In the mid 1980s, Bob Dylan found his career hitting an unmistakable low point. In his autobiography, he recalls “Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch the right nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history anymore.”
For a while, Dylan toured with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, and it only led him to one conclusion: “Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.” It was time to pack things in, to exit music altogether.
Before he could retire, Dylan agreed to do some shows with The Grateful Dead. In the summer of 1987, the singer-songwriter traveled to San Rafael, California to rehearse with the band. But it turned out to be trying, more than he could have ever imagined. In Chronicles, Volume 1 he writes:
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 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 screech. If I had known this to begin with, I might not have taken the dates…. There were so many [songs] that I couldn’t tell which was which-I might even get the words to some mixed up with others.
Dylan eventually excused himself from the studios, intending never to return. But an encounter with a local jazz band — call it a simple twist of fate — brought him back. Dylan and The Dead started playing through his big repertoire. It was tough sledding at first. “But then miraculously,” he adds, “something internal came unhinged.” “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.”
It’s a great little story. Even better, the rehearsal is recorded for posterity. Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can sit back and listen to 74 tracks, which includes some classics — “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and more.
You can stream all of the tracks right below, from start to end. Or find individual recordings here.
Note: Do you want to hear Sean Penn read Bob Dylan’s autobiography for free? Just head over to Audiobooks.com and register for a 30-day free trial. You can download any audiobook for free. Then, when the trial is over, you can continue your subscription, or cancel it, and still keep the audio book. The choice is entirely yours. And, in full disclosure, let me tell you that we have a nice arrangement with Audiobooks.com. Whenever someone signs up for a free trial, it helps support Open Culture.