Well, there ain’t nobody safer than someone who doesn’t care
And it isn’t even lonely when no one’s ever there
I had a lot of dreams once, but some of them came true
The honey’s sometimes bitter when fortune falls on you
The first time I saw the Grateful Dead was July 13, 1984. It’s a date that lingers for lots of reasons – call it a re-birthday. Young, dumb and full of cum (as the old expression goes), I was dragged to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley by my buddies at UC Santa Cruz, where I’d begin college in a couple months. Already wild eyed zealots for Garcia and the gang after their first year at Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp (a favorite alternate definition for UCSC), my friends were on a mission to convert me, no simple task given that my listening at that point consisted mostly of Cali punks like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks (and all their 70s ancestors, particularly The Clash and Patti Smith Group) along with the seventies classic rock I’d grown up on and a growing obsession with John Coltrane, Miles Davis and all things modal. So, to say I was skeptical walking up the Greek’s stone steps would be a gross understatement. And then they played.
My preconceptions quickly fell to fractals inside my mind. I simply didn’t know what to make of it. It was derived from American music, but other than that broad term it seemed to have no precedent. Some of it was downright bar band, other bits redolent of ancient strains, and the connective tissue between it all something entirely their own. While my chums had staked up spots on the main floor, I kept to myself high above, letting the wind bring this strange new thing to me. And for reasons somewhat beyond comprehension, my anchor, my home base amidst the slurry of influences and explorations onstage was keyboardist Brent Mydland. It’s not something I had any hand in choosing – the connection was instantaneous and felt fated (a sensation I’ve experienced only a handful of times in my life) – and for the next six years I posted up as close to Brent as circumstances allowed, a need more than a desire to be near to him, a commitment to ride out whatever wave came along by his side.
I think it was Brent’s obvious humanity, his frailties and struggles worn close to the surface – perhaps not by choice – that drew me in and gave everything he did extra gravity. If you paid attention you didn’t need anyone to tell you that life had been hard on Mydland. The pain of rising each day and struggling with it all rang out in his voice, a ragged, wild thing that would have fit in well with The Band – not pretty but absolutely fucking honest and beautiful in a gutbucket way. His keyboard work followed suit, stabbing and slashing at the music, chasing down something with sometimes brute intensity, while other times as tender as a kiss on a weary brow. I never quite knew what he’d do in a given song, and that unpredictability made him fun if a bit erratic. Like the rest of the Dead in the tumultuous 80s, there were glorious nights and there were outright belly flops, drunken and drugged-out displays that still make me want my money back for a few shows. But, it was easier to forgive with Brent, who seemed to carry more weight than his frame could really handle.
While almost everybody into the Dead can tell you about the day Jerry Garcia died, it’s not everyone who felt the same stomach churning sadness when they found out about Mydland’s drug overdose on July 26, 1990. My compass in the Grateful Dead was gone and the band was never the same for me again. I stopped going to concerts altogether by 1993, tired of pecking after something that wasn’t there for me anymore. I’ve been able to find the specialness in the individual surviving members of the Dead in the past decade, more interested in them apart from one another than the various aggregates that are chasing something that REALLY departed when Garcia shuffled off.
Mydland may have been the group’s fourth keyboardist but he was, even in his quiet way, one of the strongest personalities the band ever knew. Today is the anniversary of Brent Mydland’s birthday. He would have been 59 if he was still with us. As it is, he was just 37 years old when he died. I’m older than that now, and it gives me pause as I wrestle with my own demons, the ones that don’t go away no matter how much sweet talk or how many bribes I throw at them. Brent was a troubled soul but he made that work for him in his music. He gave form and context to feelings that don’t easily emerge from the shadows, a soul caught between eternal rocks and hard places giving voice to such cramped existence for the rest of us. Happy birthday wherever you are, brother. I hope you know how very, very missed you are.
More thoughts on Brent Mydland in a 2008 piece over here.