It was announced recently that the long-awaited compilation of the Grateful Dead covers has finally been completed and will arrive in May. The news must be exciting even for those who have never heard of this band before (which is unlikely): the album titled „Day of the Dead“ includes 59 (!) covers from such A-class indie-rockers as the Walkmen, Kurt Vile and the Violators, the Flaming Lips, the War on Drugs, Mumford & Sons and many others. A couple more facts worth mentioning here is that this project was curated by the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner and it’s aimed to benefit the charity organization „Red Hot„.
Now, if you actually happen to be unfamiliar with the Grateful Dead, then let me introduce you this band in three quotes from Mark Richardson’s brilliant 2008 feature „Broken Thoughts and Hand-Me-Downs„: „Popular music is obsessed with youth, and the Dead were young and beautiful for about 5% of their career, tops“. „Once you grow used to live Dead, you begin to accept that they’re among the worst singers ever to grace a major rock band (even by, say, indie rock standards)“. „The idea of trying to ‚convert‘ someone who doesn’t like the Dead seems not just pointless but also difficult; there’s usually some mystical combination of time, place, and people around every person who gets into this band.“
So, you see: they are a cult band and as many cult things in this life they had little to no reason of becoming such. I could give you some more background information about the Grateful Dead, talk about their massive discography or try to go through genres they experimented with throughout their years on stage, but I won’t, because a) it’s all in Wikipedia, and b) this article is not even about the band itself. It’s about one particular track which was released among 4 other songs on the day of the announcement of this compilation. The track is called „New Speedway Boogie“ and it was covered by Courtney Barnett.
„New Speedway Boogie“ was originally released in 1970 in response to the tragic deaths at the Altamont Speedway festival a year before. The Altamont Speedway was a a counterculture event held in the US in 1969, 4 months after Woodstock. The festival was organized by The Grateful Dead who eventually refused to play due to the increasing violence at the venue. This violence led to 4 deaths, one of which was of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old African-American who wanted to approach the stage at the time The Rolling Stones were performing. The young man was stabbed by the band’s security crew consisting of members of Hells Angels motorcycle club. The Altamont Speedway was considered by many contemporaries as an omen of the end of the hippy era.
Even though Courtney Barnett’s own lyrics are far from being historical or political, her take on this by no means dark and deep song seems even more appropriate than the Dead’s. Barnett had never really applied her trademark deadpan-delivery to the heavy themed songs. The texts she writes are usually observational, sketchy and funny. But on „New Speedway Boogie“ Aussie singer’s voice sounds even tortured as if she was a witness of described events herself. And that’s a hard thing to do, because you can’t really relate to the story that took place in a foreign country and in a long gone era. But she did, and it turned out beautiful.