The Grateful Dead
Jerry Garcia – circa 1977
“Sometimes the lights all shining on me / Other times I can barely see / Lately it occurs to me / What a long strange trip it’s been” – ‘Truckin’’ (Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Robert Hunter)
“Dead freaks unite! Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed.” This message appears inside the live album ‘The Grateful Dead’ (1971). From this band-sponsored attempt to form a connection with their fans grows a phenomenon. Many rock bands have devoted followers, but the ‘Deadheads’, as they become known, are a separate breed. With the tacit approval of The Grateful Dead, many of these Deadheads make tapes of every Grateful Dead concert they attend and buy, sell or trade such recordings with fellow devotees. The Deadheads come to benefit from a Grateful Dead concert ticket distribution system that favours them over more casual concert-goers. Their fervent support allows The Grateful Dead to exist outside the standard pressures that other artists face. Without the Deadheads, the band may well have ceased many times over. In return, The Grateful Dead make the Deadheads part of their lives. The fans trail their heroes across America or even overseas. Jerry Garcia, the central figure in The Grateful Dead saga, observes, “It’s an adventure you can still have in America…You can’t hop a freight [train anymore, as hoboes did in the 1930s], but you can chase The Grateful Dead around.”
What sort of band could inspire such ardent adherents? For answers, let’s go back to the start of that ‘long strange trip.’
Jerry Garcia (1 August 1942 – 9 August 1995) is born in San Francisco, California. In 1959 he joins the U.S. Army. Garcia’s stint in the armed forces ends after nine months. He then attends San Mateo Junior College. On the campus, he meets Robert Hunter (born Robert Burns, 23 June 1941). Although he never officially becomes a member of The Grateful Dead, Hunter provides lyrics to the lion’s share of the band’s output. By now, it is 1960 and Jerry Garcia makes the acquaintance of Phil Lesh (born 15 March 1940). Lesh has a background in classical music, having trained in violin, trumpet and composition. In contrast to this, Phil Lesh is also working for a radio hootenanny show, extolling the virtues of acoustic folk music. Though he and Jerry Garcia go their separate ways for now, Phil Lesh is fated to return to this story in five years’ time.
In 1961 Jerry Garcia is living in Palo Alto, on the peninsula south of San Francisco. He gives guitar lessons by day and hangs around the clubs at night. The latter activity brings him into contact with Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (8 September 1945 – 8 March 1973), a keyboard player who additionally blows harmonica. Garcia also meets Bob Weir (born 16 October 1947), a young guitarist.
In 1962, Pigpen spends some time in small blues clubs accompanying Janis Joplin, a blues singer from Texas, who, like The Grateful Dead, will become one of the leading lights of the San Francisco music scene.
In 1963 a thriving coffee house circuit exists for young people armed with acoustic guitars and an interest in folk music. Jerry Garcia is one of these people.
To supplement his modest income, Jerry Garcia takes a job at a record store. Here, he meets drummer Bill Kreutzmann (born 7 May 1946).
Robert Hunter, Garcia’s former school chum, is participating in LSD tests at Stanford University. Although from a modern perspective, LSD (or acid, as it is also known) is an illicit substance, it is important to realise it is not declared illegal in California until August 1966. So Robert Hunter’s ‘research’ is a quite legitimate form of scientific inquiry at the time.
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter form a group called The Wildwood Boys, a bluegrass band (i.e. folk music with a more pronounced country twang, favoured in the southern states of the U.S.) The Wildwood Boys change their name to The Hart Valley Drifters and, under that sobriquet, win the amateur section of the 1963 Monterey Folk Festival in May.1963.
Around the same time, Pigpen and Bill Kreutzmann start a rock band called The Zodiacs.
Jerry Garcia moves on to create Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Band. A ‘jug band’ is similar to a British skiffle group, a sort of homemade version of folk music. In its purest form, one of the instruments ‘played’ is a bootleg liquor jug, a whiskey jar, and the holder blows across the rim of the jug. Garcia’s crew are probably not purists though, since he is joined in this enterprise by Pigpen, Bob Weir and drummer John Dawson.
Since ‘nobody wants a West Coast jug band at the time’, Pigpen urges them to become an electric blues band. With Bill Kreutzmann replacing John Dawson, the line-up is completed when Jerry Garcia drafts Phil Lesh to play bass. The only catch is that Phil Lesh has never played bass. However, he is talented enough to learn in two weeks. The modified assemblage is dubbed The Warlocks in 1965.
Phil Lesh knows Ken Kesey, the ringleader of a pack called The Merry Pranksters. There are maverick social theorists who see LSD as a way of life. In their view, mind-expanding drugs are the key to a better, more integrated community. Journalist Tom Wolfe’s book ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ (1965) chronicles this period of experimentation. The Warlocks become the house-band for this ritualised madness. Of course, they are doing acid too, but, more importantly, their ‘music rapidly becomes a vast and colourful tapestry of hybrid influences, as all kinds of musical forms are assimilated by the band.’
Late in 1965, or perhaps in 1966, The Warlocks change their name to The Grateful Dead. Perhaps fittingly, there are conflicting legends about the origin of the name. In one version, Jerry Garcia sees those two words shining ‘right off the page’ of a big dictionary. “It was truly weird,” he muses, “A truly weird moment.” The second version has it that ‘Grateful Dead is a kind of folk ballad collected by Francis Child.’ The band thinks the name is ‘vaguely appropriate’ and has ‘trippy connotations’ [as in drug trips]. A band name like The Grateful Dead also scares off square establishment types and mainstream radio programmers who find the tag too gruesome. The line-up of The Grateful Dead at this point is: Jerry Garcia (vocals, guitar), Bob Weir (guitar, vocals), Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (keyboards, harmonica), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (a.k.a. Bill Sommers) (drums).
The sound produced by The Grateful Dead is a ‘richly tapestried psychedelia – woven from folk, country, jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and experimental music.’ However, taking the lead on the musical journey is Jerry Garcia’s voice and guitar. “They’ll follow me down any dark alley,” he says of his comrades. “Sometimes there’s light at the end of the alley, and sometimes there’s a black hole. The point is you don’t get adventures in music unless you’re willing to take chances.” This acknowledges the band’s inbuilt tendency towards unevenness. ‘Should all of the cosmic variables fall into proper alignment, the band’s improvisations can lead to onstage magic. Just as easily, the group can meander, missing cues and connections.’ Partly, this also has something to do with what drugs the band and their listeners have consumed. Garcia is tagged ‘Captain Trips’ but it’s not a label he enjoys. Most of The Grateful Dead’s songs are composed by Garcia in conjunction with lyricist Robert Hunter.
The Grateful Dead move into a communal house at 710 Ashbury Street in San Francisco. The corner of Haight Street and Ashbury Street in the city is seen as the centre of the worldwide counter culture movement. This is the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, the hippie lifestyle, the flower children. Peace and love may be ubiquitous, but so are drugs, poverty and poor sanitation. There is also a (drug-fuelled?) paranoia about ‘The Man’ and ‘The Establishment’ being out to crackdown on the dropouts of society and spoil the party. San Francisco becomes the hotspot for new music too, with The Grateful Dead sharing the spotlight with the aforementioned Janis Joplin, as well as bands like The Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe And The Fish. As their message reverberates across the land, record companies hasten to sign up their own pet San Francisco bands. The Grateful Dead’s first single, ‘Stealin’’ backed with ‘Don’t Ease Me In’, is released on the local Scorpio label. Jerry Garcia is reluctant to commit to a standard recording contract, so while others ‘sell-out’, The Grateful Dead maintain a heroic distance from the evils of commerce. Eventually though, they too face reality and sign with Warner Brothers Records.
‘The Grateful Dead’ (1967) (US no. 37) is their first album. This disc includes ‘The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)’ which credits the whole band as songwriters. On this song, a swirling keyboard is pierced by a guitar screech. This leads into a propulsive piece about the joys of rural life as they sing “You’re in the country.” Released in March, the album is recorded ‘in three breathless amphetamine-stoked nights’ and ‘sets out the basics of the band’s music.’
On 2 October 1967 California narcotics agents arrest all the members of The Grateful Dead at 710 Ashbury Street. Charged with possession of marijuana, they are held in jail for six hours before being released on bail.
Dissatisfied with the sound on their first album, The Grateful Dead take six months to craft the follow-up, ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ (1968) (US no. 87). Although ‘the painstaking nature’ of their music is better conveyed, it fares no better commercially than its predecessor and the lengthy recording process puts them in debt to Warner Brothers. Part of the reason for the album’s richer musical flavour is the band has expanded to a seven-piece line-up with second drummer Mickey Hart (born 11 September 1943) and second keyboardist Tom Constanten (born 19 March 1944). The latter is a friend of Phil Lesh and allegedly has an I.Q. of 170, having written a symphony at the age of 13. Bill Kreutzmann recruited Mickey Hart as they had been studying together.
The third album, ‘Aoxomoxoa’ (1969) (US no. 73), has for a title a fictitious palindrome (something spelled the same way backwards and forwards). This album is described as an ‘ambitious’ set, but it puts the band further into debt.
Shortly after that release, The Grateful Dead are one of the acts that play at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, over the weekend 15-17 August 1969. Woodstock is usually regarded as the high-point of the hippie era and it is only fitting that The Grateful Dead share in the utopian moment.
There is an argument that The Grateful Dead are at their best when performing in front of an audience. This is put to the test with ‘Live / Dead’ (1969) (US no. 64), a wittily titled double album of concert performances. The set includes a twenty-three minute version of ‘Dark Star’. As a bonus, the album is relatively cheap to make, allowing Garcia and the guys to avoid running up any more debt to the record company and even, through sales of this album, erase some of that burden.
On 6 December 1969 The Grateful Dead are to appear as one of the support acts for The Rolling Stones at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California, but back out. At the suggestion of The Grateful Dead, the motorcycle gang known as The Hell’s Angels is hired as security staff for the show. It turns into a nightmare. A black youth, Meredith Hunter, is stabbed to death by the bikers. If Woodstock was the shining apex of the era, Altamont is the dark underbelly. The Rolling Stones are usually held responsible for the debacle and, as the headliners, they do bear some of that weight. However, it is The Grateful Dead’s muddle-headed attempt to circumvent the forces of authority (i.e. the police) by suggesting the hiring of the bikers as enforcers that really turns this into a tragedy.
On 23 May 1970 The Grateful Dead play their first concert in Britain at the Hollywood Rock Festival.
Keyboardist Tom Constanten departs permanently to devote more time to his belief in scientology before the next album by The Grateful Dead.
‘Workingman’s Dead’ (1970) (US no. 27), released in June, represents a big change. Rather than sprawling electric epics, the emphasis is on short acoustic songs with tight, well-constructed harmonies. If Jerry Garcia’s background in folk and bluegrass is recalled, this album can be seen as a return to that approach. “We weren’t feeling so much like an experimental music group,” explains Garcia. “More like a good old band.” Perhaps they see themselves as ‘Uncle John’s Band’ (US no. 69)? This song beckons, “Come, hear, Uncle John’s band / Playing to the tide / Come with me or go alone / He’s come to take his children home.” This gentle, acoustic tune features finger-pickin’ guitar and multi-part harmonies. The album also finds space for darker themes in ‘Black Peter’ and ‘Dire Wolf’. Some more electric guitar is added to ‘Casey Jones’ which has a fitting shunting rhythm: “Drivin’ that train / High on cocaine / Casey Jones you better watch your speed / Trouble ahead / Trouble behind / And you know that notion just crossed my mind.”
There are some dark shadows cast across the band’s fortunes in 1970. It becomes necessary to file charges of embezzlement against their manager. Making it worse, this individual is Lenny Hart, the father of drummer Mickey Hart. Additionally, in New Orleans, The Grateful Dead are busted for drugs for a second time and the danger of a prison sentence hangs over them.
A busy year is capped in November by the release of their finest album, ‘American Beauty’ (1970) (US no. 30). It is in a similar country / folk style to ‘Workingman’s Dead’. This ‘crowning achievement’ includes their best song, ‘Truckin’’ (US no. 64), an autobiographical account of ‘their adventures and mishaps of that year’: “I’d like to get some sleep before I travel / But if you’ve got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in / Busted / Down on Bourbon Street [in New Orleans] / Set up / Like a falling pin / Knocked down / It gets to wearing thin.” Despite their travails, the melody of ‘Truckin’’ is quite bouncy and friendly. ‘Sugar Magnolia’ is a more country-inflected piece about a beautiful girl, noting “She’s got everything delightful / She’s got everything I need.” She even “Waits backstage / While I sing to you.” Phil Lesh co-writes ‘Box Of Rain’ with Robert Hunter who provides cryptic lyrics like “And it’s just a box of rain / I don’t know who put it there / Believe it if you need it / Or leave it if you dare.” Guest musician David Grisman adds mandolin to both ‘Friend Of The Devil’ and ‘Ripple’. The former is written by Garcia and Hunter with John Dawson from Mother McCree’s Jug Band, so it is possible the song dates back to that outfit. It is a country romp: “Set out running / But I take my time / A friend of the devil / Is a friend of mine / If I get home before daylight / I just might get some sleep tonight.” ‘Ripple’ is more poetic and profound, though remaining eminently hummable, as it conjures images such as “There is a fountain / That was not made by the hands of men” and “Ripple / Cool, still water / When there is no pebble tossed / No wind to blow.” This ‘down-home stoner country’ album has ‘some of the band’s most beloved songs.’
Mickey Hart leaves The Grateful Dead after this album. His father, Lenny, is arrested on 2 September 1971 and is charged with having embezzled seventy thousand dollars from the band, leaving them ‘penniless.’
The Grateful Dead release a second live album in late September. It is titled ‘The Grateful Dead’ (1971) (US no. 25) but should not be confused with the 1967 debut studio album of the same name. To be fair, the band wanted to name the disc ‘Starf**k’ or ‘Skullf**k’ but Warner Brothers demurred.
This effort is followed by yet another concert recording. This one, ‘Europe ‘72’ (1972) (US no. 20), is a souvenir of The Grateful Dead’s continental sojourn in April and May. Again, the band’s original title for the album – ‘Europe On Five Thousand Dollars A Day’ – was rejected by the record company. Bob Weir’s ‘One More Saturday Night’ has the band looking forward to the evening because “There’s gonna be a party tonight”. ‘Europe ‘72’ is actually a triple album and, coming after another live album the previous year and a double live album in 1969, it does ‘seem too much.’ Starting with the European tour, The Grateful Dead add two new members: Keith Godchaux (keyboards) (19 July 1948 – 23 July 1980) and his wife, Donna Godchaux (backing vocals) (born 22 August 1947). Keith previously played with The Dave Mason Band and Donna was a session singer in Nashville and Muscle Shoals. Keith Godchaux is recruited because Pigpen is in poor health.
Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan accompanied The Grateful Dead on their European jaunt against doctor’s advice. A ‘heavy drinker’, Pigpen was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. His condition forces his retirement from the band but, shortly after that, he dies of a stomach haemorrhage on 8 March 1973. He was 27. ‘This loss marks the start of a rough period for The Grateful Dead.’
The Grateful Dead close out their contract with Warner Brothers with ‘History Of The Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear’s Choice)’ (1973) (US no. 60). Despite its title, this is yet another live album, this time drawn from February 1970 shows at the Fillmore East.
The Dead begin issuing albums on their own Grateful Dead label. However due to a plethora of solo albums and side projects associated with this new venture, the band’s focus seems to suffer.
‘Wake Of The Flood’ (1973) (US no. 18) includes the almost jazzy ‘Eyes Of The World’, but the album ‘does nothing to dispel concern about The Dead’s falling standards.’ ‘Grateful Dead From The Mars Hotel’ (1974) (US no. 17) showcases the more robust ‘U.S. Blues’: “Red and white / Blue suede shoes / I’m Uncle Sam / How do you do?” Mickey Hart returns to the group with ‘Blues For Allah’ (1975) (US no. 12), as the band ‘try for new sounds’ such as the thin, percolating ‘Franklin’s Tower’ with its bid to “roll away” and Bob Weir and John Barlow’s ‘The Music Never Stopped’ (US no. 81), replete with saxophone and sweltering backing chorus. ‘Steal Your Face’ (1976) (US no. 56) is the last of ‘a stream of records that are, as often as not, flawed and flaccid.’
‘Terrapin Station’ (1977) (US no. 28) sees The Grateful Dead switch to Arista Records and use an outside producer, Keith Olsen, for the first time. ‘Estimated Prophet’, a song written by Bob Weir and John Barlow, is soaked in wah-wah pedal voicebox guitar effects, with Donna Godchaux’s backing hymn to “California” wafting through the song. Despite the changes, ‘the situation does not measurably improve.’ Lowell George of Little Feat produces ‘Shakedown Street’ (1978) (US no. 41), which includes the slinky Mickey Hart / Robert Hunter composition ‘Fire On The Mountain’. The band plays a concert in front of the Great Pyramid in Cairo, Egypt, in 1978.
On 23 August 1980 Keith Godchaux dies of injuries sustained when he is hit by a truck in a car accident in Marin County, California. Naturally, his widow, Donna Godchaux, chooses to bow out of the group at this point.
Brent Mydland (21 October 1952 – 26 July 1990) is brought in as keyboards player with the next album by The Grateful Dead, ‘Go To Heaven’ (1980) (US no. 23). There is a sense that ‘the group is essentially preaching to the converted and challenging itself much less assiduously.’ ‘Reckoning’ (1981) (US no. 43) is an all-acoustic live album and is followed by another live recording, ‘Dead Set’ (1981) (US no. 29).
A quiet period follows. This is partly explained by Jerry Garcia having ‘developed a debilitating hard drug habit.’ In 1985 he is busted in San Francisco for heroin possession. In 1986 he falls into a life-threatening diabetic coma.
Recovering from this low, The Grateful Dead experience a surprising upswing with their comeback album ‘In The Dark’ (1987) (US no. 6). They even score a well-earned, late in the day hit single with ‘Touch Of Grey’ (US no. 9) which sports the affirming chorus “I will get by / I will survive.” Their ‘newly clearheaded leader’ plays guitar like he is threading needlepoint while singing “Sorry that you feel that way / The only thing there is to say / Every silver lining’s got a / Touch of grey.” The album also boasts the scorching ‘Hell In A Bucket’ with sharp drum fills, motorbike sounds and the crack of a whip. ‘Hell In A Bucket’ is written by the tag-team of Bob Weir, Brent Mydland and John Barlow.
From here, The Grateful Dead go on to ‘Built To Last’ (1989) (US no. 27); ‘Dylan & The Dead’ (1989) (US no. 37, UK no. 38), a live album recorded with Bob Dylan, a fellow icon of the counter culture; and ‘Without A Net’ (1990) (US no. 29), a live album on their own.
On 26 July 1990, keyboardist Brent Mydland dies of a drug overdose due to a self-administered ‘speedball’ (a combination of heroin and cocaine).
On 9 August 1995, the band’s leader, Jerry Garcia, dies of a heart attack in a rehab clinic. At the time of his demise, Garcia was battling drug addiction, weight problems, sleep apnoea, a cigarette habit, and diabetes.
The remaining members of the band continue to tour as, initially, The Other Ones, and then, simply, as The Dead.
“Our audience is like people who like liquorice,” Jerry Garcia once observed. “Not everybody likes liquorice, but the people who like liquorice really like liquorice.” The Grateful Dead came together in the mid-1960s when ideas like communal living, free love, and a disdain for individual ‘ownership’ were becoming popular. In a way, The Grateful Dead and their music belonged to their tie-dyed fans and the Deadheads equally belonged to the group. They shared a communal experience. The Grateful Dead were most interesting in their years at Warner Brothers (1967 – 1972). Their decline has as much to do with the changing times as their creative abilities. The spirit of the 1960s that fostered them naturally eroded over the years. ‘One of San Francisco’s best-loved bands, The Grateful Dead had an ethos that was a product of the hippie / drug environment from which they sprang, and are one of the few community bands to have attained some commercial success.’ They are a ‘special band who will always evoke memories of long, lazy days and the community spirit of the summer of love.’
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘The Grateful Dead’ by Parke Puterbaugh (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 370, 371, 372, 373, 374, 376, 377
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 95, 96
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 94
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 135, 143, 161, 165, 172, 173, 190, 212, 314
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 93
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’, ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 60, 61
- wikipedia.org as at 18 February 2013
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 5 February 2014
- ‘The Very Best Of The Grateful Dead’ ‘ Sleeve notes by James Austin (Warner Brothers Records, 2003) p. 7
Song lyrics copyright Ice Nine Publishing Company (ASCAP)
Last revised 26 August 2014