All the excitement around here about the veritable tsunami of videos submitted for the Dead Covers Project got me thinking about the Grateful Dead’s rather slight contributions to the MTV Age. This was a not a band made for that medium, especially in MTV’s early days, when videos were all about fast cuts, tight pants, smoke bombs and scantily clad women. Has there ever been a band that cared less about its onstage presentation than the Grateful Dead?
MTV went on the air for the first time on Jerry’s 39th birthday, August 1, 1981, around the time the Dead were releasing their excellent long-form live music video, Dead Ahead, shot at Radio City Music Hall the previous October. That’s how the Dead were meant to be seen! During MTV’s early years, the Dead didn’t have an album, much less a single, that warranted making a video—you’ll recall, the group didn’t release a new studio album between 1980 (Go to Heaven) and 1987 (In the Dark).
Garcia’s near death in the summer of ’86 and his and the band’s subsequent resurrection the following winter and spring was such a captivating storyline in both the music world and the mainstream media, it was no surprise that when the group completed In the Dark in the spring of 1987, MTV was panting outside their door, practically begging for a video. As fate would have it, the group had a song with actual commercial potential, ripe for video treatment: “Touch of Grey.”
And in their first attempt at a video, they knocked it out of the park! Directed by Gary Gutierrez, the genius behind the animated opening of The Grateful Dead Movie (which came out in 1977), the “Touch of Grey” video famously combined footage of life-size skeleton marionettes of the band members (with Jerry in a black T-shirt, Bob in a polo, Phil in a tie-dye, etc.) playing the song before an ecstatic Dead Head crowd. Toward the end of the tune, the skeletons magically transform into the living, breathing (and smiling) Grateful Dead! The video was shot a few hours after the group’s show at the Laguna Seca Recreation Area near Monterey on May 9, 1987. I and several friends were at the show but elected not to come back after nightfall to be part of the video. We partied at our hotel instead, so we missed our shot at video immortality. Despite this disturbing lack of me, the result was way cool. I love it when a dog runs across the stage carrying the Mickey skeleton’s lower leg (complete with high-top sneaker) between his teeth! The folks at MTV loved the video and played it a lot during that summer of 1987, no doubt spurring interest in the single (which became the Dead’s only Top Ten hit) and the album (ditto). Justin Kreutzmann directed a 30-minute VHS video called Dead Ringers: The Making of “Touch of Grey,” which, alas, has never been released on DVD.
Two other songs from In the Dark also got the full-blown video treatment, too.
“Hell in Bucket” was never released as a single, but it made it all the way to No. 3 on Billboard’s “Mainstream Rock Tracks” chart, and it seemed like a natural choice for a video—after all, it’s about as hard rock as the Dead get, and it has some very colorful imagery. For better or worse, the Dead and director Len Dell’Amico (who had earlier helmed Dead Ahead and in 1987 completed, with Garcia, the 55-minute conceptual video So Far) decided to plant tongue firmly-in-cheek and create a nearly literal depiction of John Barlow’s lyrics—from the biker “charging his chopper up and down your carpeted hall” to “sipping champagne from your boot” and a leather-clad dominatrix’s “chair and her whips and her pets” (which in this case are pigs, goats and a tiger).
Bob is the affable star of this one. Dressed in full Don Johnson Miami Vice-wear (pink pastel jacket, yellow sleeveless shirt, gold chain, etc.) he mugs his way through a series of ridiculous scenes with a black-corseted femme fatale and his fellow band members: Jerry appears at the beginning and end sitting on a bar stool and looking coolly nonchalant as he plays his axe, while the others must suffer more serious indignities—Mickey and Billy, laughing all the way, are dressed as devils driving a big-finned old Cadillac (down the streets of San Rafael) to hell; Brent is an old-time saloon pianist; and poor Phil looks uncomfortable in his cameo as a circus ringmaster. The wild bar scenes are populated by Grateful Dead family—look closely and you’ll spot Dick Latvala, Billy Grillo, Sue Stephens, Jon McIntire, Harry Popick and others. All in all, it’s cute but a little bush league. MTV didn’t play it much. And a duck steals the show!
Strangely enough, “Throwing Stones” (b/w “When Push Comes to Shove”) was released as a single. It did not make the Billboard “Hot 100,” but it, too, was a popular FM radio song, topping out at No. 15 on the “Mainstream Rock Tracks” chart. Len dell’Amico was again in the director’s chair for this video, which was shot on the grounds of an abandoned school in Oakland in November ’87. The setting appears to be some sort of bleak, post-apocalyptic future like that depicted in the Australian Mad Max films; indeed, the band is decked out in what are known as Australian oil coats and various hats—Jerry wears a top hat, Mickey a turban. (Bill was not present for the location shoot in Oakland, so crew member Robbie Taylor filled in for him wearing a mask.)
As Bob earnestly lip synchs to the recorded track, director dell’Amico fills much of the video with a montage of disturbing footage of World War II, the Ku Klux Klan, cities in flames and other dark images to illustrate some of the lyrics in the song. That negativity is contrasted with scenes of grade school children (“full of hope, full of grace”) playing together and painting a colorful mural, and lovely, inviting shots of the sky and our blue and green planet. Jerry looks as if he’d rather be doing anything other than wearing a costume, but otherwise the group seems to be into it. The song’s message comes across strongly, which was the point.
Two years after In the Dark, the Dead put out what would be their final album, Built to Last (released on Halloween 1989). That CD didn’t have an obvious single like “Touch of Grey,” but the most commercial of the lot was clearly “Foolish Heart,” and Gary Gutierrez’s imaginative video supported the song beautifully. When Gutierrez was given the lyrics to work with, the song was still called “Unto a Foolish Heart” and, as he told me in an interview for The Golden Road at the time, “The title and some of imagery reminded me of fairy tales, and had a certain Victorian melodramatic quality about it. The basic message of the song, as I saw it, was you can do this foolish thing or that crazy thing, but whatever you do, don’t give your heart to someone who will abuse it. Hunter agreed that is what the song is basically about, and everything else was an embellishment of that and his own visual imagery, and he encouraged me to develop a second level of imagery that would complement that.”
Gutierrez took a few different tacks. After a skeleton arm (from the “Touch of Grey” video) cranks up a Victrola and puts the needle down on a 78, the song begins and we see a miniature theater proscenium with red velvet curtain—and a rock ’n’ roll P.A. on the sides! Once the curtains open, the stage space is used for footage of the band in Victorian threads (except for Jerry, of course, dapper in a dark sport coat, a red rose on his lapel) playing the song; various ingenious stop-animation collages of hearts and flowers; and a little playlet featuring two gloved hands demonstrating different stages of romance (love the “nude” scene!). Also running through the video are bits of a 1903 French silent film called Kingdom of the Fairies directed by George Méliès (who is a central character in the Oscar-nominated Martin Scorsese film, Hugo) “that were almost archetypal, having to do with love and foolish quests and things like that,” Gutierrez said. There are also some nifty moments of the band looking as though they are in a Méliès film. Neither the single nor the video caught on, but “Foolish Heart” made it No. 8 on “Mainstream Rock Tracks” and it remains a fine piece of work.
The final song video the Dead created was also directed by Gutierrez—Brent’s “Just a Little Light.” This time the approach was simple and straightforward. It’s essentially a performance video, albeit with some very interesting and unusual lighting, playing off darkness and light, shadows and glaring brightness. It’s a moody and effective rendering of what I feel is Brent’s best song and, following his death a few months after the video came out, it became a poignant memorial to him. It was also just a bit eerie—toward the end of the song, we see him surrounded by candles as he sings, and the last image in the video is a candle being blown out.
Of course we’ll never know what kinds of videos the Dead might have made for “Liberty” or “So Many Roads” or any of the other songs that would have been on the uncompleted follow-up to Built to Last. Their legacy of “official” videos—just these five songs—is uneven, but I still wish they were available on DVD.* * *
Speaking of videos, here are five more submitted to the Dead Covers Project that I think are worth checking out:
Modusmongo: “Crazy Fingers.” A wonderful acoustic guitar-and-vocal performance by Peter McConnel. There’s nothing revolutionary about his approach or arrangement, but his performance is so committed and his guitar work so confident he really “sells” the song, which is one of my all-time favorites. I also like his exciting little instrumental flight after the main song.
Mike Massé and Jeff Hall: “Black Peter.” Another relatively straight cover, this one captured at Pie Pizzeria in Salt Lake City back in 2008. Massé plays acoustic guitar and sings lead, Hall the electric bass. The performance has a really nice vibe to it, and I love the vocals on the bridge. However, I cannot forgive them for also posting a video of them doing “Dust in the Wind.”
Packy Lundholm: “Bertha.” I see that this one has also been chosen by the Rhino/Dead.net Grand Poobahs for their daily list. It’s definitely one of the most interesting we’ve received. Using a five-way split screen, it shows Lundholm playing all lead and rhythm guitar parts, bass, drums and keyboards completely live through a very hot version of “Bertha.” (In other words, he recorded a guitar-and-vocal track first, then overdubbbed each additional part, filming each as a complete take.) The guy has chops on all five instruments and both the audio and video quality is superb. A must-see!
Terrain: “Friend of the Devil.” This is different and a lot of fun! It starts off as a black- and-white performance video, with the band easing into a festive reggae groove for the song, but it quickly becomes something else—it humorously depicts the story in the song through simply manipulated cut-out images, various three-dimensional objects (like a joint), magic marker scrawls and childlike watercolor backgrounds. Works for me! And I dig the musical arrangement, too!
Anne Marie Calhoun: “Ripple.” Calhoun is one helluva violinist; here she’s supported by a lone acoustic guitar (her brother Joe) in this compelling instrumental version. At its simplest, it has the vibe of some of the music for Ken Burns’ Civil War series. But then Calhoun launches into one intriguing and ambitious extrapolation on the melody and rhythm after another, with fascinating results. There are a couple of points where she seems to sort of go off the rails and get lost, but who cares when the playing is this good!
Lastly, this week marks the one-year anniversary (and 49th posting) of “Blair’s Golden Road Blog.” What a long, fun trip it’s been!