The Brent Mydland Years: An Appreciation of the Grateful Dead in the 1980’s
Though Garcia’s ballooning weight and sickly pallor in the early and mid-’80s were cause for concern among some Heads, there were many excellent shows coast to coast, and musically the group was still willing to take chances. In 1983, the popular triumvirate of “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower” returned to the repertoire. “Dancing in the Streets” came back in its old, non-disco arrangement. Brent and Phil became singing partners on several fine tunes, including “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “Keep On Growing” and Brent’s own “Tons of Steel.” Other new songs from the band ranged from Hunter and Garcia’s anthemic “Touch of Grey” to Weir and Barlow’s potent polemic, “Throwing Stones.” “Hell in a Bucket” was a powerhouse rocker sung by Weir, while Garcia’s “West L.A. Fadeaway” was a slinky, slightly nasty blues. “St. Stephen” and “Dark Star” made brief cameos in ’83 and ’84, respectively, while songs such “The Wheel,” “Crazy Fingers,” “Comes a Time” and others breathed with new life in their Brent-era revivals.
Garcia’s near-death from a diabetes-induced coma in the summer of 1986 nearly stopped the ever-accelerating juggernaut for good, but rather than causing the group to lose some momentum from what had been a straight upward climb in popularity during the first half of the decade, the brief forced hiatus, and then Garcia’s return in December of ’86, only increased the public’s interest in and affection for the Dead. By the middle of 1987, the group had finally finished their first studio album of the ’80s, In the Dark, which hit the Top Ten and yielded the group’s first bona fide hit single, “Touch of Grey.” The clever video for that song, with skeletons performing onstage, went into heavy rotation on MTV for a spell, and a long-form live-and-conceptual video directed by Garcia and Len Dell’ Amico called So Far also became a best seller. A tour of stadiums featuring The Dead and Bob Dylan (who were backed by the Dead) that summer was extremely successful, and the momentum of ’87 led to even bigger tours the next couple of years. And whereas ’87 was really the “comeback” year, ’88-’90 were the peak of the Brent years, with the band playing with tremendous energy and imagination, regularly dusting off old classics and introducing a number of well-received new songs, as well, including Garcia’s “Foolish Heart,” “Built to Last” and “Standing on the Moon,” Brent’s “Just a Little Light,” “Blow Away” and his cover of “Hey Pocky Way” and Weir’s “Picasso Moon” and the powerful but controversial “Victim or the Crime.” The introduction of MIDI technology, which allowed the musicians to limitlessly expand the timbral possibilities of their instruments—letting say, Garcia’s axe sound like pan pipes or a bassoon or a breathy choral voice, or Brent’s keyboard to ape a fiddle or marimba—also took their music to some fascinating new spaces.
A few days after the end of the band’s early summer tour in 1990, Brent Mydland died of an accidental overdose in his Contra Costa county (Calif.) home, abruptly shutting the door on an 11-plus-year period of relative stability and unparalleled growth for the Dead. A mere two months later, the Dead would be back on the road with Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby filling the keyboard slot together and taking the Dead’s music in some other new directions. But there is no question that Brent’s death was, as Garcia put it, “crushing,” and that it was the end of a special time in the Dead’s history. There would be a number of fine shows and tours in the early ’90s—and thousands of new fans would find and embrace the Dead in the Vince era—but for many Heads a certain spark went out with Brent’s passing. With Garcia’s precipitous decline during 1994 and ’95, the ’80s looked more and more like Glory Days past, receding in the rearview mirror on the ol’ tourmobile. The ’80s felt like a time when Deadheads ruled the land, and the scene was truly, as the song “Might As Well” said, “one long party from front to end.”
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