Operator (1970)

The Grateful Dead

Written by Ron McKernan
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Operator Pigpen color“Operator” was Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s fare-thee-well recording. His farewell to life, that is.

If anyone lived up to the title of the album that “Operator” is on, American Beauty, it was Pigpen. Perfectly surly and snarly and yet perfectly beautiful and talented, he is the incarnation of America in 1970 – in all its tattered glory, with all its flaws and lustrous aspirations.

“Operator” was Pigpen’s only singing-songwriting effort.

The song represents a complete graceful – or grateful – circle back to the origins of the Grateful Dead in 1966 before they had become a cultural touring phenomenon for the ages.

The early efforts from the Dead were a simmering stew of jug band, folk and mellow rock-n-roll. The blues kept sneaking in, but until “Uncle John’s Band” – the lead song from Workingman’s Dead (1970) – the stray bits and pieces of Americana seemed disconnected from a more cohesive vision.

Central done forgot it…

American Beauty, the studio followup to Workingman’s Dead, solved the issue once and for all. The album simply is America – a snapshot of a culture in 1970 that was emerging from its pre-World War II folksiness and headed into a Buckminster Fuller, geodesic world.

“Operator” captured the past as it is mixed, kneaded and turned into a big loaf of the Future. Pigpen’s song is rooted in the timeless Henry Thomas country-blues classic “Fishin’ Blues,” which he recorded in 1928. The similarities are undeniable.

Taj Mahal’s cover of “Fishin’ Blues”

“Fishin’ Blues” also deeply influenced Canned Heat’s psychedelic country tune, “Goin’ Up the Country.”

You’ve got a home man, long as I’ve got mine… 

Operator color Dead

Operator, can you help me
Help me if you please
Give me the right area code
And the number that I need
My rider left upon the Midnight Flyer
Singin’ like a summer breeze

I think she’s somewhere down South
Down about Baton Rouge
But I just can’t remember no number
A number I can use
Directory don’t have it
Central done forgot it
I’ve gotta find a number to use

Pigpen’s singing is downright down-home, projecting all that the expression implies. He is sincere and completely authentic – in low spirits with high hopes. He sings directly to the listener as he tells the simple story. He seems to have just gotten off the phone – a pay phone, no doubt – with the operator he has been pleading with.

Operator audience 1070

The Grateful Dead’s audiences were always crucial to the dynamics of the band

Bill Kreutzmann’s drumming is simple and efficient though still brimming with touches of rich country refinement.

Jerry Garcia drops in a subtle, bluesy pedal steel lead that dances throughout the song, teasing, joking, and ultimately lending a virtuosity that only he was capable of producing.

Bob Weir chips in a laid-back rhythm guitar, and Phil Lesh adds a bouncy bassline that lightens the load.

Throughout his tenure with the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter lent a verbal intensity to what might otherwise have been lyrically insignificant songs. He powerfully influenced every member of the band, and Pigpen was no exception. He caught Hunter fever and wrote “Operator” with a poet’s touch.

The forlorn guy in the song wonders where his girl went and speculates on just about every possible location that she could be. Baton Rouge, Texas, Utah and Portland all chug in and out of view.

Is the girl a prostitute? A good chance.

There is a sweet brushstroke of lighthearted raunchiness, recollecting an innocence that seems absent from much of rock-n-roll since the Dead crafted American Beauty. Whatever the girl is, the singer’s hooked on her and makes no pretensions about feeling otherwise. Irony is out. Genuine is in.

Operator American BeautyShe could be hangin’ ’round the steel mill
Working in a house of delights
Riding a getaway bus out of Portland
Talking to the night

I don’t know where she’s going
I don’t care where she’s been
Long as she’s doin’ it right

In spirit and mood, this Dead classic falls in with Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” The Band’s myriad works (try “Jawbone,” to get the idea) and has clearly influenced the Felice Brothers. “Operator” was roots music before anyone knew there was such a thing.

Just like jelly roll… and it stoned me

Besides his “down-in-the-holler” singing, Pigpen plays an enchanting slow-steam-engine harmonica solo toward the end of the song that, in a mere handful of bars, gives a textbook lesson on the bluegrass harp. His presence on “Operator” is a wonder. His solo buoys us to the coda.

“Operator” slicks down its cowlick, shines its shoes and buttons itself up neatly at the finale. It’s a clean country cakewalk that promises to rejuvenate everyone’s belief in the healing powers of rock-n-roll. Just to make sure we’ve got it, the dear, departed Pigpen repeats:

Long as she’s been doin’ it right…

  • One of the great joys of the American Beauty album cover is that it can also be read as “American Reality.”
  • Pigpen is perhaps best known for his singing of the the Dead’s show-stopping closer, “Turn On Your Love Light,” Bobby “Blue” Bland’s R&B classic. Due to technical difficulties when the group played at Woodstock, they performed a 48-minute version of the song.