I think The Grateful Dead kind of represents the spirit of being able to go out and have an adventure in America at large. You know what I mean? You can go out and follow the Grateful Dead around. And you have your war stories. Something like hopping railroads. Something like that. Or being on the road like Cassidy and Kerouac. – Jerry Garcia in an interview with record exec Joe Smith.
Over the next two decades, [the Grateful Dead] would play nearly 500 different songs, of which roughly 150 were originals. Genres included rock and roll, blues, jug band music, folk, R&B, rockabilly, country-western, gospel, calypso, western swing and New Orleans. – A Long Strange Trip” The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.
In 1970, The Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy, Flying Burrito Bros. and Delaney and Bonnie took a trans-Canada train ride called The Festival Express. It probably tells you all you need to know that at one point they stopped to replenish their liquor supply by “buying out the stock of an entire liquor store.” There’s a movie out there of this extravaganza if you’re so inclined.
And then there’s Augustus Owsley Stanley III AKA Owsley, AKA Bear. Bear was the scion of a Kentucky political family. His father was a government attorney. His grandfather was a United States senator.
All of which makes it that much more ironic when you realize that Owsley is unquestionably the most legendary manufacturer of LSD who did not work at a pharmaceutical. By his own account, he concocted somewhere around 10 million doses of acid in the Sixties. The Acid Tests would not have been possible without him. (He also provided tabs of acid to the Beatles while they were filming Magical Mystery Tour.)
The Dead dug Bear (either a nickname he got as a teen or a tribute to his “carnal pursuits) and Lesh asked him if he wanted to be a manager. Declining that, Lesh offered him the job of soundman, which despite zero experience, he took. This was fortuitous as he not only continually improved their sound but also recorded pretty much every rehearsal and performance.
As a consequence, the Dead have the most extensive trove of live concerts known to mankind (Dick’s Picks, Dave’s Picks, Road Trips – you name it.) Bear also came up with the logo on top of this post as a way to differentiate the band’s road gear. Owsley paid the price for his LSD pursuit, doing a couple of stints in prison and eventually giving it up altogether.
Early in 1966, the Dead met Rock Scully and his partner Danny Rifkin. Scully became their manager, Rifkin their road manager. Since the Dead were a group of anarchic, leaderless (Garcia wanted no part of that) musicians, they needed someone to guide them. Things started to happen soon after Rock came on board.
The band spent a less-than-fortuitous couple of months as fish out of water down in LA. When they came back, the Fillmore Auditorium had started hosting bands like Velvet Underground. (Original name – The Warlocks.) Due to deteriorating building and neighborhood conditions, Bill Graham opened another venue called Fillmore West in 1968, having opened Fillmore East a few months earlier. (Despite their outsize reputations, the Fillmores were only open for three years.)
Graham, in my reading of him, veered between great music lover, tough entrepreneur and complete self-serving arsehole. He was “tougher and stronger – and more gifted as a promoter – than anyone in the San Francisco rock music business, and he ate his opposition alive.” (Graham died in 1991 in a helicopter accident. His autobiography, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out is well worth reading.)
The Dead managed to record some tunes with a guy who had a home studio. These were mostly, for some reason, jug band tunes and a couple of originals. Garcia figured that maybe 150 were pressed and mostly sold at head shops in the Haight which was becoming more and more of a counterculture enclave.
For the remainder of 1966, the band played, got high and toured. Chet Helms of the Avalon ballroom asked them to do a poster for a Dead concert. Checking out the library, their graphic guys, Kelley/Mouse found the old tome, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In there, they found a picture that was in the public domain and they thought, is that the Dead or what? And so, voila! More Dead iconography:
Interestingly, the Dead were not the first major band from San Francisco to record an album. Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was released in August of 1966. And although he is listed only as “Musical and Spiritual Advisor,” it is generally believed that Garcia played guitar on the album and lent a hand in production.
As to their own recording career, the Dead – always skeptical of institutions – weren’t rushing into anything. But through connections, they did get to know Joe Smith at Warners who wanted to record them. They eventually did sign a contract and by some miracle managed to keep their own publishing.
Meanwhile, the band started to get more attention in what constituted the pre-Rolling Stone rock press, Crawdaddy! And the secret of San Francisco was slowly leaking out into the world.
In January of 1967. the band started working on their first album, The Grateful Dead. The Dead felt it was rushed and overall were not happy with it. Lesh felt that “Viola Lee Blues” at least sounded like them. It didn’t get much AM airplay and the new album-oriented FM station, KSAN, wouldn’t get started till 1968.
Late in 1967. Kreutzmann invited a drummer he’d met named Mickey Hart to one of their gigs. Asked to sit in on the second set, they went and found him a drum kit. He sat in, and when they band heard the interplay, suddenly realized they’d been missing what they didn’t realize they’d been missing. And Mickey Hart, originally from Brooklyn, NY, was in.
Hart was a natural drummer. “From the age of ten,” he said, “all I did was drum. Obsessively. Passionately. Painfully.” His father Lenny had been a drum champion. Alas, that was the only good thing he got from him. Lenny deserted the family. Later, reconciled, he became the Dead’s manager and ripped them off, much to Mickey’s anguish.
The band continued to expand and evolve, their jams getting longer and longer. Songs like “Lovelight” might stretch out to 25 minutes in concert. In early 1967, Hunter heard the band jamming on a tune and was inspired to write lyrics. That song became “Dark Star,” a staple of the band’s repertoire ever since. Here it is from their seminal Live/Dead album:
The band had earlier moved into a house at 710 Ashbury Street in the Haight which is a mecca for Deadheads till this day. They didn’t really live there the whole time, moving up into the Marin County area when things started getting a little too crowded as tourists, the press and college kids arrived.
Oh and did they ever arrive. John Phillips (of Mamas and Papas) wrote a song called “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” Sung by Scott McKenzie, the song was a huge hit. And that – together with the Monterey Pop Festival and all the media attention – created the so-called Summer of Love. Reportedly, 100,000 wannabe hippies made their way to this mecca of the counterculture.
CBS-TV got into the action in August of 1967, airing their own ode to disapproval called The Hippie Temptation. (Dead interview at about 33:00.)
“It is hard to figure out,” intones the dismissive narrator,” what they are in favor of. The word ‘love’ gets used by them a lot. In a very aggressive and evangelical way, they praise the effect on the mind of hallucinatory drugs. The drug is extremely dangerous. It is the temptation and the danger, that we propose to examine.” And, he’s probably thinking, save my kids from.
Another staple of the band’s huge repertoire ever since the late ’60’s is the Garcia/Lesh/Hunter classic “St. Stephen.” Here’s a version paired with another fan favorite, “The Eleven,” so-called because it’s in the unusual (for rock) 11/8 time.
Now, with Rolling Stone magazine reporting (since November ’67), FM radio percolating and fan tapes circulating (the Dead, to their lasting credit, always allowed taping), the band became increasingly popular. Like all working bands, they toured relentlessly and between 1967 and 1970, released five studio albums and one live album.
In 1969, the Dead played Woodstock. For a variety of reasons, by all accounts, this wasn’t one of their best gigs. In addition to being poorly grounded and getting shocked by the mics, they only had an hour to play and needed more than that to get into the groove. Plus they admitted to being more than a little frightened by the crowd size. They refused to allow their footage into the movie or songs onto the soundtrack. A recent retrospective features their version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”
Later that year, the Dead were involved in organizing the disastrous Altamont concert which was in every way, the polar opposite of Woodstock. The scene was ugly and a man was killed by the Hell’s Angels who had been acting as “security.” In what little defense I can accord them, the guy did draw a gun.
In 1970, the Dead released two albums of acoustic music, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Some might argue that they jumped on the Americana bandwagon started by The Band in 1969. But they themselves admitted that Crosby, Stills and Nash were more of an inspiration.
And given their folk/bluegrass leanings, this was just the Dead going back to their roots. Garcia said he thought of this version of the Dead as “a wing of the Buck Owens/Merle Haggard/Bakersfield school of country-western.”
A perennial favorite is “Uncle John’s Band.” Is that a self-referential title?
Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry anymore,
Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.
Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
Whoa, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?
Spotify link (studio version)
And I can hardly do a Dead series without mentioning “Truckin’, which, in part, details their bust in New Orleans. And is, of course, the first recorded instance of the expression”long, strange, trip.”
I should acknowledge here that, yes, America was embroiled in a war in Vietnam during these years. The Dead tended to avoid making political statements, feeling that their job was to be musicians. But they always supported what they felt to be the right causes at a local and national level.
Next (and final) post – The band trucks across several decades, gains fans, loses key members. And says Fare Thee Well.
Sources: A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. Dennis McNally; Wikipedia; various fan sites.