Monday, 1 September 2014
"Major said 'why don't we give him the rope to hang himself? No need to worry the jury, this kind of takes care of itself, 23rd psalm Major Dobo, and reserve me a table for three, down in the valley of the shadow, just you Alabama and me" "This is the last time I wanna say 'so long', this is my last song for you" "I told Althea I was lost and needed some direction, Althea told me that on scrutiny my back might need protection" "Ain't nobody messing with you but you, your friends are getting most concerned, loose with the truth, baby, it's your fire just don't get burned" "Gonna be a long long crazy crazy night!" "Compass card is spinning, helm is swinging too and fro, oh where is the dog star? Where is the moon? You're a lost sailor, been away at sea too long" "There is a price for being free...free don't always come for free" "Got to be heaven, 'cause here's where the rainbow ends, if this isn't the real thing then it's close enough to pretend" "I'm still walking so I know I can dance, just a saint of circumstance, just a tiger in a trance" "She brings me coffee, she brings me tea, she brings 'bout every damn thing but the damn jailhouse keys"
Grateful Dead "Go To Heaven" (1980)
Alabama Getaway/Far From Me/Althea/Feel Like A Stranger//Lost Sailor/Saint Of Circumstance/Antwerp's Placebo (The Plumber)/Easy To Love You/Don't Ease Me In
There's a joke doing the rounds among fans that the Grateful Dead meant to call this album 'go to hell' but, thinking they looked ridiculous in the leather gear and dark alleyways guitarist Bob Weir suggested for the album sleeve, they elected to wear white disco suits and call the album 'Go To Heaven' instead. Whether the band achieved their goal depends on what exactly you classify as 'heaven' or 'hell'. Largely upbeat, commercial material with a (for the Dead) very contemporary production sheen would be most people's idea of 'heaven' ; for most of the band's longstanding fans, however, hearing the band that always dared to be different sounding like everyone else is surely some idea of 'hell'. In fact most fans who lived through it would regard the 1980s music scene as some kind of hell - a moment in time when all the liberty and freedom the 1960s spirit stood for has been watered down to the point where any band sounds the same, even one as dedicated to liberty and uniqueness as the Grateful Dead. I'm still not quite sure whether following the pack down the glossy production synthesiser road - the last thing any fan would have expected of the band even a couple of years before this - represents a selling out or the most daring thing the band ever did.
The rhyme and reason behind both title and sound get murky too: are the Dead offering this sort of bland, easily copyable effort because it really is the last thing that fans would have expected them to make? Or have the band actively taken the decision at the height of their unpopularity (after a decade of tailing-off record sales) to become just 'another pretty face'? Like the sleeve and the title, this album has divided many a fan even in the unified camp of the Deadheads: is this a joke? Or is the joke on us? I mean, just look at that album cover: it's like a still cut from the 'Saturday Night Fever' movie, with John Travolta having grown a beard and decided to pose with five of his friends in front of a wind machine (Jerry Garcia, naturally, has to be Travolta). What's worse is that the disco fever thing peaked in 1977 - here we are three years later when another two big things have come along in quick succession (punk and new wave) and disco was even more ridiculed than it is now (if that were possible).
We're remarkably early talking about an AAA album's packaging rather than its contents, which perhaps tells you everything you need to know about 'Go To Heaven': what non-fans might not understand is that actually it's not bad; on a song-by-song basis it's actually an improvement on 'Shakedown Street' - it's just that there's even less ambition this time around, which means that instead of the rollercoaster-ride of the late 1960s and 70s (when Dead albums varied greatly in consistency) everything comes across a little bit bland. There's no sense of anything 'big' being discussed here; no 20-minute epics about terrapins on railway platforms or gradually unravelling suites about worshipping Allah in the Egyptian desert - even the (relatively) inspired dips into new genres on reggae ('Fire On The Mountain') and funk ('Shakedown Street') are missing down this road. When we last left the Grateful Dead they were on new trendy producer number two and still looking for that breakthrough commercial hit that never came. 'Go To Heaven', recorded with the help of producer number three Gary Lyons (fresh from working with the Dead-like sounds of, err, Aerosmith and so another weird choice from Arista president Clive Davis!) actually sounds better than either predecessor. A lover of weird electronic trickery and sound effects, with a desire to put the criss-crossing Garcia-Bob Weir guitars centre-stage no matter what, Lyons' production is actually a lot more suitable than either Keith Olsen's ('Terrapin') or Lowell George's ('Shakedown') had been. Some parallel universe somewhere - where this Dead/Lyons collaborative album is titled 'Go To Hell' and featuring the sort of songs that would grace next album 'In The Dark'- would actually have turned out rather well. It's just that the Dead - who by now are on their sixth studio album in seven years, more even than in the 1960s - are tired out. In typical Dead style, rather than demand time off to write or take a break in a punishing tour schedule everyone just kind of sheepishly continued doing what they'd always done, only not quite as well.
They're also becoming sick of having to make records with in-house producers unsuited to their music. Whenever the album sessions are discussed the band tend to snarl - perhaps not with quite the same venom they felt for either David Hassinger during the making of 'Anthem Of The Sun' in 1968 ('Thick air! He wants the sound of thick air!') or Keith Olsen during 'Terrapin Station' in 1977 ('They overdubbed a choir? Without consulting us?!?') but enough to make the sessions seem...uncomfortable. Lyons admitted later that he'd never really known much about the Dead before getting the job and that the band were too set in their ways after a decade and a half of working together. What's more, no one in the band seemed to care as much as he did about the 'Christmas 1979' deadline Arista gave him - which like most deadlines in the land of the Dead simply zoomed by without the band really noticing (the band had been through this scenario lots of times but Lyons was still new, with something to prove, which put him into an awkward halfway house between band and bosses). From their point of view the Dead didn't like the way Lyons messed around with their 'traditional set-up'; in particular the band's use of 'two drummers'. If you've ever heard this album and thought that something was 'missing' from the sound even compared to the late 1970 Dead LPs then that is probably it: Lyons simply used Billy for most of the album (after hearing them 'audition' and deciding he was the most 'rock-solid' of the two, a definition which completely misses the mark of what a good Dead drum part represents!) and excluded Mickey as much as he could; the older Dead albums where only Billy plays could get away with this (1967, 1971-74) but by now the twin attack of 'the serpent catching its own tail' is too much a part of the Dead's sound and the band have already got used to playing most of the album songs this way on the road. Arguably this is Lyons' single worst decision in charge of this album: 'Go To Heaven' is fittingly 'top heavy' given the album title but doesn't have the drive and power of even the worst moments of 'Terrapin' and 'Shakedown', removing even more of the sound that made the Dead stand out from the crowd. Mickey got his revenge though: the subtitle of 'Antwerp's Placebo' ('The Plumber') is meant to be a dig at the fact that Lyons trained originally as a plumber's apprentice before landing himself a job with Arista - Hart clearly thought he should have stuck to it! Lyons also treated the Dead like any 'normal' band by pushing them through take after take - all the best Dead recordings are imperfect, that's just the way they're built and to take one example this studio version of 'Althea' doesn't swing anywhere near the period concert rendition s(possibly because the version on record is take one-hundred-and-something). Also, the band simply didn't get on with their new producer socially.The reason that 'Feel Like A Stranger' ends so abruptly (cutting off into silence) is also due to an 'argument' between Bob and Lyons over something trivial that both men have since forgotten; Lyons threatened to simply 'cut' the song at the end if he didn't get his way and - with final mixdown due soon after - made good on his threat, much to the Dead's shock when they heard a final pressing (quite a few fans reportedly sent their vinyl copies into Arista to ask for a refund because they assumed it was faulty!; sadly Rhino haven't yet featured the song with a fade as originally intended in their subsequent re-pressings of the album). Just as with Olsen and George, the band never worked with Lyons again after this - and, even more notably, called time on the idea of working with outside producers full stop (their next two and last two albums after this will both be self-produced - memorable quote from bassist Phil Lesh 'I hate producers - if I ever have to work with one again I'll probably kill myself').
The band have had another major development since 'Shakedown Street' - the replacement of Keith and Donna Godchaux with Brent Mydland. Keith and Donna had been perfect for the band sound in the early-to-mid 1970s, all those flying washes of colour and extra layers to add to the band's most complex and multi-faceted songs. By 1980, however, the tiredness and the excesses were beginning to show and, just as with Pigpen a decade before, it was keyboardist Keith who was struggling to hide the effects the most. Dead concerts of the late 1970s tend to sound static and repetitive compared to that lovely sound of freedom all previous Dead shows had contained; the fact that Keith and Donna' marriage was falling apart - with the other band members being stuck in the middle - meant that they had to have a word in 1979 and a mutual decision was taken for them to leave the band. A shame, given that Keith's work especially was the highlight of many a 1970s Dead album, but an understandable one thankfully taken the right way by all parties (Donna's since called it 'like several weights being lifted from my shoulders all at once').
Their replacement, however, always was and will probably always remain controversial. Brent Mydland was everything Keith was not: a former member of short-lived but promising 1970s band Silver, he preferred playing synthesisers rather than grand pianos, his tastes tended towards the middle of the road rather than the jazzy fringes and while both men were intrinsically shy Brent just about hid his insecurities behind a brasher manner onstage that meant fans took a while to get used to him. Most controversially of all, Brent added his voice to harmonies that for years now had been sung by just Jerry and Bob alone (sometimes with Donna and one lone vocal from Keith in 1973); his voice wasn't even a replacement for Phil Lesh's delicate falsetto - last heard in regular active service around 1970 - but a gruff growl that cut through Jerrys' old-before-his-time paper-thin vocals like a sword. However it was Jerry himself who'd picked the new member of their skeleton crew after hearing him play in Bob's solo concerts; the rest of the band clearly saw something in him too. Many fans were shocked and even today Mydland's recruitment is seen as being on a par with hiring John Blunt to replace John Lennon in The Beatles or getting one of the Spice Girls to replace Diana Ross in the Supremes. Personally I've always loved Brent's material, especially in later years when Mydland writes pretty much all the best material on 1989's farewell 'Built To Last' (especially in concert). However the question as to whether the 'new guy' ever really 'fitted' in the band is quite another: few of his songs ever have the space for traditional Dead-jamming and the rest of the band barely appear on his two songs from this album, both of which find the Dead travelling further down the 'commercial' road most fans wish they'd never walked down. Sadly for Brent, the seven year gap between this album and the next meant that fans only had his two worst songs on this album to mull over rather than his better and more appropriate songs from later in the decade. Taken on their own terms and out of context neither 'Far From Me' or 'Easy To Love You' is that bad, but the fact that even Jerry and Bob at their catchiest and slickest manage to sound more Dead-like than this rather put the nail on that particular coffin. Personally I think we'd have seen a whole 'new' Dead in the wake of 'Built To Last', one where the edges had been knocked off both band tradition and Mydland's distinctive sound and that a follow-up to 'Built To Last' with Mydland on equally top-form would have been the best in years; alas however good he is across this album (the piano washes on 'Lost Sailor' in particular are every bit the equal of Godchaux's work) Brent's songs and his voice sound 'lost' in the Dead sound, a singer from the 'normal', poppy world finding himself trapped in a horizon of skeletons. Not a marriage made in 'heaven', in other words, but over time this marriage of convenience got better as both sides realised the gifts both brought to the party - and given more time (Brent, sadly, died young in 1990) might have been a true marriage of love between fans and keyboardist.
In truth, it's not just Brent whose 'lost' across this album. If ever an album represented the feeling of being 'lost' its 'Go To Heaven'. The phrase keeps cropping up again and again in the lyrics, usually with some awful retribution hanging over the protagonist's head if they don't get to where they ought to be: The three Weir songs at the heart of this album set out the feeling from their titles alone: 'Feel Like A Stranger' 'Lost Sailor' 'Saint Of Circumstance'. The last two were generally sung as a pair in concert anyway but all three sound like similar missives from parallel journeys; telegrams from different periods when for whatever reason the compass you've been navigating by had broken and left you stranded in the dark. 'Saint Of Circumstance' even ends the trilogy with the protagonist seemingly in the afterlife after the end of life's great journey - but even then he has no clue as to what's going on and isn't any really any better off than when he started. Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter's songs are similarly lost and confused. 'Alabama Getaway' is a re-write of 'Dupree's Diamond Blues', a reluctant killer waiting for a jury to return a verdict and not quite sure what happens next; 'Althea' is a warning about trouble on the horizon, the narrator even saying that he's 'feeling lost' with the friends of the narrator 'getting most concerned'. (A third Garcia-Hunter song recorded at the sessions but unreleased till the 1990s is 'What'll You Raise?', yet another song using cards as a metaphor for life but in which he wonders 'if there's a heaven how can we fall?' and promising to find his way back soon - wherever home might be after reckless years gambling his life away). Brent's first songs for the band typically centre on 'doomed love' (the theme of every single one of his songs with the exception of the ecological 'We Can Run') - a natural backdrop for a subject matter of being lost. 'Far From Me' is the tale of two lovers who pretend that it's over for good but are clearly still thinking about each other and secretly wonder whether they're better off being back together and whose title refers to the distance between them which leaves the narrator scratching his head as to where exactly he is now that he's not by her side; 'Easy To Love You' is a happier song on the same theme, about new beginnings but even this one finds time to call the 'new' person in the narrator's life 'little stranger', with the hint that both figures have found love the hard way. That just leaves a curious percussion piece credited to the two drummers ('Antwerp's Placebo' - is this a reference to the Belgian region so named allegedly because a giant demanded a toll to cross over and cut off the hands of those who couldn't pay up? This would link with the theme of being cruelly set against when lost in new waters. Incidentally, the giant was clearly a member of the UK Coalition's welfare committee...) and a return to one of the Dead's earliest cover songs 'Don't Ease Me In (another lovable ruffian locked up with an uncertain future). Ever since the Dead's 'comeback' in 1975 they've sounded like a band making stops on the way to a destination; they even have settings or names: Egypt for 'Blues For Allah', 'Terrapin Station' 'Shakedown Street'... Readily recognisable places for a band who know where they're going. However, whether by accident or design 'Go To Heaven' is a band that's lost and knows it - by rights it should be this album rather than its successor called 'In The Dark'!
That raises another interesting point about this album: for the first time ever Jerry Garcia is not the dominant force in the band, securing as many credits on this album (two) as 'the new guy'. Instead it's Bob Weir, fresh from his second 'actual' solo record 'Heaven Help The Fool' (discounting for the moment an album made as part of the band 'Kingfish') who dominates the record for the first and only time. Actually Bob only gets three credits himself but his songs are three of the four longest and sit at the 'heart' of this album, right in the middle. Two of them are also two out of the three album highlights (along with Garcia's 'Althea'). Bob had been getting nearer and nearer to the metaphorical 'centre of the stage' for some time and had long since left behind the 'teenage pin up' role he'd once had within the band. His two solo albums, whole not strong sellers, had proved to Bob that there was space for him outside the band and his relationship with lyricist John Barlow had been picking up steam since the pair had started working together in 1971. By now the pair had been writing together for nearly a decade and were only three years behind Garcia-Hunter's more prolific partnership and knew each other well - in retrospect it's an awful shame that the Dead's back catalogue effectively shuts up shop now for seven odd years as the pair feel on the verge of the creative breakthrough Hunter and Garcia experienced circa 'Workingman's Dead' and 'American Beauty'.
Robert Hunter, meanwhile, knew Garcia only too well - and the mess the guitarist was making of his life. This is the period when Jerry had three women on the go: his long-standing relationship with 'Mountain Girl' Carolyn Adams who he finally married just after this album's release after two decades together, artist Manesha Matheson who Jerry married in 1990 and old school sweetheart Deborah Koons who he married in 1994, a year before his death. None of the three knew much about the other's existence and the band and personnel knew only as much as they could ever get Jerry to admit to. Add in an escalating heroin addiction that had been gradually growing worse but really hit its peak in the early 1980s and you have a recipe for a disaster: it doesn't quite show in the music just yet but many of the Dead's shows from 1981-85 are full of bum notes, missed solo and forgotten words, which are deeply unusual even for the late 1970s Jerry but become more normal as the years progress. Many fans sense a 'change' sometime about now - but Robert Hunter has more insight than just about anyone. 'Althea' was written as a sort of musical intervention, a 'warning' saying all the sorts of things best friends want to say to each other but never quite can; Jerry being Jerry and avoiding confrontation at all costs he didn't even comment when the words were handed to him to match a doomy piece of music he'd been working on (typically Hunter, the name 'Althea' is deliberately chosen - it means 'healing' in ancient Greek, clearly his hope for what this piece might do). Fans are only beginning to murmur it for now but clearly there's a match between Garcia's lack of creativity with just two songs to his name (compare to 16 published in 1970 alone) and the rapid decline in his health. Luckily Bob has stepped up his gamer to cover for Jerry - but Phil is in a creative lull that's lasted since 'Passenger' on 'Terrapin' and Brent doesn't yet have the nous or respect to bring too many songs to the table. Perhaps the real reason Dead fans don't rate 'Go To Heaven' much is because there's so little Garcia on it - and yet Garcia's health is almost certainly the inspiration for its better moments too, the fears of being adrift on a shop in the middle of a sea with no idea of where to go.
So, overall, how does 'Go To Heaven' stack up? In short, not very well by Dead standards: the ambition that fuelled even the weaker Dead albums had dried up and even for a band who liked their skeletons there simply isn't enough meat on this album's bones. Even though a few fans still stick up for 'Heaven' I don't know a single one who wouldn't have preferred an album titled 'The Grateful Dead Go To Hell' with a grungier, less commercial sound. But everyone's idea of 'Go To Heaven' is different just as everyone's idea of 'Heaven' is different: the Dead had to do something to survive when first sales and then inspiration began drying up and giving way to your record company boss to make a 'commercial' record is about a good a response as any. What's more, there are enough examples here of things that do work to make that experiment worth trying: the suite of 'Lost Sailor' into 'Saint Of Circumstance' is everything the Dead were at their best - addressing a problem, using poetical metaphors lesser-read bands simply wouldn't have touched, yet still with space for the music to take over and best of all a 'happy' ending that sounds natural and fitting rather than forced (with 'Circumstance' working in the same way that 'Franklin's Tower' does at the end of 'Help on The Way' and the last stop on 'Terrapin Station' offers the hero light at the end of a tunnel after several minutes stuck 'At A Siding'). 'Althea' also makes a unique experiment in Robert Hunter writing what he can never bring himself to say to his best friend Jerry's face: that if you don't do something to turn your life around quick you might not have it for much longer (the diabetic coma that Garcia slips into is only six years of hard-living away). These three songs aren't quite the best of the Dead catalogue, but they do represent an improvement on almost everything on 'Shakedown Street' which is a bonus. As all good Deadheads know the band never released a 'bad' studio record in their careers as even the worst of them have some quality that no other band can ever provide, even when they're doing it badly as per a lot of this record. Our advice is: buy the rest first and get this album last so you won't be disappointed - but, inevitably, by the time you've bought all the good Dead LPs you'll want to hear most every note the band recorded anyway, the Grateful Dead are like that. My idea of 'Heaven' is a load of Grateful Dead albums in fact, along with the work of every other AAA band and there is very much a place for this unloved album in my afterlife - the difference is that my heaven doesn't come with disco suits, wind machines, a disco vibe or half the album's contents.
The album starts with 'Alabama Getaway', which like many a contemporary pop song of 1980 sounds like it could have been released 30 years before that: this Garcia-Hunter song is so close to Chuck Berry's travelogue style you can almost hear the 'duck-walk' in the middle. Most Dead songs don't take place in 'our' universe' - or at least only a sepia toned version of it - and so it is with this rocky, frivolous song about a criminal in some sort of Western court waiting for a verdict. We never actually find out exactly what the un-named person did wrong in Hunter's quick-stepping lyrics but it doesn't sound good: he's hoping he doesn't have to 'hit' someone to pull off a certain job and like 'Dupree's Diamond Blues' (a 1969 Dead song this closely follows) we're clearly meant to side with the outlaw fallen into bad ways than with the law. In fact, like many a Dead 'outlaw' song, the law itself is darker and nastier in its facelessness and lack of understanding than any criminal could ever be: despite the jaunty tone of most of this song it's lines like 'No need to worry the jury - this kind take care of themselves' that stick in the mind. Like much of this album there's a good song in there somewhere but a rushed sounding recording and a lack of anything distinctly Dead-ish rather take the excitement out of things, although at least this time around the band play with energy and gusto, not the weariness of most of the record. The strong presence of Brent on harmonies already - who drowns out both Jerry and Bob on the choruses - must have come as a shock to fans who hadn't heard about the change in the ranks, although this song is actually more suited to Mydland than many Dead songs, sharing the same outlaw-in-a-hurry vibe of many of his own works (was the ever-empathetic Hunter keen to give the new chap a song he might like playing in concert in between all those oldies he didn't know too well yet?) Despite not being particularly strong as Garcia-Hunter songs go or as commercial as some of the tracks the band have been writing recently the laidback charm of 'Alabama Getaway'was enough to make it only the Dead's third ever charting single and their first since 1970 (when 'Uncle John's Band' and 'Truckin' both briefly made the charts).
Mydland is up next for his first song with the group 'Far From Me' and it was a brave decision indeed to place it here, second in the running, rather than one of the more Dead-like songs on the album. Like the other six Mydland songs to come it's a nice song that doesn't quite fit in the Dead canon: love songs and pop songs were never their forte and even with comparison with the other songs on this most conventional of Dead LPs this song sounds remarkably cliched and familiar-sounding. All that said, it's not a bad song: had Mydland gone solo after the split of 'Silver' in 1977 and never met up with the Dead he could quite conceivably have had a hit with this song. The tune is pretty, if not as distinctive as most of Jerry's or Bob's, and the lyrics show an intelligence rare in songs this generic. Even if you don't know about or hadn't yet experienced the decade to come of public marital bust-ups, drink and drug fixes and on-stage breakdowns you get the sense that this song is 'real': that the lover who finds that he can't live with or without his partner and is in some kind of bitter stalemate is written from experience not imagination. The closing lines that 'this is the last time I wanna say 'so long', this song is my last song for you' is particularly clever, even though it turns out that it wasn't true: it was, like all the other Mydland songs for the Dead to come, a love-hate song for wife Lisa and sets the tone for all of the six songs to follow. Legend has it that illustrator and burgeoning music critic J M De Mattias quit his job with Rolling Stone Magazine after Deadhead's response to his review of this album and particularly this song in 1980 (he hated the former but loved the latter, 'which allows the rest of the band to play tightly and impressively within definite musical boundaries'). Most un-attuned ears probably agreed with him and rated the Mydland songs over the rest too. 'Far From Me' is a good song it just isn't a good Grateful Dead song precisely because it fits those boundaries so well instead of breaking them.
'Althea' finally sounds like the 'old' Dead, a slower more casual song that in other hands would have been a lazy blues number but in the Dead's has added lyrical bite, an urgency in the lyrics that contrasts nicely with the slow tempo and laidback canter of the music. Hunter I've always seen this song as a conversation between two friends and that Hunter was in fact 'Althea' and that the pal in need he was trying to comfort was Jerry. That's put a whole new slant on this song for many of us Deadheads who used to see this song as another bit of Hunter make-believe featuring people with classical names; since Jerry's passing in 1995 'Althea' sounds like a very touching song from a friend in two minds about telling someone he cares about to sharpen up his act and what their response will be. As we've already said, 'Althea' means 'healing' - something that Hunter, who cared about his character names, must have known. 'Ain't nobody messing with you but you, your friends are most concerned' runs the key line of this song, hidden away in the middle verse as if half-afraid that Garcia would hear it before telling him to 'weigh up the balance' between 'things you can replace - and things you cannot'. Hunter probably had Garcia's love square (with three girlfriends on the go!) in mind but perhaps also his friend's declining health: worryingly he gets one of his 'possible outcomes' for his friend spot-on, with Garcia somewhere between 'meeting the fate of Ophelia, sleeping with per chance to dream' and 'another clown in the burying ground'. While most of the lyrics are cushioned with Hunter's usual love of word-play and a clear fondness for his subject matter (Hunter adds how similar the pair are, that he 'can't talk to you without talking to me - we're guilty of the same things') you wonder how Jerry would have taken the sting in the last line written for him by his best friend: 'Been talking a lot about less and less and forgetting the love we bring'. You wonder in fact whether Jerry knew at all: his vocal is caught at the exact halfway between pain and ignorance, half-following the shrugged shoulders of the melody line and half wincing at the urgency of the lyrics to change his life which varies from sentence to sentence. In fact the contrast between the melody and words are the single greatest thing about this terrific song; chances are like most Garcia-Hunter songs the melody was written first and Jerry was probably surprised at the 'come on'# tone of the lyrics he was given and yet, like most Garcia-Hunter songs, they fit like a glove: the sound of a man going to his death (or at least a diabetic coma that will alter his life for the remainder) without knowing it and with his friends knowing that they will never be able to change his course. Spookily Jerry chose to revive it for the first time in several shows at the penultimate ever Dead concert on July 8th 1995, making it among the last ten or so songs he ever sang onstage. Even without that knowledge, however, 'Althea' is a lovely song and one of the collaborator's last classic songs together.
'Feel Like A Stranger' certainly does seem like 'strange' territory, a Weir-Barlow song that builds on the former's equally weird 'Estimated Prophet' with its synth-heavy stylings and lack of the usual Dead guitar-and-drums sound. The Dead don't sound like they belong in this new landscape but fans do like this song, taking up its cry of 'it's gonna be a long long crazy crazy night!' as another Dead quote to stick on banners and wave in concert alongside 'what a long strange trip it's been' and 'they're a band beyond description'. Lyrically this is about the sudden 'pull' between two people who've never met before - and should, by rights be called the opposite of 'feel like a stranger'; this song is about the uncanny sense of meeting someone knew and feeling as if you've known them for the whole of your life (or several lives in fact). The strutting sound of the backing (which recalls the funk of 'Shakedown Street's title track and thankfully is the closest the Dead ever came to making music to match their disco album cover) suggests that the pair have just met on the dance floor in some club somewhere and the one element of disco the Dead share - a tendency to just keep on going after the song ends, here with the same relentless beat throughout - is milked to the maximum in a long drawn out ending. That is, a long drawn out ending until the rug is pulled out sharply from under our feet mid-note: something we now know was caused by an argument between writer and producer but which sounds in context like the Dead laughing at their disco selves and making the strutting peacock dancer sound as if he's fallen over mid-leap! There are some great versions of this out there in the Dead's ocean of concerts available but like a lot of the album this studio version of the song never quite takes off, despite a great vocal from Bob, some interesting synth sound effects from Brent and some guitar fills from Jerry that sound much sparser than usual. Ultimately, though, it's hard to warm to 'Stranger' the way most Dead songs allow you to - and by the end 'Stranger' still feels like a stranger, a track we barely got to know.
The pair also wrote the vastly superior 'Lost Sailor', a gorgeous flowing ballad about being all at sea without a compass (anyone whose read one of our David Crosby will recognise a lot of the imagery; could the band's friend and early inspiration been in turn inspired to write 1988's 'Compass' after hearing this song? The two are almost twins). Barlow's lyrics are a little metaphor heavy but do their job well, with some wonderful imagery every bit as good as Hunter's (is there a better representation of life than the line 'Sometimes the gales are howling, sometimes the sea is still as glass'?) There's a fascinating rumination on what it means to be 'free' in there too: the sailor is without constraints for possibly the first time in his life, obeying no man-made laws and setting out on his own course - but the cost for being 'free' seems to be 'drowning' with the great line that 'free don't always come for free'; so close is this to the subject matter of 'Althea' of breaking rules getting you into trouble that you wonder which lyricist inspired which (they must have been close on each other's masts: both songs were debuted at the very same show, on August 4th 1979). Weir's music is unusually understated and complex for his usual style and sits alone with just 'Weather Report Suite' as the only minor key (and as a result the only 'melancholy') Weir song in the Dead deck of cards. Perhaps not co-incidentally it's his single best song for the band since that one, a melody that isn't set in stone but rolls with each musical wave that breaks over its bows and which rolls to and fro nicely throughout the song, with plenty of space for side-journeys into solos and extra-curricular excursions (Garcia's urgent, fiery solo near the end being the best). Curiously Lyons seems to have finally 'got' the band with this song, giving the song lots of space and dynamic range the rest of the record doesn't have, as well as a lot of Dead-friendly sound effects of tinging bells, seagulls and the like. The song ends up sounding like a real 'journey' that lasts much more than just the nearly six minutes it does on record and sits proudly amongst classics of old. In concert the song was often paired with the next Weir-Barlow song...
'Saint Of Circumstance', so it's curious that the original 'Go To Heaven' record splits both tracks between the two sides of vinyl. This is the happy answer to the last song's mournful question 'where am I going?', starting off with the opening line 'This must be heaven, tonight I crossed the line...you must be the angel I thought I'd never find'. The only song on the album to actually mention 'Heaven' in the lyrics (although as we've seen the album outtake 'What'll You Raise?' mentions it too), the song is just about ambiguous enough to make us wonder where the narrator actually is there or has simply been knocked delirious by the storm ('Got to be heaven 'cause this is where the rainbows end, if this ain't the real thing then it's close enough to pretend'). The rest of the song harks back to The Beach Boys' 'Sail On Sailor', with the narrator on a journey that is hard and punishing and nearly impossible but one that he'll never back down from ('Sure don't know what I'm going for but I'm go for it for sure!') I may be reading too much into these lyrics but it seems at times as if Bob is singing about the state of the band here: with no stars to guide him and none of the band's previous journeys of any use in the then-contemporary era with a fading band he gets worried until realising that at its best the journey still seems a natural one: 'That rich wind whines and I see the dark star shine' (the band often likened their 'formation flying' improvisation skills to a 'wind' that would be bigger than them but which each member could sense rising and falling as they played, while 'Dark Star' is of course one of the most epic improvisatory songs the band ever wrote, way back in 1969). The summation that the narrator is lost but has the capacity to get his way out of trouble even so is memorable summed up in the title phrase and the idea that each of us are saints in our own circumstance: that we all have the power to do the right thing, but that doing the right thing will always come at a cost. It may be that Weir and Barlow had another classic Dead song, 'St Stephen', in mind here: we made the point in our review for 'Aoxomoxoa' that Stephen was the first of the Christian saints who never met Jesus and converted out of what he'd heard and read and who knew what price he would pay for his devotion, worrying (in the Dead's version at least) about whether he was making the right move (we added the idea that this tied in with the 1960s 'movement', which both pulled away from and towards older values on an almost month by month basis in the middle of the decade). This saint is too blown by wind and rain but sounds older, not necessarily wiser but more sure that the road he's travelling down has a purpose that will be revealed, even if it doesn't reveal itself to him, guided by an 'angel' that the more worldly and practical Stephen was never lucky enough to see. The end result is another memorable track, perhaps not quite up to 'Lost Sailor' simply because it sounds more akin to what the Dead and more specifically Bob had recorded before but still a great song, with haunting lyrics and a catchy melody that's especially lovely for the rolling Godchaux-like piano washes that Brent brings to the table (just about the only time Mydland overtly tries to sound like his predecessor - it's a shame he didn't try this style more often as it clearly suited him).
'Antwerp's Placebo (The Plumber)' is another 30 second percussion piece that sounds like a sister piece to 'Serengetti' from 'Shakedown Street' and the closest the Dead ever came to putting their full onslaught of 'drumz' concert improvisations on record. With both songs you wonder what the band were trying to achieve - the track simply doesn't last long enough to make an impression and seems to be here simply to keep the two drummers in the writing credits as much as anything else. The name is a curio: the plumber bit we had a stab at in our introduction but why would a region of Belgium be offering a 'fake drug' (or at least one that only works in the mind?) Is this a reference to warfare and how each day of fighting doesn't really matter as both sides mark it as a 'victory'? (Antwerp was a key player in World War Two, fought over keenly by both sides due to its significance as a port). Or a reference to the 'big bang' theory (built on an original observation by Belgian physician Georges Lamaitre) which leaves the universe as we know it as merely a 'placebo' between two real worlds?! Or are the Dead simply making stuff up and messing with my head again?!
There's no such problems with what Brent's 'Easy To Love You' is all about - in fact the song is a little one-layered to be honest (Clive Davis, with tongue-in-cheek, is meant to have asked Brent to 'bung in a couple of lines about pyramids' to turn this into a more Dead kind of a song! Weirdly pyramids never actually crop up in any Dead lyric but ask a non-fan what the Dead usually sing about and it'll be that, followed by trucks, china cat sunflowers and greying hair if they know a little Dead). Brent's melody is very easy on the ear, though, closer to true country-rock pioneers Poco than their better-selling but less interesting successors The Eagles and John Barlow's set of lyrics capture Brent's character of doomed romantic resignation well. Given the dark songs we know are to come from Brent's catalogue it's good to hear him happy for once, with 'Easy To Love You' the closest thing to a straightforward love song in the Dead canon. However even the end of this song feels slightly sinister, the narrator whose spent the whole song cooing and telling his loved one not to be 'afraid' adding for our benefit that she is a 'sun that fades away', a 'darkness' that 'hides the day'. I don't know about you but I see oodles of trouble brewing here...(did Brent add these lines to John's original lyric perhaps? They're much more 'his' style). One thing that often gets forgotten in amongst wondering where Brent fits in with the band both musically and harmonically is what a good singer he is when singing on his own as here. When a part of the Dead's harmonies his brunt force tends to get in the way of Bob's charm and Jerry's charisma, but here Brent shows his softer side and this early on in his musical career - before the drink and drugs begin to take hold - his voice is sweetly pure. The band do well to stay out of his way here, not-withstanding a tasty guitar solo Garcia fits in just before the most 1980 synth solo part imaginable and some steel drums. I'd never listen to this kind of stuff by choice had it not appeared on a Grateful Dead LP, but as a one-off heard in a small dose here its kinda nice and more memorable than 'Far From Me'.
With the end in sight, at barely the 36 minute stage, 'Go To Heaven' really needs to end with something substantial to make this album seem up to standard. After all the Dead have a tradition of this: the 'Blues From Allah Suite', the title track of 'Terrapin Station', I even prefer the moody ballad 'If I Had The World To Give' to most fans. But no we end more or less where we came in, with a rocky and fun but inconsequential re-working of traditional song 'Don't Ease Me In' (one of the Dead's earliest songs back when they were still known as 'The Warlocks' and released as the band's first single in 1966 - you can hear it on the studio half of the 'Birth Of The Dead' set released in 2003). You can see why the Dead of both eras would have loved this song: it's a bouncy tale of a ragabond on the run from the law but whose soft heart and need for company lets him down (ending with the memorable couplet 'she brings ,me coffee, she brings me tea, she brings me everything but the jailhouse key!') Songs like this are the backbone of the Dead's (and especially Robert Hunter's) catalogue: charismatic individuals on the run from a faceless society because they accidentally or mischievously broke a law that doesn't really effect anyone. The un-named narrator could, in fact, be the Grand-daddy of the one in 'A Friend Of The Devil', the padre of 'Jack Straw the Outlaw' and the grand-uncle to 'Dupree' and his diamond blues. The contrasts between the two versions of the song sum up everything 'wrong' with both eras of the band: the first is scrappy yet exciting, sloppy yet dangerous and played slightly too fast through excitement and adrenalin. The second is tight yet lifeless, polished yet impersonal and played slightly too slow through a dozen too many takes. It's the Dead's life journey in a microcosm and while not horrid - Jerry turns in his best vocal on the album - it does sum up everything that's wrong with this record in one handy purchase and proof that the Dead should really not have listened to ideas of commerciality or producers.
Overall, then, 'Go To Heaven' is a short, lightweight work that left the band so un-enamoured with it and uninspired that they spent a whole seven years trying to avoid following it up. By Dead standards there's no meat in this sandwich and even the little that there is is largely smothered by a production sauce that makes it taste the same as everything else around in 1980. In many ways this project was doomed to failure the minute that the Dead agreed to take on a third straight producer who'd never really heard of them and tried to get them to fit a mould the Dead were never going to make work for them. And yet when this album works it really really works. 'Heaven' might be a bit strong - there's nothing here to give 'American Beauty' or 'Wake Of The Flood' sleepless nights after all - but if paradise isn't listening to the troubled 'Lost Sailor' suddenly finding his way at the start of 'Saint Of Circumstance' or hearing and understanding the lyrics of friendship in 'Althea' meet the stubborn music head-on then I don't know what is. There are better Dead albums, there are more consistent Dead albums and most of all there are a whole lot of more Dead-like Dead albums than this. But if 'Go To Heaven' with its three mini-masterpieces is arguably the nadir of the Dead's studio catalogue then, well, that's still a pretty high nadir to achieve in a career that lasted three whole decades. Too many Dead fans 'feel like a stranger' to this record after being put off by the reviews, that title and especially that cover: our advice is don't be, there's a lot here to enjoy and enough Dead-isms here to embrace even if you have to play 'Where's Wally?' with finding them underneath all that slick commercialism and professionalism. Although 'recommendation' would perhaps be too strong a word, 'Go To Heaven' is in fact not a journey to 'hell' at all, just a side-trip down another cul-de-sac that didn't quite work out.
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