By 1966, the spirit of the acid tests was spilling over into the streets and clubs of San Francisco – and well beyond. A new community of largely young people – many sharing similar ideals about drugs, music, politics and sex – had taken root in the city's Haight-Ashbury district, a run-down but picturesque section of the city adjacent to Golden Gate Park, where the members of the Grateful Dead now shared a house. In addition, a thriving dub and dance-hall scene – dominated by Chet Helms' Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham's Fillmore – had sprung up around the city, drawing the notice of the media, the police and various political forces.
The public scrutiny would in part eventually make life in the Haight difficult and risky. But there was also a certain boon that came from all the new publicity: The music and ethos of the San Francisco scene had begun to draw the interest of East Coast and British musicians and were starting to affect the thinking of artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan – the same artists who only a year or two before had exerted such a major influence on groups like the Grateful Dead. For that matter, San Francisco bands were having an impact not just on pop and fashion styles but also on social mores and even the political dialogue of the times. Several other bands, of course, participated in the creation of this scene, and some – including Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company – would make music as inventive and memorable as the Dead's. In addition, nobody should underrate concert promoter Bill Graham's importance to the adventure; he was an often acerbic character, but he would emerge as an invaluable and scrupulous caretaker of the community that he served.
Still, it was the Grateful Dead who became known as the "peoples' band" – the band that cared about the following that it played to and that often staged benefits or free shows for the common good. And long after the Haight's moment had passed, it would be the Grateful Dead – and the Dead alone among the original San Francisco bands – that would still exemplify the ideals of fraternity and compassion which most other '60s-bred groups had long relinquished and many subsequent rock artists repudiated in favor of more corrosive ideals.
The San Francisco scene was remarkable while it lasted, but it couldn't endure forever. Because of its reputation as a youth haven, the Haight was soon overrun with runaways and the sort of health and shelter problems that a community of mainly white, middle-class expatriates had never had to face before. In addition, the widespread use of LSD was naming out to be a little less ideal than some folks had imagined: There were nights when so many young people seemed to be on bad trips, the emergency rooms of local hospitals could not accommodate them all. By the middle of 1967 – a season still referred to as the Summer of Love – the Haight had started to turn ugly. There were bad drugs on the streets, there were rapes and murders, and there was a surfeit of starry-eyed newcomers who had arrived in the neighborhood without any means of support and were expecting the scene to feed and nurture them. Garcia and the Dead had seen the trouble coming and tried to prompt the city to prepare for it. "You could feed large numbers of people," Garcia later said, "but only so large. You could feed 1,000, but not 20,000. We were unable to convince the San Francisco officials of what was going to happen. We said there would be more people in the city than the city could hold." Not long after, the Dead left the Haight for individual residences in Marin County, north of San Francisco.
By 1970, the idealism surrounding the Bay Area music scene – and much of the counterculture – had largely evaporated. The drug scene had turned fearful; much of the peace movement had given way to violent rhetoric; and the quixotic dream of a Woodstock generation, bound together by the virtues of love and music, had been irreparably damaged, first by the Manson Family murders, in the summer of 1969, and then, a few months later, by a tragic and brutal event at the Altamont Speedway, just outside San Francisco. The occasion was a free concert featuring the Rolling Stones. Following either the example or the suggestion of the Grateful Dead (there is still disagreement on this), the Stones hired the Hell's Angels as a security force. It proved to be a day of horrific violence. The Angels battered numerous people, usually for little reason, and in the evening, as the Stones performed, the bikers stabbed a young black man to death in front of the stage. It was completely unexpected," Garcia later said. "And that was the hard part – that was the hard lesson there – that you can have good people and good energy and work on a project and really want it to happen right and still have it all weird. It's the thing of knowing less than you should have. Youthful folly."
The record the band followed with, Workingman's Dead, was the Dead's response to that period. The record was a statement about the changing and badly frayed sense of community in America and its counterculture, and as such, it was a work by and about a group of men being tested and pressured at a time when they could have easily pulled apart from all the madness and stress and disappointment. The music reflected that struggle, particularly in songs like "Uncle John's Band," a parable about America that was also the band's confession of how it nearly fell apart, and "New Speedway Boogie," about Altamont. "One way or another, this darkness has got to give," Garcia sang in the latter song in a voice full of fear, fragility and hard-earned courage. Workingrnan's Dead and the record that followed it, American Beauty, made it plain how the Grateful Dead found the heart and courage and talent to stick together and make something new and meaningful from their fraternity. "Making the record became like going to a job," Garcia said. "It was something we had to do, and it was also something we did to keep our minds off some of these problems, even if the music is about those problems."
In a conversation I had with Robert Hunter in 1989, he revealed something else that he thought had influenced Garcia's singing in that period and made it so affecting. "It wasn't only because of the gathering awareness of what we were doing," he said, "but Jerry's mother had died in an automobile accident while we were recording American Beauty, and there's a lot of heartbreak on that record, especially on 'Brokedown Palace,' which is, I think, his release at that time. The pathos in Jerry's voice on those songs, I think, has a lot to do with that experience. When the pathos is there, I've always thought Jerry is the best. The man can get inside some of those lines and turn them inside out, and he makes those songs entirely his. There is no emotion more appealing than the bittersweet when it's truly, truly spoken."
With Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, the Grateful Dead hit a creative peak and turned an important corner. For one thing, the two records sold better than anything the group had issued before, and as a result the band was able to begin working its way free of many of the crushing debts it had accrued. More important, the Dead now had a body of fine new songs to perform onstage for its rapidly expanding audience. With the next album, a double live set, Grateful Dead (entitled Skullfuck, until Warner Bros. balked), the band issued an invitation to its fans: "Send us your name and address, and we'll keep you informed."
It was the sort of standard fan-clubpitch that countless pop acts had indulged in before, but what it set in motion for the Dead would prove unprecedented: the biggest sustained fan reaction in pop-music history. (According to The New Yorker, there are currently 110,000 Deadheads on the band's mailing list.) Clearly the group had a devoted and far-flung following that – more than anything else simply wanted to see the Grateful Dead live. One of the aphorisms of the time was "There's nothing like a Grateful Dead show," and though that adage sometimes backfired in unintended ways – such as those occasions when the band turned in a protracted, meandering and largely out-of-tune performance – as often as not, the claim was justified. On those nights when the group was on – propelled by the double drumming of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and the dizzying melodic communion of Garcia and Weirs guitars and Lesh's bass – the Grateful Dead's verve and imagination proved matchless.
It was this dedication to live performance, and a penchant for near-incessant touring, that formed the groundwork for the Grateful Dead's extraordinary success during the last 20 or so years. Even a costly failed attempt at starting the band's own autonomous record label in the early 1970s, plus the deaths of three consecutive keyboardists – McKernan, of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, in 1973; Keith Godchaux, in a fatal car accident, in 1980, a year after leaving the band; and Brent Mydland, of a morphine and cocaine overdose in 1990 – never really deterred the Dead's momentum as a live act.
By the summer of 1987, when the group enjoyed its first and only Top 10 single ("Touch of Grey") and album (In the Dark), the commercial breakthrough was almost beside the fact in any objective assessment of the band's stature. The Grateful Dead had been a top concert draw in America for several years and in fact had probably played before more people over the years than any other performing act in history. But the nature of the band's success went well beyond big numbers and high finances: From the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, the Grateful Dead enjoyed a union with their audience that was unrivaled and unshakable. Indeed, the Dead and their followers formed the only self-sustained, ongoing fellowship that pop music has ever produced – a commonwealth that lasted more than a quarter-century.
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