Episode 165 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Dark Stat” and the career of the Grateful Dead. This is a long one, even longer than the previous episode, but don’t worry, that won’t be the norm. There’s a reason these two were much longer than average. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a twenty-minute bonus episode available, on “Codine” by the Charlatans.
I mispronounce Brent Mydland’s name as Myland a couple of times, and in the introduction I say “Touch of Grey” came out in 1988 — I later, correctly, say 1987. (I seem to have had a real problem with dates in the intro — I also originally talked about “Blue Suede Shoes” being in 1954 before fixing it in the edit to be 1956)
No Mixcloud this week, as there are too many songs by the Grateful Dead, and Grayfolded runs to two hours.
I referred to a lot of books for this episode, partly because almost everything about the Grateful Dead is written from a fannish perspective that already assumes background knowledge, rather than to provide that background knowledge. Of the various books I used, Dennis McNally’s biography of the band and This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead by Blair Jackson and David Gans are probably most useful for the casually interested.
Other books on the Dead I used included McNally’s Jerry on Jerry, a collection of interviews with Garcia; Deal, Bill Kreutzmann’s autobiography; The Grateful Dead FAQ by Tony Sclafani; So Many Roads by David Browne; Deadology by Howard F. Weiner; Fare Thee Well by Joel Selvin and Pamela Turley; and Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads by David Shenk and Steve Silberman.
Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the classic account of the Pranksters, though not always reliable.
I reference Slaughterhouse Five a lot. As well as the novel itself, which everyone should read, I also read this rather excellent graphic novel adaptation, and The Writer’s Crusade, a book about the writing of the novel.
I also reference Ted Sturgeon’s More Than Human. For background on the scene around Astounding Science Fiction which included Sturgeon, John W. Campbell, L. Ron Hubbard, and many other science fiction writers, I recommend Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding.
1,000 True Fans can be read online, as can the essay on the Californian ideology, and John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”.
The best collection of Grateful Dead material is the box set The Golden Road, which contains all the albums released in Pigpen’s lifetime along with a lot of bonus material, but which appears currently out of print. Live/Dead contains both the live version of “Dark Star” which made it well known and, as a CD bonus track, the original single version. And archive.org has more live recordings of the group than you can possibly ever listen to.
Grayfolded can be bought from John Oswald’s Bandcamp
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
[Excerpt: Tuning from “Grayfolded”, under the warnings
Before we begin — as we’re tuning up, as it were, I should mention that this episode contains discussions of alcoholism, drug addiction, racism, nonconsensual drugging of other people, and deaths from drug abuse, suicide, and car accidents. As always, I try to deal with these subjects as carefully as possible, but if you find any of those things upsetting you may wish to read the transcript rather than listen to this episode, or skip it altogether.
Also, I should note that the members of the Grateful Dead were much freer with their use of swearing in interviews than any other band we’ve covered so far, and that makes using quotes from them rather more difficult than with other bands, given the limitations of the rules imposed to stop the podcast being marked as adult. If I quote anything with a word I can’t use here, I’ll give a brief pause in the audio, and in the transcript I’ll have the word in square brackets.
All this happened, more or less.
In 1910, T. S. Eliot started work on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, which at the time was deemed barely poetry, with one reviewer imagining Eliot saying “I’ll just put down the first thing that comes into my head, and call it ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'” It is now considered one of the great classics of modernist literature.
In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut wrote “Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death”, a book in which the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, comes unstuck in time, and starts living a nonlinear life, hopping around between times reliving his experiences in the Second World War, and future experiences up to 1976 after being kidnapped by beings from the planet Tralfamadore. Or perhaps he has flashbacks and hallucinations after having a breakdown from PTSD. It is now considered one of the great classics of modernist literature or of science fiction, depending on how you look at it.
In 1953, Theodore Sturgeon wrote More Than Human. It is now considered one of the great classics of science fiction.
In 1950, L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. It is now considered either a bad piece of science fiction or one of the great revelatory works of religious history, depending on how you look at it.
In 1994, 1995, and 1996 the composer John Oswald released, first as two individual CDs and then as a double-CD, an album called Grayfolded, which the composer says in the liner notes he thinks of as existing in Tralfamadorian time. The Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s novels don’t see time as a linear thing with a beginning and end, but as a continuum that they can move between at will. When someone dies, they just think that at this particular point in time they’re not doing so good, but at other points in time they’re fine, so why focus on the bad time? In the book, when told of someone dying, the Tralfamadorians just say “so it goes”.
In between the first CD’s release and the release of the double-CD version, Jerry Garcia died. From August 1942 through August 1995, Jerry Garcia was alive.
So it goes.
Shall we go, you and I?
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star (Omni 3/30/94)”]
“One principle has become clear. Since motives are so frequently found in combination, it is essential that the complex types be analyzed and arranged, with an eye kept single nevertheless to the master-theme under discussion. Collectors, both primary and subsidiary, have done such valiant service that the treasures at our command are amply sufficient for such studies, so extensive, indeed, that the task of going through them thoroughly has become too great for the unassisted student. It cannot be too strongly urged that a single theme in its various types and compounds must be made predominant in any useful comparative study. This is true when the sources and analogues of any literary work are treated; it is even truer when the bare motive is discussed.
The Grateful Dead furnishes an apt illustration of the necessity of such handling. It appears in a variety of different combinations, almost never alone. Indeed, it is so widespread a tale, and its combinations are so various, that there is the utmost difficulty in determining just what may properly be regarded the original kernel of it, the simple theme to which other motives were joined. Various opinions, as we shall see, have been held with reference to this matter, most of them justified perhaps by the materials in the hands of the scholars holding them, but none quite adequate in view of later evidence.”
That’s a quote from The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story, by Gordon Hall Gerould, published in 1908.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five opens with a chapter about the process of writing the novel itself, and how difficult it was. He says “I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.”
This is an episode several of my listeners have been looking forward to, but it’s one I’ve been dreading writing, because this is an episode — I think the only one in the series — where the format of the podcast simply *will not* work. Were the Grateful Dead not such an important band, I would skip this episode altogether, but they’re a band that simply can’t be ignored, and that’s a real problem here.
Because my intent, always, with this podcast, is to present the recordings of the artists in question, put them in context, and explain why they were important, what their music meant to its listeners. To put, as far as is possible, the positive case for why the music mattered *in the context of its time*. Not why it matters now, or why it matters to me, but why it matters *in its historical context*. Whether I like the music or not isn’t the point. Whether it stands up now isn’t the point. I play the music, explain what it was they were doing, why they were doing it, what people saw in it. If I do my job well, you come away listening to “Blue Suede Shoes” the way people heard it in 1956, or “Good Vibrations” the way people heard it in 1966, and understanding why people were so impressed by those records.
That is simply *not possible* for the Grateful Dead.
I can present a case for them as musicians, and hope to do so. I can explain the appeal as best I understand it, and talk about things I like in their music, and things I’ve noticed. But what I can’t do is present their recordings the way they were received in the sixties and explain why they were popular.
Because every other act I have covered or will cover in this podcast has been a *recording* act, and their success was based on records. They may also have been exceptional live performers, but James Brown or Ike and Tina Turner are remembered for great *records*, like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or “River Deep, Mountain High”. Their great moments were captured on vinyl, to be listened back to, and susceptible of analysis.
That is not the case for the Grateful Dead, and what is worse *they explicitly said, publicly, on multiple occasions* that it is not possible for me to understand their art, and thus that it is not possible for me to explain it.
The Grateful Dead did make studio records, some of them very good. But they always said, consistently, over a thirty year period, that their records didn’t capture what they did, and that the only way — the *only* way, they were very clear about this — that one could actually understand and appreciate their music, was to see them live, and furthermore to see them live while on psychedelic drugs.
[Excerpt: Grateful Dead crowd noise]
I never saw the Grateful Dead live — their last UK performance was a couple of years before I went to my first ever gig — and I have never taken a psychedelic substance. So by the Grateful Dead’s own criteria, it is literally impossible for me to understand or explain their music the way that it should be understood or explained. In a way I’m in a similar position to the one I was in with La Monte Young in the last episode, whose music it’s mostly impossible to experience without being in his presence. This is one reason of several why I placed these two episodes back to back.
Of course, there is a difference between Young and the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead allowed — even encouraged — the recording of their live performances. There are literally thousands of concert recordings in circulation, many of them of professional quality. I have listened to many of those, and I can hear what they were doing. I can tell you what *I* think is interesting about their music, and about their musicianship. And I think I can build up a good case for why they were important, and why they’re interesting, and why those recordings are worth listening to. And I can certainly explain the cultural phenomenon that was the Grateful Dead.
But just know that while I may have found *a* point, *an* explanation for why the Grateful Dead were important, by the band’s own lights and those of their fans, no matter how good a job I do in this episode, I *cannot* get it right.
And that is, in itself, enough of a reason for this episode to exist, and for me to try, even harder than I normally do, to get it right *anyway*. Because no matter how well I do my job this episode will stand as an example of why this series is called “*A* History”, not *the* history. Because parts of the past are ephemeral. There are things about which it’s true to say “You had to be there”. I cannot know what it was like to have been an American the day Kennedy was shot, I cannot know what it was like to be alive when a man walked on the Moon. Those are things nobody my age or younger can ever experience. And since August the ninth, 1995, the experience of hearing the Grateful Dead’s music the way they wanted it heard has been in that category.
And that is by design. Jerry Garcia once said “if you work really hard as an artist, you may be able to build something they can’t tear down, you know, after you’re gone… What I want to do is I want it here. I want it now, in this lifetime. I want what I enjoy to last as long as I do and not last any longer. You know, I don’t want something that ends up being as much a nuisance as it is a work of art, you know?”
And there’s another difficulty. There are only two points in time where it makes sense to do a podcast episode on the Grateful Dead — late 1967 and early 1968, when the San Francisco scene they were part of was at its most culturally relevant, and 1988 when they had their only top ten hit and gained their largest audience. I can’t realistically leave them out of the story until 1988, so it has to be 1968. But the songs they are most remembered for are those they wrote between 1970 and 1972, and those songs are influenced by artists and events we haven’t yet covered in the podcast, who will be getting their own episodes in the future. I can’t explain those things in this episode, because they need whole episodes of their own. I can’t not explain them without leaving out important context for the Grateful Dead.
So the best I can do is treat the story I’m telling as if it were in Tralfamadorian time. All of it’s happening all at once, and some of it is happening in different episodes that haven’t been recorded yet. The podcast as a whole travels linearly from 1938 through to 1999, but this episode is happening in 1968 and 1972 and 1988 and 1995 and other times, all at once. Sometimes I’ll talk about things as if you’re already familiar with them, but they haven’t happened yet in the story. Feel free to come unstuck in time and revisit this time after episode 167, and 172, and 176, and 192, and experience it again.
So this has to be an experimental episode. It may well be an experiment that you think fails. If so, the next episode is likely to be far more to your taste, and much shorter than this or the last episode, two episodes that between them have to create a scaffolding on which will hang much of the rest of this podcast’s narrative. I’ve finished my Grateful Dead script now. The next one I write is going to be fun:
[Excerpt: Grateful Dead, “Dark Star”]
Infrastructure means everything. How we get from place to place, how we transport goods, information, and ourselves, makes a big difference in how society is structured, and in the music we hear. For many centuries, the prime means of long-distance transport was by water — sailing ships on the ocean, canal boats and steamboats for inland navigation — and so folk songs talked about the ship as both means of escape, means of making a living, and in some senses as a trap. You’d go out to sea for adventure, or to escape your problems, but you’d find that the sea itself brought its own problems. Because of this we have a long, long tradition of sea shanties which are known throughout the world:
[Excerpt: A. L. Lloyd, “Off to Sea Once More”]
But in the nineteenth century, the railway was invented and, at least as far as travel within a landmass goes, it replaced the steamboat in the popular imaginary. Now the railway was how you got from place to place, and how you moved freight from one place to another. The railway brought freedom, and was an opportunity for outlaws, whether train robbers or a romanticised version of the hobo hopping onto a freight train and making his way to new lands and new opportunity. It was the train that brought soldiers home from wars, and the train that allowed the Great Migration of Black people from the South to the industrial North.
There would still be songs about the riverboats, about how ol’ man river keeps rolling along and about the big river Johnny Cash sang about, but increasingly they would be songs of the past, not the present.
The train quickly replaced the steamboat in the iconography of what we now think of as roots music — blues, country, folk, and early jazz music. Sometimes this was very literal. Furry Lewis’ “Kassie Jones” — about a legendary train driver who would break the rules to make sure his train made the station on time, but who ended up sacrificing his own life to save his passengers in a train crash — is based on “Alabamy Bound”, which as we heard in the episode on “Stagger Lee”, was about steamboats:
[Excerpt: Furry Lewis, “Kassie Jones”]
In the early episodes of this podcast we heard many, many, songs about the railway. Louis Jordan saying “take me right back to the track, Jack”, Rosetta Tharpe singing about how “this train don’t carry no gamblers”, the trickster freight train driver driving on the “Rock Island Line”, the mystery train sixteen coaches long, the train that kept-a-rollin’ all night long, the Midnight Special which the prisoners wished would shine its ever-loving light on them, and the train coming past Folsom Prison whose whistle makes Johnny Cash hang his head and cry.
But by the 1960s, that kind of song had started to dry up. It would happen on occasion — “People Get Ready” by the Impressions is the most obvious example of the train metaphor in an important sixties record — but by the late sixties the train was no longer a symbol of freedom but of the past. In 1969 Harry Nilsson sang about how “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Any More”, and in 1968 the Kinks sang about “The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”. When in 1968 Merle Haggard sang about a freight train, it was as a memory, of a child with hopes that ended up thwarted by reality and his own nature:
[Excerpt: Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”]
And the reason for this was that there had been another shift, a shift that had started in the forties and accelerated in the late fifties but had taken a little time to ripple through the culture.
Now the train had been replaced in the popular imaginary by motorised transport. Instead of hopping on a train without paying, if you had no money in your pocket you’d have to hitch-hike all the way. Freedom now meant individuality. The ultimate in freedom was the biker — the Hell’s Angels who could go anywhere, unburdened by anything — and instead of goods being moved by freight train, increasingly they were being moved by truck drivers. By the mid-seventies, truck drivers took a central place in American life, and the most romantic way to live life was to live it on the road.
On The Road was also the title of a 1957 novel by Jack Kerouac, which was one of the first major signs of this cultural shift in America. Kerouac was writing about events in the late forties and early fifties, but his book was also a precursor of the sixties counterculture. He wrote the book on one continuous sheet of paper, as a stream of consciousness. Kerouac died in 1969 of an internal haemmorage brought on by too much alcohol consumption. So it goes.
But the big key to this cultural shift was caused by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, a massive infrastructure spending bill that led to the construction of the modern American Interstate Highway system. This accelerated a program that had already started, of building much bigger, safer, faster roads.
It also, as anyone who has read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker knows, reinforced segregation and white flight. It did this both by making commuting into major cities from the suburbs easier — thus allowing white people with more money to move further away from the cities and still work there — and by bulldozing community spaces where Black people lived. More than a million people lost their homes and were forcibly moved, and orders of magnitude more lost their communities’ parks and green spaces. And both as a result of deliberate actions and unconscious bigotry, the bulk of those affected were Black people — who often found themselves, if they weren’t forced to move, on one side of a ten-lane highway where the park used to be, with white people on the other side of the highway.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act gave even more power to the unaccountable central planners like Robert Moses, the urban planner in New York who managed to become arguably the most powerful man in the city without ever getting elected, partly by slowly compromising away his early progressive ideals in the service of gaining more power.
Of course, not every new highway was built through areas where poor Black people lived. Some were planned to go through richer areas for white people, just because you can’t completely do away with geographical realities. For example one was planned to be built through part of San Francisco, a rich, white part. But the people who owned properties in that area had enough political power and clout to fight the development, and after nearly a decade of fighting it, the development was called off in late 1966.
But over that time, many of the owners of the impressive buildings in the area had moved out, and they had no incentive to improve or maintain their properties while they were under threat of demolition, so many of them were rented out very cheaply.
And when the beat community that Kerouac wrote about, many of whom had settled in San Francisco, grew too large and notorious for the area of the city they were in, North Beach, many of them moved to these cheap homes in a previously-exclusive area. The area known as Haight-Ashbury.
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Grayfolded”]
Stories all have their starts, even stories told in Tralfamadorian time, although sometimes those starts are shrouded in legend. For example, the story of Scientology’s start has been told many times, with different people claiming to have heard L. Ron Hubbard talk about how writing was a mug’s game, and if you wanted to make real money, you needed to get followers, start a religion. Either he said this over and over and over again, to many different science fiction writers, or most science fiction writers of his generation were liars. Of course, the definition of a writer is someone who tells lies for money, so who knows? One of the more plausible accounts of him saying that is given by Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon’s account is more believable than most, because Sturgeon went on to be a supporter of Dianetics, the “new science” that Hubbard turned into his religion, for decades, even while telling the story.
The story of the Grateful Dead probably starts as it ends, with Jerry Garcia. There are three things that everyone writing about the Dead says about Garcia’s childhood, so we might as well say them here too. The first is that he was named by a music-loving father after Jerome Kern, the songwriter responsible for songs like “Ol’ Man River” (though as Oscar Hammerstein’s widow liked to point out, “Jerome Kern wrote dum-dum-dum-dum, *my husband* wrote ‘Ol’ Man River'” — an important distinction we need to bear in mind when talking about songwriters who write music but not lyrics). The second is that when he was five years old that music-loving father drowned — and Garcia would always say he had seen his father dying, though some sources claim this was a false memory. So it goes. And the third fact, which for some reason is always told after the second even though it comes before it chronologically, is that when he was four he lost two joints from his right middle finger.
Garcia grew up a troubled teen, and in turn caused trouble for other people, but he also developed a few interests that would follow him through his life. He loved the fantastical, especially the fantastical macabre, and became an avid fan of horror and science fiction — and through his love of old monster films he became enamoured with cinema more generally. Indeed, in 1983 he bought the film rights to Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novel The Sirens of Titan, the first story in which the Tralfamadorians appear, and wrote a script based on it. He wanted to produce the film himself, with Francis Ford Coppola directing and Bill Murray starring, but most importantly for him he wanted to prevent anyone who didn’t care about it from doing it badly. And in that he succeeded. As of 2023 there is no film of The Sirens of Titan.
He loved to paint, and would continue that for the rest of his life, with one of his favourite subjects being Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. And when he was eleven or twelve, he heard for the first time a record that was hugely influential to a whole generation of Californian musicians, even though it was a New York record — “Gee” by the Crows:
[Excerpt: The Crows, “Gee”]
Garcia would say later “That was an important song. That was the first kind of, like where the voices had that kind of not-trained-singer voices, but tough-guy-on-the-street voice.”
That record introduced him to R&B, and soon he was listening to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, to Ray Charles, and to a record we’ve not talked about in the podcast but which was one of the great early doo-wop records, “WPLJ” by the Four Deuces:
[Excerpt: The Four Deuces, “WPLJ”]
Garcia said of that record “That was one of my anthem songs when I was in junior high school and high school and around there. That was one of those songs everybody knew. And that everybody sang. Everybody sang that street-corner favorite.”
Garcia moved around a lot as a child, and didn’t have much time for school by his own account, but one of the few teachers he did respect was an art teacher when he was in North Beach, Walter Hedrick. Hedrick was also one of the earliest of the conceptual artists, and one of the most important figures in the San Francisco arts scene that would become known as the Beat Generation (or the Beatniks, which was originally a disparaging term). Hedrick was a painter and sculptor, but also organised happenings, and he had also been one of the prime movers in starting a series of poetry readings in San Francisco, the first one of which had involved Allen Ginsberg giving the first ever reading of “Howl” — one of a small number of poems, along with Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” and possibly Pound’s Cantos, which can be said to have changed twentieth-century literature.
Garcia was fifteen when he got to know Hedrick, in 1957, and by then the Beat scene had already become almost a parody of itself, having become known to the public because of the publication of works like On the Road, and the major artists in the scene were already rejecting the label. By this point tourists were flocking to North Beach to see these beatniks they’d heard about on TV, and Hedrick was actually employed by one cafe to sit in the window wearing a beret, turtleneck, sandals, and beard, and draw and paint, to attract the tourists who flocked by the busload because they could see that there was a “genuine beatnik” in the cafe.
Hedrick was, as well as a visual artist, a guitarist and banjo player who played in traditional jazz bands, and he would bring records in to class for his students to listen to, and Garcia particularly remembered him bringing in records by Big Bill Broonzy:
[Excerpt: Big Bill Broonzy, “When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too)”]
Garcia was already an avid fan of rock and roll music, but it was being inspired by Hedrick that led him to get his first guitar. Like his contemporary Paul McCartney around the same time, he was initially given the wrong instrument as a birthday present — in Garcia’s case his mother gave him an accordion — but he soon persuaded her to swap it for an electric guitar he saw in a pawn shop.
And like his other contemporary, John Lennon, Garcia initially tuned his instrument incorrectly. He said later “When I started playing the guitar, believe me, I didn’t know anybody that played. I mean, I didn’t know anybody that played the guitar. Nobody. They weren’t around. There were no guitar teachers. You couldn’t take lessons. There was nothing like that, you know? When I was a kid and I had my first electric guitar, I had it tuned wrong and learned how to play on it with it tuned wrong for about a year. And I was getting somewhere on it, you know… Finally, I met a guy that knew how to tune it right and showed me three chords, and it was like a revelation. You know what I mean? It was like somebody gave me the key to heaven.”
He joined a band, the Chords, which mostly played big band music, and his friend Gary Foster taught him some of the rudiments of playing the guitar — things like how to use a capo to change keys. But he was always a rebellious kid, and soon found himself faced with a choice between joining the military or going to prison. He chose the former, and it was during his time in the Army that a friend, Ron Stevenson, introduced him to the music of Merle Travis, and to Travis-style guitar picking:
[Excerpt: Merle Travis, “Nine-Pound Hammer”]
Garcia had never encountered playing like that before, but he instantly recognised that Travis, and Chet Atkins who Stevenson also played for him, had been an influence on Scotty Moore. He started to realise that the music he’d listened to as a teenager was influenced by music that went further back.
But Stevenson, as well as teaching Garcia some of the rudiments of Travis-picking, also indirectly led to Garcia getting discharged from the Army. Stevenson was not a well man, and became suicidal. Garcia decided it was more important to keep his friend company and make sure he didn’t kill himself than it was to turn up for roll call, and as a result he got discharged himself on psychiatric grounds — according to Garcia he told the Army psychiatrist “I was involved in stuff that was more important to me in the moment than the army was and that was the reason I was late” and the psychiatrist thought it was neurotic of Garcia to have his own set of values separate from that of the Army.
After discharge, Garcia did various jobs, including working as a transcriptionist for Lenny Bruce, the comedian who was a huge influence on the counterculture. In one of the various attacks over the years by authoritarians on language, Bruce was repeatedly arrested for obscenity, and in 1961 he was arrested at a jazz club in North Beach. Sixty years ago, the parts of speech that were being criminalised weren’t pronouns, but prepositions and verbs:
[Excerpt: Lenny Bruce, “To is a Preposition, Come is a Verb”]
That piece, indeed, was so controversial that when Frank Zappa quoted part of it in a song in 1968, the record label insisted on the relevant passage being played backwards so people couldn’t hear such disgusting filth:
[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, “Harry You’re a Beast”]
(Anyone familiar with that song will understand that the censored portion is possibly the least offensive part of the whole thing).
Bruce was facing trial, and he needed transcripts of what he had said in his recordings to present in court.
Incidentally, there seems to be some confusion over exactly which of Bruce’s many obscenity trials Garcia became a transcriptionist for. Dennis McNally says in his biography of the band, published in 2002, that it was the most famous of them, in autumn 1964, but in a later book, Jerry on Jerry, a book of interviews of Garcia edited by McNally, McNally talks about it being when Garcia was nineteen, which would mean it was Bruce’s first trial, in 1961. We can put this down to the fact that many of the people involved, not least Garcia, lived in Tralfamadorian time, and were rather hazy on dates, but I’m placing the story here rather than in 1964 because it seems to make more sense that Garcia would be involved in a trial based on an incident in San Francisco than one in New York.
Garcia got the job, even though he couldn’t type, because by this point he’d spent so long listening to recordings of old folk and country music that he was used to transcribing indecipherable accents, and often, as Garcia would tell it, Bruce would mumble very fast and condense multiple syllables into one. Garcia was particularly impressed by Bruce’s ability to improvise but talk in entire paragraphs, and he compared his use of language to bebop.
Another thing that was starting to impress Garcia, and which he also compared to bebop, was bluegrass:
[Excerpt: Bill Monroe, “Fire on the Mountain”]
Bluegrass is a music that is often considered very traditional, because it’s based on traditional songs and uses acoustic instruments, but in fact it was a terribly *modern* music, and largely a postwar creation of a single band — Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. And Garcia was right when he said it was “white bebop” — though he did say “The only thing it doesn’t have is the harmonic richness of bebop. You know what I mean? That’s what it’s missing, but it has everything else.”
Both bebop and bluegrass evolved after the second world war, though they were informed by music from before it, and both prized the ability to improvise, and technical excellence. Both are musics that involved playing *fast*, in an ensemble, and being able to respond quickly to the other musicians. Both musics were also intensely rhythmic, a response to a faster paced, more stressful world. They were both part of the general change in the arts towards immediacy that we looked at in the last episode with the creation first of expressionism and then of pop art.
Bluegrass didn’t go into the harmonic explorations that modern jazz did, but it was absolutely as modern as anything Charlie Parker was doing, and came from the same impulses. It was tradition and innovation, the past and the future simultaneously. Bill Monroe, Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and Lenny Bruce were all in their own ways responding to the same cultural moment, and it was that which Garcia was responding to.
But he didn’t become able to play bluegrass until after a tragedy which shaped his life even more than his father’s death had.
Garcia had been to a party and was in a car with his friends Lee Adams, Paul Speegle, and Alan Trist. Adams was driving at ninety miles an hour when they hit a tight curve and crashed. Garcia, Adams, and Trist were all severely injured but survived. Speegle died. So it goes.
This tragedy changed Garcia’s attitudes totally. Of all his friends, Speegle was the one who was most serious about his art, and who treated it as something to work on. Garcia had always been someone who fundamentally didn’t want to work or take any responsibility for anything. And he remained that way — except for his music. Speegle’s death changed Garcia’s attitude to that, totally. If his friend wasn’t going to be able to practice his own art any more, Garcia would practice his, in tribute to him. He resolved to become a virtuoso on guitar and banjo.
His girlfriend of the time later said “I don’t know if you’ve spent time with someone rehearsing ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ on a banjo for eight hours, but Jerry practiced endlessly. He really wanted to excel and be the best. He had tremendous personal ambition in the musical arena, and he wanted to master whatever he set out to explore. Then he would set another sight for himself. And practice another eight hours a day of new licks.”
But of course, you can’t make ensemble music on your own:
[Excerpt: Jerry Garcia and Bob Hunter, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” (including end)]
“Evelyn said, “What is it called when a person needs a … person … when you want to be touched and the … two are like one thing and there isn’t anything else at all anywhere?”
Alicia, who had read books, thought about it. “Love,” she said at length.”
That’s from More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon, a book I’ll be quoting a few more times as the story goes on.
Robert Hunter, like Garcia, was just out of the military — in his case, the National Guard — and he came into Garcia’s life just after Paul Speegle had left it. Garcia and Alan Trist met Hunter ten days after the accident, and the three men started hanging out together, Trist and Hunter writing while Garcia played music.
Garcia and Hunter both bonded over their shared love for the beats, and for traditional music, and the two formed a duo, Bob and Jerry, which performed together a handful of times. They started playing together, in fact, after Hunter picked up a guitar and started playing a song and halfway through Garcia took it off him and finished the song himself.
The two of them learned songs from the Harry Smith Anthology — Garcia was completely apolitical, and only once voted in his life, for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to keep Goldwater out, and regretted even doing that, and so he didn’t learn any of the more political material people like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan were doing at the time — but their duo only lasted a short time because Hunter wasn’t an especially good guitarist.
Hunter would, though, continue to jam with Garcia and other friends, sometimes playing mandolin, while Garcia played solo gigs and with other musicians as well, playing and moving round the Bay Area and performing with whoever he could:
[Excerpt: Jerry Garcia, “Railroad Bill”]
“Bleshing, that was Janie’s word. She said Baby told it to her. She said it meant everyone all together being something, even if they all did different things. Two arms, two legs, one body, one head, all working together, although a head can’t walk and arms can’t think. Lone said maybe it was a mixture of “blending” and “meshing,” but I don’t think he believed that himself. It was a lot more than that.”
That’s from More Than Human
In 1961, Garcia and Hunter met another young musician, but one who was interested in a very different type of music. Phil Lesh was a serious student of modern classical music, a classically-trained violinist and trumpeter whose interest was solidly in the experimental and whose attitude can be summed up by a story that’s always told about him meeting his close friend Tom Constanten for the first time. Lesh had been talking with someone about serialism, and Constanten had interrupted, saying “Music stopped being created in 1750 but it started again in 1950”. Lesh just stuck out his hand, recognising a kindred spirit.
Lesh and Constanten were both students of Luciano Berio, the experimental composer who created compositions for magnetic tape:
[Excerpt: Luciano Berio, “Momenti”]
Berio had been one of the founders of the Studio di fonologia musicale di Radio Milano, a studio for producing contemporary electronic music where John Cage had worked for a time, and he had also worked with the electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Lesh would later remember being very impressed when Berio brought a tape into the classroom — the actual multitrack tape for Stockhausen’s revolutionary piece Gesang Der Juenglinge:
[Excerpt: Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Gesang Der Juenglinge”]
Lesh at first had been distrustful of Garcia — Garcia was charismatic and had followers, and Lesh never liked people like that. But he was impressed by Garcia’s playing, and soon realised that the two men, despite their very different musical interests, had a lot in common. Lesh was interested in the technology of music as well as in performing and composing it, and so when he wasn’t studying he helped out by engineering at the university’s radio station.
Lesh was impressed by Garcia’s playing, and suggested to the presenter of the station’s folk show, the Midnight Special, that Garcia be a guest. Garcia was so good that he ended up getting an entire solo show to himself, where normally the show would feature multiple acts. Lesh and Constanten soon moved away from the Bay Area to Las Vegas, but both would be back — in Constanten’s case he would form an experimental group in San Francisco with their fellow student Steve Reich, and that group (though not with Constanten performing) would later premiere Terry Riley’s In C, a piece influenced by La Monte Young and often considered one of the great masterpieces of minimalist music.
By early 1962 Garcia and Hunter had formed a bluegrass band, with Garcia on guitar and banjo and Hunter on mandolin, and a rotating cast of other musicians including Ken Frankel, who played banjo and fiddle. They performed under different names, including the Tub Thumpers, the Hart Valley Drifters, and the Sleepy Valley Hog Stompers, and played a mixture of bluegrass and old-time music — and were very careful about the distinction:
[Excerpt: The Hart Valley Drifters, “Cripple Creek”]
In 1993, the Republican political activist John Perry Barlow was invited to talk to the CIA about the possibilities open to them with what was then called the Information Superhighway. He later wrote, in part “They told me they’d brought Steve Jobs in a few weeks before to indoctrinate them in modern information management. And they were delighted when I returned later, bringing with me a platoon of Internet gurus, including Esther Dyson, Mitch Kapor, Tony Rutkowski, and Vint Cerf. They sealed us into an electronically impenetrable room to discuss the radical possibility that a good first step in lifting their blackout would be for the CIA to put up a Web site… We told them that information exchange was a barter system, and that to receive, one must also be willing to share. This was an alien notion to them. They weren’t even willing to share information among themselves, much less the world.”
1962 brought a new experience for Robert Hunter. Hunter had been recruited into taking part in psychological tests at Stanford University, which in the sixties and seventies was one of the preeminent universities for psychological experiments. As part of this, Hunter was given $140 to attend the VA hospital (where a janitor named Ken Kesey, who had himself taken part in a similar set of experiments a couple of years earlier, worked a day job while he was working on his first novel) for four weeks on the run, and take different psychedelic drugs each time, starting with LSD, so his reactions could be observed.
(It was later revealed that these experiments were part of a CIA project called MKUltra, designed to investigate the possibility of using psychedelic drugs for mind control, blackmail, and torture. Hunter was quite lucky in that he was told what was going to happen to him and paid for his time. Other subjects included the unlucky customers of brothels the CIA set up as fronts — they dosed the customers’ drinks and observed them through two-way mirrors. Some of their experimental subjects died by suicide as a result of their experiences. So it goes. )
Hunter was interested in taking LSD after reading Aldous Huxley’s writings about psychedelic substances, and he brought his typewriter along to the experiment. During the first test, he wrote a six-page text, a short excerpt from which is now widely quoted, reading in part “Sit back picture yourself swooping up a shell of purple with foam crests of crystal drops soft nigh they fall unto the sea of morning creep-very-softly mist … and then sort of cascade tinkley-bell-like (must I take you by the hand, ever so slowly type) and then conglomerate suddenly into a peal of silver vibrant uncomprehendingly, blood singingly, joyously resounding bells”
Hunter’s experience led to everyone in their social circle wanting to try LSD, and soon they’d all come to the same conclusion — this was something special.
But Garcia needed money — he’d got his girlfriend pregnant, and they’d married (this would be the first of several marriages in Garcia’s life, and I won’t be covering them all — at Garcia’s funeral, his second wife, Carolyn, said Garcia always called her the love of his life, and his first wife and his early-sixties girlfriend who he proposed to again in the nineties both simultaneously said “He said that to me!”). So he started teaching guitar at a music shop in Palo Alto. Hunter had no time for Garcia’s incipient domesticity and thought that his wife was trying to make him live a conventional life, and the two drifted apart somewhat, though they’d still play together occasionally.
Through working at the music store, Garcia got to know the manager, Troy Weidenheimer, who had a rock and roll band called the Zodiacs. Garcia joined the band on bass, despite that not being his instrument. He later said “Troy was a lot of fun, but I wasn’t good enough a musician then to have been able to deal with it. I was out of my idiom, really, ’cause when I played with Troy I was playing electric bass, you know. I never was a good bass player. Sometimes I was playing in the wrong key and didn’t even [fuckin’] know it. I couldn’t hear that low, after playing banjo, you know, and going to electric…But Troy taught me the principle of, hey, you know, just stomp your foot and get on it. He was great. A great one for the instant arrangement, you know. And he was also fearless for that thing of get your friends to do it.”
Garcia’s tenure in the Zodiacs didn’t last long, nor did this experiment with rock and roll, but two other members of the Zodiacs will be notable later in the story — the harmonica player, an old friend of Garcia’s named Ron McKernan, who would soon gain the nickname Pig Pen after the Peanuts character, and the drummer, Bill Kreutzmann:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Drums/Space (Skull & Bones version)”]
Kreutzmann said of the Zodiacs “Jerry was the hired bass player and I was the hired drummer. I only remember playing that one gig with them, but I was in way over my head. I always did that. I always played things that were really hard and it didn’t matter. I just went for it.”
Garcia and Kreutzmann didn’t really get to know each other then, but Garcia did get to know someone else who would soon be very important in his life.
Bob Weir was from a very different background than Garcia, though both had the shared experience of long bouts of chronic illness as children. He had grown up in a very wealthy family, and had always been well-liked, but he was what we would now call neurodivergent — reading books about the band he talks about being dyslexic but clearly has other undiagnosed neurodivergences, which often go along with dyslexia — and as a result he was deemed to have behavioural problems which led to him getting expelled from pre-school and kicked out of the cub scouts.
He was never academically gifted, thanks to his dyslexia, but he was always enthusiastic about music — to a fault. He learned to play boogie piano but played so loudly and so often his parents sold the piano. He had a trumpet, but the neighbours complained about him playing it outside. Finally he switched to the guitar, an instrument with which it is of course impossible to make too loud a noise. The first song he learned was the Kingston Trio’s version of an old sea shanty, “The Wreck of the John B”:
[Excerpt: The Kingston Trio, “The Wreck of the John B”]
He was sent off to a private school in Colorado for teenagers with behavioural issues, and there he met the boy who would become his lifelong friend, John Perry Barlow. Unfortunately the two troublemakers got on with each other *so* well that after their first year they were told that it was too disruptive having both of them at the school, and only one could stay there the next year. Barlow stayed and Weir moved back to the Bay Area.
By this point, Weir was getting more interested in folk music that went beyond the commercial folk of the Kingston Trio. As he said later “There was something in there that was ringing my bells. What I had grown up thinking of as hillbilly music, it started to have some depth for me, and I could start to hear the music in it. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a bunch of ignorant hillbillies playing what they could. There was some depth and expertise and stuff like that to aspire to.”
He moved from school to school but one thing that stayed with him was his love of playing guitar, and he started taking lessons from Troy Weidenheimer, but he got most of his education going to folk clubs and hootenannies. He regularly went to the Tangent, a club where Garcia played, but Garcia’s bluegrass banjo playing was far too rigorous for a free spirit like Weir to emulate, and instead he started trying to copy one of the guitarists who was a regular there, Jorma Kaukonnen.
On New Year’s Eve 1963 Weir was out walking with his friends Bob Matthews and Rich Macauley, and they passed the music shop where Garcia was a teacher, and heard him playing his banjo. They knocked and asked if they could come in — they all knew Garcia a little, and Bob Matthews was one of his students, having become interested in playing banjo after hearing the theme tune to the Beverly Hillbillies, played by the bluegrass greats Flatt and Scruggs:
[Excerpt: Flatt and Scruggs, “The Beverly Hillbillies”]
Garcia at first told these kids, several years younger than him, that they couldn’t come in — he was waiting for his students to show up. But Weir said “Jerry, listen, it’s seven-thirty on New Year’s Eve, and I don’t think you’re going to be seeing your students tonight.”
Garcia realised the wisdom of this, and invited the teenagers in to jam with him. At the time, there was a bit of a renaissance in jug bands, as we talked about back in the episode on the Lovin’ Spoonful. This was a form of music that had grown up in the 1920s, and was similar and related to skiffle and coffee-pot bands — jug bands would tend to have a mixture of portable string instruments like guitars and banjos, harmonicas, and people using improvised instruments, particularly blowing into a jug. The most popular of these bands had been Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, led by banjo player Gus Cannon and with harmonica player Noah Lewis:
[Excerpt: Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, “Viola Lee Blues”]
With the folk revival, Cannon’s work had become well-known again. The Rooftop Singers, a Kingston Trio style folk group, had had a hit with his song “Walk Right In” in 1963, and as a result of that success Cannon had even signed a record contract with Stax — Stax’s first album ever, a month before Booker T and the MGs’ first album, was in fact the eighty-year-old Cannon playing his banjo and singing his old songs.
The rediscovery of Cannon had started a craze for jug bands, and the most popular of the new jug bands was Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, which did a mixture of old songs like “You’re a Viper” and more recent material redone in the old style. Weir, Matthews, and Macauley had been to see the Kweskin band the night before, and had been very impressed, especially by their singer Maria D’Amato — who would later marry her bandmate Geoff Muldaur and take his name — and her performance of Leiber and Stoller’s “I’m a Woman”:
[Excerpt: Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, “I’m a Woman”]
Matthews suggested that they form their own jug band, and Garcia eagerly agreed — though Matthews found himself rapidly moving from banjo to washboard to kazoo to second kazoo before realising he was surplus to requirements. Robert Hunter was similarly an early member but claimed he “didn’t have the embouchure” to play the jug, and was soon also out. He moved to LA and started studying Scientology — later claiming that he wanted science-fictional magic powers, which L. Ron Hubbard’s new religion certainly offered.
The group took the name Mother McRee’s Uptown Jug Champions — apparently they varied the spelling every time they played — and had a rotating membership that at one time or another included about twenty different people, but tended always to have Garcia on banjo, Weir on jug and later guitar, and Garcia’s friend Pig Pen on harmonica:
[Excerpt: Mother McRee’s Uptown Jug Champions, “On the Road Again”]
The group played quite regularly in early 1964, but Garcia’s first love was still bluegrass, and he was trying to build an audience with his bluegrass band, The Black Mountain Boys. But bluegrass was very unpopular in the Bay Area, where it was simultaneously thought of as unsophisticated — as “hillbilly music” — and as elitist, because it required actual instrumental ability, which wasn’t in any great supply in the amateur folk scene. But instrumental ability was something Garcia definitely had, as at this point he was still practising eight hours a day, every day, and it shows on the recordings of the Black Mountain Boys:
[Excerpt: The Black Mountain Boys, “Rosa Lee McFall”]
By the summer, Bob Weir was also working at the music shop, and so Garcia let Weir take over his students while he and the Black Mountain Boys’ guitarist Sandy Rothman went on a road trip to see as many bluegrass musicians as they could and to audition for Bill Monroe himself. As it happened, Garcia found himself too shy to audition for Monroe, but Rothman later ended up playing with Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.
On his return to the Bay Area, Garcia resumed playing with the Uptown Jug Champions, but Pig Pen started pestering him to do something different. While both men had overlapping tastes in music and a love for the blues, Garcia’s tastes had always been towards the country end of the spectrum while Pig Pen’s were towards R&B. And while the Uptown Jug Champions were all a bit disdainful of the Beatles at first — apart from Bob Weir, the youngest of the group, who thought they were interesting — Pig Pen had become enamoured of another British band who were just starting to make it big:
[Excerpt: The Rolling Stones, “Not Fade Away”]
29) Garcia liked the first Rolling Stones album too, and he eventually took Pig Pen’s point — the stuff that the Rolling Stones were doing, covers of Slim Harpo and Buddy Holly, was not a million miles away from the material they were doing as Mother McRee’s Uptown Jug Champions. Pig Pen could play a little electric organ, Bob had been fooling around with the electric guitars in the music shop. Why not give it a go? The stuff bands like the Rolling Stones were doing wasn’t that different from the electric blues that Pig Pen liked, and they’d all seen A Hard Day’s Night — they could carry on playing with banjos, jugs, and kazoos and have the respect of a handful of folkies, or they could get electric instruments and potentially have screaming girls and millions of dollars, while playing the same songs.
This was a convincing argument, especially when Dana Morgan Jr, the son of the owner of the music shop, told them they could have free electric instruments if they let him join on bass. Morgan wasn’t that great on bass, but what the hell, free instruments.
Pig Pen had the best voice and stage presence, so he became the frontman of the new group, singing most of the leads, though Jerry and Bob would both sing a few songs, and playing harmonica and organ. Weir was on rhythm guitar, and Garcia was the lead guitarist and obvious leader of the group. They just needed a drummer, and handily Bill Kreutzmann, who had played with Garcia and Pig Pen in the Zodiacs, was also now teaching music at the music shop. Not only that, but about three weeks before they decided to go electric, Kreutzmann had seen the Uptown Jug Champions performing and been astonished by Garcia’s musicianship and charisma, and said to himself “Man, I’m gonna follow that guy forever!”
The new group named themselves the Warlocks, and started rehearsing in earnest. Around this time, Garcia also finally managed to get some of the LSD that his friend Robert Hunter had been so enthusiastic about three years earlier, and it was a life-changing experience for him. In particular, he credited LSD with making him comfortable being a less disciplined player — as a bluegrass player he’d had to be frighteningly precise, but now he was playing rock and needed to loosen up.
A few days after taking LSD for the first time, Garcia also heard some of Bob Dylan’s new material, and realised that the folk singer he’d had little time for with his preachy politics was now making electric music that owed a lot more to the Beat culture Garcia considered himself part of:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”]
Another person who was hugely affected by hearing that was Phil Lesh, who later said “I couldn’t believe that was Bob Dylan on AM radio, with an electric band. It changed my whole consciousness: if something like that could happen, the sky was the limit.”
Up to that point, Lesh had been focused entirely on his avant-garde music, working with friends like Steve Reich to push music forward, inspired by people like John Cage and La Monte Young, but now he realised there was music of value in the rock world. He’d quickly started going to rock gigs, seeing the Rolling Stones and the Byrds, and then he took acid and went to see his friend Garcia’s new electric band play their third ever gig. He was blown away, and very quickly it was decided that Lesh would be the group’s new bass player — though everyone involved tells a different story as to who made the decision and how it came about, and accounts also vary as to whether Dana Morgan took his sacking gracefully and let his erstwhile bandmates keep their instruments, or whether they had to scrounge up some new ones.
Lesh had never played bass before, but he was a talented multi-instrumentalist with a deep understanding of music and an ability to compose and improvise, and the repertoire the Warlocks were playing in the early days was mostly three-chord material that doesn’t take much rehearsal — though it was apparently beyond the abilities of poor Dana Morgan, who apparently had to be told note-by-note what to play by Garcia, and learn it by rote. Garcia told Lesh what notes the strings of a bass were tuned to, told him to borrow a guitar and practice, and within two weeks he was on stage with the Warlocks:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Grayfolded”]
In September 1995, just weeks after Jerry Garcia’s death, an article was published in Mute magazine identifying a cultural trend that had shaped the nineties, and would as it turned out shape at least the next thirty years. It’s titled “The Californian Ideology”, though it may be better titled “The Bay Area Ideology”, and it identifies a worldview that had grown up in Silicon Valley, based around the ideas of the hippie movement, of right-wing libertarianism, of science fiction authors, and of Marshall McLuhan.
It starts “There is an emerging global orthodoxy concerning the relation between society, technology and politics. We have called this orthodoxy `the Californian Ideology’ in honour of the state where it originated. By naturalising and giving a technological proof to a libertarian political philosophy, and therefore foreclosing on alternative futures, the Californian Ideologues are able to assert that social and political debates about the future have now become meaningless.
The California Ideology is a mix of cybernetics, free market economics, and counter-culture libertarianism and is promulgated by magazines such as WIRED and MONDO 2000 and preached in the books of Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and others. The new faith has been embraced by computer nerds, slacker students, 30-something capitalists, hip academics, futurist bureaucrats and even the President of the USA himself. As usual, Europeans have not been slow to copy the latest fashion from America. While a recent EU report recommended adopting the Californian free enterprise model to build the ‘infobahn’, cutting-edge artists and academics have been championing the ‘post-human’ philosophy developed by the West Coast’s Extropian cult. With no obvious opponents, the global dominance of the Californian ideology appears to be complete.”
The Warlocks’ first gig with Phil Lesh on bass was on June the 18th 1965, at a club called Frenchy’s with a teenage clientele. Lesh thought his playing had been wooden and it wasn’t a good gig, and apparently the management of Frenchy’s agreed — they were meant to play a second night there, but turned up to be told they’d been replaced by a band with an accordion and clarinet.
But by September the group had managed to get themselves a residency at a small bar named the In Room, and playing there every night made them cohere. They were at this point playing the kind of sets that bar bands everywhere play to this day, though at the time the songs they were playing, like “Gloria” by Them and “In the Midnight Hour”, were the most contemporary of hits. Another song that they introduced into their repertoire was “Do You Believe in Magic” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, another band which had grown up out of former jug band musicians.
As well as playing their own sets, they were also the house band at The In Room and as such had to back various touring artists who were the headline acts. The first act they had to back up was Cornell Gunter’s version of the Coasters. Gunter had brought his own guitarist along as musical director, and for the first show Weir sat in the audience watching the show and learning the parts, staring intently at this musical director’s playing. After seeing that, Weir’s playing was changed, because he also picked up how the guitarist was guiding the band while playing, the small cues that a musical director will use to steer the musicians in the right direction. Weir started doing these things himself when he was singing lead — Pig Pen was the frontman but everyone except Bill sang sometimes — and the group soon found that rather than Garcia being the sole leader, now whoever was the lead singer for the song was the de facto conductor as well.
By this point, the Bay Area was getting almost overrun with people forming electric guitar bands, as every major urban area in America was. Some of the bands were even having hits already — We Five had had a number three hit with “You Were On My Mind”, a song which had originally been performed by the folk duo Ian and Sylvia:
[Excerpt: We Five, “You Were On My Mind”]
Although the band that was most highly regarded on the scene, the Charlatans, was having problems with the various record companies they tried to get signed to, and didn’t end up making a record until 1969. If tracks like “Number One” had been released in 1965 when they were recorded, the history of the San Francisco music scene may have taken a very different turn:
[Excerpt: The Charlatans, “Number One”]
Bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society, and Big Brother and the Holding Company were also forming, and Autumn Records was having a run of success with records by the Beau Brummels, whose records were produced by Autumn’s in-house A&R man, Sly Stone:
[Excerpt: The Beau Brummels, “Laugh Laugh”]
The Warlocks were somewhat cut off from this, playing in a dive bar whose clientele was mostly depressed alcoholics. But the fact that they were playing every night for an audience that didn’t care much gave them freedom, and they used that freedom to improvise. Both Lesh and Garcia were big fans of John Coltrane, and they started to take lessons from his style of playing. When the group played “Gloria” or “Midnight Hour” or whatever, they started to extend the songs and give themselves long instrumental passages for soloing.
Garcia’s playing wasn’t influenced *harmonically* by Coltrane — in fact Garcia was always a rather harmonically simple player. He’d tend to play lead lines either in Mixolydian mode, which is one of the most standard modes in rock, pop, blues, and jazz, or he’d play the notes of the chord that was being played, so if the band were playing a G chord his lead would emphasise the notes G, B, and D. But what he was influenced by was Coltrane’s tendency to improvise in long, complex, phrases that made up a single thought — Coltrane was thinking musically in paragraphs, rather than sentences, and Garcia started to try the same kind of thing.
And under him Lesh was slowly starting to innovate in his bass playing. Lesh was also thinking in terms of Coltrane, but also of the way classical and baroque composers would use bass lines contrapuntally. Of all the band Lesh had the least knowledge of what the norms of popular music forms like rock and roll and blues were, and so his use of the bass inadvertently paralleled the moves being made by a lot of other bass players around this time, now that recording techniques were improving and allowing much better definition of bass sounds on record. Up to about 1965 the bass on rock and roll records was almost always playing very simple lines — at its most complicated it’d be something like a boogie walking bassline, but more often it would be the root and maybe fifth of the chord, simple whole notes dead on the beat, often locked in with the bass drum.
Lesh was one of the first bass players to start playing after people like James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson started coming up with more through-composed parts for rock music, and that became his natural idiom. What Lesh was doing was not what one might think of as conventional rhythm section work at all, and he would often syncopate his lines, only rarely coming in on the one of a bar as a normal bass player would, but often coming in half a beat later.
The group started to develop a conversational approach to performance, with the instrumentalists, especially Lesh and Garcia, entering into a dialogue with each other, all doing their own thing. They were particularly influenced by “Cleo’s Back” by Junior Walker and the All-Stars, a Motown instrumental, and it’s fascinating to listen to that record in this context. “Cleo’s Back” is clearly an attempt to replicate Stax records like “Green Onions”, but the Walker record has each of the musicians doing his own thing, rather than playing in tight lockstep. They’re all paying attention to the groove, but they’re riffing on it, coming in and out when they have something to say, playing off each other as if they all think they’re the star soloist but still somehow working as an ensemble:
[Excerpt: Junior Walker & the All-Stars, “Cleo’s Back”]
By the time the Warlocks had finished their stint at the In Room, the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene had exploded, almost without the group realising it, and record companies were on the lookout. San Francisco was clearly the next big thing to exploit, and Autumn Records was right there. After Sly Stone had had hits with the Beau Brummels and minor success with the Mojo Men, they were on a bit of a high and were auditioning bands left and right. The recording of the Charlatans we heard earlier was from a session they did for Autumn that didn’t get released, and Sly Stone was just about to start work with the Great Society, but Stone was apparently not present when the Warlocks did their audition for the label in November 1965:
[Excerpt: The Warlocks, “Can’t Come Down”]
But for that audition, the group actually performed under another name, The Emergency Crew, because Phil Lesh had been looking through records in a shop and found one by another group called the Warlocks. McNally in his biography suggests that this is likely the Warlocks who included two-thirds of ZZ Top, but as far as I can tell that band didn’t release a record until a few months after this. Nor of course is it the Velvet Underground, who never released a record under that name. There were, it turns out, a lot of bands who decided in the mid-sixties to call themselves The Warlocks — I’ve found evidence of at least ten, many of whom released singles.
My guess is that the record that Lesh had found was this one, an attempt by a band from Massachusetts to start a dance craze, released on Decca in June 1965. Lesh remembered the record he’d seen as being on Columbia, but otherwise this fits:
[Excerpt: The Warlocks, “Temper Tantrum”]
Oddly, the B-side to that track was a cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy”, which was a song that was also in the set of the Bay Area Warlocks.
The group got together in Phil Lesh’s house and started throwing out names. When nobody liked any of anyone else’s suggestions, they started thumbing through reference books — dictionaries, books of quotations, and so on — and eventually Garcia found what he and Lesh thought the perfect name, though Bob Weir wasn’t so keen.
The Grateful Dead is a motif from many folk stories throughout the world. To quote from Gordon Hall Gerould’s book on the subject: “A man finds a corpse lying unburied, and out of pure philanthropy procures interment for it at great personal inconvenience. Later he is met by the ghost of the dead man, who in many cases promises him help on condition of receiving, in return, half of whatever he gets. The hero obtains a wife (or some other reward), and, when called upon, is ready to fulfil his bargain as to sharing his possessions.”
Gerould identifies variants of this story all over the world, and sees it crop up as an element in many, many, stories. It exists in endless variations with no single canonical version, as so many folk stories and songs do.
None of the band knew much of this at the time, but Lesh in particular was so enthusiastic about the name that the matter was settled. The Warlocks were now the Grateful Dead:
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, there’s a religion made up by a calypso singer named Bokonon, which includes a concept called a karass. To quote from the book “We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon”
A karass doesn’t necessarily know it’s a karass — it’s a collection of people whose lives are intertwined in ways they will never fully understand.
Later in the book he goes on to define another term: “A wampeter is the pivot of a karass. No karass is without a wampeter, Bokonon tells us, just as no wheel is without a hub. Anything can be a wampeter: a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea, a book, a melody, the Holy Grail. Whatever it is, the members of its karass revolve about it in the majestic chaos of a spiral nebula. The orbits of the members of a karass about their common wampeter are spiritual orbits, naturally. It is souls and not bodies that revolve.”
In Vonnegut’s twice-fictional religion, there are always two wampeters for every karass, one waxing and one waning. And there’s no doubt that one of the wampeters around which the karass that encompassed the Grateful Dead at this time was revolving was Neal Cassady:
[Excerpt: Bob Weir “Cassidy”]
Cassady is difficult to sum up, especially at a remove of nearly sixty years. He was a vital link between two different versions of the counterculture — the Beats of the fifties and the hippies of the sixties — and everyone who knew him talks about him as having been a great artist and a vital inspiration to them. He was regarded as a peer by Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Jerry Garcia.
But while Kesey and Kerouac’s art was their novels, Ginsberg’s was his poetry, and Garcia’s was his guitar playing — all things that one can point to and analyse and that exist as works of art, according to Garcia “Neal was a guy who was like an artist without an art. He was his art, you know?”
He meant that very literally. He said “If you’re doing something and eventually you’re doing it well enough to where there’s a flow to it, then you know when the flow is there and you know when it ain’t. And it’s that same thing. But like, most people do it the way I’ve done it—the way most conventional artists deal with it at that level is to take up a discipline, one specific thing, scope in on it, concentrate your energy on it, like an alchemist, and work on it and work on it, and that becomes the way of telling whether you’re on or not, and then all your energy goes into it.
Neal’s way of doing that was to eliminate the tool, you know, even though he probably wasn’t conscious of it initially and used to envy that discipline. Eventually he became that whole thing—all of his surfaces, if you imagine human beings as having many surfaces, all of his surfaces were on that edge of on-ness and off-ness, and being conscious of whether you’re on or off. That whole thing of balancing on the end of a stepladder, you know, the kind of stuff that Neal could do. I mean, when he was on, he could really, because he worked at it, man. He spent a lot of the time doing it. Everybody else thought it was crazy weirdness, but he was working on it.”
Cassady had been a petty criminal for a great part of his youth, and had been arrested a number of times for car theft, shoplifting, and possession of stolen goods. But he was also mentored by a renowned educator, Justin Brierly, who saw potential in him. Through one of Brierly’s other students, after getting out of prison when he was nineteen he met Jack Kerouac, and the two travelled across the country on several occasions — with Cassady becoming the model for Dean Moriarty, the main character in Kerouac’s On The Road. Cassady asked Kerouac to teach him how to write, though he never finished a completed work in his lifetime, but according to many sources while Kerouac was teaching Cassady, Cassady was also teaching Kerouac, and the prose style which made Kerouac famous was in large part an imitation of Cassady’s style.
In 1962, Cassady read Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and identified so strongly with the protagonist, Randle McMurphy, and his fight against a system that considers him insane and eventually breaks him, that he tracked down Kesey and the two became friends. By this time Kesey was a strong advocate for the use of LSD — not in controlled, experimental, safe conditions like those advocated by Timothy Leary at this point, but for general, uninhibited, recreational use.
When in 1964 Kesey needed to travel to New York in connection with the publication of his second novel, he and Cassady and a group of other people, who dubbed themselves the Merry Pranksters, decided to make it a ritual event — they were going to retrace the East-West migration that had characterised white people’s journey in America, and do it backwards. They were going to go on the road, and bring West Coast weirdness to the heartlands and East Coast.
They got a bus, and painted it in psychedelic colours — and note that this is in June 1964, before even A Hard Day’s Night had come out, to give some perspective on where the general culture was at — and where the destination should be they simply wrote “Furthur” (spelled with a u instead of an e, apparently as a mistake, but taken as serendipity), and went out on the road.
They attempted to make a film of the journey, and they filmed extensive material. So extensive, indeed, that the task of going through it thoroughly became too great for the unassisted Kesey, and a film didn’t come out until 2011. But the Merry Pranksters’ journey and attempted film did, as the Tralfamadorians among you will know, become the inspiration for another film that was released:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Magical Mystery Tour”]
After this, Kesey’s home became something of a commune with various of the Pranksters often in attendance. In 1965 a young journalist named Hunter S. Thompson, working on a book about the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, decided that it might be interesting to bring them along to meet the Pranksters, and a party was thrown for the Angels at Kesey’s house, with Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass also attending.
This went well enough that there started to be *weekly* parties organised by the Pranksters, and just after the Warlocks changed their name to the Grateful Dead, in November 1965, several of them attended one of these parties, where they took acid and had a great time with people like Kesey and Ginsberg.
Shortly after that, the Pranksters decided to do something a little bigger — they were going to turn their parties into full-blown Happenings, in the way we talked about last episode, and the Grateful Dead were going to be involved, providing music.
Part of the reasoning for this was that the film that had been made of the road trip was clearly not yet ready, but they could show bits of it in these Happenings as essentially guerilla marketing, establishing an underground reputation for when it was finally released.
These Happenings were to be called Acid Tests, and the main way they were distinct from the other happenings we’ve talked about was that everyone involved would be on acid. Or at least, almost everyone — a small number never indulged, notably Pig Pen, whose drug of choice was always alcohol, not anything psychedelic.
At a typical one of these acid tests, the Grateful Dead would play their music, which from the few surviving recordings of them in 1966 was a mixture of fairly standard R&B:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “I’m a Hog For You Baby (acid test)”]
And rather unformed psychedelic jamming:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Caution (Do Not Step on Tracks) (acid test)”]
Film of the Pranksters’ road trip would be shown, some of the Pranksters would make their own music (though they couldn’t play instruments), Kesey would write messages on slides which would be projected while the band were playing, and Neal Cassady would juggle hammers.
After the first of the Acid Tests involving the Dead, they quickly found themselves with a team — co-managers Rock Scully, who they met at the Acid Test, and Danny Rifkin, and sound man Owsley Stanley, who became interested in doing the band’s sound after an acid trip in which he claimed he could see the patterns the sound was making and knew how to improve them.
Stanley was the first private individual in the world, outside industry and academia, to figure out how to synthesise his own LSD, and he used the money he made from this to help support the group in their career, buying equipment. He would also record all the group’s shows (and others he engineered) to check his own work back, and he kept almost all of these recordings, starting a practice that would lead to the Grateful Dead being the most exhaustively documented live act of the rock era.
Within two months of the first Acid Test the group found themselves playing to six thousand people at the Trips Festival, and they soon built up enough of a following that they actually decamped with the Pranksters to LA, spending two months there holding acid tests while working on original material and trying to get a little privacy as they worked out how to deal with their new followers.
They returned to San Francisco after a couple of months, thoroughly disillusioned with LA, and in July they released a single on the tiny San Francisco-based indie label Scorpio Records:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Don’t Ease Me In” (use single mix from YouTube as it has reverb)]
“people still laugh about as much as they ever did, despite their shrunken brains. If a bunch of them are lying around on a beach, and one of them farts, everybody else laughs and laughs, just as people would have done a million years ago.”
That’s from Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut. The narrator in that novel is the son of Kilgore Trout, an unsuccessful and rather bad science fiction writer who appears in several of Vonnegut’s novels as an inspirational figure who writes mostly for himself and doesn’t really realise that he has any fans, let alone that some of his fans regard him as some sort of guru with great wisdom. There are two main models for Trout — one is Vonnegut’s friend Theodore Sturgeon, and the other is Vonnegut himself.
While the Dead had been working on original material, they apparently chose not to record any — while both tracks on the single were credited to Garcia as songwriter on the label, they were actually traditional jug band songs that had been in their repertoire while they were still Mother McRee’s Uptown Jug Champions.
The single was only released in very limited quantities, but at least they had now actually made a record, even if the only place to buy a copy was the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street.
The Grateful Dead by this point were just one of several bands in the Haight-Ashbury area, and not necessarily the most successful — that would be jefferson Airplane, who were actually releasing records, or maybe the Great Society. Or Quicksilver Messenger Service. Or the Charlatans. Or Big Brother and the Holding Company. All these bands were regularly playing sets around a local circuit, with two venues in particular standing out — the Avalon Ballroom, which was run by Chet Helms and the Family Dog commune, and the Fillmore, run by Bill Graham. The Avalon was a friendlier venue, and everyone liked Helms more, and it had a better light show, but Graham was a better businessman, the Fillmore had a better sound system — bought from Owsley during one of his periodic fallings-out with the Dead — and Graham was also more interested in putting on a wider variety of acts. Graham would listen to the musicians who played his venue, and would bring in outside acts that they suggested, and often juxtapose wildly different performers like the avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and the Yardbirds. The reputation that Graham got was of someone who would rip off the artists who were performing for him, but was so good at business that they’d still end up better off than playing for anyone else.
By late 1966 the group were essentially living in two communes — Garcia, Weir, Pig Pen, their managers, and assorted girlfriends and roadies in a house on Ashbury, and Lesh and Kreutzmann and their partners a couple of blocks away (they’d originally lived with the others, but Lesh had soon bolted after having to share a room with Garcia, who snored very loudly). That wasn’t the only bodily function that was causing problems for the group. Weir had by this point given up on LSD — joining Pig Pen, who’d never used it — but while Pig Pen was drinking a bottle of whisky a day, Weir had given up in order to become healthier, and had taken up a vegetarian diet which led to a severe flatulence problem.
There were other issues starting to develop between Garcia and Weir as well. By this point a group of hippie anarchists called the Diggers had taken up residence in the area, and they were giving away free food, scrounged or stolen from local shops and cooked, as a combination of political act and performance art piece — anyone getting their free food had to step through a frame, because inspired by John Cage they thought that the act of putting a frame round something made it art.
The Diggers also insisted that music should be free, and that it belonged to the people who shouldn’t have to pay to get it. Garcia had some sympathy for this attitude, and the Dead would often play free shows, but he was also pragmatic enough to realise that if the Dead didn’t get paid for their work he’d have to get an actual job, which would be horrifying.
The way Garcia squared this was to insist that the group needed to get good enough to be *worth* paying, and this led to him pressuring Weir, who was the youngest of the band members and the least facile on his instrument. Weir decided he needed to figure out a way for a rhythm player to function in a band with a soloist who was inspired by John Coltrane, and eventually hit on the idea of, rather than looking to rhythm guitarists like Steve Cropper, as most musicians in his position would, listening to McCoy Tyner, the piano player in Coltrane’s quartet, and copying his style:
[Excerpt: John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things”]
“To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.
A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.
Here’s how the math works. You need to meet two criteria. First, you have to create enough each year that you can earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan. That is easier to do in some arts and businesses than others, but it is a good creative challenge in every area because it is always easier and better to give your existing customers more, than it is to find new fans.
Second, you must have a direct relationship with your fans. That is, they must pay you directly. You get to keep all of their support, unlike the small percent of their fees you might get from a music label, publisher, studio, retailer, or other intermediate. If you keep the full $100 of each true fan, then you need only 1,000 of them to earn $100,000 per year. That’s a living for most folks.”
That’s from an essay called 1000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly, who along with Stewart Brand, one of the people who organised the Trips Festival, set up the early online community The WELL. Kelly later founded Wired magazine. The essay appears in Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferris.
In late 1966 the Dead put out their first T-shirt, designed by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse who did the group’s early posters, which had an image of Pig Pen on it.
They also started to move away from their association with Kesey and the acid tests. The final break came when Kesey negotiated a plea bargain for some legal trouble, which involved him committing to doing a final acid test style show, but with a “don’t do acid any more, kids” type message. Kesey announced that the Dead would be playing this, without asking them, and on a night when they were booked to play elsewhere. They still considered doing it until one of the Pranksters told Danny Rifkin that the plan for the event was to play one last big prank and dose the entire audience with LSD. Unlike many in the Dead’s circle, Rifkin detested the idea of dosing people without their consent, and he was also worried that if the performance went ahead, Bill Graham, who was meant to be promoting it, would lose his promoter’s license. The group pulled out, and Kesey ended up doing a much smaller event.
By this point the Dead were a powerful live band, though very far from the style that they would become known for in later years. Listening to live recordings from the summer of 1966, they’re a conventional garage band, not a million miles away from other bands from the area like the Standells or the Count Five, though with a more imaginative guitarist than those bands:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Cream Puff War (live in Vancouver)”]
And it was that powerful live band that Joe Smith of Warner Brothers Records came to see, after being informed that the San Francisco scene was ripe with potentially successful bands that they could pick up for bargain prices. Over the autumn, Warners negotiated a deal with the group for a ten thousand dollar advance, and assurances that they would be given a certain amount of special treatment. Rather than being put through their customary marketing machine, the label would treat them the way they treated country artists, giving them special marketing for their niche genre.
Smith was very eager to get the Dead signed — other than the Everly Brothers, who were making great records but no longer having hits, Warners had few rock acts, and was mostly known for the artists on its Reprise subsidiary — a label that had been started by Frank Sinatra and still mostly had artists of Sinatra’s generation (plus the mildly successful teenpop band Dino, Desi, and Billy, two of whom were the sons of Sinatra’s celebrity friends).
They were trying desperately to build up a rock roster, and San Francisco was the obvious place to turn, since LA had already been picked clean — as we heard in the episode on “Heroes and Villains” they also bought up Autumn Records around this time and got Lenny Waronker, Van Dyke Parks and their circle to work with that label’s group of San Francisco artists.
Smith said later of signing the Dead “That was one of the two or three most important signings in all those years. It changed the nature and opinion of the record company. We were out in front. It was important to indicate we were more than Dean Martin and Sinatra—that we were hip.”
For this reason they made another important concession, which would have a profound impact on the way the group’s sound evolved. The standard record contract at this time paid performers per song, and that made sense for a time when most songs were about two or three minutes long — you’d need at least ten songs to make up an album, and so bands were being incentivised to produce as many of those two or three minute pop songs as possible.
But the Grateful Dead liked to stretch out and play long solos, and Rock Scully had heard that there was another way to structure these contracts. He’d worked at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and there he’d heard that jazz musicians were paid by the minute of recording, not by the song, which was how they could afford to do those long exploratory improvisational tracks that could last an entire side of an album.
Scully insisted on this being the case for the Grateful Dead’s contract too, and Smith agreed.
By the time of the group’s first sessions for Warners, Garcia at least had some studio experience. As we heard in the episode on Jefferson Airplane, Garcia had been involved in the recording of their album Surrealistic Pillow, at least according to most participants, though the record’s producer always said he wasn’t involved.
Certainly some tracks sound very much like they have Garcia playing on them:
[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “Today”]
In January 1967, the group made their first album. Garcia later said of it “At that time we had no real record consciousness. We were just going to go down to L.A. and make a record. We were completely naïve about it. We had a producer we had chosen because he’d been the engineer on a couple of Rolling Stones records that we liked the sound of; that was as much as we were into record-making.”
Dave Hassinger had definitely engineered a lot of Rolling Stones records — he’d been the group’s main US engineer for the run of hit singles and albums they’d had in the previous couple of years — but Garcia also knew him from working with Jefferson Airplane, as he’d engineered their album.
Hassinger was a super-competent engineer who had worked on everything from the TAMI Show to the Chipmunks’ album of Beatles covers, and he and Garcia had got on well. But Hassinger had only recently moved into production rather than engineering, and the rules of the studio they were working in meant that he had to use the studio’s staff engineer rather than do the job himself as he wanted, and as Hassinger himself said the band didn’t want to hear what a conventional producer had to say — they just went in and bashed out versions of their live set of the time, though as always they found themselves unable to let loose and improvise in the studio without the feedback of the audience. The first single, “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)”, failed to chart:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)”]
That track was actually recorded in San Francisco later, after the record company said they needed a single. Other than that, the album, which was just titled The Grateful Dead, only took four days to record, including the time spent mixing, and for the most part it sounds like any other pop album of the period — Bob Weir sounds spookily like Peter Tork at points. Despite Pig Pen being the band’s frontman and most popular member, he only gets one lead vocal, on the blues standard “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl”, with the rest of the leads being shared between Garcia and Weir, but his keyboard is all over the album.
At this point, the group weren’t writing much of their own material, and other than the group composition “The Golden Road”, the only original is Garcia’s “Cream Puff War”, with everything else being standard folk-club material like Bonnie Dobson’s apocalyptic ballad “Morning Dew”:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Morning Dew”]
or jug band material they’d been playing when they were still the Uptown Jug Champions, like “Viola Lee Blues”, originally written by Noah Lewis and performed by Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, which at just over ten minutes long was the only truly extended track on the album:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Viola Lee Blues”]
Garcia said at the time “I think our album is honest. It sounds just like us. It even has mistakes on it. But it also has a certain amount of excitement on it. It sounds like we felt good when we were making it. We made it in a short period—four days—and it’s the material we’d been doing onstage for quite a long time. It sounds like one of our good sets.”
Phil Lesh, not really getting the hang of this promotion business, said in an interview at the time “I think it’s a turd.”
The album wasn’t a success, and only reached number sixty-nine on the album charts. But the group’s reputation as a live act was steadily improving. A couple of weeks before the studio dates they’d performed at the Human Be-In, a massive outdoor show in San Francisco with speeches from people like Timothy Leary and the political activist Jerry Rubin, food distributed for free by the Diggers (paid for by Owsley, who was also distributing the acid), security provided by the Hell’s Angels, and performances by Jefferson Airplane, Blue Cheer, and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Twenty thousand people turned up for that event, and they were all astonished to find that there were *that many* people in what they all thought of up to that point as a rather small scene. The gathering of that many people in one place to hear the new psychedelic music got the biggest national and international media exposure the San Francisco scene had ever had, and soon everything that wanted to be cool and hip had the suffix “-in”, in imitation of the Be-In — there were love-ins, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on TV, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono having bed-ins.
Soon San Francisco, and the Haight-Ashbury area, was once again being overrun by the kind of tourists who ten years earlier had come looking for beatniks, only this time they were looking for hippies, or trying to become hippies, as the Mothers of Invention would satirise the next year:
[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”]
The Human Be-In was also one of the precursors to the Monterey Pop Festival, which of course, as we talked about in episode 151, was only possible because the Grateful Dead persuaded the other San Francisco bands to play, and where of course the Dead played what they considered an incredibly sub-par show sandwiched between the Who and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom blew them off the stage. The Dead’s performance was so bad that none of it was used in the film. The Dead did, though, come out ahead from the show — apparently they stole the PA system.
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Grayfolded”]
There is of course a reason that the Californian ideology became centred in California and developed in the way it did, and that reason is of course infrastructure.
Many people who were influential on the Californian ideology, like the postmodernist science fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson, would argue that if you plotted a timeline of the most innovative people in human history, that timeline would slowly move west and slightly north, accelerating over the centuries, as the most radical thinkers followed the Sun, so in the last few centuries the greatest innovations had come from Greece, then Italy, then France, then England, then New York, and then finally the West Coast of the USA. According to Wilson and his friends like Timothy Leary, now that wave had finally reached the Pacific there was only one place left to go, and so humanity would fulfil its manifest destiny and head up into the stars.
Other, less teleologically-minded, thinkers have suggested that the growth of that ideology had more to do with the fact that the Bay Area had… well, a bay. Which meant that it was a natural area for naval bases, and thus for much of the twentieth century a hub of military activity more generally. And this meant that when the US Government wanted to fund research into military technology — like rockets, or like the computer systems that would be needed to guide missiles, or like a communications network that would allow those computers to communicate, the Bay Area’s institutions of higher learning were the best places to turn to, and so places like Berkeley and Stanford got vast military research grants, and so became the cutting-edge institutions for those topics.
And so Berkeley, for example, counts among its alumni Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, Gordon Moore, the semiconductor researcher who co-founded Intel and coined “Moore’s Law”, and Eric Schmidt, a software engineer who went on to become the CEO of Google; while Stanford produced seventeen of the forty-four winners of the Turing Award for computer science to date, and was also the place where in order “to exploit new computer technologies to meet the needs of military command and control against nuclear threats, achieve survivable control of US nuclear forces, and improve military tactical and management decision making” as the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency put it, they developed what was then called ARPANET but later became known as the Internet — the first ever ARPANET message, the word “login”, was sent from CalTech to Stanford, though problems meant that only the first two letters arrived.
So many advances in computer science came out of the military-funded institutions in the Bay Area that soon corporations started building their own facilities there to hire all the bright young graduates, and Silicon Valley was built, starting with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, where basically every personal computing technology of the nineties was invented in the seventies.
And so young men (and it was, sadly, almost all men, sexism in science and technology being what it is) flocked to the Bay Area to work with this cutting-edge technology. Many of these people were the kind of staggeringly bright, vaguely idealistic people who had been inspired by science fiction stories to build technology for a better, utopian, future.
They wanted to go where the best tech was, to have the best toys to play with, but they often didn’t like the idea of being funded by the defence industry, because these were young men at a time when the US was prosecuting an unpopular war in which their friends were being called up to fight. But they didn’t *dislike* that idea enough not to take the money and play with the toys, especially when what they were doing wasn’t *exactly* weapons research. I mean, yes, they were being funded by the Department of Defence, but they weren’t building *bombs*. They were making computers talk to each other.
And so, rationalisation being what it is, they leapt on any ideas that would let them do defence-department-funded work while still having a clear conscience. And one of those ideas was one that was very current among the hippies of the Bay Area, people like Stewart Brand. The idea was that all large institutions were just jokes, figments of the imagination that didn’t really exist, that they’re what Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle talks about as “a false _karass_… a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done… what Bokonon calls a _granfalloon_… examples of _granfalloons_ are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows–and any nation, anytime,anywhere.
As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:
If you wish to study a _granfalloon_,
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon. “
So the Department of Defence and the government weren’t real. What was real was individuals, taking individual actions — and those individual actions would somehow coalesce into a collective higher purpose without organisation. Individuals all doing their own thing, together and leaderless, the same way the Grateful Dead all improvised their own parts and the sound gelled.
That idea appealed a *lot* to these bright young men. And this gentle hippie idea of freedom also fit in with the rugged individualist heroic idea of freedom that they’d read about in all their old science fiction magazines, a hypercapitalist pioneering libertarian idea promulgated by editors like John W. Campbell.
And it didn’t hurt, of course, that those ideas of individual freedom also meant that you didn’t have to feel guilty about becoming very, very rich…
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Grayfolded”]
There were several other changes to the world of the Dead in 1967, too. In March, on a trip to play in New York, Bob Weir reconnected with his old friend John Perry Barlow, who would become a major figure in the band’s lives over the next few years. And there was a new band member too.
The story of how Mickey Hart came to join the Grateful Dead has never quite made sense. The way Hart always tells the story, he was at the Fillmore watching Count Basie and hanging out with Basie’s drummer, Sonny Payne, who was one of *the* great jazz drummers of all time:
[Excerpt: Count Basie, “Ol’ Man River”]
And Count Basie definitely did play the Fillmore in August 1967, as support to Chuck Berry on one of the wonderfully eclectic bills that Bill Graham put together. But Sonny Payne wasn’t in Basie’s band in 1967 — he’d stopped working with Basie the previous year, and Basie’s main drummer in 1967 was Ed Shaughnessey, before Harold Jones took over for a five-year stint. Possibly this was a situation like David Bowie and Lou Reed. Either way, Hart met Bill Kreutzmann at the gig, and the two hit it off immediately — and that wasn’t the only thing they hit. They spent much of the rest of the night going around the streets of San Francisco drumming on bins, cars, lampposts and so on together. A little while later, Hart came to see Kreutzmann’s band, and was impressed. Soon he was in the band as their second drummer.
This actually opened up a lot of possibilities for the group. Lesh didn’t play like a conventional bass player, which meant that the group didn’t have as firmly rhythmic a sound as other bands. Hart moved in with Kreutzmann and Lesh and Hart and Kreutzmann soon started spending hours playing together, learning each other’s idiosyncracies. They even tried hypnotising each other so that they could be more in tune with each other, which led to some people in the band’s circle wondering if Hart had hypnotised Kreutzmann into letting him join the band. (They also tried hypnotising Pig Pen, but it just made him walk into a door).
Shortly after Hart joined the band, the group decided they had to get away from Haight-Ashbury. What had seemed like an idyllic community soon became, in the words of George Harrison who had visited the area that summer, “like the Bowery”. There were drug dealers getting murdered, teenage girls getting raped, and the group themselves got busted for dope possession. On October the sixth, the Diggers held a funeral for the hippie movement. The Summer of Love was over.
Most of the band moved to Marin County — Pig Pen stayed behind at first, though he followed later — and it’s at this point that the band became the Grateful Dead as they are in the popular imaginary, the experimental psychedelic act.
Robert Hunter had been in Mexico for a while, but he’d been in touch with Garcia, and had sent Garcia some poems, which Garcia had set to music — Garcia had never liked writing lyrics. Hunter had now returned to San Francisco, and was made a non-performing member of the band, with the job of writing lyrics for the band’s music. The first song he wrote with the band, rather than at a distance, became the non-album single “Dark Star”. Hunter heard the band rehearsing what was then an instrumental and came up with the first verse straight away:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star”]
Hunter would later acknowledge that he was inspired by the start of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock — “Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question”
When “Dark Star” came out as a single, it wasn’t a success, and was only a two-and-a-half-minute song. It wasn’t even included on the album which they were recording at the time, Anthem of the Sun, though that did feature Hunter’s first contribution to the band, a lyric called “Alligator” which was used on one of the two tracks for the “Pig Pen side” of the album:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Alligator”]
Anthem of the Sun was the first Grateful Dead album to consist entirely of original material — material published by the band’s own publishing company, Ice-Nine, which was named after a substance in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. Ice-Nine, in the novel, is an allotrope of water that’s solid at room temperature, and that makes any other water touching it become solid. One crystal of Ice-Nine dropped in an ocean would eventually freeze the entire ocean. Vonnegut always claimed the inspiration for this idea came from the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir, but it was also an idea that John Campbell, the science fiction editor who worked with Theodore Sturgeon and L. Ron Hubbard, had been suggesting to authors since the 1940s (though Campbell may also have got it from Langmuir).
That album had a much more difficult genesis than their first album. They started sessions with Hassinger in LA, but soon moved to better studios in New York. And then to other studios in New York… when they started the sessions, they had two main songs they wanted to work on, “Alligator”, and one they hadn’t titled yet and just called “The Other One”, which eventually became a suite entitled “That’s it for the Other One”.
Along with the new members Hart and Hunter, there was another addition to the group at this point — Lesh brought in his old friend Tom Constanten, who at the time was in the military, working as a computer programmer on an Air Force base in Las Vegas, and secretly using their IBM machines to create electronic music, but who would take leaves of absence to join the group in the studio and help them create new sonic textures, with John Cage-inspired prepared pianos and electronic noises. (Constanten was famously a Scientologist, but he had his religion listed with the Air Force as Buddhist. Whenever he needed time off he’d make up a Buddhist holiday and get a pass).
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “That’s it for the Other One”]
Hassinger soon got exasperated with the band’s endless tinkering — according to one story the final straw came when Bob Weir wanted to record some silence from the desert so they could get the sound of “thick air” to add to the recordings, though the story is told in different ways that make Weir’s request seem more or less reasonable depending on who is telling the story and when — and the group and their sound engineer Dan Healy began working on their own, recording an assortment of exotic instruments and sounds like a gyroscope spinning on a piano soundboard.
But the group still weren’t happy with the sounds they were getting in the studio, and eventually Lesh hit on an idea — they’d take the recordings of their live performances of these songs and create collages, mixing live and studio performance together, sometimes layering multiple performances from different shows on top of each other. It would be like Charles Ives, whose work often involved the orchestra playing two different songs at the same time. Lesh, Garcia, and Healy spent a huge amount of time in the studio, with Healy, who understood the equipment intimately, helping translate the ideas of Lesh and Garcia, who took charge of this editing process and kept asking things like “can we make a sound purple?”
The resulting album, with two tracks sung by Pig Pen, one by Weir, and two duets between Garcia and Weir, is probably the most experimental record the Dead ever made, and the polar opposite of their first album. It’s the one time in their career that the Dead really used the studio to its full potential, and it’s all the more surprising that they did that by using so much live material:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “That’s it for the Other One”]
Those lyrics about “cowboy Neal” were written by Bob Weir on the fourth of February 1968, while the band were on tour. When he got back to San Francisco, he learned that that same day Neal Cassady had died. The night before he’d gone walking down a railway track trying to get from one town to another. He’d only been wearing a T-shirt and jeans, it was raining and he’d taken barbituates. He collapsed and was found comatose, and died of exposure. He was only forty-one. So it goes.
Anthem of the Sun was not a particular success, either critically or commercially, and is the kind of album that can only be appreciated with a little distance from its release. The album is very much of a part with other contemporaneous albums whose reputation have grown over the ensuing decades. Its experiments with tape and musique concrete put it somewhere in the same ballpark as the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, which a few years later Garcia would cite as his favourite album of all time, but which at the time was dismissed as stoned nonsense that was trying too hard:
[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “She’s Going Bald”]
While its collaging and mixture of folk and psychedelia is very much the same kind of thing that the Incredible String Band were doing on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter:
[Excerpt: The Incredible String Band, “A Very Cellular Song”]
By this time, many of the groups were getting sick of working with Bill Graham, and the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and some of the other groups decided to open their own venue, run as a collective.
As Bob Weir later said “We were young and strong and high on ourselves. At that point, Bill Graham wasn’t the huge mogul that he became, and we thought, “There’s room in this town for us, too!” We were also acutely aware that Bill was stealing from us, and he made no bones about it, but he also made no bones about the fact that we’d never catch him. That said, we probably did better working for him than we would’ve done working for someone who wasn’t stealing from us, because he always managed to sell more tickets. He managed to get more people into the building and he knew how to get around the fire marshals and all that kind of stuff. So he was a crook, but he was a great one.”
The Carousel Ballroom, however, only lasted a few months before they realised that musicians and business are not a good mixture. The ballroom closed, and soon reopened under a new name — Bill Graham had set up a Fillmore East in New York, and now he closed down his original Fillmore — largely because it was in a Black neighbourhood and the hippies were no more immune to racism than anyone else — and rebranded the former Carousel as the Fillmore West.
At the group’s first gig at the newly-renamed Fillmore West they spiked Bill Graham, giving him acid without his consent. This was sadly a common practice for the band — and they didn’t just do it to their human friends, but to animals, with Hart occasionally giving acid to a horse he owned. Graham, who didn’t use the drug, knew this was a practice of theirs, so refused to eat or drink anything they had been near, and got his wife to put his own food and a thermos into a paper bag which was then sealed with wax, and would be the only food he’d touch while he was there, so he knew it was untouched.
But he thought he’d be safe with a can of 7-Up, because after all, it was a sealed can, he opened it himself and drank it down with none of them being able to touch it. Except that they’d used a hypodermic needle to inject LSD into all the 7-Up cans backstage, and then warned each other not to drink them if they didn’t want to be dosed. They were *that* desperate to make sure that everyone around them used the same drugs as them, and *that* unconcerned about basic notions of consent. Remarkably, Graham continued to work with them for the rest of his life.
(That story, like many with the Dead, is told as happening in different ways at different times. I’ve placed it here because the other main version of the story places it at a time when Mickey Hart wasn’t in the band, and he remembers it happening and Graham remembered him being there.)
The Carousel closed at the end of June 1968, the album came out in July 1968, and in August 1968 the group fired Bob Weir and Pig Pen.
Or at least they tried to. Lesh, and to a lesser extent the other three, had grown increasingly impatient with the two of them. Garcia was the leader, and he was a virtuoso guitarist by this point. The drummers were working together to investigate polyrhythms and were innovating on their instruments. Lesh was generally regarded as one of the most innovative bass players in the business. But Weir, the youngest and most naive of the band members, was not yet able to translate his McCoy Tyner ideas into playing, and Hart described him as playing “little waterfalls” rather than proper rhythm guitar. And Pig Pen, meanwhile, had never been into this psychedelic thing in the first place. He wanted to be a bluesman, and simply had no interest in doing extended spacey jams influenced by John Cage and Charles Ives and Edgard Varese and John Coltrane.
But somehow, even after sacking the two members who the rest regarded as deadweight, they just… stayed in the band. Garcia in particular was too nonconfrontational to actually properly sack someone — or indeed to make any kind of decision at all. Everyone else thought of him as the leader, the guru, the person in charge. He thought of himself as just one of the band, and went to great lengths to avoid the responsibility everyone else was putting on him.
So the Grateful Dead carried on as a six-piece, but played fewer gigs, and instead Mickey Hart and the Heartbeats — Garcia, Lesh, Hart, and Kreutzmann — played their own separate gigs, with the idea that they would become the main band and the Grateful Dead would wither away.
That didn’t happen, though. Lesh liked to compare the Grateful Dead to the characters in More Than Human by Sturgeon, how when they were working together — bleshing in Sturgeon’s term — they were like a single organism rather than separate individuals. As Owsley later put it, “you can’t fire your left hand just because it doesn’t write as nicely as your right”. And without Weir and Pig Pen, that feeling simply wasn’t there.
So they came up with another solution.
By this point, Tom Constaten had left the Air Force, and so he was available to join the group. The decision to add Constanten to the band was made by Lesh and Garcia, without consulting the other members, and not everyone was happy about it — they felt that Constanten was far too intellectual a player and was never really comfortable jamming, and some of them didn’t like his abstinence from drugs (because they’re banned by Scientology). Constanten also found playing in a live band difficult because of the levels of amplification. But it meant that Pig Pen could play congas and harmonica and be more of a frontman for much of the show and not have to be the sole keyboard player, and that in turn gave Weir a chance to develop his style more now there was another avant-garde player on stage with Lesh and Garcia:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “That’s It For the Other One, San Francisco February 1969”]
And Weir did eventually find his style, and as the band’s instrumental jams grew more complex, he went from being dead weight to being hugely important to the group’s sound.
Whereas in most rock bands the bass player would provide a steady harmonic root to keep the rest of the band in place, Lesh didn’t play that way, and so both Garcia and Lesh were usually playing improvisational melody lines, twisting round each other and going in different directions. But any two notes played at the same time imply a chord, and the two were often implying all sorts of complex harmonics. Weir’s job during an improvisation came to be to listen to what Lesh and Garcia were doing, figure out what chord they were implying, and play that chord — *and* to figure out where both of them were going in their different directions, figure out what chords they were *going* to be implying, and figure out a smooth route between them that sounded musical and anticipated their decisions.
While Weir and Pig Pen were mostly out of the band, the group recorded their third album, provisionally titled Earthquake Country, and even though Constanten was involved, and on stage they were going steadily more experimental, in the studio the band were being influenced by the same return to roots music the Tralfamadorians among you will remember from other episodes, acts like The Band. It was essentially a Garcia solo album in all but name, with all the songs having Garcia singing lead, and all but one being Garcia/Hunter songs (the other, opener “St. Stephen”, was by Garcia, Hunter, and Lesh). It was in many ways a return to the kind of music that Garcia had been doing before psychedelia, a nice simple album that would keep the record company happy after the massive cost overruns and general headaches caused in recording Anthem of the Sun.
And then they discovered that a sixteen-track machine existed, and scrapped the entire album and rerecorded it using the new technology, this time with Pig Pen and Weir involved (though not very heavily, and some sources say Pig Pen’s not on the album at all), giving the rootsy Americana songs a little more of the oddness the band had live:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead. “Mountains of the Moon (original mix)”]
This made the album once again go massively over budget, and also ended up a little like a falling between two stools, and in 1971 Garcia and Lesh went back into the studio to remix the album, making it sound slightly more like a conventional country-rock album, though nothing could make a track like “What’s Become of the Baby?” sound conventional:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “What’s Become of the Baby? (remix)”]
The album, named Aoxomoxoa, was a failure both commercially and by the band’s own standards, and is neither an album that has become beloved by the group’s fans as some of the later ones have, nor a record that stands out as an interesting time capsule like Anthem of the Sun does. It has some songs that became well loved as part of the group’s live sets, but it’s the group in transitional mode.
And then almost straight away came an album that did not go over budget at all, and that almost every Grateful Dead fan holds up as the peak of their vinyl career. After having used sixteen-track recording in the studio for the first time, they now decided to take a sixteen-track recorder into their regular gigs at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West, and record what is generally cited as the first live recording using sixteen tracks. It’s also often claimed to be the first live double album, but as far as I’m aware the first popular music live double-album was actually the 1950 release of Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall shows, the ones we talked about in episode one.
Live/Dead mostly came about because Aoxomoxoa was so expensive that the group needed to record two cheap albums if they and Warner Brothers ever wanted to make a profit on their deal. Cutting a live double-album essentially gave them three records for the price of one. And Live/Dead was essentially two records for the price of one.
Sides three and four were a blues album — though note that I say sides three and four, not disc two. In a very Tralfamadorian move, the record’s order was shuffled about — like many double albums at the time, it was set up for record-changers that could stack multiple discs, so sides one and three were on one disc and sides two and four were on the other.
Side four was dominated by a ten-minute version of Reverend Gary Davis’ blues classic “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, along with an eight-minute experimental piece just titled “Feedback” and the old Bahamian hymn “I Bid You Goodnight”, which the group probably learned from the Incredible String Band’s recording.
Side three was where Pig Pen got to shine for the only time on the album — for much of it he’s relegated to playing congas, in a band with two other percussionists. But side three is a single track — a fifteen-minute hyperextended version of Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight”, presumably inspired by the similarly extended versions that Van Morrison’s group Them used to do. It sounds utterly unlike the Grateful Dead as they’re normally thought of, but it makes a lot more sense of their repeated statements that they were always more inspired by the Rolling Stones than the Beatles:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Turn on Your Lovelight”]
Side two was a medley of two songs — an extended version of “St. Stephen” from Aoxomoxoa, and a song with lyrics by Hunter and, unusually, music by Lesh, who only very rarely contributed songs to the band. That song was called “The Eleven”, because of its time signature, which is usually given as 11/8. This sounds more complex than it is, as it’s basically just three bars of three and one bar of two, repeated — “one-two-three one-two-three one-two-three one-two one-two-three one-two-three one-two-three one-two one-two-three one-two-three one-two-three one-two”:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “The Eleven” (from about 5:40, record so it synchs with the rhythm at the end there)]
Robert Christagu called that medley “the finest rock improvisation ever recorded”.
Though the band were less impressed with “The Eleven” generally. Garcia said of it “you’re trapped in this very fast-moving little chord pattern which is tough to play gracefully through, except for the most obvious [shit], which is what I did on “The Eleven.” When we went in to the E minor, then it started to get weird. We used to do these revolving patterns against each other where we would play 11 against 33. So one part of the band was playing a big thing that revolved in 33 beats, or 66 beats, and the other part of the band would be tying that into the 11 figure. That’s what made those things sound like “Whoa—what the hell is going on?” It was thrilling, but we used to rehearse a lot to get that effect. It sounded like chaos, but it was in reality hard rehearsal.”
Lesh, its composer, was similarly in two minds, saying it “was really designed to be a rhythm trip. It wasn’t designed to be a song. That more or less came later, as a way to give it more justification, or something, to work in a rock ’n’ roll set. We could’ve used it just as a transition, which is what it was, really. It was really too restrictive, and the vocal part—the song part—was dumb.”
But the opening track is the one that arguably defined the band in the minds of many listeners. The single version of “Dark Star”, which had sunk without a trace the previous year, was an upbeat two-and-a-half-minute pop song. The version on Live/Dead was twenty-three minutes, and took up the whole of side one:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star (Live/Dead version)”]
In the months since the single’s release, “Dark Star” had changed utterly.
As Tom Constanten later said ““Dark Star” is a tremendously adaptable piece—I can’t think offhand of any other piece that is so comfortable to just ease into and work out for a while and leads to as many interesting places, and then you just ease out of it. It’s simple enough to be malleable but complex enough to be interesting. It isn’t like some of the jams … let’s say, one that has just one or two chords that alternate. You get into this sort of generic jam, which might be nice for shifting gears or moving to another piece, but it doesn’t engender as many ideas of its own. It doesn’t suggest as many as the changes of “Dark Star” do.
Certain motifs were integrated over time, almost like an aural tradition. I viewed the piece not so much as something written out, but as a galaxy that would be entered at any of several places. That appealed to me from my aleatoric sixties days—John Cage and all. And naturally, in the sense that every performance would be unique, with one-of-a-kind moments that were completely spontaneous. We were just exploring the map—the dimensional, capillarious intestine of … cosmic goop”
It was now, and would remain until 1974, the centrepiece of the group’s live set, though the group didn’t play it, or any song, every night. But it was a regular, and for much of that time, it and “Turn On Your Lovelight” would be the two poles around which the set was based — “Dark Star” would be the track which would allow Garcia, in particular, to wander into new realms on the guitar, while “Turn On Your Lovelight” would be the closer, a chance for Pig Pen to shine but also to leave the audience on a high with a straightforward, uptempo, upbeat, danceable song.
Of course, at this point, much of the Dead’s set was built around improvisation anyway, and increasingly the group didn’t have a planned-out setlist, or endings and beginnings of songs. Instead, the whole performance would be a continuous piece of music, with the group flowing from one song to another as the mood took them, ending songs by going into freeflowing jams which someone would usually then transition into the start of another song, with the rest of the group following him.
Live/Dead was not a commercial success, only reaching number sixty-five on the album charts, but for the first time it gave people who hadn’t seen the group live some idea of what they’d been missing.
But soon after it came out, the group would have changed again:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, Grayfolded]
There were a number of disappointments for the group in the months after Live/Dead was recorded. As the Tralfamadorians among you will remember from episode 192, just as they had at Monterey the group turned in a well-below-par performance at Woodstock, not helped by Bob Weir getting literally blown across the stage by an electric shock caused by a badly-grounded mic. The Dead’s performance was so bad that none of it was used in the film.
The group had also taken on Mickey Hart’s father, Lenny, to help them with the business side of management. The Harts had been semi-estranged, and Lenny Hart had become an evangelical preacher, but Mickey knew that his father had a good head for money. What he didn’t know, yet, was that Lenny Hart’s good head for money was mostly a good head for getting money for Lenny Hart. Without the band’s knowledge, Lenny had renegotiated their contract with Warner Brothers, and had claimed a seventy-five-thousand dollar advance, which he had kept for himself. They wouldn’t find out about this for a while, and meanwhile things were happening like sheriffs coming on stage at the start of one show to repossess Pig Pen’s organ because the band owed money they hadn’t repaid.
Then the group tried to organise a free concert in London, with Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who you will also remember from episode 192, which would have been the Grateful Dead’s first show outside North America, but when Rock Scully flew over to the UK to organise the show, he was busted for possession of LSD — which he later claimed had been planted by Lenny Hart to get him out of the way while Hart organised the Warner’s deal.
That show didn’t get organised, but the Rolling Stones’ team were involved in helping bail Scully out, and that created a tie between the two organisations. A tie which meant that when the Rolling Stones wanted to organise a free concert on the West Coast at the end of their US tour in late 1969, the Grateful Dead’s management were involved in helping set it up, and Alembic, the company that Owsley had started to produce equipment primarily for the group, was put in charge of sorting out the sound. The Dead also helped the Stones liaise with the Hells Angels who provided security for the event. The Tralfamadorians among you will remember from episode 176 what happened at Altamont. So it goes.
And then in New Orleans, the band — apart from Pig Pen and Constanten, neither of whom used illegal substances — and several of the crew were busted for drug possession. They eventually had the charges dropped after Joe Smith at Warner Brothers made a large campaign contribution to the re-election campaign of DA Jim Garrison, but this caused a lot of inconvenience for the group — not least that it was not Owsley’s first arrest, and it made it difficult for him to travel with the group for a while, causing one of his periodic steps away from the group.
Someone else who was stepping away from the group was Tom Constanten. He’d only been a member of the group for a little under two years, but he’d found playing in a live situation more difficult than he’d thought. He was fundamentally a studio musician, whose best work was planned, not improvised, and he often couldn’t hear himself on stage because of the relatively primitive amplification of the time, even despite Owsley’s best efforts. He’d also felt a little like a pawn in the band — he’d been brought in by Garcia and Lesh without much consultation with the others, and he was viewed in particular as “Phil’s man”, and so criticising him, the new boy, was a good way for other band members to weaken Lesh within the group’s power structure. He was also regarded as a bit holier-than-thou for his promotion of Scientology. While Garcia, Hunter, and Weir had all dabbled in it at one time or another, and Garcia, Lesh, Weir, and Constanten had even played benefit concerts for Scientology in a country band they had as a side project, Constanten was the only one who stuck with it, and that made him something of an outsider.
The decision for Constanten to leave the group was apparently mutual and amicable, and came in New Orleans at the time of the bust.
Constanten’s first major work after leaving the Dead was to provide orchestrations on a track on the Incredible String Band’s new Scientology-themed concept album, U:
[Excerpt: The Incredible String Band, “The Queen of Love”]
Constanten went on to work with many influential and experimental musicians, hold down some academic posts in music composition, and, in recent years, play with Jefferson Starship and sit in with a large number of Grateful Dead tribute bands. He is also the only one of the five keyboard players to have officially become full members of the Grateful Dead not to have died a horribly premature death. I mention this here because this is another of the many difficulties I have had putting this episode together, and another reason I have to let my own personality intrude in this episode and actually talk in it about the writing process. Normally when something happens over and over again to a band or artist, it becomes part of the structure of an episode or even a series of episodes. I can turn it into a neat pattern or a running joke. Oh look, here’s another Ink Spots intro that sounds the same. Oh look, another band has turned Rod Stewart down. Every instinct in my body as a writer tells me to do the same with the Grateful Dead’s keyboard players. Every instinct as a human being tells me that to make light of the tragic deaths of four men who still have loved ones who are alive and might hear this episode would be abhorrent and monstrous. I have had to put in considerable effort with the structuring of this episode so that that does *not* become a running joke. But still, it is something that will repeat several times in the remainder of the episode.
But Tom Constanten is alive, and we can be thankful for that.
The time Constanten was in the band is considered by many fans to be the group’s most interesting period as a live act (though there are partisans for various other points in their career), and it is certainly the most experimental period in the studio, and the change from the latter is part of the reason he left. When he had joined the group, psychedelia had been at its height, and every band wanted to push the limits of what could be done in the studio. But rather quickly after that, the tide had changed musically. As the Tralfamadorians among you will know from episodes 167 through 178 inclusive, and from many other episodes after that point, rock music from early 1968 entered a period, largely inspired by a band called The Band who we’ll be talking about soon, in which musicians were no longer asking Alice when she’s ten feet tall or picturing themselves on a boat on a river, but rather singing about steamboats and trains and a pastoral past.
There was a convergence of hippie psychedelia with the blues roots of many of the newer British artists, and with the country and folk roots of many American rock stars. This was paralleling a new movement in country music which had its roots in the Bakersfield Sound of people like Buck Owens, and which would later become known as Outlaw Country, but at the time was being talked of as Progressive Country. The result was that you’d have albums like the Everly Brothers’ Roots, which saw them covering the early San Francisco band the Beau Brummels and new songwriters like Randy Newman, but also country records by Glen Campbell, George Jones, Jimmie Rodgers and Merle Haggard, and giving it all a psychedelic sweetness:
[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Sing Me Back Home”]
The Grateful Dead were as swept up in this movement as anyone, and at one point Garcia was even talking about the group as now being a Bakersfield Sound group — though this seems to have been more overenthusiastic hyperbole than anything else. The Bakersfield Sound is hard to pin down, but pretty much everyone is agreed that the sound of Buck Owens and his Buckaroos is the epitome of the sound, and their tight, precise, disciplined playing, spiky Telecaster attack with few or no effects, and preference for highly-rehearsed simple clean lines, often played in unison, couldn’t be further from the Dead’s loose, individualistic, playing style, preference for Gibsons, and use of as many effects as they could:
[Excerpt: Buck Owens, “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”]
It’s hard to find examples of two guitar duos that are further apart than Buck Owens and Don Rich on the one hand and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir on the other.
That said, Garcia was sincere in his love for this music, and he’d even taken up playing the pedal steel guitar, and had formed a country band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, which at various times would also include Hart, Lesh, and very occasionally Weir, and where Garcia played pedal steel rather than electric guitar. They included many covers of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs in their early sets, though San Francisco’s looser playing style didn’t really fit the material:
[Excerpt: New Riders of the Purple Sage, “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”]
Hart would soon leave the New Riders and be replaced by Spencer Dryden of Jefferson Airplane, and Garcia would also depart after their first album, but the New Riders of the Purple Sage, who continue performing to this day, would continue to be associated with the Grateful Dead over the coming years, often acting as a support act for them.
The Grateful Dead’s stage show would still continue to involve long, improvised, jams, and those would be the things that the audience would most want to hear, but on record it was a different proposition. Garcia in particular had always loved country and folk music, and it couldn’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the studio experimentation on the last couple of albums had sent the group vastly over budget, while their friends in other bands were selling millions with albums that took a fraction of the time to record.
As Bob Weir said “From a record company standpoint and the way the media’s set up these days, it’s easier to sell songs than it is to sell improvisational long pieces. That’s one of the restrictions of the art of making a record encompasses the music, how long the piece is going to be, how appealing and how accessible it is to the audience. By accessible I mean easily understood. As opposed to John Coltrane, who played some dynamite music—I mean some really fantastic music—but he was never any superstar. And he had not much of an audience, because not many people could understand what he was playing.
It bugs you if you are playing music the best you can play it and not many people are listening. And just because you’re a performer, a performer wants people to listen. Generally, you might consider changing your material or finding a new sort of material that more people will be interested in listening to and at the same time you will be interested in playing it. That’s kind of where we settled down, at least with Workingman’s Dead.”
The new stripped-down lineup of the Grateful Dead went into the studio with a new attitude — they were going to cut an album like they had with their first record. Get it done in three weeks, keep it simple, make it about the songs. They could always be extended into jams on stage.
They went into the studios with their sound engineers Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor-Jackson, who acted as co-producers with the group. They cut simple demos of all the songs they had, and then the songs were put into a proper sequence, as the group had learned from Sgt Pepper that the flow of an album from one song to another mattered. They then went off and listened to the demo album, and rehearsed all the songs with the flow and feel of the finished album in mind.
The resulting album, Workingman’s Dead, is considered by many fans to be their first truly great studio album, and it’s one of the few that has a substantial number of defenders despite it sounding nothing like the extended jams they were known for on stage. It’s a collection of relatively concise songs — only one of them going over five minutes, and none going over six — like “Dire Wolf”, a song about fate and predestination, and how everything is predetermined, inspired partly by a viewing of the Basil Rathbone version of The Hound of the Baskervilles on TV, though little of that inspiration shows up in the finished song:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dire Wolf”]
The influence of the Bakersfield sound on that track is very noticeable, but Tralfamadorians will also notice that the records we looked at in episodes 172 and 192 were hugely influential on the group’s sound at this point. In particular, the Dead’s newfound attention to their harmony vocals, on this album and the next one, was a conscious attempt to copy their friends Crosby, Stills, and Nash. As Weir put it “we’ve been hanging out with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, particularly, and listening to them sing together, and just blown out by the fact that they really can sing together; and we began to realize that we had been neglecting our own vocal presentation for instrumental presentation. And so we started working on our vocal arrangements, and choral arrangements. As it turned out, the next record we did had a lot of that on it. And it represented a marked change from the way we had sounded in the past, though none of us had really given it any thought.”
The other most notable song on the album, “Casey Jones”, also indirectly has a cinematic inspiration. The film Easy Rider had been a huge hit in the counterculture, especially among the elements of it that overlapped with the Hell’s Angels and other biker groups — Robert Hunter, for example, had gone to see the film rather than go to Altamont, as he’d had a bad feeling about the concert which proved to be accurate.
That film had had a number of huge effects — it basically started the New Hollywood that would define cinema in the seventies, it made Jack Nicholson a star — but Dennis Hopper summed up the biggest when he said “The cocaine problem in the United States is really because of me. There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider it was everywhere.”
Cocaine had gone from being an unpopular, unfashionable drug to almost overnight being *the* drug of choice for people who wanted to think themselves hip. And since “cocaine” rhymes with “train”, it was inevitable that when Garcia and Hunter decided to update the legend of Casey Jones, that would get added to the legend:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Casey Jones”]
The group later disclaimed the idea that it was in some way promoting cocaine use, with Garcia in particular saying “It’s clearly an anti-coke song. The words aren’t light, good-time words—it’s just the feeling of it. We were manipulating a couple of things consciously when we put that song together. First of all, there’s a whole tradition of cocaine songs, there’s a tradition of train songs, and there’s a tradition of Casey Jones songs. And we’ve been doing a thing, ever since Aoxomoxoa, of building on a tradition that’s already there. Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.”
But the group were using cocaine a lot at this point, and initially it seemed to be a positive influence on the group, giving them additional energy in the studio. It was only later that it would start to cause real problems for them.
The new album was extremely popular with the record company. Joe Smith of Warners, when he heard it, hugged co-producer Bob Matthews and said “I can hear the vocals!” and allegedly ran into the corridors and grabbed people, ecstatically shouting “We’ve got a single! We’ve got a single!”
The single in question, “Uncle John’s Band” was edited into a single mix that Garcia later called “an atrocity”, with gaps left in the vocals where words like “goddam” were used in the unexpurgated version. Apologies for the poor sound quality of this. As far as I’m able to discover, that single edit has never been released on CD or as a download, and so I’ve had to use a vinyl rip from a YouTube channel called “scratchy 45s”:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead “Uncle John’s Band (single mix)”]
But it did give the group their first entry onto the Hot One Hundred, making number sixty-nine on the charts. And the album itself did even better, making number twenty-seven on the album charts. After a string of flops, this new version of the Grateful Dead looked like they might be on to a winner.
And they needed one. The group were also busily rearranging their management team. Rock Scully would still be involved, but from this point on he was an advisor paid by the record label rather than being on the band’s payroll himself. But the big change, and the one that meant they needed money, was that Lenny Hart had been revealed to have been stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the band. He disappeared with their money, and there was some talk of sending Hell’s Angels after him to get the money back, but Garcia, who despite his passivity and unwillingness to take a formal leadership role was always informally accepted as their leader, decided that his karma would probably get him so they didn’t need to take any action.
In early 1970, the group played the Fillmore supported by Miles Davis, who had just released his Bitches’ Brew album, which was the most influential album on the new genre of jazz-rock:
[Excerpt: Miles Davis, “Great Expectations”]
The group were all amazed by Davis, and his performance renewed their interest in improvisation, though they were still for the moment even more interested in writing the kind of songs that would earn them enough money that they could make back the money Lenny Hart had stolen. They went on a big multi-artist tour across Canada with Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy and others, all travelling by train, but the shows were disrupted by protestors who insisted that they should all be playing for free, not for money, and who were storming one of the venues, with thousands of people trying to get in for free.
Garcia eventually managed to calm the protests by organising a free show in a park, with some of the acts including the Dead playing both shows, but he — understandably — resented this. He said of the protests “I think the musician’s first responsibility is to play music as well as he can, and that’s the most important thing. And any responsibility to anyone else is just journalistic fiction, or political fiction. Because that [bullshit] about “the people’s music,” man—where’s that at, what’s that supposed to mean? It wasn’t any “people” who sat with me while I learned to play the guitar. I mean, who paid the dues? I mean, if “the people” think that way, they can [fucking] make their own music. And besides, when somebody says “people,” to me it means everybody. It means cops, the guys who drive the limousine, the [fucker] who runs the elevator. Everybody.”
Much of the tour was spent with Janis Joplin trying to persuade the Grateful Dead, who other than Pig Pen were not big drinkers, to get drunk with her. She succeeded, but they got their revenge by spiking her and her band on the last day of the tour with acid. According to at least one book, the vector for the acid was Janis’ birthday cake, which was shared with a number of members of the Calgary Police Department.
Some of the bands on the tour actually decided it would be a plan to hijack the train and drive it down to San Francisco after the tour, but luckily rather than “driving that train high on cocaine” they realised that the power had been switched off when they got to their destination, so they had no way to get it to move.
While the group were still playing big, multi-act, events like this though, they had also started a new style of touring, one that was designed to maximise money and also give them the time to play all the music they wanted.
Where up to this point the norm for a Grateful Dead show had been for them to go on as part of a bill with two or three other acts, now they started touring as “An Evening With the Grateful Dead”. The show would start with a performance by the “acoustic Dead”, performing largely their new song-oriented material:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “I Know You Rider (Harpur College Binghamton)”]
That would follow with a performance by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, featuring Garcia and Hart, and then to finish off an electric set — or sometimes a show broken into two sets — featuring as wide a variety of songs as they could fit in, from their long jams like “The Other One”:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “The Other One (Harpur College Binghamton)”]
To covers of James Brown songs:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “It’s a Man’s World (Harpur College Binghamton)”]
These shows would last for five hours, and would require no other bands, just the Dead and the people in their immediate circle. This made them both more artistically fulfilling and, crucially, more fiscally rewarding, than playing on a package with other bands.
And these shows went along with another innovation, one that came from Rock Scully, and which eventually changed everything for the Dead, who at this point were an act with no hit singles and only one moderately-successful album, in a world where record sales and radio play were all.
The Tralfamadorians among you have obviously heard other episodes in which I talk about the rise of FM radio, but in brief, frequency modulation, or FM, was an alternative way of transmitting radio to amplitude modulation, or AM, which had been the norm up until the late sixties and would remain important for a long time to come. Because of the bands allocated to the different types of radio in most countries, AM radio could be broadcast for thousands of miles, while FM radio could only be heard dozens of miles away at most, and so AM dominated among the big commercial broadcasters, while FM was at this point mostly only used by small community radio stations, college stations and the like.
But those stations were more likely to play obscure music than the big stations were, and they could also take advantage of one big difference that FM radio had — there was a consistent standard for broadcasting stereo in FM, while at the time AM radio could only be broadcast in mono.
This made those small community stations perfect for a new format, Album Oriented Radio, which went on to define what in America is now known as “classic rock”. Those stations didn’t have to worry about pleasing massive audiences, so they could play stereo album tracks rather than just singles, which were only released in mono. And they also started broadcasting concerts. Indeed, one show at the Winterland Arena on October the fourth 1970 became the first ever *quadrophonic* broadcast, as two different FM stations, KQED and KSAN, both broadcast different simultaneous stereo mixes that you could play together (though here you’re only going to hear it in mono of course):
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Till the Morning Comes (Live at Winterland Arena on 1970-10-04)”]
And this — broadcasting of live shows — became the Grateful Dead’s salvation. Because as Sam Cutler, their road manager, who joined them from the Rolling Stones after Altamont, said “There was a way in which FM radio could be used to reach markets that hadn’t been touched.
So, for example, in Pennsylvania, you wanted to do a gig at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, which holds 18,000 people. The promoter would say, “We’d love to put you on at the Spectrum, but you aren’t even going to sell eight hundred tickets.” So how do we get this exposed to enough people that they can sell out the Spectrum? One of the keys to that was FM radio and college radio stations. We took Pennsylvania as a market area, and worked on playing at different colleges where there were 15,000 to 20,000 resident people, and used the FM radio station in that market to reach more people. You play in the state universities of Pennsylvania in order that when you play in a Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, people actually come to you. They’re drawn to you, and they know about you. Then you broadcast live for free. That just snowballed. The band, in those four years, went from not selling very many tickets to being very successful.”
These radio broadcasts meant that over a period of a couple of years, the Grateful Dead went from playing to a few hundred people at most, anywhere but San Francisco, New York, and a couple of other major cities, to playing to huge crowds of thousands. And those broadcasts also started to be taped, and people started making copies of the tapes for their friends…
By 1971 this success was already causing problems of its own, with Garcia saying “The Grateful Dead has become incredibly popular and we can’t play a small hall anymore without having 3,000 people outside wanting to get in. Our classic situation the last six months has been people breaking down the doors and just coming in. We have to play 7,000 to 10,000 seats to be able to get people in at a reasonable price. Just to do it. It’s weird.
Here’s what we’re wondering: Do we really want to do that? When it comes down to it, we’re just heads. We’re not interested in creating a lot of [fucking] trouble and being superstars and all that [shit]. We’re just playing, getting off, out to have a good time and giving it all a chance to happen. And all of a sudden there are all these problems making it more difficult to do, and it’s getting to be where it’s not fun. We have to play shows like some military campaigns just to make sure the equipment guys don’t have to be fighting thousands of people to save the [shit].”
But back in 1970 it’s a plan to save the band financially at all. Although at that point the hope of commercial success in recordings was also still alive. Indeed, right after the release of Workingman’s Dead, the group went into the studio to record another album, one that would generally be considered the closest thing they came to a studio masterpiece:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Ripple”]
American Beauty was an album that was haunted by parental loss. There was the loss of Mickey Hart’s father from the group’s management, of course, an estrangement that hurt him deeply. But in August 1970 Garcia’s mother was in a car crash, and died in hospital of her injuries a month later, and at the same time Lesh’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. So it goes.
But rather than wallow, the band made their most optimistic album, and the most collaborative studio album they’d made to that point. They threw themselves into their work to distract themselves from their problems, and gathered as many of their friends around them as they could. Friends of theirs like Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, Neil Young, and Carlos Santana were all recording in the same studio complex around that time, and Lesh described it as “jammer heaven”. Those musicians weren’t included in the sessions themselves — though various members of the New Riders and other, less famous, friends of the band contributed additional instruments — but they were around, and added to a family feeling for the sessions.
And while the previous two albums had been made up almost entirely of songs by Garcia and Hunter, the other band members contributed songs to American Beauty. The album opened with a song whose music Lesh wrote for his dying father, with lyrics by Hunter, and which featured Lesh’s first lead vocal and guest appearances by a couple of members of the New Riders of the Purple Sage:
[Excerpt: Grateful Dead, “Box of Rain”]
In 1995 that became the last song the Grateful Dead ever played live.
The album also featured another song that would become a live favourite, “Sugar Magnolia”, written by Weir and Hunter:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Sugar Magnolia”]
And what turned out to be Pig Pen’s only solo songwriting credit on a Grateful Dead album, “Operator”:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Operator”]
Almost all the rest of the album was made up of Garcia and Hunter collaborations (with John Dawson of the New Riders collaborating with them on “Friend of the Devil”).
But the song that was chosen as the single — and once again released in a single edit, though this time that single has been included on official CD releases — is the song that for the next eighteen years at least would be their most well-known song, and that had music that evolved out of a jam between Garcia, Weir, and Lesh. The lyrics to “Truckin'” were written by Hunter after he went out on tour with the band for the first time and got to experience what life on the road was like:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Truckin’ (single edit)”]
From this point on, Hunter would be a regular backstage presence, as he was considered a non-performing member of the band. Indeed the backstage areas of Dead shows were growing somewhat crowded, as the band’s crew became larger, and as more and more people got admitted to the Grateful Dead “family”.
“Truckin'” was another minor hit like “Casey Jones” had been, reaching number sixty-four, and the album also made the top thirty. The group weren’t having massive hit records, but they were doing much better than they had been.
Over the next few months, in between gigs, the band members, particularly Garcia and Hart, spent a lot of time in Wally Heider’s studio, where they had recorded American Beauty, with the friends who had created that “jammer heaven”. Garcia, Hart, and Kreutzmann all added parts to tracks on Blows Against the Empire, the science fiction concept album by members of Jefferson Airplane that became the first Jefferson Starship album, and which also featured David Crosby and Graham Nash:
[Excerpt: Jefferson Starship, “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite”]
Garcia, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and Hart also guested on several tracks on David Crosby’s album If I Could Only Remember My Name, which also featured Neil Young, Nash, several of Jefferson Airplane, and Joni Mitchell:
[Excerpt: David Crosby, “What Are Their Names?”]
And Garcia and Lesh guested on Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners, which also featured Crosby, Young, and John Barbata, the former Turtles drummer who had just been working with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and would soon join Jefferson Airplane:
[Excerpt: Graham Nash, “I Used to Be a King”]
This music was all, as you can hear, very much in the same area as the two Grateful Dead albums of 1970, all acoustic guitar and pedal steel and vocal harmonies.
But live, the group were still spending at least as much of their time playing long pieces like “Dark Star” as they were the more commercial songs:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star (live at Port Chester, NY)”]
That performance of “Dark Star”,which many fans of the group consider the best ever, is a historic one. That would be the last time that Pig Pen and Mickey Hart would both play on the same stage together. February the eighteenth 1971 was the last performance by the lineup of the Grateful Dead that had made their most successful records.
Mickey Hart had taken his father’s betrayal of the group very, very badly. While almost all the group were having drug problems at this time — everyone except Pig Pen was using cocaine, and Pig Pen’s alcohol dependency had by this point become even worse than the other members’ more illicit habits — Hart was spiralling. According to Kreutzmann’s autobiography, Hart had developed a serious heroin habit at this point, and according to everyone he was depressed and feeling guilty over the way his father had betrayed the people he thought of as his brothers.
Things came to a head on the eighteenth of February. Hart was simply too much of a mess, mentally, to play. Luckily for the group, they had a hypnotist on hand — they were playing a short residency, and as part of that run of shows they were taking part in an ESP experiment where the audience tried to send images to a sleeping experimental recipient elsewhere. The hypnotist managed to get Hart into a state to play that show, and then he was driven back to his mother’s house, where he was medicated and slept for three days.
The group continued with Kreutzmann as their only drummer. But there was another change that happened that week, during the same run of shows. Bob Weir had been writing more music, and had of course been collaborating with the band’s resident lyricist, Hunter. But Hunter thought that Weir was showing disrespect for his lyrics — though Weir argued no more so than Garcia did.
Backstage they got into a fight over the way the band were now playing “Sugar Magnolia”, which had started out as a gentle country song but by this point had evolved into a fast rocker, and Weir would sometimes improvise new words:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Sugar Magnolia (live at Port Chester, NY)”]
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
That’s from A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, by John Perry Barlow, from 1996.
Backstage after the show was Weir’s old friend John Perry Barlow, who by this time was a part-time writer who’d taken an advance for a novel he had no intention of writing and had used it to travel the world before becoming a cocaine dealer — the capacity in which he was backstage. He was just about to travel to his family’s ranch in Wyoming, because his father was ill and would die the next year. So it goes. Barlow would spend the next twenty years running the family business and living out his cowboy fantasies — fantasies that would also appear in a lot of the writing he would do over that time period. He would also get very involved in Republican politics, including helping run Dick Cheney’s first Senatorial campaign.
Much of Barlow’s writing would end up being scripts for films that were never made, but for which Barlow was nonetheless paid, but the work he would become best known for — at least up until his promotion in the nineties into the position of leading propagandist for Internet anarchocapitalism and the Californian ideology — was started backstage in February 1971.
Hunter and Weir were having an argument about Weir’s attitude to Hunter’s lyrics, and Hunter turned to Barlow and after determining that Barlow had written poetry in college and thus could presumably write lyrics, said “Take him, he’s yours.”
From that point on there were two main songwriting teams for the Grateful Dead — Hunter and Garcia and Barlow and Weir.
1971 continued to be a year of changes and loss. Over the spring, both of Weir’s parents died — each on the other’s birthday. So it goes. And while Bill Graham would continue to be the promoter who booked many of the Dead’s most prominent gigs, the move in the rock world from bands playing theatres to amphitheatres and stadiums meant that his venues were no longer economical for him to operate, and so the Fillmores East and West, the two venues that had been most welcoming for the Dead, announced their closure.
The bands who played the Fillmore East in its last weeks tended to bring on special guests to make the event special — the Mothers of Invention brought John Lennon and Yoko Ono on, for example — and the Grateful Dead were no exception, bringing another famous Californian band out to play a few of their own hits, and to jam on songs that both bands often included in their respective sets, like “Riot in Cell Block #9”, “Johnny B Goode”, and Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee”:
[Excerpt: The Beach Boys and the Grateful Dead, “Okie From Muskogee”]
As the Tralfamadorians among us heard in episode 177, the Beach Boys were at a low ebb in their fortunes at this time, and the endorsement of the Grateful Dead helped them gain the appreciation of a hip college audience, which was a major part in the revival of their fortunes in the seventies.
By contrast, at the group’s last performance at the Fillmore West, which was being filmed for Bill Graham’s documentary The Last Days of the Fillmore, was so bad that they asked that none of it be used in the film, though Graham eventually persuaded them to let him use performances of “Casey Jones” and “Johnny B Goode”:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Johnny B. Goode (Last Days of the Fillmore)”]
Garcia was asked about that show the next year and said “We struggled to avoid getting into the movie because it was like really a notably bad night for us and the tapes were a drag, and everybody was out of tune and everything, and we were – it was that thing of not having played for a couple of weeks, you know, three or four weeks we’d been in the studio… But finally Graham just hassled us and hassled us and we finally went for it. We doctored ’em up a bit.”
That said, while the band were notably out of tune at points during the show, it wasn’t a completely meritless one — indeed, a little over an hour of that show (not including the two songs used in the Fillmore film, recently got a release as a bonus disc on the fiftieth anniversary deluxe edition of the band’s next album.
That album was a double-disc live album recorded mostly at the group’s Fillmore East shows over the spring, and consisting, other than an extended version of “The Other One”, largely of cover versions of blues, rockabilly, and country songs:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Me and Bobby McGee (Skull and Roses)”]
While that was billed as a live album, it actually had quite a few overdubs. Pig Pen’s playing had been increasingly erratic, and he had become severely ill, suffering from delirium tremens. He’d started to cut down on the drinking, but he’d still ended up in the hospital in September, where he was treated for a perforated ulcer and hepatitis. Given Pig Pen’s condition, organ parts were overdubbed on three of the songs by Garcia’s friend and occasional performance partner Merl Saunders.
The album caused a major problem between the group and their record label. Not because it was a second double-live album — that made sense, especially given there was no overlap in the repertoire on the two albums. No, the problem was the group’s chosen title — Skull[fuck].
Warner Brothers were adamant that you couldn’t release an album with a title like Skull[fuck]. You simply couldn’t use the word [fuck], or any of the other seven words you can’t say on television or in a podcast with a clean rating, in a title and expect it to be stocked on shelves. The group were equally adamant that it couldn’t be called anything else. Eventually Warners asked for a meeting about this. The group agreed, but said that as they were a democracy the meeting had to involve *everyone* in their organisation. All fifty-five of them.
Eventually the meeting hammered out a compromise — the album would go out without a title, just labelled “Grateful Dead”, which was taken as its title — all the true Deadheads continued referring to it by its original name, f-word intact, while almost everyone else ended up referring to it as “Skull and Roses” after the cover image, to stop it being confused with their eponymous studio album from a few years earlier. In return for this concession, Warners agreed to give it a huge marketing budget, and it became their first album to go gold:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Big Railroad Blues”]
As 1971 came to an end, the group had a further change in lineup. Donna Jean Godchaux had been a member of a vocal group called Southern Comfort, who had become the go-to session backing singers at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, and we actually heard her singing in the episode before last:
[Excerpt: Johnny Jenkins, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”]
She had also recorded backing vocals in several other studios in the South, including, as the Tralfamadorians among you will remember, on Elvis’ number one hit “Suspicious Minds”:
[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds”]
(Incidentally, and as a sign of the kind of reason this episode took so very long to do, every source on the Grateful Dead I’ve read uses phrasing like “she’d been part of a female vocal group in her teens and worked as a session singer in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she performed on such records as Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”” — “Suspicious Minds” was famously recorded at American Sound Studios in Memphis, not in Muscle Shoals, with some extra work by Felton Jarvis in Las Vegas afterwards. This meant I had to take time out to find a source for Godchaux being on the record that *didn’t* trace back to a source on the Grateful Dead. But she’s credited under her maiden name in Ernst Jorgenson’s book on Elvis’ sessions, so anyone else who has that problem in future can relax).
She had given up on session work and moved to California, where she met her husband, Keith Godchaux. Keith was a resentful lounge pianist who was playing muzak he didn’t like, but who desperately wanted to be playing modal jazz and bebop. However, after Donna Jean saw the Grateful Dead live, both of them became interested in the group, even though neither had any background in the Dead’s kind of music. One day, a friend of theirs suggested they put on a Grateful Dead album, and Keith said he’d rather be playing the music than listening to it.
That gave Donna-Jean an idea. She took Keith to one of the small duo gigs that Garcia played when the Dead weren’t playing — Garcia would pretty much constantly perform live every chance he could get. This one was a performance with the jazz keyboard player Howard Wales, with whom Garcia had recently recorded the duo album Hooteroll:
[Excerpt: Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales, “Uncle Martin’s”]
She grabbed Garcia between sets and told him “this is your new keyboard player”.
What she didn’t know, of course, was that Pig Pen was in the hospital and increasingly in no state to play even when he wasn’t. Indeed, they’d actually tried auditioning Howard Wales, but come to the conclusion that while they liked his playing, they brought the worst out of each other — the group egging Wales on to be too experimental, and him doing likewise for the group.
Garcia got Keith in to audition, first just for him, and then bringing in first Kreutzmann and then the whole band. Keith Godchaux was now the Grateful Dead’s main keyboard player, though Pig Pen would still perform whenever he was well enough, and to the extent he could. Keith’s playing was considered revelatory at this time — he’s been compared to the legendary Nashville session player Floyd Cramer for his playing on the country tunes, and called “a cross between Chick Corea and Little Richard” for his more experimental playing.
Within a few months, Donna Jean would also join on backing and occasional lead vocals, becoming the only woman ever to be a member of the group.
The new expanded lineup of the group got ready to head out on the road for their first tour of Europe, but before they did, there were some solo albums to get released:
[Excerpt: Jerry Garcia, “Deal”]
The band’s contract with Warners allowed them to make solo albums, and Jerry Garcia’s first true solo album, simply titled Garcia, had a simple motivation behind it — he wanted to buy a house, and if he turned in an album relatively cheaply, the advance would be enough for a downpayment on one. As he said later, there was a reason that the first track on the album was called “Deal” while the last was “The Wheel” — the album was him wheeling and dealing for a house. So in the summer it had been decided that Garcia and Weir would both do solo albums.
Garcia’s solo album was actually recorded in July 1971, before Pig Pen’s illness worsened. Garcia was a perfectionist in the studio and wanted to make an album where he had total control — somewhat in the same spirit as Roy Wood’s Boulders, although Garcia couldn’t play drums or write lyrics, so there were a whole six people in the studio some of the time — Garcia himself, playing everything except drums; the Dead’s sound engineers Bob and Betty; Ramrod the guitar tech who everyone regarded as at least as much a part of the Dead’s spirit as any band member — sort of the Dead’s equivalent of Mal Evans or Neil Aspinall, and who was given the job of co-producing the album, in part to give him an extra payday; Kreutzmann on drums; and Robert Hunter to write the lyrics.
The album was recorded at Wally Heider’s studio, where the Dead and most of their friends regularly recorded, the “jam heaven” we talked about earlier, so to discourage the kind of party atmosphere that led to fun times but expensive records, they put up a sign saying “Anita Bryant Session” — Bryant was a moderately-successful middle-of-the-road singer who had been heavily involved in campaigns to prosecute the Doors for indecency, and is now best known for being a raging homophobic bigot whose campaigns against gay people in the seventies featured exactly the same kind of language and accusations her ideological fellows are currently weaponising against trans people today. Nobody wants to spend time around anyone like that, and so the sessions were safe from interruption.
The album was later more or less dismissed by Garcia, and it was disliked by the record label because even on the new album-oriented stations it was unlikely that the commercial tracks would get played — there were plenty of commercial sounding tracks, like “The Wheel”:
[Excerpt: Jerry Garcia, “The Wheel”]
But interspersed with those songs on the album were things like “Spidergawd”:
[Excerpt: Jerry Garcia, “Spidergawd”]
And the album was mastered without much gap between the tracks, meaning that DJs cueing up a singalong that wasn’t a million miles away from the stuff the Eagles would soon be having hits with might inadvertently get a blast of Varese-alike musique concrete.
Bob Weir’s solo album, recorded around February 1972, had a very different story. While Garcia was so musically fecund that he could just turn out new songs in the studio, Weir had to be encouraged by Garcia to write at all, but by all accounts Garcia, who hated the responsibility that came with leadership and refused to take it even though everyone around him insisted that he was the leader of the group, wanted to encourage the band to have another focus other than just him.
Weir’s first solo album, Ace, came together in something of a rush. He had studio time set aside for the album, but had almost no songs, and drove up to Barlow’s ranch for a frenetic writing session that led to a collection of songs that ended up almost all becoming staples of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire:
[Excerpt: Bob Weir, “Cassidy”]
Weir and Barlow found writing together much more congenial than Weir and Hunter had. Often the process was far more collaborative than the simple music/lyrics split that Weir had had with Hunter — Weir would bring Barlow just a chord sequence with no melody line, Barlow would come up with lyrics and sing them over the chord sequence, coming up with a melody line as he did so, and then Weir would rework Barlow’s melody line into something different, while also changing the lyrics around and adding new ones.
The album did include two songs that Weir had already written with Hunter and erstwhile Dead drummer Mickey Hart, “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Playing in the Band” :
[Excerpt: Bob Weir, “Playing in the Band”]
That had actually already appeared in live form on the Skull and Roses album, and Hart also did a version of that song on his own first solo album, released towards the end of 1972. There’s also one song credited to Weir on his own, “One More Saturday Night”, though apparently that started as a collaboration with Hunter before Weir rewrote it to get rid of Hunter’s contributions.
But the rest of the album is Weir and Barlow, and mostly shows the particular ideas of freedom that Barlow brought to the group — he was equally influenced by the idea of cowboys and the Old West and the modern-day Easy Rider style bikers who would head out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever came their way. People who lived free of government interference and age of consent laws, where men could be men and live as Americans should:
[Excerpt: Bob Weir, “Mexicali Blues”]
While Ace was released as a Bob Weir album, it is in fact a Grateful Dead album, and the single “One More Saturday Night” was released as by “The Grateful Dead with Bobby Ace”. Weir initially started recording the album without the rest of the band other than Kreutzmann — Dave Torbert, the bass player for the New Riders of the Purple Sage, contributed to the opening song — but soon Rock Scully persuaded him that the easiest way to make the album would just be to persuade his bandmates to record it with him.
Other than Pig Pen, who wasn’t well enough to join them, all the other members of the Dead at the time — Garcia, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and the Godschauxes — contributed to the album, and other than Torbert’s bass on “Greatest Story Ever Told” and some string and horn parts, all the parts on the album are played and sung by Grateful Dead members. It’s just as much a Grateful Dead album as any of the group’s previous studio albums, and contains as many of the songs that they became known for as any of the others:
[Excerpt: Bob Weir, “One More Saturday Night”]
The comic strip Dilbert, by Scott Adams, became in the 1990s a touchstone for a whole generation of tech workers, especially in the Bay Area, as the titular character, named by one of Adams’ colleagues at Pacific Bell, the San Francisco-based telephone company that at that time was moving into computer networking and was a hotbed of the San Francisco hacker culture, came to symbolise the struggles of the software engineers who were being kept down and in their place by the pointy-haired boss, who didn’t understand as much as the engineers he was in charge of. The message of the comic at that time was that the people in charge should step aside and let the people who knew what they were talking about — the people who really knew computers — do their thing.
In more recent years, the comic started to present the boss as a more and more sympathetic figure, and more of the jokes became about attacking what Adams would refer to as “wokeness”, such as consideration for people of colour, trans people, and so on. Eventually this year the strip was cancelled — in the actual, not metaphorical, sense — as Adams was videoed making explicitly white-separatist remarks.
The Dead’s trip to Europe in 1972 saw Pig Pen returning to the group. He was still very, very ill, and could no longer drink alcohol at all — and obviously he had not been taking recreational drugs anyway. He was very withdrawn, but apparently his gentle character shone through even more on that trip than normally. Pig Pen was pretty much universally considered the nicest person in the band, even though he was the scariest-looking of the band. While the others mostly looked like cuddly hippies but could be utterly cold-minded when they needed to be for the good of the band, Pig Pen was regarded by everyone who spoke about him in later decades as being practically a saint.
That’s not really the case for the people he was hanging around with though. On the European tour, Pig Pen chose to spend most of the time with the crew rather than his bandmates, and the Grateful Dead were getting a reputation as having a crew you didn’t want to mess with. The group’s sound and lighting system were getting much more complex and much more physically difficult to get in place, and they were attracting the kind of crew who had to be good at quickly and efficiently dealing with physical problems.
The crew also had to deal with all the other problems that the rock stars didn’t want to know about, and thus essentially became enforcers. There are lots of stories in this period of crew members cutting the microphone cords of people in the audience taping the shows, and of Sam Cutler threatening promoters with guns to make them pay up (though Cutler always denied those stories and said he’d never owned a gun).
They were temperamentally very different from the band members — the iron fist around which the velvet glove of the band were wrapped — and so a certain amount of natural separation happened. On the European tour there were two buses, and while there was no formal rule as to who sat where, and people could travel on whichever they wished, one bus had almost all the band, other than Pig Pen, and a couple of the crew, while the other mostly had the crew, plus Pig Pen.
As is the way of things, the two buses developed two ostensible characters, and the people on them got nicknames. The people on the band bus were “Bozos”, partly because they sometimes wore clown masks to freak out the people of Europe as they drove past, and partly after I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus, a comedy science fiction album by the Firesign Theater parodying futurism, religious creation myths, artificial intelligence, and the idea of government by machines:
[Excerpt: The Firesign Theater, “I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus”]
The people on the other bus, by contrast, were Bolos. And over the course of the trip, Robert Hunter worked out a complex fake religion in the tradition of other comedy religions like Bokononism or Discordianism which were popular in the part of the counterculture that overlapped with science fiction fandom.
This religion, whose patron saint was St. Dilbert, saw Bozos and Bolos as two necessary opposing forces like yin and yang. Hunter named the religion Hypnocracy, as a parody of Technocracy, a movement that had reached its height of popularity in the 1930s but still clings on to life to this day, and to which a friend of Garcia belonged.
Technocracy was a huge influence on Golden Age science fiction, particularly on writers who came up through John W Campbell’s editing of Astounding magazine, like Theodore Sturgeon, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert A. Heinlein, and held a lot of beliefs, but primarily that society should be organised scientifically, with scientists and technicians and engineers in charge, not politicians.
This idea didn’t tend to appeal to actual scientists, who could see the flaws in the argument, but did appeal to cranks who thought of themselves as scientists, and for a while had quite a widespread following in North America. The leader of the Technocracy movement in Canada, for example, was one Joshua Haldeman, a former rodeo performer turned chiropractor who later went on to campaign against Coca-Cola, before moving his family to apartheid South Africa because he thought Canada was morally degenerate. His thinking appears to have had an influence on his grandson, Elon Musk, a follower of the Californian Ideology who tweeted in 2019 that he was “accelerating Starship development to build the Martian Technocracy.”
Obviously ridiculous people like this deserved mockery, and soon Hypnocracy became the philosophy of the people on the tour — at least those on the Bozo bus.
The European tour was regarded by everyone involved as one of the great experiences of their lives, and the group were playing better than ever before. Many fans consider their performance of “Dark Star” in Dusseldorf to be one of their finest ever:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star (Dusseldorf 1972)”]
While others point to the performance from London on the same tour:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star (Wembley, April 1972) “]
By this point “Dark Star” had become a massive event, something audiences looked forward to. You didn’t get it every show, but when you did you knew you were going to get something special. It was considered something rather apart from the group’s other material. Lesh once said “Dark Star is always playing somewhere. All we do is tap into it.”
The group were all, other than Pig Pen, playing at their best, and band members have all especially pointed out how well Kreutzmann was playing at the time. Hart’s departure had freed Kreutzmann up — when you have two drummers, each drummer has to stay in sync with the other, and can’t make the tiny adjustments to tempo and feel that a single drummer has the freedom to do. Lesh later said “Billy played like a young god. I mean, he was everywhere on the drums, and just kickin’ our butts every which way, which is what drummers live to do, you know.”
Donna Jean agreed, saying “Billy was so there with what the Grateful Dead’s music was all about; he was always postured to play anything. He never set down a 2 and 4 that you couldn’t get away from; Billy’s left and right arm were always postured at any millisecond to take that rhythm anywhere that it needed to go. That’s the beauty of Billy Kreutzmann’s playing. He played like a dancer.”
Of course, a massive touring operation like the Grateful Dead’s was expensive to bring across to Europe, and the only sensible way they could do it was to release yet another live album — this time a triple one. Although Europe ’72 is, while often considered the pinnacle of the group’s work, not exactly live.
The group were pleased with their instrumental playing, but not with their vocals, and so most of the vocals on the album were rerecorded in the studio back in the US — but not done the conventional way, with the band members using headphones and singing into the mic. Instead, to make sure that the vocal tracks sounded as they would have live, with instrumental bleed-through to make them fit the ambience, the group’s entire stage setup was replicated in the studio, with the amps positioned as they would normally be and the mics spaced exactly as they would be in a live performance. The instruments were played back through the same amps they’d used on stage, and the group redid their parts, including a couple of vocals from Pig Pen:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “It Hurts Me Too”]
Those would be his last contributions to a Grateful Dead record. He played only one show with the group after the European tour, in June, and then he stayed at home, trying to get well. As Bob Weir would later explain “Pig Pen had been slowing down and gradually getting sicker, and his musical output was tapering, so by the time he had to stay off the road, he hadn’t been contributing that much so it didn’t have that major an impact. Coincidentally, I started to hit my stride around the same time, and with Pig Pen sick, there was a need for me to do more.”
While he was at home, he was working on some songs for a possible solo album, or maybe to contribute to the next Dead album. But as it turned out, they would never see release. Pig Pen died, alone, at home, of an internal haemmorage brought on by too much alcohol consumption, on the eighth of March 1973. So it goes.
He was twenty-seven. And this leads me to another thing I need to say. There is an utterly pernicious concept called the twenty-seven club, based around the fact that several musicians died at that age. We’ve already seen one of these, Jesse Belvin, but we’re sadly going to see a number more of them between now and episode two hundred, including one next episode. Various conspiracies and attempts at adding mystical significance have become attached to this idea — an idea which has no basis in truth. Musicians, even famous ones, are no more likely to die aged twenty-seven than at any other age. But there *is* some suggestion that some of the later ones, especially those who died by suicide or overdose, were motivated in part by the romanticising of these deaths.
So I want to say clearly, this is the *only* time I will ever mention the “27 Club”. Like the Grateful Dead’s keyboard players dying, this is not a fun pattern that one can play enjoyable games with, this is talented, often troubled, young people, scarcely more than children, dying in horrible ways. I will have no part, however small, in adding to the belief that great art requires self-destruction or that one should die young and leave a beautiful corpse.
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “It Hurts Me Too”]
Pig Pen’s death was, in many ways, the end of the Grateful Dead as they had been to that point. But there were other changes afoot. The group had decided to set up their own record label, Grateful Dead Records. Initially this was planned to be something that would allow the group to be totally independent and be distributed entirely through channels other than the mainstream record industry.
As Garcia said “It’s dumb to complain about all that record company [bullshit]. I mean, if you’re enough of an [asshole] to stick it up where they can shoot at it, you can’t complain for getting shot. It was our blunder and we’ve been living with our mistake all these years. Now, hopefully we’re free to make our own mistakes.”
As it turned out, their own mistakes would be just as bad as any that Warners had made, and Grateful Dead Records would shut down in 1976. It would later be revived in the nineties as an archive label. But it did mean that the band were in total control of their next few studio albums, with no oversight, which led to unfortunate missteps like Weir and Barlow’s “Money Money”, a song which complains about women being gold-diggers, but also about feminism:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Money Money”]
In truth, the group’s studio albums were increasingly becoming afterthoughts — as Garcia said in 1973 “There are a lot of people on our payroll, and we can’t really count that much on record royalties to take care of business. The live shows we do are the main source of income for the band, and we’ve been playing an awful lot to pay off our overhead.”
Part of the reason for starting Grateful Dead Records had been to try to increase their share of the revenue from the records, but as it turned out they wanted neither to be in the record business nor to be in the studio. The group recorded six studio albums between 1973 and 1981, and of course as with every band of their size some of them have their ardent defenders, but even among that relatively small portion of Grateful Dead fans who defend their studio work, most agree that their great period in the studio ended with American Beauty.
But the band was becoming very successful on tour, and developing a devoted fanbase. They were helped in this by the packaging of the Skull and Roses album, which included a message saying “Dead freaks unite. Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed.”
Within a couple of years, the group had a mailing list of forty thousand people, who got sent “Dead Head Newsletters” (which popularised the term “Deadhead”) which of course contained information about tour dates and new releases, but which also included the kind of stuff that bands would now have on their social media pages, the kind of thing that builds what is now called a parasocial relationship. Hunter was particularly involved in this, creating cartoons and anecdotes about Hypnocracy and the teachings of St. Dilbert, many of which involve him giving “hot foots”, a kind of practical joke that involves setting the victim’s shoes on fire when they’re not looking.
Many of these stories also said a lot about the band’s attitude to authority and to the kind of people who looked to them for authority, as in one that reads “St. Dilbert was walking in the market one day when up staggered a Bozo to ask his opinion on whether the king, Who had been caught with his hand in exchequer, ought to abdicate, be deposed, have his hand cut off, or be given a medal. With very little pondering, the Dilbert is said to have replied: “You Bozos slay me. You pick a king who best represents the sum of your individual lameness to rule you, and then complain because he has a big red nose.” While considering this reply, the Bozo smelled smoke, and looking down realized that the Dilbert had, once again, placed a lighted match between his toes.”
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Grayfolded”]
Even though they were only a middling success on record, the group were becoming ridiculously successful, to the extent that in 1973, on a bill with the Band and the Allman Brothers Band in Watkins Glen, they played to an audience which for decades held the Guinness record for the largest attendance at a festival ever, and according to some was the largest gathering of humans in American history to that point. The highways around the area had to be closed because of the traffic, with people making it on foot. A hundred and fifty thousand people had bought tickets, but most got in free. Estimates put the crowd size at somewhere near six hundred thousand, which if true and given the age of the people attending would mean that roughly one in every three people in their late teens and early twenties from the area stretching from Boston to New York were there.
The crowd for that event was so big that new technologies had to be introduced in the sound systems — delay lines that allowed speakers to be placed further apart to account for the speed of sound.
And this kind of thing was the problem. The group were touring to try to make money, but to play to huge crowds you needed more equipment, and if you wanted crowds of this size to hear you properly, you needed equipment that had never been developed before. Eventually Owsley and sound engineer Dan Healey came up with a system they called the Wall of Sound which would give perfect sound in any venue.
That is, in any venue it could fit in. It consisted of 641 speakers, and needed five trucks to get it to a venue. Many venues couldn’t take its weight. It also took two days to set up. Which meant that they needed *two* walls of sound, and two whole crews — one to go ahead to set up the next show while the Dead were playing one the other crew had set up.
This is a period when the shows were generally considered exceptional, but the band were supposed to be doing this to earn a living, but they found that as the audience grew, the costs associated with playing to an audience that size grew. And it just wasn’t fun any more, not least because half the band were dealing with serious cocaine problems by this point. So in October 1974 the group decided to just stop. They played a final concert at the Winterland, which was filmed for a film that Garcia later edited, and declared they were going on hiatus. Much to Kreutzmann’s chagrin, Mickey Hart turned up and was invited to rejoin them for this last show:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Eyes of the World (live at the Winterland)”]
By this time there were creative and personal splits in the band and the crew, everything from the drugs they preferred (some of the Dead were by this point trying to be clean-living while others were taking everything they could, and several people involved were annoyed by the insistence of the crew at the last show that nobody could go on stage without taking acid first) to what kind of music they should be making.
They sacked a big chunk of the crew, dismantled the Wall of Sound, and spent eighteen months off tour, only playing a small number of one-off shows. But they found that they didn’t know what to do if they weren’t touring, and ended up getting back together, with Hart in the band once more, as he would be for the rest of its career, and touring again, starting off by playing smaller venues with a smaller crew.
But something was missing. Some of the shows were as good as they’d ever been — a 1977 show at Cornell University is often cited as their best show ever:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dancing in the Street”]
And there were other shows, like a performance at the pyramids in Egypt, which were fondly remembered for reasons other than the musical.
But something about the spirit of the shows was generally lacking, which can probably be summed up best by saying that between 1976 and 1984 they only played “Dark Star” five times. When asked about it, Garcia would say that he felt that the group had said everything they could say with that song, but that they felt obliged to try it every so often just in case. The sets tended to be far more structured, with rigidly defined areas of improvisation, rather than the loose, smooth, movement between ideas of the earlier performances.
Part of the problem was that several of the band had developed heroin addictions — Garcia would struggle with his until the day he died — and part of it was that after the hiatus, Keith Godchaux’s playing no longer seemed to fit with the band the way it had. By mutual agreement, Keith and Donna left the band in February 1979, and formed their own band, but tragically Keith died in a car accident in July 1980. So it goes.
Keith’s replacement was Brent Mydland, who had played in Bob Weir’s side band Bobby and the Midnites, and he was considered a better fit, and that change led to the band being somewhat reinvigorated:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Grayfolded”]
In early 1976 Bob Weir had said “If it turns out that to avoid problems we have to play the big indoor places again, we just won’t do it. We won’t go out on the road. We’ll just stay home and make records.”
By late 1976, the Grateful Dead were playing the big indoor places again. And they continued playing bigger and bigger places.
As the group were reliant on money from live shows, of course the venues they were playing grew, and they hit upon a totally different way of making money from what anyone else in the rock business was doing at the time.
They didn’t make a studio album between 1981 and 1987, but in that time they became a bigger and bigger live act, because they finally figured out some of what was giving them a fanbase, and started to exploit it.
People had always traded tapes of Dead shows, but up until the early eighties, the group had discouraged this, as all bands did, fearing bootlegging. What they realised was that since they weren’t making much money from records anyway, traded tapes weren’t cutting into their profits much. What they *were* doing was acting as advertising for the live shows, where they *were* making money. They went from cutting the mics of tapers to setting up special “tapers areas” at shows, reserved areas where people could record the shows, so long as they only traded the recordings, never sold them.
These tapes being traded led to the creation of a whole fan culture, analysing the different shows, and commenting on what was the best version of each song, what was the best era of the band, and so on. People started to go to *every* show they could, travelling to see each show on a tour, sometimes seeing literally hundreds of shows. A thriving ecosystem of small businesses started to follow the group, selling home-made merchandise (and the group brought the best of these people in to make their own merchandise, which they sold through their mailing list) or food in the parking lots to concert-goers. The parking lots themselves became party spaces, so much so that a lot of people would follow the band from town to town not to go to the gigs, but to party in the parking lots.
The group encouraged this kind of thing by setting up their own ticketing company, and allocating chunks of tickets to people on their mailing list, which encouraged more people to sign up for the list, which encouraged them to think of themselves as “Dead Heads”.
The Dead didn’t understand their fanbase — everything you read about them suggests that they didn’t really get *why* this was happening — but between good luck and good management they’d managed to hit on a formula which is now the one used by every single artist who makes a living in the Internet era, thirty years before it started to become just the way you do things. Build a core audience by making work available for free or cheap, and then charge the true fans for extras, like live shows or merchandise or Patreon bonuses.
And there’s a reason that everyone working in a creative field is following the example set by the Grateful Dead:
The Grateful Dead’s fanbase were intimately connected with the Internet from even before the World Wide Web became a thing. LONG before. The group’s geographic connection to the Bay Area, and its connection to psychedelic drugs — many of the 70s generation of computer scientists were interested in expanding their own intelligence as well as that of their computers — and vague science fictional leanings, meant that they were a natural fit for the kind of person who was online when there were only a handful of networked computers in the world.
The first web page came online in August 1991. The first Grateful Dead email list was started in the seventies, by researchers in the AI department in Stanford. When Usenet came along, originally there was just one newsgroup for music, but so many people were posting about the Grateful Dead that the moderators of that newsgroup eventually suggested that a separate Dead newsgroup be set up so anyone who wanted to talk about any other bands could get a word in edgewise, and they became the first band to have their own newsgroup. A 1994 book called Skeleton Key — a guide to the culture of Dead fandom — has a whole appendix called “How to Become a Nethead”, which lists phone numbers of nineteen Grateful Dead bulletin boards along with their modem bitrates, and which says that there were at the time forty thousand subscribers to the Grateful Dead newsgroups, at a time when almost nobody was yet online. Rather charmingly, it says of the newsgroup “before you post your first message, take stock: Writing to tens of thousands of people at once is not quite like writing a personal letter. You should take care that the information you are publishing is accurate.”
The bulletin board The WELL, set up in 1985 by Stewart Brand, one of the organisers of the Trips Festival, became a huge gathering place for Dead fans, and for people in the group’s organisation, especially Barlow, who got into talks on the WELL that led to him co-founding the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the first civil liberties organisation devoted to speech on the Internet, and Brand sat on the board. Brand’s slogan “Information wants to be free” became a rallying cry on the Internet well into the new millennium, and the culture of the Internet, and of Silicon Valley, grew up *heavily* influenced by the Grateful Dead’s fan culture, and in particular by their encouragement of tape trading.
*Everything* about the way that music technology, and entertainment technology more broadly, evolved — the growth of filesharing, the embrace by record companies of streaming as a way to provide music free at the point of listening to meet that demand, and the fact that where thirty years ago mid-level bands made a modest income from recordings and toured to promote them, while now they make a modest income from touring but release records to promote the tour… all of that comes back to the fact that it was Grateful Dead fans who were the first online, and who shaped the culture of the Internet in ways, good and bad, that we’re still seeing today. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the Grateful Dead have had a more lasting, and greater, cultural impact than the Beatles, despite not even having a thousandth of their fanbase or their specifically musical influence.
The whole Californian ideology, in all its self-contradictory complexity, is in many ways an outgrowth of Deadhead ideology, for better and for worse.
And *that* is why I had to cover the Grateful Dead in such depth here. Because without them, the very model I use to fund this podcast would not exist. If it had been fans of Frank Zappa or the Velvet Underground who had been working in Stanford’s AI lab, rather than the Dead, the world would be unrecognisable now.
But while the Dead were growing their audience, they were not doing well. And much of that was down to Jerry Garcia. Garcia’s heroin addiction was getting worse, to the point where he was nodding off on stage at times, and the man who had spent most of the seventies desperate to play music was now starting to resent being on stage, because the crowds had grown too big. Once again they were touring not because they wanted to, but because they had obligations to all their employees to keep the show on the road no matter what their health, playing more to support the crew than for pleasure.
Eventually, Garcia collapsed. His health had deteriorated thanks to his heroin use, he had undiagnosed diabetes, and he dehydrated on a hot day. He was rushed to hospital, and given Valium, which the doctors didn’t know he was allergic to. He was in a coma for several days, and when he came out of it his memory was scrambled. He had to relearn how to play the guitar and banjo, spending months with the help of his friend Merl Saunders, slowly piecing his skills back together. And for a while, at least, he came off the heroin and controlled his diet.
The group started rehearsing again, and at first it seemed like Garcia wouldn’t be good enough, but then one day in October 1986, Mickey Hart came into the Dead’s office smiling and saying “We just did a really good ‘Dark Star’. It’s back.” They started booking a comeback tour the same day.
Garcia’s first show back with the group opened with a song which they’d been playing for ages, but which took on a new life as an anthem of Garcia’s recovery, and which would become the lead-off single for their first studio album in six years:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Touch of Grey”]
And that, twenty-two years after the band formed, gave them their first and only hit single.
In part it was because the time was ripe. 1987 saw a lot of media coverage of the twentieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, and also as the Tralfamadorians among you will know, the late eighties saw mini career peaks for a host of the Dead’s contemporaries, with the period between late 1986 and late 1989 seeing Paul Simon, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison all making commercially successful albums that were hailed as returns to form after a patchy decade, and Dylan and Harrison’s supergroup the Travelling Wilburys become a minor phenomenon.
Other than Simon, the Dead were very slightly ahead of the curve in appealing to an audience of Boomers starting to enter middle age and get nostalgic for the musicians of their youth, and while “Touch of Grey” is not an entirely happy lyric, lines like “a touch of grey kind of suits you anyway” will have given it appeal.
But the success was also helped, even more, by the video, the first one the group ever did, which was filmed after one of the group’s shows and featured life-size skeleton puppets, modeled after the skeletons that had appeared on many of the group’s album covers, playing the song in front of the audience (with a fun moment on the line “dog has not been fed in years” when a dog runs on to the stage and steals Mickey Hart’s legbone, and a roadie has to chase the dog down and reattach the bone to the drummer) before turning into the real Dead lipsynching their hit.
It was huge on MTV, and got the record into the top ten, making the Grateful Dead finally a one-hit wonder:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Touch of Grey”]
But that success brought its own problems. The group’s audience became even more massive, with an influx of new fans who the Deadhead culture found it difficult to absorb and enculturate. But at least at first, the Grateful Dead were enthusiastic about their new audience, and that enthusiasm was infectious. They did a co-headlining tour that year with Bob Dylan, acting as his backing band as well as his support act. The shows weren’t great, and the live album that resulted has often been called the worst thing either the Dead or Dylan has ever done:
[Excerpt: Dylan and the Dead, “All Along the Watchtower”]
But Dylan was enthused enough by the experience of performing with the group, and by their evident enjoyment of performing on stage, that he started what has come to be known as the “Never-Ending Tour” the next year, and other than a break in 2020 at the height of the covid-19 pandemic he’s kept an intense concert schedule ever since, having played over three thousand shows in the thirty-five years since then.
The late eighties also saw a change in the sound of the Grateful Dead, as the group started to experiment more with MIDI controlled instruments. Oddly this meant that Brent Mydland, on keyboards, moved steadily more towards playing patches that sounded like “real” acoustic instruments, while Mickey Hart, for example, would be playing percussion that triggered a whole bank of different sounds. Garcia was particularly pleased with the ability to use his guitar as a MIDI controller and play sounds like a soprano sax — he talked in interviews about how he would use it to imitate Eric Dolphy.
For a while, “Dark Star” came back into the set, now augmented by MIDI, but its place as the part of the set that encouraged the group to improvise had been taken by a piece called “Space”, and while they played it a lot it never took off the way it used to.
But the group were having problems. Now they had a hit, their already fanatical audience was being joined by another group of new fans, who hadn’t previously been part of the Deadhead culture and didn’t know its unspoken rules. And they were playing the biggest venues in America — by now they were far and away the most financially successful touring act around.
By late 1987 Garcia was already saying “The audience requires the band, the band requires the audience, you know what I mean? And anything short of live performances is short of live performances. So some sort of video isn’t going to get it. Bigger venues isn’t going to get it. When you’re at the stadium, that’s it, that’s the top end, and that’s already not that great …
As far as I can tell, we’re at the cul-de-sac, the end of popular music success. It doesn’t mean there’s no place to go from here. But now we have to be creative on this level as well, and invent where we’re going to go.”
MTV did a Day of the Dead, where they devoted a whole day to the group, and that included a lot of coverage of the party scene in the parking lots, and suddenly *those* became exponentially greater, filled with people who didn’t even intend to see the group live, but were just there to hang out outside and get drunk and stoned. This started to cause problems for the infrastructure of any city and venue where the group played, and required yet more work from their staff. According to some in the Dead’s management team at that point, if they played a sixty-thousand-seat stadium there’d be a further thirty-thousand people outside.
They were back in the position they’d been in in the seventies, playing to massive audiences not for the pleasure of playing, but because now they were a multi-million-dollar industry. They had to perform to pay the roadies, and the staff in their ticket company, and the promoters, and the staff on their mailing list… there were hundreds of people relying on the group for a pay-cheque, and the bigger they got, the bigger the organisation behind them.
By 1989 Robert Hunter was saying “This is our big, big problem now: what to do with the unruly factor now that’s causing a large group situation to become aggravated and exhibit mob behavior. I don’t know; I don’t know that anybody’s ever known, short of imposing absolute authoritarian control, and that is of course the opposite of what the Grateful Dead stand for. Will we be forced to become our own opposites? Interesting philosophical question.”
By 1989 the group started to clamp down on the people selling merchandise outside the shows, in order to cut down on the number of people outside causing a nuisance. This led to a huge backlash from the fans, which led to the group and their organisation deciding the fans were just entitled.
At the end of 1989, Brent Mydland had his first overdose. Like all the group’s official keyboard players, Mydland was a retiring, quiet, submissive personality, and nobody in the band up to that point seems to have even known he was using heroin, though they all knew he also had a drinking problem. When it happened, he was put on probation by the band and told to clean up, but he didn’t, and in July 1990 he had his second, fatal, overdose. So it goes.
Garcia was particularly hit by this death. He’d been the closest in the band to Mydland, but also, to quote Dennis McNally, who at the time was the group’s publicist (and was closer to Garcia than to the other members) “My theory was that Jerry to some extent took some responsibility for Brent’s death. He recognized that the internal dynamics of the Grateful Dead—the way they treated each other as human beings—was a fraud, was non-supportive, non-anything that any human being would want to be a part of. Look how these guys managed to pick the same personality four times. Pigpen was the starter: all three of his successors had the same emotionally vulnerable personality… But they were so devastated, and being “manly men,” they wouldn’t talk about it, they wouldn’t confront it, they just tried to put themselves in total denial, get another keyboard player, and keep going. It was almost archetypal, the way they failed to deal with what had just happened to them. I think Jerry knew this, whether he wanted to admit it out loud or not, and it put him in a bad place, and you can hear it in his guitar playing for the rest of his life.”
The group were meant to be on tour four weeks after Mydland’s death, and they had such a huge staff that cancelling the tour was not an option. They had four weeks to find a keyboard player. They ended up choosing two.
The Dead had had two keyboard players for much the seventies — even when Tom Constanten had left but before Keith Godchaux joined, various other players, especially Lesh’s friend Ned Langin, had played with them on stage though hadn’t formally joined the band, and Langin had played with the group consistently for a period up to the hiatus — and they went back to this for their first summer tour of the nineties.
For many of the shows they were joined by Bruce Hornsby, a longtime Deadhead who had become a star a few years earlier with his hit “The Way it Is”:
[Excerpt: Bruce Hornsby and the Range, “The Way It Is”]
Hornsby was a big star in his own right, but still played with the group for about a hundred shows in the early nineties. The official story as it’s always told is that Hornsby was never an official member of the group and was just there to help them ease the new guy in, but reading between the lines of various statements — always a dangerous thing to do — it seems like Hornsby was trying to push the group out of their comfort zone and towards playing more experimentally, and the group were happy going through the motions, and he eventually tired of this.
That new guy — who did become a full member of the group, and would stay with them until the end — was Vince Welnick. Welnick came from a very different sort of music to anything the group had done before — he was a founder-member of the wonderfully camp art-pop proto-punk glam band the Tubes:
[Excerpt: The Tubes, “Don’t Touch Me There”]
After seventeen years with the Tubes, Welnick had left them to tour with Todd Rundgren, who he played with for a few months before joining the Dead. Welnick wasn’t hugely familiar with their music, but had been casually friendly with Garcia since the early seventies, when the Tubes had played on the same bill as Garcia when he did some solo shows. Welnick took a scholarly attitude to the music, and studied it carefully, listening back to shows every night and taking notes.
But Garcia’s mental health went downhill after Myland’s death, and it took a further knock when in October 1991 Bill Graham died in a helicopter crash. So it goes. Soon Garcia was back on the heroin, and according to Welnick would sometimes fall asleep on stage in the middle of guitar solos, wake up, and then carry on playing.
Hornsby would occasionally rejoin them as the nineties went on, and he wasn’t flattering about what he saw. He said later “I sat in with them a couple of times. In ’94, I remember playing with them at Giants Stadium, and it was just horrifically bad. They all knew it, the [band members] were all bummed and embarrassed. I’m looking out at the audience, I’m playing accordion, and I’m standing there in the midst of a sea of mediocrity on the bandstand. Everyone knew it—it wasn’t just me—and you’re looking out and seeing these people going completely crazy, and you’re going, “This is surreal and strange.” It was hard. It was tough for everybody, because no one seemed to be able to reach Garcia. That was tough.”
The last time Jerry Garcia ever performed “Dark Star” was at the Omni in Atlanta in 1994. Far from the extended jams of old that could last forty minutes, it was only ten minutes long. He only sang the first verse. The song would remain forever unfinished:
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star (Omni 1994)” same clip as at the start]
Garcia was clearly very ill at this point, and would only tour for another year or so before checking himself into a stint in rehab which, as it turned out, he would never leave, and which would end the Grateful Dead. But it wouldn’t end their organisation, because having already invented the way that all new up-and-coming artists now have to build a career, they now invented, twenty years early, the way that all rock stars of their age monetise their intellectual property.
By the early nineties, the group had discovered that there was money to be made from their old live recordings, recordings that nobody had thought had any value. They started releasing albums of classic old shows, most of which most Deadheads already had tape copies of, and were astonished to find that they sold in phenomenal amounts, so much so that in the years after Garcia’s death the group actually made more money from archive CDs and sales of merchandise than they had from touring while he was alive.
Indeed, they were so successful that at one point many of the band members threatened to sue archive.org, the epitome of the “Information must be free” idea, which had a vast trove of the recordings the group had previously encouraged fans to share, to get them to take them down. But Lesh, who had become estranged from the other three, had something of a Damascene conversion to the Deadhead cause and now thought of himself as the fans’ representative and a representative of integrity — he had earlier said “The Grateful Dead have never accepted corporate sponsorship or venture capital money, and I remain unalterably opposed to any deal that would lease, license or otherwise collateralize the music in the vault”.
When he heard about the proposed lawsuit he went ballistic and posted a statement on his website saying “I was not part of this decision-making process and I was not notified that the shows were going to be pulled. I do feel that the music is the Grateful Dead’s legacy and I hope that one way or another all of it is available for those who want it,”
The group reversed course and came to a compromise which allowed archive.org to keep the soundboard tapes as streaming only, with the lower-quality audience recordings still available for free download, a compromise which is still in place.
They also tried to do some interesting things with the archive material, even before Garcia’s death. For example Phil Lesh invited the avant-garde composer John Oswald, who made music using sampling in what he called “Plunderphonics”, to do an extended composition using versions of “Dark Star”, mixing and matching different performances from over the decades, putting some in reverse, layering them on top of each other. The result was the only Grateful Dead recording on which every official member of the band — Garcia, Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann, Constanten, Pig Pen, Keith and Donna-Jean Godchaux, Brent Mydland, and Vince Welnick, all appeared:
In 2006, the Grateful Dead leased all their intellectual property to Rhino Records, a subsidiary of Warners, for thirty million dollars for a ten-year lease — a lease that has since been renewed. Mickey Hart said “I think it was a common thought that if we got rid of the business, we might become friends again, we might actually play again. We really love each other, and, deep down, we’re tied at the heart.”
The same week, Ram Rod, the roadie who had been considered the heart and soul of the group’s crew, died of lung cancer. So it goes.
Vince Welnick had continued touring with Bob Weir’s side band Ratdog for a while after the Grateful Dead had split, but had been sacked from Ratdog after a suicide attempt — he was replaced by, of all people, Chuck Berry’s old piano player Johnny Johnson. He’d been suffering from depression ever since the group split, and would struggle with it for the rest of his life.
He did play occasionally with some of the other ex-members for a couple of years after the split, but was not invited to take part in partial reunions advertised as “featuring the former members of the Grateful Dead”, under names like The Other Ones and The Dead, and he’d been heartbroken not to be included. As far as he was concerned, he *was* a member of the Grateful Dead – he said “I am and always will be a member of the Grateful Dead. It’s a lifetime thing that Jerry bestows upon a person.”
Two weeks after the Vault was moved to Warners, Welnick, who hadn’t spoken with the other members of the band in years, died by suicide. So it goes.
Phil Lesh performs with a group called Phil Lesh and Friends. Weir, Kreutzmann, and Hart have spent the last few years performing as Dead & Company with singer and guitarist John Mayer. They recently announced a farewell tour for this summer, and even more recently announced that Kreutzmann will not be joining the tour, though they didn’t say why other than a “shift in creative direction”.
In 1994, 1995, and 1996 the composer John Oswald released, first as two individual CDs and then as a double-CD, an album called Grayfolded, which the composer says in the liner notes he thinks of as existing in Tralfamadorian time. The Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s novels don’t see time as a linear thing with a beginning and end, but as a continuum that they can move between at will. When someone dies, they just think that at this particular point in time they’re not doing so good, but at other points in time they’re fine, so why focus on the bad time? In the book, when told of someone dying, the Tralfamadorians just say “so it goes”.
In between the first CD’s release and the release of the double-CD version, Jerry Garcia died. From August 1942 through August 1995, Jerry Garcia was alive.
So it goes.
Shall we go, you and I?
[Excerpt: The Grateful Dead, “I Bid You Goodnight” into very end of Grayfolded]
7 thoughts on “Episode 165: “Dark Star” by the Grateful Dead”
Dark Star is always playing somewhere.
A nearly five hour assessment of a band that I only liked at best for some of their music seemed even more intimidating than your prior fascinating podcast concerning a band I really love, The Velvet Underground – yet this was just as engaging and a marvelous blend of literary, social, economic, historical and musical elements. One of the great joys of your podcasts is that they provoke me to reassess music that I may have dismissed at the time (often for absurd-in-retrospect fashionable reasons) or once liked but have let drop out of current listening. I may never really love The Grateful Dead, but I certainly appreciate their innovations and place in rock music history a lot more after this episode.
Another great episode which informed me about so much I didn’t know in a truly entertaining way. Thank you Andrew
Thank you Andrew. Another informative and interesting episode. Pity Grateful Dead never toured Australia. I know you covered so much but I was a tad disappointed you never got to mention Blues for Allah. I know most critics and fans believe the Dead peaked in the studio with American Beauty. But, to be honest, Blues for Allah has always been a personal favourite.
I’m not sure even another four and a half hours will convince me of the Grateful Dead’s virtuosity, especially after listening to them murder a perfectly wonderful Buck Owens song. But it was a fascinating and extremely well-crafted episode.
Extra points for the Todd shoutout and for mentioning the “wonderfully campy” Tubes, one of the most under-appreciated bands in rock history (at least in their home country). They are certainly deserving of an episode of their own. They were actual virtuosos, at least in their original incarnation. In my opinion, of course.
Great episode. Lots of valid insight, and fantastic history. For a band that I saw a dozen times before 1972, I really think you’ve done a great job….again.
I don’t think that the Jefferson Airplane performed or were involved in the Festival Express tour during the summer of 1970.
Andrew, really a good episode! Thank you for all the time and devotion you put into it. I love all the far reaching social and literary references at the beginning, and those rooted in Vonnegut cosmology recall long lost memories. But I do sometimes find your social attitudes overly-PC for my taste. Case in point, implying that Bill Graham left the Fillmore Auditorium for the Carousel Ballroom due to racist attitudes of his hippy clientele. In fact, the Fillmore was a dangerous area for street crime. I myself was robbed on the street in the Fillmore District when I went to see the Rolling Stones perform at Winterland in 1972. Crime was a fact of life in the Fillmore, not a racist attitude.