Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rider In The Sky


JOHN "MARMADUKE" DAWSON, founding member and driving force behind country-rock pioneers New Riders of the Purple Sage, passed away Tuesday at age 64 from cancer.

The group was originally conceived as a side project for Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh to indulge their country & folk interests. By the time the first New Riders album was released in 1971, the lineup was independent of the legendary psychedelic band, although Garcia plays throughout the record on pedal steel guitar.

The Adventures of Panama Red, the New Riders' gold album from 1973, featured the marijuana-fueled adventures of the title character in the group's best-known song, written by Peter Rowan. Dawson contributed two plaintive ballads to an almost perfect record (one drawback is the flimsy running time, a mere 29 minutes, 51 seconds): "One Too Many Stories" and "You Should Have Seen Me Runnin'."

Panama Red spent as much time on my turntable as any other record in the collection back in those "heady" days -- my mellow Deadhead phase: New Riders, Hot Tuna, Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels Band, Poco, Pure Prairie League, etc. This is the kind of music I was listening to at the time... before the metallic-sharp Punk Rock phenomenon would slice through my wooden Americana doors of perception a few years later.

All Music Guide gives Panama Red short shrift, awarding it only 3 out of 5 stars, then almost makes up for the slight by sagely pointing out:

"The freakiest thing is that the record segues together so beautifully and the songs are so tight with nothing extra between, it feels like it's a lot longer than the mere 29 minutes it is. The listener feels satisfied that after 11 songs it's all been said and done in a delightful way ... Musically it can do a lot to teach modern-day alt-country cookie cutters something about knowing the rules before trying to break them.
" Amen to that...

Their first album's 10 songs were all written by Dawson. The rollicking "Henry" chronicles an enterprising young pothead's trip to Acapulco in search of "twenty keys of gold" -- with "fifty people waitin' back at home for Henry's load." "Glendale Train" is Dawson's detail-oriented embellishment of a famous 19th century train robbery -- where the robbers "MADE CLEAN OFF WITH SIXTEEN G’S AND LEFT TWO MEN LYING COLD" and "THEY FOUND AMOS WHITE IN FIFTEEN PIECES, FIFTEEN MILES APART."

Dawson also had a hand in one of the Grateful Dead's most enduring songs, co-writing "Friend of the Devil" with Garcia and Robert Hunter. In fact, future Riders Dawson and David Nelson make key contributions to that American Beauty record, along with its companion Workingman's Dead (both released in 1970).

I saw the Riders play in Central Park circa 1975. Looking back, NRPS were at their absolute live peak at this time. They would stay together for another five or six years, and after the original lineup disbanded in 1982, it was Dawson alone who kept the name alive, with a revolving cast of new members, for another 15 years.

Unfortunately, the NRPS selections on YouTube are underwhelming at best. Here's a "video" of "I Don't Know You" from the 1971 first album. A year later, of course, The Eagles would release their own debut album, offering a safer, more mainstream version of what the New Riders were doing, but it was The Eagles who would go on to ride country rock to the corner of Fame and Fortune -- a cross street that eluded the more visionary New Riders of the Purple Sage.

And here's a touching video of a frail Dawson with the 2007 version of NRPS, performing "Portland Woman" from the first album; it takes a while for the band to get going -- only for the video to cut off abruptly. Boo, hiss...

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6 comments:

Nazz Nomad said...

wow- RIP Marmaduke. Didn't even hear about his passing. One of the great injustices of the music world was that the New Riders never got the success that hack outfits like the Eagles did.

The Warden said...

One of the obits said he was sick for a while and couldn't attend recent reunion shows. The Eagles had some talent at the beginning, but the Riders were more of a kickass live band, kinda like their cousins the Dead. But their studio albums also hold up very well.

ib said...

Nice send-off. You've piqued my curiosity regards "Panama Red", an LP I've never invested any time in.

The Warden said...

Well, if you like the country side of the Byrds and bands like Flying Burrito Brothers, then you'll like the New Riders.

jimithegreek said...

loved me some panama red

The Warden said...

The album or the gentil?