Unfinished works are some of the most fascinating “what-if” scenarios that could ever come from famous artists. Some of the greatest minds of all time, including Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart and Mark Twain all left prominent works unfinished at the time of their respective deaths, with the pieces taking on a strange and macabre allure to them. It’s the draw of the unknowable: how would they have finished these works if they could?
Then there are the artists whom we know what their intentions were. This is where legendary jam band pioneers the Grateful Dead come into the story. You see, the Dead put out their final album, Built to Last, in 1989. Even though they hadn’t historically been known for their studio output (outside of the unimpeachable one-two punch of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty), the Dead were still dutifully pumping out LPs throughout their career to see if they could translate the magic of their live shows.
From the release of Workingman’s Dead in early 1970 to the release of Go to Heaven in mid-1980, the Dead released eight studio albums over the course of a decade. But after that, they finally decided that the studio simply wasn’t for them. A few aborted sessions throughout the early and mid-1980s followed, but as the band approached their 20th anniversary and beyond, the idea of going into the studio was getting less and less appealing.
When Jerry Garcia recovered from a 1986 diabetic coma, however, there was a renewed spirit to try and put the band’s material to tape once again. The result was 1987’s In the Dark, which proved to be the elusive hit that the band had hoped for. With a top ten single in ‘Touch of Grey’, the album was the band’s first contemporary platinum record and introduced an entirely new generation to the engrossing world of the Dead.
That’s why the band chose to record Built to Last so quickly afterwards, but without a major hit single to boost it, Built to Last couldn’t replicate the same success as In the Dark. Garcia’s wavering health and the band’s comfort with playing live as opposed to in the studio meant that Built to Last would ultimately be the final Grateful Dead studio album, but the band continued on for another six years after that LP’s release and were even integrating new songs into their sets.
Those new tracks weren’t just meant for the live stage either. Starting in 1992, the Dead made sporadic attempts to assemble their new tracks into what would have been their 14th studio album. Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter were mining some late-period gems during this period, including the songs ‘Days Between’, ‘Liberty’, and ‘Lazy River Road’. Bob Weir had a few new tracks, including ‘Corrina’ and ‘Easy Answers’, while Phil Lesh and final Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick were set to contribute songs as well.
The sessions proved to be uninspired, particularly as Garcia seemed unenthusiastic about the project. While the band continued on their annual summer tours, occasional sessions continued with bits and pieces being assembled. Garcia hadn’t laid down any vocals, however, and his lack of interest continued to stall the album’s progress. Lesh was attempting to salvage the recordings into something resembling a full album when Garcia died in 1995, ultimately leaving the album unfinished when the bandmates agreed not to continue working on the LP.
The lack of a final Grateful Dead album had some unfortunate consequences. Welnick never got to appear on an official studio record, while great songs like ‘Days Between’ were only known from their live renditions performed towards the end of the Dead’s run. Studio records were never fully in touch with the Dead’s spontaneous style, but the fact that there could have been one final LP remains a sadly missed opportunity from one of America’s greatest musical acts.
Hear a version of ‘Days Between’ from Ready or Not, the 2019 live album that constitutes a rough version of what could have been the final Grateful Dead studio album, down below.