Bob Dylan may have just become the first artist in history to have a top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s, but the eighties were an odd time for the iconic singer-songwriter. As well as not being revered as the inspirational genius he is today, Dylan had yet to really crack the charts with a whopper.
In short, his career was nosediving commercially, his figure had diminished critically, and his confidence had been shaken personally. It was a situation that would eventually, and fortunately, land him on a farewell tour alongside The Grateful Dead.
As you might have expected, instead of The Grateful Dead providing the perfect tie-dye coffin to lay down his career, the band inspired and rejuvenated the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. They rekindled not only his career but his love of music both his own and the worlds—and much of it can be traced back to one incredible tour between Dylan and The Dead.
In Dylan’s autobiography, he recalls: “Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch the right nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history anymore.” Dylan felt pushed aside and was now becoming more than happy to take his place in the history books.
One band not happy to stand still was The Grateful Dead, the ever-evolving group had made their career on never settling for second best. To show off their ability, the group invited the mercurial songwriter out to San Rafael in California to rehearse as one ahead of a proposed joint-headline tour which would swallow up both groups of fans. It was unlike any rehearsal Dylan had ever experienced.
In Chronicles, Volume 1 he writes: “After an hour or so, it became clear to me that the band wanted to rehearse more and different songs than I had been used to doing with Petty. They wanted to run over all the songs, the ones they liked, the seldom seen ones. I found myself in a peculiar position, and I could hear the brakes screech. If I had known this to begin with, I might not have taken the dates….there were so many [songs] that I couldn’t tell which was which-I might even get the words to some mixed up with others.”
It was a daunting task for an artist who thought his time was up. He left the studio and was determined never to return until a run-in with a jazz band made him reconsider. ‘Dylan and The Dead’, as the live show and subsequent album was titled, was a frightening concept for the singer but “then miraculously,” he adds, “Something internal came unhinged.”
“I played these shows with The Dead and never had to think twice about it. Maybe they just dropped something in my drink, I can’t say, but anything they wanted to do was fine with me.”
Below, we’re going back to one of those performances and the rendition of Dylan’s iconic track ‘I Want You’. Originally recorded in 1966 for Dylan’s seminal album Blonde on Blonde, the performance is a culmination of the story’s events up until this point. Dylan isn’t the most confident, he’s far from a polished act or the unassuming folkie legend he once was, but what he does have is commitment.
Flanked by Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia with the rest of The Dead behind him, Dylan gives a slightly shakey but completely heartfelt rendition of the song which is cherished by so many of his fans. Those fans would have been calmed after Garcia begins the legendary first notes.
Dylan’s voice isn’t incredible, but the friendship and song shared with the audience is still as potent as ever. Watch Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead perform ‘I Want You’ on Independence Day in 1987.