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Jerry Garcia: 1942-1995

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During this same period, the Beat scene was in full swing in the Bay Area, and it held great sway at the North Beach arts school where Garcia took some courses and at the city's coffeehouses, where he heard poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth read their venturesome works. "I was a high-school kid and a wanna-be beatnik!" Garcia said in 1993. "Rock & roll at that time was not respectable. I mean, beatniks didn't like rock & roll. . . . Rock & roll wasn't cool, but I loved rock & roll. I used to have these fantasies about 'I want rock & roll to be like respectable music.' I wanted it to be like art. . . . I used to try to think of ways to make that work. I wanted to do something that fit in with the art institute, that kind of self-conscious art – 'art' as opposed to 'popular culture.' Back then they didn't even talk about popular culture – I mean, rock & roll was so not legit, you know? It was completely out of the picture. I don't know what they thought it was – like white-trash music or kids' music."

By the early 1960s, Garcia was living in Palo Alto, Calif., hanging out and playing in the folk-music dubs around Stanford University. He was also working part time at Dana Morgan's Music Store, where he met several of the musicians that would eventually dominate the San Francisco music scene. In 1963, Garcia formed a jug band, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Its lineup included a young folk guitarist named Bob Weir and a blues aficionado, Ron McKernan, known to his friends as "Pigpen" for his often unkempt appearance. The group played a mix of blues, country and folk, and Pigpen became the frontman, singing Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins tunes.

Then, in February 1964, the Beatles made their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and virtually overnight, youth culture was imbued with a new spirit and sense of identity. Garcia understood the group's promise after seeing its first film, A Hard Day's Night. For the first time since Elvis Presley – and the first time for an audience that had largely rejected contemporary rock & roll as seemingly trivial and inconsequential – pop music could be seen to hold bold, significant and thoroughly exhilarating possibilities that even the ultra-serious, socially aware folk scene could not offer. That became even more apparent a year later, when Bob Dylan – who had been the folk scene's reigning hero – played an assailing set of his defiant new electric music at the Newport Folk Festival.

As a result, the folky purism of Mother McCree's all-acoustic format began to seem rather limited and uninteresting to Garcia and many of the other band members, and before long the ensemble was transformed into an electric unit, the Warlocks. A couple of the jug-band members dropped out, and two new musicians joined: Bill Kreutzmann, who worked at Dana Morgan's Music Store, on drums, and on bass, a classically trained musician named Phil Lesh, who, like Garcia, had been radicalized by the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. We had big ideas," Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1993. "I mean, as far as we were concerned, we were going to be the next Beatles or something – we were on a trip, definitely. We had enough of that kind of crazy faith in ourselves. . . . [The] first time we played in public, we had a huge crowd of people from the local high school, and they went fuckin' nuts! The next time we played, it was packed to the rafters. It was a pizza place. We said, 'Hey, can we play in here on Wednesday night? We won't bother anybody. Just let us set up in the comer.' It was pandemonium immediately."

It was around this time that Garcia and some of the group's other members also began an experimentation with drugs that would forever transform the nature or the band's story. Certainly this wasn't the first time drugs had been used in music for artistic inspiration or had found their way into an American cultural movement. Many jazz and blues artists (not to mention several country & western players) had been smoking manjuana and using various narcotics to intensify their music making for several decades, and in the '50s the Beats had extolled marijuana as an assertion of their nonconformism. But the drugs that began cropping up in the youth and music scenes in the mid-1960s were of a much different, more exotic sort. Veterans Hospital near Stanforrd University had been the site of government-sanctioned experiments with LSD, a drug that induced hallucinations in those who ingested it and that, for many, also inspired something remarkably close to the patterns of a religious experience. Among those who had taken the drug at Veterans Hospital were Robert Hunter, a folk singer and poet who would later become Garcia's songwriting partner, and Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey had been working on an idea about group LSD experiments and had started a loosely knit gang of artists and rogues, called the Merry Pranksters, dedicated to this adventure. Kesey's crew include a large number of intellectual dropouts like himself and eccentric rebels like Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road) and Carolyn Adams (later known as Mountain Girl, who eventually married Garcia and had two children with him).

The Pranksters had been holding parties at a house in the nearby town of La Honda, Calif., to see what would happen when people took LSD in a setting where there were no regulations or predetermined situations. At Kesey's invitation, the Grateful Dead – as the Warlocks were now called – became the house band for these collective drug experiments, known as the Acid Tests. The Dead would play for hours as the Pranksters filmed the goings-on – everything from freakouts to religions revelations to group sex. The Acid Tests were meant to be acts of cultural, spiritual and psychic revolt, anti their importance to the development of the Grateful Dead cannot be overestimated. The Dead's music, Garcia later said, "had a real sense of proportion to the event" – which is to say that sometimes the groups playing would seem to overshadow the event, and at other times it would function as commentary or backdrop to the action of the event itself. Either way the band did not see itself as the star of the party; if there were stars, they were formed from the union of the music and musicians with the audience and the spirit and shape of what was happening from moment to moment – which meant that there was a blur between the performers, the event and the audience.

Consequently, the Acid Tests became the model for what would shortly become known as the Grateful Dead trip. In the years that followed, the Dead would never really forsake the philosophy of the Acid Tests. Right until the end, the band would encourage its audience to be involved with the music and the sense of fellowship that came from and fueled the music.

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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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