It’s a strange phenomenon indeed that an individual who enjoyed eleven fat years as an important member of one of the most successful and legendary bands of the past two centuries, years that saw their ascent from arenas to multi-night sold out football stadium runs, could fall anywhere near the category of the unsung legend. And yet so goes the fate of our benevolent, bearded, and ultimately doomed Brent Mydland.
Ask any non-Deadhead to name the Grateful Dead keyboard player and nine-times-out-of-ten they won’t even have a name ready on their tongue. If they do have one, it is sure to be Pigpen, the plus-size, whiskey-soaked, biker-chic Janis Joplin consort with the larger-than-life persona and the classic 27 Club death, the closest thing to a traditional rock star that ever graced The Dead. Those more knowledgeable of Dead mythology will know that ALL of their ivory ticklers would eventually meet tragic ends, a sort of hippie version of Spinal Tap’s similarly fated run of drummers, only replace bizarre gardening accidents with drug and drink misadventures, car wrecks, and suicide. But only a true Deadhead will be able to specifically name Brent Mydland, and will most likely refer to him simply as “Brent” or bring up “The Brent Era”, and this, my friends, is simply a fucking shame.
This “Brent Era” in question was birthed from a particularly strange time for The Grateful Dead, and this is saying a lot for a band whose whole career ran completely upside down from your average massive band trajectory. Although their late-’70s run, after a brief exhaustion-fueled hiatus in 1975, contained some of their most beloved shows (Cornell 5/8/77 for chrissakes) and saw the initial stirrings of the mass Shakedown Street Dead tribe that would solidify in the parking lots of the ’80s, in reality this ragged hippie renegade act was reduced to East and West Coast college circuit runs that just barely kept the lights on back at Dead Headquarters and was generally regarded as something of a sideshow curiosity by a greater music world obsessed with distractions such as spiky hair and safety pins and sparkly leisure suits and coke spoons. And while there were certainly a fair amount of coke spoons on hand for the ’76-’78 run of Dead shows that remain the holy grail for many a balding dude with a ponytail, the fact remains that the Dead were operating in a sort of vacuum where few outside of their wandering Sadhu cult really took them seriously as a cultural force. But don’t just take my word for it. None other than Phil Zone overlord Mr. Lesh himself can be quoted as such: “A lot of those shows in the ’70s are regarded as our very best, but to me there was just something…off.”
And while the God Of Thunder may be too diplomatic to come right out and say it, I’m certainly not above stating that many of those landmark shows from the late ’70s, be they at The Pyramids of Giza, Cornell University, or Boston College, are marred by a talented but coked out and sleepless keys man by the name of Keith Godchaux and, even more, by the ear-splitting “soul sister” screeching of his wife Donna Jean, whose “singing” was famously described in the liner notes of the very first offering from the Dick’s Picks series as “Donna giving birth”. Recognizing this, in 1979, Jerry Garcia, Bobby Weir, Phil, and the Drummer Twins managed to come to some form of actual decision (an incredibly tough thing for this notoriously democratic and indecisive band of glazed-out dreamers) and did the right thing: They kicked Keith (RIP) and Donna straight to the concrete and brought in the magnificently bearded keyboardist from Bobby’s solo band, yes the hero of our story, ushering in “The Brent Era” and many more hundreds of thousands of tribe members and platinum records and football stadium runs along the way.
Brent Mydland’s first ever show with The Dead occurred on an alternating rainy and sunny spring day in 79 at Spartan Stadium in San Jose (could there even be a more perfect setting for a Dead show?) and it’s fully apparent right from the jump of “Jack Straw” that this is a very different Dead. It is a more streamlined Dead, with faster tempos and steadier vocals. It is a Dead that, by the summer of 1980, was actually rocking, something they hadn’t done, not really, since their primal ’66-’69 Pigpen-led run. And while grizzled travelers peddling grilled cheese in The Lot outside Nassau Coliseum may have mourned the loss of those jazzy 34-minute jams of 73/74 or the Americana-laced University Hall showstoppers of ’77, in hindsight it’s readily apparent that this was a Dead suddenly, incredibly posed to take over the world.
Brent’s First Show!
And they did take over. In one of the most unlikely tribal uprisings of recent history. Right in the cold, stonewashed heart of the Reagan ’80s. With Brent at their side. A freak nucleus that morphed into a force that could take over an American mega-church such as a baseball stadium or football field on multiple summer nights. A swaying benevolent beast spewing nitrous oxide and nugz fumes in the face of the oncoming dark ages.
It just couldn’t have been done without Brent Mydland. And although the Brent detractors are legion, just check out the comments section on Archive.org for the Spartan Stadium show (featuring lots of “Casio keyboard” disses), there are a great many unavoidable aspects that made Saint Brent the secret weapon needed to finally throw off the cult phenomenon shackles and ascend to the full-tilt hippie mafia monster that took over the planet that decade and has never fully let go up to this day.
Brent Mydland Was A World Class Backup Singer
Of this there can truly be no doubt. The man was blessed to the tip of his golden head with a voice that somehow, some way, managed to perfectly compliment both Jerry’s reedy, often out-of-tune (but so full of character and light) emoting and Bobby’s raspy cowboy chanting with seemingly no troubles. You see, our man Brent was a traditionally excellent singer of the classically trained variety (or at least dude must have taken a lesson or two at some point) and, unlike the human screech-fest known as Donna Jean, instinctively knew when to fall back and when to ramp it up a bit. His warm, pitch-perfect vocals brought an echo of classic Beach boys harmonies to a table where even the head diners never even knew they needed it. But they absolutely did, as this epic version of “Cumberland Blues from Alpine Valley 1989 so readily demonstrates (extra points for the shirt, Brent):
Brent Mydland Could More Than Hold His Own As Front Man
Unlike his fellow GD keyboard ghost Mr. Pigpen who famously closed ’68-’71 shows with gruff charisma star turns on “Lovelight” (in total, Pig would often sing lead on 5 or 6 numbers a night), Brent was never afforded too much time under the glaring spotlight of the lead vocals, although when Jerry and Bob allowed Mydland to shine he truly took the opportunity by the throat, with no greater example being this absolutely epic take on Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, morphing into “Hey Jude”, also from that seemingly extra hot summer of ’89:
Brent And Jerry Were Totally Down
For someone so band-oriented and commune-bred, it’s endlessly fascinating that Jerry Garcia was never the “soulmate” type. This applied to both his romantic relationships (peace out, Mountain Girl) and that with his bandmates and crew, within which he was known as a guarded semi-recluse friendly with many but close to very few. It’s incredible, then, that Captain Trips seemed to form at least an onstage bond with this third Dead keyboardist who came originally from Bobby’s circle and had only been a passing acquaintance up until his successful audition. Indeed, the video evidence is overwhelming, with the two aging hippie ne’er-do-wells exchanging conspiratorial grins, eye rolls, and glances throughout many a classic ’80s show. It has long been a topic of Deadhead speculation if Jerry and Brent ever shared their respective bags, and while it has remained unknown it would at least partially explain their apparent deep connection. But only partially, because the main thing they shared and conspired on is a musical bond that brought to life a sleepwalking Jerry Garcia and carried him into a new era of success and inspiration. As any Deadhead knows, Jerry was never quite the same after Brent’s OD, and the recordings of those ’90s shows spell this out more than clearly.
Jerry and Brent Vibing Hard
Brent Mydland Was Funny As Hell
Animated, bug-eyed, mock-passionate, with his button-down shirts and bangs, Brent cut a comedic figure on the large screens at the stadiums, an aspect that has helped in cementing Mr. Mydland as both a fan favorite and a much-derided goofball (depending on which Grateful Dead Reddit camp you may fall into) within the Deadhead Nation. Much like Pigpen, Mydland was a born star, although unlike that tragic portly blues belter Brent injected a large dose of irreverence and mischief into the fabric, bringing in a sorely needed aspect of fun and giddiness to the dinosaur parade of The Dead in the ’80s. For example, here he is dropping a hit of acid right onstage:
Brent Mydland Had one Of The Best Beards Of The Ages
Ernest Hemingway. Cyrus The Great. Brent Mydland. These are beards which fully took over their possessors, forming from the weak blood and flesh of mere mortals entities which could, and did, conquer within their respective worlds. I’m not saying that, minus the beard, Brent would have been some sort of sidelined junkie loser panhandling on the street….or wait, yes, yes I am saying that. Anyway, here’s to Brent’s beard, which carried him for many years and manifested a power that really kicked “Scarlet Begonias” into serious gear most nights.
Beard Of The Ages
Say what you will about the “Brent Era” but the fact remains that The Grateful Dead just wouldn’t be THE FUCKING GRATEFUL FUCKING DEAD we know and love without their ascension into the popular culture of the American 1980s. And they certainly would never have come close to achieving this without their shaggy, wide-eyed, open-shirted, emotionally-charged vocal dynamo keyboardist Brent Mydland. Brent’s OD at the age of 37, at the absolute height of The Dead’s success, is easily one of the most tragic and overlooked rock star deaths, often treated as nothing more than a mere footnote on the “string of dead Dead keyboardists” Wikis. And although the wonders of our dear Mr. Fantasy may remain un-celebrated outside several spinoff Dead cults, we must fully salute Brent Mydland as a criminally unsung rock legend.
And we bid you, Brent, goodnight, goodnight, goodnight.