Listen to the River Sing Sweet Songs - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


Listen to the River Sing Sweet Songs

iscussion about Altamont dominated the Bay Area rock world for weeks after the debacle, and more than a few people suggested that the Dead were partly culpable for the violence that occurred because of the group’s longstanding relationship with the Hell’s Angels. In the Stones camp there was a concerted effort to shift the blame to Rock Scully for supposedly arranging the Angels’ security-for-beer deal, a charge Scully always denied. At the very least Scully approved of the idea, which most likely originated with Emmett Grogan, formerly of the Diggers cooperative and one of the first to approach the Stones about playing a free show in San Francisco. The Stones’ tour manager, Sam Cutler, who worked closely with Mick Jagger in making logistical decisions, had also enthusiastically endorsed the plan. Whatever the facts—and they continue to be debated in ’60s memoirs to this day—the events at Altamont unleashed a torrent of finger-pointing, hand-wringing, pontificating and deep, dark self-analysis in the counterculture press, a conversation that lasted for years. Altamont was variously described as the death of the ’60s, the death of idealism, the death of rock ’n’ roll, the death of hippiedom—an Old Testament-style cataclysm where evil momentarily triumphs, arousing the wrath of God.

The Dead didn’t say much publicly in the days following Altamont—what was there to say, really?—but on December 20, 1969, two weeks after the concert, near the end of their second set at the recently reopened Fillmore Auditorium, the group unveiled a new song “about” Altamont. After roaring through what was really the Dead’s grand trilogy for 1969—“Dark Star”> “Saint Stephen”>“The Eleven”—the band fell into the ominous, rumbling introduction to Hunter and Garcia’s “New Speedway Boogie,” which Hunter had been partly inspired to write after reading San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ralph Gleason’s stinging condemnations of the Dead and the other organizers of Altamont.

Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack

If you got nothing new to say

If you please, go back up the track

This train got to run today

Spent a little time on the mountain

Spent a little time on the hill

Heard some say: “Better run away”

Others say: “You better stand still”

Now I don’t know, but I been told,

It’s hard to run with the weight of gold

On the other hand, I’ve heard it said

It’s just as hard with the weight of lead

Ed McClanahan, essayist and former denizen of both the Perry Lane and Acid Test scenes, nicely described the heart of this strong and unflinching song in a 1971 article in The Realist:

“Hunter is not of the Altamont-as-Götter-dämmerung persuasion, and he does not agree that the quest after salvation—the voyage that began in the Haight-Ashbury and carried us all the way to Woodstock—has dead-ended at last in the molten yellow hills of California just 20 miles east of where it started, impaled on the point of a Hell’s Angels rusty blade, skewered there like those suicidal Siamese frogs that travel great distances only to fling themselves upon the spikes of some rare thornbush. Rather, the poet suggests, the journey has only just begun, and the way is long and arduous and fraught with peril; Altamont is but one dark moment in the community’s total experience, the first installment of the dues we must pay for our deliverance. On the Big Trip, the poet warns, the pilgrims will encounter suffering as well as joy, and those with no heart for the undertaking would do well to stand aside, because ‘this train’s got to run today.’”

Two years after Altamont, Garcia said of “New Speedway Boogie,” “I think that song’s an overreaction myself. I think that it’s a little bit dire. Really, the thing that I’ve been seeing since Altamont is that periodically you have darkness and periodically you have light, like the way the universe is in the yin/yang symbol. There’s darkness and light and it’s the interplay that represents the game that we’re allowed to play on this planet.”

Neither Garcia nor other members of the Dead ever came down hard on the Angels for their role at Altamont. To the contrary, Garcia said in an interview about a year after the festival that the Angels “behaved properly” at Altamont. “I mean, they did just what they would do, so they were not out of character. Also, I don’t think that it was strictly a trip on the Angels, ’cause the Angels in California are surrounded by prospects—people who want to be Angels—and their way of showing that they could be Angels is to come on bad. And they’re the ones who are mostly responsible. Most Hell’s Angels I know are into partying.”

Though Altamont was unquestionably a blow to the Dead—a surprise kick to the solar plexus—the fact is the band barely missed a beat after the festival, and their gigs in the rest of December and moving into 1970 were uniformly strong and spirited. They were definitely on a roll, inspired no doubt by the slew of new songs they’d introduced since mid-’69. In the late fall of 1969 the group unveiled four more Hunter songs that would make it onto their next album.

“Cumberland Blues,” with music by Garcia and Lesh, was a tuneful, harmony-filled portrait of a coal miner:

Lotta poor man make a five-dollar bill

Keep him happy all the time

Some other fellow makin’ nothing at all

And you can hear him cryin’—

“Can I go, buddy

Can I go down

Take your shift down at the mine?”

Got to get down to the Cumberland Mine

That’s where I mainly spend my time

Make good money, five dollars a day

Made any more might move away …

“On ‘Cumberland Blues,’” Garcia explained, “one part is modeled on the Bakersfield country and western bands—electric country and western bands like Buck Owens’s old Buckaroos and the Strangers [Merle Haggard’s group]. The first part of the tune is that style. And the last part is like bluegrass. That’s what I wanted to do: a marriage of those styles.”

The song “Black Peter” started life as a “jumpy little tune,” according to Hunter, but “Garcia really turned that one inside out and made a monster of it.” Garcia slowed the song down to a mournful ballad tempo and played it like a country blues with some Western overtones. Lyrically, it paints a somber picture of a man on his deathbed, surrounded by sympathetic cronies:

Just then the wind

Came squalling through the door

But who can the weather command?

Just want to have

A little peace to die

And a friend or two I love at hand

It was at the Fillmore West two nights before Altamont that the Dead first played what became one of their best-known songs, “Uncle John’s Band,” also penned by Hunter and Garcia. A month earlier the group had been toying with some of the progressions that would eventually become part of the song: “At that time,” Garcia said, “I was listening to records of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir and also this Greek-Macedonian music—these penny whistlers—and on one of those records there was this little turn of melody that was so lovely that I thought, ‘Gee, if I could get this into a song it would be so great.’ So I stole it! Actually, I took a little piece of the melody, so I can’t say I plagiarized the whole thing. Of course it became so transmogrified when Phil and Bob added their harmony parts to it that it really was no longer the part of the song that was special for me. That was the melodic kicker originally, though.”

Hunter wrote the words for “Uncle John’s Band” using a tape of the band playing what was essentially the finished tune. “I played it over and over and tried writing to it,” he recalled. “I kept hearing the words ‘God damn, Uncle John’s mad,’ and it took a while for that to turn into ‘Come hear Uncle John’s Band,’ and that’s one of those little things where the sparkles start coming out of your eyes.”

In its earliest incarnation, “Uncle John’s Band” had a slightly Latin flavor to it, though with its neatly arranged three-part harmonies and bright, buoyant chord progressions it was clearly a part of the American folk tradition. In 1969 there was a well-known precedent for combining those two types of feelings in a song—Stephen Stills’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from the first Crosby, Stills and Nash record, which was all over the radio that summer and fall. Unlike Stills’s opus, however, “Uncle John’s Band” was no simple love song. Rather, Hunter fashioned a song that was effectively an invitation to his generation to learn from the past and move forward together into the future:

Well, the first days are the hardest days,

Don’t you worry anymore

’Cause when life looks like Easy Street

There is danger at your door

Think this through with me

Let me know your mind

Whoa-oh, what I want to know,

Is are you kind?

It’s a buck dancer’s choice, my friend

Better take my advice

You know all the rules by now

And the fire from the ice

Will you come with me?

Won’t you come with me?

Whoa-oh, what I want to know,

Will you come with me?

In 1967 Hunter had invited us to go into “the transitive nightfall of diamonds” in “Dark Star.” In 1968 he had chided “Cosmic Charlie” to “go on home, your mama’s calling you.” But “Uncle John’s Band” was like a friendly outstretched hand that reached into the psychic darkness that was enveloping the culture and pulled the tattered survivors onto safer ground. After all, if the Dead had come through the violence, disorder and disillusionment of the late ’60s with their family intact, with smiling faces and their voices soaring together in song, there was hope for the rest of us, too. Still, Hunter/the Dead were looking for guidance as much as everyone else:

I live in a silver mine

And I call it Beggar’s Tomb

I got me a violin

And I beg you call the tune

Anybody’s choice

I can hear your voice

Whoa-oh, what I want to know,

How does the song go?

The fourth new tune introduced that fall was “Easy Wind,” written by Hunter alone and sung by Pigpen. It was the finest song ever written specifically for Pigpen’s rough-and-tumble onstage persona—it casts him as a hardworking laborer whose mistreatin’ woman “hides my bottle in the other room.” Though Hunter said he originally wrote the song to be like a Robert Johnson blues, once the Dead got hold of it, it became a slinky slice of funk-flavored R&B, full of interesting counter-rhythms and slightly off-kilter guitar parts.

By the end of 1969 Tom Constanten and the Dead had decided to part ways. T.C. had been a valuable addition to the group during a time when their music was at its most complex, but he was not fundamentally a rock ’n’ roll player, and he also didn’t have roots in the sort of folk and country music that was increasingly part of the Dead’s new direction. It didn’t help, too, that T.C. had become a Scientologist, which “made me a nonparticipant in the chemical sacraments of the time, and that offended Owsley greatly,” he said. “I tried not to proselytize, but I’m sure there’s a certain amount you can’t resist, and that I regret. It probably must have rubbed some people the wrong way.”

From his standpoint, T.C. felt he was never really able to step out musically in the Dead, and in his spare time he became involved in a music/ theater project called Tarot that gave him more creative space. “I wanted to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and Tarot was more edifying,” T.C. said.

Constanten’s last official show with the group was the final concert of a five-night series in Honolulu near the end of January 1970. But he traveled to New Orleans with the band right after those shows and appeared onstage with the Dead as a “guest” when they played a new ballroom called the Warehouse, with Fleetwood Mac and the Flock. On January 31, after the first of three scheduled concerts there, police raided the Dead’s French Quarter hotel and busted the entire band—except for T.C. and Pigpen—on narcotics possession charges. Also busted were Owsley—whom the local papers crowed was “the king of acid”—members of the Dead’s road crew and various “family” members who were along for the trip; nineteen people in all.

“After the show,” Garcia recalled, “I went to somebody’s house and hung around there for a long time and rapped, and finally went back to the hotel, and when I got there, [the police] were already pretty much cleaning out everybody’s room. Everybody was gone, nobody was there, and I just happened to be walking down the hall with my guitar. I saw a couple of guys in the room and they said, ‘Hey you, come here!’ and they shook me down.”

This was much more serious than the San Francisco bust in the fall of 1967. Louisiana had very tough drug laws—kids caught with pot were drawing sentences of five years and more—and the police claimed they had found large quantities of pot, LSD, barbiturates and amphetamines among the band’s and crew’s possessions. Lenny Hart managed to bail everyone out by posting $37,500, on a nonrefundable premium of $3,750, the Dead’s earnings for the concert.

“The cops made it extra heavy for us,” Lenny Hart told Rolling Stone at the time. “They detained the band, handcuffed them all together and lined them up in front of the building for press photos. The cops were enjoying it, just getting their own things on. They ended up having to spend eight hours in jail; even though the bail was ready right away, they hassled them that long. I don’t think that’s the way police are supposed to handle it.”

This was Garcia’s first bust, and the news couldn’t have come at a worse time for Mountain Girl, who was back in California: “I called the hotel that day to tell Jerry that I was going into labor and going to the hospital, and the lady at the desk at the hotel said, ‘I’m really sorry, but those guys are in jail; you’ll have to call the police station.’ So I was worried sick about that, and then I didn’t see him until he got home, which was right after Annabelle was born.”

Garcia was philosophical about the bust, noting, “I just consider it sort of an occupational hazard. I mean, it’s like if you’re working on a skyscraper—if you’re paranoid about falling, you shouldn’t be working. And that’s like if you’re playing rock ’n’ roll music and you’re paranoid about being busted, you shouldn’t be in rock ’n’ roll music. It’s one of those things that happens; there’s nothing you can do. There’s no profit in worrying about it.”

Shortly after the bust, the Dead went into Pacific High Recording—the studio where finishing work on Aoxomoxoa had taken place in the spring of 1969—and cut their fourth studio album, entitled Workingman’s Dead, in just ten days. What caused the band to make such an about-face in their working methods? Partly it was the nature of the material—the simpler song structures evidently didn’t require as much fussing as Hunter and Garcia’s psychedelically inspired songs. But a lot of it was economic considerations.

After Aoxomoxoa the Dead were in debt to Warner Bros. for close to $200,000. The next record they delivered was the live double-LP set Live Dead, released in November 1969 and featuring spectacular performances that showed the early-’69 Dead at their spaciest and absolute best. That record was both inexpensive to make and successful enough that it wiped out about half of what they owed the label, but when the band went in to make Workingman’s Dead, “we didn’t want to incur an enormous debt like we had been,” Garcia said. “So I was thinking, when we go into the studio next time, let’s try a real close-to-the-bone approach, like the way they record country and western records—a few instruments, relatively simple and easy-to-perform songs. It was quite conscious, an effort to say, ‘Let’s not spend a year. Let’s do it all in three weeks and get it the hell out of the way. And that way, if the record does at all well, we will be able to pay off some of what we owe to the record company.’ So that worked very well. And it was a chance to expose a side of us that we hadn’t exposed very much.”

“We were into a much more relaxed thing about that time,” he said in another interview. “And we were also out of our pretentious thing. We weren’t feeling so much like an experimental music group, but were feeling more like a good old band.”

That’s when they were playing music. Offstage, there were big problems. There was the New Orleans bust hanging over their heads—jail was not inconceivable—and while they were recording Workingman’s Dead they discovered that Lenny Hart had been stealing from them.

Road manager Jonathan Reister says he was the first to raise the red flag about Lenny, but that his warnings had been ignored and, in fact, others had sided with Mickey’s father, ultimately leading to Reister’s departure from the Dead scene. Still, the band recognized that the financial end of the operation was in such disarray that they needed some help from the outside. Well, sort of “outside”: Dave Parker and his wife, Bonnie, friends of the the band from the Palo Alto days, had hooked up with Garcia again in December 1969, and even stayed with Jerry and Mountain Girl in Larkspur for a couple of weeks. Bonnie had accounting experience and David was a bright guy, so when suspicions arose about Lenny, Garcia hired them to work for the Dead. Around the same time, the Dead hired the Stones’ road manager, Sam Cutler, to replace Jonathan Reister, and he, too, was involved in the investigation of Lenny Hart’s financial shenanigans.

The Parkers’ first order of business was to establish the Dead’s true financial status, which was difficult because Lenny Hart would not cooperate with them. “Coming in, there was a feeling of suspicion that something was not quite right, but people didn’t know for sure,” Parker says. “I was starting from a set of books that Lenny Hart had kept in pencil, so it was very convenient to erase and change things. We had to struggle and scuffle just to get the books from him in order to start doing the job. He was reluctant to give them up. The bank account was practically empty and here was this dubious set of books. So finally I went to a lawyer and an accountant. Some suspicious entries were found and it actually resulted in an embezzlement charge [later].”

When it became clear that Lenny had doctored the books and taken an estimated $70,000 to $100,000 from the band, they confronted him with the information and Hart promised to pay back the money. Instead, after putting down $10,000, he disappeared, but not before stealing more of the group’s money. “When he ran off on us,” Rock Scully said, “he’d just gone to L.A. with Garcia to negotiate for music in Zabriskie Point [Michelangelo Antonioni’s muddled “youth” film]. Well, he just took the check and split. We found out he had eleven accounts spread out through California.”

The theft put the Dead in an even more precarious financial position. Dave Parker remembers that “there was no money to buy plane tickets for the next gig, so we had to borrow that from the booking agent so they could even get out to start earning some money. It was quite a blow coming just after the bust and having it be not just a manager, but Mickey’s father.”

We’ll probably never know the true extent of the psychic damage Lenny’s grand larceny had on his son, but it’s probably not a coincidence that at the end of 1970 Mickey dropped out of the group for the next five years. “Mickey was dismayed,” Garcia said. “He’d never expected anything like that, of course. He knew his father had been into shady trips before, but he thought he was reformed, just like we all did. He was really shocked, and he was right with us about our decision to get rid of Lenny.”

In retrospect, it’s remarkable the Dead could keep their minds on playing music during this weird time, but as Mickey himself pointed out, the band’s business problems were a distraction “only when we came off the road. Not when we were out there, certainly, because we were flyin’. When the music’s going, all is well. When the music stops and you come home, that’s when art meets reality.”

* * *

In December 1969 the band had experimented at a few shows by opening their concerts with a short set played on acoustic instruments, and in the winter and spring of 1970 this concept was expanded. This proved to be a format that was suitable not just for some of the band’s new acoustic guitar-based songs, like “Dire Wolf,” “Uncle John’s Band” and “Black Peter,” but also for a wide range of cover tunes, from traditional pieces like “Little Sadie,” “Deep Elem Blues” and “I Know You Rider” (which the Dead also played electric, connected to “China Cat Sunflower”) to numbers like the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” and Jesse Fuller’s “The Monkey and the Engineer.” The sets were loose enough that sometimes only Garcia and Weir would play on a tune. Other times they’d be joined by Lesh on bass, or Pigpen might sing a song like Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Katie Mae” solo, with just his own guitar accompaniment. It was almost like sitting around a living room with the musicians—they’d joke around between songs, banter with the audience, play whatever struck their fancy.

Garcia introduced two new songs in the acoustic sets during this period. “Candyman” was another Hunter-Garcia variation on a familiar song theme—there were sexually suggestive “Candyman” songs in the blues tradition dating back to the nineteenth century, and Mississippi John Hurt had a popular fingerpicking song by that name in the late ’20s, which he revived when he was rediscovered in the early ’60s. The music for Garcia’s “Candyman” sounded as if it had been pulled off a piano roll from some dusty, smoke-filled Western saloon, and Hunter’s words matched that mood perfectly:

Come all you pretty women

With your hair hanging down

Open up your windows ’cause

The Candyman’s in town.

Come on, boys, and gamble

Roll those laughing bones

Seven come eleven, boys

I’ll take your money home

The other song was one that Hunter had actually started writing with John Dawson and intended for the New Riders of the Purple Sage. “Friend of the Devil” was a brisk little bluegrass-flavored tune about a desperado on the lam (“trailed by twenty hounds”) who borrows twenty dollars from the devil, only to have the devil take it back later, leaving our hero (?) still running from the law, crying his lonely nights away as he dreams of both his “sweet Anne Marie” and the prospect of a life behind bars. As Dawson recalls, “Hunter came over to our house with the germ of the idea that became ‘Friend of the Devil.’ He had that great opening guitar part, but that’s as far as he’d gotten. I came up with the melody for the hook: ‘Set out runnin’ but I take my time / Friend of the Devil is a friend of mine / If I get home before daylight / I just might get some sleep tonight.’ We thought we had a complete song. But he took it back home to Garcia’s house, where he was also living, and played it for Jerry and said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ Jerry said, ‘It’s nice, but it needs a bridge,’ so Hunter got busy and scribbled out some more words and Jerry wrote the bridge. Garcia ended up liking the song so much that he immediately put it in their set. That was fine with me, because he sang it well and the song I’d helped write had grown up and found a nice home.”

That spring, the Dead and the New Riders went on their first East Coast tour together, and it was a tremendous success from every standpoint. First of all, because the Dead were traveling with their own opening act, they were able to play concerts with no other group on the bill, so they could play longer sets and not have to worry about clearing another group’s equipment from the stage before they went on.

“That first tour was fabulous,” Dawson says. “We had a built-in friendly crowd waiting for us—‘Wow, what’s this new thing that Garcia’s up to?’ When Alanna [Dawson’s wife of many years] was first getting into it, she asked somebody, ‘So who are the New Riders?’ And the guy told her, ‘Oh, they’re the guys who come on before the Dead and make everybody feel good.’ I’ll take that. That’s great. That kind of sums it up. We were there to get people goin’ and feelin’ good, and then the Grateful Dead could go ahead and do their weirdness and all that.”

There was definitely something warm and reassuring about the New Riders in the early days. Part of it really was just the sight of Garcia sitting at the pedal steel, picking out melodies that were sweet as molasses, and Phil thundering beneath the songs, playing simpler but still distinctive bass lines. But David Nelson was also a master of twangy Bakersfield-style electric guitar, and Dawson—or Marmaduke, as he was called—was a genial and engaging frontman in his cowboy hat and boots, kind of a Marin hippie on the range. And Dawson’s early songs were catchy and compelling, from his bouncy ode to dope smuggling, “Henry,” to mooning love ballads like “All I Ever Wanted” and “Portland Woman,” to his grand saga of treachery and disaster, “Dirty Business,” which featured Garcia playing wonderfully distorted pedal steel. The Riders also played some neat cover tunes, like “Truck Driving Man” and their usual set-closer, a countrified but still rocking version of the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” The band particularly struck a chord on the East Coast, which was fast becoming the Dead’s most lucrative market.

“I guess we represented something to East Coast people that was missing from their lives,” Dawson suggests. “Maybe some of it was our disregard for the harsh realities of day-to-day life, which are always right in your face in the East, especially in New York City. Here we were coming in with a devil-may-care attitude and all those guys [in the audience] were having to work for a living, having to do the day-to-day grind and worry about what’s happening on the FDR [Drive] or what’s happening on the West Side [Highway]. We were high and obviously having a great time and doing what we liked and playing this stuff that everybody had sort of heard before, but it didn’t sound like that crap that was on the radio. It was familiar but still different and new.”

From the second half of 1969 all the way through 1970, Garcia lent his unique pedal steel touch to a number of different albums that were recorded in the Bay Area. His steel appeared on a song called “The Farm” on the Jefferson Airplane’s superb record Volunteers. He played on a few tracks by a group called Lamb, one song on It’s a Beautiful Day’s Marrying Maiden album and one on the Kansas City-based duo Brewer and Shipley’s Tarkio. (Contrary to popular myth at the time, Garcia did not play on their hit “One Toke Over the Line.”) And in early 1970 he laid down what is probably, to this day, his most-heard solo—the steel break in “Teach Your Children,” on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s mega-selling Déjà Vu album.

Around the same time that CSNY were finishing up their album, the Airplane’s Paul Kantner was busy at Heider’s working on what would become his first solo album, Blows Against the Empire, and he enlisted Garcia to play steel and some electric guitar on several songs.

“Jerry was doing a lot of pedal steel for people around that time, experimenting, and so we let him be on it; he was overjoyed,” Kantner says. “So he went in and just experimented with sounds, seeing what kind of sounds he could get out of it, running it through various pedals and echoes and delays. We gave him a free hand, which made him happy. Before that he’d pretty much just been doing country licks on the steel, and this gave him the opportunity to get a little weirder, which he always appreciated.”

Blows Against the Empire was one of the most interesting records to come out of San Francisco in that era, more a work of modern folk music than a rock ’n’ roll album, and the first of several Bay Area projects that used members of several of the top local groups as a “cast” of players, rather than featuring a fixed band. From the Airplane, there was Kantner, Slick, Jack Casady (playing perhaps the most sonically intense bass lines of his career) and drummer Joey Covington. From the Dead, Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart appeared on various tracks. Graham Nash and David Crosby sang backup vocals, and Crosby also helped write a couple of tunes. Quicksilver’s David Freiberg began his long musical association with Kantner and Slick at these sessions; he later played in the Jefferson Starship with them. It was a vibrant and uplifting record that unabashedly celebrated hippie idealism through an elaborate science fiction fantasy story.

“It’s about us—me and Jerry Garcia and David Crosby—stealing a starship; hijacking a spaceship, going where whoever comes along wants to go,” Kantner said in 1970. “It’d be the rock ’n’ roll groups—us, the Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Quicksilver—being part of the plan to take all the millions that they earn from rock ’n’ roll, buying an island in the Pacific or somewhere and setting Owsley up with a lot of bread and a lot of equipment… . If you gave him $50 billion and an island and a machine shop, he’d have the starship together in less than a year.” In Kantner’s vividly told tale, hippies escape from Earth to live idyllically in the outer reaches of the galaxy, where they tend hydroponic gardens, enjoy free music, take acid and make love, merging blissfully with the universe.

Derided by some as stoned hippie ravings run amok, Blows Against the Empire was nonetheless embraced by freaks from coast to coast, and it was certainly more compelling than the Airplane’s rather disjointed next album, Bark, made without Marty Balin.

Garcia’s playing on the record is both imaginative and impeccably tasteful throughout, from the aching cry of his steel on “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?” which beautifully evokes the feeling of a starcruiser drifting through limitless space, to the round but wiry tones of his electric guitar work dancing spryly all through “Starship.” Garcia also received a co-writing credit (with Kantner, Mickey Hart and Phil Sawyer) on a noisy instrumental interlude called “XM,” which simulates the sound of a rocket blasting off using feedback, white noise, distorted gongs and multiple Garcia pedal steel tracks drenched in crackling fuzz and distortion.

As if playing gigs with the Dead and the New Riders and working in the studio with virtually anyone who asked wasn’t enough, Garcia also managed to find the time to bop down regularly to the Matrix club to jam with a local keyboardist named Howard Wales and drummer Bill Vitt.

Wales was a Wisconsin native who had played and toured mainly with R&B performers like Ronnie Hawkins, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Four Tops, the Coasters, Freddy King and James Brown. He’d jammed with rockers like Harvey Mandel and Jimi Hendrix, and when he moved to the Bay Area in 1968 he formed a moderately popular band called A.B. Skhy. Along the way Wales absorbed quite a bit of jazz, too, and he was one of the first rock/R&B keyboardists to try blending the different styles into something new. Certainly, jazz-fusion, as it became known, was in the air in 1970—that was the year of Miles Davis’s seminal Bitches Brew band, who opened for the Dead at the Fillmore in April and were so hot the Dead felt positively humbled.

Vitt was another seasoned pro with a background that included a three-year stretch as a session drummer in the highly competitive Los Angeles studio scene in the mid-’60s, and a stint playing with Michael Bloomfield after the guitarist’s group the Electric Flag broke up.

“Originally it was Howard and me playing at the Matrix on Fillmore, just the two of us, very informally,” Vitt says. “Then we added a couple of pieces and Jerry was one of the guys. It was a neat little club. It was all listening; nobody danced. Howard had known Jerry before, so he started coming down and jamming with us, and it got to be a regular thing for a while.”

“The Matrix was always like a king-sized jam session,” Wales adds. “We had all sorts of people coming in and out—Elvin Bishop, Harvey Mandel and Jerry, of course; anybody who was around there came down to play. Mostly it was just jamming and free-form spontaneity. And there were some incredible nights there. Later it solidified and we played more of my own material, but in the beginning it was real loose.”

Sometimes Wales, Garcia and Vitt played as a trio, other times a bassist would sit in; the first bassist Vitt brought down to work with the group was a symphony player named Richard Favis. When he dropped out, he was replaced by another Bloomfield band alumnus named John Kahn, who would become one of Jerry’s closest musical partners over the next twenty-five years.

The lanky, laconic Kahn had been raised in Beverly Hills, the son of a respected Hollywood talent agent who died when John was five. Kahn’s mother stayed in the business and became a successful agent herself, so John was brought up around the movies. “I remember spending a lot of time around the 20th Century-Fox lot as a kid,” Kahn said. “It was pretty boring, actually. But one thing that came out of it was Marilyn Monroe baby-sat for me a couple of times. That was cool.”

He studied piano and music theory while he was still in grade school, and in high school he added rock ’n’ roll guitar to his arsenal. “But then I got heavily into listening to jazz and all of a sudden all I wanted to do was be a jazz string bass player and listen to jazz records all the time,” he said. “I loved Scotty La Faro and the Bill Evans Trio, and I also listened to a lot of Ornette Coleman and Coltrane. So I took up the string bass and studied classical music quite a bit.”

After high school, Kahn attended the University of Southern California for a semester, then transferred to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in late 1966. Gradually Kahn became somewhat disenchanted with jazz, and he started drifting into the rock ’n’ roll world that was exploding all around him. In 1967 a roommate offered him a job as bassist in a rock cover band, so Kahn traded in his electric guitar for an electric bass, and he emulated the great R&B and blues players of the day—James Jamerson, Hamp Simmons (of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s band), Duck Dunn and Chuck Rainey, to name a few. “Another guy who influenced me was Paul McCartney,” he said. Over the next couple of years Kahn played in several different groups, including two that he led, Memory Pain and the Tits and Ass Rhythm and Blues Band. He met and jammed with Steve Miller and Michael Bloomfield during this period, and, suddenly brimming with confidence, he went to Chicago to try to land a job with Paul Butterfield’s band. When that fell through Kahn returned to San Francisco and started playing with Bloomfield and doing session work in studios around town. It was Bill Vitt who invited Kahn down to the Matrix for one of Wales’s Monday night jam sessions.

“So I went down there and it was a lot of fun,” Kahn said. “I met Garcia and we became friends right away. Of course I’d heard the Dead quite a bit, but I can’t say I was really a fan or anything. I’d been around them some. I lived in the Haight and was at their house a couple of times. But I didn’t know their music very well and I didn’t know much about how Garcia played. I didn’t know what kind of music he and Wales would be playing down at the Matrix when I went down. And I still don’t know! It was kind of a weird jazz with these other influences—it was mainly Howard’s music, all instrumental.

“We played Monday nights there for a while, and for the longest time, hardly anybody would show up,” Kahn continued. “We’d get ten people and split ten dollars four ways at the end of the night. We played there for something like six months but people just didn’t seem interested, or maybe they didn’t even know about it. After a while people did start to come. It got to be … ‘crowded’ might be stretching things a bit—and this place was the size of a living room. Maybe even ‘full’ isn’t accurate. Let’s say ‘not empty.’”

For Garcia, the attraction was being able to play in a more relaxed context than the Grateful Dead offered, and a chance to branch out in directions he’d never pursued before. Wales was a serious player, and Garcia had to work hard to follow him. “[Kahn] and I would plug in and play with Howard and spend all night muttering to each other, ‘What key are we in?’” Garcia said. “Howard was so incredible, and we were just hanging on for dear life. For some reason Howard enjoyed playing with us, but we were just keeping up. Howard was so outside. For both of us that was a wonderful experience… . Playing with Howard did more for my ears than anybody I ever played with because he was so extended and so different. His approach was all extensions and very keyboardistic; not guitaristic.”

Sometime in April 1970, a few songs from Workingman’s Dead filtered out to FM radio stations in advance of the album’s release, and the response was both immediate and enthusiastic—the Dead had a bona fide hit on their hands. “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones” were the tracks that made the initial splash—they were many people’s introduction to the music of the Grateful Dead. By 1970, most young people who liked rock ’n’ roll were at least aware of the Grateful Dead—they were more famous than they were popular—though they hadn’t sold many records or appeared on any of the big television programs that showcased rock bands, such as The Ed Sullivan Show or the much hipper Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. (In mid-1969 the Dead had gotten their only major national TV exposure when they played “Saint Stephen” and “Mountains of the Moon” on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark, amid buxom women in miniskirts and young men who looked as if they’d learned about hip fashion from watching The Mod Squad. In grand Prankster tradition, someone from the Dead crew dosed many of the drinks on the faux bachelor pad set with LSD, leading to some strange times for the “party” guests after the taping was done.) The Dead were known far and wide as the band that just might play all night when they came to your town or college campus; the band that had been at Monterey and Woodstock (and Altamont); the band that was the living embodiment of that undefinable yet still compelling San Francisco spirit of the late ’60s—high times, free concerts, a sense of family. And now they had a record filled with these catchy, instantly accessible songs that anyone could sing along with without having to wade through lengthy guitar solos and feedback.

The album contained only eight songs—“Uncle John’s Band,” “High Time,” “Dire Wolf,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Black Peter,” “Easy Wind” and “Casey Jones.” But each song was its own world, with a distinct tone and texture, and the cumulative effect of the tunes was powerful indeed. Hunter had drawn flesh-and-blood characters who possessed feelings and frailties anyone could relate to. The great paradox of Workingman’s Dead is that lyrically it’s a very dark record—filled with death, despair and hopelessness—yet the music is uplifting, even joyful. (In this way it shared a common characteristic of many bluegrass recordings.) It’s an album full of images of man’s insignificance in the face of nature’s power and mysteries, while at the same time it celebrates the dignity and humanity of the poor beleaguered souls who populate Hunter’s universe. There’s something vaguely familiar about the music, but it never quite falls into any definable style.

“The album was a tremendous joy,” Garcia commented. “Being able to do that was extremely positive in the midst of all this adverse stuff that was happening [with Lenny Hart]. It definitely was an upper. We were getting far into our own thing, without really a gallery to play to, or an audience to interact with. It’s just us, bouncing off each other. It was the first record that we made together as a group, all of us. Everybody contributed beautifully and it came off really nicely. That was also our first really together effort at having our songs be groovy and everything; the whole thing.”

Though the record was unquestionably a group effort, Garcia was clearly the dominant figure on the album—he co-wrote seven of the eight songs, sang lead on five and shared the lead with Weir and Lesh on two others. Coming on the heels of Aoxomoxoa, where Garcia was the main singer and songwriter, and Live Dead, which showed off his instrumental prowess (as well as the other players’, but the lead guitarist usually gets more of the glory), Workingman’s Dead affirmed the popular perception of Garcia as the de facto leader of the group. He was the personable storyteller onstage, rarely speaking, but singing Hunter’s tales in a plaintive tenor that seemed to owe more to bluegrass great Ralph Stanley than to any pop singers; and offstage, Garcia was the thoughtful, funny and usually articulate spokesperson for the band, doing most of the press interviews, which became more numerous after the surprising success of Workingman’s Dead. In a sense, Garcia’s stage persona was a figment of Robert Hunter’s imagination. But it could also be argued that the reason Garcia could sing Hunter’s lyrics so convincingly and surround those words with music that matched the sentiments of the songs so beautifully was that he and Hunter fundamentally agreed about so many things that Hunter could truly function as Garcia’s poetic alter ego. Hunter voluntarily subsumed some of his own ego to give a voice to Garcia:

“I have to smile when someone, with the best of intentions, tells me I’m as much a part of the band as any of the musicians,” Hunter mused a year after Garcia’s death. “Ever hear of lost-wax casting? The wax mold is melted away leaving only the casting. That is, I found through long experience, the proper stance for a writer of words in a musical situation. If you think of the writer when the singer is singing, something is wrong with the words.”

Warner Bros. Records was understandably excited by the overwhelmingly positive response to Workingman’s Dead when the album was released in May, and they tried to boost the record’s fortunes by releasing a single version of “Uncle John’s Band” to AM radio stations. There were a couple of problems with that choice, however. At four minutes and thirty seconds, the song was too long for most AM stations. And, even worse, there was a troublesome word in the third verse: “Goddamn, well I declare / Have you seen the like?” Warner Bros. engineers awkwardly deleted the offending phrase and also eliminated one chorus and truncated another in an effort to make the single more radio-friendly.

“I gave them instructions on how to properly edit it,” an exasperated Garcia said in late 1970, “and they garbled it so completely and we didn’t get a chance to hear it until way late, and it was—oh fuck, what an atrocity!” In the same interview, Garcia admitted his ambivalence about striving for a hit: “It would be nice to have a single, but a hit single usually means twelve-year-old audiences.”

“Uncle John’s Band” stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven weeks in the summer of 1970, making it to as high as number 69, which sounds fairly impressive but probably is more a reflection of Warner Bros. promo men doggedly “working” the record than actual sales. The unclipped album version received much more airplay than the single, and the feared influx of twelve-year-olds never materialized.

The Dead also ran into trouble on the radio with “Casey Jones,” because of the song’s repeated references to cocaine. Actually, cocaine was barely a factor in the underground at the time—it was rarely seen outside of rock ’n’ roll backstages, and even there it wasn’t nearly as common as it would become in the mid- and late ’70s. But drug references of any kind in songs—even cautionary ones like this one was meant to be—were considered to be endorsements of drug abuse by the virulently anti-hippie Nixon White House, and many radio stations chose not to play “Casey Jones,” fearing retaliation by reactionary minions from the FCC. This wasn’t exactly news: There were countless songs in the late ’60s that drew fire from government and church leaders for allegedly promoting drugs, including such mainstream favorites as the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” and Donovan’s scandalous “Mellow Yellow” (“E-lec-trical banana, is gonna be a sudden craze”). As is usually the case with these sorts of controversies, the notoriety associated with the attempts to censor “Casey Jones” probably ended up helping the Dead rather than hurting them. After all, being a thorn in the side of Nixon was a badge of honor in the counterculture, and anything that shook up the straight, pro-Vietnam War “establishment” was regarded as a noble act of counterinsurgency.

Not that the Dead ever endorsed any particular political agenda or had any real interest in confronting the status quo. The group’s “political statement,” such as it was, was an extension of the Beat imperative to live an honest and soulful life free of the unreasonable dictates of disapproving moralists—“Here’s who we are. This is how we’re going to live our lives. Join us, or leave us alone.” The Dead’s staunch apoliticism actually put them in a weird position in the counterculture. Although the band had impeccable “underground” credentials because of their lifestyle, they refused to support the radical Left’s ideology and confrontational protest methods, and so were dismissed by some for being spaced-out hedonists. True enough from one point of view, yet from another the Dead’s whole enterprise could be seen as even more radical.

“On the West Coast it’s already so crazy you can’t believe it, with courtroom bombings and all that going on,” Garcia said in 1970. “But, see, everybody’s had a chance to look at it, step away from it, and that isn’t it—fighting and hassling and bloodletting and killings and all that shit; that ain’t it. Whatever life’s about, that’s not it.

“I think everybody should take one step backwards and two steps sideways, and let the whole thing collapse. Nobody vote, nobody work—let it collapse. You don’t have to break things and fuck things up and kill people and make all those people uptight.”

In another interview, from early 1971, Garcia noted, “Everything is going to pieces on the one hand, and everything is coming together on the other hand. I think that the revolution is over, and what’s left is mop-up action. It’s a matter of the news getting out to everybody else. I think that the important changes have already happened—changes in consciousness.”

Music, he believed, was also an agent in the changes happening in the culture. “It could be that music is one of those things left that isn’t completely devoid of meaning. Talk—like politics—has been made meaningless by the endless repetition of lies. There is no longer any substance in it. You listen to a politician making a speech, and it’s like hearing nothing. Whereas music is unmistakably music. The thing about music is that nobody listens to it unless it’s real… . Music goes back before language does. And music is like the key to a whole spiritual existence which this society doesn’t even talk about. We know it’s there. The Grateful Dead plays at the religious services of the new age. Everybody gets high, and that’s what it’s about really. Getting high is a lot more real than listening to a politician. You can think that geting high actually did happen—that you danced and got sweaty, and carried on. It really did happen. I know when it happens. I know when it happens every time.”

Despite their dislike of any sort of organized political activity, the Dead occasionally turned up unannounced at events that had political overtones. On May 6, 1970, they played a free concert in Kresge Plaza at MIT to show their support for a nationwide campus strike protesting the killing by National Guard troops of four protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. The group also expressed some admiration for the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, whom Garcia described in the fall of 1970 as “righteous. They have a rhetoric trip going on, but what they’re doing is actual, practical things. They’ve got a free breakfast trip, and they’re starting a free shoes thing—they’re starting shoe factories and stuff like that… . We don’t have any affiliations with any specific organizations, but if there’s a righteous [benefit to play], no matter who’s doing it, we’ll do it. If it avoids bureaucracy and bullshit and goes right to something, we’ll do it. That’s the sort of thing we’re interested in.” (Garcia’s support for the Panthers cooled significantly as the radical group’s posturing became increasingly militant.)

* * *

Ever since the Dead’s planned European tour in the spring of 1968 had fallen apart, the group had been looking for ways to go overseas, and for a while it looked as though they might be able to ride the success of Workingman’s Dead across the Atlantic. As the New Riders’ David Nelson said, “Originally, Sam Cutler was telling us that he was setting up this big tour of Europe. It was going to be the Dead, the New Riders, the Jefferson Airplane, any good San Francisco bands he could get, and we were all going to go over on a big ocean liner; it would be a big party boat. There were all these meetings, like a big one at Jerry’s house in Larkspur where we all talked about getting passport photos taken and all. There were all sorts of changes, though, and it ended up being all these bands going across Canada on a train. We were disappointed we didn’t get to go to Europe then, but the train was just fabulous. It couldn’t have been any better.”

The “Festival Express” train trip in late June and early July 1970 was definitely a career high point for the Dead, though it lasted less than a week. In its own way it was as special as their trip to Europe two years later, or even their trek to the Great Pyramid in the fall of 1978. The concept was simple: put a bunch of bands on a train and roll across Canada, playing twelve-hour festivals in a few key cities. On this rollicking journey the Dead were in splendid company; among the performers joining them were the New Riders, Janis Joplin’s Full-Tilt Boogie Band, the Band, Mountain, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, folksingers Tom Rush and Eric Anderson, and Ian and Sylvia’s country-folk band, Great Speckled Bird. The twelve-coach train had a tiny sleeping compartment for each person on board, a dining car, a lounge and two club cars that were filled with amplifiers and musical instruments for impromtu jam sessions. In the original vision of the Festival Express there were to be five stops on a trip that was supposed to end in Vancouver, but due to financial and logistical problems the Express ended in Calgary, on the east side of the snowcapped Canadian Rockies, and the musicians went their separate ways from there.

The week started out on a down note. In Toronto, a coalition of students and street people calling themselves the May 4th Movement (or M4M), after the date of the Kent State killings, threatened to disrupt the festival, which they called the Rip-off Express. In a letter to the Canadian organizers of the train trip, the M4M’s leaders wrote, “We demand that the Transcontinental (Rip-off) Express be free for everyone and all tickets be refunded; there be free food, dope and music for all the people there, with no cops. Failing these totally reasonable and just demands, we demand that 20 percent of the gate receipts be returned to the community… .”

The first show, at the Canadian National Exhibition Hall in Toronto, was marred by a violent assault by nearly 2,500 people trying to break into the concert, resulting in numerous injuries and arrests. According to David Dalton and Jonathan Cott’s detailed account of the trip in Rolling Stone, “Jerry Garcia had helped cool things down by setting up a free festival at nearby Coronation Park, where the Dead, Purple Sage, Ian and Sylvia, James and the Good Brothers, and the People’s Revolutionary Concert Band played to 4,000 kids the first day and 500 the second day.” The first day’s performance at the CNE was also marred by a stream of people climbing onto the stage and trying to make political announcements. At one point, Dalton and Cott wrote, “a kid came onstage and pointed to each member of the Dead and shouted, ‘You’re all phonies—you and you and you …’”

The M4M’s campaign against the festival, and the attendant fear of violence, kept the crowds lower than expected in Toronto, and probably affected attendance at the other stops as well. But once the train left Toronto Coach Yard heading west, the party began in earnest. Because the Canadian border customs inspections were so rigorous, the musicians were afraid to bring dope into the country, so this trip was fueled by alcohol, lots of it.

“The train ride across Canada was just like one crazy party,” John Dawson said. “I remember the times on the train a lot more than I remember the shows. It was just crazy. I remember that the only time I ever saw Garcia smashed on tequila was on that trip. It was a rare occasion indeed. We all got completely smashed on Cuervo Gold, and then he and Janis Joplin and me and Rick Danko and a couple of other people broke out our guitars and sang ‘No More Cane on the Brazos’ [a venerable Texas blues/worksong] until three or four in the morning as this train sped across Canada. Danko kept making up verse after verse. He just couldn’t be stopped. Garcia and I were falling all over the place laughing.”

The music cars were going twenty-four hours a day for nearly the entire trip, with everyone playing with everyone else—dozens of combinations of pickers and singers and tambourine shakers tackling any song that came up. It was musician heaven, with no one to please but themselves.

“The train trip wasn’t a dream, it was a stone boss reality,” Pigpen said right after the journey. “I’m still on that train. I just turn on the switch, and the fan’s on and the train’s still moving.” A few months after it was over, Garcia was still beaming about the experience, too: “It was great. That was the best time I’ve had in rock ’n’ roll. It was our train—it was the musicians’ train. There were no straight people. There wasn’t any showbiz bullshit. There weren’t any fans… . It was like a musicians’ convention with no public allowed.”

The flood of inspired new tunes coming from Hunter and Garcia continued unabated during the spring and summer of 1970. In May the Dead introduced a beautifully ethereal ballad called “Attics of My Life,” featuring heavenly three-part harmonies that were stacked in an almost choral arrangement, soaring over a spare instrumental bed. With its lovely, arching melismatic turns, “Attics of My Life” is perhaps the most successfully realized vocal piece Hunter and Garcia ever wrote together, a love song—to a woman? a man? Hunter’s muse?—with deep spiritual overtones. The musical context is almost hymnlike, but the lyrics have the graceful simplicity of a Japanese ink drawing:

In the attics of my life

Full of cloudy dreams unreal

Full of tastes no tongue can know

And lights no eye can see

When there was no ear to hear

You sang to me

I have spent my life

Seeking all that’s still unsung

Bent my ear to hear the tune

And closed my eyes to see

When there were no strings to play

You played to me

Many of the songs Hunter and Garcia wrote together during this period are plainspoken but eloquent; economical in construction yet emotionally expansive. Hunter’s subject was the interior human landscape, but his imagery was drawn almost entirely from nature—his simple, elegant word paintings are filled with birds, clouds, rivers and trees. There’s a quietude to some of these songs, as if they were suspended in a specific time, yet they are also eternal. “Brokedown Palace,” which the Dead introduced in mid-August 1970, is so timeless and nonspecific that it could easily be mistaken for a nineteenth-century tune by Stephen Foster or a Hoagy Carmichael song three-quarters of a century later. The pace is languorous, like a muddy stream. The mood is one of weary resignation and sadness, but also, ultimately, acceptance:

River gonna take me

Sing me sweet and sleepy

Sing me sweet and sleepy

All the way back home

It’s a far-gone lullaby

Sung many years ago

Mama, mama many worlds I’ve come

Since I first left home

Going home, going home

By the waterside I will rest my bones

Listen to the river sing sweet songs

To rock my soul

Not necessarily the sentiments one might expect from a twenty-eight-year-old rock ’n’ roller. But as Garcia once noted of Hunter, “You don’t have to be old to be wise. I always thought he was pretty wise. That’s the reason I got together with him in the first place.”

Hunter recalled, “I wrote ‘Ripple,’ ‘Brokedown Palace’ and ‘To Lay Me Down’ all in about a two-hour period the first day I ever went to England [in May 1970, for the Hollywood Festival]. I sat there with a case of retsina and I opened up a bottle of that stuff, and the sun was shining. I was in England, which I’d always wanted to visit, and for some reason this creative energy started racing through me and I could do no wrong—write, write, write, write!”

“To Lay Me Down,” which entered the Dead’s repertoire during an acoustic set at the Matrix near the end of July, was another haunting country-flavored love ballad tinged with sadness and longing:

To be with you

Once more

To be with you

With our bodies close together

Let the world go by

Like clouds a-streaming

To lay me down

One last time

To lay me down

“Ripple” is easily one of Hunter and Garcia’s best-loved works, though they rarely performed it outside of the acoustic sets the group played in 1970 and 1980. “We were on the trans-Canadian train trip,” Hunter said. “Jerry woke up one morning, sat out on the railroad tracks somewhere near Saskatoon and put it to music.” “It just seemed to happen automatically,” Garcia noted modestly. “Ripple” is another timeless song, a series of gentle aphorisms and, in the case of the chorus, a perfect seventeen-syllable haiku. It sounds as if it might have been drawn from Taoist philosophy:

If my words did glow

With the gold of sunshine

And my tunes were played

On the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice

Come through the music

Would you hold it near

As it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down

The thoughts are broken

Perhaps they’re better left unsung

I don’t know

Don’t really care

Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow

In “Ripple,” as in “Uncle John’s Band,” there is a sense of Hunter speaking through Garcia directly to the listeners, confirming that their situation is our own. One of Hunter’s greatest strengths was this rare ability to close the gap between the performer and audience by including the audience in what was, in the end, a sort of three-way conversation about life, love, sorrow, joy, mortality and transcendence. The songs represented wisdom, experience and dreams freely and lovingly shared—scattered ideas and images lifted into the air through song, like the wind blowing the hand-scrawled invocations off of a Tibetan prayer flag so the spirits can “hear” them.

In mid-August 1970, shortly after Garcia’s twenty-eighth birthday, the group went into Wally Heider’s to begin work on the follow-up to Workingman’s Dead. This was slightly unusual for two reasons: first, Workingman’s Dead was still rising up the charts, which bands usually use as an excuse to put off making a new record; and second, the entire Grateful Dead sound crew, including their co-producer/engineer on Workingman’s Dead, Bob Matthews, was out on the road with a strange tour called the Medicine Ball Caravan, which traveled the country in buses like a hippie circus but was sponsored by Warner Bros. Records. The Dead were originally supposed to be one of the main attractions but, dissatisfied by the logistical arrangements and fearing another bust, they dropped out a day before the first show. Their sound crew had already been hired to do the tour, however, so they went ahead while the Dead stayed in the Bay Area. The band had so many new songs they wanted to get down on tape that they simply booked time at Heider’s and used staff engineer Steve Barncard instead of Bob Matthews—a move that irks Matthews to this day.

“Generally speaking, American Beauty was a very, very live record,” Barncard says. “Frankly, I had heard bad stories about engineers’ interactions with the Dead and about how they always had a thousand people in the control room and hippies camping out in the studio and massive acid parties. But what I found were a bunch of hardworking guys, a great, tight band who had woodshedded everything, who knew exactly what they wanted to lay down and where they wanted to go with it. The vocals were all ready. There was not a whole lot of experimentation. They had sat around in a circle and rehearsed this record with acoustic guitars, and played most of the songs live, too, I believe, so they were ready to go.”

The group recorded the basic tracks on a passel of recent Hunter and Garcia songs, including “Friend of the Devil,” “Candyman,” “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace” and “Till the Morning Comes.” Pigpen had a fine new tune that fit in perfectly with the folk-country direction of much of the rest of the album—“Operator.” Weir and Hunter co-wrote a bubbling rocker with country overtones called “Sugar Magnolia,” which quickly became one of the Dead’s best-loved songs and most exciting live numbers. Weir also handled lead vocals on “Truckin’,” a catchy shuffle that was a musical collaboration between Garcia, Weir and Lesh, with words by Hunter. The song gave fans a glimpse of life on the road for this singular rock ’n’ roll band—and even included a verse that was explicitly about the Dead’s New Orleans bust, which still weighed heavily on them in the summer of 1970:

Sitting and staring out of the hotel window

Got a tip they’re gonna kick the door in again

I like to get some sleep before I travel

But if you got a warrant I guess you’re gonna come in

Busted—down on Bourbon Street

Set up—like a bowling pin

Knocked down—it gets to wearing thin

They just won’t let you be, oh no

“Truckin’” also contained an exhilarating bridge section that instantly made the song the group’s anthem in the eyes of many fans, and which remains to this day Hunter’s most-quoted lyric:

Sometimes the light’s all shining on me

Other times I can barely see

Lately it occurs to me

What a long, strange trip it’s been

The tenth song on the album was the first on any Dead record to feature Phil as lead singer, and it is one of the strongest Hunter ever wrote, “Box of Rain.” “Phil Lesh wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words,” Hunter said. “If ever a lyric ‘wrote itself,’ this did—as fast as the pen would pull.”

Look out of any window

Any morning, any evening, any day

Maybe the sun is shining

Birds are winging or

Rain is falling from a heavy sky—

What do you want me to do,

To do for you to see you through?

For this is all a dream we dreamed

One afternoon long ago

Though written with Phil and his father in mind, “Box of Rain” took on an extra dimension for Garcia during the recording of American Beauty. In the early afternoon of September 8, 1970, Garcia’s mother, Ruth, was gravely injured in an automobile accident.

Tiff Garcia recalls the tragedy: “She had a house up in Diamond Heights [in San Francisco] and she had this German shepherd puppy that we’d given her from our litter. She worked the evening shift [as a nurse] at San Francisco General and every day before she’d go to work she’d take the dog up to Twin Peaks and let him run around in the hills up there. It was this gangly little thing, about six months old. The details are still a little sketchy—we tried to get the police reports and all—but what ultimately happened is that when she went to stop the car, the dog got all excited, she didn’t set the parking brake and the dog got between the gas pedal and the brake pedal. The car went over a cliff and landed on top of a cypress tree. It just mangled my mom. She had broken bones all over her body and internal injuries. She wasn’t in a coma but she was in traction and she was in intensive care at San Francisco General for nearly a month. She knew all the nurses and doctors, and here they were showing her her charts, and she knew what was going on. She was nodding her head. She couldn’t talk. She had to write things. It was hard for her to breathe, hard for her to talk, plus there was no air-conditioning in the damn hospital. I was really pissed at the whole system. Jerry and I were always talking about, ‘How can we get her out of this fucking place?’ But it was the best place for her, of course.”

Jerry hadn’t seen his mother much since leaving home and joining the army at seventeen, but their relationship was always at least cordial. Ruth hadn’t met Mountain Girl until Garcia brought her to the hospital, and Ruth never saw baby Annabelle, seven months old at the time of the accident—Jerry brought a photo of his daughter to the hospital one day and taped it to Ruth’s bed so she could see it.

By investing her money wisely, Ruth had managed to live quite comfortably through the years, and in the late ’60s she bought a spacious house on Miguel Street in San Francisco that offered a spectacular view of the city and the bay. She cut a slightly eccentric figure in her later years, with her pointy, pastel-colored, rhinestone-studded glasses, fox furs in winter and omnipresent ciggy in a black plastic holder dangling from her lips. She tooled around town in a Mustang, a sporty choice for a sixty-year-old. Friends and relatives agreed she was always a terrible driver: “She wrecked every car she ever owned,” Tiff says, “but this was one of those freak accidents.” Though she rarely saw Jerry, she socialized with Tiff and his wife, Gayle, and she also stayed close to her nieces and nephews—the Clifford clan—in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Although Sara Ruppenthal had remarried, she and Jerry’s daughter Heather had remained close to Ruth, who was a doting grandmother. Sara dutifully visited Ruth in the hospital every afternoon, and Tiff and Jerry also made a point of going over often, though Jerry was also busy working on American Beauty at Heider’s, and in mid-September he had to leave town for about a week for a series of concerts at the Fillmore East. Needless to say, it was a very stressful time for everyone in the Garcia and Clifford families.

“I was living at my grandmother’s house [on Harrington Street] and Jerry was in Larkspur,” Tiff remembers, “and he’d pick me up every day and we’d go over to see her. She was conscious but you could sort of feel her fading away. Imagine seeing your mom in intensive care every day. To see one of your parents in that kind of condition makes you feel so powerless. You have tears in your eyes when you get in the elevator before you get there; then when you leave, shit, you’re emotionally broken. I’m surprised Jerry got any recording done at that time. But maybe he needed to keep busy. I know I felt that way. But there was nothing we could do. It was awful. I think I lost about fifteen pounds. Jerry lost a bunch of weight, too.”

At 2 P.M. on September 29, Ruth Clifford Garcia Matusiewicz passed away quietly. As Sara remembers, “I would always call in before driving up from East Palo Alto. One day when I called the doctor told me, ‘She’s dying,’ and by the time I got there she had died. They let me sit with her for a while and I kind of intuitively meditated with the energy there, saying, ‘It’s okay. You’re okay. Go and be well.’ I felt like what I was doing was helping her through that transition. Then I called Jerry and asked him to come and be with her and he said, ‘What’s the point?—she’s dead.’

“Tiff and his wife and I did the funeral,” Sara says. “It was too emotionally powerful for Jerry to deal with it, so we handled all the papers and found a priest and got the burial together. I remember going to the funeral home and picking out the coffin. Jerry and Mountain Girl came to the funeral at the cemetery in Colma. She had refused last rites in the hospital and did not want a Mass said, so we had to have the funeral at the cemetery rather than in church. After we put the coffin in the ground, I put in a photo of Heather and a rose from our garden and then we drove around in somebody’s car smoking a joint, driving around the cemetery and sort of processing this event as best we could.”

A few years after his mother died, Garcia reflected on his loss: “I was never really very close to my mother so I felt that, well, there’s something I was never able to complete. I never was able to say to her, ‘I think you did okay.’ I was never able to finish that idea. But I don’t feel as though our relationship is gone forever… . She always respected what I did and liked the fact that I was a musician and she never judged me even through things like involvement with drugs and stuff like that; she was always pretty good. So I don’t feel too badly about [her death]. But it’s a shock, as things like that always are. But on another level, of course, it’s interesting how once your parents are gone, they’re gone; that’s it. On some levels it’s liberating and on other levels it’s very sad.”

Mountain Girl says that Jerry was upset about his mother’s passing for quite a while afterward, though, typically, he didn’t talk about it very much. Instead he threw himself even more deeply into completing American Beauty, although he acknowledged later, “It was raining down hard on us while that record was going on.” Perhaps he found some measure of solace in a box of rain:

It’s just a box of rain

I don’t know who put it there

Believe it if you need it

Or leave it if you dare

But it’s just a box of rain

Or a ribbon for your hair

Such a long, long time to be gone

And a short time to be there.