“You know what foldin’ chairs are for,” drawled Bob Weir as they hit the stage (at Monterey). “They’re for folding up and dancin’ on.” It revealed a fundamentally different philosophy of performance. The Dead really were a dance band. “We were there to play,” he said. “and the people were there to put on the show.” – A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.
“The shape of the Grateful Dead,” lyricist Robert Hunter once said, “reflects the shape of Jerry Garcia’s mind.” – A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.
In 1971, the Dead released their second official live album Skull and Roses AKA Skull Fuck. From that album, the terrific “Bertha.” Love to play along with this song. When I do, I notice how country-sounding Jerry’s guitar really sometimes is:
In the gatefold of the album, the Dead addressed their fans, referring to them as Dead Heads. (Two words.) No biographer of the Grateful Dead can talk about the band without some mention of their fans. I have been a dedicated fan of several bands and I will say unequivocally that there is no more dedicated force on earth than the legion of Dead Heads/Deadheads.
Less a fanbase and more of a community, they show up and have been showing up for years. They hang out in parking lots if they can’t get in (or say “I need a miracle” if they need a ticket.) They meet up, marry, hang out, reminisce. But their devotion is legendary and I think it’s because from Day One the Dead set that tone and carried it through right till today.
There were two bands above all that Bill Graham loved and would feature as often as he could at the Fillmores. One was the Dead. The other was the Allman Brothers Band. In early 1970, the still fairly unknown ABB opened for – and jammed with – the Dead at Fillmore East. Peter Green, Danny Kirwin and Mick Fleetwood of early Fleetwood Mac play on this too.
And it was if not exactly love at first sight, it was certainly mutual respect. Both bands were given to long jams, the Dead coming more from a folkie and R&B place with some jazz, the Allmans from predominantly blues and jazz with some country. The bands would play again over the years, most notably at the Watkins Glen festival in 1973 (with The Band), dwarfing Woodstock with 600,000 people in attendance. Here’s a list of all their interplay over the years.
In 1971, feeling shitty about his father’s dealings with the band and exhausted from the road, Mickey Hart decided to take some time off. “Time off” in this case turned out to be three years, leaving Kreutzmann as the only drummer. Within the year, a husband and wife team, Keith and Donna Godchaux joined the band. Donna was the first real female voice heard from a Dead stage. And Keith, per Kreutzmann, was just a great jazz and free music player.
The Dead did a somewhat fabled tour of Europe in 1972. They couldn’t decide who should go so Garcia said, “Bring everybody,” and so off they went to Europe with their families.
From their Europe ’72 album, “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider.”
Pigpen had always been a heavy drinker and partier. His health started to deteriorate to the point that he could barely perform. Oddly enough, his cirrhosis may have been exacerbated by alcohol but was, in fact, congenital. His last show with the band was in June of 1972.
In March of 1973, Ron McKernan died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at the age of 27. (Same age as Janis Joplin who had been his lover.) The band was devastated, especially Garcia who felt the Dead would never be the same.
In October of 1974, burned out from almost 10 years of, well, being the Dead, the band decided to take a hiatus. They played their last show at Winterland in October of 1974. Since this could well be their last performance ever, Mickey Hart was convinced to re-join them, which he did for the very last night.
This show was filmed for a feature released in 1977 called The Grateful Dead Movie. The critics weren’t kind. This film was just re-released a few weeks back. I went to see it, thought it was pretty good, pretty lively. Fortuitously, the theater sold Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Chocolate Cherry Garcia? Doesn’t suck.
The movie starts with a long animated sequence, for which one was clearly expected to drop a tab of acid. The best I could do, alas, at my decrepit ex-hippie wannabe age was to take something for acid reflux.
The break they took turned out to more of a road, rather than band, hiatus per se. During that time, members worked on solo projects and the Dead actually released two albums, Blues for Allah and a live album, Steal Your Face, from that final Winterland show. The Dead finally regrouped in June of 1976 and (one assumes) refreshed, hit the road.
If you talk to Deadheads about this period, they are fairly well ecstatic. Stories abound about this or that great show. In my travels, I kept hearing about a legendary May 8, 1977 show at Cornell University. According to Wikipedia, a recording of that performance was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012. Here it is.
In 1978, the Dead – never tiring of pissing away tons of money on an adventure – arranged to play three nights at the Great Pyramid of Gaza in Egypt. While not a smashing success revenue-wise – one could easily listen from anywhere without a ticket – they had a hell of a time bringing their particular form of anarchy to another part of the world.
By 1979, the Godchaux’ had developed serious substance dependencies, were fighting and left the band. (Godchaux died in a car accident in 1980; Donna Jean still performs.) The Dead brought on keyboardist Brent Mydland who’d been playing in a side band with Bob Weir. As the Eighties progressed, the band continued to tour but their recorded studio output diminished. Times had changed musically – and otherwise – in the twenty years since they’d formed.
During the band’s ’70’s hiatus, Garcia had started using a smokable form of heroin called Persian Base. Over time, given the stresses of the road and having to be the rock star known as “Jerry Garcia,” he became more dependent on substances and his health began to decline. By the early ’80’s, while still a great player, drug use was taking its toll and he became more disengaged.
The band held an intervention in 1985 and by 1986, he was clean. However, his prior poor health led him to lapse into a diabetic coma for five days. Garcia reported that “I had some very weird experiences. My main experience was one of furious activity and tremendous struggle in a sort of futuristic, spaceship vehicle with insectoid presences.
After I came out of my coma, I had this image of myself as these little hunks of protoplasm that were stuck together kind of like stamps with perforations between them that you could snap off.” He had to relearn music, stating that he had to “reconstruct all that.”
And just when you thought the band could perhaps fade into irrelevancy in the slick, MTV hair band Eighties, in 1987 they released In the Dark, which became their first Top Ten album.
This is largely due to a really good Hunter/Garcia song called “Touch of Grey.” Not necessarily, or even about aging per se. Shades of grey in life? Even the silver linings have their shadow they seem to be saying. This album not only kept the band going financially but introduced a new generation to their sound. But this song killed the experience for a lot of long-term Deadheads. Now everybody wanted to party in the parking lot:
The Dead also backed Bob Dylan on a tour that was not treated kindly by the rock press, the combination being neither fish nor fowl. Maybe this was not as great a marriage as it was twenty years prior with The Band. Unlike that group, the Dead weren’t really a backup band, they were their own thing. And from what I’ve read, Dylan wasn’t in peak form either in performance or cooperation-wise.
And I didn’t realize it till I went to write this but the last studio album by the Dead was 1989’s Built to Last. I’m not sure how Deadheads feel about this album but the Ultimate Classic Rock site listed it as one of their worst. One can assume that perhaps at that point they no longer cared but were just fulfilling a contractual obligation.
Things got worse. Brent Mydland died of a drug overdose in 1990. And I won’t go into all the detail on Jerry’s health in the next few years but let’s just say he struggled with his overall health, his weight, smoking, drugs, etc. He wanted to get off the touring train but management wanted them to keep going.
I still remember the day August 9, 1995. I was working with a guy who was a stone Deadhead, all of maybe 25 years old. We didn’t talk much about music but I knew he was into them. I passed his cube one day and he said, “Jerry’s gone, man.” I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t see it coming.
Jerry Garcia died at the age of 53 of a heart attack. Knowing that there was no real Grateful Dead without Jerry, the group voted to disband. But they were so well-established that they had any number of offshoot bands (The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur, Ratdog, etc.) Bruce Hornsby and Allmans’ Warren Haynes were part of the mix, Hornsby having been a part of their last touring band.
Wikipedia: “In 2015, Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and Hart reunited for five concerts called “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead”. The shows were performed on June 27 and 28 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and on July 3, 4, and 5 at Soldier Field in Chicago. (These were broadcast and I listened to quite a bit of the Chicago show. I could never understand why San Francisco wasn’t one of the two cities.)
The band stated that this would be the final time that Weir, Lesh, Hart, and Kreutzmann would perform together. They were joined by Trey Anastasio of Phish on guitar, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, and Bruce Hornsby on piano. The concerts were simulcast via various media. The Chicago shows have been released as a box set of CDs and DVDs.”
As of this writing, the band Dead & Company, (Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti and Allmans’ bassist Oteil Burbridge) are touring. And while I was writing this, I found out that Martin Scorsese is releasing (to theaters, then Amazon Prime) a Dead documentary in June 2017 called, what else, Long Strange Trip.
Well, that’s it. The Grateful Dead, in some fashion or another, truck on. There are a shitload of tribute bands touring as well as offshoot bands. (Mickey Hart is and has been for years, a musicologist and an insane ambassador to all things rhythm.) And if you want to hear the Dead at any time in their history, no worries. One way or another you can hear every last bit of it.
It’s clear to me after researching this series that much of what we think of as the ’60’s all the way up to Woodstock and beyond had its gestation in one city – San Francisco. San Francisco was the petri dish of ideas which spread all the way around the globe. (The first “Be-in” was held there in January 1967). And the Grateful Dead were – and are – its emissaries.
I leave you with a worldwide collaborative version of my (and a lot of people’s) favorite Grateful Dead song of all time, “Ripple.” Lead vocals by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Jimmy Buffett, and David Crosby. Billy Kreutzmann holds down the drum chair. Jerry’s daughter Keelin makes an appearance as well:
You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home
Spotify version (studio)
Jerry Garcia is on Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 guitarists.Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter are members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 2007, the band received a Grammy Lifetime Award. The Grateful Dead were inducted (by Bruce Hornsby) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Furthur select listening: Friend of the Devil, Playing in the Band, Eyes of the World, Box of Rain, Sugar Magnolia, Sugaree, Estimated Prophet, Terrapin Station, One More Saturday Night, Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad, Morning Dew, Casey Jones
Sources: A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. Dennis McNally; Wikipedia; various fan sites, Grateful Dead Movie