But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilise me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
– Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
The Dead didn’t get it going Wednesday night at Winterland, and that was too bad. The gig was a bail fund benefit for the People’s Park in Berkeley, and the giant ice-skating cavern was packed with heads. The whole park hassle – the benefit was for the 450 busted a few days before – had been a Berkeley political trip all the way down, but the issue was a good-timey park, so the crowd, though older and more radical than most San Francisco rock crowds, was a fine one in a good dancing mood, watery mouths waiting for the groove to come. The Airplane were on the bill too, so were Santana, the Act of Cups, Aum, and a righteous range of others; a San Francisco all-star night, the bands making home-grown music for home-grown folks gathered for a home-grown cause.
But the Dead stumbled that night. They led off with a warm-up tune that they did neatly enough, and the crowd, swarmed in luminescent darkness, sent up “good old Grateful Dead, we’re so glad you’re here,” vibrations. The band didn’t catch them. Maybe they were a bit tired of being taken for granted as surefire deliverers of good vibes – drained by constant expectations. Or they might have been cynical – a benefit for those Berkeley dudes who finally learned what a park is but are still hung up on confrontation and cops and bricks and spokesmen giving TV interviews and all that bullshit. The Dead were glad to do it, but it was one more benefit to bail out the politicos.
Maybe they were too stoned on one of the Bear’s custom-brewed elixirs, or the long meeting that afternoon with the usual fights about salaries and debt priorities and travel plans for the upcoming tour that they’d be making without a road manager, and all the work of being, in the end, a rock and roll band, may have left them pissed off. After abortive stabs at “Doing That Rag” and “St. Stephen,” they fell into “Lovelight” as a last resort, putting Pigpen out in front to lay on his special brand of oily rag pig-ism while they funked around behind. It usually works, but not that night. Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman, the drummers, couldn’t find anything to settle on, and the others kept trying ways out of the mess, only to create new tangles of bumpy rhythms and dislocated melodies. For the briefest of seconds a nice phrase would pop out, and the crowd would cheer, thinking maybe this was it, but before the cheer died, the moment had also perished. After about twenty minutes they decided to call it quits, ended with a long building crescendo, topping that with a belching cannon blast (which fell right on the beat, the only luck they found that night), and split the stage.
“But, y’know, I dug it, man,” said Jerry Garcia the next night, “I can get behind falling to pieces before an audience sometimes. We’re not performers; we are who we are for those moments we’re before the public, and that’s not always at the peak.” He was backstage at the Robertson Gymnasium at the University of California at Santa Barbara, backstage being a curtained-off quarter of the gym, the other three quarters being stage and crowd. His red solid body Gibson with its “Red, White, and Blue Power” sticker was in place across his belly and he caressed-played it without stopping. Rock the manager was scrunched in a corner dispensing Tequila complete with salt and lemon to the band and all comers, particularly bassist Phil Lesh who left his Eurasian groupie alone and forlorn every time he dashed back to the bottle.
“Sure, I’ll fuck up for an audience,” said Mickey from behind his sardonic beard, bowing. “My pleasure, we’ll take you as low and mean as you want to go.”
“See, it’s like good and evil,” Jerry went on, his yellow glasses glinting above his eager smile. “They exist together in their little game, each with its special place and special humors. I dig ’em both. What is life but being conscious? And good and evil are manifestations of consciousness. If you reject one, you’re not getting the whole thing that’s there to be had. So I had a good time last night. Getting in trouble can be a trip too.”
His good humor was enormous, even though it had been a bitch of a day. The travel agent had given them the wrong flight time and, being the day before the Memorial Day weekend, there was no space on any other flight for all fourteen of them. So they had hustled over to National Rent-a-Car, gotten two matched Pontiacs and driven the 350 miles down the coast. Phil drove one, and since he didn’t have his license and had six stoned back seat drivers for company, he had gotten pretty paranoid. The promoter, a slick Hollywood type, had told them at five in the afternoon that he wouldn’t let them set up their own PA. “It’s good enough for Lee Michaels, it’s good enough for you,” he said, and they were too tired to fight it.
The Bear, who handles the sound system as well as the chemicals, was out of it anyway. When the band got to the gym, he was flat on his back, curled up among the drum cases. Phil shook him to his feet and asked if there was anything he could do, but Bear’s pale eyes were as sightless as fog. By that time the MC was announcing them. With a final “oh, fuck it, man,” they trouped up to the stage through the massed groupies.
Robertson Gym stank like every gym in history. The light show, the big-name band, and the hippie ambience faded before that smell, unchanged since the days when the student council hung a few million paper snowflakes from the ceiling and tried to pass it off as Winter Wonderland. Now it was Psychedelic Wonderland, but the potent spirits of long departed sweatsocks still owned the place. That was okay, another rock and roll dance in the old school gym. They brought out “Lovelight” again; this time the groove was there, and for forty minutes they laid it down, working hard and getting that bob and weave interplay of seven man improvisation that can take you right out of your head. But Jerry kept looking more and more pained, then suddenly signaled to bring it to a close. They did, abruptly, and Jerry stepped to a mike.
“Sorry,” he shouted, “but we’re gonna split for a while and set up our own PA so we can hear what the fuck is happening.” He ripped his cord out of his amp and walked off. Rock took charge.
“The Dead will be back, folks, so everybody go outside, take off your clothes, cool down, and come back. This was just an introduction.”
Backstage was a brawl. “We should give the money back if we don’t do it righteous.” Jerry was shouting. “Where’s Bear?”
Bear wandered over, still lost in some inter-cerebral space.
“Listen, man, are you in this group, are you one of us?” Jerry screamed, “are you gonna set up that PA? Their monitors suck. I can’t hear a goddam thing out there. How can I play if I can’t hear the drums?”
Bear mumbled something about taking two hours to set up the PA, then wandered off. Rock was explaining to the knot of curious on-lookers.
“This is the Grateful Dead, man, we play with twice the intensity of anybody else, we gotta have our own system. The promoter screwed us. and we tried to make it, but we just can’t. It’s gotta be our way, man.”
Ramrod and the other ‘quippies were already dismantling the original PA.
“Let’s just go ahead,” said Pigpen. “I can fake it.”
“I can’t,” said Jerry.
“It’s your decision,” said Pig.
“Yeah,” said Phil, “if you and nobody else gives a good goddam.”
But it was all over. Bear had disappeared, the original PA was gone, someone had turned up the houselights, and the audience was melting away. A good night, a potentially great night, had been shot by a combination of promoter burn and Dead incompetence, and at one AM it didn’t matter who was to blame or where it had started to go wrong. It was too far gone to save that night.
“We’re really sorry,” Phil kept saying to the few who still lingered by the gym’s back door. “We burned you of a night of music, and we’ll come back and make it up.”
“If we dare show our faces in this town again.” said rhythm guitarist Bob Weir as they walked to the cars. The others laughed, but it wasn’t really funny.
They rode back to the Ocean Palms Motel in near silence.
“When we missed that plane we should have known,” said Bill Kreutzman. “An ill-advised trip.”
Jerry said it was more than that. They took the date because their new manager, Lenny Hart, Mickey’s father, while new at the job, had accepted it from Bill Graham. The group had already decided to leave Millard. Graham’s booking agency, and didn’t want anymore of his jobs, but took it rather than making Hart go back on his word. “That’s the lesson: take a gig to save face, and you end up with a shitty PA and a well-burned audience.”
“Show biz, that’s what it was tonight,” Mickey Hart said softly, “and show biz is the shits.”
The others nodded and the car fell silent. Road markers flicked by the car in solemn procession as the mist rolled in off the muffled ocean.
t’s now amost four years since the Acid Tests, the first Family Dog dances, the Mime troupe benefits, and the Trips Festival; almost the same since Donovan sang about flying Jefferson Airplane and a London discotheque called Sibylla’s became the in-club because it had the first light show in Europe; two and a half since the Human Be-In, since Newsweek and then the nation discovered the Haight-Ashbury, hippies, and “the San Francisco Sound.” The Monterey Pop Festival, which confirmed and culminated that insanely explosive spring of 1967, is now two years gone by. The biggest rock and roll event of its time, that three-day weekend marked the beginning of a new era. The Beatles (who sent their regards), the Stones, Dylan, even the Beach Boys – the giants who had opened things up from 1963 to ’67 – were all absent, and the stage was open for the first generation of the still continuing rock profusion. Monterey was a watershed and the one to follow it has not yet come. Though it was, significantly, conceived in and directed from Los Angeles, its inspiration, style, and much of its substance was San Francisco’s. The quantum of energy that pushed rock and roll in the level on which it now resides came from San Francisco.
Since then what San Francisco started has become so diffuse, copied, extended, exploited, rebelled against, and simply accepted that it has become nearly invisible. One can’t say “acid rock” now without embarrassed quotations. The city, once absurdly over-rated, is now under-rated. The process of absorption has been so smoothly quick that it is hard to remember when it was all new, when Wes Wilson posters were appearing fresh every week, when Owsley acid was not just a legend or mythical standard, when only real freaks had hair down past their shoulders, when forty minute songs were revolutionary, and when a dance was not a concert but a stoned-out bacchanal. But it was real; had it not been so vital, it would not have been so quickly universalized. Since 1966 rock and roll has come to San Francisco like the mountain of Mohammed.
Its only two rivals in attractive power have been Memphis and Nashville – like San Francisco, small cities with local musicians who, relatively isolated (by choice), are creating distinctive music that expresses their own and their cities’ life styles. Musicians everywhere have been drawn to both the music and ambience of the three cities, just as jazz men were once drawn to New Orleans, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Rock and roll has always been regional music on the lower levels, but success, as much for the Beatles and Dylan as for Elvis or James Brown, always meant going to the big city, to the music industry machine. That machine, whether in London, New York, or Los Angeles, dictated that the rock and roll life was a remote one of stardom which, with a complex structure of fan mags and fan clubs, personal aides, publicity men, limited tours and carefully spaced singles, controlled the stars’ availability to the public for maximum titillation and maximum profit. The fan identified with his stars (idols), but across an uncrossable void. The machine also tended either to downplay the regional characteristics of a style or exaggerate them into a gimmick. A lucky or tough artist might keep his musical roots intact, but few were able to transfer the closeness they had with their first audience to their mass audience. To be a rock and roll star, went the unwritten law, you had to go downtown.
San Francisco’s major contribution to rock was the flaunting of that rule. The Beatles had really started it; on one hand the most isolated and revered group, they were also the most personal: you knew the image, of course, not the real them, but the image was lively and changing. The same is true for Dylan, but San Francisco made it real. The early days at the Fillmore and Avalon were not unlike the months that the Rolling Stones played the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, but for the first time there was the hope, if not assumption, that those days would never have to end. The one-to-one performer-audience relationship was what the music was about. San Francisco’s secret was not the dancing, the light-shows, the posters, the long sets, or the complete lack of stage act, but the idea that all of them together were the creation and recreation of a community. Everybody did their thing and all things were equal. The city had a hip community, one of bizarrely various people who all on their own had decided that they’d have to find their own way through the universe and that the old ways wouldn’t do no more. In that community everybody looked like a rock star, and rock stars began to look and act and live like people, not gods on the make. The way to go big time was to encourage more people to join the community or to make their own; not to enlarge onself out of it into the machine’s big time. San Francisco said that rock and roll could be making your own music for your friends – folk music in a special sense.
Sort of; because it didn’t really work. Dances did become concerts, groups eagerly signed with big record companies from LA to New York, did do long tours, did get promo men, secluded retreats, Top-40 singles, and did become stars. Thousands took up the trappings of community with none of its spirit; the community itself lost hope and direction, fought bitterly within itself, and fragmented. San Francisco was not deserted for the machine as Liverpool had been, but the machine managed to make San Francisco an outpost, however funky, of itself. Janis Joplin is still the city’s one super star, but the unity of the musical-social community has effectively been broken; musicians play for pay, audiences pay to listen. There is now a rock musician’s community which is international, and it is closer to the audience community than ever before in rock’s history, but the San Francisco vision has died (or at least hibernated) unfulfilled. There are many reasons: bad and/or greedy management, the swamping effect of sudden success, desperation, lack of viable alternatives, and the combined flatteries of fame, money, and ridiculous adulation on young egos.
But the central reason is that rock is not folk music in that special sense. The machine, with all its flashy fraudulences, is not a foreign growth on rock, but its very essence. One can not be a good rock musician and, either psychically or in fact, be an amateur, because professionalism is part of the term’s definition. Rock and roll, rather some other art, became the prime expression of that community because it was rock, machine and all, the miracle beauty of American mass production, a mythic past, a global fantasy, an instantaneous communications network, and a maker of super-heroes. There’s no way to combine wanting that and wanting “just folks” too. The excitement of San Francisco was the attempt to synthesize these two contradictory positions. To pull it off would have been a revolution; at best San Francisco made a reform. In the long haul its creators, tired of fighting the paradox, chose modified rock over folk music.
All except the Grateful Dead, who’ve been battling it out with that mother of a paradox for years. Sometimes they lose, sometimes they win.
True fellowship among men must be based upon a concern that is universal. It is not the private interests of the individual that creat lasting fellowship among men, but rather the goals of humanity … If unity of this kind prevails, even difficult and dangerous tasks, such as crossing the great water, can be accomplished.
– The I Ching, 13th hexagram: “Fellowship with Men”
he Grateful Dead are not the original San Francisco band – the Charlatans, the Great Society, and the Airplane all predate them, even in their Warlock stage – and whether they are the best, whatever that would mean, is irrelevant. Probably they are the loudest; someone once described them as “living thunder.” Certainly they are the weirdest, black satanic weird and white archangel weird. As weird as anything you can imagine, like some horror comic monster who, besides being green and slimy, happens also to have seven different heads, a 190 IQ, countless decibels of liquid fire noise communication, and is coming right down to where you are to gobble you up. But if you can dig the monster, bammo, he’s giant puppy to play with. Grateful Dead weird, ultimately, and what an image that name is. John Lennon joked about the flaming hand that made them Beatles, but Jerry Garcia is serious:
“Back in the late days of the Acid Tests, we were looking for a name. We’d abandoned the Warlocks, it didn’t fit anymore. One day we were all over at Phil’s house smoking DMT. He had a big Oxford dictionary, opened it, and there was ‘grateful dead,’ those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, y’know, like everything else on the page went blank, diffuse, just sorta oozed away, and there was Grateful Dead, big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, ‘How about Grateful Dead?’ and that was it.”
The image still resonates for the Dead: they are, or desire to become, the grateful dead. Grateful Dead may mean whatever you like it to mean, life-in-death, ego death, reincarnation, the joy of the mystic vision. Maybe it is Rick Griffin’s grinning skull balancing on the axis of an organic universe that is the cover of Aoxomoxoa, their latest record. It doesn’t matter how you read it, for the Dead, as people, musicians, and a group, are in that place where the meanings of a name or event can be as infinite as the imagination, and yet mean precisely what they are and no more.
In their first beginning they were nothing spectacular, just another rock and roll band made up of suburban ex-folkies who, in ’64 and ’65, with Kennedy dead, the civil rights movement split into black and white, Vietnam taking over from ban-the-bomb, with the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan, were finding out that the sit-and-pluck number had run its course. Jerry had gone the whole route: digging rock in the mid-Fifties, dropping into folk by 1959, getting deep into traditional country music as a purist scholar, re-emerging as a brilliant bluegrass banjo player, and then, in 1964, starting Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions with Pigpen and Bob Weir. Weir, who had skipped from boarding school to boarding school before quitting entirely, got his real education doing folk gigs and lying about his age. “I was 17,” he says, “looked fifteen, and said I was 21.” Pigpen, ne Ron McKernan, is the son of an early white rhythm and blues DJ, and from his early teens had made the spade scene, playing harp and piano at parties, digging Lightning Hopkins, and nursing a remarkable talent for spinning out juiced blues raps. All three were misfits; Jerry had dropped out of high school too to join the army which kicked him out after a few months as unfit for service. “How true, how true,” he says now.
But the Jug Champions couldn’t get any gigs, and when a Palo Alto music store owner offered to front them with equipment to start a rock band, they said yes. Bill Kreutzman, then Bill Sommers to fit his fake ID, became the drummer. A fan of R & B stylists, he was the only one with rock experience. At first the music store cat was the bass player, but concurrently Phil Lesh, an old friend of Jerry’s, was coming to a similar dead end in formal electronic music, finding less and less to say and fewer people to say it to. A child violinist, then Kenton-style jazz trumpeter and arranger, he went to a Warlock gig on impulse and the group knocked him out. “Jerry came over to where I was sitting and said, ‘Guess what, you’re gonna be our bass player.’ I had never played bass, but I learned sort of, and in July, 1965, the five of us played our first gig, some club in Fremont.”
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.
It works because the Dead are, like few bands, a group tried and true. Five have been performing together for four years; Tom, though he only joined the group full time last year because of an Air Force hitch, has been with them from the beginning. Mickey, a jazz drummer leading the straight life until two years ago, joined because Dead music was his music. After meeting Bill and jamming with him twice, he asked to join a set at the Straight Theatre. “We played ‘Aligator’ for two hours, man, and my mind was blown. When we finished and the crowd went wild, Jerry came over and embraced me, and I embraced him, and it’s been like that ever since.”
The Dead have had endless personal crises; Pigpen and Bob Weir have particularly resisted the others. Pig because he is not primarily a musician, and Bob because of an oddly stubborn pride. Yet they have always been a fellowship; “our crises come and go in ways that seem more governed by the stars than by personalities,” says Bob. A year ago Bob and Pigpen were on the verge of leaving. Now the Dead, says Phil, “have passed the point where breaking up exists as a possible solution to any problem. The Dead, we all know, is bigger than all of us.” Subsets of the seven, with names like “Bobby Ace and the Cards from the Bottom” and “Mickey Hart and the Hearbeats,” have done a few gigs and several of the Dead are inveterate jammers, but these separate experiences always loosen and enrich the larger groups, and the Dead continue.
In life as well as music; as with the magic, life for the Dead has to be music, and vice versa. When the Acid Tests stopped in the spring of 1966 and Kesey went to Mexico, the Dead got off the bus and started their own (metaphorical) bus. For three months they lived with Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the media’s and legend’s “Acid King,” on the northern edge of Watts in LA, as he built them a huge and complex sound system. The system was no good, say some, adding that Owsley did the group nothing but harm. Owsley was weird all right, “insistent about his trip,” says Bob, keeping nothing but meat and milk to eat, forbidding all vegetables as poisons, talking like a TV set you couldn’t turn off, and wired into a logic that was always bizarre and often perversely paranoid if not downright evil. But what others thought or think of Owsley has never affected the Dead; he is Owsley, and they follow their own changes with him, everything from hatred to awe to laughing at him as absurd. If you’re going further, your wagon is hitched to a star; other people’s opinions on the trip’s validity are like flies to be brushed aside.
Their life too is without any idiom but their own. They returned to San Francisco in June, 1966 and after a few stops moved into 710 Ashbury, in the middle of the Haight. It was the first time they actually lived in the city as a group, and they became an institution. “Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy said, but the happy family at 710 was different from most, a sliding assortment of madmen who came and went in mysterious tidal patterns, staying for days or weeks or just mellow afternoons on the steps bordered with nasturtiums. A strange black wing decorated an upper window, and occasional passersby would be jolted by sonic blasts from deep in the house’s entralia. Like the Psychedelic Shop, the Panhandle, the Oracle office, or 1090 Pine St. in the early Family Dog days, it was another bus, an energy center as well as a model, a Brook Farm for new trans-cendentalists.
With all the other groups in the city, they did become a band, an economic entity in an expanding market. They did well; since the demise of Big Brother, they are second only to the Airplane of the San Francisco groups and are one of the biggest draws in the business. But the Dead were always different. Their managers, Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin, were of the family, stoned ten-thumbed inefficiency. While other groups were fighting for recognition, more and bigger gigs, the Dead played mostly for free. Monterey was a godsend of exposure to most groups, but the Dead bitched about it, arguing that it should be free or, if not, the profits should go to the Diggers; refusing to sign releases for the film that became Monterey Pop! and finally organizing a free festival on a nearby campus and stealing banks of amps and speakers for an all night jam (they were, eventually, returned).
But of course they did go; maybe Monterey was an “LA pseudo-hip fraud,” but the Dead were a rock band as well as a psychedelic musical commune, and they knew it. The problem was combining the two. The spirit that had energized the early days was changing and becoming harder to sustain. The formlessness was becoming formalized; artifacts; whether posters, clothes, drugs, or even the entire life-style, became more important than the art of their creation.
“The Acid Tests have come down to playing in a hall and having a light show,” Jerry says, “You sit down and watch and of course the lights are behind the band so you can see the band and the lights. It’s watching television, loud, large television. That form, so rigid, started as a misapprehension anyway. Like Bill Graham, he was at the Trips Festival, and all he saw was a light show and a band. Take the two and you got a formula. It is stuck, man, hasn’t blown a new mind in years. What was happening at the Trips Festival was not a rock and roll show and lights, but that other thing, but if you were hustling tickets and trying to get a production on, to put some of the old order to the chaos, you couldn’t feel it. It was a sensitive trip, and it’s been lost.”
Yet in trying to combine their own music-life style with the rock and roll business, they have missed living the best of either. Their dealings with the business world have been disastrous. Money slips through their fingers, bills pile up, instruments are repossessed, and salaries aren’t paid. The group is $60,000 in debt, and those debts have meant harm to dozens of innocent people. “I remember times we’ve said, ‘that cat’s straight, let’s burn him for a bill,'” says Phil Lesh.
They have never gotten along with Warner Brothers, reacting distrustfully to all attempts at guidance. The first record, The Grateful Dead, was a largely unsuccessful attempt to get a live sound in the studio. The second, Anthem of the Sun, was recorded in four studios and at 18 live performances; halfway through they got rid of producer Dave Hassinger and finished it themselves months behind schedule. Aoxomoxoa was delivered as a finished product to Warner’s, cover and all; the company did little more than press and distribute it. All the records have fine moments, snatches of lyric Garcia melodies and driving ensemble passages. Aoxomoxoa (more a mystic palindrome than a word, by the way) is in many ways brilliant; precisely mixed by Jerry and Phil, it is a record composition, not a recording of anything, and its flow is obliquely powerful. But none of them are as open and vital as the Dead live, even accounting for the change in medium. “The man in the street isn’t ready for our records,” says Jerry; but that also means that, fearful of being commercial, the Dead have discarded the value of immediate musical communication in making records; the baby, unfortunately, has gone out with the bath water. A double record album of live performances, though, is planned.
It is not that they can’t be commercially successful. Their basic sound is hard rock/white R & B slightly freaked – not very different from Steppenwolf’s, Creedence Clearwater’s, or the Sir Douglas Quintet’s. “Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion,” their 1967 single, could quite easily be a hit single today. They would have been happy had success come to them; unsought success, a gift of self-amplification, is a logical extension of electrifying instruments. But they just won’t and can’t accept even the machine’s most permissive limits. Their basic sound is just that, something to build from, and they know intuitively if to their own frustration, that to accept the system, however easy a panacea it might seem, would to them be fatal. “Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s is groovy,” says Phil, “as long as you render to God what is God’s. But now Caesar demands it all, and we gotta be straight with God first.”
They see themselves, with more than a touch of self-dramatization, as keepers of the flame. Smoking grass on stage, bringing acid to concerts, purposely ignoring time limits for sets, telling audiences to screw the rules and ushers and dance – those are just tokens. In late 1967 they set up the Great North-western Tour with the Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jerry Abrams’ Headlights, completely handling a series of dates in Oregon and Washington. “No middlemen, no bullshit,” said Rock Scully, “we did it all, posters, tickets, promo, setting up the halls. All the things promoters say you can’t do, we did, man, and ’cause we weren’t dependent, we felt free and everybody did. That told us that however hard it gets, it can be done, you don’t have to go along.”
Out of that energy came the Carousel Ballroom. The Dead, helped by the Airplane, leased a huge Irish dance hall in downtown San Francisco and started a series of dances that were a throwback to the good old days. But running a good dance hall means taking care of business and keeping a straight head. The Carousel’s managers did neither. They made absurdly bad deals, beginning with an outlandish rent, and succumbed to a destructive fear of Bill Graham. The spring of 1968, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, were hard on show business everywhere. Graham, in the smaller Fillmore smack in the center of an increasingly unfriendly ghetto, was vulnerable and ready to be cooperative. But to the Dead and their friends he was big bad Bill Graham, the villain who had destroyed the San Francisco scene. So as the Carousel sank further into debt, they refused the help he offered. Inevitably they had to close; Graham moved swiftly, took up the lease, and renamed the place the Fillmore West. The Dead were on the street again, licking their wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise.
A year later they are still in the street; they are not quite failures by accepted business terms but certainly have been stagnated by their own stubborn yearning. A bust in the fall of 1967 and the incr