This is sort of a continuation of my previous post. There I talked about the “missing” studio record that Grateful Dead never made as a follow-up to their classic 1970 albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. The songs that would have have appeared on such a record were instead spread out over several live albums and solo records of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. I want to talk now about another hypothetical Dead studio record, the last one.
In November 1994, the Dead went into the studio to record basic tracks for their follow-up to 1989’s Built To Last. Unfortunately, the sessions didn’t produce much that was usable. Garcia’s lack of engagement was cited as the main culprit as well as the band’s general lack of comfort in the studio. This was a shame because the band actually had a slew of new songs that, if given a proper treatment in the studio, would have resulted in a album that would have been their best studio record since the seventies.
The video clip below was created by Tony Sclafani, author of “The Grateful Dead FAQ” (http://www.amazon.com/Grateful-Dead-FAQ-Greatest-History/dp/1617130869). As a long time Deadhead, I found the book a very interesting read. While I didn’t agree with all of his assertions, he brought up many interesting points and ideas about the Dead’s music and their place in popular culture. One of the book’s chapters discusses this lost “last studio album” by the Dead. Using live versions of these new songs, the author put together a video that gives us an idea of what that album would of been like.
Keeping the same song sequence for reference (I would have done a little differently), it opens with the Liberty, a tune that first appeared on Robert Hunter’s 1987 record of the same name. Garcia rewrote Hunter’s music for the Dead’s version and it would of made a great opening song for the record. I couched toured the Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows and was very pleasantly surprised when they pulled this out during the July 4th show (but a bit obvious from a lyrical standpoint). Next up is another Garcia/Hunter song, So Many Roads. A ballad that ramps up to a powerful anthem like ending during the long fade. A great opportunity for Jerry to sing like someone who’s seen a thing or two in his life. And so art imitates life.
The mood picks up for the Weir/Hart/Hunter song Corrina. Techno Dead! Jamtronica! I love it! I always dug it when the Dead went funky (or their version of it anyway) and the Dead always had a history of being a dance band way back from their primal beginnings. It may have been the free form hippie dancing that’s easy to make fun of but people danced none the less. Corrina is also part of a thread in Grateful Dead songwriting which takes an folk or blues song as a starting point and then proceeds to create an entirely new song. Think Casey Jones, Stagger Lee or Candyman.
Days Between is the last great Garcia/Hunter song. This is a song that transcends the term “ballad”. This is Garcia starring out into the abyss. This song took on a whole other level of meaning in the wake of Garcia’s death but even before then, the song hit listeners in a deep way. Live, it was often played in the second set, coming out of the drums/space segment where it seemed to rise out of a foggy mist, not unlike the phantom ships mentioned in the lyrics. Garcia’s voice always seemed to convey a sense of gravitas and never more so than here. This song would have been the undeniable heart of the record, it’s emotional core.
An interesting bookend to Days Between is the Bob Weir collaboration with bassist Rob Wasserman and blues legend Willie Dixon, Eternity. A song with simple lyrics about big things. A surprisingly upbeat little shuffle whose musical tone strikes me more as being old timey instead of bluesy.
It’s hard for me to judge the next song, the Phil Lesh tune, Childhood’s End. It was only played eleven times by the Dead and it sounds under rehearsed by the band as well as suffering from Lesh’s limited voice. At some points the verse melody reminds me of Unbroken Chain. I certainly hear the potential in this song and feel that it would have benefited greatly from a focused studio performance.
Easy Answers first appeared on the Rob Wasserman record Trios where it featured Wasserman, Weir and Neil Young. The Dead’s version replace Neil Young’s distorted guitar with Garcia’s auto-wah sound and Vince Welnick’s synth horns. I would have the Dead version more closely follow the Trio’s version with Garcia dialing up his distorted sound and losing the faux horns (and don’t try overdubbing a real horn section either, didn’t you learn anything from Terrapin Station).
Wave To The Wind is another Lesh song that features instrumental sections reminiscent of Eyes Of The World but a vocal melody that just seems to meander. This would definitely fall into the filler category of the album.
Samba In The Rain. One of the two Vince Welnick songs in this collection. How do I put this kindly? It sucks. Enough said.
If The Shoe Fits is the third Phil Lesh song in the group. Lesh was never the most prolific of song writers so it’s ironic that he had three songs in the final years of the Dead. Sadly, none of these song are comparable to Unbroken Chain or Box Of Rain. At best, their quality level is more akin to something like Passenger from the album Terrapin Station. Not necessarily bad but let’s face it, no serious Deadhead thinks of Passenger when discussing their favorite Lesh tune.
Way To Go Home. A Welnick/Hunter/Bob Bralove collaboration. The song features a catchy chorus and a nice bluesy edge. Not too bad but still sounds slight to me. Disagree? Then start your own blog.
We finally come to the end with Lazy River Road. A Garcia/Hunter song that harkens back to the American Beauty era. A folk song that is present and ancient at the same time. Once again we hear from Garcia, the old soul. I’m reminded of the last time I saw the Dead. It was at MSG in NYC, sometime in 1994. They played Lazy River Road somewhere in the first set and I remember Garcia playing a solo that amazed me with how simple it was but beautiful in the way it danced around the melody and harmony of the song. It was the last time that Jerry blew my mind and reminded me how much their music meant to me. It’s a fitting place to end.
If this hypothetical album would have been made, it would have been interesting. It doesn’t have a obvious single like Touch Of Grey or Foolish Heart. Themes of mortality run through many of the songs and there is a general tone of world weariness. There is a sense that things were not alright and something was going to give.
But they also had strong material with songs like Liberty, So Many Roads, Lazy River Road, Corrina and Eternity. They had a song that many Deadheads would consider their late period masterpiece, Days Between and songs like Childhood’s End and Easy Answers had enough potential to be worthwhile contributions to this final record. If it was done right, such a record would look at the end of the road unflinchingly as adults, giving their fans a sense of closure that they never really got.