Fifteen Years of the Grateful Dead

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In New York, Bob Weir, speaking for the band, had begged off interviews until Colorado. The Dead, he'd said, were going through some delicate changes and "learning about each other," and couldn't have an outsider watching, listening and asking questions. Weir had sounded weary, as if he were talking about a marriage on the rocks.

Three weeks later, in Boulder, I asked about those changes. It turned out they were musical, and still incomplete.

"It's not quite as manifested as I'd expected," he said, "but the old format has just about been played out. We have July and part of August and October off. In that time, I expect a fair amount of new material will be written, and there've been a lot of discussions about rethinking our mode of presentation."

"The old format," Lesh explained, "is two segments. The first is always songs, and the second is longer stuff, medleys, jams." The idea now, he said, is to "get it tighter." "Make it more succinct," said Weir. "There's got to be a way to get more music in."

Does this notion symbolize other changes within the band?

"Well," said Weir, who has a habit of giving that word a Western, Gabby Hayes twist, "I think we're a bit more flexible and musically mobile than we have been for years. We got into sort of a static situation with Keith and Donna, where we were pretty much locked into this old format. Then for the past year or so with Brent, it's been like getting to learn what to expect, and getting him to learn our operation." "Expect the unexpected," Mydland interrupted. Weir continued: "We're just now starting to loosen up to the point where we were, say, back in 1970, '72, where we can start drifting from key to key, from rhythm to rhythm, and in the jams, some interesting stuff has come up. Once again, we're tending to go to new places every night."

After seven years with the Dead, pianist Keith Godchaux and vocalist Donna Godchaux were invited to leave the band. "Essentially," said Lesh, "it was, 'Don't you guys feel you could profit from being on your own, doing what it is you do best, 'cause you're not doing it with us?'" The reason given was "limitations." The Dead wanted more and different keyboard sounds; Keith stuck to his grand piano.

Brent Mydland, 27, who in June 1980 celebrated fifteen months with the Dead, had played behind Batdorf and Rodney, and then with his own band, Silver, before touring with the Bob Weir Band. When the Dead met to discuss the Godchaux situation, it was Garcia, whose own band had toured with Weir's band, who suggested Mydland.

"One of the first few albums I ever bought," said Mydland, "was the first Dead album." Weir and Lesh look surprised. "I didn't know that," said Lesh. "I saw them live at the Fillmore West, and one thing that stood out was 'Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl.'" That song featured the vocals and keyboards of the menacing-looking Ron "Pigpen" McKernan.

Pigpen died in 1973, his liver shot through with alcohol. In a group known as the house band for the acid tests of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and a band who – even into the mid-Seventies – was said to enjoy spiking anything potable, Pigpen never took drugs, except once, when he was dosed.

Now, Garcia says that the drug image was always overblown. "It's always been part true and part false. It's never been anything but something you do in addition to playing music. The fundamental thing we're doing is being a band, not selling or promoting drugs. The fact that we all take drugs isn't even true. Not all of us do take drugs, and none of us takes drugs regularly. I think drugs are just a reality of American life, in one form or another. I mean, hell, they're there."

Still, there's no arguing that they were more there for the Dead than for most people, especially in the early days. Mickey Hart was talking about how the band used to drop acid before virtually every show, and that prompted Kreutzmann to mention a major change in the Dead.

"In attitudes, how you feel before you go on," he said. "We don't get all wired and crazy." An example: "We really burned hard yesterday [the first day in Boulder]. It's like you have a bank account on psychic energy, and we used a lot yesterday. So I woke up this morning feeling a little behind and tired, and instead of going out and using stimulants to feel up, I just wait till the music comes around and let it build like that."

And the rest of the band will pick up on it? Hart answers: "The band will let it be. This band is sensitive to everything: the weather, attitudes . . ."

Indeed. A moment before, when Barlow broke in with a photo of the band and a request for an autograph on behalf of a fan, Hart flipped the pen away and snarled: "Get outta here, man. I can't keep a flow going when you interrupt!"

Good vibes!" Jerry Garcia chortled gleefully. "Too much! How perfect!" I'd just told him about a visit I'd made to 710 Ashbury, the Grateful Dead house in 1966 and '67, and about C. J. Filice, the fifteen-year-old boy who lives there with his parents and sister. In his room, on one wall, are posters of Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Fawcett and a topless woman skier. On another wall – the big one, fronting the bed – are the Grateful Dead, in posters, photos and album-cover handbills. The kid's a Deadhead, and Garcia was delighted to hear it. "That makes me feel real good," he said, chuckling again.

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