80’s-era Grateful Dead is often overlooked when fans consider their studio output. Their lone big chart hit “Touch Of Grey” is the one song that stands above the rest in terms of popularity from that time period. The 1989 album Built To Last is somewhat of a trivial footnote as the band’s final studio album, but the music on it is largely forgotten.
The lead single and opening song from that album is a piece of work that’s good enough to stand toe-to-toe even with the band’s finest. “Foolish Heart” is a marvelous combination of the band’s inimitable instrumental chemistry and lyricist Robert Hunter’s profound ponderings. Throw in a great performance by Jerry Garcia and you’ve got a true gem in the Dead’s imposing catalog.
Garcia, who wrote the song’s music, spoke about its unique construction in a 1989 interview. “The thing that’s interesting about ‘Foolish Heart’ is it doesn’t have any pads in it,” he said. “Nobody’s playing chords in the song, not anybody. Everybody’s playing lines, and the lines hook up and tell you everything you need to know about the harmonic content of the song. You don’t wonder where it’s going. It’s so beautifully designed, it’s like a clock. It’s really lovely. It surprised me it came out so interesting and so perfect and so totally its own personality. That’s the Grateful Dead in action, really.”
You can hear what he’s talking about in the way that his guitar and Bob Weir’s weave around the keyboard hook of Brett Mydland. Against that backdrop, Hunter spins a series of commands that come off like a beguilingly gritty cross between Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and Polonius’ speech to Laertes in Hamlet with a little Confucian wisdom thrown in as well. These lyrics are life advice that can keep your mind sane and your heart pure if you can tune in to its cosmic wavelength.
This advice, at times heartfelt (“Learn to speak/Speak with the wisdom of a child/Directly from the heart”), at times irreverent (“Sign the Mona Lisa/With a spraycan, call it art”), gets serious when Hunter addresses the dangers of playing fast and loose with your love. “A foolish heart will call on you,” Garcia sings in the bridge with harmony help from his bandmates, “To toss your dreams away.” This kind of recklessness, the song suggests, is the most harmful thing you can encounter: “A selfish heart is trouble/But a foolish heart is worse.”
In the final verse, Garcia brings it all home with a twinkle in his vocal like a mischievous sage. “Stoke the fires of paradise,” he sings, “With coals from Hell to start/But never give your love, my friend/Unto a foolish heart.” For either the diehard Deadhead who hasn’t heard it in a while or the casual fan who hasn’t heart it at all, “Foolish Heart” is worth the listen as a shining example of late-period Grateful Dead that sounds like the band in its prime.