“FRIEND OF THE DEVIL” (WRITERS: JERRY GARCIA–JOHN DAWSON–ROBERT HUNTER)
ARTIST: LYLE LOVETT
RELEASED 1991 ON DEADICATED LP
Not being much of a Grateful Dead fan, I have no emotional encumbrances with anyone covering or reinterpreting their material. Therefore, when I heard Lyle Lovett’s version of “Friend of the Devil,” originally issued on the Dead’s late 1970 American Beauty LP, it not only struck me as a perfect cover, but the savior of the song.
I personally was always bothered by the jaunty, upbeat tone of the original version. The song is about as downer of a lyric as one can imagine—a deep, dark existential crisis in which one can’t even be sure that selling your soul will get you what’s been promised. And yet the arrangement made it sound like it was supposed to be a barrel of fun. Maybe that’s the irony, but I don’t get it.
Lyle Lovett, who’d been cutting records since the late 1980s, is a sort of outsider country artist who writes often funny, often poignant songs. He was a good choice to for inclusion on the 1991 benefit-slash-tribute album Deadicated, conceived of by producer Ralph Sell.
The album featured some apropos guests, like Bruce Hornsby, Lovett, and Dwight Yoakam, but also some unexpected acolytes including Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, and Los Lobos, faithfully cutting Dead songs in their own styles.
Backed by Little Feat’s Bill Payne on piano and some top L.A. session men (Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Dean Parks), Lovett slows “Friend of the Devil” down, affording Robert Hunter’s lyric the ghostly, eerie, feel of a damned soul that it warrants.