Brent Mydland, the Grateful Dead keyboardist who died at 37 in 1990, should be celebrating his 62nd birthday today.
But he’s not and instead Deadheads remain grateful for the music he left behind and regretful over the music he didn’t have time to make.
Mydland, who was with the band from 1979 to 1990, was always “the new guy,” despite his tenure as the Dead’s longest-serving keys man. Sound Bites always referred to him as the band’s “angry young man,” because Brent poured his heart out on stage every night.
And he was an integral member of the band. In the early days, he might sing lead once every few shows. By the end, he was doing at least one song a set - usually more. His vocal showcases - including covers of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” the Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way” and Willie Dixon’s “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” - often elicited Deadheads’ loudest cheers.
With Brent in the band, harmony-heavy tunes like “Uncle John’s Band” got the performances the songs deserved. His harmonies provided the vocal cushion Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh needed to sing effectively.
By the time the Dead released their final studio album, 1989’s Built to Last, Brent had hit his stride. He contributed four songs, compared with three from Garcia and two from Weir.
But Brent had his demons and they came out in his music. He also had love - best demonstrated by his lullaby “I Will Take You Home.” It’s a beautiful song written for his daughter that brought Deadheads back to earth after the cacophony of “Space.”
“Just when everything gets scary/Daddy comes ‘round for his darlin’ again/Hold my hand with your little fingers/Daddy’s lovin’ arms are gonna gather you in,” he sang over sparse piano accompaniment.
But the darkness ruled as songs like “Far From Me,” “Don’t Need Love” and “Gentlemen Start Your Engines” made clear. The latter contained a lyric - delivered in Brent’s astonishingly soulful, anguished voice - that foreshadowed his fate:
“One of these days I’m gonna pull myself together/As soon as I finish tearing myself apart.”
Brent did ultimately tear himself apart and the Grateful Dead were never the same after he died just after wrapping the 1990 Summer tour. His final song with the band was a cover of The Band classic “The Weight.” His final verse was prophetic:
“I gotta go, but my friend can stick around.”
With that, the Dead walked offstage and Brent was dead days later. What a colossal waste of talent.
Just as Dead Heads talked as if they were on a first-name basis with the band members - check out Bobby’s shorts; I hope Brent sings tonight, etc. - they also spoke of Jerry’s guitars as if they were alive.
Wolf, Tiger and Rosebud were as much a part of the Grateful Dead as Phil, Billy and Mickey.
“He had a ton of other amazing guitars, but he had long-term relationships with these particular instruments,” Garcia’s daughter Trixie says in the trailer for the forthcoming documentary “Six Strings of Separation.”
Pete Sears, Steve Parish and other Garcia associates also appear in the just-released, 90-second preview.
Director Robert Liano’s film examines Garcia’s Doug Irwin-made guitars and another dozen crafted by Irwin’s apprentice and successor Tim Lieber in 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Dead’s 1965 birth.
“I’m just creating a tool for the musician,” Lieber says. “A really good musician is a great conduit to that which we pull from ourselves. And that’s music.”
There’s no release date for “Six Strings of Separation” beyond “coming 2016.”