The Cracked Guide To The Grateful Dead, Part 4: The Harsh 80s
The 1980s brought major changes for the Grateful Dead. Some of it good – like them achieving some bonafide breakout success and touching the lives of millions – but it took its toll, ultimately leading to the end of the band.
In mid-1979 the Godchauxes decided to split the group and do their own thing. Tragically, Keith was killed soon thereafter in an automobile accident. He was replaced by a new keyboardist, Brent Mydland, and, sigh, we’ve got more bad news – he’ll end up dead from an overdose before this story is over. Wait, we’re not done. Brent’s replacement, Vince Welnick, will eventually die by suicide after his stint with the Dead. With Pigpen that makes four Grateful Dead keyboardists that didn’t make it. This is Spinal Tap’s bit about the dying drummers just had the instrument wrong. Luckily Tom Constanten, Ned Lagin, and, later, Bruce Hornsby toured with the Dead on something of a “freelance” basis.
But Mydland’s tenure didn’t just fill a gap. He added a new singing voice — an urgent, bluesy tone in a higher register — and, as technology developed, his playing greatly expanded the band’s color palette. The shows from this era often feature some out-there 80s synths (some of which are maybe a little dated, but some find that charming) but also a love of clear, glassy tones.
Another thing that really crystallized by the early 1980s was the inclusion of “Drums>Space” deep in the second set of each show. Instrumental experimentation went back all the way to the acid tests, of course, this was more like a statement of purpose. A tune would lead into a double drum solo between Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, nicknamed the Rhythm Devils. This wasn’t just any temporary spotlight on the guys in the back, like Led Zeppelin giving John Bonham time to spazz out on “Moby Dick,” or Santana’s Michael Shrieve leading a percussion break on “Soul Sacrifice,” this was a designated period on the concert to get free and go weird.
In the late 70s Kreutzmann and Hart worked with Francis Ford Coppola on music that was incorporated into Apocalypse Now. For these sessions they created new instruments, one called The Beast, an array of bass drums on a metal rack, and another thing called The Beam. This weird thing, still in modified use by Mickey Hart today (and called The Pythagorean Beam; he’s brought it to planetariums), stretches thick metal strings across an aluminum I-beam, with all sorts of demonic amplification. It goes lower and harder than anything you’ve ever heard, and when Mickey hits it with a hammer it makes a whole arena vibrate. This monster has to be heard to be believed.
After this interlude, the rest of the band will come back, pick up their instruments and go wherever they want, man, for an atonal, non-composed group freakout/shakedown called “Space.” (Mickey Hart will tell you that the audience is part of this performance, too; we’re all sharing the space during “Space.”)
For some, this was a highlight of every Dead show. For others, it meant a pee break. (This was unexpected Deadhead Ann Coulter’s move.) Hey, man, you do you.
Though Mydland joined up via Bob Weir’s solo band, he and Jerry Garcia really hit it off. The younger man brought some energy to the group, especially as the “Cult of Jerry” led Garcia to become more isolated, but the two sank heavy into drugs together. (Phil Lesh was also experiencing what he later referred to as “The Heineken Years.”) In the 1980s, attending a Dead show was well-known for being a roll of the dice. Everything might click and you’d experience improvisational rock-jazz-bluegrass-vibes of an indescribable nature. Or Jerry might be half-nodded out, his voice a mess, and his guitar runs all over the place.
The band had an intervention in 1985 (imagine how whacked out you have to be for members of the Grateful Dead to think you are on too many drugs) but, unfortunately, sobriety didn’t stick for too long. Eventually his untreated diabetes and general unhealthy lifestyle put him into a coma in 1986. He survived and got himself a little healthier, and freshened up his guitar playing, too. Then something unexpected happened: the Grateful Dead hit the big time.
Their 1987 album In The Dark sounded fresh-but-classic, a welcome “20-years-later” for those who remembered or pined for the Summer of Love. The single “Touch of Grey” wasn’t just a hit, it was a sensation. It played on pop stations at the mall. A funny video where the band turns into skeletons (and a dog runs off with one of their bones!) was on constant MTV rotation. Suddenly everybody loved the Grateful Dead, and their cuddly bearded leader Jerry Garcia. Who could blame them?
The band’s magic caravan lore caught up with them, though, and demand to join the circus skyrocketed. They went from playing Radio City Music Hall (6,000 seats) to Madison Square Garden (20,000) to Giants Stadium (who can count that high, man). It killed some of the show’s intimate nature, and the scene on the lot got a little ugly. Twenty years after the acid tests, the “war on drugs” made for a criminal element far in excess of a few outlaw bikers. There were deaths at shows, from a struggle with cops in L.A. to a mysterious (still unsolved) murder in New Jersey. The press was eager to amplify Dead shows as dangerous which, of course, just fueled more interest to see them, even from people who just kinda knew one song.
Which isn’t to say the band ever sold out their core principals! Yes, there was Ben & Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” ice cream in 1987 and Jerry — who dressed like a slob his entire life — launching a line of Jerry Garcia ties in 1992. But why not make easy bread if you can? On stage, they continued to push boundaries, and played the music that only they could play. They even found unlikely and inspirational partners (like Bruce Hornsby appearing out of nowhere in the 1990s) and especially their multiple gigs with jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. This is one of my favorite moments in the entire repertoire.
But by now the Dead were a big business, and supporting a huge crew and their families on a never-ending tour took a mental toll on Garcia, who already had plenty of demons. When Brent Mydland died of an overdose in July of 1990, it should have been a signal for him to pump the brakes. But he didn’t. And Jerry Garcia finally died of a heart attack in a drug treatment center in August 1995, a month after their last gig at Soldier Field in Chicago. He was 53, but if someone told you he was 73 you’d believe them.
There are some good documentaries, particularly Long Strange Trip on Netflix, that get into the weird burden Garcia was carrying. Too many people relied on the guy as a representative — or prophet — of what they expected out of “The Sixties.” He never spoke on stage, because if he did too many people whacked out on hallucinogens would interpret any utterance as the literal voice of God. (Which is a shame, because the dude was actually really funny.) Here was a guy who just loved to play music, be in the moment, read sci fi, and watch horror movies (for years he owned the film rights to Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan) trapped in a weirdly specific kind of fame. Nearing his death, battling addiction and dealing with a troubled love life, he found solace in two things: scuba diving and private bluegrass jam sessions (sometimes on banjo!) with his buddy David Grisman.
Knowing the pressure he was under, looking back at some of the work from the last years can be heartbreaking. So many Heads love to talk about Jerry’s guitar playing, but on nights he was on he was one of the finest singers there ever was. “Standing On The Moon,” a song about someone stuck out in space who just wants to go home, is almost impossible to listen to without weeping. Especially this version.
You can find the rest of Cracked's essay series on the Dead here:
Top image: The Grateful Dead/Facebook