Monday, 6 October 2008
Grateful Dead "Built To Last" (1989) (Revised Review 2015; Originally Part Of News, Views and Music Issue 7)
'High Time - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Grateful Dead' is available to buy now by clicking here!
Foolish Heart/Just A Little Light/Built To Last/Blow Away//Victim Or The Crime?/Standing On The Moon/Picasso Moon/I Will Take You Home
"And so I wrestled with the angel...won't you show me something that's built to last?"
There's a case to be made that 'Built To Last' was the album that 'got away' for the Dead. Recorded in a hurry to capitalise on the unexpected success of 'In The Dark' many fans feel this record didn't spend long enough in the oven. The fact that the Dead reneged on their usual recording method this one time and made this record piecemeal (the recording was split between four studios including Garcia's and Weir's homes and reputedly nobody heard the final version of the songs until mixing day) and then wrote this album off as a 'bad job', with none of these songs getting the extensive live coverage of their other studio LPs, means that 'Built To Last' barely made a ripple in the Deadhead community. Whilst it still outsold most of what came before it, the record was a massive flop compared to 'In The Dark' and critics who'd been looking on aghast at the Dead suddenly becoming everybody's darlings sharpened their knives again and went for the throat for this LP. If this record is remembered today at all then it's seen as the rather sorry postscript to the Dead's back catalogue and the record where most songs were written by 'new boy' Brent Mydland and don't really count as 'Dead' songs anyway. Never for a minute would I claim that this album as it stands is the best of the Dead - it's this record that should have been named 'In The Dark' as the six musicians blindly stumble around the song's riffs, trying to keep in sight of each other without really understanding what's going on. The synthesisers and production are as 1980s as they come, miring each song in a world of artificialness and pointlessness that's the antipathy of the Dead sound, with this album the audio equivalent of eating a bag of popcorn and candy floss after spending time waiting in line for your dinner. Most of all, it's a sadly unworthy place to say goodbye, with the Dead sounding about the most unsure they ever did across a then-twenty-four year career and all but killing off their desire to make another record.
However for all that, I can hear what sort of an album 'Built To Last' could have been and it's a phenomenal record. Enjoyable as parts of 'In The Dark' are, song for song I'd take this album anytime: Jerry's at his prettiest, Bob's at his angriest rockingest and Brent is on top form, having at long last got the opportunity to show what he can really do (the band need songs in a hurry and boy has he got songs, a divorce a drug habit and the birth of two children increasing his already prolific songwriting nature tenfold in this period. This is the Dead album that has it all: comedy, tragedy, protest, poignancy, empty headed rockers, poetic spiritual ballads - at times hearing this record is like a mini-history of what the Dead always stood for and actually makes this a far better swansong than many fans assume. While 'In The Dark' sounded in many ways as if it came from left-field (pop and heavy metal? Really?!) you suspect that most Deadheads from 1967, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1987 and all the other major intersecting Dead points in between would still recognise this album's collection of songs as a release by the good ol' Grateful Dead. The record is more experimental than many give it credit for ('Picasso Moon' is the weirdest song the Dead have done since 'Terrapin Station'), harsher and more aggressive than ever before (the finger-wagging 'Victim Or The Crime', a 'New Speedway Boogie' for the 1980s), more melodic than often assumed ('Standing On The Moon' is a melody to die for) and makes a far better attempt at uniting the wonderfully wonky world of the Dead and the charts than any amount of disco-filled 'Shakedown Streets' and 'Go To Heaven's did. On a purely songwriting note, with all songs taken into account (the consistency of 'Built To Last' being perhaps it's greatest strength) this may well be the Dead's best album as songwriters since 'Terrapin Station' - yep, that's right, while there's nothing here as charming and life-affirming as 'Touch Of Grey' or as heavy as 'Hell In A Bucket', note-for-note it's 'Built To Last' that rocks my boat.
And yet...listening to this album is not an easy task. We've already spoken about the strange one-off way it was recorded and the ugly period backing, but somehow it goes deeper than this. The Dead were always about substance rather than style and even the albums that threaten to give way to excess ('Shakdeown Heaven') don't quite dive head over heels for pure noise this much ever again. Being a Deadhead is in many ways a tribal thing: the sound of Western civilisation being reduced to a quintet/sextet driven by two lots of drummers and a bass player (half the total sound made up of rhythm) and a world that even in it's calmest, prettiest period in 1970 was dictated by the 'sound', a special something that fans cannot get anywhere else. While other albums mess up for single songs or sometimes the whole side of an album, 'Built To last' is the only album that seems to forgo that texture altogether. We've said that song-wise this is a very Dead style album, full of 'losers' trying to make the world a better place and lost in a world where no one will listen (in many ways this is 'Workingman's Dead' only twenty years on and from the eyes of an older band trying to remember being younger, rather than a young band wondering what it felt like to be old). But production-wise this isn't the Dead but a vessel marked '1980s' with only an occasional diluted essence of what makes this band so special. Navigating your way between the two extremes is hard work so most fans tend not to bother and who can blame them when there are already so many other gems in the catalogue to worship. But 'Built To last' has always held a fascination for me and is an album I keep coming back to, as if one day I'll find out how to crack the 'hidden code' within this record, even though I know that there are better albums to spend my time pondering over (yes I ponder over the music in my collection - doesn't everybody?!)
This is rather apt because another trait of Deadheads the world over of any era is looking for 'clues'. Even though we know the Grateful Dead are human (although to be honest I've had my doubts about Pigpen) and even though we know they rotate their sets to keep them from being bored, there's a sort of collusion that has built up between band and fans that somehow somewhere this whole scheme is being guided by something deeper than either of us. There's a whole intricate system of synchronicity that weaves it's way throughout the Dead's history, from a horse named 'Dark Star' winning at the race course the very day of the show when the Dead have been planning to resurrect that very track after a four year gap, to the poignancy of that unknowingly final concert setlist on July 9th 1995 where the band end with the Garcia-Hunter eulogy 'Black Muddy River' (not often performed) and the song of mourning 'Box Of Rain' (both encores at the band's 2318th show, including the ones given by The Warlocks, Emergency Cree and Mother McCree). The mutterings about something weird going on took flight especially within these last few years when we'd so nearly lost Jerry once and fans took this stuff seriously after warnings in early 1995 adapting words from 'Casey Jones' for 'trouble ahead - Jerry in Red' (because he'd been wearing the colour the last show before he became ill and usually wore black) and predicting the end of the world because after some twenty years of requests the band finally debuted Phil Lesh's 'Unbroken Chain' on stage that tour. This record isn't often discussed in those terms but in retrospect this album just sounds like a goodbye: there's a tearful poignancy in all of Garcia's songs, lamenting in the title track that 'good things are not meant to last' and imagining a journey into Heaven on 'Standing On The Moon', recording how beautiful it seems and yet despite it all 'I'd rather be with you'. Mydland too seems to pre-see his own death less than a year after this album's release, claiming that his light is about to pass into darkness for good and the irony of the record finale, the almost unbearably heartbreaking ballad 'I Will Take You Home' (with the pledge 'I'm always going to be there for you' sadly proved wrong). The title 'Built To Last' sounds ironic now that we know for certain it was the last record for the band and the final release before the death of two members, but it was originally meant as a joke, with the band on the front cover building a 'house of cards' that seems too rickety to stand for any length of time at all (mirroring how many people saw the band in their early days). However even the cards the band members hold are said to be ominous by those who know these things (and it ought to be remembered cards have been an integral part of the Dead story since Bob Hunter started writing about outlaws in 1970): Jerry's card, the ten of diamonds, is meant to signify someone caught 'halfway' between the mortal and heavenly worlds (the same card appears on his debut album 'Garcia') while Brent's card is very odd indeed, with the nine of clubs and the nine of spades deliberately stuck together (suggesting someone somewhere was taking this seriously) - these cards mean suffering and desolation and a major battle respectively; sadly all three cards turned out to be right (though as Bob has the same card as Jerry perhaps they were just tripping hard the night they cose the cards?) Add in the fact that this album was released on Halloween - a popular date for Deadheads with all the mystical connections that date has - and you have one heck of a spooky LP.
Anyway, back on planet Earth, this is another of those Dead albums to include a 'half-theme', this time of being 'fooled' (perhaps the band, asked to write something 'like' 'In The Dark' imagined what theme perhaps ought to have been on that album?) Garcia asks us to beware a 'foolish heart' because while cruelty brings its own problems and Hunter's lyric contains a whole host of cheeky things never to do, listening to a foolish heart is indeed worse because everyone gets hurt in the end (Once again, Bob may have been writing about Jerry's complicated love life; while he's finally stopped seeing Mountain Girl he has three other lovers all on the go, though not quite at the same time: artist Manesha Matheson (who he marries in 1990), Barbara Meir and old flame Deborah Koons, who he met in 1975 but won't marry till 1994). 'Just A Little Light', like many a Mydland song, is a bitter memory of how carefree the narrator used to be ('I had a lot of dreams once...but some of them came true' he sighs) hurt so often now 'holds little but contempt for all things beautiful and bright' while inwardly craving love and affection all the same. 'Built To Last' again sounds like Hunter talking to his old friend, promising to be there to get him out of his problems while there are also 'times when I can't help at all'. Sighing over relationships that seem to inevitably break and crying out for something permanent and reliable, this is another narrator whose been hoodwinked too often recently. 'Blow Away' has Mydland discussing the idiocy of love where 'a man and woman come together as strangers - and when they part they're usually strangers still'. 'Victim Or The Crime' has Weir looking at the fate of a junkie who lives by hippie ideals for most of their lives before falling prey to addiction and the darker side of their character, betraying those they love to get the money for another fix. Weir, usually such a friendly, giving soul, is confused: should he pity the poor man for falling so far? Or feel betrayed that this is how humanity is when you dig hard enough under the surface? 'Standing On The Moon' is Garcia and Hunter's vision of Heaven - but it's only partly like the one in the storybooks, with the narrator alone and cold for the most part, surrounded by 'cries of victory and defeat' from back home that no longer seem important anymore; a man fooled both by what comes next and what life on this world was all about. Weir's peculiar 'Picasso Moon' , 'hangin' ten on space and time', could be about anything but seems to be about falling in love with someone unsuitable, though it's not clear whose fooling who in the relationship (all we know is that the feeling is so overpowering it's 'bigger than a drive-in movie, oo-wee!') Finally Mydland's 'I Will Take You Home' seems to be the one moment of 'truth' on the record, with Brent promising that he'll save his daughter from all her nightmares, but sadly the irony of this record is that the one healing moment we know to be true (that a father will always be there for his daughter) is itself a 'betrayal', caused by Mydland's fatal overdose the following July. (You could add to this the 'non-album-song' added to the CD, Mydland's ecological protest 'We Can Run' where mankind had betrayed nature, a garden where 'we never pay the rent, some of it is broken and the rest of it is bent').
So why this theme and why now? Well one thought is that it could be a slightly guilty conscience on the part of a band who'd suddenly found themselves back in the spotlight again despite not actually doing that much different. While Jerry's return to health was something to celebrate and 'Touch Of Grey' was a fine way to celebrate it, the band were left totally perplexed as to why their fanbase suddenly quadrupled overnight and it was a cause for concern amongst a band who'd prided themselves on staying to true to their principles and going their own way, oblivious to fame and fortune. The need to forego their old favourite theatres in favour of bigger, colder stadiums and a string of problems with security and Deadheads crashing venues for free without a ticket (plus a rise in the number of fatal overdoses during shows) would have been troubling for a band as closely in touch with their audience as the Dead. There may well be another cuase too. On one level the Dead were the least likely success story of the 1980s ever: they only started music videos and promotion in 1987 (and then 'Grey' was a delightful parody of them and music videos, with a bunch of skeletons filling in for the band), delighted in taking the mickey out of anybody in power who might help them and were not prepared to sacrifice their integrity in anyway. On another level this makes the Dead the perfect band for people too clever to be fooled by the 1980s 'you're all jerks and we can make our money off you' philosophy, which sadly still hangs around today. In one of his kinder moments, Jerry was asked if he thought the sudden influx of fans was a 'mistake' but claimed that they too were 'Deadheads', that 'the thing they like about Grateful Dead music has something to do with what we like about it - it's not a case of mistaken identity, they know who we are'. Even so he and the others may have been nervous at having so many youngsters pay attention to them and by association making the world pay closer attention to them than they had in twenty years; caught under that scrutiny and expected to play ball - whilst at the same time letting their fans old and new down if they did play ball - anyone would feel guilty about doing the right thing. Far from being upset at this album's poor reception, most of the band seemed to sigh with relief and enjoyed the last years all the more for taking the pressure down a notch.
All except Mydland. Ever since he joined the band in 1980 things had seemed to go wrong. While fans seem split over whether 'Shakedown Street' (the last album before he joined) or 'Go To Heaven' (his first) are the worst Dead album, most are agreed that the latter isn't exactly a masterpiece (though like all Dead records it has its moments). The Dead then stopped making records altogether for seven years, except for barely better received live albums 'Reckoning' and 'Dead Set' in the gap in the middle. Most critics singled Mydland out for blame - he was the member who joined when the rot set in, his ballads sounded like 'Michael McDonald' and didn't fit in with the band's sound and his contemporary sounds weren't always a perfect fit with the band's retro tones. That assessment was rather unfair: ever since Pigpen people had been picking on the keyboardist's role in the band (Keith got some stick too), simply because the piano sound came after the 'established' sound of the late 60s. As for sounding out of touch with the band's roots, that's precisely what Brent was hired to do. Even when the band resumed recording and even though Brent had a whole string of compositions to his credit, there was space only for one ('Tons Of Steel', the most Dead-like of the lot) as if someone at Arista was listening to the criticism and didn't want to rock the boat. A stronger character might have laughed it off and got on with the job in hand (after all there's a whole string of fans, including me, who believe that while Mydland's early years were difficult he was the band member offering the most in terms of adventure and brilliance across those last couple of years in the eighties). But however tough he sounded and however confidently he could shine when he was having a good day, Mydland's wounds went deep as any of his lyrics will attest (the loss of his wife - and even more his kids - hounds him in his writing and practically all his songs will be about how love let him down, usually kicking someone and often himself). 'Built To Last' was his best and really his only chance at proving himself, being the only band member with songs to spare and his partner's songs calling for more keyboards than before. This album's poor reputation - and one that, as we've seen, the songs at least don't deserve however torrid many of the recordings - may have done more damage here than has been realised (certainly it kills off Brent's creativity stone dead, with no new songs added the last year of his life). While many fans dismissed him as merely the newbie who never quite fitted, in many ways Brent was the ultimate Deadhead, the member who more than any other stood for those misfit traits of doing your own thing and losing your isolation in something bigger than you that's a cause for good. While Garcia's early death in August 1995 was a terrible tragedy that effectively took away Father Christmas for most Deadheads and ended the band in one terrible blow, at least we had a sign that it was coming and most fans were resigned to it from the moment Jerry went into his coma in 1986 (in many ways the quality of those last nine years are irrelevant; the thrill of having Jerry back to somewhere close to his old self was glory enough). But Brent's death from a drug overdose in July 1990 was preventable and all the more unfortunate (not a suicide, although reports claim he was very low the months before hand and he fell back into the drug habit he'd largely beaten after returning from a Dead tour to a quiet and empty house).
And so it ends, that long strange trip that's gone from bidding good morning to school girls and cream puff wars, through to dancing through the celestial heavens on dark stars and china cats, delivered us some gorgeous ballads about death and re-birth, gone on extended forays to Egypt and Shakedown Street and a Carlisle filled with Terrapins and ended with the Dead bigger if not better than they'd ever been before. Not that well liked at the time, 'Built To Last' has no chance standing up to the best of that legacy, a signing off that no one knew was going to be the last moment (there are attempts at another album in 1993 but after a few rehearsals the band leave it for another day; there is talk amongst fans that the album would have been finished as soon as the Christmas following Jerry's death although for all we know the sessions might have been abandoned again). The ultimate irony is that 'Built To Last' sounds like the perfect way to go about expanding the Dead's career, adding new nuances and backing a promising songwriter blooming into talent whilst keeping tabs with where the band had been before (even if the recording technique is an experiment too far). It's not meant to be a goodbye and falls down when treated as such. What's more, this record just doesn't sound like the 'Dead' as we've always known them - it's not on a straight line from A to B but sticking out a bit, a sort of B-and--a-half if you will. had things been different and had fate given us at least one more Dead album then I have a feeling 'Built To Last' would have made more sense - it gave the band a new songwriting voice that could have been nurtured into something great, it would have slowed down the intensity of the 'In The Dark Years' and it would have re-set the card deck, if you like, giving the band a whole new hand to play next time around. As a final goodbye it's almost unbearably poignant thanks mainly to the finality of 'Standing On The Moon' and 'I Will Take You Home', without ever quite sounding like a 'goodbye' enough somehow for all those years and all that wonderful music. However if you can hear this record without all the extra emotional baggage that's come with it since the death of two of six of its leading players and view it as a one-off experiment rather than a career move (and if you can look past the odd, disjointed and hopelessly dated sound) then there's much to love about 'Built To Last'. Jerry gets to sign off with his best set of songs since 'Terrapin', Bobby gets to explore his darker side, Brent gets to prove his brilliance with easily the four best of his seven published compositions with the Dead and Phil, Billy and Mickey all get moments to shine across the record, something that wasn't always true of the 'previous years'. Yes there's nothing here quite as magnificent as 'Touch Of Grey' and repeating a formula a second time is never quite as exciting as the first time, as per 'In The Dark'. But 'Built To Last' is in many ways that album's superior: it's longer, deeper, more consistent and with a scope much wider and a heart much bigger than anything 'In The Dark' can manage. The band went the wrong way about it, which makes it instantly less likeable and involves a lot more work, and there are no in-concert favourites this time around (not that the band had many years to play these songs). However if the Dead taught us anything in their 30 years together it's that beauty and brilliance come in all shapes and packages; that once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. So it proves for 'Built To Last', perhaps the least liked and the most forgotten and yet in many ways the most worthy Dead album of them all.
For such a simple song, Garcia/Hunter's 'Foolish Heart' took an awfully long time to get right. Originally written as a Who-style rocker with a 'Pinball Wizard' style acoustic guitar lick running through it, the song mutated into a 'Touch Of Grey' style rocker that's another of the most poppy songs the Dead ever did. Many fans dislike it for that reason (the Dead shouldn't be messing around with anything top 40) but there's a lot of things to love about it. There's real ingenuity in the way that the intro builds to the verse, then the chorus, then the bridge, then the instrumental which by the times it hits a triumphant peak at the end an octave above where it started has become a true Dead-style powerhouse, whatever the singalong chorus might say. Hunter too seems to have ignored his partner's simpler-than-normal melody and offered a lyric that's actual devious and strange. You think you know where this song is going - don't be fooled by the goofy nature of being in love is the song's message - but a lesser writer would have had the love the narrator feels (and which is clearly at least in part about Garcia's chopping and changing of relationships) putting everything right. Instead Hunter is deeply realistic, admitting that while a 'selfish heart is trouble, a foolish heart is worse' and listing all the problems that become of the other people in the narrator's life, trying to navigate their way through the complex emotions (it's hard not to feel something about the hurt of an old friend whose been abandoned in the corner while his old partner makes gooey eyes at another in the lines about 'shun a brother and a friend, never look around the bend...' While some lines are clearly meant to be comic (perhaps remembering the John and Yoko love story, Hunter portrays the narrator falling for someone who 'paints the Mona Lisa with a spray-can, call it art' - believing that when in love you're blind to a person's faults so much that anything they do seems like art of the highest order), others are laden with the prophecies of doom, the narrator 'leaping from branch to branch' without a care even though those around him fear him getting hurt. Garcia must have known what was going on here - it's there in his defiant vocal, as if he's singing against his better judgement - and this might be why he spent so long on getting the 'balance' of the song just right. Note too the lyrical references to 'carving your name in ice and wind' - 'Franklin's Tower' warned us that planting one begat the other, the result here is a frosty relationship the narrator is so full of warmth he barely notices. The result is 90% of the way to being a Dead classic, built around a splendid guitar interplay and some pretty Mydland keyboard work, that like many a song on this album is let down by a performance that while great doesn't match up (everyone is re-acting to everyone else like a Mexican Wave instead of charging from the front in the usual Dead manner). Even so 'Foolish Heart' is a neglected song that deserved to do better when released as a single from the album where it missed completely on both sides of the Atlantic - all the stranger following two relative big success stories a couple of years before. Live Performances: 87
Brent's muscly 'Just A Little Light' is another case of a promising song let down by an indifferent performance where only the gritty vocals, lead and harmony, cut through the morass of the sound. Mydland has clearly been studying Hunter's work and comes up with his own take on the poet's wordier worthier style, full of Bob's characteristic quotable parables ('There ain't nobody safer than someone who doesn't care' and 'I had a lot of dreams once - but some of them came true) and he's clearly upped his game from the one-dimensions of his earlier ballads. This song ought to be the most convincing rocker on the album, in fact, with a purring hypnotic riff and an open ended verse-chorus structure that should have given way to some great jams (instead this song was barely heard live in comparison to most of the rest of the album). Thematically this is the usual Brent fare: he's been betrayed by a lover, his heart will never be the same and which leaves him a 'stranger, full of irony and spite'. For all his wounds, though and is determination that no one should ever get the better of him again, he still ends the song pleading for someone to show him kindness, just 'a little light'. Throughout the song is full of great arrangement touches too: the sweeping synth-strings after every line of pleading for 'just a little light' as if extinguishing Mydland's inner candle with a nonchalant flourish and a killer middle eight ('This could be just another highway...') where the song dips a key and the harmony vocals kick in, like a demented Eurovision song gone wrong (or gone right, depending how you feel). If only the band had recorded this album properly this song could have really been something, punchy and purring and powerful, instead of just drifting along (the end, particularly is terrible, a 'tah-dah' look-at-me and collapse mid-note, unworthy of a band as instinctively melodic as the Dead). Even as it is, though , this is no small triumph for Mydland whose come a long way in his ten year journey with the band, with the single best purring vocal of his short studio career with the Dead and a keyboard part that really enhances rather than swamps the rest of the song. Live Performances: 21
I'm also rather partial for title song 'Built To Last', perhaps the most obscure Garcia-Hunter song of the lot. True the studio version is once more a whole lot of nothing and this time the mix is atrocious to boot, with Garcia's reedy voice dipped lower than the humming wordless choir that ought to be in the background, never mind the nosy synths, bass and drums (Garcia's beloved MIDI synthesiser, which his guitar is put through for that 'artificial' effect, is also five years away from being musical enough to work). Fans didn't get much of a chance to hear this one in concert, either, although I'm a big fan of the few versions that are out there, especially the later ones when the band understand the song more making it sweeter and more nostalgic than what's here. In common with Hunter's other lyrics post-coma this is a song reflecting on death and what happens next, a weary Garcia taking a leaf out of George Harrison's book and deciding that as life is so impermanent and 'all earthly things must pass' he needs a stronger belief system to hold on to. The key line here though might be Hunter's sneaky spanner in the works as he spends a whole verse talking about how something must have been 'built to last till time itself comes crumbling from the wall' before sweeping away our rug of hope with the line 'show me something built to last - or built to try'. The lyrics also reflect on the uncertainty of life, the fact that some days can leave you so certain what your place on the planet is that you can 'walk on coals of fire' - and other times when even the slight wind that ruffles your neck is enough to make you ill and frozen. The chorus is unusual, the narrator being beckoned forth by 'three blue stars on a hill'; is Hunter referring to Orion's belt? (as keen Pyramid watchers - see the concert in Egypt in 1978 - the pair would have known how much faith the Egyptians put in being re-incarnated there, which is thought to be why the Great Pyramids the Dead played in front of are aligned the way they are). These lines make for interesting comparison with this album's 'Standing On The Moon' which also has Garcia's soul talking to us in a journey across the heavens. There's a sweet ending too, Hunter basically telling his friend (and via him us, his audience) not to force himself to try any harder than he has already, that he's already achieved more than enough and can 'let fate decide the rest' about how our actions are viewed. Together with a slow and stately walking pace melody that's low key but memorable, 'Built To Last' is another song that 'got away', far better than fans give it credit for. Live Performances: 18
My favourite Mydland tune out of the seven released in his lifetime is 'Blow Away', his heaviest and most emotionally resonant collaboration with John Barlow, although that said once again the studio versions are a load of blether about nothing; it's the stripped down live performances that really resonate (including an astonishing version included as a bonus track on the CD with a false ending and an extraordinary improvised rap even Pigpen would have dipped his cowboy hat to). Slowly coming to terms with the fact he'll never have full custody of his children and his life as a family man is surely over, Mydland is hit by the truth of what 'love' is - that you only truly love someone when you do what's right for them, not for you. This is clearly a painful realisation and one that will take some getting used to, Brent imagining himself as a 'feather in a whirlwind' that will eventually recover when the wind dies down. The opening verse, though, is his observant eye at its best, cynically viewing love as the union of two strangers who never get to know each other and are only playing at love (a little like 'Foolish Heart' then) and angrily snapping at God for the 'practical joke' played on earthlings that leave us all 'bottles that cannot be filled'. The chorus is more intimate, though, turning unexpectedly upwards to the major key as if reaching out for love one last time and where Brent addresses his wife as 'baby' one last time. With a fantastic singalong riff that recalls the Dead cover classic 'Not Fade Away' (giveitjustaminute giveitjustalittleminute it'llblowawaaaaaaay!'), some great grungy piercing guitarwork from Garcia and Weir and some sweet harmony vocals, this is - despite another chaotic performance that seems to slow down in the middle - another fantastic song and perhaps the highlight of the album. Garcia's brief guitar solo near the end is a thing of beauty too, somehow merging country-rock with Nirvana. Live Performances: 23
'Victim Or The Crime' continues the harsh aggressive tones of the last few songs. A dense Weir-Barlow song that at over seven minutes is the longest here by a margin of 55 seconds, this is another Marmite track that fans either love or hate. It's certainly heavy going, the band playing against rather than with each other and full of squealing squawling distorted Garcia guitarwork trying dimly to pierce another indifferent backing track. Lyrically too it's not what most fans would have wanted to hear: it pays a very harsh and despondent portrayal of a hippie who went that bit too far and screwed up too often, now a helpless addict resorting to stealing from family and friends to fund his habit. The story's impact comes from both the sheer amount of sad stories now taking place regularly at Dead shows since the band became 'big' that sound like this (fans trying to steal guitars, overdoses in the parking lot before gigs, fans breaking down doors rather than pay for tickets) and the ailing health of both Garcia and Mydland, neither long for this world. Weir starts the song in third person on a verse that sounds like it's being intoned by Vincent Price ('Patience runs out on the junkie - the dark side hires another soul') before turning the song first person, 'Wharf Rat' style, midway through ('What fixation feeds this fever? Am I living truth or rank deceiver? And so I wrestle with the angel... ') After years of giving Deadhead misfits everywhere unconditional love, this song comes close to drawing a line in the sand: yes the real world is a mess and we should do all we can to avoid it, but to go that far? At what moment does the victim of society start becoming the perpetrator of their own crime? The song has no answers, instead fading away on Garcia's bubbling guitar wrath as Weir gets more and more hysterical. Quickly singled out for either the highest praise or biggest condemnation of scorn on the record, how you take this track depends on how strongly you feel the Dead's role in determining who becomes a 'Deadhead' should be. Many new-coming fans saw this as an attack on them even though the character has clearly been pushing his luck for a while (with patience finally running out - this is no over-night one-off). But then for all their hippie-dippy image the Dead have never been afraid to pick up on and comment about the dark vibes occasionally around them; it speaks volumes to me, for instance, that the Dead were the only act at Altamont to write a song about it, even if they did all turn round and go home rather than play ('New Speedway Boogie' if you didn't know). This song too paraphrases that classic line 'one way or another the darkness got to give' and hearing the scary sound of this recording you're even more sure which way it's going to go. If any Dead song ever came out and said the sixties dream was over it's this one and is no less shocking for the fact that most of their contemporaries had been saying this since at least 1969. The Dead surely have a right to sing about this too, however uncomfortable it makes many of their fans and 'Victim', while again rather thrown away performance wise, is a welcome attempt at trying something new and something a bit edgier than usual which almost comes off. Live Performances: 96
Garcia-Hunter's final ever song on a Grateful Dead studio LP is fittingly another of their classic eulogies. 'Standing On The Moon' may be painfully slow, repetitive, the simplest song Garcia had written since 'Cream Puff War' 23 years earlier and yet again indifferently thrown together, but blimey it's a powerful song in context, Garcia's weediest reediest oldest vocals yet basically waving us goodbye, stopping off halfway to heaven to reflect on Earth one last time (not blue and green but 'crimson white and indigo' - this pair always did see the world differently to everyone else). Hunter may have been inspired by Barlow's lyrics for 'Throwing Stones' on the last album, which he admired, full of lines about Earth being a 'peaceful place - or so it looks from space', expanding the central verse into a full song. If the middle eight (there is no chorus) gets a little too Abba, seeing children playing and scorning pointless battles being fought by one pinprick against each other (Garcia must have better eyesight than we thought to see all that from the lunar surface!) and the melody slows to a crawl, it's all worth it for that stunning unexpected move to the minor key for the middle eight ('It's like a mighty melody...') The ending, too, is perfect - Garcia turns the tables, declares that he's not really going to Heaven after all - he's just come from there and is looking at it now in a way that mere mortals who live here never can. Reflecting on where the journey takes him next, Garcia simply shrugs and admits he has 'nothing left to do' anyway and sighs that whatever may happen 'I would rather be with you'. I defy any Deadhead to have got this far through this book/website not to have a lump in their throat at this point, on the last ever Garcia vocal on the last ever Grateful Dead album, an almost scarily perfect goodbye. Yes most fans and even the authors seem to have preferred 'Black Muddy River', which does almost the same thing, but for me this song is more poignant - that song is basically a one-line metaphor spread out into a full song, while this one is full of multi-levels working at once; the twist at the end, the stupidity and smallness of man and the ambiguous reflection on quite what fate is in store for Garcia make this song the more special I think. Live Performances: 71
Conversely, easily the best performance on this album comes in the form of 'Picasso Moon' - a song that's arguably the weakest song here (certainly the weirdest). Weir and Barlow's cryptic commentary involves a tough female character and images of 'chrome spiked bunnies' and a chorus that sounds like how a heavy metal band would have written 'Dark Star' ('Picasso Moon, shattering light, diamond bullets ripping up the night'). Weir may have been intending to write a song that worked like one of painter Pablo Picasso's collages, all striking jagged edges and confusing symbols all heaped together (then again he may simply have been doing a bit of re-decorating - 'Picasso Moon Painting' are an interior decorating firm in Bloomington). There's a great suspenseful riff at the heart of this one that seems to ask a spy-film style 'question' and then answer it with a twinkling keyboard part that moves the song back to the starting point, a neat mirror for a lyric about 'wheels within wheels'. With so much to do, the two drummers come into their own and power the whole song nicely, while Garcia's guitarwork is inspired, Mydland's funky harmony vocal sublime and Bob's lead vocal nicely gritty and funky. However there's arguably one section too many here and the single-line 'it's bigger than a drive-in movie, oo-wee', which doesn't even fit with the random images in the rest of the song, has confused many (is this the 'opposite' view of love to 'Foolish Heart', that the hard-edged woman who beckons him into her world is bigger and more important than the crazy date they're on? No I don't think that really fits either, but I'm not so sure this line is complete gibberish either so for the moment I'm stuck). Still, there are lots of memorable images here (a veritable zoo of 'Tinsel Tigers' and 'Chrome-Spiked Bunnies' plus a 'Dark Angel' with 'Mirrored Sunglasses) and a memorable ending where Bob starts maniacally laughing and then says 'Why'm I laughing? This ain't funny?!' It's just a shame that the song isn't just that little bit easier to follow. Oo-wee! Live Performances: 77
The album then closes with the lovely ballad 'I Will Take You Home'. Mydland's final published song is addressed for the first time in his career not to his ex-wife but to his daughters, promising that 'when everything gets scary daddy will come calling for his daughter again'. Vowing to fight the bogeyman and the world, whatever it throws at her, Mydland (and Barlow) vow to take his loved one home no matter how far she's strayed from it. While bordering on saccharine, with a music box style piano riff and unfortunately syrupy strings, this is superior to most efforts in the same light simply by having some substance underneath it all, Mydland's second verse sighing over a 'long road' and perhaps seeing something of himself in the 'short legs' that struggle to keep up, so this isn't just a rosy chocolate box image of childhood but a promise to put things right however bad they get. Alas the truly heartbreaking thing about this song is that Mydland was only around for another nine months after this album's release and effectively broke his promise. Chances are none of the rest of the Dead play at all on the last track on their last album, with lots of Mydlands playing instead, but for all that this is still a highly suitable way to say goodbye, the promise of a return home for the band who'd once started out on a golden road and vowing that the story never really ends. Live Performances: 34
Overall, then, there's a lot going on in this album, with every track possessing something worthwhile and many of them much more than that, with Mydland's songs and a couple of Garcia's easily up to the band's high standards. 'Built to last - but not for speed' crowed Rolling Stone in their unflattering review. 'More 'In The Dark than 'In The Dark' laughed the fans. But 'Built To Last' has the last laugh - disappointingly cumbersome and artificial sounding on release, we can look back on it now with a quarter century's hindsight and hear much more in it than there ever seemed to be at the time. The epitome of an album that grows on you with each playing (as you can concentrate more on the songs and less on the performances), 'Built To last' is aptly named, the epitome of a 'slow grower' of an album. Many speculated that the Dead had deliberately loused up this follow-up to kill off the pressure and size from fans scrambling to see them and causing trouble (manager Dennis McNally commented at the time 'thank God this album was mediocre - because if it was a hit then it would have all been over'). That may be true of the recordings, but song-wise this is easily the best Dead album in years, with a depth not heard since 'Terrapin Station' and a consistency not heard since 'Wake Of The Flood'. But what good is a collection of songs you can't stomach listening to? The end verdict sadly has to be mixed. Yes this record is flawed, with a ridiculously wrong-footed decision made early on in the recording sessions to make this record in bits and pieces and few fans who've followed the band for such a long time would have chosen such an anonymous sounding way to say goodbye. But few albums could have lived up to that billing of the final goodbye and with its poignant goodbyes from two soon-to-say-sayonara members and several excellent songs covering old ground in new ways this is a better finale than it could have been.
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