Phil Lesh: Grateful Dead 'Didn't Deliver' at First Monterey Pop

"We have a tradition of blowing the big ones," bassist recalls at 50th anniversary of fest

Credit: C Flanigan/Getty

The Grateful Dead's impact – on psych rock, on live recording techniques, on the meaning of a fan-based subculture – can't really be overstated. But when it comes to 1967's Monterey International Pop Festival, bassist and founding member Phil Lesh insists he isn't being modest when he calls the band's set forgettable.

"Our place in the show was the most unmemorable possible slot: between The Who and Jimi Hendrix," he told Rolling Stone on Sunday evening, just a couple hours before he took that same stage for a headlining set at the festival's 50th anniversary. Lesh, 77, continues to play regularly at his Marin County restaurant and music venue Terrapin Crossroads, under the name Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band – a group that includes, fittingly, his son Grahame Lesh on guitar.

This time around, the band wasn't wedged between anything: they closed out the festival with a 90-minute set of bluesy Dead jams and new tunes, as well as a gut-punch cover of "Like a Rolling Stone." It was memorable.

So I've heard you don't think the Dead's performance at Monterey Pop went well at all.
No. I think we all felt that way, that we didn't deliver what we could. Though, really, it didn't matter. Between the Who tearing it up, doing a great set, and then destroying the stage at the end of their set, and then Jimi playing a fantastic set and then lighting his guitar on fire … what are you gonna remember, who came between them? No. It's gonna be just like a big shadow, some murky space. So I don't know whether that was a subconscious consideration we had, but we did not play well.

It was the beginning of our tradition, really – we have a tradition of blowing the big ones. So no, [this festival] was not a big career-changing moment for us like it was for so many others. But that was fine. We didn't really care.

What was your reaction when you heard they were planning this festival? You still write and play all the time, and you don't seem like someone content to bank on nostalgia.
I said "Oh, another 50th anniversary thing." [Laughs.] They've been coming every year for a while now. But then I found out I could come down here and play with my son and the younger guys, and I am really excited about this band. So yeah, I don't think of it in terms of nostalgia. It's an opportunity to play, especially with these young musicians who've been growing so much at Terrapin Crossroads.his is the fruit of all that writing and playing and singing at Terrapin – this is now a band that we can take out into the world.

Looking toward the future, then – are there places, or current music, where you see your legacy?
I try not to think about that. It's not about me. It's about the community and what happened in San Francisco in the Sixties. It's a light that still shines in this world, and if there's any legacy at all to the Grateful Dead or the Haight-Ashbury, it's in situations like this, where people get together outside of the political environment and come together in a kind of communion. That's the only way we're going to be able to move forward, is to elevate ourselves above that left-right bullshit. A house divided cannot stand. That's my political statement for the day.

Do you think about the role or purpose of music in politics, or vice-versa, these days? Clearly that was a big part of this festival the first time around.
Well, you don't want to really get me started on our current political situation. Obviously I see a lot of comparisons [between our situation then and now]. But the thing I remember about San Francisco and our scene in the Sixties there was we were not interested in radical violent protest. We were there to demonstrate a new way of living, so all that shit didn't really affect us. The political stuff was pretty much only in Berkeley. And that's my hometown, I'm proud to be a People's Republic of Berkeley product, but that was just not our scene. We felt there was another way.

And the purpose of music is the same as it's always been: to bring enlightenment to sentient beings. Beethoven said, "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." It's bigger than politics.