An excerpt from Dylan and the Grateful Dead: A Tale of Twisted Fate
“Some artists’ work speaks for itself. Some artists’ work speaks for its generation. It’s my deep personal pleasure to present to you one of America’s great voices of freedom. It can only be one man, the transcendent Bob Dylan!”
The Transcendent One appeared center stage to a thunderous ovation in Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium after the rousing introduction from Jack Nicholson. Looking sharp with dangling gold earrings, a harmonica rack, and wearing a white suit, Dylan introduced Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and then wondered aloud, “I don’t know where they are.” Based on the quality of their performance, Ron and Keith didn’t seem to know where they were either. It was July 13, 1985, and Dylan was the headline act in the grandest benefit concert ever, Live Aid.
A worldwide audience of one billion were about to witness three legends bumble and stumble through a three-song, fifteen-minute acoustic set. If Dylan was still interested in diminishing his fame, these next fifteen minutes were bound to render him a relic. This was worse self-sabotage than Self Portrait.
Instead of warming up with a popular crowd pleaser, Dylan launched into “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” a tale of starvation and desperation that fit in with the theme of raising money to feed people who were starving to death in Ethiopia. If the benefit concert were in an intimate theatre with crisp sound, Dylan might have had a chance. On the JFK stage, Dylan had to contend with feedback from an awful audio setup. And the Rolling Stones guitar heroes bashed at their acoustic guitars as if they had never heard “Hollis Brown” before. Dylan and his friends had been loosening up with a few too many libations in their trailer on this steamy summer’s day. Sweat dripped down from Dylan’s brow throughout the entire performance.
Before continuing with the musical segment, Dylan said, “Thank you. I thought that was a fitting song for this important occasion. You know while I’m here, I just hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take just a little bit of it, 1 or 2 million maybe, and use it to, maybe use it to pay the mortgages on some of the farms, that the farmers here owe to the banks.” Helping American farmers was a noble idea, but the focus of this event was saving the lives from a famine that had already starved a million victims. Dylan’s suggestion stunned organizers of the event. But if Dylan had not made that statement, would Farm Aid, the charity concert for American farmers that took place a few months later, have materialized as quickly as it did? Probably not.
As if the sound setup wasn’t bad enough, Dylan had to deal with the backstage noise of a trial run of the grand finale, “We are the World” as he charged into “When the Ship Comes In.” With his peers doing a better job smoking cigarettes with no hands than providing acoustic accompaniment, Dylan’s singing veered off course as if he were doing a whiny parody of himself. Before the final number, Dylan asked over the mic, “How much time we got?” There wasn’t enough to make amends, yet he couldn’t flee from the stage quick enough. Dylan continued to chase the ghost of his past by concluding with “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Two lines in, Bob began to cough, and later on a string on his guitar broke. Ron Wood gave Bob his guitar, and Dylan rallied to salvage a good rendition of his earliest anthem. However, Dylan came off as a whiny-sounding legend, and this performance was fodder for comedians who impersonated Dylan for laughs.
While Dylan was struggling, and sweating to his oldies in JFK, Jerry was en fuego with the Grateful Dead at the Ventura County Fairgrounds on July 13, 1985. As the rest of the planet had their eyes on mega superstars performing at stadiums in Philadelphia and London, Deadheads swayed and danced in the bliss of their own reality. Three weeks earlier, the Grateful Dead celebrated their twentieth anniversary with three shows at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The celebration continued for the rest of the year. In Ventura, there was a giant banner behind the band showing a skeleton with a guitar, dressed and posing like a Minuteman in front of an American flag. The banner read, “Grateful Dead Twenty Years So Far.” And after all the shows through the years, they still managed to surprise the crowd with a combo they had never played before.
A decent video of this gig can be found on YouTube. The bootlegger did a nice job focusing on the band with a handheld camera about thirty yards from the stage. At times the video is hazy and the camera strays, but it gives you an authentic feel for what it was like to be in the crowd. Being that it was a Saturday, it was inevitable that the band would play “One More Saturday Night.” Instead of playing it as an encore or set ender, the Dead opened the show with it for the first time. Garcia looked much better than he had the year before. In a red shirt and black pants, his trimmed gray mane blew in the Ventura winds, and it was obvious that he’d lost a little weight. Rocking in a light-colored polo shirt and jeans, saliva spritzed through the air as Weir excitedly sang “One More Saturday Night.” Feeling adventurous, the band segued into “Fire on the Mountain,” as a wildfire burned on a mountain nearby.
Garcia ignited his own blaze with three unique “Fire” solos, balancing creative expression with mathematical precision. Each solo was hotter than the one that preceded it. Garcia’s voice was breaking up here and there, but his soulful singing was full of hope. Garcia was locked in—gold-rimmed glasses hanging down at the tip of his nose as he manhandled his Tiger guitar with grace. The final “Fire” solo was a three-tiered gem. Garcia developed an idea, brought it to a logical climax, and then latched onto a different idea and resolved it with a slightly more dramatic climax, and then did it again—three lovely musical paragraphs in an essay. As Live Aid played out worldwide, Deadheads basked in the awe and wonder of their own little universe.