A few weeks ago I finished listening to a selection of shows from the Grateful Dead’s last outings between May and July 1995, including their final four performances. The generally positive feelings that have characterized the past few posts, as I worked through the band’s closing years, quickly turned sour. The last glimmers of hope I held for the band and Garcia flickered and died by the time I reached the penultimate run in Missouri. Not that there weren’t any interesting moments, but moments were all they were.
I had been rather optimistic about Garcia when I started this latest series. The first few, from the west coast tour, found him occasionally sounding better than he had the previous fall, and there were some shows during that tour when has was more or less competent, but overall, his performance in this last period is unacceptable. The band had been covering for him for some time, but the distribution of solos still left him a lot of leading to do and it was a rare occasion when he could. Lines he had played for decades were out of sync, muddled, missing notes. He couldn’t put more than a phrase or two together. He would slide off the frets and play a half-step too high or low, either without noticing or without being able to rectify it. His voice was weak and out of place, he struggled to sing, dropped words and forgot lines to everything. He was, in other words, often incompetent, and any other band would have let him go.
There were a few instances worth mentioning just to be fair to the old boy. The first set of 5/21 was pretty solid; his solo on Mexicali Blues on 6/25 was good, and GDTRFB, 7/5, saw some crisp leads (I have also read positive reviews for June 21st, though I haven’t heard it). But by far the best song I heard was the penultimate night’s Visions of Johanna: seemingly out of nowhere, Jerry pulled together a strong, beautiful, heartfelt version of the song, the last Dylan song he would ever perform.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Grateful Dead carried on without much enthusiasm. Some shows were good. There was little original stuff going on, despite the occasional interesting jam like Cassidy on July 6th or Bird Song on June 2nd, or an objectively solid number or two like Riverport’s Take Me To The River (7/6). While the band’s musical abilities were strong, the effort wasn’t there like it had been even a year earlier. There were times when the work-in to a song was sloppy and disinterested (So Many Roads, 5/21), or the time fell apart at the end (Me & My Uncle 7/6).
Perhaps the biggest indication of the band’s general listlessness is Phil’s Unbroken Chain. Today’s version is, to me, phenomenal. Furthur’s tight thematic progressions and bursting energy demonstrate the potential of that song, written in the mid seventies when the band was at a peak of compositional effort and complexity. The versions heard by crowds in 1995 were just terrible by comparison. Garcia was atrocious, but the rest of the band hardly put in the work either. After nine stabs at it throughout 1995, the band’s last performance of the song saw Phil leading all the way through, with very little involvement from Weir or Vince and little energy from the drummers.
I wondered what kind of mindframe could bring a band like this to perform with such mediocrity, resignation, even indifference. That summer’s blistering temperatures are often mentioned, Jerry’s general poor health is noted… The venues were as big as ever and summer was arena season, with as many as sixty thousand people staring back at them (or passed out in the grass, or crashing the gates). There was also the rash of misfortunes on this so-called “tour from hell:” two fans fell from the upper level on June 30th, death threats against Jerry forced a show with the lights up and metal detectors at the gates on July second (and a Dire Wolf: “please don’t murder me”). On July 3rd the show had to be cancelled when the police refused to secure the arena, citing gate-crashers. House lights stayed on July 5th as well and 100 people were injured at a nearby campground later that night when a porch roof collapsed on fans seeking shelter from the rain. It’s quite possible that these events, which must have affected the band members, further hobbled the already limping beast. It’s unfortunate that this had to be their last tour, if only because they never had a chance to go out on a high note.
But there is a silver lining. Amid all the listlessness of this final tour, Bralove and the drummers somehow escaped the quagmire, and Drumz was as solid as ever. Perhaps having non-bandmember Bralove at the controls gave a sort of grounding to the segment; perhaps the fact that there were only two or three people involved in the music, as opposed to six, afforded a degree of independence; perhaps Mickey’s boundless thirst for exploration provided an inspiration absent from the rest of the music. Whatever the reason, Drumz was a welcome break during those later shows, and I remember thinking that July 8th might have been the best version I ever heard.
The Gyuto Monks appeared as guests on June second. Tibetan Buddhist singers with a six-octave range and each capable of producing three-tone chords, they chant prayers intended to transport one to another plane, which Mickey naturally finds fantastic. Robert Hunter had given him a tape back in 1967, which he had listened to for several years before finding out what it was all about. In 1985, he and Dan Healy recorded selections of a Gyuto US tour; in 1988 and 1991, the Dead sponsored tours themselves, and June 2nd 1995 saw the monks perform five minutes onstage during Drumz.
(Mickey’s solo career is not high on the radar of side-projects, despite its range. It is much less traded than Garcia or even Weir shows, and does not feature in Deadbase. Hart has written four books, and though he recorded or produced eight records during the band’s lifetime and several more since then, they were esoteric and rarely included any GD material. One can be forgiven for not being particularly familiar. Nevertheless, his contributions are undeniable, not only in terms of songs (The Main Ten – Playin’; The Pump Song – Greatest Story; Happiness is Drumming – Fire) but also instruments (the beast, the Beam, MIDI), and electronics (aided by Bralove). Mickey seems to have remained a believer as the Grateful Dead came to the end of the road, and his influence is most strongly felt during Drums.)
A few new tunes made their way into the repertoire in 1995: Weir’s Salt Lake City (once –it was the first time they’d played in that city since 1981 and only the second since the song was written in 1977), The Beatles’ It’s All Too Much, Unbroken Chain, Fogerty’s Take Me To The River, and Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (twice). None of them made much progress over the few performances, UBC least of all. There was a little jamming (into Drums, mostly), but nothing very exciting, and the shows were quite short (under two and a half hours). Nobody was trying very hard any more.
I’ve read several books on this band, and coming to the end of the story always leaves me sad: having followed the life of the group from its beginnings, one can’t help but regret the end of the journey, wishing that jerry had smoked a few less cigarettes, eaten one less burger, maybe stayed at Betty Ford or checked into Serenity Knolls a few days earlier. Maybe he would still be alive… they could have pulled through and reinvented themselves again. But listening to the end of the Grateful Dead’s touring life, I felt the opposite: I was irritated that they kept producing this sloppy, bored music and I lost interest in what the next show would bring, since they never seemed to bring anything. I don’t blame the band: the survival of so many friends and relatives depended on the GD touring machine. It was all they knew, it was all that was expected of them, and the fans never seemed to tire. Ticket sales certainly didn’t drop, and reviews weren’t too harsh. To this day you can read reviews from attendees talking about how magical the show was, how great Jerry sounded, what a wonderful experience it had all been.
By 1995, it was time to go. There was nothing left. The band was a bad imitation of its former self, with nothing to recommend it other than an obliviously cheery atmosphere in some parts of the Deadhead community. It was not a sustainable project. Mickey has said that friends and family took a back seat to the Dead in those days and that it caused problems in everyone’s homes; Deborah Koons quoted Jerry as saying the road was killing him. An attempt in late 1994 to put together another album hadn’t yielded a single finished track. The band hardly talked to each other, with individual green rooms and curtained areas backstage. Honest conversations were hard to come by, confined to sophomoric banter and sarcasm. After Jerry’s death, Bill couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
The Grateful Dead was a wonderful story but it died an ugly death. Thankfully we still have this music, fifteen years later, with those parting words still ringing “such a long, long time to be gone/ and a short time to be there.”