(Seated front L-R – Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart. Standing back L-R – Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Ron McKernan.)
I wasn’t sure exactly how to approach the topic of the Dead. I say this because while there are any number of songs of theirs I like, I’m hardly a Deadhead and have gone back and forth in my appreciation of them. But I have always respected them and their place not only in music but also in the culture. And I’ve grown to appreciate them quite a bit more in the past few years.
Herewith, my history and tribute. Apologies in advance to Deadheads for anything I might totally fuck up, and to the Diggers and San Francisco Mime Troupe. Both were important members of the San Francisco community and other than this mention, I couldn’t fit them in.
A book I read – A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead – in regards to the city of San Francisco, says this: “The gold rush that began in 1848 filled it with marginalized seekers from the rest of the US and the world, and ever after, it was a sanctuary for the odd and eccentric.”
In August of 1942, an odd, eccentric, guy named Jerome “Jerry” Garcia was born in San Francisco to a Spanish father and Irish/Swedish mother. His father had been a musician and his mother liked to play the piano. And so they named him after noted composer Jerome Kern.
Jerry spent much of his youth taking piano lessons. When he was about four or five, he heard his grandparents’ old folk records which he loved and played over and over. “A compulsion almost,” he said.
Due to an accident chopping wood with his brother when Jerry was four, he sliced off 2/3 of his right middle finger. Worse yet, Garcia’s father drowned when he was five. His mother was never really the domestic type and so he wound up living with his grandparents.
Jerry got turned on to AM radio station KWBR (now Christian stations KDIA) which at that time was broadcasting R&B artists such as LaVern Baker, The Coasters and B.B. King. When he was fifteen, Jerry’s mother gave him an accordion. Somewhat less than thrilled with it, he got her to swap it for a Danelectro guitar he’d seen in a pawn shop.
In addition to being a budding musician, Garcia was a reader and a thinker and to some extent, a Beat philosopher. He went over to the great, recently founded City Lights bookstore and picked up a copy of On The Road, a book that “changed his life forever.
Jack Kerouac’s hymn to the world as an explorational odyssey, an adventure outside conventional boundaries, would serve as a blueprint for the rest of Garcia’s life.” (The impact of Kerouac’s book on many of the players in this saga should not be underestimated. I note with some interest that Jimmy Page recently visited Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, MA.)
Outside of art and music – he played guitar in his high school band – Jerry was an indifferent student, with no real direction despite his (now more involved) mother’s best efforts. He did a stint in the Army, most of it spent at the Presidio, a former military fort in San Francisco.
Folk music was incredibly popular during this time and Jerry – likely recalling his grandparents’ records – got into it. He took up the banjo and worked at it relentlessly, night and day. He heard the Flatt and Scruggs classic, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and added bluegrass, a more technically demanding genre, to his repertoire.
In 1961, Garcia was involved in a near-fatal car accident that served as an awakening. He started to get serious about his life. Two months after his accident, at a theater production, Jerry met a would-be novelist named Robert Hunter.
Robert Hunter was born Robert Burns and is reportedly a great-great-grandson of the same-named Scottish Romantic poet. He was a volunteer – along with writer Ken Kesey – at Stanford University in a program run by the CIA to test the effects of LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline. (Psychedelics were legal in the US until 1966.) “He received LSD the first week, psilocybin the second, mescaline the third, and a mixture of all three on the fourth (!)”
Hunter was musically inclined, playing various instruments including cello and trumpet. In fact, like Garcia, he played in his high school band.
Garcia and Hunter hung out together, talking philosophy, enjoying being outsiders, misfits. Bohemians. At this point in time, musically they were far more impacted by folk than rock. The two actually performed together doing folk songs. But it was clear early on that Garcia was and would be the more accomplished guitarist, Hunter the better lyricist.
Garcia started playing at a San Carlos loft called the Boar’s Head. He played acoustic folk, country and even some blues like “Brown’s Ferry Blues.” Hunter would often join on mandolin.
It was at the Boar’s Head that Garcia met singer/harmonica player/keyboardist Ron McKernan. McKernan’s father was an R&B and blues disk jockey. Ron taught himself to play harmonica and piano and if there was any really strong blues influence in the Dead. “Pigpen” was it. He didn’t look like a hippie and in fact, he had a “motorcycle chain permanently bolted to his wrist and wore oily jeans, Brandoesque T-shirts, and greasy hair.” (“Pigpen,” for his supposed resemblance to the Peanuts character’s somewhat unkempt look.)
Into this motley crew of Beats, bohemians and free thinkers entered Phil Lesh. Whereas the other guys were largely self-taught, picking up what they knew from records and the odd lesson, Lesh was the real deal. A trained musician – starting out on violin and switching to trumpet – he studied composition under experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio. He eventually enrolled at the College of San Mateo where he rose to first trumpet chair of their big band.
Lesh had been volunteering for progressive radio station KPFA as a recording engineer. He and Garcia recorded a demo of Jerry playing which got him a successful solo radio gig. But while they were kindred spirits, there doesn’t appear to have been any serious talk at this point about the two of them collaborating musically.
For a period of time, Garcia – now married and a father – became a guitar teacher at a music store in Palo Alto called Dana Morgan’s. Morgan’s was at that time a hotbed of talented musicians.
Garcia met a guy there named Troy Weidenheimer who had a band called the Zodiacs. They were basically a blues band that played frat parties. Since Weidenheimer played guitar, Jerry played bass. The band also had a couple of other players, namely Ron McKernan and a drummer named Bill Kreutzmann.
The Wikipedia entry for Kreutzmann contains some surreal information: “Kreutzmann started playing drums at the age of 13. As a teenager, practicing drums alone in a large building at his high school, Aldous Huxley (!) and another man walked in.
Huxley told Bill he’d never heard anything like it, and encouraged him in his drumming – despite the fact Bill had been told by his sixth-grade music teacher that he could not keep a beat. Kreutzmann continued to practice a great deal. His earliest enthusiasm was for the music of Ray Charles and other R&B musicians.”
Despite Garcia’s flirtation with rock, acoustic music was where he wanted to be. He played with bands such as Black Mountain Boys and eventually, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.
This is a performance from the Black Mountain Boys. I think one of the things that made the Dead distinctive early on is that they were one of the first rock bands with a pronounced folk/bluegrass background:
Along with the omnipresent Ron McKernan, Mother McCree’s Jug Band included Bob Weir who Garcia had met at Dana Morgan’s store. Unlike pretty much everybody else in the band, Weir was an athlete. As an undiagnosed (the diagnosis didn’t exist back then) dyslexic, his school efforts can be best described as “playing guitar and chasing chicks.”
After unsuccessfully trying piano and trumpet, at 13 he got a guitar and learned how to play songs like “Sloop John B.” The guitar player he followed most closely was Jorma Kaukonen (later of the Airplane.) “He and his friends circulated tapes of Jorma like baseball cards.”
In February of 1964, the thing happened that affected every musician on the planet – the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show. The jug band guys – being purists – were not necessarily blown away. Jerry thought they were a fad. But the problem was that jug band and bluegrass – as satisfying as they were – were not commercially viable.
But then in August of 1964, the movie A Hard Day’s Night was released. Hmm, thought Garcia. “You can be young, you can be far out, and you can still make it.” Equally mind blowing was hearing Bob Dylan’s records from this period which showed that rock and folk could be more than just “yeah, yeah, yeah.” The rock and roll lifestyle suddenly seemed more appealing.
Next – The Warlocks. The story of a traveler who helps the deceased. And, can YOU pass the acid test?
Sources: A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. Dennis McNally; Wikipedia; various fan sites.