"We were trying to back up a singer on songs no-one knew. It was not our finest hour, nor his. I don't know why it was even made into a record." Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead percussionist) 1989.
"That was a turning point for me, playing with the Dead." Bob Dylan 1997.
It is a sad but true fact that the second half of the eighties was a wasteland in the fortunes of Bob Dylan. His albums became progressively uninspired and lacklustre, and he was enjoying his chosen path so little that he seriously considered retiring from live performance. "My own songs had become strangers to me..." he says of this time, and he was clearly having difficulty writing new material. By the beginning of 1989 Dylan was in serious danger of becoming a burnt out has-been. His last studio album of any merit had been 1983's "Infidels" and it was only the 1985 release of "Biograph" that was affording him any sort of professional credibility. His latest faltering steps into the world of movies had resulted in the justifiably panned "Hearts Of Fire," a film that Dylan had become so disillusioned with that he had not even bothered to attend the London premier (it was withdrawn after two weeks and not even given theatre release in the States). It was into this sorry state of affairs that Dylan's third consecutive sub-standard album "Dylan And The Dead" (Rolling Stone's David Fricke called it "The Zim & The Grim") hit the marketplace, albeit some eighteen months after it had been recorded
Dylan and Jerry Garcia had had a mutual respect for each other for several years, and the Grateful Dead made no secret of the fact that they enjoyed Dylan's music. Indeed, since Dylan had attended a Dead concert in New Jersey in July of 1972 there had been rumours of them making an album together, but so far nothing had happened. In 1986 Dylan had undertaken two tours with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - one Far East, one domestic and seemed quite happy with the idea of losing himself in a band. The next step was to join the Dead for some jam sessions and rehearsals (apparently at Garcia's invitation). The rehearsals took place in San Rafael, California, in June and Garcia was highly amused by Dylan's work ethic, "He's funny. He has a chameleon like quality. He goes along with what he hears...But he doesn't have a conception about two things that are very important in music: starting and ending a song. ...The middle of the song is great; the beginning and ending are nowhere" Bob Weir was more critical, "He was difficult to work with in as much as he wouldn't want to rehearse a song more than two times, three at the most. And so we rehearsed maybe a hundred songs two or three times...This is sorta a standard critique of the way he works." he said, describing the rehearsals which were at best a little loose. Weir's count was a little exaggerated, but many of Dylan's sixties classics were rehearsed along with material from the Christian years and some songs from the more recent "Shot Of Love" and "Infidels" albums. Also tried out were several traditional tunes and more contemporary stuff like Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Paul Simon's "The Boy In The Bubble."
With this meagre and unsatisfactory preparation under their belts, Dylan and the Grateful Dead began what would be a six date tour in Foxboro, Mass. on July 4th 1987. The Dead opened, and played their set before being joined by Dylan to perform twelve songs plus one éncore (this would be the pattern, except shows three to six would see the Dead performing two sets). Dylan's set leaned very heavily on sixties material, with all but three of his thirteen songs coming from that decade. The predominance of sixties songs remained throughout the short tour - although the sets were radically different, at no time did Dylan perform more than three non-sixties songs. He did however throw in a few surprises, "Chimes Of Freedom" was played at the first gig (for the first time since 1964) and on three other occasions, and the unrecorded "John Brown" was rehashed for the first three concerts - it seemed to work so well that Dylan kept it in his live repertoire for some time afterwards. "Queen Jane Approximately" and the unlikely "Joey" were both given live debuts on that first night, the former being played at all but one of the concerts while the latter was dropped after the first three (both of course appear on the album). Other strange choices were the debut of "Wicked Messenger" and the rarely heard "Tomorrow Is A Long Time" - both were played only once (Giant's Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey July 12th). The former of these was among the songs chosen by Garcia and the Dead for their version of a live album, but Dylan overruled them.
The album as it stands, contains seven songs chosen by Dylan from four of the six concerts. The opening track, "Slow Train" is arguably the best on the album, but that is by no means an accolade, from here things go downhill fast. "I Want You" has long been a personal favourite, I consider it to be one of the best of the minor songs from one of Dylan's most prolific periods and it has stood the test of time and several different arrangements. Here though, it is just a mess - Dylan mumbles and stumbles through the words and reaches a point where he almost sounds like a parody of himself. Instead of starting verse three he repeats verse two, realises his mistake and tries unsuccessfully to bring it back before the whole thing grinds to an embarrassing halt. "Gotta Serve Somebody" is one of three tracks taken from the final concert. This is one of the best and most recognisable from the Christian period, though why the lyrics had to be rewritten is anybody's guess. At least, I'm assuming they're rewritten - they are so hard to make out that most of the time Dylan seems to be mouthing garbage, or the first words that come into his head. "Queen Jane Approximately" is probably the biggest disappointment of all, it begins well enough, but quickly degenerates into a shambles as Dylan goes off on several vocal tangents. Bob Wier and Jerry Garcia do their best to follow the harmonies, but it is a lost cause. This is another song that Dylan wrote and recorded when he was enjoying the potency of youth, it is sad to hear it reduced to this.
"Joey" was an odd choice for this tour, and an even odder one for inclusion on the album. Dylan performs it with something approaching passion, and almost gets through it without any verbal slips (in the verse where he mentions Cagney he mixes up "...lost a little weight" and "...swear he did look great"). The problem is that the band members give the impression that they just don't care, and sadly neither do we. The last two tracks, the classics "All Along The Watchtower" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" both come from the final concert at Anaheim Cal. on July 26th and are more about the Grateful Dead than they are about Dylan. One or the other of these two was used to close each of the six shows, and the inclusion of both here give the impression that Dylan was eager to get the whole thing over and done with. He gives both of them a brave try, but one feels that his heart was not in it and the band members are quite happy to take centre stage. Sometime later, Dylan would tell Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone "...I really had some sort of epiphany on how to do those songs again, using certain techniques. When I went back and played with Petty again, I was using the same techniques and found I could play anything" but there is little evidence of that here.
The only real positive that can be taken from this album is that by the time it was released, Dylan had moved on and thankfully begun his musical rehabilitation, although he did attempt to join the Grateful Dead as a full time member (the story is that everyone except bass player Phil Lesh was ready to accept him). Some four months before "Dylan And The Dead" hit the streets, we saw the release of "The Traveling Wilburys," and a month after it Dylan began work on what would become "Oh Mercy," arguably his finest album of a very troubled decade. Relationships between Dylan and the Grateful Dead improved in the mid nineties when he opened for them on several occasions and was very well received. Sadly, shortly after this, Jerry Garcia suffered a fatal heart attack while undergoing drug rehabilitation and the world lost a unique talent. His death affected Dylan badly, and in a eulogy he referred to Garcia as "...my big brother" but unfortunately their relationship is likely to be remembered only by this dreadful album.
To their credit, The Grateful Dead released "Postcards Of The Hanging" in 2002, an album of live recordings of Dylan songs. It is a fine album, and shows what they are capable of producing with Dylan's material under the right circumstances.