The Grateful Dead’s craziest video — a 1987 clip for In the Dark track “Hell in a Bucket” — begins in a smoky bar. Bikers greet each other, embracing and clinging to their cold beers while flaunting their bicep tattoos. A woman shoves a dude playing an F-14 Tomcat pinball machine in the corner, knocking him to the ground.
Is that a flannelled Jerry Garcia? What’s he doing here? He isolates himself from the rowdy drinkers, strumming his beloved Tiger in his shades until the camera shifts and introduces us to a dazzling Bob Weir. It’s 1987, so we’ll forgive the lavender Miami Vice blazer. And, whoa, is that a duck? Why is there a duck at a bar? More importantly, why does it have a leather collar? (These questions suddenly seem more pressing now that Dead & Company are playing “Hell in a Bucket” live, most recently at Madison Square Garden on Friday.)
As a fight breaks out, glass shatters and a wooden chair breaks over Weir’s head. Suddenly, we’re in a different room, with a horrific zebra bedspread and a painting of Catherine the Great on the wall. Oh, yeah, and there’s a dominatrix. “I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe,” Weir sings, as she straps him into his seat. “But at least I’m enjoying the ride.”
Dressed as devils, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann drive chaotically into the night. Hart holds up a map to Kreutzmann that plainly reads “HELL.” Back at the Bondage Room, Weir is joined by the duck and other farm animals — plus keyboardist Brent Mydland and Phil Lesh, the latter dressed as a ringleader. It’s hard to think of another member of the Dead who would have hated this more, but there the bassist is, alongside a fire breather and a juggler.
There’s certainly a lot to unpack here. In the Dark was the Dead’s first record of the MTV era, spawning a new generation of Deadheads who were in diapers when American Beauty hit shelves. They agreed to make videos for some of the songs, most famously their hit “Touch of Grey,” which featured the band performing as skeleton marionettes. “Everybody was all touchy about selling out,” Garcia’s daughter Trixie told biographer David Browne. (A teenager at the time, Trixie also makes an appearance in the video as one of the dancing devils.)
The video for “Hell in a Bucket” is bizarre and outrageously un-Dead like. But thanks to its oddball charms — Weir’s goofiness, Hart’s apparent lack of navigation skills, Mydland’s eternal chill — the video has aged considerably well. Sadly, during Dead & Company performances of the song, a duck has not yet been brought onstage.