Top 25 Grateful Dead Songs: Solo Jerry and Misc.
Starting my countdown with some tracks of Jerry Garcia's solo albums and a couple late-period Dead selections.
To get this exercise started, in which I identify my Top 25 favorite songs by the Grateful Dead, I’m going to start with some songs from Jerry Garcia’s solo releases that became, in essence, Grateful Dead songs as well as a couple tracks from Dead releases that didn’t quite fit into any of my other categories.
Rather than doing these songs in an order according to preference (save for the top 5), I’ve decided to group them together in appropriate ways. Without further delay, let’s get into this first batch of 5.
I have an affinity for late-period Dead that maybe separates me from others who don’t enjoy the In the Dark-Built to Last tracks (and I’m not saying that somehow makes me “better” or anything, it just seems like that stuff isn’t really embraced as much as the other stuff is).
This song, the first track on 1989’s Built to Last, might seem to stand out from the Dead’s larger oeuvre, but there’s a lot that connects to those other more “canonical” tracks.
Read this quote from Jerry Garcia, who wrote this song along with band lyricist Robert Hunter:
“The thing that’s interesting about ‘Foolish Heart’ is it doesn’t have any pads in it. Nobody’s playing chords in the song, not anybody. Everybody’s playing lines, and the lines hook up and tell you everything you need to know about the harmonic content of the song. You don’t wonder where it’s going. It’s so beautifully designed, it’s like a clock. It’s really lovely. It surprised me it came out so interesting and so perfect and so totally its own personality. That’s the Grateful Dead in action, really.”
What stands out on this track, and much of the late-period Dead stuff, are Brent Mydland’s keyboards. It’s very distinctive but in the best way possible.
There’s certainly an 80s sheen to this song, which is a quality we don’t typically associate with the Dead. But I find it very pleasant. It’s slick but in a way that speaks to the proficiency of the people making the music. I think about Gaucho-era Steely Dan and Donald Fagan on The Nightfly as something similar. There’s also the interplay of irreverent and serious in the lyrics that is very Dead.
Never look around the bend
Or check a weather chart
Sign the Mona Lisa
With a spray can, call it art
“West LA Fadeaway”
Another of those late-era Dead songs, this one off In the Dark, “West L.A. Fadeaway” is one that came alive in concert. This version from a 1989 show in East Troy, WI (rated the best version of the song at headyversion.com) is a great example of that.
Phil Lesh’s bass playing really jumps out on this track, in addition to the obvious greatness of Jerry’s guitar work. It’s a groovy slow burn kind of song that does feature a lot of the flourishes of rock music of that time, which might not be to the liking of some listeners. And yet there’s something about it that does harken back to the “prime” era of the Dead. There’s a seediness to the world this song’s talking about that gives it an edge that also, in a weird way, meshes with some of the silkier production.
The first of three songs that appear on Jerry Garcia’s 1972 solo album that would go on to become Dead songs due to their prevalence in the Dead’s live sets. “Deal” is also a song that benefits from the live setting, as you can hear on this version from late 1980.
In my second mention of Brent Mydland in this post… his work on the organ in this live version is outstanding.
The album version is certainly good, but it feels more laid back. It’s also a little more country-fied, which isn’t a bad thing at all but it feels like the song is a little more itself when it’s rollicking and rolling forward, not contained by pedal steel. This feels like the Dead when they should be a little more rock-and-roll-y and on that Garcia version it’s just not there.
The chorus of the song is perfect for the image of the Dead as a band of outsiders, outlaws, mavericks, and, yes, gamblers.
Goes to show, you don't ever know
Watch each card you play and play it slow
Wait until that deal come round
Don't you let that deal go down, no, no
This song off Garcia (and the next one as well) are tracks that really, really benefit from being performed live with all of the Dead. The album version feels like a beautiful sketch—you can perceive the beauty that’s there but it feels so incomplete.
On this live version, the presence of Keith Godchaux on the keyboards as well as a filled out guitar part courtesy of Bob Weir’s rhythm playing to go along with Jerry’s solos make this song so much richer than what you get on Garcia.
It’s also another example of how these songs for the Dead (and the songs on their respective solo albums too) became the launching pad for musical exploration in concert. Where one gets on this live recording of the song from 1973 in Vancouver is not where you’d expect after listening to the album version.
What’s so interesting to me about this song, at least musically, is the almost staccato sound to the instrumentation as the chorus ends. The melody is almost percussive in some essential way. We talk about how great the Dead are as improvisers and live showmen (and rightfully so), but there were hooks to their music too.
Yes, another song from Garcia that made its way into heavy rotation for the Dead in concert. While I do enjoy the album version a bit more than the first two tracks, it’s still one that I want to hear performed live.
This version from their 1977 show in Pembroke Pines, FL absolutely rules.
It’s a song that feels both very old (harkening back to a pre-rock era of music) and yet very… contemporary rock & roll (at least contemporary at that time). It’s a fun song to hear yet it doesn’t feel slight.
Those are the first five songs on my Top 25 Grateful Dead Songs countdown. What do you think of them? Do you, like me, enjoy that late period Dead or does the 80s production totally put you off? Did I miss any of the other Jerry Garcia solo songs that eventually became Dead songs? Let me know!
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I can't believe I finally came across someone else that likes "Foolish Heart!" Yeah, it's definitely got a bit of an 80s sheen to it (I mean, the band put on suits for the video!), but even if you were just listening, you'd know instantly it was the 'Dead. Honestly, one of my all-time faves by the band.