Good Old Grateful Dead

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For about six months the Warlocks were a straight rock and roll band. No longer. "The only scene then was the Hollywood hype scene, booking agents in flashy suits, gigs in booze clubs, six nights a week, five sets a night, doing all the R & B-rock standards. We did it all," Jerry recalls. "Then we got a regular job at a Belmont club, and developed a whole malicious thing, playing songs longer and weirder, and louder, man. For those days it was loud, and for a bar it was ridiculous. People had to scream at each other to talk, and pretty soon we had driven out all the regular clientele. They'd run out clutching their ears. We isolated them, put 'em through a real number, yeah."

The only people who dug it were the heads around Ken Kesey up at his place in La Honda. All the Warlocks had taken acid ("We were already on the crazy-eyed fanatic trip," says Bob Weir), and, given dozens of mutual friends, it was inevitable that the Warlocks would play at La Honda. There they began again.

"One day the idea was there: 'Why don't we have a big party, and you guys bring your instruments and play, and us Pranksters will set up all our tape recorders and bullshit, and we'll all get stoned.' That was the first Acid Test. The idea was of its essence formless. There was nothin' going on. We'd just go up there and make something of it. Right away we dropped completely out of the straight music scene and just played the Tests. Six months; San Francisco, Muir Beach, Trips Festival, then LA."

Jerry strained to describe what those days were like, because, just like it says in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Dead got on the bus, made that irrevocable decision that the only place to go is further into the land of infinite recession that acid opened up. They were not to be psychedelic dabblers, painting pretty pictures, but true explorers. "And just how far would you like to go in?" Frank asks the three kings on the back of John Wesley Harding. "Not too far but just far enough so's we can say that we've been there," answer the kings. Far enough for most, but not for the Dead; they decided to try and cross the great water and bring back the good news from the other side. Jerry continued.

"What the Kesey thing was depended on who you were when you were there. It was open, a tapestry,a mandala – it was whatever you made it. Okay, so you take LSD and suddenly you are aware of another plane, or several other planes, and the quest is to extend that limit, to go as far as you can go. In the Acid Tests that meant to do away with old forms, with old ideas, try something new. Nobody was doing something, y'know, it was everybody doing bits and pieces of something, the result of which was something else.

"When it was moving right, you could dig that there was something that it was getting toward, something like ordered chaos, or some region of chaos. The Test would start off and then there would be chaos. Everybody would be high and flashing and going through insane changes during which everything would be demolished, man, and spilled and broken and affected, and after that, another thing would happen, maybe smoothing out the chaos, then another, and it'd go all night til morning.

"Just people being there, and being responsive. Like, there were microphones all over. If you were wandering around there would be a mike you could talk into. And there would be somebody somewhere else in the building at the end of some wire with a tape recorder and a mixing board and earphone listening in on the mikes and all of a sudden something would come in and he'd turn it up because it seemed appropriate at that moment.

"What you said might come out a minute later on a tape loop in some other part of the place. So there would be this odd interchange going on, electroneural connections of weird sorts. And it was people, just people, doing it all. Kesey would be writing messages about what he was seeing on an opaque projector and they'd be projected up on the wall, and someone would comment about it on a mike somewhere and that would be singing out of a speaker somewhere else.

"And we'd be playing, or, when we were playing we were playing. When we weren't, we'd be doing other stuff. There were no sets, sometimes we'd get up and play for two hours, three hours, sometimes we'd play for ten minutes and all freak out and split. We'd just do it however it would happen. It wasn't a gig, it was the Acid Tests where anything was ok. Thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a roomful of other thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far out, beautiful magic."

Since then the search for that magic has been as important for the Dead as music, or rather, music for the Dead has to capture that magic. All of them share the vision to one degree or another, but its source is essentially Jerry Garcia. "Fellowship with man" stresses the need of "a persevering and enlightened leader ... a man with clear, convincing and inspired aims, and the strength to carry them out." Some call Jerry a guru, but that doesn't mean much: he is just one of those extraordinary human beings who looks you right in the eyes, smiles encouragement, and waits for you to become yourself. However complex, he is entirely open and unenigmatic. He can be vain, self-assertive, and even pompous, but he doesn't fool around with false apology. More than anything else he is cheery – mordant and ironic at times, but undauntedly optimistic. He's been through thinking life is but a joke, but it's still a game to be played with relish and passionately enjoyed. Probably really ugly as a kid – lumpy, fat-faced, and frizzy haired – he is now beautiful, his trimmed hair and beard a dense black aureole around his beaming eyes. His body has an even grace, his face a restless eagerness, and a gentleness not to be confused with "niceness," is his manner. His intelligence is quick and precise, and he can be devastatingly articulate, his dancing hands playing perfect accompaniment to his words.

Phil Lesh, Jerry's more explosive and dogmatic other half, comes right out and says that the Grateful Dead "are trying to save the world," but Jerry is more cautious. "We are trying to make things groovier for everybody so more people can feel better more often, to advance the trip, to get higher, however you want to say it, but we're musicians, and there's just no way to put that idea, 'save the world,' into music; you can only be that idea, or at least make manifest that idea as it appears to you, and hope maybe others follow. And that idea comes to you only moment by moment, so what we're going after is no farther away than the end of our noses. We're just trying to be right behind our noses.

"My way is music. Music is me being me and trying to get higher. I've been into music so long that I'm dripping with it; it's all I ever expect to do. I can't do anything else. Music is a yoga, something you really do when you're doing it. Thinking about what it means comes after the fact and isn't very interesting. Truth is something you stumble into when you think you're going some place else, like those moments when you're playing and the whole room becomes one being, precious moments, man. But you can't look for them and they can't be repeated. Being alive means to continue to change, never to be where I was before. Music is the timeless experience of constant change."

Musical idioms and styles are important to Jerry as suggestive modes and historical and personal fact, but they are not music, and he sees no need for them to be limiting to the modern musician or listener. "You have to get past the idea that music has to be one thing. To be alive in America is to hear all kinds of music constantly – radio, records, churches, cats on the street, everywhere music, man. And with records, the whole history of music is open to everyone who wants to hear it. Maybe Chuck Berry was the first rock musician because he was one of the first blues cats to listen to records, so he wasn't locked into the blues idiom. Nobody has to fool around with musty old scores, weird notation, and scholarship bullshit: you can just go into a record store and pick a century, pick a country, pick anything, and dig it, make it a part of you, add it to the stuff you carry around, and see that it's all music."

The Dead, like many modern groups, live that synthesis, but the breadth of idioms encompassed by the members' previous experience is probably unmatched by any other comparable band. Electronic music of all sorts, accidental music, classical music, Indian music, jazz, folk, country and western, blues, and rock itself – one or all of the Dead have worked in all those forms. In mixing them all they make Grateful Dead music, which, being their own creation, is their own greatest influence. It is music beyond idiom, which makes it difficult for some whose criteria for musical greatness allow only individual expression developed through disciplined understanding of a single accepted idiom. But a Dead song is likely to include Jerry's country and western guitar licks over Bill and Mickey's 11/4 time, with the others making more muted solo statements – the whole thing subtly orchestrated by an extended, almost symphonic, blending of themes. Whatever it is. Jerry doesn't like to call it rock and roll – "a label," he says – but it is rock, free, daring music that makes the good times roll, that can, if you listen, deliver you from the days of old.

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