john “marmaduke” dawson, 1945-2009

john dawson, circa 1970. photo by robert altman.

john "marmaduke" dawson, circa 1970. photo by robert altman.

The death last Tuesday of John “Marmaduke” Dawson closes another chapter from the golden age of psychedelia.

Dawson was the chieftain of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a rock-minded outfit seriously devoted to progressive and traditional country influences – especially those that made up the Buck Owens/Bakersfield music that resided on the West Coast.

That Dawson was a Detroit native from a well-to-do New York family may have made his position in a ‘60s psychedelic scene centered in San Francisco a curious one. But when the New Riders formed, all kinds of prevalent rock-oriented bands – The Byrds, The Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers, among them – were refashioning roots and country inspirations into sounds of their own.

Granted, it helped that the Grateful Dead figured prominently in the New Riders’ formation. Jerry Garcia was a co-founder in a workingman’s holiday lineup that had him playing pedal steel guitar, a position nicely absorbed by Buddy Cage after Garcia bowed out in 1971.

For many, the package tours the Dead and the New Riders undertook in 1970, around the time the latter’s self-titled debut album was being recorded, represented Dawson’s best work. A recent listen to a bootleg recording of a sterling 1969 New Riders concert made with Dawson, Garcia, co-founding guitarist David Nelson and the Dead’s rhythm section of Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart, revealed an upspoiled looseness that began to drift away as the Dead members left and the band’s reliance on more drug-oriented novelty songs began to steal focus in the eyes and ears of fans.

Dawson only played in Lexington once that I know of, when the New Riders performed at the Kentucky Theatre in the spring of 1979, not long after the departure of drummer Spencer Dryden. Dawson retired from a life in music in 1997 and moved to Mexico. He died there last week from stomach cancer at the age of 64. Nelson and Cage have fronted a new New Riders lineup since 2005.

Recommended NRPS listening: 1971’s New Riders of the Purple Sage for its rootsy psychedelic charm; 1972’s Powerglide for its often overlooked instrumental command; and 1973’s The Adventures of Panama Red for its often confident but shameless renegade spirit.

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