In 1987, Bob Dylan agreed to do some shows with the Grateful Dead, and so in June he journeyed to San Rafael, California, to rehearse with the Dead at their rehearsal studio, Club Front.
This is what Dylan wrote about those rehearsals in his memoir, “Chronicles”:
I needed to go rehearse with the band for these shows, so I went to San Rafael to meet with The Dead. I thought it would be as easy as jumping rope. After an hour or so, it became clear to me that the band wanted to rehearse more and different songs than I had been used to doing with [Tom] Petty. They wanted to run over all the songs, the ones they liked, the seldom seen ones. I found myself in a peculiar position and I could hear the brakes screeching. If I had known this to begin with, I might not have taken the dates. I had no feelings for any of those songs and didn’t know how I could sing them with any intent. A lot of them might have been only sung once anyway, the time that they’d been recorded. There were so many that I couldn’t tell which was which — I might even get the words to some mixed up with others. I needed sets of lyrics to understand what they were talking about, and when I saw the lyrics, especially to the older, more obscure songs, I couldn’t see how I could get this stuff off emotionally.
I felt like a goon and didn’t want to stick around. The whole thing might have been a mistake. I’d have to go someplace for the mentally ill and think about it.After saying that I’d left something at the hotel, I stepped back outside onto Front Street and started walking, put my head down against the drizzling rain. I wasn’t planning on going back. If you have to lie, you should do it quickly and as well as you can. I started up the street — maybe four or five or six blocks went by and then I heard the sounds of a jazz combo playing up ahead. Walking past the door of a tiny bar, I looked in and saw that the musicians were playing at the opposite end of the room. It was raining and there were few people inside. One of them was laughing at something. It looked like the last stop on the train to nowhere and the air was filled with cigarette smoke. Something was calling to me to come in and I entered, walked along the long, narrow bar to where the jazz cats were playing in the back on a raised platform in front of a brick wall.
I got within four feet of the stage and just stood there against the bar, ordered a gin and tonic and faced the singer. An older man, he wore a mohair suit, flat cap with a little brim and shiny necktie. The dummer had a rancher’s Stetson on and the bassist and pianist were neatly dressed. They played jazz ballads, stuff like “Time on My Hands” and and “Gloomy Sunday.” The singer reminded me of Billy Eckstine. He wasn’t very forceful, but he didn’t have to be; he was relaxed, but sang with natural power. Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul. It was like he was saying, “You should do it this way.” All of a sudden, I understood something faster than I ever did before. I could feel how he worked at getting his power, what he was doing to get at it. I knew where the power was coming from and it wasn’t his voice, though the voice brought me sharply back to myself. I used to do this thing, I’m thinking. It was a long time ago and it had been automatic. No one had ever taught me. This technique was so elemental, so simple and I’d forgotten it. It was like I’d forgotten how to button my own pants. I wondered if I could still do it. I wanted at least a chance to try. If I could in any way get close to handling this technique, I could get off this marathon stunt ride.
Returning to The Dead’s rehearsal hall as if nothing had happened, I picked it up where we had left off, couldn’t wait to get started — taking one of the songs that they wanted to do, seeing if I could sing it using the same method that the old singer used. I had a premonition something would happen. At first it was hard going, like drilling through a brick wall. All I did was taste the dust. But then miraculously something internal came unhinged. In the beginning all I could get out was a blood-choked coughing grunt and it blasted up from the bottom of my lower self, but it bypassed my brain. That had never happened before. It burned, but I was awake. The scheme wasn’t sewed up too tight, would need a lot of stitches, but I grasped the idea. I had to concentrate like mad because I was having to maneuver more than one stratagem at the same time, but now I knew I could perform any of these songs without them having to be restricted to the world of words. This was revelatory. I played these shows with The Dead and never had to think twice about it. Maybe they just dropped something in my drink, I can’t say, but anything they wanted to do was fine with me. I had that old jazz singer to thank.
Below are the complete rehearsals for the summer ’87 tour when Dylan sang as part of the Grateful Dead. The music comes from a 6-cd set, donated by Alan Fraser, documents all the known Dylan and Dead rehearsals from the Club Front in San Rafael, CA (June 1987) in incredible sound quality. All the songs come from soundboard cassette masters transferred to DAT, then CD-R.
The layout of the set is as follows:
Disc #1 – Pre-rehearsals
Discs #2,3,4,5 – Main rehearsals
Disc #6 – The Grateful Dead Hour #705, broadcast week of 25 Mar 2002
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