My four regular readers know I’m semi-obsessed with old American Top 40 countdowns and the Grateful Dead.
The two never crossed paths. But, inspired by something I heard in the car the other day, I felt like wasting a couple hundred words recounting a curious attempt to bring the two together.
The Dead couldn’t have cared less about hit singles, an attitude shared by many of their hip/underground/album-oriented contemporaries.
Not until 1987 did they hit the Top 40 with “Touch of Grey.” And, as if to prove their indifference and/or independence, they played entire shows in the summer and fall of ’87 without performing their hit — not exactly standard music-business procedure.
You might think that, left to its own whims, the band would ignore the singles market completely. (Remember, this was a group that semi-seriously considered distributing its records through ice-cream trucks. Standard music-business practices clearly were not a high priority.)
But no. When the band started its own independent record company in 1973, the first album release, Wake of the Flood, was accompanied by a single.
Even when Garcia and Co. didn’t have corporate suits to answer to, they still saw fit to put out a 45.
Maybe they thought a hit, however unlikely, would bolster the esteem and the finances of their new record label. Or maybe they just smoked a bunch of weed and decided to contradict people’s expectations.
At any rate, they made an unlikely choice for the A-side.
“Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” was a bit of countryish funk co-written by keyboardist Keith Godchaux and Dead house lyricist Robert Hunter. It would turn out to be Godchaux’s only lead vocal in seven-plus years with the band.
Godchaux’s singing is perfectly good, especially by the standards of his bandmates. But the tune wanders, the words are hackneyed in places, and the whole thing comes off like leftover Bonnie & Delaney.
(There is a nifty reference to Caseyland in the opening verse: “Not a cloud in the sky, such a sunny day / Push in the button, let the Top Ten play.” Shame that no one seems to have heard it, according to the ARSA database.)
What’s interesting — and a precursor to “Touch of Grey” — is the lack of onstage commitment the Dead gave their single.
“Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” was performed only six times onstage, all between Sept. 8 and 21, 1973.
The Wake of the Flood album came out Oct. 15 of that year. If the single was released concurrently (I can’t find an exact release date), that means the band had already stopped performing its single before even putting it out. One wonders why they bothered.
Also, I’ve heard at least half of those live versions, and I have yet to hear one that suggests the Dead ever really learned the song’s many chord changes. (I had the Sept. 17 Syracuse show on in my car yesterday, which is what got me started on this whole thought-train.)
Check out this version — the first of the six — taken from the Sept. 8 gig at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.
The band is clearly taking a test it hasn’t studied for. (If nothing else, listen to what happens between about 2:25 and 2:35.) What’s more, this version is actually better and more smoothly performed than the Syracuse version nine days later.
So, what we have here is a single that not only didn’t get played live, but that the band couldn’t play live, even to its own shaggy “professional” standard. Only the Dead (or, I suppose, their future Arista Records labelmates Milli Vanilli) would do something like that.
“Touch of Grey” brought a new, younger group of fans into Deadland, causing no small amount of tension between old-school Deadheads and newbies who were unschooled in Dead culture.
It would have been interesting, had “Let Me Sing” become a hit, to see whether that same schism would have happened 15 years earlier, and how that would have affected the Dead’s long-term trajectory.
But, thanks to the band’s (how to put this?) lackadaisical approach to the music business, that never came to pass.