Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Grateful Dead in 1984

In their three decades of performing, few years are treated with more derision in the Grateful Dead’s canon than 1984. Of the thousands of hours of “officially” released music[1] exactly one song, not show, but song, from 1984 has been released.[2] This puts 1984 below other years that are universally recognized for their poor performances[3] and suggests a desire on the part of the band and its archivists to erase this period in the band’s history.[4]

But here’s the thing. While 1984 will never be confused with the technical proficiency of 1977 or the gooey 1973-74 jazz-era Dead, it has an urgency that those more cherished years lack. It is far and away my favorite year of the Dead’s music precisely because of its imperfections, its messiness, and its dislocation. The band was performing on a knife’s edge every night with Garcia in frail health and other band members struggling with their own personal demons.[5] Because of this messy brew, the unpredictability and unevenness of the performances is not just seen show to show, but sometimes within the shows themselves, which can toggle between moments of jaw dropping intensity and mind numbing drift.[6]

Thanks to YouTube, you can plainly see Jerry’s poor condition – slumped over his guitar, his hair greasy and unkempt, it is a wonder he is even able to remain upright for two hours, much less produce some of the thickest, dirtiest guitar leads of his life, yet he does.[7] The band’s MVP for the year is unquestionably Brent Mydland, whose Hammond B-3 sets an ominous tone littered with creepy sound effects and darkly layered leads.[8] And in the music itself is enough subtext to fill an auditorium. Listening to any version of “Lost Sailor,” it is impossible to hear the lyrics about a seaman adrift and not think that Weir is speaking directly to Garcia, whose descent into heroin addiction was well underway by this time.[9] And in the same way that others observed that Weir’s genius was in the notes he did not play, the near total absence of one song in particular – High Time – from the band’s rotation, speaks volumes about the delicate place Garcia was in during this time. Meanwhile, other warhorses in the band’s repertoire, like “Help>Slip>Franklin’s” and “Eyes of the World,” are played at a warp speed suggestive of cocaine binges and manic desperation.[10]

But even in all this chaos, there are moments of pure magic – the proverbial “x” factor that Deadheads speak of often but rarely get to experience. Flash to the July 13, 1984 show at the Greek Theater and you will hear the only “Dark Star” the band performed between 1981 and 1989, and as an encore no less. The novelty of the performance notwithstanding, the version itself is self-contained and complete – from a standing start, the band winds its way through soaring guitar leads and letter perfect keyboard runs that never feel embellished or extraneous, the outro jam after the second verse melting away organically at around the 17 minute mark to close a show that would have been notable for the stellar “Scarlet>Touch>Fire” second set opener and a space-influenced “The Wheel” that had a level of weirdness uncommon for this sprightly number.  Similarly, the band’s performance of “Morning Dew” on October 12, 1984 stands out as one of the signature versions of that song. It doesn’t reach the zen-like musical perfection of Cornell ’77, but instead, was played with an urgency that underscored Garcia’s uncertain future. Nothing need be said about the connection between the song’s lyrics, Jerry’s passionate interpretation of the music, and his alarming appearance to make the emotional leap that Jerry feared he was near death (and knew it).[11]  

To be sure, the year’s performances were uneven and sometimes desultory, but the failure to acknowledge the gems that were produced is a glaring oversight, particularly when such a significant body of the band’s music is being released. While it may have been novel to limit Dick’s Picks releases to those that were two-tracked and (mostly) pristine back in the day, the need for that level of sonic perfection is not needed or expected in today’s web-based world. One need ask why it is that David Lemieux continues to turn a blind eye to any performance after 1980 while continuing to mine earlier years over and over again that are already well-represented in the public space. It is long past time for 1984 to receive its just due.[12]

[1]  This includes 36 “Dick’s Picks,” 12 “Dave’s Picks,” entire tours (Spring 1972 (Europe) and Spring 1990 (U.S. East Coast)) released by Grateful Dead Productions, more than a dozen “digital downloads,” and various and sundry other shows such as the “From the Vault,” “Road Trips,” and “View from the Vault” series.   
[2]  Shakedown Street, 12/31/84; released on the “So Many Roads” box set. Ironically, while the song itself was played during 1984 on the West Coast, other parts of the world had already moved the calendar ahead to 1985.
[3]  The Dead’s final years are generally considered pretty thin in terms of quality; however, a full show from 1992 was released as part of the “Dick’s Picks” series (12/16/92) and a full show from 1993 (5/27/93) was released as part of the “Road Trips” series. Songs from both 1994 and 1995 appear on the “So Many Roads” box set as well.
[4]  Of the 36 Dick’s Picks, only two, Dick’s Picks 6 (10/14/83) and Dick’s Picks 21 (11/1/85), cover the years between 1983 and 1990.
[5]  Just listen to Phil slur out an acknowledgment to “Paul in the rainbow bud….” before the 7/4/84 version of “He’s Gone.”
[6]  A perfect example is the version of Uncle John’s Band performed on 4/23/84. It clocks in at more than 17 minutes, shifting between hard driving leads and aimless noodling that finally lands on the only version of “Only A Fool” the band ever performed. Similarly, an extended version of “He’s Gone” from 6/26/84 goes on for more than 16 minutes and is at times heart breaking in its intimacy and at others, searching for its sound.
[7]  The “Shakedown Street > Playin > Terrapin” from 6/30/84 is denser than a black hole and the 4/19/84 version of “Wharf Rat” may be the single greatest live version of that song the band ever played, with Garcia going for lead after lead that stretches the song well past 11 white knuckle minutes.
[8]  A couple of examples are instructive – just listen to the 4/26/84 version of “Shakedown Street” or the 4/19/84 “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” encore.
[9]  The signature version of Lost Sailor is also from 4/23/84, which includes an amazing little riff by Mydland about 5 minutes in that will make the hair stand up on your arms.
[10]  See, e.g., 7/14/84, 7/21/84, and 10/17/84.
[11]  Indeed, Garcia would collapse in a coma shortly after the band completed its Summer 1986 tour. If there is a year that is more reviled than 1984, it is 1986, which has not had any show “officially” released through GDP or Rhino Records.
[12]  A good place to start would be releasing any of the following shows: 11/2/84, 10/20/84, the three-night Philly Civic Center run (4/19-21), or 4/26/84.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. agree. 10/12/84 has been called the best show of the 90's, that is probly not true, but so what if you were there u know what happened up there, I literally saw a Triceratops during the second set, and 4/21/84 is good, and like 4/20 is great I went with my parents, and 4/27 has the playin china doll high time so as such I guess there is a high time in 1984 its 4/27/84, and never forget 4/30, that's a classic, a great space.

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  4. I agree with what you said. I started seeing the Dead in 78 but the bulk of my touring was from 82-90 and the "Jerry watch" started for me in the Fall of '83. I saw some great shows in '84 (Indianapolis) and probably the worst show I ever attended (Charlotte). The odd thing about that Charlotte show was the China-Rider that started the second set was unreal yet the rest of the show was really rough. For that one song though they nailed it.

    1. I think a lot of mid-80s shows have that China-Rider phenomenon - transcendent moments surrounded by lots of messiness, which is part of what makes that era so interesting!

  5. Started seeing shows in '82 so '83-'84 is really near and dear to me. I've always felt that while his vox was clearly burned thru most of that year's shows ('84) Jer made up for it with some stellar extremely dirty six string work particularly 4/14 and 4/20. Nice writeup.

  6. My first show was 10/11/83 (Stephen)...I saw probably like 30 shows in 84...It is a crime that Augusta or Saratoga aren't Dicks Picks...I danced my ass off in 1984.

  7. The beam work from 7-15-84 is ridiculous....drums and space were going strong in this run.

  8. Just here to say, agree!!! my favorite years are 83-84. Crazy but I grew up listening to 70-74 bootlegs, but now at age 51 I dig these 2 years the most. Jerry & THE BOYS were on fire. Like a freight train out of control...