I was leafing through Clinton Heylin's "Behind the shades", a biography of Bob Dylan today. It seemed pretty dull, for the most part. But the chapter on Dylan and the Grateful Dead was lively. Mr Heylin clearly doesn't like the Dead: he writes, of their (admittedly disappointing) collaboration in the late 1980s:
'Neither of the Dead's drummers played the backbeat on which Dylan so heavily relied; they were as sloppy in their beginnings as the man himself, rarely warming up from a slow shuffle; they didn't listen to the singer, let alone respond to him; and if they had ever been able to carry a tune in a bucket, their bucket had now got a hole in it.... the crude insensitivity of their playing [songs like "Desolation row" and "It's all over now, baby blue"] should have provided ample evidence of the pall the Dead can cast over any song... '
And, later, he writes:
'[Dylan's version of Peggy-O] had been clearly modeled on its gang rape by the Grateful Dead in recent years. Indeed, Dylan seems to have become surprisingly smitten by the attempts of Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter to write ina traditional style, interchanging "Black Muddy River", "Deal" and "Friend of the Devil" with genuine articles like "Delia" and "Pretty Peggy-O"...'
What an absolutely awful band the Grateful Dead seem to have been. One wonders how they managed to attract such a huge and loyal fan following. They must have been quite the masters of fooling the audience.
And it wasn't merely the audience they conned, it was musicians. And not just Dylan. They got jazz musicians of the calibre of Branford Marsalis, Ornette Coleman and David Murray, and rock musicians like Bruce Hornsby, to play with them. And the Dead themselves guested extensively on others' recordings. Jerry Garcia also did some fine bluegrass recordings with projects such as "Old and in the way", which featured, among others, one of the finest bluegrass fiddlers ever, Vassar Clements. Bassist Phil Lesh has an ever-growing list of "friends" that he plays with; the most high-profile recent example is probably John Scofield. Drummer Mickey Hart has worked on many high-profile percussion projects, with guests from Zakir Hussein to Babatunde Olatunji.
It's a pity all these renowned musicians didn't use the courage of their convictions to denounce the sham that the Dead were, as Mr Heylin bravely does.
Or maybe Mr Heylin was missing something.