The Wheel Is Turning - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


The Wheel Is Turning

n the night of October 4, 1970, less than a week after Garcia’s mother died, five of the top groups in San Francisco got together at Winterland for a special concert that was broadcast live in quadraphonic sound on two Bay Area FM stations, and was also shown on the local public television station, KQED. It was the most extensive rock ’n’ roll simulcast that had ever been aired. The lineup consisted of a set apiece by the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver, the New Riders and Hot Tuna (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady’s blues spin-off from the Airplane). Everything was going along swimmingly until some disturbing information began to circulate backstage during the Dead’s set: Janis Joplin had died of an accidental heroin overdose in Hollywood. The news strongly affected both Janis’s musician peers and her fans—she was truly beloved, as much for her spirit, pluck and raucous good energy as for her formidable talent. And it was the first major death in the San Francisco music scene. The link between the Dead and Janis was particularly close: they’d gotten to know each other during the Palo Alto folk days; the Dead and Big Brother had spent a lot of time together in Lagunitas in the summer of 1966; they were neighbors in the Haight and then in Marin; and in the summer of 1970 they’d spent that glorious week on the train together.

Shortly after Joplin’s death, Garcia commented, “It was just an accident, a dumb fucking accident. [Accidents] happen to everybody—driving a car or walking down a flight of stairs. You see, the payoff for life is death. You die at the end of your life, and it’s always appropriate in the sense that no matter how you die, that’s it, you’re dead. So it really doesn’t matter how or when; that’s not part of the statement. The statement was the life, the death was the close. I’d describe Janis’s life as a good one because she went out when she was happy. She was happy with her new band, happy with her material, she was happy with what she was doing. She was singing better than ever.”

Though of course Garcia felt personally sad to see his old friend die, he said that “Janis would’ve preferred for people to be partying rather than for it be a downer. I can dig that.”

The Dead put the finishing touches on American Beauty in late September and early October 1970. Though the basic tracks were cut live, there were a number of instrumental overdubs by the band—electric and pedal steel guitars, piano parts by Garcia and Lesh—and several guest musicians helped out: Howard Wales played organ on “Truckin’” and “Candyman,” and piano on “Brokedown Palace”; a friend of Phil’s named Ned Lagin contributed piano to “Candyman”; David Nelson played electric guitar on “Box of Rain,” and the bass on that track was by the man who replaced Phil Lesh as bassist in the New Riders at the end of 1970, David Torbert. This record also marked the first real collaboration between Garcia and David Grisman—his mandolin brightened up two songs, “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil.”

“I was in this [East Coast-based] band, Earth Opera, that was just about on its last legs,” Grisman said, “and I came to visit a friend in San Francisco, and I just bumped into Jerry at a baseball game in Fairfax, and he said, ‘Hey, you wanna play on this record we’re doing?’ So I did that session, and I just fell in love with California. I’d never really hung out in San Francisco before, and I figured, ‘Wow, I’ve been out here a day and I got hired to be on a record!’ This is the land of opportunity!”

“Some records sort of assemble themselves,” comments engineer Steve Barncard, who ended up with a co-production credit on the album. “You do a take and everybody says, ‘Yeah, that’s it. Let’s move on,’ and everything falls into place. American Beauty was that way. It was a lot of fun; it was like no pain. Even on the vocals, which was supposed to be their weak area, they were brilliant. They walked in and just did it. People don’t believe me when I say this.”

When American Beauty was released in November, Workingman’s Dead had only been out about six months, and progressive FM radio stations were still playing a number of different cuts from it. Then all of a sudden there was a new Dead record to play, and “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple” became instant radio favorites. If you liked rock ’n’ roll in 1970, but didn’t like the Dead, you were out of luck, because they were inescapable that summer and fall.

The Dead and the New Riders went on an extensive tour of the Midwest and the Northeast through most of October and November, mainly playing theaters and colleges, large and small. The Dead and colleges were a natural fit in this era: the band was popular enough to draw a good-sized crowd, but not so big that they couldn’t play a gymnasium or theater on most campuses; student activities groups had decent budgets and a mandate to book the coolest groups they could; and colleges were filled with kids hungry for action and excitement of every variety. Who knows how many thousands of people had their first significant music, drug and sex experiences in college, safely distant from the protective and watchful gaze of Mom and Dad? As Phil Lesh said in 1970, “Colleges are like islands in the midst of occupied territory, although some of them are occupied territory. But some of them are about the only free ground there is.”

Certainly the Dead’s reputation as rock ’n’ roll outlaws from the Wild West preceded them wherever they went, but their ubiquity on the radio lent them credibility outside of counterculture circles, too. Though together just five years, they were already widely known as “the good ol’ Grateful Dead,” their image that of high-spirited renegades who left parties in their wake wherever they went. It’s not surprising that this scared a number of promoters and local law enforcement officials. In some cities and venues, Dead shows were wide-open, anarchic fun where just about anything was allowed inside. In other cities, security forces wouldn’t let the crowd stand up and dance and would leave the auditorium lights on for the entire show so they could keep an eye on everyone, much to the Dead’s displeasure.

In a way, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were stalking horses for a very different-sounding touring band. Yes, the Dead usually played material from those two albums at their shows, but by no means did they suddenly turn into a group that simply regurgitated its hits, such as they were, onstage. There was still jamming galore at Dead shows, and songs like “Dark Star,” “Love Light,” “Saint Stephen” and “That’s It for the Other One” continued to occupy important slots in the repertoire. Actually, in the case of that last tune, Garcia finally dropped his “Cryptical Envelopment” section, and the band would just charge straight into Weir’s segment of the song (“Spanish lady comes to me …”), which became known as “The Other One.”

Some old-time Dead fans didn’t care for the band’s turn to shorter, more country-oriented material, and stopped coming to hear the group—for them, the Dead remained frozen in time as the unpredictable fire-breathing acid band that had made Anthem of the Sun and Live Dead. But by and large the psychedelic veterans accepted this “new” Dead as a natural progression, and the more recent acidheads certainly weren’t complaining; the band still visited deep spaces, and there was a new layer of meaning with Hunter’s intriguing and quotable lyrics spilling out of the songs and jams. Hunter unleashed a flood of characters, images and feelings that added depth and weight to the Grateful Dead experience. With or without the New Riders on the bill, a Dead concert was considered the perfect setting for psychedelic adventures—long enough to contain the peak hours of an LSD, mescaline or mushroom trip; varied and unpredictable enough to be both constantly entertaining and profound; safe enough an environment that trippers could completely let go, knowing that the band was in control and that by night’s end everybody in the gym or theater would be dancing deliriously to some good-time rock ’n’ roll tunes. But whereas the 1968 Grateful Dead sound had been so dense, twisted and spacey that it didn’t attract many fans who weren’t into psychedelics or pot, anyone could dig the 1970 band. And that, as it turned out, began to cause problems for the group.

It wasn’t just the drunk frat boys at every show who screamed out loud and long for their favorite songs—“‘Caaaasey Joooones’!” “Play ‘Truckin’’!”—not understanding that the Dead would play what they felt like playing and never took requests. Crowds became louder and ruder for a while but didn’t fundamentally change the experience of the show. The real trouble came from a rowdy and frustrated element that, unable to get tickets for sold-out concerts, crashed the gates and clashed with security guards and police—or tried to figure out ingenious ways to break or sneak into shows through windows, doors and rooftops. Some defended this activity under the old “music should be free and belong to the people, so let us in” theory, but mostly it was just kids trying to get something for nothing, acting like jerks. The Dead’s November 1970 tour was plagued by bad incidents outside their shows, and the band was understandably horrified at this turn of events.

Even Garcia, famous for being Mr. Good Vibes in his dealings with the press, could not contain his anger. A Long Island entertainment magazine called Good Times interviewed Garcia the day after a show at Queens College where there had been a rush on the doors, and he was not in a good mood: “Last night, if that’s an example of what it’s going to be like, I’d just as soon fuckin’ retire, man. I don’t want to make any performances when there’s that kind of shit going on; I really don’t.”

But Garcia was also distraught about the way he personally was being treated on the East Coast now that the Dead were suddenly more popular. He had become—gasp!—a celebrity, hounded by fans every time he left his hotel room, outside gigs, backstage, everywhere. “I liked it when you could just be a musician,” he told Good Times. “It’s like being an artist or craftsman. Nobody mobs a cat that makes nice leather clothes or a guy that does woodwork. Why the fuck should they mob musicians? I mean, it’s weird.

“I don’t really have anything to say, you know? I mean, that’s why I play. I like to avoid adding to that celebrity bullshit. I would rather be playing good music and getting off that way than having to go on all the celebrity trips.”

Back in the Bay Area, where, as Garcia put it, he was still “just another freak,” there were a few changes afoot. “The lady who owned the Larkspur house put it on the market for $45,000, which to us seemed like an astronomical sum,” Mountain Girl says, “so we didn’t even think about buying it until it was too late. I think it was Hunter who finally suggested we buy it, so I called the landlady and said we’d like to buy it, and she told us she’d just sold it the previous day. That was my first lesson in the ‘one that got away.’ It would sell for $500,000 easy now.

“So we looked and looked and looked for a new place and there were already hippies in all the houses and people didn’t want to rent to us—‘Forget it!’ Then we finally found this place in Novato that had been trashed by the previous renters, so we promised we’d clean it up. So we did and we moved in there for a few months and it was pretty bad; it had some bad karma.”

The upside of this new rental was that it was located right down the hill from David Freiberg’s house in a rural part of Novato, so at least they had a neighbor they liked and could trust. Freiberg says that during this period he and Garcia often drove out to Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s house on the beach in Bolinas, in northwestern Marin County, to get high, hang out and play music.

Another change in Garcia’s life around this time came when he started jamming regularly with keyboardist Merl Saunders, first at the Matrix, then at a club in San Francisco called the Keystone Korner. Actually, this was an outgrowth of the Monday night jams with Howard Wales—somewhere along the line, Wales dropped out, and his spot was filled by Saunders. Garcia still played gigs with Wales from time to time, and he helped Wales make a record called Hooteroll? which came out in late 1971, but once the quartet of Garcia, Saunders, John Kahn and Bill Vitt got together, that group became Garcia’s main musical focus outside of the Dead.

Saunders was several years older than the other guys in the quartet and was already a journeyman musician with extensive experience playing R&B, jazz, blues and standards by the time he hooked up with Garcia. “The chemistry between us was instant,” Merl says. “I’d hear Jerry playing and the music was going one way and I’d hear him sort of drifting off in this other much cooler direction, so I’d be right there with him, and we’d sort of smile at each other, like, ‘Hey, this is happenin’.’ If there’s two people going one way, even if it’s not the regular way, then there’s no mistake. And John Kahn was following along with us, too.”

In Saunders’s memory, his first couple of Matrix gigs with Garcia and Vitt were without John Kahn and very loose. But once the quartet started playing together regularly at the Keystone Korner and the New Monk in Berkeley (later renamed the Keystone Berkeley), the music began to go in all sorts of interesting directions. Whereas the gig with Howard Wales was almost completely free-form and all instrumental, the quartet with Merl jammed out on some of his own funk-oriented original songs, Motown and R&B tunes (usually sung by Garcia) and jazz standards, which were something new for Garcia.

“That required a whole lot of quick education for me, and Merl was responsible for that,” Garcia said. “He really helped me improve myself on a level of harmonic understanding. Playing with him required a whole different style from three-chord rock ’n’ roll or even ten-chord rock ’n’ roll; it was a whole different thing. But what I was able to bring to that situation was the ability to use odd-length runs in conventional formats. I was able to use ideas that were rhythmically uneven because of working in odd time signatures so much with the Dead.”

Garcia said that working with Merl also taught him a great deal about musical structure: “He filled me in on all those years of things I didn’t do. I’d never played any standards; I’d never played in dance bands. I never had any approach to the world of regular, straight music. He knows all the standards, and he taught me how bebop works. He taught me music. Between the combination of Howard and Merl, that’s where I really learned music. Before it was sort of, ‘Okay, where do I plug in?’ I picked up the adult version of a music attitude from those guys.”

In December 1970 Garcia also played several Bay Area club shows in another quartet, this one featuring Phil and Mickey from the Dead as well as David Crosby, who was busy in the fall of 1970 and winter of 1971 working on his first solo album at Wally Heider’s, with Steve Barncard engineering. Like Paul Kantner’s Blows Against the Empire, Crosby’s album, entitled If I Could Only Remember My Name, was a Bay Area all-stars project that featured most of the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, David Freiberg, Graham Nash and Neil Young, keyboardist Gregg Rolie and drummer Michael Shrieve from Santana, and Crosby’s onetime love Joni Mitchell. In the stoned fantasies of Crosby, Kantner and Garcia, some form of this loose “supergroup”—dubbed the Planet Earth Rock ’n’ Roll Orchestra in a moment of Kantnerian grandiosity—would continue to make other records and perhaps even tour together. Night after night, different combinations of players would go into Heider’s and jam, just to see what might come of it. Sometimes the musicians would work on specific songs of Crosby’s, but they also tackled new songs by the others, a Hunter-Garcia tune called “Loser” among them. Crosby and Garcia also spent hours in the studio jamming on acoustic guitars together—Crosby said they developed a game called “bong-hit telepathy,” in which they would toke pot from a water pipe and then immediately improvise on their guitars—to sometimes inspired, sometimes fruitless results.

The album that came out of the hundreds of hours of jamming and goofing around is surprisingly cohesive, considering how unwieldy it could have been. There’s a pleasing, mellow consistency to much of the record, and a wonderful feeling of spaciousness and sonic depth to the production, with layers of glistening six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars and sumptuous vocal harmonies dominating a series of dreamlike soundscapes. There’s a bit of flashy electric interplay on “Cowboy Movie” and “What Are Their Names” (a song credited to Crosby, Garcia, Lesh, Michael Shrieve and Neil Young), and the gorgeous song “Laughing” contains what is perhaps Garcia’s most evocative recorded pedal steel guitar performance. Garcia also rips through an intense electric guitar solo on the otherwise placid “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves).” Crosby’s record, like Blows Against the Empire before it, was attacked by some for its loose hippie vibe when it was released in mid-1971, but those critics overlooked the care that went into its construction and the amazing presence of all the instruments and voices. It was beautifully recorded by Barncard, and despite the lengthy roster of players, it never sounded cluttered for a second.

In Rolling Stone’s 1970 year-end issue, the editors named the Grateful Dead “Band of the Year” and also, with tongue partly in cheek, called Garcia the year’s “Working-Class Hero.” They included a picture of him standing in front of an old Bentley he owned, a big smile on his face. Actually, the Dead were working-class heroes then—famous for delivering long concerts, playing benefits and free shows (though not many of the latter after Altamont), supporting a large cooperative family scene and keeping ticket prices reasonable. Salaries were still quite low: about $125 a week for band, crew and office staff, but no one seemed to be lacking. There was food on the table, dope in the stash jar, cars to drive, enough money to buy new instruments and equipment, and the promise of selling even more records and playing larger venues.

Nineteen seventy was the year the Dead finally broke through to a wider audience and established themselves as the quintessential American rock ’n’ roll band—steeped in traditional Americana while forging their own distinctive, electrically charged and powered amalgam. They were “Dark Star” and “Ripple”; Charlie Monroe’s “Rosalie McFall” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”; the trippy playfulness of “China Cat Sunflower” and the earthy melancholy of “High Time”; the acid band in cowboy clothing.

But there was trouble bubbling just below the surface. The Lenny Hart affair had been devastating to Mickey. As he wrote in his autobiography, “I didn’t want to play, didn’t want to go out on the road. Confused, unbalanced, I wanted to flee and hide, bury my head and cry. I stopped touring with the Grateful Dead in 1971 and went to ground in the Barn… . The band didn’t blame me for Lenny’s thievery; they made that clear. They even kept paying me, treating my departure as a leave of absence that would end whenever I managed to pin to the ground the demons I was wrestling. Whenever I was ready, I was welcome back.”

The formal departure occurred after a February 1971 concert at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, where, as was often the case at the Capitol, members of Mickey’s mother’s family, the Tessels, could be spotted sitting in folding chairs on the side of the stage. When during the Capitol series Bob Weir was asked by a writer from the Harvard Independent about Hart’s departure midway through the series, he was vague and evasive: “He’s in Long Island at his parents’ house; he’s under the weather or something, I’m not sure what.”

And so, for the first time since the fall of 1967, the Dead were a quintet again. Actually, because Pigpen didn’t play as much organ in the early ’70s as he did in the pre-T.C. era, opting instead to play congas or cowbell or nothing at all for long stretches during a show, the group was sometimes a de facto quartet during the first nine months of 1971, a very different-sounding (but no less interesting) Grateful Dead. Bill Kreutzmann probably had to make the biggest musical adjustment in response to Mickey’s bowing out. The two had been a single eight-limbed rhythm monster for more than three years, and together had been responsible for laying down the foundation for countless big jams. But on some of the lighter country-oriented material the band had started playing in the second half of 1969 and in 1970, two drummers occasionally felt like more percussion than was needed. Kreutzmann frankly believed “at the end of that period [Mickey and I] weren’t gelling that much. It’s hard to explain what was going on. Those were real complicated times for him and real private times.” With just one drummer, Kreutzmann said, “I had the sense that the music became a little more clear. The rhythms and the grooves had a clarity you can hear on tapes from that period.”

Garcia’s guitar sound changed somewhat during this era, too. He switched from Gibson guitars to a Fender Stratocaster, which “was a vote for articulation,” David Gans says. “The Fender was good for fingerpicking and it was suited to a lot of the more country-oriented material Jerry was writing and playing at that time.”

As they often did, the Dead used the opportunity of their first big tour of the year to introduce a number of new songs, both originals and fresh cover tunes. That week in February at the Capitol Theater, five new Hunter-Garcia numbers were played for the first time—all of them songs that would still be in the band’s repertoire when Garcia died nearly twenty-five years later.

“Bertha” was an immediate crowd-pleaser; a brisk, obviously bluegrass-inspired romp that became a frequent show-opener. It was easy to play (and thus a good song to warm up with), and it got everyone in the crowd up and dancing from the get-go.

Two of the new Hunter-Garcia songs were filled with cardplaying imagery. As Hunter noted, “I liked the way Dylan handled a deck of cards, and it struck me that it was a pretty basic metaphor. Maybe I played a few too many hands, someone suggested at one point.” In “Deal,” which was initially a slow shuffle, but later became a driving country-rocker, the character appears to be brimming with so much confidence after a streak of winning hands that he feels compelled to offer some advice to his vanquished gambling partner:

Since you poured the wine for me

And tightened up my shoes

I hate to see you sitting there

Composin’ lonesome blues

It goes to show you don’t ever know

Watch each card you play

And play it slow

Wait until that deal come ’round

Don’t you let that deal go down, oh no

The gambler in “Loser,” however, is in more desperate straits:

If I had a gun for every ace I’ve drawn

I could arm a town the size of Abilene

Don’t you push me, baby, ’cause I’m moaning low

And you know I’m only in it for the gold

All that I am asking for is ten gold dollars

I could pay you back with one good hand

You can look around about the wide world over

And you’ll never find another honest man

“Sometimes I sing that song and it’s a self-congratulatory asshole, sometimes it’s an idiot,” Garcia said of this brooding Western ballad. “The lyrics have the guy an idiot, but the idiot’s version of himself is, ‘Hey, I’m great!’ I can ride that either way and there’s lots of shading in between where it’s both those things at the same time. I love it when a song is ambiguous like that.

“Hunter is able to write that into just about everything—he’s able to leave just enough out, so that you’re not really sure whose side you’re on, if it’s a matter of taking sides. In ‘Wharf Rat’ you don’t know if you’re the guy who’s hearing the story or the guy who’s telling it. It really doesn’t matter in the long run.”

“Wharf Rat,” which debuted in the same set at the Capitol as “Loser,” wasn’t from a Western bag particularly, though Garcia’s lonesome, lamenting vocal style on the song probably had roots in bluegrass/old-timey singing—indeed, that was in nearly everything Garcia sang. But the droning A chord that rang through the song like a nervous, jagged pulse, and Hunter’s opening images of an “Old man down / Way down, down / Down by the docks of the city” immediately placed the song in a much different kind of setting from songs like “Loser,” “Deal” or “Candyman.” August West, the down-and-out wino in “Wharf Rat,” was one of Hunter’s most vivid creations—a poor lost soul who’d been kicked around by fate and circumstance:

Everyone said

I’d come to no good

I knew I would

Pearly believed them

Half of my life

I spent doing time for

Some other fucker’s crime

The other half found me stumbling around

Drunk on burgundy wine

As Garcia indicated, the song has an interesting narrative structure. It switches from the person encountering August West, to West’s own tale of woe and hope for redemption, then back to the person hearing the story, who then wanders the streets pondering, as August West does in the song, whether his own lady love has been true to him. It’s completely unlike any other world that Hunter and Garcia ever conjured—as gritty and realistic as a Dorothea Lange portrait, but also both sympathetic and empathetic, for any one of us could become that wharf rat. It’s also, of course, a very unusual topic for a “pop” song, which is part of what made it so powerful. Coming after rockers like “Truckin’” and “Not Fade Away,” or spacey tunes like “Dark Star” and “The Other One,” “Wharf Rat” was like a downpour of cold rain soaking your clothes and putting you in August West’s tattered shoes. Garcia’s long, open-ended solo on the song would drift out and wander along the docks, each rough-hewn, jangly guitar note a little cry of suffering. Through the years, Garcia usually placed “Wharf Rat” deep in the heart of the second set, a little flash of despair before Weir would send everyone home with some cheery, uptempo rock ’n’ roll song.

The fifth new Hunter-Garcia tune was a subtle and exquisite homage to Janis Joplin called “Bird Song”:

All I know is something like a bird

Within her sang

All I know, she sang a little while

And then flew on

Tell me all that you know

I’ll show you

Snow and rain

Stylistically, the song mixed a folk ballad approach with a little Bakersfield country feeling—the way Garcia would bend the notes in the catchy, flitting eleven-note riff that defined the tune’s outer edges was reminiscent of Roy Nichols’s playing with Merle Haggard, though the choice of those eleven gently bebopping notes was pure Garcia. And the way the song opened up and its jam gradually unfolded, with Garcia slowly but surely leading the band away from the safety of the song’s structure out to unsettled and unexpected realms, owed much more to modal jazz than honky-tonk country. It’s a fascinating fusion of different ingredients.

Garcia’s interest in country also showed up in two cover tunes he introduced in the spring of 1971, “Big Railroad Blues” and “Sing Me Back Home.” The former was a peppy old Cannon’s Jug Stompers number from the late ’20s that Garcia learned in 1965 off of a four-song British EP Eric Thompson owned. The latter was one of Merle Haggard’s best-known and most poignant songs, a mournful ballad about a condemned man being led to his execution who asks his prison buddy to “Sing me back home / A song I used to hear / Make my old memories come alive / Take me away and turn back the years / Sing me back home before I die.”

To a large extent, the characters who populate the Grateful Dead’s universe of songs—both covers and original tunes—are a motley, troubled bunch: loners and desperadoes, gamblers and outlaws, drifters and bad guys on the run. Many of them are folks who have made poor choices in life—usually because of greed or lust or both—and now have to face the legal and/or karmic consequences of their actions. No one gets away with anything in this song-world; ironic, since on the surface the Grateful Dead seemed to be getting away with everything in the early ’70s. They were renegades who were making it, pulling a fast one on straight society. But they were also always on the move, and just a step or two ahead of the sheriff’s baying hounds, figuratively speaking. The punishment for living outside of traditional society was some attendant guilt and moral confusion—reflected over and over in the songs—and an almost wistful yearning for the simpler life of a child still under a mother’s wing: In “Big Railroad Blues,” Garcia sang, “Wish I had a-listened whoa what Mama said / Well, I wouldn’t be here tryin’ to sleep in this cold iron bed.” In “Mama Tried,” Weir sang, “Mama tried to raise me better but her pleadings I denied / That leaves no one for me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” And in “Brokedown Palace,” Garcia, Weir and Lesh wearily sang, “Mama, Mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.”

But Mama isn’t around to turn these people in the right direction, so the only other choice is to keep on moving down the road in search of greener pastures, a bigger payday, a longer-lasting love—and indeed, that kind of optimism also runs through the Dead’s music: “I’m goin’ where the chilly winds don’t blow” (“Cold Rain and Snow”); “The sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday” (“I Know You Rider”); “I’m goin’ where the water tastes like wine” (“Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”)—every one of these lines borrowed from well-known North American folk songs.

* * *

In the spring of 1971 Joe Smith of Warner Bros. Records offered Garcia a $20,000 advance to make a solo album. Smith was genuinely interested in having Garcia make a solo record—after all, the Dead were all of a sudden a money band with a bright future, and Garcia was the most famous member of the group. But the offer was also an attempt to keep Garcia and the Dead happy as members of the Warner Bros. family. Three thousand miles away, Columbia Records president Clive Davis was making no secret of his desire to sign the Grateful Dead; he’d had his eye on the band, and Garcia in particular, for several years. But the Dead were locked up contractually with Warner Bros. As early as 1970 there had been rumblings in the Dead camp that when their contract with Warners was up they might explore starting their own record company. In the meantime, Davis did manage to get a little piece of Garcia onto Columbia: he signed the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

“We got the deal with Columbia because Clive wanted Jerry,” John Dawson says. “It’s that simple. He wanted Jerry any way he could get him. But that was cool with me. It was a pretty good deal.”

Davis was signing a known quantity. The New Riders had cut their debut album at Wally Heider’s in December 1970 and January 1971, so Davis essentially bought a finished record that he knew had commercial potential. And in the back of his mind he probably also believed that establishing a relationship with Garcia through the New Riders might pay dividends for him up the line with the Grateful Dead, should they ever be free from their contractual obligations.

As for Garcia’s solo album deal, “Twenty thousand dollars seemed like a lot of money back then,” Mountain Girl says. “It was really the first time we had any money. So I went looking for a place to buy for us, and I looked and looked and looked all over and I finally found this house out in Stinson Beach, which seemed like the end of the earth, but it was this fabulous house—oh God, it was nice!—on the Avenida Farallone. It was an incredible find. It was perfect and it cost $60,000. After what had happened to us with the Larkspur house, we weren’t going to pass it up.” At the time, M.G. says, Garcia was earning about $2,000 a month—about a teacher’s salary—“which was a king’s ransom to us—$500 a week; whoa, serious spending power!”

Stinson Beach is a beautiful little village on scenic coastal Highway 1 just a few miles north of where Mount Tamalpais drops precipitously into the Pacific; about forty twisting-and-turning minutes from downtown San Francisco, thirty minutes from the Dead’s San Rafael office if the weather was good and the traffic gods were smiling on you. The beach itself is a great white crescent, and the surrounding hills—green in winter, gold in summer—are dotted with a combination of small clapboard beach bungalows and more elegant modern redwood houses, their expansive glass windows taking in the spectacular view of the ocean.

The house that Jerry, Mountain Girl, five-year-old Sunshine and eighteen-month-old Annabelle moved into was high on a hill above the town—not quite as tony as the weekend getaway homes that San Francisco professionals with real money owned, but still a beautiful pad with a fantastic panoramic view. “It had eucalyptus trees and cypresses,” M.G. says, “and a chicken house that had been converted to a little guest lodge, and then we converted that into a recording studio; George Hunter of the Charlatans, who was an architect, designed it, and Laird Grant built it. Somehow, though, it never felt right to use as a studio—the sea air was kind of thick and there was a lot of fog.”

Though Stinson Beach is fairly isolated from the more populated sections of Marin County where most of Jerry and Mountain Girl’s cronies lived, they still had plenty of friends to socialize with. Ron Rakow lived in Stinson, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick were just a few minutes up Highway 1 in Bolinas, and of course once Garcia landed on the coast his house became a destination and hangout for people in the Dead scene.

Garcia also spent a lot of time in Stinson with some newfound friends. Mandolinist David Grisman had moved from the East Coast to California in September 1970, along with Richard Loren, who’d worked on the East Coast as a booking agent and tour manager, and a couple of fresh-faced young singer-songwriters whom Loren was managing, Chris and Lorin Rowan, known as the Rowan Brothers. Loren had met Garcia at a September 1970 Fillmore East concert at which Grisman had played mandolin with the Dead during the group’s acoustic set. Garcia would often come down to the beach to visit and jam with the Rowans, and vice versa.

Eventually Garcia hired Loren to work as his personal agent to help book gigs for Garcia and Saunders and handle his non-Grateful Dead business affairs, “anything that didn’t have to do with the Grateful Dead, that wasn’t being taken care of by Sam Cutler or Jon McIntire or those guys,” Loren says. Loren rented a series of offices in Mill Valley to accommodate his different businesses—the Rowans’ booking and management; his work with Garcia—including one in a house where “Jerry had a room, and I had an office,” Loren says. “Jerry always had a mattress there. He had a key, I had a key. We used it as an office and kind of like a club. John Kahn would come by, and all of Jerry’s friends, most of them apart from the Dead scene, would come by. It was a broad range of people, from Sufis to Hell’s Angels.

“I think the Dead viewed all of Jerry’s outside bands as a big threat, and it’s really a shame because I don’t think they were a threat,” Loren says. “The Grateful Dead always came first. I used to have a calendar and I’d call in to Cutler’s office and say, ‘Give me all the dates you’re booking for the Grateful Dead. I want to put them in my calendar.’ Then we’d work around that. Jerry always insisted, and I completely agreed, that the outside stuff had to be fit around the Grateful Dead, and not vice versa. We would never ask the Grateful Dead to change a date. Unfortunately, the band didn’t have the wealth it has today and everybody was making not quite enough to be really comfortable, so I think there were some people who felt that the Dead should play more and that Jerry’s solo stuff was getting in the way of them making more; but I didn’t see it that way at all. And I think that what Jerry did on the side helped him be a better member of the Grateful Dead, because it stretched him in interesting ways and, above all, it made him happy. But because I worked in an office away from the Dead scene, I think I was viewed by some as ‘the guy who’s keeping Jerry away from us.’”

That opinion was more common in 1972-73 than in 1971, but the fact is Garcia was doing a lot apart from the Grateful Dead in that year. In addition to the band with Saunders, Kahn and Vitt, which started to play around a lot that year, Garcia was still the pedal steel player for the New Riders, and he continued to do work on other people’s records, the best of which was probably Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s Sunfighter, which featured several distinctive Garcia leads.

Garcia began his own solo album sometime in July 1971. Unlike the approach taken by Paul Kantner and David Crosby for their albums, Garcia decided early on that he would really make a solo album, and play all of the instruments himself, except for drums, for which he brought in Billy Kreutzmann. “Jerry wanted to be very low-key about it,” says Bob Matthews, who co-engineered the project with Betty Cantor. “It was Jerry on his own with a couple of people he liked to be creative with—Billy and Hunter and Betty and me. I felt blessed to be one of those people, and it was a real special record for all of us.”

The album was recorded over a period of about three weeks in the late summer and early fall of 1971 in Wally Heider’s little Studio D, where Matthews posted a sign on the door that read CLOSED SESSION—ANITA BRYANT to keep away curious onlookers. “It worked for the most part,” Matthews says, “but there were a few people who just couldn’t believe that Anita Bryant [a conservative Republican famous for her anti-gay stance] would be in the middle of the San Francisco rock ’n’ roll scene, so they came in anyway. Still, people pretty much left us alone, which is what we wanted.”

The way most of the songs on the album were constructed was that Garcia and Kreutzmann initially would lay down acoustic guitar and drum tracks as a guide, and then Garcia would overdub other instruments to his heart’s content—bass, of which he had a rudimentary knowledge, pedal steel on a couple of tracks, electric guitars, piano and Hammond B-3.

“I don’t want anyone to think it’s me being serious or anything like that,” Garcia said around the time he began working on the record. “It’s really me goofing around. I’m not trying to have my own career or anything like that… . In the world that I live in there’s the Grateful Dead, which is one unit I’m a part of, and then there’s just me. And the me that’s just me—I have to keep my end up in order to be able to take care of my part of the Grateful Dead. So rather than sit home and practice—scales and stuff—which I do when I’m together enough to do it, I go out and play because playing music is more enjoyable to me than sitting home and playing scales.”

Five of the six conventional songs were previously unrecorded Hunter-Garcia gems from the Dead’s live repertoire: “Deal,” “Loser,” “Bird Song,” “To Lay Me Down” and a loping number called “Sugaree” that was first played by the Grateful Dead at the end of July 1971. “Sugaree” was one of the first tunes written by Garcia that was specifically designed to open up to jamming within its fixed rhythmic structure between each verse. Its easy pace let Garcia explore different approaches to structuring his melodic solos—sometimes he’d etch a line with searing, evenly spaced notes; other times he’d break into a double-time attack that worked nicely against the regular time the rest of the band played. Garcia seemed to delight in the predicament presented in the story—his character is trying hard to disassociate himself from Sugaree, who is obviously in a heap o’ trouble:

When they come to take you down

When they bring that wagon ’round

When they come to call on you

And drag your poor body down

Just one thing I ask of you

Just one thing for me

Please forget you knew my name

My darling Sugaree

Shake it, shake it, Sugaree

Just don’t tell them that you know me

The sixth new Hunter-Garcia song on the album, “The Wheel,” spontaneously appeared in the studio one day: “Actually, it was one time through on the piano,” Garcia said. “I was playing the piano and I didn’t even know what I was doing. Now, the way I approached that side of the album [side two] is that I sat down at the piano—which I don’t play—and Billy sat down at the drums, which he does play. So at least one of us knew what he was doing! And I just played. When I’d get an idea, I’d elaborate on it and then go back and overdub stuff on it. But that side was really almost all one continuous performance, pretty much. When a song would come up in there, or just a progression, we’d play with it and I’d work it through a few more times. And ‘The Wheel’ came out of that. It wasn’t written, I didn’t have anything in mind, I hadn’t sketched it out.”

“The way ‘The Wheel’ happened was he and Kreutzmann were just jamming,” Bob Matthews remembers. “They were out screwing around and I said, ‘Hit the machine’ [i.e., turn on the recorder] and they were just getting into this groove. ‘Hey Bob, you didn’t record that, did you?’ ‘Yes, I did.’ They came into the control room and listened to it and we all said, ‘Hey, there’s a good groove there.’ And as we were playing it back and doing some of the overdubs, Hunter was there and he had a big piece of paper and he was writing on it up on the wall. He was writing words while we were listening to one of the playbacks and it turned out to be perfect. It was ‘The Wheel.’ That song really came from nowhere and just happened like that.”

Garcia’s music for “The Wheel” almost sounded as if it could have been a country reel, complete with fiddlers sawing away and some old farmer blowing into a moonshine jug. But his approach was much more languorous, with pedal steel crying in the background beneath a steady acoustic guitar rhythm track. Still, the tune had an interesting natural momentum that swung one verse into the next and kept things rolling. The wheel as a metaphor turns up in many different religious traditions: Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian; a nice ecumenical image that is actually one of Hunter’s more easily grasped notions:

The wheel is turning

And you can’t slow down

You can’t let go

And you can’t hold on

You can’t go back

And you can’t stand still

If the thunder don’t get you

Then the lightning will

Won’t you try just a litle bit harder?

Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

The remaining compositions on Garcia’s solo album were instrumental interludes of varying degrees of weirdness. “Late for Supper” and “Spidergawd” were both ambitious, dissonant collages that mixed natural instruments with electronically treated sounds and, in the case of the latter tune, a confusing swirl of taped voices from radio and/or TV broadcasts. “An Odd Little Place” was an odd little minute-and-a-half piano and drums duet that served as a transitional segment between “To Lay Me Down” and “The Wheel.” “Eep Hour” was the most fully developed instrumental, with its mesmerizing series of chord progressions that Garcia rolled through repeatedly on a series of instruments he stacked to masterful effect: acoustic guitars, piano, organ, fuzzed electric guitar and pedal steel guitar, in addition to bass and drums.

All in all the record was a fine showcase for Garcia’s diverse talents. He never sang better than he did on that album; it gave his fans a chance to hear the kinds of bass and rhythm guitar ideas he had away from the influence of Lesh and Weir (Garcia was much more conservative than either of his bandmates); and side two of the album served up some of his prettiest and most innovative steel playing.

One reason Garcia had the time to work on so many projects outside the Grateful Dead in 1971 was that the band played only half as many shows that year as they had in 1969 and 1970. “We don’t work all that much,” Garcia said in late 1970, “because mainly we’re into staying high and digging it—enjoying what we’re doing. And to work all the time is to make yourself hate it. So we try to balance out the schedule.”

What allowed the Dead to play fewer shows was their increased popularity, which led to bigger paydays in larger venues. During 1971 two of the band’s most reliable small concert halls, the Fillmore East and Fillmore West, were closed by Bill Graham, who complained that top bands had priced themselves out of venues that size and could only make the money they demanded in larger places. And though the Dead still didn’t charge Graham and other promoters as much as most comparable acts—mainly because they wanted to keep ticket prices low for their fans—they did start to play more shows in bigger facilities. In San Francisco the 5,000-seat Winterland became their new home, and on the East Coast, where demand far exceeded the number of tickets available for Dead shows in theaters, they began to experiment with big outdoor shows in places like Gaelic Park in the Bronx and the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut, where the Dead played a concert to 10,000 fans packed into one end of the giant football stadium.

After having put out two studio albums in quick succession, the band next released a live double album (just two years after Live Dead) featuring the post-Mickey Hart quintet recorded on the East Coast and at Winterland in the spring of 1971. Three of the group’s new originals appeared on the record—“Bertha,” “Wharf Rat” and a promising Hunter-Weir-Hart tune in 10/4 time called “Playing in the Band.” The rest of the album consisted of a spacey and varied side-long version of “The Other One” and a slew of covers that showed the breadth of the band’s interests and influences: “Big Railroad Blues”; John Phillips’s zippy tale of gambling treachery, “Me and My Uncle,” sung by Weir; Pigpen’s steady version of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”; “Me and Bobby McGee,” which, as sung by Weir and the band, served as a nice tribute to Janis Joplin (who had a posthumous number 1 hit with the song in 1971); Chuck Berry’s classic rocker “Johnny B. Goode,” also sung by Weir; and the group’s big, exhilarating showstopper that year—the combination of “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” both transformed by the Dead into sing-along anthems.

Warner Bros. executives were thrilled when the Dead informed them that the band would be delivering masters for a live album. American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead were still selling briskly, and quite a few of the Dead’s newer fans had dipped back into the band’s catalog and bought copies of the first four pre-Workingman’s Dead albums. There was only one problem for Joe Smith and the high muckety-mucks in Burbank—the album title.

“I was the one who called Joe Smith and said, ‘Joe, are you sitting down? The band has told me the next album is going to be called Skullfuck,’” Jon McIntire remembered. “You see, in our contract we had total artistic control, so we actually had the right to do it. Well, Joe came unglued. He just came apart! ‘You can’t do this to me!’ ‘It’s not me, Joe, it’s all of us. We’re all doing it to you!’”

“They were horrified! They were shocked!” Garcia said years later. “They fully believed we were going to do something awful if they didn’t [let us call it Skullfuck], so we finally backed down, but it was more a joke on our part. Aesthetically, it would have been so perfect. It was really a perfect name for that record.”

In the end, the album was simply titled Grateful Dead, and the gatefold cover was adorned with a slick, colorful version of the old skeleton-and-roses design from the classic 1966 Avalon Ballroom poster, updated by artist Alton Kelley. Through the years, Deadheads have invariably referred to the album as either “Skull and Roses” (after Kelley’s round logo for the band, adapted from the larger piece around the same time) or Skullfuck, so in popular terms the Dead almost got their way.

Garcia, for one, was very happy with the record. “It’s us, man,” he said right after the record was released. “It’s the prototype Grateful Dead; basic unit. Each one of those tracks is the total picture, a good example of what the Grateful Dead really is, musically. Rather than, ‘This record has sort of a country, light acoustic sound,’ and so on. For a year we were a light acoustic band, in somebody’s head. The new album is enough of an overview so people can see we’re like a regular shoot-’em-up saloon band. That’s more what we are like. The tracks all illustrate that nicely. They’re hot.”

The band’s ever-expanding fan base evidently agreed: Grateful Dead became the first Dead album to be awarded a gold record (normally representing 500,000 units sold, but only requiring 250,000 copies for a double LP like this one). It was on the inside gatefold of that album that the Dead blared a clarion call to their fans. DEAD FREAKS UNITE, it said in big, bold letters right next to Bob Seideman’s serious photo-portrait of the quintet. “Who are you? Where are you? Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed.”

Within weeks of the album’s coming out, the Dead’s office—an old wood shingle house in downtown San Rafael—was flooded with hundreds, then thousands of letters from their fans, who were just beginning to be known by the appellation that stuck with them for the rest of the group’s history: Deadheads. Initially, Mary Ann Mayer, a woman in the Dead office, was in charge of getting the band’s mailing list together, but by early 1972 the volume of mail pouring in was so large that a second person was hired to help—Eileen Law, who had been on the fringes of the scene since the Haight-Ashbury days. Eileen eventually took over the operation and still maintains it today.

By the time the band’s loose fan club, called “Dead Heads,” began, the Dead already knew that their following was unique in the rock world. “At home, there’s always been a certain group of people that don’t ever miss a show anyplace we go on the West Coast,” Garcia said in 1970. “You know—every show. That’s the kind of fans we have. It’s kind of like symphony fans: they go to see whether or not we get it on, and shit like that. I mean, they know all our trips. And with us it’s sort of a thing where we have all the elements, but it’s only in special situations where it all works and everything is right. And that doesn’t happen all that often.”

Garcia often talked about the extreme variability of the Grateful Dead concert experience, and he was a harsher critic of the group than most fans were. Certainly there were some shows when the Dead “got it on” more than others, but if it had been as hit-or-miss as Garcia believed, they wouldn’t have developed the sort of fanatical following they did in nearly every city they played repeatedly. The fact that shows were so different from one another was part of the group’s appeal. Most rock bands developed a show with a fairly fixed song list that they would play basically the same way each night for an entire tour, and then over the years they would make small variations in that show. But Grateful Dead shows could be radically different from night to night because the band’s governing aesthetic was to not repeat themselves, and to always be on the lookout for new ways to play their songs.

They also constantly introduced new material into their repertoire and made a point of playing it with the same conviction as their well-known songs. Typically in rock ’n’ roll a band might highlight a few songs from their new album on a tour designed to support that record, but by the next tour they’d drop all the new songs except for the ones that were considered hits. Not so with the Dead. They usually introduced new songs months before they recorded them, and they kept playing them based on their own whims—whether the songs were working for them as a group or not. They rarely made concessions to a song’s popularity—there was never a guarantee they’d play their radio hits at a given show—and by the early ’70s they had so many different songs to choose from that it usually took going to a couple of shows in a row to see the full range of the Dead’s material. (It wasn’t until quite a bit later that the Dead consciously tried to avoid repeating any songs for three or four nights.)

By the Dead’s second trip to New York in 1967, they discovered that they had supporters there who were coming to see them several nights in a row, and even a hearty few who followed them to other East Coast cities. Once they started playing the Fillmore East regularly, that venue became a mecca for Deadheads. It was one place the Dead always played well, so fans would go on multiple nights. And then, from 1969 to 1971, the band played so many colleges in the Northeast that were close to each other that people began traveling along with the tour. It was no big deal for students to cut a few days of classes and go from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, one night, to Allegheny College in Meadsville the next night; Princeton, New Jersey, two nights later and the State University of New York at Cortland the night after that. For many people, seeing the band in new places became part of the adventure of being a Deadhead. If the shows were the sacrament for Deadheads—rich and full of blissful, transcendent musical moments that moved the body and enriched the soul—then getting to the shows, buying tickets, finding a place to crash and people to hang out with was part of the pilgrimage.

When the Dead started Dead Heads (the fan club) they were inundated by long, thoughtful letters from people articulating what the Dead experience meant to them, as well as poetry and artwork inspired by the Dead. The band responded by creating a fanciful (nameless) newsletter that they sent out to their ever-growing mailing list every few months (irregularly, of course). Hunter and Garcia were the guiding lights of the newsletter, which in addition to providing information about upcoming projects and tours also contained bits of Hunter’s poetry (usually commenting obliquely on the state of things in the Dead’s world) and surreal doodles by the two of them. The Dead Heads newsletter even had its own resident Zen-clown character, St. Dilbert the Arch, a Hunter creation who was the subject of a series of barely fathomable parables allegedly designed to elucidate an anarchic pseudophilosophy called Hypnocracy:

When asked the meaning of life, St. Dilbert is said to have replied, “Ask rather the meaning of hypnocracy.” When asked the meaning of hypnocracy, St. Dilbert replied, “Is not hypnocracy no other than the quest to discover the meaning of hypnocracy? Say, have you heard the one about the yellow dog yet?”

And if that wasn’t clear enough, there was always the explanation from another one of the newsletters:

Hypnocracy for the Dozens

watch for it

don’t miss it

it’s comintagetcha

it’s gone

What was it?

Was what?




But mostly the Dead Heads newsletter was a communiqué between the Dead and their fans that spoke honestly about the big issues the band faced in the early ’70s—the growth of their fan base, the move into larger venues, the group’s increasing overhead. The newsletters talked to the Deadheads as if they were family—even detailing how the organization’s income was spent, for example—and this made the bond between band and fans even stronger and more intimate.

“We hope you will continue to turn us on to what’s happening where you are and where you’re at,” an early 1972 newsletter concluded. “Thank you all for all the far-out letters and drawings you’ve sent us; we’ve all really enjoyed them, and we hope to hear from you again. Don’t give up on us; we will be in touch with you again, but we can’t promise when. Take care, have fun, stay high—The Grateful Dead.”

Twenty-seven years later, the letters and drawings still flow into the Dead’s San Rafael post office box. And the occasional newsletter, now called The Grateful Dead Almanac, is still published and mailed to every Deadhead on the mailing list.