Good Old Grateful Dead

Page 3 of 8

San Francisco's major contribution to rock was the flaunting of that rule. The Beatles had really started it; on one hand the most isolated and revered group, they were also the most personal: you knew the image, of course, not the real them, but the image was lively and changing. The same is true for Dylan, but San Francisco made it real. The early days at the Fillmore and Avalon were not unlike the months that the Rolling Stones played the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, but for the first time there was the hope, if not assumption, that those days would never have to end. The one-to-one performer-audience relationship was what the music was about. San Francisco's secret was not the dancing, the light-shows, the posters, the long sets, or the complete lack of stage act, but the idea that all of them together were the creation and recreation of a community. Everybody did their thing and all things were equal. The city had a hip community, one of bizarrely various people who all on their own had decided that they'd have to find their own way through the universe and that the old ways wouldn't do no more. In that community everybody looked like a rock star, and rock stars began to look and act and live like people, not gods on the make. The way to go big time was to encourage more people to join the community or to make their own; not to enlarge onself out of it into the machine's big time. San Francisco said that rock and roll could be making your own music for your friends – folk music in a special sense.

Sort of; because it didn't really work. Dances did become concerts, groups eagerly signed with big record companies from LA to New York, did do long tours, did get promo men, secluded retreats, Top-40 singles, and did become stars. Thousands took up the trappings of community with none of its spirit; the community itself lost hope and direction, fought bitterly within itself, and fragmented. San Francisco was not deserted for the machine as Liverpool had been, but the machine managed to make San Francisco an outpost, however funky, of itself. Janis Joplin is still the city's one super star, but the unity of the musical-social community has effectively been broken; musicians play for pay, audiences pay to listen. There is now a rock musician's community which is international, and it is closer to the audience community than ever before in rock's history, but the San Francisco vision has died (or at least hibernated) unfulfilled. There are many reasons: bad and/or greedy management, the swamping effect of sudden success, desperation, lack of viable alternatives, and the combined flatteries of fame, money, and ridiculous adulation on young egos.

But the central reason is that rock is not folk music in that special sense. The machine, with all its flashy fraudulences, is not a foreign growth on rock, but its very essence. One can not be a good rock musician and, either psychically or in fact, be an amateur, because professionalism is part of the term's definition. Rock and roll, rather some other art, became the prime expression of that community because it was rock, machine and all, the miracle beauty of American mass production, a mythic past, a global fantasy, an instantaneous communications network, and a maker of super-heroes. There's no way to combine wanting that and wanting "just folks" too. The excitement of San Francisco was the attempt to synthesize these two contradictory positions. To pull it off would have been a revolution; at best San Francisco made a reform. In the long haul its creators, tired of fighting the paradox, chose modified rock over folk music.

All except the Grateful Dead, who've been battling it out with that mother of a paradox for years. Sometimes they lose, sometimes they win.

True fellowship among men must be based upon a concern that is universal. It is not the private interests of the individual that creat lasting fellowship among men, but rather the goals of humanity ... If unity of this kind prevails, even difficult and dangerous tasks, such as crossing the great water, can be accomplished.
      – The I Ching, 13th hexagram: "Fellowship with Men"


he Grateful Dead are not the original San Francisco band – the Charlatans, the Great Society, and the Airplane all predate them, even in their Warlock stage  – and whether they are the best, whatever that would mean, is irrelevant. Probably they are the loudest; someone once described them as "living thunder." Certainly they are the weirdest, black satanic weird and white archangel weird. As weird as anything you can imagine, like some horror comic monster who, besides being green and slimy, happens also to have seven different heads, a 190 IQ, countless decibels of liquid fire noise communication, and is coming right down to where you are to gobble you up. But if you can dig the monster, bammo, he's giant puppy to play with. Grateful Dead weird, ultimately, and what an image that name is. John Lennon joked about the flaming hand that made them Beatles, but Jerry Garcia is serious:

"Back in the late days of the Acid Tests, we were looking for a name. We'd abandoned the Warlocks, it didn't fit anymore. One day we were all over at Phil's house smoking DMT. He had a big Oxford dictionary, opened it, and there was 'grateful dead,' those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, y'know, like everything else on the page went blank, diffuse, just sorta oozed away, and there was Grateful Dead, big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, 'How about Grateful Dead?' and that was it."

The image still resonates for the Dead: they are, or desire to become, the grateful dead. Grateful Dead may mean whatever you like it to mean, life-in-death, ego death, reincarnation, the joy of the mystic vision. Maybe it is Rick Griffin's grinning skull balancing on the axis of an organic universe that is the cover of Aoxomoxoa, their latest record. It doesn't matter how you read it, for the Dead, as people, musicians, and a group, are in that place where the meanings of a name or event can be as infinite as the imagination, and yet mean precisely what they are and no more.

Album Review: Aoxomoxoa

In their first beginning they were nothing spectacular, just another rock and roll band made up of suburban ex-folkies who, in '64 and '65, with Kennedy dead, the civil rights movement split into black and white, Vietnam taking over from ban-the-bomb, with the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan, were finding out that the sit-and-pluck number had run its course. Jerry had gone the whole route: digging rock in the mid-Fifties, dropping into folk by 1959, getting deep into traditional country music as a purist scholar, re-emerging as a brilliant bluegrass banjo player, and then, in 1964, starting Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions with Pigpen and Bob Weir. Weir, who had skipped from boarding school to boarding school before quitting entirely, got his real education doing folk gigs and lying about his age. "I was 17," he says, "looked fifteen, and said I was 21." Pigpen, ne Ron McKernan, is the son of an early white rhythm and blues DJ, and from his early teens had made the spade scene, playing harp and piano at parties, digging Lightning Hopkins, and nursing a remarkable talent for spinning out juiced blues raps. All three were misfits; Jerry had dropped out of high school too to join the army which kicked him out after a few months as unfit for service. "How true, how true," he says now.

But the Jug Champions couldn't get any gigs, and when a Palo Alto music store owner offered to front them with equipment to start a rock band, they said yes. Bill Kreutzman, then Bill Sommers to fit his fake ID, became the drummer. A fan of R & B stylists, he was the only one with rock experience. At first the music store cat was the bass player, but concurrently Phil Lesh, an old friend of Jerry's, was coming to a similar dead end in formal electronic music, finding less and less to say and fewer people to say it to. A child violinist, then Kenton-style jazz trumpeter and arranger, he went to a Warlock gig on impulse and the group knocked him out. "Jerry came over to where I was sitting and said, 'Guess what, you're gonna be our bass player.' I had never played bass, but I learned sort of, and in July, 1965, the five of us played our first gig, some club in Fremont."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

More Song Stories entries »