In the early 1970s, a band taking their act to the road had a much more romantic feel to it. For most rock and roll bands, there wasn’t a bubble protecting them from the rest of the world. There weren’t any four-star hotels, or private jets. No caviar or khakis. Just usually a handful of songs, a head full of dreams and enough mischief to go around.
The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin” is a direct result of that lifestyle and everything that came with it. Perhaps it was the sinful and often hilarious lyrics of the autobiographical tune, or maybe the catchy shuffle provided from Phil Lesh’s thumbing bass line that rocketed the Dead higher in the charts than ever before.
“Truckin” reached No. 64 on January of 1971 on the U.S. Pop Singles chart and stayed there for eight weeks. It would be the highest-charting pop single the group would have until “Touch of Grey” hit the Top 10 some 17 years later.
“We were never climbers in the sense we wanted to conquer the billboard, especially in those days,” Jerry Garcia told Relix Magazine in a 1976 interview. “We already were having fun doing what we were doing. We knew that it had almost no commercial potential, aside from the community we were in, and that was fine. The music we were making had some value to us and the world we lived in.”
The track was the last cut from the American Beauty album and was edited down in length from five to three minutes for release as a single. The single edit also sounds slightly different than the album version, as Bob Weir and Garcia’s guitars are much heavier and noticeable in radio release.
While the single version is only a few minutes long, some early live versions of “Truckin” were nearly half an hour in duration, which could be considered a snippet compared to some live performances of “Dark Star” that seem to carried on for hours in those later touring days of the Dead.
Lyricist and life guru Robert Hunter said for years the band kept writing and adding verses to the autobiographical tune, but eventually they realized they had it down. It would be silly to keep tweaking.
The Dead, always ones for good humor, altered the lyrics of one line in the song in Philly in 1982 and its been logged in Deadhead folklore ever since: “What in the world ever became of sweet Jane; she lost her sparkle, you know she isn’t the same. Ever since she went and had a sex change; all her friends can say is ain’t it a shame.”
It never made it to the Top 10, but by counterculture standards this tune was the catalyst that started the engine on the long, strange trip.