Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead
May 8, 1989
DYLAN AND THE DEAD, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead (CBS)
If the pairing of these American rock institutions had taken place 20 years earlier it would have been widely regarded as an event of near-cosmic significance. And if it hadn’t lived up to expectations, well, at least it might have been listenable. But this album, culled from recordings of concerts Dylan and the Dead gave together in ’87, shows that both have long since lost, forgotten or given up any direction their music-making once had.
Though Bob and his Haight-Ashbury honchos get equal billing, it’s a Dylan album. The songs and lead vocals are all his; the Dead are relegated to backing status even more than the Band were on the ’74 live set Before The Flood. And while the Dead’s playing is limp, loose and lacking in dynamics (the only tension in this music comes from the chance that they might not make it to the next chord change), Dylan has made better records with worse groups. Blood On The Tracks, for instance, was made with a Minneapolis pick-up band. In other words, it’s Dylan’s fault that this disc is so unremittingly awful.
Dylan sings selections from six of his old albums with the kind of enthusiasm I’d expect him to save for visits to the dentist or paying his alimony. He muddles his words, muffs his phrasing, forgets lines and sometimes entire verses. The only relief comes some 30 minutes into the set when Jerry Garcia (who at this point seems to be just waking up) rescues a version of ‘All Along The Watchtower’, that is otherwise as bad as Bono’s, with some melodic twiddling. If you want to hear the guitarist on form, far better to listen to his guest spots on Ornette Coleman’s recent Virgin Beauty.
I’m always prepared to defend Dylan as one of rock’s greatest songwriters, even singers. Highway 61 Revisited and Blood On The Tracks (from ’65 and ’75 respectively) are ample evidence. But why, when he has clearly run out of things to sing or say, he bothers to make unnecessary additions to his already vast recording catalogue is beyond me.
Garcia, who as co-producer must be held partly responsible for the shambles, offered in a recent interview some candid insights on the collaboration with Dylan: “I don’t think he’s much interested in his own performance, know what I mean? And I can understand how he might be burned out on himself. God knows, I’m burned out on myself more times than not. I don’t know what it’s like for everybody else but I get so bored with my own playing and so stale that unless I do something actively to get out of it, I’ll just die of boredom. So I can see why Dylan might die of boredom. He’s not even a musician.”