Show Me Something Built to Last - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


Show Me Something Built to Last

few days after New Year’s, Jerry, Mountain Girl, Trixie and Annabelle flew to Kona, Hawaii, for a couple of weeks of relaxation and fun in the sun. The Garcias had first gone to Hawaii together in November 1986, when Jerry was still recovering from the diabetic coma, and everyone had fallen in love with the Big Island’s natural beauty and lazy pace. That year he took a helicopter tour of the Kilauea volcano, hung around the pool at the posh Mauna Kea resort and spent time regaining his health and reconnecting with M.G. and the kids. A few Hawaii trips later, after his strength had returned, Jerry took up scuba diving, which became one of the great passions of his later life.

“It takes up some of the space that drugs left, insofar as it’s like going to a different world,” he said in early 1992, when he was already a veteran diver. “You’re in a different place. It’s very sensual. There’s lots of new information there, a lot of levels, a lot of things to think about. And physically it’s good for you. But it satisfies that thing of going to space. You’re in a place where there’s no gravity, you’re surrounded by a whole raft of interesting new life-forms, many of which are interactive. You can’t go to the forest and pet raccoons, but you can go into the water and pet eels and octopuses and things. I do things I would never have believed I was capable of doing diving. I really love it; it’s an amazing experience.”

“What he really loved about it was the freedom of the water,” daughter Annabelle says. “He and I went a couple of times together. You spend most of your life overweight and kind of low energy and doing bad things to yourself, and then you get in the water and you can pretty much do whatever you want and go wherever you want without worrying about the physical aspects. I remember him saying many times, ‘It’s better than taking drugs. It’s better than psychedelics. It’s a living theater of psychedelia; just incredibly beautiful.’”

In the late ’80s and early ’90s Garcia went to Hawaii whenever he had a gap of a few weeks in his insanely demanding schedule. The Hawaii vacations were his chance to really get away from the pressures of his everyday life and also, as time went on, occasions to socialize with his friends. On one trip to Kauai, Bob Weir came along. On another Big Island excursion it was Steve Parish’s family. Bob and Maureen Hunter went over and at Jerry’s insistence got their scuba certification, as did Laird Grant, Phil and Jill Lesh and others. Garcia was intoxicated with Hawaii and diving and wanted to share it with the people he loved.

At the end of March the Dead went out on their first big tour of 1988, which took them to arenas on the East Coast and the Midwest. The shows sold out almost immediately in every city, and up and down the tour route, municipalities gritted their teeth and braced for the Deadhead onslaught that was certain to materialize when the band hit town. Though few ugly episodes occurred, there were still numerous complaints about unruly crowds outside the venues, and in several cities there were calls from local government officials to ban the group.

So beginning in the summer of 1988, the Dead sent a small squad into the parking lots to try to educate people about behaving responsibly—what became known as “Deadiquette.” They organized groups of volunteers to pick up trash in the parking lots after shows and filled notebooks with ideas from Deadheads about how to better control the scene. After each show, the liaison crew prepared a report outlining problems they’d seen or that had been reported to them, and in many cases they made recommendations about how things might be improved at the next stop on the tour. The bandmembers themselves took a keen interest in the reports, and they did what they could, too—they taped radio messages asking the fans to behave nicely.

Unfortunately, these preemptive maneuvers seemed mainly to reach the faithful rather than the rabble. Nearly everywhere the Dead went that summer there were problems, ranging from horrendous traffic snarls—at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin, some 20,000 people without tickets showed up—to minor gate-crashing incidents in Hampton, Virginia, and the Meadowlands in New Jersey. In Saratoga there was considerable violence when hundreds of fans stormed the fences surrounding the venue and were beaten back by panicky police.

To their credit, the bandmembers never let the intense drama that was swirling around every venue they played affect their music. Rather, they continued to improve with each tour. In general there was more jamming in 1988 than there had been in 1987, and an infusion of new material around midyear took the group into some interesting new spaces.

Garcia introduced two new songs at Alpine Valley in June. “Foolish Heart” was an immediate hit with most Deadheads, in part because it was the first Hunter-Garcia tune since “Shakedown Street” in 1978 that was clearly designed to open up to jamming. It was a clever tune, too, with a lilting melody and a flowing, slightly sensuous midtempo pace not too far removed from “Franklin’s Tower.” The arrangement felt relaxed and airy, yet there was also a fairly sophisticated web of interlocking lines and subrhythms being laid down by the entire band, basically for the entire song.

The lyrics were classic Hunter: in each verse Garcia instructs us to undertake some impossible, unwise or absurd task, then in the last line of each verse he sings, “But never give your love, my friend, unto a foolish heart”:

Shun, shun a brother and a friend

Never look, never look around the bend

Or check a weather chart

Sign the Mona Lisa

With a spray can, call it art

But never give your love, my friend

Unto a foolish heart

“I don’t even know whether ‘Never give your love, my friend, to a foolish heart’ is decent advice,” Garcia said. “I had some trouble with Hunter about that. I said, ‘Do we really want to be telling people this?’ I mean, sometimes it’s fun to get involved in something completely frivolous. The tone of the song is definitely ironic, but that goes over most people’s heads. That doesn’t surprise me anymore. A lot of songs we do are ironic in tone and people don’t understand that.

“For me, though, ‘Foolish Heart’ is not about the text,” he continued. “It’s about the flow of the song. There’s something about it that’s charming, but as usual I don’t exactly know why. I like that it’s got a sort of asymmetrical melody that’s very natural-sounding. That part of it is successful from my point of view.”

Garcia’s other new song was a slow ballad called “Believe It or Not,” a love song Hunter described as “a C&W lyric reminiscent of the kind of stuff I remember hearing from tavern jukeboxes in 1948, when my father would stop in to have a few while I waited out in the car.” Hunter casts Garcia in the role of a simple guy who’s seen a lot of hard times (“Done time in the lockup / Done time on the street / Done time on the upswing / and time in defeat”) and now longs for the simplicity of a blissful reciprocal love

Musically, the song was one of Garcia’s most derivative efforts. It appropriated its main melodic motif from his own “Gomorrah,” and both the glacial pace and Garcia’s understated vocal phrasing were reminiscent of “Lucky Old Sun,” which he performed often with the Jerry Garcia Band during this period. It even had a big, swelling R&B-style vocal ending that someone like Ray Charles could have had a field day with. Original or not, the song did have a certain quiet power. Garcia performed the song only seven times (six times in 1988 and once in 1990), so on some level it must not have worked for him. It remains a little-known curio for the most part, one of the few songs Hunter and Garcia wrote together that was never given a chance to develop much beyond its first versions.

When the Dead hit the road in September for a nearly monthlong tour, they tried something a little different, playing multiple nights in just three different venues—four each at the Capitol Centre in Maryland (outside of Washington, D.C.) and the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and then an unprecedented nine concerts at Madison Square Garden. This, naturally, cut down on the amount the band had to travel, and it also helped satisfy the incredible demand for tickets in three of the group’s biggest markets.

Actually, Manhattan was one of the few places the Dead played regularly where the Deadhead presence wasn’t a major nuisance—since the city is so inhospitable to begin with, and expensive to boot, the shows at the Garden didn’t attract the caravans of dilapidated cars filled with would-be campers that stops on the summer tour did. Hanging out on 34th Street didn’t offer much to ticketless tourheads, and the presence of so many New York policemen, some on horeseback, discouraged the usual carnival atmosphere outside the arena. Occasionally little parties would spring up in parking garages on side streets near the Garden, but it was a far cry from the scene that developed at, say, Alpine Valley.

Which is not to say that things were any less festive inside the Garden. At this series in particular, the energy surrounding the shows seemed unusually high. Part of it was the sheer length of the run, which was the Dead’s longest since the 1980 Radio City stint. Producer John Scher made sure that anyone traveling past the Garden during the eleven days the Dead were in the city knew who had taken over that West Side neighborhood—over the entrance he put up a thirty-foot inflatable King Kong, decked out for the occasion in a Kong-sized tie-dyed shirt; quite a sight.

Garcia once said that playing New York under any circumstances was “a sweat,” in part because the fans there were so demanding: “It’s like Bill Graham used to say—they want the sword swallower, they want the juggler. In New York they really want you to sock ’em with the rock ’n’ roll. I mean, they’re tough!” Garcia laughed. The fall 1988 Garden shows were even more draining than usual because the final concert of the series was a big, high-profile, multiartist benefit that required lots of planning, preparation, promotion and rehearsal. Though the Dead had played countless benefits over the years, and in the ’80s had donated money to dozens of groups through the Rex Foundation, the Garden benefit was different: It was designed to be both a money- and consciousness-raising event centered on a specific issue, namely protecting the world’s rapidly vanishing rain forests.

According to Garcia, “It took us a good two years of pretty hard ferreting to find out who are the real actors in the environmental movement on a global level, especially having to do specifically with the rain forest. Once you find those, it’s easier to focus on what you’re going to do and what you’re going to raise money for and so on.” Most of the money was earmarked for three groups involved in direct action on rain forest issues—Greenpeace, Cultural Survival (which deals primarily with people indigenous to the rain forests) and the Rainforest Action Network.

On the morning of the Dead’s first Madison Square Garden concert, Garcia, Weir and Hart, along with representatives from each of those organizations and the head of the United Nations Environment Program, held a news conference at the UN to articulate their concerns. Garcia tried to explain why the notoriously anti-political Grateful Dead had gotten involved:

“We’ve never really called on our fans, the Deadheads, to align themselves one way or another as far as any political cause is concerned because of a basic paranoia about leading someone. We don’t want to be the leaders, and we don’t want to serve unconscious fascism. Power is a scary thing. When you feel that you are close to it, you want to make sure that it’s not misleading. So all this time we’ve avoided making any statements about politics, about alignments of any sort. This is even true of the notion of giving, and things like that—mercy. But this is, we feel, an issue strong enough and life-threatening enough that inside the world of human games, where people really torture each other and overthrow countries and there’s a lot of murder and hate, there’s the larger question of global survival. We want to see the world survive to play those games, even if they’re atrocious.”

Given all the extramusical activity surrounding the Garden run, it’s not too surprising that a few of the shows were slightly sub-par, and that by the time the benefit concert rolled around, the band seemed a little tired and Garcia’s voice was almost completely shot—the entire night he could hardly manage much beyond a scratchy croak. Fortunately, there were plenty of other musicians on hand to take up the slack, including former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, New York singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega (a favorite of Garcia’s), Bruce Hornsby and Philadelphia soulsters Hall and Oates. The concert was not the complete artistic success it might have been had Garcia not been fatigued and plagued with throat troubles, but it earned more than $600,000 for the rain forest groups and generated plenty of publicity for the cause.

On the Dead’s fall 1988 Southern swing, Garcia premiered a new song, “Built to Last,” which became the title song for the Dead’s next album a year later. A pleasant midtempo tune, it seemed to be Hunter’s meditation on the Dead’s longevity, at once directed at the band and, through Garcia’s voice, its fans:

There are times when you can beckon

There are times when you must call

You can take a lot of reckoning

But you can’t take it all

There are times when I can help you out

And times when you must fall

There are times when you must live in doubt

And I can’t help at all

Three blue stars / Rise on the hill

Say no more, now / Just be still

All these trials / Soon be past

Look for something / Built to last

Shortly after the tour, the band began working on the follow-up album to In the Dark, even though at that point they barely had a full album’s worth of material: three Hunter-Garcia tunes (“Foolish Heart,” “Believe It or Not,” “Built to Last”), three Brent Mydland-John Barlow songs (the rowdy rockers “Blow Away” and “Gentlemen Start Your Engines,” and a pretty ballad dedicated to Brent’s little girls, called “I Will Take You Home”) and just one Weir-sung effort, “Victim or the Crime.” At first the band tried the same recording approach that had worked so well on In the Dark, cutting basic tracks live onstage at the Marin Vets, but there was something about the new songs that didn’t lend themselves to that method. So they abandoned that hall and moved out to secluded northwestern Marin County to private, rural Skywalker Ranch, where producer-director George Lucas had built a state-of-the-art recording studio that was already becoming famous for its huge “live” room. By year’s end, though, not much serious work had been done on the record and the bandmembers were already talking about trying some other approach.

At the first Dead concert of 1989, at Kaiser Convention Center in February, Garcia introduced a song that would quickly develop into one of the greatest works of his “late” period. “Standing on the Moon” was another simple, achingly slow ballad (which immediately put off fans hoping for the next “Scarlet Begonias” to emerge), a poignant meditation on isolation, detachment and, ultimately, companionship. On the literal level, it depicts an astronaut on the moon, “watching” the travails of the Earth hundreds of thousands of miles away:

I see all of Southeast Asia

I can see El Salvador

I hear the cries of children

And the other songs of war

It’s like a mighty melody

That rings down from the sky

Standing here upon the moon

I watch it all roll by

All roll by, All roll by, All roll by

By the song’s conclusion, though, the homesick main character longs to be “somewhere in San Francisco / On a back porch in July / Just looking up to heaven / At this crescent in the sky.” And in the emotional close of the song, Garcia sings, “Standing on the moon with nothing left to do / A lovely view of heaven / But I’d rather be with you / Be with you / I’d rather be with you… .” The song would build dramatically during this coda, with Garcia repeating “be with you” over and over again, a blast of Van Morrison-style raving that never failed to excite the crowd.

Hunter said, “‘Standing on the Moon’ was one of those neat, sweet quick things, like ‘It Must Have Been the Roses,’ where the whole picture just came to me, and I grabbed a piece of paper and got it down. No changes, no nothin’. Out of the head of Zeus, full-born and clad in armor.”

“Every once in a while Hunter delivers a lyric that is just absolutely clear in its intent,” Garcia commented of the song. “I thought it would be really nice to do a song that you only have to hear one time and you’ll get it. You don’t have to listen to it hundreds of times or wonder what it’s about… . There’s something I like about it very much. It’s an emotional reality; it isn’t linguistics. It’s something about that moment of the soul. To have those words coming out of my mouth puts me in a very specific place, and there’s a certain authenticity there that I didn’t want to disturb.”

The Dead’s spring 1989 tour was generally quite strong musically—particularly the newer material, which the band had been honing in the studio. But again there were numerous incidents outside their concerts that tainted the tour and earned the Dead even more bad press. In Pittsburgh there was a rock- and bottle-throwing melee as 3,000 people without tickets fought with police. In Cincinnati there were more than seventy arrests. There was fighting outside Irvine Meadows Amphitheater again. Even in the Bay Area, which had been spared most of the major problems associated with the overpopulation of the Dead scene, there were enough ugly incidents outside shows in 1989 that the Dead were effectively banned from the three nicest venues they played: the Greek Theater, Frost Amphitheater and Kaiser Convention Center. In the ’90s, hometown shows would be played exclusively in the drab Oakland Coliseum Arena and the 20,000-seat Shoreline Amphitheater, forty minutes south of San Francisco.

That spring, too, the Dead abandoned their effort to cut their new album at Skywalker Ranch, and the action moved to Club Front and a different recording technique: building up from strong rhythm tracks, with each player recording separately and alone—the antithesis of recording together as a group.

“What we did,” Garcia explained, “was we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the right tempo for the tune was going to be, and then we took a piece of tape and a dumb-shit drum machine, and set up a basic feeling for the tune on a drum machine; like an enhanced click track… . So we set that up and ran it the length of the tune. So say a tune has two verses, two bridges, an instrumental bridge, another sung chorus. We set the length of the rhythm track to that idea, and then Bob and I and Phil and Brent would work together with that to get a sense of how the song would hang together. Then, once we had essentially established the length and the tempo, we started working on it individually. So Bob would go home and work on his guitar part until he felt he had one that was really successful, and so on.”

This process went on for several months, as the bandmembers continually changed their parts in relation to each other’s new musical ideas. This way, rather than having numerous different takes of each song, everyone essentially worked on a continually evolving single take. The main advantage to working this way was that the players could work at their own pace and to whatever degree of perfection they desired. Because they weren’t ever all playing at once, each of them could really listen to the parts the others had played and put more thought into what they were trying to accomplish. As Garcia said, “The process of developing and updating, based on what you hear and what effect your part has on everybody else’s playing, was speeded up tremendously by using slave reels [work copies made from the master tape].”

Garcia and John Cutler produced the record, which meant they were the ultimate arbiters of when the potentially endless process of overdubbing reactive parts was actually finished. Considering this method of working, the finished album, Built to Last, sounded surprisingly live; or at the very least like a band all playing at once. Garcia proclaimed himself very happy with the record, even preferring it to the mega-successful In the Dark.

“[Built to Last] is a lot more considerate of the material, and it’s much more of a record in that each song has its own personality in a more controlled kind of way,” he said shortly after the CD was released. “The fundamental sound of things is better, and also, the space in which they occur [the ambience] is better. It has better vocals and better songs, too. And the songs have an energy we haven’t been able to get in the studio for quite a long time.”

The final song list for the record had changed considerably as the album evolved. Garcia dropped “Believe It or Not” and added “Standing on the Moon” in addition to “Foolish Heart” and the title song. Bob Weir contributed “Victim or the Crime” and “Picasso Moon.” The big surprise was that Brent had four songs, the most of anyone: “I Will Take You Home,” “Blow Away” and two new songs, the ecology-minded anthem “We Can Run” and the snaky, dramatic “Just a Little Light.”

“You always go with whatever your strong suit is, and in this case it was Brent that had the good songs—I mean, more of ’em,” Garcia said. “Brent’s getting to be more comfortable with the band. He sees it being as much his band as everybody else’s. So it’s just the thing of getting over the ‘new guy’ thing.”

Still the “new guy” after ten years?

“Ten years, right,” Garcia laughed. “He’s been pretty conservative about getting comfortable in it, but now—I mean, [on] this record it’s nice to be able to show off what he can do on a lot of different levels. And his contribution to this record is really outstanding all over. Not just his tunes and vocals, but everything else—all the keyboard parts and just ideas and general stuff.”

The album also benefited from the judicious use of MIDI technology, which allowed the musicians to move away from the regular timbres of their instruments into exciting new realms. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a system that allows different electronic instruments and devices to share information, often in the form of prerecorded “samples” of sounds, which can be called up and manipulated by a controller such as a guitar, keyboard or a drum pad. So, at the flip of a switch, Garcia’s guitar or Brent’s keyboard could sound like a fiddle or a saxophone or church bells or wind—the possibilities were limitless. Garcia called MIDI “a whole new language.” Since Bob Bralove had joined the band’s technical staff in mid-1987, he’d worked with each player individually to develop his MIDI system. Brent and the drummers were the first to be up and running, but by the spring of 1989 the guitarists were experimenting with MIDI sounds onstage, too—at first they used special MIDI guitars during “space” (always the band’s great testing ground) before switching back to their normal axes.

In one night’s “space,” Garcia might toy with the sound of a massive pipe organ; in another he became a third “drummer” for a few moments. He played MIDI panpipes and bassoon and ethereal choral washes that made his guitar sound like the breath of angels. “I’ve started to do some stuff on ballads that’s kind of interesting,” he said in the early fall of ’89, “where I’ll add little [MIDI] voicings against the guitar so it’s not actually adding to the guitar note, but sort of adding a halo around the sound. Some of it is very subtle.”

After initially using his MIDI sounds exclusively during “space,” Garcia began incorporating new sounds into some regular Grateful Dead material. On “Let It Grow” and “Mexicali Blues” he would often use a trumpet sound and mimic mariachi phrasing. The jams in “Bird Song” and “Playing in the Band” lent themselves to breathy “flute” flights by Garcia. If he occasionally overdid the MIDI effects in fall ’89 and spring ’90, it was only because he was excited and amused by the novelty of it. And when Garcia, Lesh and Weir would go wild during “space,” dialing up one bizarre sound after another, the results were often hilarious. But they could just as easily turn ominous and downright frightening, too. It was difficult for the audience to tell who was playing what when the players dove deep into the MIDI zone, and that became part of the band’s special fun: to mess with the crowd’s expectations by having Phil, for instance, play a flute sound while Bob was somehow causing the basslike earthquake rumble.

Garcia’s MIDI “trumpet” made it onto two songs on Built to Last: on Brent’s “I Will Take You Home,” which was essentially a “trumpet”-piano duet; and the title song, where Garcia’s high-pitched part sounded like a Baroque piccolo trumpet—“that Purcell ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ sound,” he said.

* * *

In the spring of 1989 Garcia had told a writer that seeing music in a stadium is “not a pleasant experience generally. I don’t see why anyone would go to more than one of those shows myself.” Nevertheless, when the summer of ’89 rolled around, the Dead booked a number of stadium shows in the East and Midwest to satisfy ticket demand. To their credit, the band did what they could to make these cold, impersonal venues more hospitable: They developed a bigger sound system to deliver louder, cleaner sound. They hired a Polish artist named Jan Sawka to design colorful banners and cloth panels to hang from the huge stage’s proscenium and wings. Lighting director Candace Brightman devised some new lighting schemes to creatively illuminate the stage and Sawka’s giant panel paintings of trees, suns, moons and odd faces. Like so many bands that make it to the stadium level, the Dead added large video screens to bring the action closer to more people. And at each stadium they booked an opening band they knew most Deadheads would like—Los Lobos, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, or 10,000 Maniacs.

The tour itself was a grand success, though two of the stadium shows (in Buffalo and Washington, D.C.) did not sell out. Actually, this was considered good news among Deadheads, because it was the first sign that the craziness that had been following the Dead since the summer of 1987 was finally beginning to subside. In general, there were fewer crowd problems on the tour than on the previous two summer outings, in part because it rained so much that hanging around the shows was too unpleasant for many people.

The Dead played sensationally for most of the summer, particularly once the stadium part of the tour ended. Their concerts at a brand-new rural Indiana amphitheater called Deer Creek, and at the beloved Alpine Valley, were consistently inspired. Garcia’s playing was charged with electricity: with each tour following his coma in ’86, he became increasingly forceful and confident, his fingering faster and more dexterous, his solos more tonally varied, imaginative and well-constructed. Some of the best playing of Garcia’s career occurred between 1988 and the spring of 1990, and the rest of the band was right there with him—always getting stronger, constantly upping the intensity level of the whole.

When the Grateful Dead got on a roll like this they were an unstoppable force of nature. When they were playing their best they entered a zone that can be described only as a form of perfection—where every note felt both technically and emotionally right, and the musicians’ individual parts and rhythmic choices meshed seamlessly to create a great, ever-changing gestalt. It wasn’t something the Dead could conjure exactly, because it depended on innumerable factors—the moment-to-moment disposition of each player; whether his equipment was functioning properly so that he could hear himself and the others; the appropriateness of the song selections to the overall feeling of the show; each member’s sensitivity to what everyone else was playing; the responsiveness of the crowd. But when it was happening and everything was clicking, it was apparent to just about everybody; you couldn’t miss it. The Dead used to say that at those times, the music played the band, meaning that as a group they were operating beyond cognition and intention—beyond the mechanics of simply playing well—to a nearly effortless state of grace, where the music was speaking through them rather than from them. It was completely tangible to both band and audience, yet also inexplicable. It had to do with being in the moment completely and surrendering to the course that the music was taking.

Garcia struggled to explain it in a 1990 interview: “For me, the experience is one of tremendous clarity. I can see the people in the audience and everybody in the band and there’s nothing between me and it; my own thoughts aren’t between me and it, my own effort isn’t between me and it; my ambition, all of my personal baggage… . That is to say, it’s not like thinking, it’s not cerebral, but it’s not purely emotional, either. I experience it as a kind of transparency, and it’s very, very easy when you get to that place. It’s impossible to make a wrong decision. In fact, the music is kind of playing itself in a way because I’m not making decisions about where I’m gonna be anymore or where I’m gonna end up or how long a phrase is gonna last or any of that. I’m just goin’ with it and everybody else is, too.

“You kind of have to trust it,” he continued. “It’s like an invisible bridge over a huge chasm and if you don’t look down, you’ll be okay. Trust it, just put one foot in front of another and say, ‘It’s there! No matter what it looks like, the bridge is there and I’m walking across it.’ There’s that quality to it… .

“It’s tough to talk about. I’ve gone all over the place looking for metaphors, but it always ends up being gibberish. You know—‘What the hell’s this guy tryin’ to say?’ It doesn’t lend itself to articulation very well. But musicians know about this stuff and [so does] anybody who’s ever done something where being ‘on’ counts.”

On the summer and fall tours in 1989 the band was clearly energized by their newer material—particularly the odd, angular “Victim or the Crime,” “Foolish Heart” and “Standing on the Moon.” And the overall quality of their playing was so consistently high that Garcia felt confident enough to dig into the band’s songbook to pull out a few old treats for the Deadheads, the majority of whom had never seen the band before the mid-’80s. That summer, the group ended several shows with a cappella versions of “We Bid You Goodnight,” which the Dead hadn’t played since the ’70s. The next revival was “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” missing from the repertoire since 1970, in a slightly different arrangement that had Garcia, Weir and Mydland each singing a verse, instead of Garcia carrying the entire song vocally.

But the Dead saved their most cherished nuggets for their October East Coast tour, which began with two hastily arranged, completely unpublicized (to keep away the touring rabble) “guerrilla” shows at Hampton Coliseum in Virginia, where the Dead were billed as “Formerly the Warlocks.” Garcia brought back several favorites: “Help on the Way” and “Slipknot” were joined again with “Franklin’s Tower” for the first time since 1985. “Dark Star” had been played just twice in the early ’80s before the band eased into it the second night at Hampton to the deafening, ecstatic cheers of the lucky 15,000 mainly local fans who had managed to get “Warlocks” tickets. Both “Help on the Way/Slipknot” and “Dark Star” benefited tremendously from the group’s MIDI setups because the open-endedness of those tunes encouraged the band to experiment freely with different timbres and textures. Deadheads attached to the sound of the early Grateful Dead argue that the versions of “Dark Star” the band played in the ’80s and ’90s lacked the vision, imagination and commitment to true weirdness of the song’s late-’60s and early-’70s counterparts. Better or worse, it was certainly a different animal in its later incarnations, but its function was unchanged—it provided a framework for sonic exploration—and the exquisite simplicity of the basic melody was no less evocative in 1989 than it had been in 1969.

The final chestnut Garcia brought back at Hampton was perhaps the most surprising—“Attics of My Life,” dormant since 1972 and extremely rare even in the early ’70s. Here was a tune almost none of the band’s current fans had ever heard performed live, and for the first time ever, the group had a harmony blend that brought out the full passion and power of the American Beauty version. The song fit neatly in the late-second-set Garcia ballad slot that was usually reserved for darker, more sobering meditations; by contrast, “Attics” was an uplifting, compassionate hymn—another glimpse of the otherworldly psychic landscape shared by the band and its fans:

In the secret space of dreams

Where I dreaming lay amazed

When the secrets all are told

And the petals all unfold

When there was no dream of mine

You dreamed of me

On Halloween, five days after the end of the Dead’s East Coast tour, Built to Last was released by Arista Records. Like nearly every other Grateful Dead album, it proved to be a strong out-of-the-box seller, helped no doubt by the unprecedented success of In the Dark. But sales tapered off quickly. Arista was never able to break a single from the record (“Foolish Heart” was the only song to get substantial airplay); reviews were mainly negative (the honeymoon between the press and the Dead in the wake of Garcia’s recovery had long since ended; now the Dead were regarded as dinosaurs with boorish fans); and even many Deadheads dismissed the record because it contained more Brent tunes than Hunter-Garcia songs. MTV, which had loved the “Touch of Grey” video so much, failed to embrace Gary Gutierrez’s equally imaginative treatment of “Foolish Heart,” and completely ignored Gutierrez’s moody performance lip-synch video for Brent’s “Just a Little Light.” Even so, Built to Last sold more than 800,000 copies in the first six months, which would have been considered phenomenal in the days before In the Dark. And all over the country, Deadheads let out a sigh of relief that there wasn’t going to be another hit of the magnitude of “Touch of Grey” to bring in thousands of new fans from the mainstream.

The same day Built to Last was released, Garcia played a gig at the Concord Pavilion, an hour east of San Francisco, with the Jerry Garcia Band. This had been a great year for that group, too. The freshness and vigor that marked Garcia’s playing with the Dead carried over to the JGB, elevating the entire band in the process. There were a pair of new additions to the already extensive repertoire of cover tunes: John Kahn dug up “I Hope It Won’t Be This Way Always” from a late-’70s record by a Philadelphia-based group called the Angelic Gospel Singers; and JGB singer Gloria Jones suggested Garcia tackle Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn’s moving 1986 tune “Waiting for a Miracle,” which became one of Jerry’s favorites for a while.

As usual, most of the JGB’s gigs in 1989 were in California, but the band also made one two-week foray into the East and Midwest in September, playing many of the same venues the Dead frequented—the Spectrum, the Meadowlands in New Jersey, Hartford Civic, Alpine Valley, Poplar Creek in Illinois. This was the first time the Garcia Band had undertaken an entire tour of larger venues, and the move was viewed with some skepticism by Deadheads who thought of the JGB as a club and small theater band, not an arena act. Sweetening the pot for the fans was the addition of the duo of Bob Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman as opening act for the tour. And at four of the shows the JGB was joined by E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who had also sat in with the Dead on a few occasions. Garcia liked having the amiable and physically imposing Clemons as a visual foil and soloist, and though he is not exactly a saxophone titan, he had great spirit and added another layer to the JGB’s occasionally thin sound.

Even at this peak of Garcia’s personal popularity, the JGB never attracted the same sort of fanatical devotion as the Grateful Dead. The band didn’t really make records, didn’t tour enough to build a following around the country and, frankly, there were many Deadheads who simply never cared much for the group. Some didn’t connect with the multitude of R&B, gospel and other cover songs the way they did with Hunter-Garcia tunes. Others believed that, unlike in the Dead, none of the musicians in the JGB were up to Garcia’s musical level. Certainly the JGB lacked both the dynamic ensemble interplay and the exciting, reckless edge of the Grateful Dead. And then there was always a segment of listeners who simply couldn’t stand hearing so many slow ballads and midtempo tunes.

But what the JGB had to offer those fans who could get beyond the Grateful Dead comparisons was a rich and varied body of music, a relaxed and friendly atmosphere with none of the pressures and expectations endemic to Dead shows, and heaping helpings of Garcia’s guitar work—he played longer solos than he did with the Dead, and there was less competing with his guitar, so he crafted his lines a little differently; more precisely, perhaps. And because Garcia fashioned the set list at each show according to what he alone wanted to sing and play, there was an intimate quality to the performances, as if the emotions in those particular songs were what he wanted to communicate to the audience at that concert. The fact that the band’s repertoire ranged from earthy, direct R&B to circuitous Dylan song-paintings and Bible-thumping gospel just showed some of Garcia’s inner complexity and range of musical tastes.

“Every song he chose, every note he played was a reflection of something inside him,” John Kahn commented in 1996. “A lot of times it was probably more the emotional feel rather than the literal meaning of a song that appealed to him, but it had to touch him somewhere in his soul or he just wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t hard to tell when a song wasn’t working for him—he couldn’t play it or sing it that well and he’d drop it. The ones he kept were the ones that spoke to him. And if he loved a song, it was hard not to love it, too, because he’d play it so well that it would touch your soul, too.”

Asked in 1997 what the Jerry Garcia Band audience wanted to get from a show, drummer David Kemper replied, “That’s easy: the audience just wanted to be in a room with Jerry. They didn’t care if they were hearing fast music or slow music; they wanted to be in the same room with Jerry. That’s all I could see. And it didn’t matter if it was good or bad or who he had onstage with him. The crowd didn’t come to see me or John or Melvin. They came to be in the same room with Jerry. It’s that simple. And I don’t blame them. Being in the same room with Jerry was a pretty damn wonderful place to be.”

* * *

By the fall of 1989 Garcia had moved out of the Reservoir Road house he’d been sharing with M.G. and the girls and settled into a house on Palm Avenue in San Rafael, across the street from the campus of Dominican College. Actually, the property had four buildings on it—three two-bedroom houses and a one-bedroom house, plus one of the largest private swimming pools in Marin County. Annabelle lived at Palm Avenue on and off for a while, but Jerry spent much of his time during this period with Manasha and Keelin at their house on Echo Court in San Anselmo. Jerry sometimes commuted between Palm and Echo Court on a four-cylinder Honda motorcycle M.G. had given him one recent Christmas, and he became a familiar sight puttering along the tree-lined streets of San Anselmo (though when he wore a helmet he was difficult to recognize).

“Jerry loved Keelin and was trying hard to be a good father,” comments Gloria DiBiase, who worked as Keelin’s full-time nanny during this period. “I think he may have felt as though he had failed with his other kids, so he tried to make up for that with Keelin.”

Gloria and her husband, Vince DiBiase, would play significant roles in Garcia’s life from the late ’80s until just a few months before his death in the summer of 1995. Vince had first entered Garcia’s orbit in the early ’80s, when the guitarist became fascinated by Vince’s pioneering work in holography—he had been involved in the field since the early ’70s and was well-known in holography circles for his complex three-dimensional artworks, called Chromagrams. Vince sent a number of examples of his holographs to Garcia, and the two carried on a phone relationship for a couple of years before finally meeting. By 1985 Vince was making trippy holographic stickers and buttons with Dead iconography on them and selling them through Grateful Dead Merchandising.

Gloria, who was an artist herself and co-owner with Vince of VinGlo Designs, came into Garcia’s world by a different route. One afternoon in February 1987 she left work at the San Rafael holography gallery she managed and took a bus to Oakland to attend one of the Dead’s concerts at the Oakland Coliseum. On the bus she struck up a conversation with Manasha Matheson—this is before Manasha was romantically involved with Jerry—and the two became fast friends. Later, after Keelin was born, Vince and Gloria’s daughter, Mariko, occasionally baby-sat for the littlest Garcia—sometimes Manasha would send a limousine to pick her up. One time, Mariko wasn’t feeling well, so Gloria baby-sat in her place, and that led to her becoming a full-time nanny for Keelin.

Gloria says, “We have four children of our own and we’ve been together for twenty-five years now, so it was nice to relate to Jerry on that level. He was a family man and father, and he liked having our family around.

“Jerry was, like many of us, a typical hippie parent of the ’60s with very few parenting skills. He was not a disciplinarian, but he was a very gentle, kind and generous father. He took a lot of pride and delight in Keelin. She was the apple of his eye.” Adds Vince, “I got the impression he really wanted to make it work. He really wanted to be Keelin’s daddy. He wanted to be there for her. He loved her.”

* * *

In mid-December the Dead got a bad scare when Brent Mydland was secretly hospitalized after overdosing on a mixture of heroin and cocaine. Brent’s main vice had always been alcohol, the abuse of which had led to a number of DUI episodes and even a brawl or two through the years, also unpublicized. But during the second half of 1989 he started dabbling more with hard drugs, to the alarm of people in the Dead organization familiar with his extreme mood swings. Whether this turn was precipitated by his separation from his wife and daughters, or by the pounding he took in the press after Built to Last came out, we’ll never know for sure. But he recovered quickly and fully from the OD, and the Dead went on to play their traditional New Year’s series at the Oakland Coliseum Arena as planned.

When the Grateful Dead traveled to the East Coast in mid-March for their first tour of 1990, spirits were high. Brent appeared to have bounced back from his drug crisis. On March 15 Phil became the first member of the group to turn fifty, and he was in terrific shape, mentally and physically. He and John Cutler had taken on the task of assembling a live album from recent recordings to help celebrate the Dead’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1990—the first time he’d gotten so involved in a Dead album project since the ill-fated live album Steal Your Face. The band shook the cobwebs from a few more old tunes: Brent brought back “Easy to Love You,” which he’d ignored since 1980; Weir finally bowed to public pressure and revived “Black-Throated Wind”; and Garcia dusted off and improved “Loose Lucy.” These last two tunes hadn’t been played since October 1974.

Several shows on the tour were broadcast locally in an effort to keep crowds away from the venues, and by and large things ran smoothly. Musically, the shows were almost uniformly strong, with the runs at Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York, and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island being particular standouts. Lesh drew nearly a third of his selections for the 1990 live album, Without a Net, from the Nassau shows, and in 1996, the Dead released a triple CD from the Knickerbocker series, Dozin’ at the Knick. The middle night of the Dead’s three-show run at Nassau quickly passed into Deadhead legend when the group was joined onstage by jazz sax giant Branford Marsalis, who met the band for the first time that night. Though he had never heard much of their music, Marsalis fearlessly tackled some of the Dead’s most exciting open-ended material—“Bird Song,” “Dark Star,” “Eyes of the World,” “Estimated Prophet”—soloing as if he had been playing this music forever and returning the challenge by pushing the Dead with his own abstract musical ideas.

The band truly smoked that night, as well as on the handful of other occasions over the next four years when Branford played with them. Of all the guest musicians who shared the Dead’s stage through the years—and they were many and varied—none embodied both the Dead’s adventurous, questing spirit and their obsession with beautiful melodies and accessible structures quite like Branford did.

With the arrival of summer came a return to mega-gigs. By 1990 the Dead had more or less settled into a comfortable pattern of playing arenas in the spring and fall, and stadiums and large amphitheaters in the summer. The Dead had opted not to push the twenty-fifth anniversary angle in advertising for their concerts because they were afraid it might attract too many people to the scene outside the shows (“Twenty-five years? Parrrrty!”), but among Deadheads there was celebration in the air anyway. The opening acts were a nice selection of simpatico groups: Little Feat; Edie Brickell and New Bohemians; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Crowds were large but well-behaved for the most part. Most agreed that the music was as dynamic as ever.

What Deadheads didn’t know, however, was that Brent Mydland was going through a rough time. Outwardly, he seemed to be fine. He sang one or two of his songs in most shows on the tour, and his playing was unusually assertive—at points distractingly so. But offstage he was obviously depressed. According to Garcia, Brent was mortified about the pospect of having to spend a few weeks in jail following the tour for an earlier DUI conviction. He turned again to heroin for relief, but vowed to go into a treatment program once the summer road trip was over.

“The last year or so Brent was taking some risks,” says Bob Bralove. “I think he was pushing himself on a lot of levels, including musically. He really played some incredible shows, but in truth, to balance his nights of brilliance, there were some nights of rough playing. Things were getting very problematic for him and I think people were very concerned about him. Everyone was very moved when he could communicate in the music. Everyone understood that it was real; that he was a soul communicating right through the music—isn’t that the point? He went right to the heart of it. It was completely soulful, but it was also accompanied by all sorts of other problems in his life, and things were rough and confusing for him. He expressed some seriously sorrowful stuff sometimes. It was hard to watch on one level, but it was also completely compelling.”

Two nights after Brent returned to his home in the comfortable East Bay suburb of Lafayette following the summer tour, he shot up a mixture of cocaine and morphine (what’s known as a speedball) into his left arm, and the potency of the combination killed him—probably almost instantaneously. The Contra Costa County coroner reported that the levels of both drugs in his system were lethal. He was thirty-seven years old, and all indications were that it was a tragic accident, not a suicide.

Naturally, Brent’s death was a tremendous shock, even to those familiar with his substance-abuse problems (and most Deadheads knew him only as a drinker). The Dead office was flooded with phone calls, letters and telegrams mourning his passing. Deadheads laid flowers on the doorstep of Brent’s home. In Philadelphia, more than five hundred people showed up in Rittenhouse Square for an impromptu memorial, and there were other smaller gatherings in cities coast to coast.

“I remember the evening after Brent died Jerry and I were up at Echo Court just sitting out on the deck and gazing at the stars,” says Vince DiBiase. “Jerry was deeply affected by Brent’s death.”

Garcia made no public statement about Brent’s death at the time, but a year later he reflected on it in an interview with James Henke in Rolling Stone: “Brent had this thing he was never able to shake, which was that thing of being the new guy. And he wasn’t the new guy; I mean, he was with us for ten years! That’s longer than most bands even last. And we didn’t treat him like the new guy. We never did that to him. It’s something he did to himself. But it’s true that the Grateful Dead is tough to … I mean, we’ve been together so long, and we’ve been through so much, that it’s hard to be a new person around us.

“But Brent had a deeply self-destructive streak,” he continued. “And he didn’t have much supporting him in terms of an intellectual life. I owe a lot of who I am and what I’ve been and what I’ve done to the beatniks from the ’50s and to the poetry and art and music I’ve come in contact with. I feel like I’m part of a certain thing in American culture, of a root. But Brent was from the East Bay, which is one of those places that is like nonculture. There’s nothing there. There’s no substance, no background. And Brent wasn’t a reader, and he hadn’t really been introduced to the world of ideas on any level. So a certain part of him was like a guy in a rat cage, running as fast as he could and not getting anywhere. He didn’t have any deeper resources… .

“It was heartbreaking when Brent died, because it seemed like such a waste. Here’s this incredibly talented guy—he had a great natural melodic sense, and he was a great singer. And he could’ve gotten better, but he just didn’t see it. He couldn’t see what was good about what he was doing and he couldn’t see himself fitting in. And no amount of effort on our part could make him more comfortable.”

Almost immediately after Brent’s death was announced, Deadheads began to speculate about his possible successor. Many wondered if the band would carry on with their planned September and October tour of the East Coast and Europe; some suggested they would call it quits altogether. However, the day after Brent’s death, the band announced they would try to keep their fall commitments. Was it a money decision? Was it a hasty move by a band in denial? Was it “what Brent would have wanted; the show must go on,” or some such justification?

It was probably a little of all three. And with twenty-twenty hindsight, it was also probably a mistake.