I am sure any Deadhead who happens upon this post will recoil in terror not only at the selection of a Dead studio album, but one that was released in 1989. Oh, the horror… oh please.
Built to Last is not only amazing in the quality of the work, but in what it makes me think of and remember.
In 1992-1993 I was not in a good way. Issues, issues, issues. I did have a couple really good friends I made during that first whack at the college ball. While they didn’t introduce me to the album, we spent some time with it, good peaceful time in the midst of frantic late teen/early adult angst. It was comforting in a time of endless self induced misery.
I have owned the album a few times since then. A few years ago I found one of my long lost copies that came back to replace the copy it was replaced by. Every time I give it a listen after I put it down for a short while it has some deeper layer it exposes to me.
It is not a Jerry or Bobby based album (perhaps the first affront to many fans) rather Brent Mydland takes center stage on a majority of the tracks. It does however open up with a Jerry song, Foolish Heart. No this is not a cover of the Steve Perry song.
It is a light an airy song though, especially for this album. Actually it is downright whimsical in this atmosphere. I think it may a bit low on my radar because of this lyric- “A selfish heart is trouble/but a foolish heart is worse.” I am inclined to disagree, though to be fair selfishness has gotten further away from us since 1989. Couple this with my ability to over analyze and viola, a good but not great song in my estimation.
Just a Little Light is the first of four Barlow/Mydland penned songs and it opens with keys, to a funky guitar that bleeds into Brent tearing it up vocally in his Cockeresque throaty style. On more than a few occasions I have wished to have his pipes.
“So you know I’ve been a solider in the armies of the night/and I’ll find the fatal error in what’s otherwise alright”
This makes me think of my long career in the late night food business. I was a solider in the army of the night. I had a few short breaks between stints as your resident sub shop cook, but from 1994-2005 I spent most of my time watching the sun come up before going to bed. It still has its affect on my circadian rhythm. So it goes, I suppose.
In regard to the second portion of this verse it makes me think back to growing up, heck even well past whenever I have tried to do something off the acceptable path or maybe even wrong I got busted for it. Play poker against me. You should do well. You can read my face and then gander at my arm for a view of my heart. I find the fatal error in what is otherwise alright for 99.9 percent of participants. So it goes.
“I have always heard that virtue oughta be its own reward/but it never comes so easy when you’re living by the sword/It’s even harder to be heartless when you look at me that way/You’re as mighty as the flower that will grow the stones away”
In trying times I have thought the first part of the verse is bunk, especially in places where merit has no place, rather how long you have put an ass groove in the seat. Where conducting personal business is the same as doing the business of earning a paycheck. It grates me, but I won’t yield. If the people whose behavior vexes me need a hand, I am usually there.
I am certain that I can’t explain these lyrics and their effect as well as Mydland sings them, he breathes that much passion into them.
Built to Last is a great Garcia/Hunter ode to a long, loving relationship. It was introduced to me in 1990? by an ex-girlfriend on a mixed tape. My brother Rob loving referred to her as bat face. He would even sing the portion of Call Me Al that references a bat-faced girl. It is love through attrition.
Well that “love” wasn’t built to last, however I have been with my wife as a couple for 19 years, almost 13 married. I think of her when I listen to this song. “All the stars/ are gone but one/morning breaks/ here comes the sun/cross the sky/now sinking fast/show me something/ built to last”
In the opening of this song I think of her plight as partner in our relationship.
“There are times when you can beckon
There are times when you must call
You can shake a lot of reckoning
But you can’t shake it all.”
I consider Blow Away one of the crown jewels of the album. It is not a happy song. It is a song about growth in life and relationships and how it is often apart from whom you were once close.
I thankfully can’t cite any recent struggles with this. It is the power of Brent’s point of view, his struggle that touches me heart. I own 4 live versions of this song from the late 1989-early 1990 run before Brent died of an overdose. Each one has its own powerful, sad and haunting quality about it.
I think one of the principle powers of music, besides giving the listener something to relate to, is to give the listener something else to consider that they either haven’t experienced or perhaps the opposite of a point of view they hold. I am certain back in 1992, 1993 I was directly relating to the pain I was in through this song. If I wasn’t I was a larger fool than I consider 1992, 1993 Jon from my current vantage point. This is a song that will suck in the wallower. Come relate to this pain.
The opening is wise for any relationship really(sub in and out what gender you may feel is relevant). It is probably more of an actuality than a possibility in many if not most cases-
“A man and a woman come together as strangers
When they part they’re usually strangers still
It’s like a practical joke played on us by our maker
Empty bottles that can’t be filled.”
I remember the struggle to find someone to be your partner in life. I was struggling with it at times when it should have been the farthest thing from my mind. When I stopped considering it so much (I was an early adherent to pondering) Marlene came along. We have been together for 19 years. I have not struggled with the above as a consideration let alone a reality in that time, save some frosty toes near the bells.
I have considered using these musings that seem so palpable when listening to this song to a character’s motivation in a short story. It is probably something best unleashed instead of being on permanent spin cycle in my grey matter. Perhaps I shall, but that is the power of this song. It makes me think because it makes me feel.
The following lyric succinctly lays out my feelings toward those that overreach and mistake my kindness for weakness. It happens, often proceeded by an sh.
“Your case against me is so very clearly stated
I plead no contest, I just turn and shrug
I’ve come to figure all importance overestimated
You must mean water when you get on your knees and beg for blood.”
The next song was more than likely an attempt by Bobby Weir to get Jerry and Brent to consider their heroin abuse. Victim or the Crime leaves no doubt from the intense instrumental opening to the opening line of “Patience runs out on a junkie” what the subject at hand is.
It is a song that always leaves me sad and a tad embarrassed. I remember when Brent died in 1990. I was talking to my friend Jay on the phone and he was sad about Brent’s passing. Being a naive asshole teenager I tried to play it down as it least it wasn’t one of the main guys, or something to that effect. What a tool teenage Jon was. Ironic that he is my favorite member for the better part of the two decades that followed that ignorant statement.
The song is about loss, regret and dealing with your demons. I don’t think you need heroin as a monkey on your back to relate. I know I don’t.
“And so I wrestled with the angel
To see who’ll reap the seeds I sow
Am I the driver or the driven?
Will I be damned to be forgiven?
Is there anybody here but me who needs to know?”
It is an extremely mournful, conflicted song, though apparently not strong enough to have the desired effect on his band mates. It resonates with me, gives me pause when I need it and motivation as well.
We Can Run is more relevant today than ever. It is a Barlow/Mydland song about society and how we run away from our problems we create with no thought or plan for what comes in its wake. It is shockingly on point with its observations and beautifully performed by the band.
It opens with these lyrics and builds strongly from this base
“We don’t own this place though we act as if we did
It’s a loan from the children of our children’s kids
The actual owners haven’t even been born yet.
But we never tend the garden and we barely pay the rent
most of it is broken and the rest of it is bent
Put it on our plastic and I wonder where we’ll be when the bills hit.”
Just reading it brings a sad nod.
“I’m dumpin’ my trash in your backyard
making certain you don’t notice it isn’t so hard
You’re so busy with your guns and all of your excuses to use them.”
“Today I went walking in the amber wind
There’s a hole in the sky where the light pours in
I remember the days when I wasn’t afraid of the sunshine.
But now it beats down on the asphalt land
Like a hammering bolt from God’s left hand
What still grows cringes in the shade like a bad vine.”
That is evocative poetry. I am unsure how I can do proper credit to it other than to suggest others who believe we have been shitty custodians for a few decades should take notice.
We are not alone in these thoughts and feelings. We just need to do a better job of rallying like minded people to the cause. That is what We Can Run brings to me. It is a rallying cry that is over 20 years old that resonates more than ever. The reckoning is likely to come soon. I sure hope we figure out what to do then.
Standing on the Moon was one of two songs that was supposed to be the song my wife and I danced to at our reception. I forgot the CD. It was decidedly not mixed among Cecilia or YMCA in the DJ’s arsenal. We ended up dancing to a James Brown song. No, I am not sure which one.
Standing on the Moon may be my favorite Jerry song. The narrator speaks from the vantage point of standing on the moon… yes I know hard to delineate that from the title. Jerry is wonderfully emotive here. I appreciate the lyrics on this song, but they are truly served by how measured they are performed. They would seem out of place without the music, other than to say to my wife “What a lovely view of heaven, but I’d rather be with you”.
The next song, Picasso Moon is a Weir song that exudes the same 1st person zaniness of Hell in a Bucket. I never imaged I would be rocking out to lyrics like – “I had a job trading bits for pieces/we made wrinkles, advertised them as creases.” Nonetheless, every time I listen to the song I am in full rock out mode by that point. “Bigger than a drive-in movie ooo-wee” loses me a bit, though it plays out a function in the story. To me this is Barlow/Weir at their most irreverent.
The other crown jewel of the album. is I Will Take You Home, Brent Mydland’s ode to his daughter, with the help of John Barlow. I have always enjoyed this song, but until the birth of my daughter in 2006 I didn’t appreciate its power. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect and nurture both of my children. Depending on my mood I am either reveling in memories of my own with my daughter or I am pondering how Brent’s daughter Jessica did, how she is doing and whether this song was a source of comfort for her. This is a version from 6.17.90, Father’s Day, with Jessica at the show. It was just over a month later that Brent was found dead.
I have grown as a person during my 20 plus years of listening to this album. Songs have ebbed in importance to me only to flow back the other direction a month or two later. Like many albums and songs I listen to this one has enriched my life. Like all the albums on this list have in their own way, though this one along with everything else deeper, taught me not to talk out of my ass about things I don’t know about. Brent Mydland was a rock of the Grateful Dead at the time of his death. Thankfully my ignorance in this matter (and many, many others) wasn’t built to last.