Monday, 16 December 2013
Grateful Dead "In The Dark" (Album Review)
"Must be getting early, cops are running late, paint my love a morning sky but it's all cold, dawn is breaking everywhere, light a candle curse the glare, draw the curtains I don't care, but it's alright, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive" "I know the rent is in arrears, the dog has not been fed in years, it's even worse than it appears, but it's alright, cow is giving kerosene, my kid can't read at seventeen, the words he knows are all obscene, but it's alright, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive" "Oh, well, a touch of grey kind of suits you anyway, and that is all I have to say!" "You imagine me sipping champagne from your boot, for a taste of your elegant pride, might be going to hell in a bucket, baby, but at least I'm enjoying the ride" "There may come a day I can dance on your grave, unable to dance I will still crawl across it, unable to dance I will fall" "Shaking in the garden the fear within you grows, here there may be roses to punch you on the nose, put my arms around you and love you till you cry, wrap you up in sweet perfume and love you till you die, when push comes to shove you're afraid of love" "Brother Esau holds a blessing, brother Esau holds a curse, I would say the blame is mine but I expect it's something worse, the more my brother looks like me the less I understand, the silent war that bloodied both our hands" "One Hundred Thousand Tons Of Steel made to roll, the brakes don't work and the grades too steep, the engines sure to blow, One Hundred Thousand Tons Of Steel out of control, she's more like a rollercoaster than the train I used to know" "I have to pray to God this ain't the day we meet, I've done about everything I can except try dragging my feet" "Picture a bright blue ball just spinning, spinning free, dizzy with possibilities, paint it with a skin of sky, brush in some clouds and sea, call it home for you and me, a peaceful place - or so it looks from space, a closer look reveals the human race" "Shipping powders back and forth, singing black goes South and white goes North, and the whole world full of petty wars, singing I got mine and you got yours, and lose your step fall out of grace, he current fashions set the pace, and the radical he rant and rave, saying 'someone's got to turn the page', and the rich man in his summer home, crying 'just leave well enough alone', but his pants are down - his cover's blown, the politicians throwing stones, so the kids they dance and shake their bones, 'cause it's all too clear we're on our own, ashes ashes all fall down" "Black muddy river, roll on forever I don't care how deep or wide, if you've got another side, black muddy river, roll on forever, black muddy river, roll"
The Grateful Dead "In The Dark" (1987)
Touch Of Grey/Hell In A Bucket/When Push Comes To Shove/West L.A. Fadeaway// /Tons Of Steel/Throwing Stones/Black Muddy River/ (My Brother Esau)
'In The Dark' is a bit of a surprise in the Grateful Dead's chronology. After two decades of selling albums to a slowly dwindling number of the faithful, the Grateful Dead ended 1987 as one of the biggest grossing acts of the age and with their first top ten album and single...ever. 'In The Dark' was even jokingly referred to in some quarters as the band's 'breakthrough' album after 14 previous albums and 20 years of trying. Most groups would kill for that sort of exposure but typically the Dead were worried when their crowds swelled and quadrupled in size and longterm fans dismissively took to calling newbie kids 'Darkers' (after this album) or 'Greyers' (after the hit single). What on earth had they started doing right after all these years that they'd been getting wrong? Would Dead concerts still seem like private shows put on for a (rather large) intimate family? Would the Dead have to - gulp - start acting professionally? Well, sadly as it turns out, the Dead have only one more album and just eight more years to run after this so the question sadly became rather null and void, but for many fans 'In The Dark' is the band's most triumphant moment, proof that if you keep playing the same thing for long enough it will become fashionable sometimes.
I must admit I'm a little 'in the dark' about why this LP more than all the others should have caught the public mood in such a way. Admittedly it's not a bad album (few Dead records are) and hit single 'Touch Of Grey' (which, typically, the Dead barely performed on stage once it had become a hit) is a delightfully catchy but gloriously appropriate statement of unbending, unbowing will that only a group who've been together for 20 years would write. The fact that the public had been 'starved' of product ever since 1980's lacklustre 'Go To Heaven' LP probably helped too, with people intrigued what the band had been up to after a then-unprecedentedly long wait for a band still very much going (the Dead played a ridiculous amount of concerts in the 1980s, at a time when most other bands from the 1960s were slowing down). But considering that it took so long to make - with so many abandoned sessions along the way down the years - and how prolific the Dead had been in the past (when Garcia and Hunter came up with songs at an alarming rate in the early 70s) 'In The Dark' seems somewhat insubstantial. At only seven tracks (eight if you count the cassette version, which adds 'My Brother Esau' otherwise relegated to B-side status - we'll be following suit in our review) 'In The Dark' is hardly overflowing with ideas. Worst still, the Dead have continued their late 70s trend of trying to make their albums sound as contemporary as they can, with the result that much of their timeless (outside time, in fact) music seems shoe-horned into a sterile 80s setting that's the antithesis of everything the Dead stand for (ironically, with so many vocals treated with unsuitable technological 'quirks', they've never sounded more dead than they do here.
Perhaps the album did so well, however, because fans had convinced themselves there might never be another Dead album. Jerry Garcia's drug habit was slowly becoming a problem (you can hear his imagination gradually fading away across the second half of the 1970s, both live and on record), he was becoming overweight and short of breath, unable to let loose for the glorious extended improvised solos of the past and on July 10th 1986, almost exactly a year before this album's release, came as close to death as anyone can without actually dying, spending four days in a coma from an onset of diabetes he didn't even know he had. Suffering something like that is sure to change your way of thinking and almost certainly encouraged the band to record as soon as possible rather than delaying their planned album yet further, although in many ways it's too soon: Garcia had to learn how to play the guitar all over again and his solos on this album are patchy: you can almost hear him thinking what to play and where to soar but his fingers won't quite get there just yet. Still, his recovery in the space of just one year is extraordinary (he's pretty much back to his 1980 standard of playing by the next and final album 'Built To Last') and a testament to just how naturally musical Garcia was, able to coax music out of anything even if it meant starting all over again from the beginning. The surprise is that this new passion for life doesn't really show itself on the album: all the songs here had been played in concert in some form before Garcia's coma. Many newer fans wrongly think that Garcia and writing partner Bob Hunter must have written his ode to growing old 'Touch Of Gray' with its adamant chorus 'I will survive' as a direct result of Garcia's illness, but no: the song had been the band's most popular 'new' song ever since it's introduction in 1982 (although it's appearance as the set opener in the first gig Garcia ever played after his comeback cemented it as his 'return' song in the eyes and ears of many - and a highly moving version it is too).
Another reason the Dead might have been particularly popular in 1987 is that the Western world was at the peak of the intense commercialisation and dog-eat-dog methodology of the 1980s. Reagan in America and Thatcher in Britain between them outlawed dissent and protest as much as possible (Cameron's doing exactly the same, but more secretly, today). Americans and Brits alike were being urged that everyone had equal opportunities and they shouldn't look over their shoulder at anyone who was suffering because they had the same chance of success as you. Some people bought that ideology, naturally (some still buy it, worryingly) and some bands starting adapting to that sort of ideas in their music, further distancing themselves from their audience. But the Dead were never going to bow to what politicians told everyone to think and following them and embracing the notions of family and support that goes with being a Deadhead was the most rebellious act many Americans (and kids from other countries) could do, short of running away with the circuses that didn't really exist anymore. 'In The Dark' manages to be both the Dead slightly more up-to-date (the production, which agonisingly distances the drummers, spaces the players out individually and treats the vocals with a muddy soup) and doing what they've always done: singing songs that could have been from any era, with no trace of that 'rat race' mentality so many other bands of the period had (as a hint other AAA albums out that year include Lindisfarne's 'cash-in' cheapo set of rock and roll covers 'C'mon Everybody', The Monkees get tempted back to record 'Pool It' seemingly only for the reunion money and Pink Floyd's anti-sceptic 'A Momentary Lapse Of Reason', which is about as uncaring an AAA album as they come). 'In The Dark' sounds very much like every other album out that year, but it's heart is beating stronger than probably any other record out that year (1987 also sees the rise of Marillion, a 1980s band who out-prog even the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd, suggesting that a 'romantic' alternative to the crassness of the 1980s was doing well in this period).
While the Dead have never really been political animals in the same way that the likes of CSN and Roger Waters have always been, 'In The Dark' is also the closest they come to a political album. Bob Weir, especially, has a real bee in his bonnet on this album, turning the tables on those who take money and bribes and live off the suffering of others only to look down on the Dead and fans because they enjoy music and soft drugs ('Hell In A Bucket'), writing the Vietnam polemic 'My Brother Esau' (which is about 20 years too late to have any impact on that war but is under-rated nonetheless, with allegories to long forgotten biblical wars that changed nothing showing how futile war is) and the marvellous 'Throwing Stones', a wry shrug of the shoulders at the ineffectualness of war the world over. I'd go so far as to rate this as Bob's best collection of contributions to a Dead album since 'Wake Of The Flood' in 1973, speaking up on behalf of the many and saying what so few others were brave enough to say (Waters, having abandoned the Floyd, doesn't have anything like the audience for his rants he used to have by 1987, CSN are a man down, David Crosby then serving a three year stretch for drug and gun possession and Jefferson Airplane have mutated into the poppy Starship by 1987, turning from a rottweiler with sharp teeth into a poodle simply there for show). Given how few other albums there were like 'In The Dark' out there in 1987, perhaps I am starting to see why this album was as popular as it was.
Garcia, though, is as ever, living in his own bubble and demonstrates very little knowledge of what's happening in the outside world. Many of his songs for the album (all written in collaboration with Hunter, as ever) seem to be about his complicated love life in the 1980s: Garcia had been with Carolyn Adams (known as 'Mountain Girl' to the Dead family) since the mid-1960s, although the two only married in 1981. However Garcia had also met old flame Deborah Koons in 1975 (while the Dead were making 'Blues For Allah') and slowly across the next ten years fell head over heels for her (finally marrying her a year before his death in 1994). There's also a third figure, Barbara Meir, who Garcia met sometime shortly before this album and who he's also deeply in love with even if the pair never actually marry. All three relationships are going on at once in 1987, with Garcia being Garcia still unsure about committing to any of them (his friendship with David Crosby and his talk of 'free love' is clearly having an effect). Depending on what books you read, the three of them didn't even know about each other at this point (although Koons and Adams are going to have a humdinger of a row when Garcia dies and they have to decide which of them is the 'widow'). That's clearly the inspiration behind 'When Push Comes To Shove', a brave stab at a comedy song that still can't put off the serious I-can't-decide motif at the heart of the song. Otherwise Garcia's clearly thinking about his mortality on this album, positively embracing life and 'borrowed time' with 'A Touch Of Grey', exploring the darker side of life that temporarily floored him on 'West L.A. Fadeaway' (a sea of bland hotel rooms causing the room to spin, although it might well have been about the death of Garcia's friend John Belushi rather than his own near-death experience) and 'Black Muddy River', the last in a glorious run of Garcia-Hunter songs about what happens when we got o meet our maker.
With Phil Lesh still sidelined songwriting wise (he hasn't written a song since 'Terrapin Station' in 1977, although he had two planned for the unfinished album the Dead were planning in 1995 before Garcia died) that leaves only keyboardist Brent Mydland. Still stinging from the poor reception his pair of songs on 'Go To Heaven' received, Brent is a rather shadowy figure on this album with just one song ('1000 Tonnes') that seems like lots of old Dead songs strung together to please old fans (especially 'Casey Jones'). That's a shame because the songs he comes up with for 'Built To Last' (many of which he already had for this album but didn't use) are better than Garcia's or Weir's for the most part and add a new strain of unrequited love songs to the Dead's overflowing canon of ideas and styles. Even his keyboards seem mixed low-down on this album - instead 'In The Dark' is dominated like never before by the two drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, which is a plus on songs like 'Touch Of Grey' and 'Throwing Stones' that really benefit from having the two chasing each other's tails around the drunmkit, but falls apart on simpler songs like '1000 Tonnes' and 'West L.A. Fadeaway' where the emptiness of the backing track simply reveals how poorly these digital drums have been recorded compared to the days of old.
However, at least the band played together in the studio for this album (before adding overdubs in most cases), getting at least the 'feel' of the band still being the 'five fingers of one hand' they aimed for in the 1960s. It certainly helps that almost all the material on this album had been played by the band live for four or five years by this time, the longest the Dead had ever 'road tested' their material before recording it. Legend has it that the band treated the studio at 'Marin Vets' like a 'stage' (it was, in fact, a converted theatre), turning the lights out so that they would 'feel' that an audience might have been in front of them (which probably lead to the 'In The Dark' title). 'Built To Last' is an album that has better songs but worst performances, the tracks being built up layer by layer so that the whole thing doesn't really 'connect'. By contrast everything sits together nicely on 'In The Dark' - it's just a shame that some of the songs aren't that bit more substantial. By contrast the only time the Dead saw each other on 'Built To Last' it seemed to be when they were shooting the cover.
Talking of which, the clever cover for 'In The Dark' is both striking and fitting. Throughout the album the Dead sound 'in the dark' as to whether they still fit in 1987's pop charts after so long away and in a period so alien to their sensibilities and many of the narrators are puzzled by what life has been throwing at them, Garcia and Mydland in a personal and Weir in a universal sense. Shooting the band 'in the dark' is a masterstroke, the spotlights shone up into the band's eyes revealing the band as we've never seen them before. The mysterious 13th eye to the right of shot, by the way, is Billy Graham - the manager of the Fillmore East and West venues which had been the Dead's second home for much of the 1960s and 70s - who happened to call down to the Dead's office to talk business that day before finding the band were downstairs having their photo taken. As far as I can make out the other 'eyes' include (top row) Brent Mydland and Phil Lesh (middle row) Bill Kreutzmann and Jerry Garcia (bottom row) Mickey Hart and Bob Weir. Interestingly the LP and the current CD re-issue features these eyes the 'right way up', but the first CD pressings had the eyes 'upside down' for extra special weirdness effect. At least the cover we got isn't quite as spooky as it might have been: the creepy collage collection of eyes used on the back cover (neatly mimicking the many faced monster seen on 'Anthem Of The Sun') was originally intended for the front but in the latest of many run-ins with record company Warner Brothers they thought the cover was too frightening for people to buy! (For once, they were probably right!) This was, actually, a 'gift' given to Mickey Hart by a deadhead - quite what they were trying to tell him is unclear! (Maybe they thought he really was 'dead'?!) Even creepier (and rejected early on) was the band's original idea: shots of them with their eyes masked out and black! (The Dead had clearly been watching too many films starring the undead!)
Overall, then, 'In The Dark' is a curious LP. It's certainly an improvement on 'Go To Heaven' with the band firmly committed and well drilled this time and the decision for the band to record all-together as if they were playing live is the best decision the band could have made. Some of the songs, too, are every bit as good as this album's reputation suggests: 'Touch Of Grey' is a terrifically witty, wry song that manages to juggle Garcia's return to health (even before he knew he was poorly), the band's return to the studio, the band (and audience) entering middle age and being a gloriously catchy singalong even to people who'd never heard of the Dead before. 'Throwing Stones', too, is one of the best Dead songs from the second half of their career, with a particularly thrilling climax that finally asks the band to do something more direct and taut than their usual loose jamming style. 'Hell In A Bucket' is a fine, spirited rocker that proves the band still have bite. And 'Black Muddy River' is a fine ballad that proves the band still have heart. It's strange, though, how unlikeable much of the rest of the album is and why, even after a seven year gap between albums, there are only seven songs on the album 'proper'. Considering that there were so many other songs available (many of them released on follow-up 'Built To Last') and the fact that this album was meant to celebrate the new vigour in the band after Garcia's return to health, it's surprising that this album often feels so...insubstantial. Certainly I wouldn't have pointed at this album out of all the many classics in the Dead back catalogue and said 'this is the one that's going to sell millions' - it's not actually quite as good as 'Built To Last' as a whole, even if the performances and tie-in single are certainly superior. But there's no doubting the affection that fans have for this record or the fact that it is still the most commonly seen Dead album around, a strong seller that outsold records with much bigger advertising budgets and with much more airplay than this one. At times I can see why ('Touch Of Grey' has hit written all over it). But at other times, when suffering this album's lesser moments, I'm still 'in the dark' as to why...
I've heard a lot of Dead concerts in my time (not quite the full 2,300 shows but I'm getting closer) and never is there a more moving spectacle than hearing Jerry Garcia, effectively back from the dead (and thus back playing with the Dead), kicking off the band's first show with 'Touch Of Grey'. The song might have been five years old but its chorus of 'I will get by, I will survive' sends an audible shiver through the audience of Deadheads as they realise how close they came to losing their hero. The best Grateful Dead song that doesn't sound anything like the Grateful Dead, 'Grey' somehow manages to be both chirpy and catchy and completely heartfelt, fully in keeping with anything else the band have done before. This track is a popular song even among old timers like me who feel the band lost it a bit during their last decade together and it's extremely popular among fans who only discovered the band through this song, ironically the first real influx of 'new' fans who wouldn't 'get' the references to middle-age and touches of grey. A song that manages to unite both oldies and newbies is a rare song indeed, but 'Touch Of Grey' is a rare song, managing to balance moaning verses about the difficulties in life with a life-affirming chorus that still sounds heartfelt. Garcia's bouncy melody gives the band their first novelty song since 'China Cat Sunflower' and the guitarist's clear joy in the song and with life as he launches into the solo is magnificent (especially considering the problems Garcia had trying to learn the guitar all over again during the past year). Hunter, though, is clearly aiming for something deeper with his words, managing to make us laugh both at what life is like now and what we expected it to be when we were younger (the 'kid who can't read at seventeen, with the words he knows all obscene!', an unfortunate by-product of carefree Dead parenting).
However, there's a deeper message in the song for those who want to hear it: Garcia even sings that growing older if not necessarily wiser is 'a lesson for me' and that while he might not be better off for being older something about it is better, before Hunter sums the song's philosophy with the carefree final reflection 'Oh, well a touch of grey kind of suits you anyway - and that was all I had to say'. The performance, too, is the Dead at their best, with all six musicians playing parts that on paper really shouldn't go together before coalescing magically and often unexpectedly on the odd co-ordinated line. In other words, this sounds like something a 'proper' band would have released in 1987 - but because the Dead approach music like nobody else it also sounded fascinatingly different and new to ears who hadn't heard this sort of thing before. There's a reason this song became the Dead's only charting single (yes, even 'Truckin' flopped in the 'outside' world!) - and it's not just the delightful promo video (featuring the band as skeleton puppets). 'Touch Of Grey' is the epitome of our website mantra of 'catchy but deep', instantly identifiable but instantly hummable too. The shock isn't that 'Touch Of Grey' became a hit but that it took the band five full years to record the song after writing what was an obvious hit! Fittingly the band started their last ever concert, on July 9th 1995, with this song, despite the fact that in true Dead style they barely played the song live back in the year when it was the song 'new' fans most wanted to hear!
'Hell In A Bucket' is a strong second track too, proof that the Dead had lost none of their bite in their 20th anniversary year. In fact, it's their rockiest song since 'From The Mars Hotel', more straightforward musically than most Dead songs and with a twin attack of snarling Garcia and Weir guitars that show they could play as 'dirty' as any heavy metal band, miles away from their usual 'clear' tones. I's just as well Weir's music is straightforward, though, because John Barlow's lyrics are difficult enough to navigate. Picing up on the colloquial term 'going to hell in a handbasket', Weir's longterm collaborator decides to 'Deadify' the phrase, turning the elegant, ethereal process into a mad, dangerous journey in an earthly bucket. Picking up on the age-old theme of people showing hate and violence towards peace-loving hippies, this song asks which section of life is more likely to end up in 'hell'. The narrator, though, is no saint but a human who 'stumbles and falls', with a lyric far more sexualised than most Dead songs (the 'babe' in the song has a 'chain, black whip and pets', the sound effects mean my guess is that the 'pet' is a 'bear'!) Weirdly, the girl has just been described as a 're-incarnation of Catherine the Great', ruler of Russia in the 18th century, when this happens- the two share a love of power but that's about it. The line about the narrator passively 'sipping champagne from her boot', by the way, is a late addition to the song (many of the early live performances from 1982 don't have this section), added by longterm Deadhead and presenter of the 'Dead radio hour' David Gans (who changed the line from 'kissing the toe of your boot'). This isn't love, though, but lust and this un-named mistress soon gets the better of the narrator, who wearily sets out his revenge: 'There may come a day I will dance across your grave - unable to dance I'll crawl'', holding the song up as Weir barks the last line over and over. The song then sums up that 'I might be going to hell in a bucket - but at least I'm enjoying the ride', although Weir's demented vocal by the final refrain suggests that he might not be enjoying the ride as much as he thinks. Another great band performance and some of the best uses of sound effects on any AAA song (complete with roaring lions, motorbikes and a description-defying grunt that sounds straight from a Hammer Horror film). 'Hell In A Bucket' isn't a song to everyone's taste (although Weir apparently cut out even more X-rated verses from his original songwriting session) and was a surprise choice for the album's second single, but it's successful in proving that the band could still bite after the 'fluffiness' of 'Touch Of Grey' and Garcia, especially, has great fun acting out of character on the guitar.
'When Push Comes To Shove' is the album's second Garcia-Hunter song, clearly about Garcia's increasingly complicated personal life and clearly written as a sequel to 'Touch Of Grey', with a bunch of 'comedy' lines hiding what's actually a pretty deep subject about being scared about commitment. Unfortunately, the mixture of the two isn't quite as sophisticated as it was on 'Grey' - the song sounds light and jolly, the lost cousin of the bar-room drawl of 'Dupree's Diamond Blues' from 1969 in fat, so hearing Hunter's lines about 'stainless steel bats' and 'rattlesnakes here to punch you in the eye' just doesn't fit. It's unusual for Garcia and Hunter to come to the song with such different ideas (usually they're the most sympathetic of collaborators), which does make me wonder whether words or music came first. Hunter's tale of the narrator literally afraid to smell the roses (because in his twisted vision they're ready to 'punch him in the nose') is a rare case of him tackling the subject of 'love' in a song ('If I Had The World To Give' is about the only other one and that's far more successful, if derivative) seems to alternate affectionately mocking and angrily chastising Garcia for his situation whereby he was in love with three women at once (everyone seems to have known about these relationships except the women involved). 'What's the worst that can happen?' the song seems to be saying, although the joke is on the narrator who genuinely believes in all these things out to get him - sadly the song ends with the situation still unresolved, the narrator clearly in love but too afraid to admit it (most Hunter characters find 'redemption' somewhere in the song). The comparatively 'newest' song on the album, this song only appeared in the Dead's setlists with Garcia's comeback show in the summer of 1986, although whether it was written when he was convalescing or was written earlier but the Dead never got round to it is unknown (the slightly awkward rhythm and simplicity of the chords, however hint that this was an early song Garcia used to help him learn how to play the guitar again). 'Push' isn't a bad song - iron-fist-inside-velvet-glove comedy is one of the Dead's specialities - but somehow 'Push' manages to be neither funny nor moving. It's never been all that popular with fans, either, being quietly dropped from the band's setlists in 1989 after far less performances than the other Garcia-Hunter songs from this album.
Side one ends with 'West L.A. Fadeaway', another Garcia-Hunter song that - while no classic - does at least have a more memorable tune and lyrics that suit the surroundings. I've always seen this paranoid song as a sort-of update to 'New Speedway Boogie', Garcia-Hunter's song of alarm after the events of Altamont and a feeling in the air that something nasty is about to change life forever. That suddenly violent song sounded so out of place on 'Workingman's Dead', part of a series of songs celebrating long life and slow death - and this one does too, set amongst songs celebrating life and middle age, with it's confused, lost narrator's physical entrapment in a series of grey hotel rooms a metaphor for his directionless life. This is another of the Dead's occasional 'loser' characters, ones like August West ('Wharf Rat') and 'Loser' himself that we know will never pick themselves up again and find happiness, but that doesn't stop them dreaming about it. This song feels more personal that those two classic compositions however and could, again, be Hunter channelling his friend's confused life at the time, meeting an 'old mistake' on the streets (who could be Deborah Koons or Barbara Meir, who'd both known Garcia as a young man before bumping into him later in life; although neither are 'girls from West L.A.', the former being from Carolina and the latter from California) and always renting cheap hotel rooms (possibly for an illicit affair, although the lyrics are vague), rootless and restless without a 'proper' home to call his own. The lines about the narrator 'working for the mob' belatedly try to make the narrator sound like another of the Dead's outlaw gangster characters, but that line sounds 'planted' to me, merely a chance for Hunter to use one of his big beloved big words 'copasetic' (to rhyme with 'pathetic' - apparently it comes from a French word meaning 'able to cope with everything and nothing' or criminal slang for 'copper on the settee'; no I'm not buying that last explanation either!) Garcia certainly seems to be channelling something in one of his all-time classic solos, guttural and angry and trying to force it's way past a 'trap', but never quite managing it, fizzing out for yet another verse of confusion and hopelessness and his vocal, too, is filled with more conviction than normal, suggesting this song is 'real' to him. One alternative interpretation by Deadheads down the years is that this song is about comedian John Belushi, who died of a drugs overdose at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont shortly before this song started appearing in the Dead's concerts in 1982 after one mistake too many. However, there's nothing to link him directly to the song. An earlier, lighter version of the song appears on the most recent CD issue as a bonus track, taped during aborted album sessions in 1984; admittedly the band are only playing a 'guide' version of the song, but it's clear that the song hasn't picked up its spooky vibe yet and don't know it as well, suggesting that playing so much of 'In The Dark' live for five years first was a good idea. Ultimately, then, 'West L.A' is a lock without a key, the narrator after rooms 'just for a minute or two' (so either for a quick illicit affair or some shady operation passing something over), unfathomable to anyone outside the song's authors.
'Tone Of Steel' is Mydland's one and only song on the album. A rollicking train number in the vein of 'Casey Jones' (both the Dead's version and the folk original), it also returns to his favourite theme of love being a trap and romances going out of control. Mydland does well to keep the metaphor going for the whole song, the pair 'jumping the tracks' where the 'brakes don't work' and 'the engine's sure to blow', although comparing his former loved one to '100,000 tonnes of steel' might have been a comparison too far (even if it does convey the sense of a juggernaut that can't be moved and that the romance was always heading for a crash somewhere down the line). Interestingly this is only the second and last time that Mydland will feature his own lyrics in a Dead song - he certainly doesn't have future collaborator Barlow's ear for a good line for conveying depth or emotion and this song bears no comparison to the pair's later, better work on 'Built To Last'. However, I've also had a softer spot for Mydland's work than most Deadheads seem to have and this song is already a huge improvement on 'Easy To Love You', the rather MOR song Mydland contributed to 'Go To Heaven'. He's clearly been doing his homework since the last album (when he'd only been a member of the Dead for a few months) and seven years of playing on classic Dead songs has clearly given him a much better knowledge for what will work with this band. The song is especially good at opening up for the solo section and offering just the right walking-pace tempo that are always the best at letting the band fly into the unknown (like many a Dead song, this one works much better live, with the possibility of flying off in several directions, than it does here on record). Mydland's vocal is great, too, gritty and assertive without the treacle of 'Love You' or the late-period gruffness so many years of hard living had done to his voice by the time of his death in 1990. Mydland might have always felt the reputation as the band's new boy and 'Tons Of Steel' might be far from the best work he gave the band, but considering he was about 12 years behind the rest of the group he's fitted in nicely I think, especially the harmonised vocals where his voice and Bob's go together really well.
'Throwing Stones' is the album's second classic, the best Bob Weir song in many a year, he and lyricist Barlow scratching their head over this 'badly designed amusement arcade' we call Earth. On the surface mankind has everything: a beautiful blue ball 'spinning spinning free, dizzy with possibilities', no greater predator we have to overcome and no rivals for our food and shelter. And yet the planet is only 'peaceful' when seen from space: 'a closer look reveals the human race' and all the fighting, injustices, divisions and jingoism that sets so many of men on our brothers. Seeing Earth from space as a 'unified place' as all the space explorations see it and beam back to the planet should have brought us closer together - but instead modern technology and 'petty wars' are breaking us apart further than we'd ever been in the early 1980s (this is another song performed by the band as early as 1982). Using the chorus of 'London Bridge' ('Ashes Ashes all fall down') as a measure of how long man has been at war with himself and how fruitless this has been, Weir builds up to a real froth of indignation in this song, especially the extended finale which finds the song sticking to a relentless, unmoving groove until suddenly breaking loose. Attacking broken dog-eat-dog societies (which means 'darkness never falls from some men's eyes' even when things get better with the 'sunrise', 'pin-striped bosses' deciding people's fete with the throw of a dice, politicians 'throwing stones' instead of speaking up for those they represent, 'heartless powers telling us what to think', segregated immigration ('Back goes South and white goes North), class ('The rich man in his summer home' clueless as to why the poor around him are angry at having nothing) and 'current fashions' brainwashing everyone in the middle into spending their money, this brilliant ending is one of the single most exciting moments of any Dead song. Indeed, 'Stones' is more like a CSN or Jefferson Airplane song in its acerbic commentary and attempt to give those who don't have one a 'voice', most unusual for the Dead whose most political act before 1967 was playing the odd protest gig for 'criminals' locked up on trumped up drugs charges. Weir is at his best here and you can really hear the frustration in his voice, although it's Garcia's again usually brutal, brittle guitar solo that steals the show. Full marks also go to the two drummers, Billy and Mickey, who really make the most of their twin drum attack here, calling-and-answering each other across some of the widest stereo separation channels in the band's career. Yes Mydland's tinny keyboards sound out of place here (although they're very much in keeping with everything else recorded in 1987) and the production is still very 1980s, unmoving and sterile, but this is still an impressively strong song played with real conviction by a band entering new territory and measuring their performance just right. The longest song on quite a long album, at 7:21 ('In The Dark' would have been 19th had we turned our top 15 list of 'albums containing songs with the longest average running time' in News, Views and Music 219, at a lengthy 5:40 per song), 'Throwing Stones' makes full use of every second of its extended length.
I must confess that I'd never really taken to 'Black Muddy River', the final Garcia-Hunter song on the album, which has long been a fan favourite but for me all too clumsily handles the idea of death that's already been superbly played out by the pair on such songs as 'High Time' and 'Lay Me Down' (a lesser known Garcia solo song that's one of the pair's very best). However, thanks to the excellent website VibeVault and its comprehensive stash of free Dead tapes I've now heard Garcia's last ever performance of this song, sung in a creaking, cracking voice during his last Dead concert and the penultimate song the Dead ever played (the final was weirdly another song about death, Phil Lesh's 'Box Of Rain') and like many a fan hearing it since Garcia's death I cried buckets on finding it. There's simply a weight, resonance and voodoo that this earlier version simply doesn't have (Garcia clearly knew he was dying, though the Dead were due to have gone back to work only about a month after he died in the middle of a two-month vacation). Death has long been a favourite theme of the Dead and one that's dominated their albums since the band's youth, so it's no wonder that the song about death written closest to Garcia's own has been given a sort of retrospective respect it doesn't always deserve. Other than the metaphor in the title, there are no lines in this song Hunter hadn't already written better in 'To Lay Me Down', the weary narrator finding that his life is naturally coming to a close and that he's accepting the fact he has to die, no matter how many 'counting of the years' there might physically be to go. On album, Hunter's simple lyric doesn't seem up to his usual standards of depth and open-ness and the simple metaphor of the veil between this world and the next as a 'black muddy river' seems a little too simple compared to his other creations. The best part is a crowd-cheering reference to past Dead classic 'Ripple', as the ripples through the ages in that song are keenly felt by the narrator at death's door. The music, too, isn't one of Garcia's best offerings, trying desperately hard to clutch at the sleepy solemnity of songs like 'High Time' and 'Black Peter' but sounding bored and tired rather than inspired as he was in his youth. Performance-wise, too, the band sound the closest they get to auto-pilot for this album, with what sounds like a warm-up vocal for Garcia wandering around the notes and the many many repetitions of this song taxing the band's patience and inventiveness by the end. And yet - what Deadhead could possibly play this song eight years or more later and not feel a rush of sadness at the thought that, even though Garcia's death from a heart attack in his sleep came suddenly, he's already given us his last will and testament with this song? Who, too, hearing this for the first time at Garcia's 'comeback' show in 1986 wouldn't have been struck by it's subject matter of mortality, just as one of the two creators had just escaped meeting his maker in person. As a composition it's below par, as a performance on the 'In The Dark' record it's poor (shockingly the 'alternate take' featured as a bonus track on the CD of this album is even worse), but the history and emotional investment Deadheads have in this song mean it will always be a classic, a final goodbye from our favourite musical teacher no matter how many classic encores are still to come on the band's final LP.
That just leaves 'Mr Brother Esau', which does indeed stick out like an E-sore thumb on this album, presumably the reason why both vinyl and CD copies of 'In The Dark' missed it out altogether. Weir's analysis of the Vietnam War (and by association what was happening in 1987, the early mutterings that became the Gulf War in 1990) is far too good to remain unloved on a B-side, however, even one as popular and best-selling as 'Touch Of Grey', so I've always counted it as a 'proper' track despite never owning the cassette copy of the album (where it was added to balance the gulf between the two sides' running times). Fearing for the new 'warlike' mentality in the youth of the day (which both the early Gulf War and Falklands War had temporarily resurrected), Weir and Barlow try and remind us of what war was really like. The Vietnam War was already very much a 'past historical event' in 1987, despite only coming to a chaotic conclusion in 1975, forgotten as a military disaster to the younger generation, so the writers try and re-tell it as currently as they can with all its open wounds and violence. However, they also have fun turning it into a biblical parallel (the title alone sounds like a Bible entry) with the poor farmer's boy thrust into becoming a warlike machine and then abandoned when America pulls out of the war a clear parallel for Esau - twin of Jacob - in the bible (who, too, was a farmer before turning into a 'hunter' despite his shy, bookish nature). Nice, ordinary people being transformed by war into something uncontrollable by war is not a new theme for music, but it is quite a new strand of song for the Dead and the lyrics are among Barlow's best for the group, from the why-are-we-fighting? polemic when Esau finally meets his feared enemy face-to-face ('The more my brother looks like me, the less I understand') and the idea of mankind in general 'shadow-boxing the apocalypse', all sides caught in a stalemate whatever war is being fought, is a strong one. Interestingly, the song is quite short by this album's standards (running 4:20), with a whole verse (originally the second) cut from the song following early live appearances (one of the few times this happens with the Dead as opposed to, say, Paul Simon whose always changing his lyrics): this should have read 'My Brother Esau tried to build a world, a marvellous disguise, where everything is easy and there's nothing to deny, although he gave me all his cards I could not play his hand, so I made a choice that soon became a stand'. Weir's music is mainly there to keep the lyrics rolling onwards but it does stand out for its complexity on an album chock-full of lighter, simpler songs. Less immediate than any other song on 'In The Dark', you can see why it's a bit of an un-loved orphan, the first release since the heavily trimmed studio single version of 'Dark Star' in 1969 not to appear on a proper Dead album. Like the character at the heart of the song, though, 'My Brother Esau' deserves a much better break in life.
Overall, then, 'In The Dark' is an impressive album from a band celebrating their 20th year together and a fine return after a rather patchy run of records and a seven-year-gap. 'In The Dark' deserved to do well and tie-in single 'Touch Of Grey' was rightfully hailed as a classic almost from the minute it hit the stage, a perfect song released at the perfect time. I'm puzzled, though, as to why - by Dead standards - 'In The Dark' didn't just do a little bit better than normal but completely blew away the normal sales figures by which Dead albums are judged. It's certainly one of the Dead's more commercial, accessible LPs, which no doubt helped, if nowhere close to being light and fluffy and radio-friendly the way those kind of sentences usually run on this site. However, by the standards of 1987 'In The Dark' sounds like nothing else released at the time, when music largely agreed with the harsh economic policies and money-making bravado of the times and heroes tended to be strong, assertive and dynamic - a million miles away from the bumbling, kind, supportive, warm-hearted feeling of being part of the Grateful Dead 'family' (and the Dead do have a 'family' quite unlike any other, certainly in rock music, and that's continued despite the fact that it's now 18 years since their last gig). Perhaps, ultimately, that's the reason why 'In The Dark' proved such a success: for people not the right shape for the square-pegs society tried to put them through in the mid-1980s what better rebellion can there be than by joining the ranks of a band and followers who lived for failure almost as much as success, where big society meant a particularly large turn-out at Dead concerts and where you were measured by the size of your heart rather than your wallet. The Grateful Dead represented everything that was 'right' about a culture that had been brushed aside by 1987, shoved into 'the dark' for far too long by people who didn't 'get' the band 20 years after love-in concerts and all-night benefit concerts where the band played for free for hours because the crowd were digging it. They get most of it right on this LP, too, which might not ultimately be as good as many of their 1960s and 1970s masterpieces but still had more things right about it than almost every other release that year. Overall rating - 6/10.
'Grateful Dead' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/news-views-and-music-issue-10-grateful.html
'Anthem Of The Sun' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-23-grateful-dead-anthem-of-sun.html
'Aoxomoxoa' (1969) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/news-views-and-music-issue-20-grateful.html
'Workingman's Dead' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/news-views-and-music-issue-138-grateful.html
'American Beauty' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-40-grateful-dead-american-beauty.html
‘Grateful Dead’ (1971) aka ‘Skulls and Roses’ http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/grateful-dead-aka-skulls-and-roses-1971.html
‘Europe ‘72’ (1972) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/grateful-dead-europe-72-album-review.html
'Wake Of The Flood' (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-59-grateful-dead-wake-of-flood.html
'From The Mars Hotel' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/news-views-and-music-issue-99-grateful.html
'Terrapin Station' (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/news-views-and-music-issue-72-grateful.html
'Built To Last' (1989) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/news-views-and-music-issue-7-grateful.html