Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead

Columbia OC 45056

“What motivates Bob Dylan these days?” is one of those boring perennial questions that no one wants to know the answers to anymore. At the turn of the decade, Dylan was releasing intolerable albums with inconceivably pretentious intents, the worst recordings of his career. Since then his work has deteriorated. Occasionally, it is true, a Bob Dylan album will contain an interesting song—”Dark Eyes,” from Empire Burlesque, “I and I” from Infidels, a new version of “Tangled Up in Blue” on Real Live—but more often there is nothing there at all, as on Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove, and this new release, Dylan & the Dead.

On the personal-appearance front, Dylan’s performance has been a bit more mixed. After the cacophonous roar of the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1976—a tour that produced an underrated movie and some great bootlegs—Dylan hit the road in 1978 with a set of rigid new arrangements for his songs. On this outing, known as the Budokan tour after the live album recorded at Tokyo’s Budokan Stadium, Dylan dressed in jumpsuits and sequins and was backed up by something akin to a Las Vegas show band; he opened each show with a jaunty instrumental version of “My Back Pages” (the mournful song from Another Side of Bob Dylan with the chorus that goes, “But I was so much older then . . .”). This was a weird and unsettling tour. I remember one show as a stilted minuet, another as transcendent—though I must confess that for the latter I was well dosed with Quaaludes.

Next came two tours to support Dylan’s trio of religious records—Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. On the first tour, Dylan sang songs from the first of these albums, relieved only by other religious songs. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been in a room with a whiny, has-been singer knocking off compositions like “God Gave Names to All the Animals” without a trace of irony, but it’s not much fun. (I did it four or five times; it’s when I lost my sense of humor about Dylan.) The show varied hardly at all from night to night; reports of boos and protests from the tour’s initial two-week stand in San Francisco were exaggerated, but neither were there cheers, save from creepy bands of fundamentalists who came out of the woodwork to encourage their latest convert. A year or so later, Dylan went out again, presenting a gentler show (under pressure, it was said, from tour promoter Bill Graham). Gospel still dominated the proceedings—particularly fire-and-brimstone stuff like “In the Garden,” from Saved—but occasionally, grudgingly, movingly, Dylan would sink into something luminous, like “Girl From the North Country.”

I don’t know whether you’ve ever been in a room with a whiny, has-been singer knocking off compositions like “God Gave Names to All the Animals” without a trace of irony, but it’s not much fun. (I did it four or five times; it’s when I lost my sense of humor about Dylan.)

Dylan stayed out of sight the next few years, except for occasional foreign forays—one in Japan produced Real Live. In 1986, he toured Australia with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and later he brought that show to America, presenting a careless, smirking extravaganza, doing dumb songs like “Lenny Bruce” and basically looking like a middle-aged businessman with a blond call girl (Petty) on his arm. The next year Dylan played a series of shows with the Grateful Dead; a half dozen of these were recorded, and seven selections from them make up the new Dylan the Dead album. Ironically enough, Dylan’s most exciting concert tour in a dozen years came last year, after the Dead tour. With a three-piece rhythm section fronted by Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith, Dylan rocked out, delving deep into his oeuvre and coming up with surprise after surprise. The result was scary and dramatic; most important—or significant—of all, he actually sang, instead of whining or talking through his songs. Despite the insanely bad album it was supposed to be publicizing, Down in the Groove (Dylan hardly acknowledged it, not even playing the single, “Silvio”), this tour raised hopes that perhaps it wasn’t all over yet, that Dylan, too, might find his way back.

Dylan & the Dead, unfortunately, makes that look less likely.

Two of the seven cuts are from Dylan’s first Christian album: “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which became an unlikely Top 40 single and gave Dylan his first (and only) Grammy, and “Slow Train.” Two others are Dylan warhorses, each appearing twice before on live albums alone: “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” (Including studio recordings, “Knockin'” has appeared four times previously, “Watchtower” five.) Besides these, there are three interesting selections: “I Want You,” a percolating gem from Blonde on Blonde; “Queen Jane Approximately,” a forgotten song from Highway 61 Revisited (“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”); and “Joey,” a long ballad about the life and death of gangster Joey Gallo.

Now I should say right out that I’m one of those guys who think that having the Grateful Dead around is a nice way to induce torpor in any event short of a nuclear holocaust; having them on a Bob Dylan album, given his recent output, is a pretty good argument for forced nursing-home incarceration for an entire generation of rock ‘n’ rollers. The Grateful Dead is the most boring group of musicians ever assembled in one place. This is a band that could get blown off the stage by the Jackie Gleason Orchestra. It’s two drummers in search of a backbeat, two guitarists in search of a solo, and not a singer within miles. Completely bereft of any new ideas, musical or otherwise—they’ve put out two studio albums in the last decade—they’ve fallen back on the ingenuous attentions of their increasingly irritating followers, a group comprising equal parts aging flower children and slumming MBAs. The Dead’s presence on Dylan & the Dead makes what should have been another boring Dylan record into a travesty.

Dylan is one of the most careless performers in rock—he’s a newer, warped version of Chuck Berry and his pickup bands. It seems he’ll play with anyone, as long as he’s not pressed too hard. (One of the problems with the Petty tour, it seemed to me, was that while Tom Petty does have a provocative theory of rock ‘n’ roll, one of its chief precepts is “Whatever Bob Dylan wants is OK by me.”) Dylan live is a mess of dropped lines, forgotten words, unfocused energy, and long, confusing intros and outros. His vocal mannerisms are limited almost entirely to a gruff boogie growl and that terrible whine we’ve heard so much. And to think you can have all of this today, on record or compact disc.

Dylan & the Dead begins with “Slow Train,” a slow grinder on which the Dead try to cook, with embarrassing results. (Dylan’s studio version, hardly a rock classic, beats this all to hell.) Dylan then whines his way through “I Want You,” mauling the words to the last verse. Someone—for some reason I think it’s Jerry Garcia—contributes an astonishingly lame guitar solo. It’s hard enough to talk to a pothead; I can’t figure out this big bunch of people willing to pay good money to hear one play bad guitar.

“Queen Jane” is one of the slighter songs first recorded during the raucous time of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. I’ve always thought of it as a simple song with a minor dissertation on the impossibility of sanctuary; it’s conceivable that it’s directed at Joan Baez. On this version Dylan muddles some more words and does his best to ensure that the song means nothing. One verse is dropped entirely; another seems to be interpolated later, but if you listen closely it appears that Dylan has just lost his place and is singing words from verses he’s already sung. The Dead, used to having people onstage repeat things until they get them right, follow along obligingly. The solo, by Bob Weir, I think, is a joke; I particularly like the loud, obviously accidental boink! that intrudes just as the singers come back in.

“Joey” is next. This song, from Desire, hadn’t been heard since the Rolling Thunder tour before Dylan brought it out for this placid version with the Dead and then for a fabulous, rocked-out version with G.E. Smith and the boys last year. It’s a problematic piece of work: the best that can be said for it is that Dylan, having dealt with the mythos of the outlaw rudimentarily on the Pat Garrett soundtrack, wanted to try his hand at modern-day balladeering, leaving us to grapple with the moral difficulties of glorifying criminals. Joey Gallo sounds like a creep from the lyrics, their blatant rationalizing notwithstanding. A lot of the song’s dulling literalness comes, one supposes, from the collaboration of Jacques Levy, a Broadway director and lyricist whom Dylan met through Roger McGuinn. (Levy cowrote the lovely “Chestnut Mare.”) “Joey” was Levy’s idea, it is said, and together the two labored, coming up with lines like:

The police department bounded him

They called him Mr. Smith

They got him on conspiracy

They never said who with.

Anyway, the Dead, who contribute some credible backup vocals, pick up the tempo a bit here and manage to bring the song in in under ten minutes. Dylan bleats like he means it and stumbles lyrically only once or twice.

The rest of the record is low-budget. Garcia produced, along with engineer John Cutler; they eliminated any audience noise or stadium atmospherics. The record sounds soft, flaccid, and distant, like a moderate-quality bootleg or a typical Grateful Dead record. (Even the cover makes it look like a Grateful Dead release—ugh!—despite the fact that the record is on Dylan’s label, Columbia. To make matters worse, the drawing of Dylan is circa 1966.) The last songs are “Watchtower,” a work that has lost all its meaning (the version here is slightly more awful than Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush’s), and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” As on the Petty tour, in the chorus to “Knockin'” Dylan sticks in the line, “Just like so many times before,” which doesn’t quite jibe with the Christian conviction that one generally gets to knock-knock-knock on heaven’s door only once. Maybe Dylan is sending us a message.

Way back on the back of Highway 61 Revisited Dylan wrote, “On the slow train time does not interfere”; the remark was ironic then, because the train Dylan was on was fast and gaining speed. Now, despite his always-busy recording and touring schedule, he’s going slower, and time interferes a lot. We appreciate his position—of all the 60s icons, Dylan was most fragile—and we don’t wish him ill. We just want a good or even an interesting. record, and that we haven’t had from Bob Dylan in quite some time. v