The Dead’s Last Adventure

by Peter Wendel
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DeadAmsterdam1981

The Boys at the Melkweg in ’81

Two impromptu gigs – aptly called the “OOPS Concerts” – in October ’81 at Amsterdam’s Melkweg symbolize the last loose days of innocence and spontaneity for The Grateful Dead (I use the word “innocence” loosely, of course).

The band’s former manager, Rock Scully, refers to the back-to-back, unscheduled Dutch shows as the band’s last real “adventure” – performed on a whim in a back-alley, 1,500-capacity venue with borrowed instruments and stage equipment (with the exception of Phil, who brought his bass).

MelkwegDead

The Melkweg (or The Milky Way)

The shows were October 15th and 16th, the latter (and better performance) falling on Bobby Weir’s 34th birthday. Jerry had turned 39 just a couple months earlier. The band was slowly working its way into maturity (which often comes with unintended consequences).

The Melkweg gigs are notable for two reasons. First, they represent the last of the smaller, unscheduled shows The Grateful Dead would do before more rigid business practices set in – with less pressure on the band and much more flexibility given to the setlist, including the first ever “Spoonful,” the first “Gloria” since 1965, the one and only “Hully Gully” and a smoking acoustic set on the 16th. Second, and more unfortunate, the “OOPS Concerts” mark the point at which Jerry’s heroin use started to become a real problem for the band.

Garcia’s bandmates were getting justifiably concerned about his inconsistent play and his onstage demeanor. Though only separated by 24 hours, the difference between Jerry’s performance on the first and second night is huge. While relatively uninspired on the 15th, he came ready to cook the following evening.

JerryGarciaMay1981

Jerry in May 1981

Remember, Garcia started smoking heroin in 1975, so in ’81 he was six years into his addiction. His diabetes would also take a heavy toll, culminating in a coma in 1986. At the Amsterdam gigs, Jerry had many moments of brilliance (particularly on the second night), but sadly cracks in the armor were forming – and you can see the damage (particularly on the first night), though still subtle, in the Melkweg footage below.

It’s important to note that three days after the Amsterdam gigs – on October 19th, the final night (Barcelona) of the tour – the band presented Jerry with a letter, accusing him of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors against the art of music.” Phil wrote the letter, and the rest of the band members signed it – signaling more than just a passing concern.

CatsUnderTheStarsArt1978

JGB released Cats in 1978 and then nothing until ’91

The allegations focused on what the rest of the band saw as Jerry’s increasing self-centeredness and detachment onstage. The letter hit on a few specific accusations: “playing in your own band,” (which seems to be a reference to the significant time he spent working on his side project, the Jerry Garcia Band, where he would seek refuge to get high on “the persian”); “never playing with any dynamics”; and “never listening to what anybody else plays…”

Ouch. Pretty damning allegations from the band, and it was such a huge departure from the dynamic just a few years earlier when Jerry was fully engaged and the undisputed leader of the band. Since the late-’70s, Jerry had ceded much of that leadership to Bobby (as you can see in the Melkweg footage). Jerry seems perfectly content to let Bobby shine while making his contributions from the shadows of the dimly lit stage.

Though much of it is in code, Phil’s letter seems to be all about Jerry’s heroin addiction, and the disengagement and isolation that comes with it.

Read (below) the full backstory on how the unplanned Amsterdam shows arose.

Here’s the first set from the first unscheduled gig at the Melkweg on October 15, 1981 (see setlist below):

 

Set I: Minglewood Blues (0:24) They Love Each Other (8:04)> El Paso (14:52) Friend Of The Devil (20:00)> Little Red Rooster (27:13) Althea (35:02) Beat It On Down The Line (43:47) Far From Me (46:52)> Alabama Getaway (50:28)> The Promised Land (55:34)


Highlights

“Minglewood” (0:24): Nice solos from Bobby and Brent.

“TLEO” (8:04): Brent’s work makes it worth your while.

“Rooster” (27:13): Bobby kills it.

“Far From Me” (46:52): Soulful vocals from Brent, and Jerry rises to the occasion. The band never played it again.

“Promised” (55:34): Pretty damn good team effort.

Looking a little rundown, Jerry appears sluggish and his legendary, fine motor skills are less than razor-sharp. He makes little eye-contact with his bandmates or the audience during his solos, preferring to stare down at his guitar.

The band makes sparks fly, but they never quite catch fire and burn the place down.

Second set from the Melkweg on October 15, 1981 (see setlist below):

 

Set II: Man Smart, Woman Smarter (0:00) He’s Gone (7:34)> Spoonful (18:45)> Drumz> The Other One (34:45)> Wharf Rat (43:05)> Around & Around (54:23) Johnny B. Goode (58:23)

E: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (1:04:01)


Highlights

“Woman Smarter” (0:00): Bobby fires up Jerry.

“He’s Gone” (7:34): Solid, though Bobby has trouble following Jerry at times. Great rounding harmonies.

“Spoonful” (18:45): Hey, it’s the first ever.

“Other One” (34:45): As usual, this one lets everybody stretch out.

“Baby Blue” (1:04:01): Jerry stirs it up. Strike another match.

Here’s the second Melkweg gig – the better (by far) of the two performances – with a rare acoustic set from October 16, 1981 (see setlist below):

 

Acoustic: On The Road Again (0:00) Dire Wolf (3:38) Monkey And The Engineer (7:02) Bird Song (9:55) Cassidy (19:18) Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie (25:06) The Race Is On (31:07) Ripple (34:45)

Electric: Playin In The Band (39:14)> Hully Gully (50:45)> The Wheel (55:46)> Samson And Delilah (1:00:00)> Gloria (1:07:06)> Turn On Your Lovelight (1:14:40)> Goin Down The Road Feeling Bad (1:20:44)> Playin (1:27:54)> Black Peter (1:30:32)> Sugar Magnolia (1:39:52)


Highlights

The entire acoustic set (despite some early audio issues): Jerry works it, and Bobby is right there with him. It would be the last “Ain’t No Lie” ever performed.

The entire electric set: The Boys are in great form. Jerry lays down some solid solos, and his vocals are clean and crisp (for the most part). Bobby has his A-game, and Brent is spectacular throughout (and that includes the whole tour).

It’s the first time the band had broken out “Gloria” since 1965. It’s the last “Lovelight” and the only “Hully Gully” (cover of The Olympics’ recording).

Jerry and Brent smoke the “Samson,” and the band burns all the way through “Sugar Mag,” including a steaming “Goin Down The Road.” (Don’t miss the dueling between Jerry and Brent (1:42:57) during “Sugar Mag,” priceless.)


Backstory

Dead&WhoEurope81In 1981, The Grateful Dead went to Europe twice. The first time, they went to play a few gigs with their friend Pete Townshend, as he tried to keep The Who from breaking up. The second time, they embarked on their first extended European tour since the spectacular international run in 1972.

The return trip, almost a decade later, consisted of 13 stops across seven countries – Scotland, England, Denmark, West Germany, Holland, France and Spain – from September 30th to October 19th.

Unfortunately, things started poorly, putting scrutiny on Jerry’s “lifestyle.” Arriving in Scotland for the tour’s opening show at The Playhouse in Edinburgh, Garcia was met at the airport by a (prearranged) courier who had heroin for him. Reportedly, Jerry insisted on getting high in the airport bathroom before making the 10-minute drive to the band’s hotel.

The addiction was starting to overwhelm the Big Man, who earlier in his career would never have dreamed of sacrificing his music for anything.

DeadEurope1981Scheduling proceeded as planned for much of the tour, until flooding rains cancelled the band’s two shows in the south of France.

They had performed at Walter Koebel Halle in Russelheim, West Germany, on October 13th, and now with the cancellations, they had a couple days to burn with nothing on the tour schedule. Garcia and Weir had played a short, seven-song acoustic set at the Melkweg two days earlier (following a friend’s poetry reading). Jerry and Bobby, with Scully’s help, talked the rest of the band and their crew into returning to Amsterdam to play two impromptu gigs at the Melkweg.

Jerry1981The one condition the crew had was that they travel light, leaving their heavy load of instruments and equipment behind. Pretty spontaneously ballsy for a bunch of hippie musicians. (You won’t recognize Jerry’s guitar, because it’s not one of his.)

The Melkweg shows represent the end of innocence for the band, as the members and the entire Dead organization were swept into more serious business operations. The gigs also provide a glimpse of what was to come of Jerry’s ongoing battle with heroin and his ability to perform up to his full, prodigious potential.

The year 1981 was definitely a crossroads for the band – 12 months that mixed staggeringly good shows with disappointing, sloppy ones. Many folks say the last truly brilliant, fire-breathing show was May 9, 1981, at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. Not true (thank goodness).

Though something certainly ended in ’81 – like innocence, borrowed time or spontaneity – it fortunately wasn’t the last of the great shows. Jerry had more left in the tank.

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Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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