33 And 1/3 Under 45 – Track Twenty-one: Built To Last

33 and ⅓ is a monthly music column by Ryan Lynch, exploring the records that keep him inspired in a cynical world

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This column was written on July 14th, 2020.

Learn to leap, leap from ledges high and wild
Learn to speak, speak with wisdom like a child
Directly to the heart
Crown yourself the king of clowns or stand way back apart
But never give your love, my friend
Unto a foolish heart

We’ve been staying home for over a hundred days. How about that? And guess what? Everything’s still terrible! But hopefully, everyone’s developed some habits that help keep them going. For me, I’ve been playing a lot of Breath Of The Wild, the Zelda game, and really just losing myself in a lot of different music.

Ok, I get it, I listen to mostly old music. Fine.

For the first couple months of quarantine, I spent a lot of time with the Grateful Dead. I’ve been a Deadhead for years and spent much of my adolescence with them, both as a fan and as part of the extended Dead crew family. They’ve always been a safe place for me to just sink into and turn off all the bad in the world, and hoo boy, did I need it more than ever this time around. I dove deep into every nook and cranny of their catalog this time, from the nasty, explosive psychadelica of ’68 through the jazzy, exploratory 70s, but ended up landing time and time again in the Spring ’90 tour. I’ve always gravitated towards this era of the band, with no small part of the credit going to their keyboardist from 1979-1990, Brent Mydland. Often with lyricist John Perry Barlow, Brent added a level of deep pathos and personal songwriting that’s a real high point for me in the Dead’s massive catalog. From an unreleased demo from Built To Last:

When the police come, you better let ’em in, Gentleman, start your engines
Don’t forget to tell ’em what a sport I’ve been, Gentleman, start your engines
I got a head full of vintage TNT,
They’re gonna blow me up ‘stead of burying me
If you don’t like trouble, better leave me be
Gentleman, start your engines

Like the Devil’s Mustangs, I’ve been riding hell for leather
Put away angry, angry in the dark
Let me tell you, honey,
There’s some mighty stormy weather
Rolling ’round the caverns of my heart

As an aside, because the Dead’s pretty much exclusively a live band, I’m using the last studio Dead album released in 1989, Built To Last, as an outline. All of the songs here are from the Spring ’90 tour, but are still tracks from that album.

The Brent-era is often maligned by Deadheads. He was the new guy, coming off of one of the most celebrated eras of live music for the band and a lot of the studio material suffered from cheesy production and overly catchy songs. It was the 80s, after all. But for me, by the Spring of 1990, I think the band was the best they ever were and this tour was really something special. I love their whole career, but this is the top of the top for me. And Brent was, for the first time, really elevated within the band. He writes and sings four of the nine songs on Built To Last and his songs started popping up more and more throughout the set. And with that, you can feel the pain and heart in every single one of his songs that helped make this tour the best of the best. And helped make me feel a little less isolated in this dark, terrible time.

Well, there ain’t nobody safer than someone who doesn’t care
And it isn’t even lonely, when no one’s ever there
I had a lot of dreams once, but some of them came true
The honey’s sometimes bitter when fortune falls on you

And you know I’ve been a soldier in the armies of the night
And I’ll find a fatal error in what’s otherwise alright

Something shines around you and it seems to my delight
To give you just a little sweetness…
Just a little light

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

Even though I’ve been a stranger, full of irony and spite
Holding little but contempt for all things beautiful and bright,
Something shines around you and it seems to my delight

To give me just a little sweetness…
Just a little light

A lot Brent’s (And Barlow’s) songs are pretty introspective and self-loathing, but Built To Last also features one of my favorite political Dead songs, “We Can Run.” The Dead were very rarely political after the 60s, as Jerry Garcia was pretty adamantly against working with a system he found repulsive, but by the late 80s, Brent and Bob Weir (again, both with Barlow), penned a few more explicit stances, which sadly, don’t feel all that dated.

I’m dumping my trash in your backyard
Makin’ certain you don’t notice really isn’t so hard
You’re so busy with your guns and all of your excuses to use them
Well it’s oil for the rich and babies for the poor
They got everyone believin’ that more is more
If a reckoning comes, maybe we’ll know what to do then

We can run, but we can’t hide from it
Of all possible worlds, we only got one, we gotta ride on it
Whatever we’ve done, We’ll never get far from what we leave behind
Baby, we can run, run, run, but we can’t hide
Oh no, we can’t hide

All these possibilities seem to leave no choice
I heard the tongues of billions speak with just one voice
Saying “Just leave all the rest to me. I need it worse than you, you see.”
And then I heard…
The sound of one child crying.

The album’s not all Brent, obviously. Jerry and Bobby still have some great songs on it that really resonated with me this time around, too. As much as I felt like the whole world was falling apart and there was no hope for any of us, Jerry (and his lyricist, Robert Hunter) explain that the only things that are Built To Last are the things that are built to try. If we give up, we’re definitely fucked. If we try, at least we have a shot, albeit a long one.

Built to last while time itself falls tumbling from the walls
Built to last till sunlight fails and darkness moves on all
Built to last while years roll past like cloudscapes in the sky
Show me something built to last
Something built to try

When I was really at my lowest, this tour helped me get lost in a better time. Like the wide open spaces of Breath Of The Wild, having a Dead show to close my eyes and go to helped ground me. The songs from Built To Last don’t ignore the anxieties raging inside us all, but they embrace them and turn them into something beautiful. Tragically, this was the last full scale tour before Brent died in July that year, a heartbreaking reminder that when the show’s over, and it always ends eventually, you still have to learn to better yourself and the world we all share. But until that last song ends, you can close your eyes and let the music take you home.

Ain’t no way the Bogeyman can get you
You can close your eyes, the world is gonna let you
Your daddy’s here and he never will forget you
I will take you home

Long is the road, we must travel on down
Short are the legs that will struggle behind
I wish I knew for sure, just where we were bound
What we will be doin’ and what we’re gonna find

Wherever we go there will be birds to cheer you
Flowers to color in the fields around
Wherever we go, I’ll be right here near you
You can’t get lost when you’re always found

Ain’t no fog that’s thick enough to hide you
Your daddy’s gonna be right here beside you
If your fears should start to get inside you
I will take you home