by Paul Wozniak and Bob Clinton, 1999
Let’s begin with the vital statistics. Deal was officially released on the "Garcia" album in 1972, and subsequent live versions have been released on 1981’s "Dead Set", Dick’s Picks "Nine" and "Eleven" as well as on the 1991 release, "Jerry Garcia Band Live". Dr. John also recorded it on the Dead tribute album "Deadicated". The first live performance was at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York on February 19, 1971, a show which also featured the first Bird Song (which also was first released on "Garcia"). This is a run of shows that to Paul represents the absolute turning point for the band as they began aggressively pursuing a more song oriented structure rather than the all-out jamming which defined the 1960s Grateful Dead. The last live performance of Deal was at Giants Stadium on June 18, 1995.
As an interesting prelude to this essay, we note that Robert Hunter posted on Deadnet Central (11:43pm Aug 23, 1997 PDT (#930 of 2252)): "I wrote ‘Deal’ and ‘Loser’ one morning before breakfast, handed it over to JG when he got up and he set them to music after breakfast. I didn't write any music of my own to either of those, just jotted them down." We know the army used to boast that they did more than most folks before 9:00am, but this feat puts the army to shame!
Before discussing the musical evolution of Deal, one has to first take a look at the lyrics. Some have always viewed much of the Grateful Dead phenomenon as a metaphor for life, and these lyrics really drive that point home! "Since it costs a lot to win, and even more to lose, you and me got to spend some time wonderin’ what to choose" Profound? Maybe not at first glance, but *think about it* these are words that are true in any given situation! To some, it sounds like Hunter is trying to tell us that winning is what to strive for, even in our confusion of "wondering what to choose". Plus it will take some time to determine what we want/need. Patience is a virtue you know! "Goes to show, you don’t ever know, so watch each card you play, and play it slow" Yes, this is true in Las Vegas-but equally true in life! Every choice we make, be it choosing a job, buying a car, or picking a vacation has an element of "winning or losing" which is determined, albeit euphemistically, by how you play each card dealt in life! "I been gambling here abouts for ten good solid years, If I told you all that went down it would burn off both your ears" Who doesn’t feel this way about their own life? This verse also gives us the background of the old card player who is telling us his philosophy. He’s been around a while and seen a lot. This gives us the "credentials" of the guy, the reasons why he can tell us about poker and also about life. He’s seen it all! Jerry would sometimes say, "if I told you ‘bout all that went down, it would burn off both your little ears!" This bit of condescension is accepted because he is so much older and wiser than we are. "Since you poured the wine for me, and tightened up my shoes, I hate to leave you sitting there, composing lonesome blues" Perhaps a reminder that we need to care for our brothers and sisters who have helped us "get" to wherever we are in life? I think so! The refrain, "It goes to show you don't ever know, watch each card you play, and play it slow. Wait until your deal come round, don't you let that deal go down". The refrain is more like a statement of philosophy, as opposed to a set of instructions for someone’s life. It’s definitely more applicable to poker playing than the verses. In life, like poker, you have to "watch each card you play" and "wait until your deal come round". But occasionally Jerry would add something that would make it more instructional. He would sing, "watch each card you play, people and PLEASE play it slow!" It made it seem like he cared about how we lived our lives. A good friend of Paul’s recently shared a story about a woman passing him in the crowd at the Dead’s fifteenth anniversary shows at in Boulder, Colorado, when upon overhearing him comment that both first sets in the run closed with Deal, told him well, of course, "The Deal" is what defines the Grateful Dead, it is what it is ALL about! In a sense, perhaps truer words were never spoken?
As to the musical evolution, let us begin by using the studio version of Deal as the baseline to assess the progression of the song. It is more than fair to say that Deal, like many tunes, improved greatly with age. The Deal on "Garcia" is a slower, rollicking version, featuring a very prominent slide. It has a steady backbeat, and at this point, we would classify Deal with the spate of "cowboy" tunes the band was beginning to prominently feature in the first set in 1971. Overall it is calm, but there is a slight hint of the intense buildup of energy towards the end of the song that would occur in later years. Cruising through the early seventies, "Dick’s Picks Eleven", recorded at the Stanley Theatre in Jersey City on September 27, 1972, shows Deal to be remarkably true to the original recording in tempo and feel, but is notably different in the absence of slide guitar and the addition of Keith Godchaux’s ragtime piano. The guitar solos are quaint and short, and again, do little to hint at the sizzling solos the future would hold. Vocally, there is a bit more enthusiasm from Jerry here, but that is generally to be expected when comparing a live version against a studio version. The end of the song is much more frenetic and satisfying as well, but still isn’t ready to become the Garcia showcase vehicle it would become. The song remained virtually unchanged from this point through to the Hiatus of 1975.
When the band came back in 1976, so did Deal, and it was still quite true to the way it had been played since ’71. But as 1977 rolled around, Deal became faster and more upbeat. Donna steps in and is found helping Bobby with the refrain, and doing a fine job of it. Keith seems looser on the piano and the guitar solo has progressed and is much more expressive and quite a bit longer. Bobby is helping out much more on the guitar. The final verse begins to build to a crescendo and the refrain has Jerry, Bobby and Donna singing equally and stronger and stronger. It is soft at first, but quickly the singers start belting out "Don’t you let that DEAL go down" over and over again. This is the part of the song where you really wanted Donna to scream (as opposed to at the end of Playin’ in the Band)!
Next, by virtue of our time machine, we find ourselves in 1979. Keith and Donna have left the band and Brent has taken over the keyboard duties as well as much of the higher-end vocals as well (we don’t count Bobby squealing during Estimated Prophet as higher-end vocals!). Listening to a tape from McNichols Arena 8/13/79, you could hear the changes developing in the structure of the song. Deal had more or less become a first set closer by the fall of 1977, and it stuck there like pasta to the wall of your college apartment kitchen. This version is found in that slot, and represents the future of the tune. It is played very fast, much quicker than in 1977 or for that matter, the original tempo of the studio version. The refrain is still Jerry and Bob, but now Brent is in the mix. With Brent Mydland replacing Keith Godchaux, the piano is gone and the Hammond B-3 organ has made the song a flat-out rocker. The driving chords on the last verse have become even more pronounced, and the refrain at the end has taken on a proportion all its own. We in the crowd are forcefully reminded to not let that deal go down!
By 1980 the band has worked all of the kinks out of the new lineup and this year’s version of Deal is very fast, and showcases Jerry singing with a lot of emphasis on favorite lyrics. The guitar solo is more intricate and the drummers are really forcefully driving the tune, with Phil bringing up the bottom. It’s similar to the 1979 Deal, but different in a very important way. The energy builds at the end like never before – the band sounds like they are going to burst at the seams, and there’s no let-up until nearly the last refrain.
By the time the Dead played their famous series of shows at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater and New York’s Radio City Music Hall in the fall of 1980, Deal was in full blossom. The bloom was definitely on the rose! These shows produced two live albums, an acoustic collection titled "Reckoning" and the electric release called "Dead Set". "Dead Set" is the first official release of a live version of Deal. Recorded in October of 1980, there isn’t much change to the body of the song from the versions earlier in the year. The band does, however, change the ending in a substantial and vital way: the blistering instrumental section at the end of the song. This comes at the expense of the very high-energy vocals that built up to the close of the song, but, in one opinion, the blistering Garcia solos make up for it ten-fold! But in another opinion, this instrumental section seriously detracts from the buildup of intensity at the end. It's like a detour and they just can’t get back on the path with it stuck in there.
From this point on, the song retained the same structure and almost always rocked. Poorly played sets like the one at City Island in Harrisburg Pa. on June 23, 1984 produced a phenomenal Deal. Jerry virtually always stepped up for it. [Deal wasn’t played at that show; 6/22/83 is probably meant. – LIA]
The last of the Brent Deals that we will look at is from the video release "Downhill From Here". This was from a show on 7/19/89 at Alpine Valley. They seem to have slowed it down from the early '80s. The power guitar chords have turned into Brent really blasting an organ chord. This version is actually very satisfying, it may be what they were shooting for with the instrumental break at the end.
We move now to basically the final incarnation of the Dead. "Dick’s Picks Nine" is from 9/16/90, and Brent has been replaced by Vince and part-time Bruce. This version has both of them on it. Bruce has brought the piano back to Deal. The backbeat seemed a bit stronger, and the pace had slowed back down some, but the song retained the same theoretical structure, though Jerry’s voice does sound a bit weaker. Bruce seems to be helping Jerry along, with the piano leading at times. Vince is also here, but not as prominent as Bruce is. Phil is playing a more complicated bass line. The final instrumental is different, not as Jerry-driven, and for those who object to it, it is even longer. Then they come back and start the final refrain, which is like an afterthought to the instrumental. This version from 1990 is not nearly as good as the Garcia Band version from the same year. It’s probably due to this that so many people have the opinion that Garcia Band Deals were the best Deals. Looking at the two, 9/16/90 and "Jerry Garcia Band Live", one can see it. But if you include something like 5/31/80, then others might disagree.
No discussion of Deal can be had without touching on the Jerry Garcia Band. Listen to the version of Deal that is on the 1991 "Jerry Garcia Band Live" CD, you will find that Jerry has perfected the musical break at the end with the JGB. Garcia soars on top of Melvin Seal’s Hammond B-3 organ and the pace is quicker than the Dead’s. The instrumental is mind blowing. The JGB uses it to bring up the intensity to a point unparalleled by the Grateful Dead. Then they go back to the vocals and slow down to the ending. In some views, the Grateful Dead never played Deal as well as the Garcia Band.
Time for a brief digression. The Dr. John version from "Deadicated" is very similar to the "Garcia" studio version in tempo, except without the slide guitar. Since Dr. John is a pianist, the piano takes over for the guitar as the lead instrument. His voice is so different from Jerry’s, but it works very well with this song, you can just picture the guy sitting at the table playing poker and smoking a big cigar. Much more so than trying to picture Jerry doing the same thing. When Jerry sings, it’s more like he’s trying to tell you something about how to live your life. "Don’t you let that deal go down!" means something different coming from Jerry than it does coming from Dr. John. With Dr. John, the imagery is more literal, it’s more about a card game than life.
The way Robert Hunter sings it is closer to Jerry, as if he’s putting forth a philosophy. His live versions of the song are very different from the Dead. Of course he is playing solo, typically only with a guitar. But he manages to build the vocal intensity at the end of the song, much like the Dead did in the mid seventies to early eighties. A recent version was 10/30/98 and it was every bit as intense (and enjoyable) as when it heard performed in 1982.
The Dead’s long run at Madison Square Garden in October of 1994 produced a really good Deal. On the 10/15/94 show the first thing you notice is that Jerry is quite strong here, especially for a 1994 show. Vince’s piano is very much in the forefront as well. Bobby’s guitar sounds like it is doing double time, and Jerry’s solo is slick and sharp, especially played against Vince. The power chords are very coarse and fuzzy, sort of a different twist. The musical interlude is actually quite interesting. Jerry, Vince and Bobby are all playing off of each other. Comparing this version to the one a scant four years earlier (9/16/90) it is so much improved, much like the improvement between the 1979 Brent versions and the 1980 Brent versions.
From about 1978 on, the Dead used Deal almost exclusively as a first set closer. It was used to energize the audience, to get them ready for the second set. It almost always accomplished this goal. There were a couple of exceptions to the first set closer position. One in particular comes to mind. It was New Year’s Eve, 1982. The second set was drawing to a close, after the band had begun the year with a really sharp Sugar Magnolia. After the drum solo the band moved into a typical Not Fade Away, and it was slowly coming to an end, when Jerry started playing Goin’ Down the Road, but abruptly took everyone by surprise and changed course to Deal. It seemed that he was very insistent on playing it that night. Nothing was going to stand in his way! They got through a very satisfying Deal and then closed the set with the Sunshine Daydream that had been virtually promised from the beginning of the set. It was an interesting and actually very good way to close a set.
For many, Deal was always one of those songs where you are required to dance. From Bob’s very first Deal he remembers standing up and dancing. He remembers, in particular, the Deal that closed the first set on 2/28/81. He was standing in the back on the mezzanine at the Uptown Theater in Chicago and they launched into the tune. When the characteristic guitar notes that signaled the song he instantly jumped up into the air and screamed, and started to dance in the hallway with many other Deadheads. That is the memory that Deal always brings to Bob.
It seems like Deal, a song for which the words were written before breakfast and the music scored afterwards, found a home as the best first-set closer for both the Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band. It served its purpose well, building the energy of both the crowd and the band before the break. When the Deal was on, it made the second set anticipated that much more!