They weren’t just playing what was on the music sheets. They were playing what was in the air. When the Dead are at their best, the vibrations that are stirred up by the audience is the music that they play. And consequently, when we’d go to LA, you’d get one kind of thing. When you’d go to Portland, Oregon, you’d get a completely other kind of music. And that means that the band has to be supple enough to really read the notes written on the wall. – Ken Kesey
Goaded on by Pigpen, by the fall of 1964, Jerry realized he needed to put together a rock band. As a role model, they were initially quite a bit more taken with the Rolling Stones than The Beatles. Both Pig and Garcia had been R&B and blues fans from day one.
Garcia started practicing his best Freddie King licks on guitar. And given that they were reading Lord of the Rings and with all their talk about wizards and magic, they decided to call this new band The Warlocks.
The band now consisted of Garcia, McKernan, Weir, Dana Morgan Jr. on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Their first performance was in May of 1965 at Magoo’s Pizza in Menlo Park. With songs like “Wooly Bully,” “Walking the Dog,” and Chuck Berry standards, they were largely a cover band.
Phil Lesh – who had been working at the post office – was equally radicalized by the new rock scene. Garcia pulled him aside at a show and told him that he had to play bass in his band. (For a variety of reasons, Morgan wasn’t working out.) Lesh could feel this intoxicating train leaving the station and didn’t want to be stuck in the train’s new potato caboose. So he got himself a bass which, BTW, he had never played.
Their first gig with Lesh was in June of 1965. Understandably, they were somewhat rough. So rough in fact, that on the next night they were replaced by an accordion and clarinet duo. They never got paid for that first night. But by now, most of the band that would become the Grateful Dead was in place. You can listen to a Warlocks song here. Sounds kinds Byrds-y to me with a little James Bond thrown in.
The Warlocks, not quite yet having established themselves, played the usual mix of bars, clubs and yes, even strip joints. They did get a little national attention as their friend mandolinist David Grisman praised them in folkie magazine Sing Out! Grisman later played mandolin on “Ripple.”
In this 1964 – 1965 time frame, LSD entered the band’s life in a big way. Garcia said he’d been “too serious before the experience and that his musical vision had been too small. … Now that the strictures of his own limited imagination were gone, he would enter a more fluid realm, where anything was possible.”
There are several important cultural events to note here. One is that a guy named Chet Helms, recognizing the vibrant SF music community, teamed up with a “commune/promotions” company called the Family Dog.
A history of this collective says, “The Family Dog’s weekly dance hall revues gave the local bands a forum to perform their groundbreaking music. It was here in places like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom where the philosophies and ideals of a counterculture revolution found their voice.”
Another is that local artist Marty Balin decided he needed to get into rock and pulled together a band that eventually became the mighty Jefferson Airplane. The Dead and the Airplane played, lived, and got high together quite a bit. There was definitely a scene starting to happen in San Francisco, especially centered around the Haight-Ashbury district.
The San Francisco Examiner said it was where “writers, painters, musicians, civil rights workers, crusaders, homosexuals, and marijuana users” had gathered. The paper referred to them as hippies, a derivation of an old term, hipsters. At this point in time, Haight-Ashbury was a well-kept secret to the outside world. But “hipsters” like Janis Joplin (from Texas) found out about it and made their way there. She quickly met the Dead and became part of that scene.
The Warlocks continued to play but their music grew, somewhat organically, from the short, tight pop/rock songs of the day to something longer. Their inspiration for this was not just in jazz musicians like John Coltrane (a hero!) but also in bluegrass players like fiddler Scotty Stoneman. These musical influences along with what one might call an “anything goes” attitude about acid helped shape their music immeasurably.
One of the band’s early compositions was called “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks.)” The story goes that they were inspired not only by the rhythm of trains that passed a place they gigged, but also by a blues rave-up called “Mystic Eyes” by Van Morrison’s band, Them.
This version of “Caution” is the Dead from their second album, Anthem of the Sun which the band mixed to intentionally, seamlessly blend “live” and studio versions of their songs.
The band found out there was already another group called the Warlocks. So in November 1965, the guys got together at Lesh’s house to come up with a new name. Here’s how it went down, according to the book A Long Strange Trip: “Garcia opened Phil’s girlfriend Ruth’s Funk and Wagnalls’ …Dictionary, shook it open and stabbed it with his finger.
“Everything else on the page,” said Garcia, “went blank, diffuse, just sorta oozed away and there was GRATEFUL DEAD, big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination.” Lesh loved it, Weir wasn’t crazy about it, thinking it morbid. Bill Graham, the rock impresario of the Fillmores (and then some), said it “gave him the creeps.” Regardless, the name stuck.
For the record, they had stumbled on an old bit of folklore that predated them by thousands of years. The tale refers to a traveler who sees a corpse being refused burial because his people can’t afford the bill. The traveler pays the debt, usually with his last penny. Later he is helped by someone who, it turns out, is the spirit of that corpse. Hence, grateful dead. An appropriate name for a band whose lyrics are steeped in cosmic debris, folklore and myth.
Their first show as the Dead was the following month in San Jose at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. These “tests” were actually parties held by Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. (This topic is so big it deserved, and got, its own book, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)
Neal Cassidy (named above) was Kerouac’s road partner and drove Kesey’s bus, “Furthur.”
Essentially these were parties whose intent was to get everyone dosed with LSD. They were not concerts as we know them today per se but events where the audience were as much part of the show as the bands that played. In a sense there was really no differention between audience and performer.
Bands like the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Charlatans (with Dan Hicks), Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Great Society were ideal for this environment. And to the very end of the Dead and even till today, it was this environment, this scene, as much as anything, that the Dead took with them everywhere they went.
Copyright Jim Marshall.
Above: Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Charlatans
One of the first Dead songs I ever heard was on, I believe, a Warner Brothers compilation. A showcase for Pigpen, it was their cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight.” This is one of the shorter versions, most of them running (seemingly) 30 hours or so. Love this tune!
Spotify link. (Longer, from Europe ’72 The Complete Recordings. Spotify may take you to some random song on the album instead.)
On the weekend of January 21 1966, Ken Kesey’s Trips Festival was held at San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall. Organized by Bill Graham and billed as a “new medium of communication and entertainment,” it is widely considered to be the start – the official start if you will – of the hippie counterculture. Bands playing were Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. (Minus Janis Joplin who wouldn’t join them till later in the year.) Tom Wolfe described it this way:
“Lights and movies sweeping around the hall; five movie projectors going and God knows how many light machines, interferrometrics, the intergalactic science-fiction seas all over the walls, loudspeakers studding the hall all the way around like flaming chandeliers, strobes exploding, black lights with Day-Glo objects under them and Day-Glo paint to play with, street lights at every entrance flashing red and yellow, two bands, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother & the Holding Company and a troop of weird girls in leotards leaping around the edges blowing dog whistles.”
If you’re curious what the Dead sounded like at some of these acid tests, fear not. They recorded just about everything. This is a pretty good 1966 recording of “Viola Lee Blues,” an old twenties song they would wind up doing on their first album. (Intro here by Bill Graham.)
And if you really want to hear more Acid Test Dead and see an interview with the late Ken Kesey, this site will blow your mind.
Next post – Wait a minute. Don’t the Dead have two fucking drummers man?
Sources: A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. Dennis McNally; Wikipedia; various fan sites.