The Grateful Dead's Greatest Year

A new box captures the band's epic 1977 shows. But offstage, things were beginning to fray

grateful dead 1977
Peter Simon / Retna Ltd
The Grateful Dead in Boston, with singer Donna Jean Godchaux.
By |

Click to listen to Grateful Dead's "Estimated Prophet - Live at Coliseum, University Of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL (5/17/77)"

Bikers, blow and Belushi: As usual when the Grateful Dead took Manhattan, the band's five-night stand at the Palladium in April 1977 had them all. Hells Angels rode their hogs right into the dressing rooms, brandishing a knife and demanding they play "Truckin." John Belushi, in his Saturday Night Live heyday, popped into a dressing room to share some weed. Onstage, though, something different took place in those shows. Dating back to their earliest performances a decade before, the Dead could be loose, sharp, undisciplined, sloppy, fierce – sometimes all during the same night. But Deadheads who caught the Palladium shows witnessed a startling sight: a firm and focused Grateful Dead. "We came out really strong," says percussionist Mickey Hart of those and other shows on the band's spring '77 tour. Recalling some of the brand-new songs the group premiered onstage then, he adds, "'Estimated Prophet,' 'Fire on the Mountain' – it was fresh meat, and we were ready to play those things. It was perfect timing."

20 Essential Grateful Dead Shows

Ask Dead fans and scholars to name certain key years, and you know what you'll hear. Some point to 1970, when the band cut two enduring masterpieces, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. Or 1972, when the Dead toured Europe for two months and played some of their finest shows, resulting in another landmark album, Europe '72. Singer-guitarist Bob Weir points to the late Eighties, just before the death of keyboardist Brent Mydland: "For me, that was our peak," Weir says. "We could hear and feel each other thinking, and we could intuit each other's moves. Jerry, Brent and I reached new plateaus as singers. We packed a punch."

Yet few years make Deadheads wax more nostalgic than 1977. Over the course of two tours, an Eastern-rooted swing in the spring and a mostly Western and Midwestern trek in the fall, the Dead played what many consider the tightest, most consistently satisfying shows of their career. "It's as close to a flawless Grateful Dead tour as I've ever heard," says band archivist David Lemieux. "There were no train wrecks."

Grateful Dead's First Decade Captured in New Photo Memior

About a dozen concerts from that year have already been released on CDs and downloads, but on June 11th, the biggest batch yet arrived with May 1977, a 14-disc box featuring five complete shows from that tour. "We had all this new material we were excited about playing," says Donna Jean Godchaux, who sang with the Dead during this period. "Everyone wanted to say, 'All right, this is the time to make a statement and not just be a psychedelic weirdo hippie band.'" As a record-company ad that year read, A NEW DEAD ERA IS UPON US – which, as the band would learn, was both a blessing and a curse.

The dead were coming off a troubled few years. In 1973, beloved founding member Ron "Pigpen" McKernan had died as a result of a longtime drinking problem. The following year, the Dead's experiment with their massive, costly Wall of Sound PA collapsed. Their attempt at running their own record label, Grateful Dead Rec­ords, had floundered and left them in the hole when label head Ron Rakow skipped town with the $225,000 he felt was owed to him. Rex Jackson, a member of the Dead's hardworking, hard-rocking crew, had died in a car accident in September 1976.

The following month, the Dead signed with Clive Davis' Arista Records, then also the home of rockers like Lou Reed and Patti Smith. At Davis' suggestion, they agreed to work with a pop-oriented producer: Keith Olsen, who had just produced a huge hit album for Fleetwood Mac. "We were trying to make a real rec­ord for Clive," says Hart.

Starting in January 1977, the band and Olsen bore down on new material – including the epic "Terrapin Station" suite and Weir's reggae-influenced "Estimated Prophet" – at Sound City, the funky but first-rate San Fernando Valley studio recently immortalized in Dave Grohl's Sound City documentary. More so than probably any previous studio collaborator, Olsen put the bandmates through their paces, making them rehearse and replay parts until they nailed them. Normally, the Dead would have bristled, but not this time: "Keith was cracking the whip, but we liked it – it made us sharper," says Hart. "We became much more disciplined. And Keith was always a little too small to hit. So he got away with a few things."

Although he got high with Garcia on at least one occasion, Olsen didn't become fully acclimated to the Dead universe until the later wrap-up sessions in New York, when Belushi came by, did cartwheels in the studio and hung out. "He drank everything he could and took everything and then passed out in front of the console," Olsen says. "Everyone said, 'Don't bother him – let him be.' This was all still really new to me." Yet Olsen was also impressed with Garcia's creativity and nonstop input: "He would have 20 ideas for everyone. He'd say, 'I got a bunch of ideas,' and we'd do them all. He really enjoyed the process."

But the process was slow. As the recording sessions started to drag throughout the winter of 1977 – and the band faced the possibility of not finishing the record before going on tour – Steve Parish, a member of the crew (and later Garcia's manager), came up with a novel idea: Nail the studio door shut. "It was a joke," says Parish. "But we were under the gun, and it kept the guys in there."

The finished album, Terrapin Station, was the Dead's most polished, professional effort to date, foreign adjectives that didn't necessarily thrill everyone in the band. Hart was upset when Olsen overdubbed strings on one of his parts without telling him. With tempered enthusiasm, bassist and co-founder Phil Lesh later called the album "a fairly successful effort" that "varied wildly in terms of material." At the time, though, the band put on a positive face about its aural makeover. "It actually sounds like a record," Garcia enthused to Rolling Stone before its release. "People won't believe it's us." Added Weir, "It's the Dead without all those wrong notes."

On May 8th, fans crammed into Cornell University's Barton Hall, a field house, were a little too pumped that the Dead were in town. "All right, now," a newly bearded Weir told them about halfway through the show. "We're gonna play everybody's favorite fun game: 'Move back.' Now, when I tell you to take a step back, everybody take a step back." Weir had to say it a few times, and bit by bit, the nearly 5,000 fans moved toward the rear of the venue to alleviate the crush at the front of the stage.

For the Dead, Barton Hall was just another stop, and a fairly out-of-the-way one. The only thing Donna Jean Godchaux remembers about it is how cold it was. "A college gig in New York, and it's snowing, and you just play the gig," she says. Hart's future wife, Caryl, attended Cornell at the time but opted to see "Barry Manilow or something" with a boyfriend that night. Just about every Deadhead, though, remembers Barton Hall, whether they attended or not. The show regularly tops fan polls of best Dead performances, and last year a tape of the show was included in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. Ironically, the Barton Hall performance has never been officially released, since the master tape is now in the hands of an unknown collector. In the mid-Eighties, recording engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson – who recorded all the shows on the '77 tour – lost possession of the tapes after they were auctioned off (without her consent) from the storage facility where she was keeping them.

For fans and even band members, debate rages about whether or not the show matches the legend. "That was a really good performance," says Hart. "Was it the best? That's not for me to say, really." Listening to one of the many audience tapes available, there's no denying its highlights: a rare performance of Bonnie Dobson's apocalyptic nightmare "Morning Dew," which the Dead transformed into a huge, cathartic soundscape; fans also heard a new combination introduced onstage in February: "Scarlet Begonias" segueing into "Fire on the Mountain," which didn't make the cut on Terrapin Station but would end up on the Dead's following album, Shakedown Street.

What few debate is how sparkling the Dead sounded that night, and throughout that tour. At the University of Alabama, they played a slow, mournful "High Time" and added dramatic flourishes to Weir's "Looks Like Rain." A beautifully burnished "Wharf Rat" in Hartford, Connecticut, showed how they'd matured as a band without losing their shambolic charm. During a particularly strong "Sugaree" in St. Paul, Minnesota, Garcia discharged a wild flurry of notes that dispelled any sense that the Dead were mellow old hippies – one of many demonstrations that all the studio hours they'd logged with Olsen had paid off. "We're still as confused as we ever were," Garcia told RS's Charles M. Young during the Palladium run. "But the old Dead trip was getting to be a burden, so we sacked it and went on to new projects. We're having fun again."

Members of the Dead's legendary road crew still enjoy reminiscing about the musical high points. The secret weapon was keyboardist Keith Godchaux, Donna Jean's husband, who'd joined the band in 1971. "When you hear the tapes now, you're totally blown away," says Bill "Kidd" Candelario, a member of the crew from 1968 to 1995. "He played so quietly, but you're astounded at what he was playing. He was magical."

Every so often, the Dead encountered a bump in the road. When they played Buffalo's War Memorial Auditorium the night after Cornell, the two young local concert promoters – Bob and Harvey Weinstein, later renowned movie producers – offered receipts that seemed "a bit cockeyed," says tour coordinator John Scher. "I've kidded Harvey about it." But more often than not, the Dead machine rolled along as smoothly as it ever would. When they arrived at the University of Alabama, marking their first-ever visit to a state not known for being friendly to longhairs, the school's football team helped the Dead crew set up. "If you want to pick a year where everything was working well, that year stands out," says Parish. "We realized there were losses we had overcome, but we were still tight and had each other and were close. Everyone was healthy and partying full blast, every day."

In the predawn hours of June 20th, while the band was back home in Marin County during a break, Hart left a local club show and lost control of his car. He crashed through a guardrail, and only a tree on the side of the road prevented the car from falling into a ravine. Hart emerged with a broken collarbone, smashed ribs and a broken arm. "I opened my eyes [in the hospital] and Jerry was there: 'You look like shit!'" he says.

Hart recuperated, thanks to almost two months of rehab, but the incident was a sign that there were more troubles ahead. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, Lesh began relying increasingly on alcohol for what he called "the slightly numb, detached feeling"; by the fall, he'd put on 30 pounds thanks to the beers he would start downing for breakfast. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann's second marriage was falling apart, and Weir had, the year before, parted ways with his longtime love, Frankie Weir (they weren't married, but she took his last name anyway).

Offstage, Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux were an increasingly volatile couple. Donna Jean was, in her words, "no angel," and was regularly using cocaine and drinking wine. She'd tried heroin once and hated it: "I just threw up for 24 hours. So I couldn't plant my feet in that patch." But her husband became increasingly beholden to the drug; Olsen remembers him mostly sleeping on a couch during the Terrapin Station sessions. On the road that year, band and crew often heard the couple's screaming matches. "There was always backstage drama," says Candelario.

Garcia, the group's charismatic but unwilling leader, was besieged on numerous fronts. "It was an emotionally difficult time for him," says Richard Loren, then the Dead manager. "He was at wit's end pretty much." He went through a messy breakup with his girlfriend (and future wife), Deborah Koons, and had to deal with the fallout from Ron Rakow's expensive departure from the band. Since it was Garcia who had brought Rakow into the fold, the band penalized him for it, cutting his paycheck down to about $50 a week (from about five times that amount). Garcia was also beginning to feel the burden of being an iconic figure who was easy prey for anyone who needed a favor. "He was starting to hide," says Candelario. "He had guys hounding him to do free shows. They didn't come by to say, 'Hi, what's going on?' They came to tell him he needed to do a benefit concert or whatever. It was a hustle. He had all those kinds of things pounding on him."

As with Keith Godchaux, Garcia turned to opiates – in particular, a new, strong Persian style of heroin. At the time, Garcia hid his growing habit from his bandmates; Hart and Godchaux say they didn't realize until later that he was using. And given the quality of Garcia's playing and singing in 1977, there was no reason to suspect anything at that point. "I think it made him feel good," says Loren, "and when he felt good, he played good."

One bright spot cracked open that June, when The Grateful Dead Movie, filmed during the band's pre-hiatus shows in San Francisco in 1974, made its long-overdue premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan. "Jerry was really proud of that movie," says Loren. Of Garcia during that period, Hart recalls, "He was in a creative zone, and his health was OK. Yes, there was a lot of pressure. But that didn't interfere with Grateful Dead music. Music was the only way any of us could deal with pressure."

On Labor Day weekend, the Dead returned to the road in a big – almost risky – way. Scher booked the band into Raceway Park, a racetrack in Englishtown, New Jersey. The park normally held about 50,000; the band sold 102,000 tickets – up to that point its biggest nonfestival gig. Until then, everyone assumed the Dead's on-the-road success was a result of repeat business – the same fans buying tickets to more than one show. But Raceway Park proved that the Dead could pull in huge numbers for just one show. "It said, 'We're a big band,'" says Loren. "It put the Dead up there with anybody else who was performing: 'Yeah, the Allman Brothers are a big band, but they're not the Grateful Dead.' The industry stood up and said, 'Holy mackerel!'"

In the years that followed, the Dead's audience would only grow larger and more fervent – and the Dead's excesses would sometimes grow proportionally. The Godchauxs left the group in 1979 (Keith was killed in a car accident the following year). Garcia grappled with hard-drug use on and off between then and his death in 1995, and Lesh sobered up, but only after hitting rock bottom in the early Eighties. But in 1977, it seemed as if the music could hold everything at bay, at least for a while. "We kept getting reborn, and this was one of those birthing processes," says Hart of that flagship year. "We all played good when we got to that group-mind place. When the music played, everything made sense. When the music stopped, things started getting weird."

This story is from the July 4th–18th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1186: July 4, 2013
x