Dylan & The Dead.
Quite possibly the worst album by either Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead.
Man, it’s a slog. It’s worse than just being terrible – it’s boring. Boring, boring, boring.
If these were the stadium tour’s best performances, pity anyone who actually sat through one of these concerts with a clear head.
Recorded bad, sung bad, played bad, mixed bad, and just overall has a bad sound.
The nadir of Dylan’s efforts…avoid at all costs.
I remember the sinking feeling I experienced when I first heard that Dylan & The Dead was being released. I was not a fan of the Grateful Dead (though my appreciation and respect for the band has grown enormously in the writing of this article) and reviews I’d read of the 1987 joint shows were terrible. A ‘live’ record of a dreadful series of concerts seemed a bad idea.
Obviously, I bought it the day it was released and listened to it as soon as I got home from the record shop.
It was even worse than Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove, and they were awful. It was not a great time to be a Dylan fan. I put the LP on the shelf and didn’t listen to it again for twenty years.
In 2009, I read (on the brilliant Searching For A Gem site) that Dylan & The Dead had been remastered.
My initial thought of ‘you can’t polish a turd’ didn’t stop me buying the new remastered CD anyway.
I played it while I did something else and at some point I became aware of a wholly subconscious yet familiar sensation and realised I was…yes…actually enjoying one of the tracks!
How could this be? What magic was a play here? What cellular alchemy had occurred?
The track was ‘Queen Jane Approximately’. I clicked the jump button, started the track again, sat down, turned it up and listened.
Yes, it really was good. In fact, I thought it was really good.
How could I have missed it?
The ramshackle beginning sounds like a wall falling over, but slowly, through the dust and debris, there is a beautiful, shining song in there. You can hear Dylan realise that they have found something. His voice grows stronger and more passionate with every line and the band are obviously loving it, hitting everything harder, intoxicated by the power of the music they are creating. Jerry Garcia takes a wild, thin, mercury solo that glitters and runs through the space left by Dylan stepping away from the microphone for a few bars. The guitar sparkles with the divine, with economy and grace. The choruses are wonderful, with low, eerie, off-kilter backing voices shadowing Dylan’s flinty howl. There is such a groove, and a natural ebb and flow, culminating in a breakdown before the crashing end.
I love it and the re-master sounds much better than the original, with extra bass on the drums, which helps a lot. I think the drums have been re-positioned, too. Whatever they’ve done, it sounds more present and more powerful.
Listening to that particular song again led me to search out other performances from that mini tour and a friend from Norway pointed me in the direction of the rehearsal tapes.
The 1987 Dylan & The Dead Tour Rehearsals
“Where do you suppose we are in the set list?” – Bob Dylan to no-one in particular, 1987 Tour Rehearsal.
1986 had been a full year for Bob Dylan – filming ‘Hearts Of Fire’, recording Knocked Out Loaded, touring with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, even doing a couple of ‘loose’ appearances with The Grateful Dead (check out the hilarious versions of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ & ‘Desolation Row’ from 7th July).
I imagine the Dylan & The Dead shows were proposed at the beginning of 1986, as Dylan’s guitar technician for the Dylan/Petty tour was Grateful Dead family member, David Nelson. (Nelson performed as a guest artist on Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty. He was the lead singer on The New Riders of the Purple Sage’s 1973 countercultural anthem, ‘Panama Red’) and he was already friends with Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead.
Prior to the 1987 Grateful Dead tour, Dylan ‘guested’ with U2, with George Harrison and Jesse Ed Davis at a Taj Mahal show; performed a great version of ‘Soon’ at a George Gershwin tribute, recorded the bulk of the songs that would make up Down In The Groove, co-wrote, played and sang on ‘Love Rescue Me’ with U2 (released on Rattle & Hum) and added harmonica to ‘The Factory’ by Warren Zevon (released on ‘Sentimental Hygiene’).
A busy bee but not a happy bunny. He was, by his own admission, seriously considering retirement:
“Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch the right nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces…Tom (Petty) was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”
Despite Dylan’s inner turmoil, on 1st June, he met up with the Grateful Dead at Club Front, San Rafael, CA, to rehearse for the upcoming tour.
The sessions did not start well, for Dylan at least:
“After an hour or so, it became clear to me that the band wanted to rehearse more and different songs than I had been used to doing … They wanted to run over all the songs, the ones they liked, the seldom seen ones. I found myself in a peculiar position and I could hear the brakes screech. If I had known this to begin with, I might not have taken the dates…”
“I found myself in the weird position of teaching Dylan his own songs. It’s just really strange! It was funny. He was great. He was so good about all this stuff. Weir wanted to do Desolation Row with him, y’know, and it’s got a million words. So Weir says, ‘Are you sure you’ll remember all the words?’ And Dylan says, ‘I’ll remember the important ones.’” –Jerry Garcia
After working through a number of songs and arrangements, Dylan excused himself from the studio, intending to ‘do a runner’, but accidentally saw a singer in a tiny jazz club and was stopped in his tracks:
“It was like the guy had an open window to my soul,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles, “I could feel how he worked at getting his power… This technique was so elemental, so simple and I’d forgotten.”
After the break, Dylan and The Dead started playing through some covers and songs Jerry Garcia had cherry-picked from Dylan’s back catalogue and “miraculously, something internal came unhinged.”
The circulating recordings of these rehearsals are extremely interesting. To hear Dylan and the Grateful Dead performing Paul Simon’s ‘Boy In The Bubble’ is one of the oddest and most fascinating things I’ve ever heard. I would register less surprise if One Direction covered ‘Idiot Wind’.
They run through a lot of songs on the recordings and the whole thing is massively entertaining. It’s not all brilliant, but it isn’t meant to be. They are not ‘performances’ as such, just run-throughs, recorded so everyone can listen and check they have ‘got’ the arrangement and to pick out the positives and negatives. There are a lot of positives and the banter suggests they got on together well.
There is a conversation off-mic about harmonica racks that is wonderful, with Dylan explaining his difficulty in finding modern harmonica racks that are to his satisfaction – “you gotta find the ones they made in the sixties…”
Also, despite Dylan’s statements (in Chronicles) about his own self-doubt at this time, he sounds relaxed and is clearly interested in the rehearsals.
Garcia commented affectionately on Dylan’s working methods:
“He’s funny… he doesn’t have a conception about two things that are very important in music: starting and ending a song…The middle of the song is great; the beginning and ending are nowhere.”
The beginning of Hank Williams’ ‘So Lonesome I Could Cry’ is a beautiful exception. Dylan’s harp, Garcia’s pedal steel and Bob Weir’s guitar are just lovely. They cook up a quiet magic that is mesmerizing. When they play like that, it seems a huge shame that they never recorded in a studio.
The old standard, ‘John Hardy’ features some truly lovely banjo from Jerry Garcia and the whole song is a pleasure and makes it even more irritating that Dylan & The Dead is the only record of their collaboration.
Bob Weir was less forgiving of Dylan’s idiosyncrasies than his band-mate:
“He was difficult to work with in as much as he wouldn’t want to rehearse a song more than two times, three at the most. And so we rehearsed maybe a hundred songs two or three times…This is sorta standard critique of the way he works.”
It is easy to see why the tour wasn’t a polished affair…the rehearsals seem like a lot of fun, but appear wholly unstructured. I’m not sure the fault can all be laid at Bob Dylan’s feet either. At one point, he clearly seems lost and in search of a direction:
“Where do you suppose we are in the set list?”
It is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.
The 1987 Tour
“You’re either a player, or you’re not a player. It didn’t occur to me until we did those shows with the Grateful Dead. If you just go out every three years or so like I was doing for a while, that’s when you lose touch. If you’re going to be a performer, you’ve got to give it your all.” – Dylan.
Silver jackets, hoodies, bushy beards, backward caps, and bandanas in the searing July heat, this was a drastic change from the tanned, lean and posing ‘Rock Star’ Dylan of 1986 and the ‘Hard To Handle’ footage.
Watching videos of the Dylan/Dead tour now, it looks like he enjoyed being part of a group, rather than the frontman with a backing band, as he had been with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. If he wasn’t feeling ‘at the top of his game’, then I’m sure he enjoyed the brief security of being with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.
Several of his performances are bizarre and seem to lack a required level of sobriety. By the mid to late 80s, Non-Disclosure Agreements were the norm, so the full extent and reality of the excesses will probably never be known to the general public, but, from my own extensive personal research into drugs and alcohol abuse, he definitely looks off his face at times.
I have been able to listen to, I think, every performance from that tour and although much of it was pretty loose, it isn’t as bad as the reviews led me to believe and there are a few performances that I really like.
‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ (July 24th) has Dylan looking happy and singing well, grinning and laughing at the harmonies with Bob Weir. It is great to hear and see Jerry Garcia focused on getting the best out of his Pedal Steel too. Everyone seems to be having a mighty good time, and Dylan forgets the words to the second verse and finds an incoherent rhyme to go with the stumble. The emphasized, drawn-out way he sings ‘bottle’ on the line ‘bring that bottle over here’ is a treat.
‘Man Of Peace’ (July 4th) is another good-time shake, rattle and roll with Dylan, resplendent in silver jacket, black vest and backwards flat cap, constantly grinning at Garcia, clearly having the time of his life. It is a bittersweet experience to see the obvious affection between the two men. He plays with the phrasing of the lyrics, constantly bopping and hopping along, and remembers all the lyrics. It is a pleasure to see Jerry Garcia so evidently happy. He plays some great guitar and although the song starts like a drunk man coming down a flight of stairs, it hits a tight groove and remains there until the rock n roll ending, after Brent Mydland’s swirling organ break.
In retrospect, Dylan has said that things changed for him on the tour:
“It happened… when I was playing some shows with the Grateful Dead. They wanted to play some of my songs that I hadn’t played in years and years… I really didn’t think I had a mind to do them, but when I began to play with the Grateful Dead… I really had some sort of epiphany then on how to do those songs again, using certain techniques that I had never thought about… I was kind of standing on a different foundation at that point and realized: I could do this. I found out I could do it effortlessly – that I could sing night after night after night and never get tired. I could project it out differently.” (RS 2001)
It is generally agreed by most Dylan ‘fans’ that this series of shows marked the start of what is still referred to as ‘The Never Ending Tour’.
The Released Album
“Do you think it needs more bass?” – Bob Dylan to Jerry Garcia while listening to mixes of tracks scheduled for inclusion on ‘Dylan & The Dead’.
The album was mixed by Jerry Garcia and John Cutler with some input from Dylan. Garcia commented on Dylan’s contribution in an interview with Rolling Stone:
“When you’re collaborating with Dylan and he says ‘Hey, I think that my voice is too out front,’ what am I going to do? Punch him? I’ll say ‘okay’ against my own instincts.”
Mickey Hart asked a good question:
“We were trying to back up a singer on songs no-one knew. It was not our finest hour, nor his. I don’t know why it was even made into a record.”
I can think of no reason to release a document of a 5 date, 2 year-old tour other than commercialism. The decision to release it cannot have been artistically motivated. While I’m not against people making money, I do think the customer deserves to receive a good quality product in exchange for their cash. I don’t think ‘Dylan & The Dead’ qualifies – especially given the great recordings that do exist. There is enough material in the rehearsal tapes to make an LP, which could have been a nice idea, mixed in with live performances.
Bob Dylan seems to be entirely responsible for the final running order of this album. Jerry Garcia and the band had several different performances lined up that they wanted to release, but Dylan inexplicably rejected them. “Wicked Messenger” and “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” were replaced (at Dylan’s behest) with tired, sloppy versions of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “All Along the Watchtower”, both of which had appeared more than once on a live Dylan album.
The album was scheduled to be:
John Brown, Slow Train & Joey (from FOXBORO 4 July)
Frankie Lee & Judas Priest, Rainy Day Women 12&35, Queen Jane Approximately & It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (from EUGENE 19 July)
Chimes of Freedom (from ANAHEIM 26 July)
The Wicked Messenger (JERSEY MEADOWLANDS 12 July)
The Released album is:
“Slow Train” (from Foxboro July 4)
“I Want You” (from Oakland July 24)
“Gotta Serve Somebody” (from Anaheim July 26)
“Queen Jane Approximately” (from Eugene July 19)
“Joey” (from Foxboro July 4)
“All Along the Watchtower” (from Anaheim July 26)
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (from Anaheim July 26)
No-one but a hard-core Dylan or Dead fan was ever going to buy this record, so why put the ‘hits’ on the end of it, while dismissing some genuinely great performances?
And as for ‘Joey’…why, why, why, why, why?
The actual sound of the original LP is poor, in my opinion, with very muted dynamics that seem to stifle any energy there might have been, and Dylan’s desire to bury his vocals in the mix doesn’t help.
Whatever the reasons for such poor choices, and the flat, muddy sound, it probably didn’t help that Dylan listened to the proposed tracks on a cheap cassette player before making his decisions, saying “Do you think it needs more bass?”
Dylan & Garcia
“Jerry was the only person who understood what it was like to be me.” – Bob Dylan.
On May 17th 1963, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia both played at the Monterey Folk & Blues Festival. Garcia was in The Wildwood Boys, along with Ken Frankel on mandolin, Robert Hunter on bass, and Dave Nelson on guitar. In fact, they won first place in the Amateur Bluegrass Open Competition and Garcia himself won an award for his banjo playing.
Legend has it that Jerry Garcia was so upset by Dylan’s lack of folk purity (he played ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’, ‘Masters Of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’ – more ‘protest’ than ‘folk’) that he left the festival early and only forgave and understood what Dylan was trying to do, lyrically and musically, when he listened to Bringing It All Back Home, in 1965. In a 1991 interview, Garcia said of Dylan:
“He gave rock ‘n’ roll the thing I’d wished it had when I was a kid – respectability, some authority. He took it out of the realm of ignorant guys banging away on electric instruments and put it somewhere else altogether.”
Dylan seems to have always been an admirer of The Grateful Dead though. Jann Wenner asked him, in 1969, about the new crop of San Francisco bands and Dylan mentioned the Grateful Dead.
JW: You like them?
BD: Sure do.
He also saw a Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers show at Jersey City’s ‘Roosevelt Stadium’ in 1972.
In October 1980, Dylan brought Garcia on stage at the Fox Warfield:
“Uh…here’s a young man… I know you know who he is. I’ve played with him a few times before. I’m a great admirer and fan of his and support his group all the way. Jerry Garcia. He’s gonna play with us, key of C.”
“That was what was interesting about playing with him…the tunes were difficult, man. The guys in the band were telling me that he changes them freely, and rehearsing is not necessarily security like in most situations, and then there’s this additional double- whammy that happens. When you’re playing with an artist who changes the material as you’re playing, you develop this deep-seated insecurity, because you have to pay attention all the time. You never know what’s happening; you don’t know whether a bridge is going to come up, whether he’s gonna use the same structure for whatever musical piece you’re about to enter. And the guys in the band were talking about how it works both ways with Dylan. They develop that insecurity because he performs them differently, and then he throws them further by then being consistent. It’s a very interesting space…”
Dylan appeared with the Grateful Dead on stage in Los Angeles in 1989 and at Madison Square Garden in 1994. Then in 1995, Dylan opened several shows for them, and on Sunday June 25, 1995, Jerry sat in with Dylan and his band during It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, and Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.
Dylan talked at length to Mojo Magazine, in 1998, about the positive effect The Grateful Dead had on him:
“They taught me to look inside these songs I was singing that, actually at the time of that tour, I couldn’t even sing. There were so many layers and so much water had gone round, that I had a hard time grasping the meaning of them… I realized that they understood these songs better than I did at the time.”
They clearly had a deep respect for, and musical effect on, each other. They shared a love of ‘folk’, ‘blues’, ‘country’ and ‘gospel’ music, and I think that may have been central to the bond between the two men.
As Jerry Garcia said about ‘Workingman’s Dead’:
“It was our attempt to say that we can play this kind of music – we can play music that’s heartland music. It’s something we do as well as we do anything.”
It might be that Jerry Garcia’s love of folk simplicity may have touched a heartland nerve in Bob Dylan, who told Mikal Gilmore:
“Folk music is where it all starts and in many ways ends. If you don’t have that foundation, or if you’re not knowledgeable about it and you don’t know how to control that and you don’t feel historically tied to it, then what you’re doing is not going to be as strong as it could be. That was what I was most interested in.”
Dylan covered many Garcia/Dead songs in concert, including “Deal”, “Alabama Getaway”, “Black Muddy Rivers” and “West L.A. Fade away”. His live cover of “Friend of the Devil” also appeared on the Grateful Dead tribute album, ‘Stolen Roses’.
Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead did versions of Dylan songs many times, in concert and on albums (‘Postcards Of The Hanging’ [2002 on Grateful Dead/Arista] and ‘Garcia Plays Dylan’ [2005 on Rhino]) and Dylan personally wrote Garcia a letter, asking if he would contribute to an album of Jimmie Rodgers songs that was being put together on Dylan’s label, Egyptian Records. ‘Blue Yodel #9’ would be the last recording Jerry Garcia made.
Dylan clearly enjoyed his songs performed by his friend:
“The Dead did a lot of my songs, and we’d just take the whole arrangement, because they did it better than me. Jerry Garcia could hear the song in all my bad recordings, the song that was buried there. So if I want to sing something different, I just bring out one of them Dead records and see which one I wanna do. I never do that with my records.”
Dylan and Garcia were obviously good friends, and the friendship was lived out away from cameras and reporters, but if you watch the 4th July, 1987 performance of ‘Man Of Peace’, you can see it as clear as day. Sadly, on 9th August 1995, Jerry Garcia passed away from a heart attack. He was only 53 years old.
“I know he’s missing Jerry Garcia…his first encore each night is Garcia and Hunter’s ‘Alabama Getaway.’ Plus, he’s singing about a dozen of his own songs in the styles the Dead performed them.” – Al Giordano, ‘On the road with Patti Smith and Bob Dylan’.
“There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or a player. I don’t think any eulogizing will do him justice. He was that great, much more than a superb musician, with an uncanny ear and dexterity. He’s the very spirit personified of whatever is Muddy River country at its core and screams up into the spheres. He really had no equal. To me, he wasn’t only a musician and friend, he was more like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know. There’s a lot of spaces and advances between The Carter Family, Buddy Holly and say Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated, hypnotic and subtle. There’s no way to convey the loss. It just digs down really deep”