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'Dylan & The Dead' Revisited
1987-07-12, Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ
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“The spirit of the songs had been getting further and further away from me. Probably because I’d been playing these songs with a lot of different bands, and they might not have understood them so well, you know what I mean? And it influences you. I know it influenced me until I started playing with the Dead and I realized that they understood these songs better than I did at the time.” - Bob Dylan, 1997 interview
"Quite possibly the worst album by either Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead," is how AllMusic's Tom Erlewine summed up 1989’s Dylan & The Dead. Robert Christgau, in the Village Voice when the album came out, wrote that Bob "makes of his catalogue here exactly what he's been making of it for years—money." Even the Dead's own drummer Mickey Hart didn't have anything good to say about it:
We were trying to back up a singer on songs that no one knew. It was not our finest hour, nor his. I don't know why it was even made into a record.
Few records in Dylan's cannon inspire as much derision as Dylan & The Dead. That scorn, though, often comes with an undercurrent of what-coulda-been. That six-show 1987 tour, some say, is far better than the album it spawned. Bob supposedly selected the worst possible performances, listening to the recordings on a crappy boombox and vetoing Garcia's more informed suggestions. "What am I going to do, pop him one?" Garcia said when questioned about Bob's ill-advised picks.
I've never spent much time listening to this tour, so I came into this East Rutherford show agnostic. I wanted to see if Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead was, as its live album would indicate, two great tastes that taste terrible together - or whether Bob had unfairly doomed a strong tour to the garbage pile of cultural memory.
But first, the quick backstory of the two artists. There are many excellent articles about Bob Dylan's history with the Grateful Dead. Rob Mitchum wrote one here just a few days ago. After that, I recommend reading "The Ballad of Spike and Jerry." Then, if you want to go further, there’s an entire book on the subject. So I'll just give you a one-sentence summary to get you up to speed:
Dylan began being spotted attending Dead shows as early as 1971, at one point telling Levon Helm, perhaps in jest, that he was planning to join the band - he wasn't joking when he actually asked to join them, but that was years later - but their first musical collaboration didn't come until 1980, when Jerry Garcia sat in at one of Bob's San Francisco gospel shows, laying the seeds for a collaboration which began to take root in 1986, when Dylan, backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, played some shows with the Grateful Dead as co-headliner, during which Bob sat in with the band twice, at some of the last shows before Garcia would fall into a diabetic coma, three days after the tour ended, no less, upon recovering from which Jerry promptly got back to work, meeting up with Dylan in January 1987 at their rehearsal space to hang out and jam - they supposedly played a great "Nowhere Man," which has to be better than the one time Bob performed it a few years later - and at which point Bob floated the idea of a joint tour later that same year.
Got all that?
Rehearsals for that ‘87 joint tour got underway in late spring and, as always seems to be the case when the Dead are involved, there are tapes. However, looking at the track listing is more exciting than actually listening to them.
Bob had spend the past decade largely sticking with the tried-and-true veteran act’s concert formula of new-songs-plus-hits (except when he dropped the "plus-hits" part on the gospel tours). He had shown limited interest in digging though his back catalog, even though he showed no such reluctance to rearrange the hits so dramatically they might as well have been deep cuts.
But the Dead got Dylan to try all sorts of songs he hadn't played in years - or ever.
They'd first broached this at the previous year’s two sit-ins, after which Garcia said, "I found myself in the weird position of teaching Dylan his own songs… 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.'" (Ron Howard voice: He didn't.)
When they tried again at the '87 rehearsals, Bob proved even less receptive. In Chronicles, he tells the story in some detail:
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 with Petty. 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 had no feelings for any of those songs and didn’t know how I could sing them with any intent. A lot of them might have been only sung once anyway, the time that they’d been recorded. There were so many that I couldn’t tell which was which—I might even get the words to some mixed up with others. I needed sets of lyrics to understand what they were talking about, and when I saw the lyrics, especially to the older, more obscure songs, I couldn’t see how I could get this stuff off emotionally.
So he ran away. He says he wasn't planning to return to rehearsals at all. But then, in a tale that seems a little tall (this is Chronicles, after all, where factual accuracy never gets in the way of a good story), he stops into a club, hears an old jazz singer who, for reasons that remain opaque, inspires him. So he goes back.
Returning to The Dead’s rehearsal hall as if nothing had happened, I picked it up where we had left off, couldn’t wait to get started — taking one of the songs that they wanted to do, seeing if I could sing it using the same method that the old singer used. I had a premonition something would happen. At first it was hard going, like drilling through a brick wall. All I did was taste the dust. But then miraculously something internal came unhinged. In the beginning all I could get out was a blood-choked coughing grunt and it blasted up from the bottom of my lower self, but it bypassed my brain. That had never happened before. It burned, but I was awake. The scheme wasn’t sewed up too tight, would need a lot of stitches, but I grasped the idea. I had to concentrate like mad because I was having to maneuver more than one stratagem at the same time, but now I knew I could perform any of these songs without them having to be restricted to the world of words. This was revelatory.
Again, the details on what Bob could do post-jazz singer that he couldn't do pre-jazz singer are a little hazy ("having to maneuver more than one stratagem at the same time"?), but the point is he goes from unwilling to try obscure songs to game for anything. The rehearsal tape is full of songs he’d never played before, both his own and covers, as well as songs that had never surfaced outside their era, like '79-'80 gospel numbers and early- '60s folk songs. Some of the rehearsed obscurities never even got played on the tour, including maybe the best of the bunch, "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” But plenty did.
The Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead tour kicked off July 4th outside Boston, then continued in Philadelphia six days later (the Dead played their own shows in between). On July 12th, it hit Giants Stadium.
The Dead opened the show with two sets. That's one thing the live album obscures: these concerts featured a lot more Dead than they did Dylan. Two full sets from the Dead before Bob came on, and then an entire third set with him (no solo acoustic numbers like he'd done on the Heartbreakers tour). The abundance of Dead was probably not a problem for most of the audience; they were a far bigger concert draw, and it seems a fair guess that more of Giants Stadium was there to see them than Dylan.
I like to look at the concerts as a whole when I can get a copy of the other band(s)' recordings, like I did with the Stones and Van/Joni shows. With the Dead, that's easy - despite it saying “absolutely no taping of any kind” on the ticket for this show (like that’s going to stop a Deadhead!) Their sets actually got officially released recently as part of a Giants Stadium box set.
One caveat before I discuss the Dead’s sets: I suspect many of you are more fluent in the Dead's live history than I. (What little I do know mostly comes from the podcast 36 from the Vault and Jesse Jarnow's Twitter, both of which I recommend even if you are only Dead-curious like me.) Nevertheless, I will blindly stumble forward and hope that the experts among you will avoid incurring permanent ocular damage from the inevitable eye-rolls.
My first surprise in the Dead's two pre-Bob sets: They don't really jam. Sure, songs get extended solos, and some segue into one another, but they never get too exploratory. Look at the runtimes alone. Only one song tops ten minutes: the 10:09 "Mountain Dew" that opens set two (and which, after reading fan reviews, I gather is considered the high point). Maybe it's more-fool-me for buying into the never-true stereotype that every Dead song is going to venture into outer space for twenty minutes, but they seem to knock out a whole lot of songs in a relatively efficient fashion. This music doesn't get far out. It stays in.
Maybe that's the era or maybe it's the environment. This appears to be a party show, appropriate for a giant stadium - make that a Giants Stadium - where nuance and subtlety could get lost. The energy stays high, never slowing enough to let the band get particularly psychedelic. They perform crowd-pleasing covers Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. In an audacious move, they also cover Bob Dylan, "When I Paint My Masterpiece.” I hope they asked the headliner first!
A good chunk of the setlist comes from their new album In the Dark, which had come out only six days prior. They played five of the eight songs, though fans might have been surprised that "Touch of Grey," which had recently premiered on MTV and was already on its way to becoming the biggest chart hit of the band's career, didn't make an appearance. Not during their sets, at least - they saved it for an encore with Bob, to which he contributed next to nothing (only the video confirms his presence on stage).
Personally, I find their sets a perfectly pleasant listen (other than the unendurable "Drums">"Space"), but can't imagine this show swaying anyone into become a dye-hard Deadhead. It didn't me, at least. And, if you don't true my inexpert opinion, I'll give the final word to Howard Weiner, author of the aforementioned Dylan/Dead book who attended over 150 Dead shows, including this one: "nothing exceptional.”
But the Dead's sets are, of course, a historical footnote. The Grateful Dead played thousands of shows. Bob Dylan plus the Grateful Dead played only six.
This third show was, according to general consensus, the best. Miles better than Dylan & the Dead the album, some say. Certainly Garcia thought so; his picks for the live album featured this show heavily (you can hear a Garcia-driven Dylan & the Dead here). So, they key question, is this show actually better than the live album?
Here's my unsatisfyingly hedgy answer: A little, maybe. You can certainly nitpick Bob’s Dylan & the Dead song selections - why pick a "Joey" where you didn't even remember the words? - but after listening to this, I'd say the album’s reasonably representative of the tour. It's mostly the lows, but the highs don’t get much higher. I frankly came in hoping I'd be telling a grand redemption story, but this show doesn’t inspire grand thoughts on anything. Not a trainwreck (other than the horrible hat Bob's wearing, that is), but, to mix vehicular metaphors, it never achieves liftoff either.
The tragedy is that Bob seems to be really trying. Many disappointing Dylan shows come from Bob sleepwalking through the set. Not this one. He appears to be giving it his all. His all, unfortunately, just isn't that much.
Vocally, he defaults to energetic shouting that veers into unhinged, as he's trying to fill Giants Stadium without amplification. That approach can work - I like the urgency it gives "John Brown" - but the Grateful Dead are not built for shouting. You ever seen that Saturday Night Live sketch where Fred Armison's punk band reunites at his daughter's wedding? That's the vibe here. Bob's the punk band; the Grateful Dead is the wedding.
And can we really blame the Grateful Dead for not matching Dylan’s energy? Bob knew what they sounded like when he hired them, yet he appears determined to prevent them from doing their thing. Garcia gets plenty of short solos, but there's no real jamming to speak of. Why hire the Grateful Dead and then not let them be the Grateful Dead? If Bob wanted a punk band, I'm sure The Plugz were still free.
I typically try to stay away from too much talk about setlist minutia, which can get pretty boring for non-superfans, but in this case that is the best thing by far. This show alone featured the live debut of "The Wicked Messenger" and the first "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" in a decade. Both songs would appear with some regularity in years to come, as would most of the other songs the Dead cajoled Bob into dusting off. Sure, these specific performances of most of those songs were lackluster. But, in the long run, that didn't matter. The Dead forced him out of that greatest-hits-plus-new-songs rut. It’s no exaggeration to say that this mediocre-at-best tour changed the course of Bob's career.
Eleven months after this show, Dylan began the Never Ending Tour - and he himself has made clear many times that the timing is no coincidence. "You're either a player or you're not a player," he told Robert Hilburn in 1991. "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 gotta give it your all."
His all frankly wasn't real impressive at this Giants Stadium show. But it started him down the path where, soon enough, it would be.