.

Good Old Grateful Dead

They are their own greatest influence, making music of their own creation: fast and slow, driving and serene, loud and soft

August 23, 1969
grateful dead 40
Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Baron Wolman

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilise me and I can't stand it. I been there before.

              – Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

The Dead didn't get it going Wednesday night at Winterland, and that was too bad. The gig was a bail fund benefit for the People's Park in Berkeley, and the giant ice-skating cavern was packed with heads. The whole park hassle – the benefit was for the 450 busted a few days before – had been a Berkeley political trip all the way down, but the issue was a good-timey park, so the crowd, though older and more radical than most San Francisco rock crowds, was a fine one in a good dancing mood, watery mouths waiting for the groove to come. The Airplane were on the bill too, so were Santana, the Act of Cups, Aum, and a righteous range of others; a San Francisco all-star night, the bands making home-grown music for home-grown folks gathered for a home-grown cause.

But the Dead stumbled that night. They led off with a warm-up tune that they did neatly enough, and the crowd, swarmed in luminescent darkness, sent up "good old Grateful Dead, we're so glad you're here," vibrations. The band didn't catch them. Maybe they were a bit tired of being taken for granted as surefire deliverers of good vibes – drained by constant expectations. Or they might have been cynical – a benefit for those Berkeley dudes who finally learned what a park is but are still hung up on confrontation and cops and bricks and spokesmen giving TV interviews and all that bullshit. The Dead were glad to do it, but it was one more benefit to bail out the politicos.

Maybe they were too stoned on one of the Bear's custom-brewed elixirs, or the long meeting that afternoon with the usual fights about salaries and debt priorities and travel plans for the upcoming tour that they'd be making without a road manager, and all the work of being, in the end, a rock and roll band, may have left them pissed off. After abortive stabs at "Doing That Rag" and "St. Stephen," they fell into "Lovelight" as a last resort, putting Pigpen out in front to lay on his special brand of oily rag pig-ism while they funked around behind. It usually works, but not that night. Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman, the drummers, couldn't find anything to settle on, and the others kept trying ways out of the mess, only to create new tangles of bumpy rhythms and dislocated melodies. For the briefest of seconds a nice phrase would pop out, and the crowd would cheer, thinking maybe this was it, but before the cheer died, the moment had also perished. After about twenty minutes they decided to call it quits, ended with a long building crescendo, topping that with a belching cannon blast (which fell right on the beat, the only luck they found that night), and split the stage.

"But, y'know, I dug it, man," said Jerry Garcia the next night, "I can get behind falling to pieces before an audience sometimes. We're not performers; we are who we are for those moments we're before the public, and that's not always at the peak." He was backstage at the Robertson Gymnasium at the University of California at Santa Barbara, backstage being a curtained-off quarter of the gym, the other three quarters being stage and crowd. His red solid body Gibson with its "Red, White, and Blue Power" sticker was in place across his belly and he caressed-played it without stopping. Rock the manager was scrunched in a corner dispensing Tequila complete with salt and lemon to the band and all comers, particularly bassist Phil Lesh who left his Eurasian groupie alone and forlorn every time he dashed back to the bottle.

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Jerry Garcia

"Sure, I'll fuck up for an audience," said Mickey from behind his sardonic beard, bowing. "My pleasure, we'll take you as low and mean as you want to go."

"See, it's like good and evil," Jerry went on, his yellow glasses glinting above his eager smile. "They exist together in their little game, each with its special place and special humors. I dig 'em both. What is life but being conscious? And good and evil are manifestations of consciousness. If you reject one, you're not getting the whole thing that's there to be had. So I had a good time last night. Getting in trouble can be a trip too."

His good humor was enormous, even though it had been a bitch of a day. The travel agent had given them the wrong flight time and, being the day before the Memorial Day weekend, there was no space on any other flight for all fourteen of them. So they had hustled over to National Rent-a-Car, gotten two matched Pontiacs and driven the 350 miles down the coast. Phil drove one, and since he didn't have his license and had six stoned back seat drivers for company, he had gotten pretty paranoid. The promoter, a slick Hollywood type, had told them at five in the afternoon that he wouldn't let them set up their own PA. "It's good enough for Lee Michaels, it's good enough for you," he said, and they were too tired to fight it.

The Bear, who handles the sound system as well as the chemicals, was out of it anyway. When the band got to the gym, he was flat on his back, curled up among the drum cases. Phil shook him to his feet and asked if there was anything he could do, but Bear's pale eyes were as sightless as fog. By that time the MC was announcing them. With a final "oh, fuck it, man," they trouped up to the stage through the massed groupies.

Robertson Gym stank like every gym in history. The light show, the big-name band, and the hippie ambience faded before that smell, unchanged since the days when the student council hung a few million paper snowflakes from the ceiling and tried to pass it off as Winter Wonderland. Now it was Psychedelic Wonderland, but the potent spirits of long departed sweatsocks still owned the place. That was okay, another rock and roll dance in the old school gym. They brought out "Lovelight" again; this time the groove was there, and for forty minutes they laid it down, working hard and getting that bob and weave interplay of seven man improvisation that can take you right out of your head. But Jerry kept looking more and more pained, then suddenly signaled to bring it to a close. They did, abruptly, and Jerry stepped to a mike.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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