Picking up where Keith Godchaux left off in the rotating keyboard position for the Grateful Dead, Brent Mydland by songwriting alone would no doubt have lasted the long haul of the next 16 years. Narrowly missing the Disco Dead era, Mydland started off hidden behind a band dynamic that had built up over the previous 15 years. His talents and popularity eventually evolved, but a fatal drug habit silenced his voice and his B-3, and the spot was left vacant yet again.
Born October 21, 1952, in Munich, Germany, his Army-serving father moved them to northeastern San Francisco when Mydland was a year old. Growing up in infamous '60s California, he naturally followed suit and started a high school rock band that led to his first official effort, Silver.
Along with Greg Collier (guitar, vocals) and John Batdorf (guitar, vocals), Mydland covered keyboard and vocals. The Bay Area trio released its self-titled album in 1976 for Arista, which featured cover design credited to Phil Hartman -- yes, the Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live, Newsradio, and The Simpsons fame. Mydland wrote two songs for the ten-track effort: "Musician (It's Not an Easy Life)" and "Climbing." Silver opened for the likes of the Doobie Brothers, Seals & Crofts, and Three Dog Night.
After a stint with one of Grateful Dead singer/songwriter and guitarist Bob Weir's side projects, Mydland went on to join the Dead in 1979, taking over for booted keyboardist Keith Godchaux (who died a year later in a car accident). Early on, Mydland stayed in the background, providing both vocal and keyboard harmonies. But by the mid-'80s, he was trading verses on many songs and singing lead on others. By 1988, with a half-dozen new songs, he was finding his way. Studio work for Mydland began with 1980's Go to Heaven, which featured his "Far From Me" and "Easy to Love You," co-written with Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. Seven years would pass before the next Dead studio album, In the Dark, which featured the defiant "Hell in a Bucket," written with Weir and Barlow, and "Tons of Steel." The Dead's final studio album, 1989's Built to Last, was dominant with Mydland-penned tunes, including "Picasso Moon" (with Weir and Bob Bralove), "Just a Little Light" (with Barlow), "Blow Away" (with Barlow), and the moving "I Will Take You Home" (written for his daughters, Jennifer and Jessica, with Barlow).
After arriving home from summer tour in 1990, Mydland, 38, was found dead in his home in Lafayette, CA, of a drug overdose. A replacement was found yet again, this time in Vince Welnick (with temporary duties given to Bruce Hornsby) who survived the fatal position until Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995, ironically enough after coming back from that summer's tour. Live recordings issued since feature Mydland and his compositions, including Without a Net, Infrared Roses, and The Arista Years.