Dylan and the Dead was the album that ended my relationship with Bob Dylan. Released in February 1989 (but recorded in July 1987), I actually didn’t buy it at that time. I saw Dylan perform outside of Toronto at the end of July 1989, and I was still somewhat a fan. I remember reading the terrible reviews for this album and avoiding it for a really long time. I finally bought it on sale one day at a record shop in London, Ontario. I think I played it twice.
Nick Hornby has a scene in High Fidelity that precisely describes me buying this album, in which a man anxiously stops browsing the record bins and stomps over to buy the album that he has decided that he will settle on buying if he can’t find something that he genuinely wants. It’s a great quote, but my Google skills have failed to turn it up. No matter. That was exactly it. I knew I didn’t want to listen to Dylan and the Dead, and then one day I really had to have a new album, and that was the best I could come up with. I hated it and resented it.
The album itself, though released early in 1989, was recorded in 1987. In July of that year Dylan performed six shows with the Dead as his backing band. Each show opened with a two hour Dead show and then a show with Dylan playing with them. They did either 13 or 15 songs each night. The shows were in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Eugene, Oakland and Anaheim, each at a football stadium. Dylan never spoke during any of them (indeed, he wouldn’t speak to the audience again until 1990), and he didn’t play any songs solo for the first time in maybe forever.
Over the course of the six shows, Dylan and the Dead performed twenty-nine different Dylan songs, including five that he had never performed live before ever. Of those, two wound up on the album (“Joey” and “Queen Jane Approximately” – it’s hard to imagine that he’d never played the latter live previously). As befits the Dead, most of the song versions are longer than typical for Dylan, and there are only seven songs on the album taken from four of the shows (nothing from Philadelphia or New York). The album is a greatest hits version of the tour, which is quite damning.
Not surprisingly given how bootlegged both acts are, there are excellent quality soundboard recordings of all six of these shows. I don’t have any of them. Bjorner, who is generally pretty good with his bootleg reviews lists none of them as recommended, and if they thought that this was the seven best songs, well, those must have been some rough shows to sit through. I was surprised to not be able to find a bootleg compilation that would put together a four or five disc set compiling the best version of all twenty-nine songs from this mini-tour. The fact that it doesn’t seem to exist probably tells you all that you need to know about this thing was received.
Listening to it with fresh ears this week I was initially poised to tell you that it has been unjustly maligned. I sort of like the version of “Slow Train” from Boston that opens it, and “I Want You” is also pretty good. That’s when it all falls apart though. The entire second side is just garbage. The versions of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (two live Dylan staples) are just about as lousy as anything that he ever did – just limp and lifeless. “Knockin’” just mercifully fades out to end the album – I have a sense that the Dead could have noodled on that for another hour until I would have had to kill myself. The whole thing is just a major bust.
Dylan writes about this tour – or, really, the rehearsals for it – in Chronicles v1. He notes that he had been on auto-pilot at that point in his career, refusing to take suggestions from The Heartbreakers about new songs to play live (“Benmont Tench, one of the musicians in Petty’s band, would always be asking me, almost pleadingly, about including different numbers in the show. “Chimes of Freedom” — can we try that? Or what about “My Back Pages”? Or “Spanish Harlem Incident”? And I’d always be making some lame excuse.”). He actually writes that when the Dead asked him to play some non-traditional material (like “Joey”) he left the rehearsal space with the intention of never returning. He claims that he was inspired to return only after listening to a jazz singer in a club, who inspired him to come up with a new way of singing that he would debut with the Dead, and which would break him out of his cocoon. That’s probably apocryphal, but it is true that Dylan tried new things on the mini-tour, dramatically re-approaching some of his old songs to give them new life. It didn’t work, but he tried. He’d be still trying in 1989 when he began the Never-Ending Tour.
Here, if you want to watch it, is the almost complete Dead set and complete Dylan and the Dead set from New York on YouTube (I haven’t watch this). It’s three hours long:
For the less hardcore among you, here’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from the same show. I don’t think that this is a good version of this song, but it seems pretty typical of what they were doing: