Listening to everything, so you don't have to

All the new stuff will be here: RatDog, Furthur, Phil & Friends... I listen to the rehearsal tapes that surface on etree, I watch the videos from Dime and Trader's Den. I also occasionally post little research projects on various periods and people that were pivotal in the life of the Grateful Dead.
Everything you never got around to checking out, I did.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Grateful Dead: 1987

(This post was supposed to be about the Calaveras County Fairgrounds shows in August '87. I decided that the year 1987 was highly important in itself and deserved some exploration. As for the two shows, the first was perfectly well executed but unremarkable, and the second was excellent, particularly the second set. Santana played two songs each night.)

On July 10th, 1986, three days after returning from an 8-show run in the midwest and DC, Garcia collapsed. He was found at home and was comatose by the time he reached the hospital. In preparation for a CAT scan, he was given a dose of Valium, to which he was allergic, and flatlined. He was on life-support for 48 hours, and his fever rolled up to a hundred and five (couldn't resist). He spent three weeks in the hospital, during which time he had to relearn the guitar; the band officially cancelled seven upcoming gigs and skipped their east coast Fall tour altogether. They would not play again for over five months, the longest break in ten years.

The band's comeback in 1987 marked several important developments in the life of the Grateful Dead. The most significant, logistically speaking, was Touch of Grey. Mid-June saw the release of In the Dark, the Touch single and the video, which had been recorded after the Laguna Seca show on May 10th. Helped by a heavy rotation on MTV, the single became the only top-ten hit in the band's history, reaching number 9; the album itself hit number six, going platinum shortly after its release. The ensuing spike in popularity compounded crowd problems that had begun to develop by mid-86. Venues had begun to gripe: Shakedown Street had become a venue for opportunistic dealers and merchandisers, leading to rowdy behavior, an increase in petty crime, and problems with itinerant campers and transients after shows. Gatecrashers also made their appearance in the spring and summer of '87. This would make it increasingly difficult for the Dead to book dates, and forced them to seek out new venues.
Their newfound popularity led to a huge increase in the size of the venues they played: from 1985 to '87, the average capacity jumped from 12,700 to 17,800; they played to a little over of 866,000 seats in 1985 - in '87 it was about 1.5 million, a 70 percent jump in sales. They were forced to abandon venues like Red Rocks, a place Phil particularly liked (something about geo-magnetic convergence...). Its 9,000 seat capacity was no longer enough for the crowds the band drew; they began playing much bigger places like Deer Creek (20k) and later Shoreline (22k). It was the beginning of "mega-Dead." If it's any indication, Cherry Garcia ice cream hit the market in early 87. Garcia was not consulted, but he didn't mind: "At least they didn't name a motor oil after me."

The east coast tour (February-March) was a watershed, even before the release of In The Dark. The whole band was playing better and was healthier. There had been an obvious lull in the quality of their performances in the mid-eighties, brought on by both the usual Rock and Roll excesses and the fact that the music had begun to lose some of its relevance: the sixties and seventies were thoroughly over; the psychedelia that had brought them to prominence no longer resonated, and their "disco" reinvention had become anachronistic. By '84-6, they were playing much faster tempos that did not really suit them and that made it difficult to improvise as they once had. The five-month break and their healthier approach made a big difference to the sound. "I can't tell you what it means to have been to the point where it looked like there wasn't going to be any more Grateful Dead, and then to come back like this and to have it be as good as it is now," Kreutzmann said in '88, "We're playing better, we're healthier - all of us, not just Jerry - and we have more energy; I know I do. I feel great! I feel young!"

The biggest change in the sound was the appearance of MIDI. Brent had been using MIDI since the early eighties, but now the drummers began to experiment with it as well. In the wake of Bill and Mickey's astounding work on the Apocalypse Now soundtrack (when they first coined the Rhythm Devils moniker), the Drums segment became more and more intricate. Bob Bralove joined the crew in 86-7 and rigged some MIDI drum pads for Mickey and Bill to use. In the summer of '88, Weir added a MIDI to his guitar, to use during Space, and Phil and Jerry hopped on the bandwagon a few months later (Phil would soon abandon it; the long wavelengths of the bass register made the response too slow).

They also expanded their repertoire: they played 85 different songs in '87, the most since 1980; their repertoire in between had hovered in the sixties. Though probably a dozen of those are accounted for by the Dylan tour, surviving Dylan numbers included, Masterpiece, Queen Jane, Memphis Blues and Heaven's Door. Brent introduced Hey Pocky Way, and the only performances of Good Golly (3 total) and Blue Dress (6) are sprinkled in the '87 repertoire. Finally, the Sunshine Daydream coda returned in March for the first time since '82, Far From Me had been absent for three years, and Schoolgirl came back after 17 years.

The hiring of Cameron Sears in 1987 broke with tradition as well; since the 60's, the Grateful Dead family had been mainly composed of old friends and relatives. Jon McIntire, the Dead's longtime road manager, hired Sears as an assistant; he has previously been a white-water-rafting guide and an environmental activist. Sears would soon permanently replace McIntire; after 1995 he managed RatDog, and in 2001, became President/CEO of Grateful Dead Productions.

Cliche as it is to say so, 1987 was a real rebirth for the Grateful Dead, worth some in-depth-comparison with their previous and later work. I'll get on that.

...eventually. My next post will be on two 67 shows at the Shrine in LA. After that, I'm thinking of looking at Weir's mid-80s work. Or comparing the first and last shows of '76. Or Brent's unreleased solo album. I'm not sure; my backlog's a bit disorganized, to tell the truth.


  1. As an active participant in the Dead experience since 73 I find your comments spot on. To neglect the role the Grateful Dead ticket sales office played in the bands growth is an oversight.Once we could mail order tickets travel between cities became so much easier. And the Deads thoughtfulness as to playing cities/venues that were laid out logically made travel so much easier. Prior to 83 I went to shows in my area as I learned about them but never the whole East Coast. Once I could mail order tickets the world was my oyster and the open road was home.

  2. Great summarization of where the Dead were at in 1987! Look forward to reading more of your posts!