Brent Mydland, keyboardist for the Grateful Dead throughout the 80’s, died on this day in 1990. His death is memorable to me because of the complete lack of sympathy it stirred among most of my Deadhead friends that summer. To quote one such contact, a white, dreadlocked fan known by most as “Slick” instead of his proper Christian name: “I’m glad that motherfucker’s dead.” Adding to his strong opinion, he claimed that any self proclaimed Deadhead would agree with his assessment and he privately called those family members who literally cried after learning the news of Mydland’s death “a bunch of posing pussies.”
I liked Slick. His main form of transportation was a Cannondale mountain bike and his wardrobe always consisted of a tie-dyed t-shirt. He was generous with his endless cassettes of live Dead shows from almost every era of the band’s career and would occasionally dub me a copy or two.
His favorite period would probably have been the Ron “Pigpen” McKernan era, even though he laughed at the older hippies who lived by the mantra that the Dead were never the same after Pigpen died.
Following the Dead for a week or so was a regular summer ritual for Slick, and he also made special trips to notable shows like the band’s New Year’s Eve performances in San Francisco. The details of those trips were usually repeated for weeks afterwards during stoned conversation, with convincing arguments on how we should tag along with him during the next roadtrip.
Brent Mydland wasn’t my favorite member of the Grateful Dead, but I certainly didn’t dislike him as much as Slick. His voice irritated me, and his choice in keyboard equipment was also questionable at times. Compared to the organic keys of Ron McKernan and Keith Godchaux, Mydland seemed to rely heavily on state-of-the-art keyboards and synthesizers.
The other thing that bothered me about him was how he died. Knowing that Garcia struggled with addiction during the 80’s, Mydland’s death signaled to me that perhaps Jerry had found a junkie peer and, as a result, tolerated some of the keyboardists more unethical tones and sappy vocal moments (“I Will Take You Home” from Built To Last immediately comes to mind).
So forgive me if I still chuckle at Slick’s gallows humor concerning Mydland’s speedball grave-maker, and excuse me if I find much of his material bordering on adult contemporary territory. The Grateful Dead I like to recognize is the band that had their feet in a jugband tradition even when their heads drifted around the atmosphere. Brent Mydland always seemed to be the guy that stuck a cork in the jug and steered the band towards MIDI-aided laziness.