The Other Side: Brent Mydland’s Unreleased Solo Album
by Dean Budnick on December 14, 2015
The year 2015 not only marks a half-century of the Grateful Dead, but also the 25th anniversary of a more somber occasion. On July 26, 1990, the group’s keyboard player, Brent Mydland, succumbed to a lethal combination of heroin and cocaine at age 37. Mydland had joined the Grateful Dead in 1979, following a stint in the Bob Weir Band. Mydland became a member of the Dead after Keith and Donna Godchaux departed the group, and he would come to assume both of their roles, filling the keyboard space with the thick sounds of his Hammond B3 and sweetening some of the ragged vocals with his high harmonies.
Bob Weir has described Mydland’s final years with the group, captured in two box sets, Spring 1990 and Spring 1990 (The Other One), as the Grateful Dead’s “hottest era.” In his autobiography, Bill Kreutzmann adds, “Brent played the best organ I’ve ever heard anybody play. He had the piss and the vinegar in him and he brought it to the table every night. The band, as a whole, had come alive again. Those [spring ‘90] shows had energy, with thunderbolts of electricity to spare.”
Beyond his efforts on keys and vocals, Mydland also contributed original compositions to the group, increasingly finding a style that suited the band. While early offerings like “Far From Me” and “Easy to Love You” sounded a bit too reminiscent of the era’s radio-friendly fodder to suit many Deadheads’ tastes, his later tunes, including Built To Last’s “Blow Away” and “Just a Little Light” became well-regarded live staples.
But there are four boxes of tapes that currently reside in the Grateful Dead vault, which attest to another side of his creative output. Labeled “Brent Solo Project,” they reflect an intensive undertaking at the Dead’s Front Street Studio in San Rafael, Calif., over a period from 1982 to 1983. Betty Cantor-Jackson, the group’s longtime recording engineer with whom Mydland was involved in a romantic relationship, produced the sessions. The band’s John Cutler also stepped in to engineer.
“Brent and I were living together at the time, and he had material he wanted to record,” Cantor-Jackson recalls. “I told him I would make time, in the Front Street schedule, but first, he needed to put a band together. He didn’t want a Grateful Dead album.”
Without a working solo band of his own, Mydland began scouring the area to assemble players for the sessions. One night, he and Cantor-Jackson scouted the local group Billy Satellite, which featured two guitarists—one of whom, Danny Chauncey, would join .38 Special a few years later. Cantor-Jackson says that while she thought Chauncey was the man for the job, Mydland preferred Monty Byrom, the group’s less flashy player.
“It was one of those crazy Alice in Wonderland kind of things,” Byrom remembers. “We were just getting signed to Capitol at the time, and Brent and Betty were sitting in the audience one night. I’ll be honest: I didn’t know who Brent Mydland was. I wasn’t up on the current Grateful Dead lineup. So, I got a phone call at rehearsal the next day and this guy said, ‘I’m Brent Mydland from the Grateful Dead. I really like your guitar playing and I was wondering if you’d like to play on my record.’ Within a week, he was at our rehearsals hanging out, jamming with my band—and we just hit it off immediately. I would consider him my best friend at that time. I moved into Betty’s house for a while when we started these crazy rehearsals, and I found myself sleeping in a bed underneath naked pictures of Janis Joplin.
“Brent was one of the most talented guys I’ve ever met. I’ve never seen anybody that could sing with those kind of notes, night after night. He was a cross between Gregg Allman and Howlin’ Wolf. It was crazy. And that was my introduction to the music business.”
Drummer John Mauceri and bassist Paul Marshall completed the project’s lineup. Both musicians had deep ties to the California psychedelicrock world. Mydland had met Mauceri in 1974 when they backed the folk-rock duo Batdorf & Rodney. Four years later, Mauceri recommended Mydland to Bob Weir when Weir assembled a quintet to tour in support of Heaven Help the Fool. Marshall, a member of the LA-based Strawberry Alarm Clock from 1969-1971, had also previously performed with Mauceri, who suggested his participation to Mydland.