How the Dead Came to Life
Phil Lesh was impeccably credentialed — twenty-five, broke and idle, having been forced out of his job at the post office for growing his hair long enough to graze the top of his ears — when he moved with a friend into 1130 Haight Street early in 1965. He mothballed his undergraduate dream of becoming a composer or conductor of avant-garde music, and he spent his days wandering the streets around the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, a mixed-race, working-class San Francisco neighborhood of storefronts and calendar-quaint Victorian houses that was just on the verge of becoming Haight-Ashbury, the synonym for the Sixties. In the afternoons, when Lesh awoke, he would walk a few blocks from his house to buy a doughnut, and music would follow him. From one window, he would hear an AM radio blaring a Top Forty hit of the week: “Downtown” or “This Diamond Ring”; from the floor above it, he’d hear an album track: say, Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” from Bringing It All Back Home; on the next block, he’d hear a passage of Bach or Mozart from the San Francisco classical station KDFC; around the corner, there would be some jazz from Miles Davis or John Coltrane; then, a bit of R&B from Ray Charles . . . .
“All sorts of people from different generations were living here, and when you walked past their houses, the wind would blow every variety of music through the air,” Lesh recalled this summer, shuffling down Haight Street to retrace those steps. At sixty-five, Lesh is still wiry (he is meticulous about his diet, in part because he had a liver transplant in 1998) and exudes an unlikely boyish quality (an effect of his effusive high spirits, which his new liver helps sustain). “It was a kind of musical stream of consciousness, like the sound of the inside of your mind when you’re not thinking or focusing on anything in particular — all this flux of feeling and thought. It reminded me of Charles Ives, because that’s where I was coming from.”
It was also a hint of where Lesh would soon be going — and where he would help take American music with the band he joined as bass player in June 1965. The nucleus of that group — leader and string-instrument master Jerry Garcia, 23 at the beginning of’65; rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, 18; and singer and blues-harp player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, 20 — had come together in Palo Alto, California, some time earlier to play old-timey music as members of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Early in ’65, the three of them dropped the jugs and washtubs, and added a hard-driving drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, 19, to become an electric bar band, the Warlocks. By the end of that year, the group was transformed for good and had come to embody its time and place — steeped in the San Francisco Bay area’s tradition of unorthodoxy, entwined with the blossoming psychedelic culture, the band found its name, the Grateful Dead, by chance (Garcia opened the dictionary to a random page and took a phrase that caught his eye) and found unique sources of identity in its mercuriality, submission to happenstance and inclination to anarchy. Comprising musicians with wildly divergent backgrounds and creative orientations, spontaneous and volatile, the Grateful Dead embraced the effect of a walk down the streets of Haight-Ashbury in 1965, making surprise, collusion, indulgence and disorientation the stuff of its art.
How, in the course of one year, did a jug band from the Northern California peninsula become one of the most important — and by far the most durable and influential — musical phenomena to have risen out of Sixties San Francisco? “There are these power centers, like Machu Picchu, like Everest, like Stonehenge, places like that, and one of the main power centers on this continent is the manhole cover at the center of Haight and Ashbury,” says Wavy Gravy, the jester of the psychedelic court, who may or may not have been the one who poured the acid in the Kool-Aid that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters served to the multitudes seeking psychoactive kicks. “I’m certain of this because, in an altered state, I happened to walk onto the manhole cover while the Dead was playing at the Haight Street Fair, and at that exact moment, I saw a rainbow over Jerry Garcia.”
OK . . .
“Haight-Ashbury was like a giant Certs commercial,” Wavy Gravy explains, “with the Cert shooting out these waves in all directions — ding, ding, ding, ding, beep, beep, beep, beep! The Dead were caught in those waves. You see?”
Yes. Definitely. There seems no harm, though, in considering a few somewhat less trippy notions.
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