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"The `Yo, Vinnie!' stickers are more typical of the Deadheads' attitude towards the new guys," McNally continues. "That was terribly sweet, and completely from the audience. And indicative of their basically positive feelings toward anybody who plays in the band. Their attitude is, `If the band wants the guy, then he's okay with us.'"
But Welnick's predecessor apparently never felt entirely embraced by the group's audience. According to more than one member of the Dead organization, Brent Mydland harbored a lingering insecurity that the Deadheads never fully accepted him. "I get some flak from people in general," Mydland told the Grateful Dead fan magazine the Golden Road in the mid-Eighties. "There are people who like me and people who don't like the fact that I'm in the band."
"Well, his songs tended to be love songs and tended to be kind of down--you know, bluesy," offers McNally. (All of the band members have so far declined to comment on Mydland's death). "And I think there were times when people didn't particularly want to listen to down love songs. You know, that's not really the Grateful Dead's style. But in fact, Brent was a very warmly received guy. The feeling people had for him was the same as they had for the other band members. But hey, if you're gonna be insecure, then you're not always gonna hear that response, even if it's there."
The band's reluctance to talk about its fallen comrade and the swiftness with which he was replaced (the Dead was already playing Madison Square Garden just seven weeks after Mydland's death, with on-again, off-again sideman Bruce Hornsby) may owe to the way Mydland's OD dredges up the old Dead-equals-drugs image that the band has been trying desperately to live down. Citing the druggy atmosphere that frequently pervades any arena the Dead descends on, several major venues in the past year have begun banning performances by the band.
It's an action the Dead is particularly sensitive to, since most of the band's revenue--and inspiration--comes from the road. Indeed, while the band records infrequently and has only scored one Top 40 hit in its long history (1987's "Touch of Grey"), it remains something of a touring sensation, ranking as one of rock's top-grossing live acts. Mydland's overdosing on lethal injections of both cocaine and morphine came at a time when even the band itself had taken to distributing fliers at concerts urging Deadheads to just say no. It was, to say the least, bad timing.
But the opening came as a blessing for Vince Welnick, who was close to losing his ranch and in dire need of stable employment with a clean-and-sober outfit. "Everybody in the band's real healthy now," says Welnick, "and I was just real fortunate to come in at this time. I don't know what was going on prior to my joining them. All I know is that now, nobody's doing drugs."
There are some, of course, who believe the secret ingredient in all of the best Dead performances was licked off a tab of chemically treated paper, who view sending the Dead out onstage without any drugs as an artistic affront worse than sending Madonna in front of a video camera without her cleavage showing.
But Welnick insists the greatest Dead jams spring forth from alert, not altered, minds.
"When you play those kind of freeform freak-out songs and you never know what's coming up next, you tend to keep your eyes and ears open more," he says. "Players in bands that are working off strict set lists, they'll get in their own little corner and they'll baffle off the sound of the other instruments and they'll play their little bit parts night after night. When you play the kinds of sets that the Dead plays, where there's always such a spontaneous atmosphere, you have to hear and make contact with everybody, so nobody's ever off in their own little world, wanking off in the corner. It's more of a united feeling that you get, where everybody's really playing together and waiting for the next guy to step off in another zone, and lead us along."
These days, insists Welnick, just about the only times the band members get a little cloudy in the craniums is when they travel abroad. "We were all a little out of it on our first night in Stockholm [where the band warmed up before the U.S. tour]," he admits. "But that was only because everybody had major jet lag."
The Grateful Dead will perform at Compton Terrace on Saturday, December 8, and Sunday, December 9. Showtime is 1 p.m.
Would he play all the right chords but somehow, unknowingly, destroy the "vibe" that has become so essential to the Dead's shows?
There are some who believe the secret ingredient in all of the best Dead performances was licked off a tab of chemically treated paper.