The Grateful Dead: Playing in the Band

How rock’s most famous jam band created a sound — and a culture — that will never die

The Grateful Dead, (clockwise): Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan, Mickey Hart and Jerry Garcia during the MUnited Kingdom, circa 1970. Credit: Chris Walter/Getty

In rock & roll, there is Grateful Dead music and then there is everything else. No other band has been so pure in its outlaw idealism, so resolute in its pursuit of transcendence onstage and on record, and so astonishingly casual about both the hazards and rewards of its chosen, and at times truly lunatic, course. "Well, I just see us as a lot of good-time pirates," Jerry Garcia told a reporter just as the New Euphoria hit its high-noon peak in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. "I'd like to apologize in advance to anybody who believes we're something really serious. The seriousness comes up as lightness, and I think that's the way it should be."

Garcia wasn't actually talking about his band but about the local bliss missionaries in general. But that benevolent-brigand spirit, the rare gift of turning subversion into sunlight — that was the essence of the music and the mission of the Dead. "The important thing is that everybody be comfortable," Garcia added. "Live what you have to live and be comfortable."

As a guitarist, songwriter and — given his pillar-of-salt stage presence and rather grandfatherly countenance in recent years  — deceptively commanding figure in a band ostensibly made up of equals, Jerry Garcia tried to live that axiom to the fullest. "I don't think of my work as being full-time work," he declared in his epic 1972 Rolling Stone interview. "What I'm doing is my work, but I'm playing! When I left the straight world at 15, when I got my first guitar and left everything I was doing, I was taking a vacation — I was going out to play, and I'm still playing."

Yet for Garcia and the other core members of the Dead — bassist Phil Lesh, singer and guitarist Bob Weir, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and the original much-loved singer, organist, lusty harp blower and 100-proof bluesman Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, who died in 1973 of liver disease — there was no life, and no comfort, without risk. No task was accomplished successfully without some attendant mess and an edifying side trip to the margins. In a music business that prefers expedience to expedition and treats even its most celebrated renegades like errant children, the Dead routinely took the longer, harder route to revelation. Some of the most enduring songs in their repertoire — "Truckin'," "Uncle John's Band," "Casey Jones," "Dark Star," John Phillips' outlaw fable "Me and My Uncle," the traditional "I Know You Rider" — are about motion, in real time and otherwise, and about the world of diversion and possibility on the road to enlightenment.

The Dead spent three decades on that road. They were in no hurry to become celebrities. And when they did become stars, the Dead were more interested in the Utopian investments that wealth and the luxury of time could buy: their first misfire at starting an independent label, Round Records, in 1973; the huge, hideously expensive wall-of-speakers PA that the band dragged around on tour in '73 and '74; the heavy logistics of their historic shows under the stars at the Great Pyramid, in Egypt, in September 1978.

"But our scene is always healthiest when it's really struggling," Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1973. "Basically our situation is on the borderline of collapse all the time, anyway."

Musically the Grateful Dead were a product of square-root influences. The songs, the jamming — even those long twilight stretches in concert when the band would dissolve into look-Ma-no-maps quadrants of free improvisation — were born of elemental Americana: hard-bitten Mississippi blues, galloping Chicago R&B, the back-porch and campfire strains of classic country music, old-timey Appalachian bluegrass. One side of the Dead's humble indie-45 debut, issued in 1966 on the Scorpio label, was a reading of the traditional country-blues chestnut "Stealin'." Over the past decade, as they labored at leisure over original material for their infrequent studio releases, the Dead increasingly returned to the Motown, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed and Bob Dylan songbooks that had been part of their source material going back to their dance-band days as the Warlocks. (Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "She Belongs to Me" were both features of the Dead's early shows.)

Yet the Dead, who were charged with a mutinous optimism and an irrepressible restlessness too often mistaken for unprofessionalism, were rarely content to leave well enough alone. Sometimes it was something as simple as adding an asymmetrical kick to "Viola Lee Blues" — a 12-bar, 78-RPM-vintage stomper covered on the group's 1967 debut album — by cutting a half-bar out of it. Or it could be as willfully trippy as 1969's Aoxomoxoa, an attempt to make a disciplined song-based record that instead mutated into an unforgettable marvel of rococo psychedelia, as elegant and cryptic as Rick Griffin's mesmerizing cover art.

Even between the extremes — 1970's pair of jewels Workingman's Dead and American Beauty; the graceful, spacey Blues for Allah in 1975; the unlikely 1987 chart monster In the Dark — the Dead never lapsed into formula. They spent their entire career struggling to bottle on LP the living color of their stage performances. But the Dead refused to betray the substance of their music and the improbable mix of talents and personalities that fueled it.

Back in December 1967, Joe Smith — the executive at Warner Bros. Records who signed the Dead to the label — wrote a letter to the band's then manager, Danny Rifkin, complaining about, in Smith's words, the "lack of professionalism" that was hampering completion of the band's second album, Anthem of the Sun. "The Grateful Dead are not one of the top acts in the business yet," Smith wrote (to his subsequent chagrin). "Their attitudes and their inability to take care of business when it's time to do so would lead us to believe that they never will be truly important. No matter how talented your group is, it's going to have to put something of itself into the business before it goes anywhere."

Later, someone scrawled across the letter in big capital letters the words fuck you.

I first saw the Grateful Dead at Woodstock in 1969. They sucked, albeit through no fault of their own. (The sound system wimped out on them.) But that was my first lesson in life with the Dead: Not every night is brilliant. The second lesson, as I kept going back for more, was, Don't give up so easily — the process is half the fun.

The Dead could be maddeningly inconsistent in performance. They could take up the better part of an evening's first set just to get their engine turning over. A few years ago I took my wife to see the band for the first time. The Dead opened with a sluggish version of "Let the Good Times Roll" that sounded like they were barely able to make the good times crawl. "Pick it up, pick it up!" she exclaimed, snapping her fingers impatiently, oblivious to the startled Deadheads around her. "This is rock & roll!"

But then, just as you settled back for a long haul, the Dead could turn on a dime into the high-wire swing of "The Other One," tap the serene beauty of "Box of Rain" or leave you exhilarated with a steaming "One More Saturday Night." They were rarely better than when skating across the thin ice of a daredevil second-set medley like the one I remember from Oct. 18, 1994, at Madison Square Garden, in New York: the aching, elegiac "He's Gone" sidewinding into the back-to-back chooglers "Smokestack Lightning" and Truckin'," a slow-motion drop into the nightly free fall of "Drums"/"Space," then a pillow-soft landing onto the spooky melancholy of "The Days Between." It was the last Grateful Dead show I saw. I was blessed with one of the great ones.

The devoted "know when we have a bad night," Garcia said in '89, "and they appreciate a good try. And some nights that we hate, those are the nights they love.

"In a way they've allowed themselves that latitude to enjoy a show for lots of different reasons," Garcia said. "I think that's in their favor — no matter what the experience has been, they don't get burned. It's not like going to a show that is a real tight show, and you miss every cue, and everything is fucked up, and you say, 'Shit, that was horrible.' When a Grateful Dead show is horrible, it's interesting."

That was also true of the records. One of the most underrated LPs in the Grateful Dead canon is 1968's Anthem of the Sun, a twisted, lysergic dance-party record and raw sonic splat that is contagiously propulsive and, in its way, raggedly soulful. With the recent additions of Mickey Hart and keyboardist Tom Constanten — who first met Lesh in the early '60s when they registered for music classes together at the University of California at Berkeley — the Dead dared to marry acid-damaged art music (electronically treated vocals, Constanten's prepared piano, brain-fuck sound effects) with the funky snort of live rock & roll (locomotive extracts from a memorable February 1968 gig at the Carousel Ballroom, in San Francisco).

At one point, Weir literally drove the band's producer Dave Hassinger out of the studio. At a session for "Born Cross-Eyed," "the song got quiet at one point, and so I announced, 'Right here I want the sound of thick air,'" Weir recalled in Playing in the Band, David Gans and Peter Simon's 1985 oral and pictorial history of the Dead. "I couldn't describe it back then because I didn't know what I was talking about. I do know now: a little bit of white noise and a little bit of compression. I was thinking about something kind of like the buzzing that you hear in your ears on a hot, sticky summer day." The Dead finished the album themselves at great expense. The recording bills, combined with those for Aoxomoxoa, left the band in debt to its label into the '70s.

The Dead pulled back from the extreme precipices and chemically enhanced detours of psychedelia after 1969's Live Dead (the finest official document of their late-'60s stage prowess), finding renewed strength in the natural energy of country picking, bluesy grooves and folky harmonizing. The earth tones and sawdust charms of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty may have been descended from frontier fantasias like Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding or Crosby, Stills and Nash, but the Dead came by their new direction honestly. And those two Dead albums — which set the tone for much of their music for the next 25 years — threw the band's unique ensemble chemistry into sharp relief.

Bob Weir, a teenage straight arrow who fell from suburban grace into bohemia via Garcia's early bluegrass outfit, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, brought a bright, eternally boyish tenor to the Dead's vocal mix. He also matured into a strong, inventive songwriter, usually in collaboration with lyricist John Barlow, despite the long shadow cast by Garcia and his longtime friend and lyric-writing partner, Robert Hunter. ("Victim or the Crime," cowritten with actor Gerrit Graham for 1989's Built to Last, is a fine late-period example of Weir's writing.)

Tall, blond, inscrutable Phil Lesh arrived at rock &roll via the trumpet and deep studies in contemporary classical music, electronic composition and avant jazz. (The only recorded evidence of his horn playing with the Dead is the Spanish-flavored flourish in "Born Cross-Eyed.") But as a bassist, Lesh was the unshakable anchor of the Dead's rhythmic foundation, while the intuitive fluidity of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart's tandem drumming elevated the band's heartbeat drive into a dynamic form of percussive communion.

Pigpen, whose gentle manner belied his nickname, carried himself with a crusty charisma onstage that the Dead respectfully declined to replace after his death. During their respective passages through the group, keyboardists Keith Godchaux (with vocalist and wife Donna), Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick and frequent guest Bruce Hornsby all brought a more tempered, lyrical glow to the Dead's otherwise rough-hewed populism. (That piano seat was a star-crossed one. Godchaux died in an auto accident in 1980, a year after he left the band; Mydland died of a drug overdose in July 1990.)

But it was Jerry Garcia's surprisingly fragile singing and the articulate glass blade stab of his guitar that through the '70s and '80s characterized the genial vulnerability and bright, contagious energy of the Dead's retooled-roots sound. As a songwriter framing Hunter's singular blend of gravelly realism and metaphoric reverie, Garcia was equally adept at evergreen country-blues portraiture ("Uncle John's Band"), roadhouse romanticism ("Sugaree") or anthemic celebration ("Touch of Grey"). "Wharf Rat" — a bittersweet ballad about a down-but-not-quite-out alcoholic captured with a startling chamber-group intimacy on the 1971 Skull and Roses live album (so nicknamed after Alton Kelley's cover art) — is quintessential Garcia. His voice gently shivers with spiritual remorse and dogged hopefulness; by the song's end, the achingly slow, bluesy tempo and the skeletal chiming of Garcia's guitar have taken on a warm, churchy glow.

As a solo artist and a frequent picker on other artists' records, Garcia always took a piece of the Dead's aesthetic with him wherever he went. The 1991 live double CD Jerry Garcia Band is a fine reflection of his interpretive powers as he settles comfortably into the elasticized grooves of songs as diverse as Bruce Cockburn's "Waiting for a Miracle," the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" and Bob Dylan's "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)." The cracker-barrel purity of Garcia's banjo plucking is still a joy to behold on the 1973 live album he cut with the one-shot bluegrass group Old and in the Way. And the sweet glide of his pedal steel guitar on "Teach Your Children," by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, is probably his finest moment as a sessionman — an artful touch of Nashville poignancy with a bracing Bay Area breeze blowing through it.

"For me, the models were music that I'd liked before that were basically simply constructed but terribly effective — like the old Buck Owens records from Bakersfield [Calif.]," Garcia said in Rolling Stone in 1987 of his return to folk-blues classicism. "Those records were basic rock &: roll: nice, raw, simple, straight-ahead music with good vocals and substantial instrumentation but nothing flashy."

"I don't think of my ideas as being very far-out, musically," Garcia said in 1993. "The thing that works for me in music is the emotional component, not the technical side. I am fascinated by musical weirdness like Blues for Allah, for example. But really, the thing that propels me through music is the emotional reality of it. And as I get older, I surrender more to that. I trust that intuition."

Maybe Garcia didn't trust it enough. During the last 10 years of his life, he divided his time between music — the Dead; the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band; a two-week solo residency on Broadway in 1987; a 1993 children's album cut with mandolinist David Grisman — and a hard drug habit that challenged a body already overburdened by diabetes, a chronic weight problem and chain-smoking. But the tragedy of Garcia's death is not in the circumstances that surely led to it. Given his recent close calls (his diabetic coma in '86, his collapse from exhaustion during a 1992 tour), Garcia enjoyed a few extensions in his lease on life.

The sadness is in the dark narcotic haze that — for some people — will obscure the weight of Garcia's musical achievement and in the fact that Garcia couldn't find quite enough salvation in the music he played or in the joy it brought to others. It's easy in retrospect to read more into the music than Garcia intended, but his performance of the traditional country lament "I'm Troubled," on Almost Acoustic, the live 1988 CD by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, has a few new chills to it: the delicate picking, the tender vocal harmonies, the seemingly prophetic chorus ("I'm troubled/I'm troubled/I'm troubled in mind/If trouble don't kill me/Lord, I'll live a long time").

Garcia and the Grateful Dead could have hung up their rock & roll shoes years ago, content in the knowledge that the band had set a working standard for aesthetic integrity and social responsibility in rock & roll. The Dead established a nation-state of fans who were not mere consumers or devotees but true citizens of the Zeitgeist. And they inspired several generations of bands — from '60s peers like the Allman Brothers Band to successful youngsters like Phish — who absorbed and recycled that family vibe, not just the musical notes.

But the broader impact of Garcia's passing and the probable end of the Dead as a touring and recording unit should not be underestimated. "It's an adventure you can still have in America, just like Neal [Cassady] on the road," Garcia said of life with the Dead in these pages a few years ago. "You can't hop the freights anymore, but you can chase the Grateful Dead around. You can have all your tires blow out in some weird town in the Midwest, and you can get hell from strangers. You can have something that lasts throughout your life as adventures, the times you took chances. I think that's essential in anybody's life, and it's harder and harder to do in America."

With the death of Jerry Garcia, it just got a little harder.