey’s acid tests in San Francisco. Playing for the trip while tripping became their journey and, eventually, their path in life as artists. Thanks to an eclectic background for each of the players—from Garcia’s roots on the banjo to McKernan’s blues harmonica and Lesh’s training as a classical violinist and trumpeter—the delivery is a forever, frequently asked question: what else can we do? Their catalog of live recordings is an endless stream of answers. But their studio records are standalone tests of which Aoxomoxoa is the zenith.
My favorite part of the whole LP is right at the beginning of “St. Stephen.” It starts with those familiar chords of two downbeats before the guitar chorus. Garcia, Lesh and Weir sing together “Stephen would answer if he only knew how.” And before we’re a minute into the record, someone lets out a short, bloodcurdling scream. It’s like the howl of an infant as it leaves the warm womb, shocked by the cold. I always scream along. It’s a great release, like birth.
Aoxomoxoa is a clear portrait of “being concerned with the weird.” It’s the ultimate trip album exploring life and death. What is one without the other? Drop the needle and you’ll find all you need to know.