Wait Until That Deal Come ’Round - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


Wait Until That Deal Come ’Round

igpen’s role in the Grateful Dead had been gradually diminishing through the years, to the point where he usually sang only two or three songs each show, and maybe added a little organ and percussion when he felt like it. Still, Pig-sung tunes like “Love Light,” “Good Lovin’” and Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” were always popular with the crowd, and the jams in those songs gave the band a chance to thoroughly explore their R&B side—an important part of their roots but somewhat subsumed by the country influences in the early ’70s. During parts of 1970 Pigpen’s health had been shaky, but in the middle of 1971 he actually became desperately ill with what doctors diagnosed as advanced liver disease. His years of drinking cheap sweet wines had finally caught up with him, and at twenty-five he was in perilously poor shape.

“He’s pretty sick,” Garcia said around this time. “But he’s living. He was really, really extremely sick. I don’t really know how sick, because I never hung out at the hospital that much, although I did give him a pint of blood. We all did. He was really fucked up and his liver was full of holes, and then he had some kind of perforated ulcer—just all kinds of bum trips from juicing all those years. And he’s a young dude, man. He’s only twenty-six.

“From juicing! He survived it and now he’s got the option of being a juicer or not being a juicer. To be a juicer means to die, so now he’s being able to choose whether to live or die. And if I know Pigpen, he’ll choose to live. That’s pretty much where he’s at. For the time being he’s too sick to go out on the road, and I wouldn’t want to expose him to that world. It would be groovy if he could take as long as it takes to get him to feelin’ right.”

Pigpen stopped touring with the Dead at the end of August 1971 and stayed in California to recuperate until the group’s December ’71 tour. He did, in fact, stop drinking completely and developed healthier eating habits. In the meantime, the band hired a new piano player, a taciturn, somewhat withdrawn fellow named Keith Godchaux. Keith’s background was mostly in jazz, but he and his wife, Donna—a former backup singer from Muscle Shoals, Alabama—were Deadheads, and Donna managed to talk Garcia into letting her shy husband audition for the keyboard slot.

“The Dead were having a rehearsal and Jerry had told us to come on down, so we did,” Donna recalled. “But the band had forgotten to tell Jerry that the rehearsal had been called off, so Jerry went down there by himself. So Keith and Jerry played, and we played him some tapes of songs that I had written and was singing on. Then Jerry called Kreutzmann and got him to come down, and the three of them played some. Then the next day the Dead practiced, and by the end of that day Keith was on the payroll.”

After a few rehearsals, Keith’s first tour with the Dead began with a gig at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on October 19, 1971. From the first moments of the opener that night, “Bertha,” it was obvious that Keith was a good choice for the band. For a guy who had limited rock ’n’ roll experience, and even less playing country, he eased into his role with fluid grace. On the uptempo rockers he could pound away like Johnny Johnson or Jerry Lee Lewis. On country songs he had just enough Floyd Cramer and Glenn D. Hardin in him to be convincing. And when the music went outside, as it did during “Dark Star” at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago two nights after his debut, some of Keith’s jazz chops came to the fore. His presence in the band freed the other players in ways that no one could have expected: Billy Kreutzmann now had a solid rhythmic partner to help him anchor the music, leaving Billy more room for ornamental accents. With Keith’s piano now occupying so much of the harmonic midrange, Weir was able to move his guitar comfortably into higher and lower registers and even further away from strictly chordal lines. And Garcia and Lesh could go farther afield in their intricate melodic and tonal pas de deux, knowing that a firm center would usually be as close as the new guy at the grand piano. Though there were a number of fine shows throughout the first three-quarters of 1971, there was a certain tentativeness to some of the playing as the band adjusted to Mickey Hart’s absence and struggled a bit to reinvent itself. With Keith Godchaux’s arrival, whatever might have been missing was suddenly there, and the fall tour found the band playing both more confidently and more adventurously.

Once again there was a healthy infusion of new songs into the repertoire for the tour. Six new tunes were introduced that first night in Minnesota, three by Hunter-Garcia and three by Weir—one written with Hunter, one with Bob’s old friend from prep school, John Barlow, and one by himself.

Two of the three Hunter-Garcia songs were among the most whimsical tunes the pair ever wrote. “Tennessee Jed” and “Ramble On Rose” don’t actually sound that much alike, but they are cousins musically. Both are based around rhythmically irregular, herky-jerky guitar lines that give the songs an old-time quality. Like so many of Hunter and Garcia’s songs from this period, they sound like they could belong to any time in the past hundred and fifty years. Certainly the 1890s didn’t produce anything quite like them—weird, stumbling tunes that lurch forward like happy drunks. But “Tennessee Jed” sounds as if it evolved from some fine old mountain tune, and “Ramble On Rose” sounds as if it were recovered from a player piano roll in a turn-of-the-century Storyville whorehouse.

As far as the musical antecedents for songs like “Tennessee Jed” and “Ramble On Rose” are concerned, Garcia once noted that “I haven’t the slightest idea. They just come out of my mind. Sometimes I think, ‘Yeah, this is kind of like a record I once heard somewhere,’ but I never find ’em! The rhythms come from my background in rhythm and blues more than anything else. But they also come from a kind of rhythmically hip country and western style—like Jerry Reed and people like that. Memphis more than Nashville. Some of the old California country and western stuff—old Buck Owens—had some nifty rhythmic ideas in it, as opposed to the old 4/4 stuff, just plunking away. ‘Tennessee Jed’ is a cop from that world, although not consciously and it’s not from any specific tune. Just the feel.”

Both tunes were crowd-pleasers from the start—great to dance to and fun to sing along with on the choruses, which begged for audience participation. These songs also served as light stepping-stones in sets that were already crowded with heavy songs.

And speaking of heavy songs, the third new Hunter-Garcia composition was an achingly slow, country-tinged ballad called “Comes a Time,” in which a character who has become desensitized to life’s emotional nuances is offered a glimmer of hope:

Been walking all morning

Went walking all night

I can’t see much difference

Between the dark and light

And I feel the wind

And I taste the rain

Never in my mind

To cause so much pain

Comes a time

When the blind man takes your hand

Says, “Don’t you see?”

Got to make it somehow

On the dreams you still believe

Don’t give it up

You’ve got an empty cup

Only love can fill

Garcia didn’t play “Comes a Time” a lot in the early ’70s—only about a dozen times each in 1971 and 1972—but when he did, it was always an emotional event, for both the crowd and Garcia, who sang the song passionately, as if it described a moment he knew all too well.

The fact that Weir introduced three new songs at once reflected his emergence as an important songwriter and frontman for the band, just as Pigpen was receding into the background and Garcia was looking to have some of the weight of the band lifted off him. Garcia’s songs dominated the Dead’s repertoire in the late ’60s simply because he was so prolific during that period. But in the early ’70s the Dead began consciously to alternate between Garcia-sung tunes and numbers sung by Weir and Pigpen. At first, most of Weir’s songs were country cover tunes, such as “Me and My Uncle,” “Mama Tried,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” or Chuck Berry songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “The Promised Land.” But by the end of 1971 he also had an impressive collection of songs he’d written: “Sugar Magnolia,” “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Playing in the Band” and the three unveiled in Minneapolis—a gunfighter polka (!) called “Mexicali Blues,” written with John Barlow; a supercharged Chuck Berry-style rocker, “One More Saturday Night,” which was every bit as good as the songs it imitated; and, best of all, the dynamic Western tune “Jack Straw,” Robert Hunter’s sprawling, cinematic tale of treachery, deceit and doomed outlaws on the run.

No longer “the kid,” Weir grew comfortably into his expanded role, with Garcia encouraging him every step of the way: “He’s like the devil’s pitchfork—‘You go out there and tell them a story,’” Weir said, mimicking Garcia. And while the audience’s interest in and affection for Garcia did not diminish with Weir’s ascension, a whole new level of Dead fan was attracted to the scene—Weir followers and groupies, who ranged from hippie girls (and a few boys) smitten by his good looks and appealing space cowboy persona to people who dug his songs, his singing and his confident command of his instrument and the stage in general. And by and large, the folks who initially came to the Dead through Weir all became ardent fans of Garcia and the other bandmembers, too.

The fall 1971 tour also marked the end of Garcia’s membership in the New Riders of the Purple Sage. He was aware that it would be impossible for him keep playing with the Riders and the Dead without eventually burning out and shortchanging both groups. And, as he noted in mid-1971, “The New Riders are actually too good for me to be playing steel with. What they need is a regular, good guy who’s been playing since he was three.”

David Nelson recalls: “Finally we said, ‘Look, Jerry, we want to be a band. We know you’re not going to leave the Dead.’ My feeling was that I was so thankful that he was so graceful about it. He was ready to go on if we needed him to go on, or stop now if we needed him to stop now. It was all in deference to us. So I said, ‘Let’s wait until we find the killer guy, the guy who really fits in with us.’ Then, on the Festival Express, [Sam] Cutler was taking me through this stadium in Toronto and I couldn’t even see who was onstage but I heard this steel player who was jamming, just kickin’ it, playing some shit. I wondered, ‘Wow, who’s that?’ It was Buddy Cage of Ian and Sylvia’s band. So later when it came down to it, I said, ‘Can we try to get him?’” By that time Cage was working with pop singer Anne Murray and was happy to hitch his wagon to the Riders.

There was no drop-off of interest in the New Riders when Garcia split from the group, and now they were free to go on tours of their own and not be beholden to Garcia’s schedule. Cage was the perfect replacement, and his presence tremendously energized the group at that critical juncture. It helped, too, that the New Riders’ excellent debut album (featuring Garcia, Lesh and, on two tracks, Hart) had just been released and was an enormous success, selling 70,000 copies in the first week alone. The Dead and the New Riders remained close, however, and still toured together periodically. And Garcia played some banjo and piano on the New Riders’ strong second album, Powerglide, and later produced their first live album, Home, Home on the Road.

Though later in life Dawson and Garcia rarely saw each other, they were quite chummy during this period, and Dawson has some interesting observations about watching Garcia with the Dead night after night in the early ’70s:

“Garcia led people by the mind, by the ears. When he was playing great—and he almost always did in those days—he would play with your brain, in that he’d be noodling around and then he’d figure out that you’re trying to anticipate what he’s going to do next, so then, of course he’d go and play some completely different phrase or idea; he’d throw a curveball at you. He loved doing that; that was one of his fine pleasures. And when it worked, you could see what it would do to the crowd. There’d be this big ‘Yeaaah!’ and everyone felt it; you couldn’t miss it.

“He loved to take musical chances. If you’re going to take chances and go out on a limb … well, Garcia lived in the twigs. He’d go out there and sometimes he’d make it back and sometimes he wouldn’t. But he had this sense of how to catch himself on the the next branch on the way down and eventually end up on his feet at the end. It’s a thing that when you’re hearing it, you can follow in your head and actually see where he tried and he either made it or he didn’t, but you’re with him the whole way. And then you add to that the ability of all six of them to move on to something new in a moment—like a school of fish or a flock of birds—and you understand why so many people thought they were amazing.”

The Dead decided to try an interesting experiment in an attempt to satisfy the tremendous demand for tickets on the November-December 1971 tour and to avoid the nasty gate-crashing incidents that had plagued some of their East Coast shows since the fall of 1970. They arranged with FM stations in nearly every city they played to broadcast the concert, or if there were two shows in a city, to broadcast one of the two concerts. This strategy worked for the most part, encouraging the ticketless hordes to stay home and listen to the Dead on the radio. (In the early ’70s there was not yet a hippie marketplace scene outside Dead shows; that was an ’80s phenomenon.) The broadcasts served the Dead in two other ways as well. They allowed thousands of people who had never listened to the Dead, or never heard anything but their records, to hear the band in their true element—onstage, live, playing two generous sets spanning nearly every style of twentieth-century American popular and folk music, and jamming to their heart’s content; also, the radio shows from this tour were widely taped at home and freely disseminated. These reel-to-reel recordings were many Deadheads’ first tapes of the group.

“We’ve always been into free concerts,” Garcia said that fall, “and the broadcast was kind of a free concert without any hassles. Ever since Altamont, everything has been so sticky when you try to do a free show. With us, the whole trip is to make music available.”

Pigpen returned to the Dead lineup in December 1971, paler and thinner than before, his role reduced even further now that Keith Godchaux was in the band. Still, he added percussion and B-3 to some songs, occasionally giving the group a full-sounding double-keyboard attack, and his spirit was still strong. Generally speaking, he steered clear of the numbers that required a lot of his energy—big vocal improv songs like “Good Lovin’” and “Love Light”—but he gave his all on his shorter tunes, and he even had a fun new cover song for the Christmas season: Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” Everyone agreed that Pigpen at less that full capacity was still better than no Pigpen at all.

“It was okay for Pigpen to lay out,” Phil said. “We kept wanting Pigpen to be there because he was one of us. He really was. But he would lay out and that was okay, too. He didn’t mind. We didn’t mind. There was no ego problem there.”

The Dead stayed off the road from mid-December 1971 all the way until the last week of March 1972, with just three shows at Winterland in between. Which is not to say that the band was inactive during that period; far from it. The group spent much of that time helping Bob Weir record Ace, his first solo album for Warner Bros.

“I pretty much knew in the back of my mind what would happen,” Weir said in mid-1972. “I go and get the [studio] time booked and start putting the material together. Everybody gets wind of the fact that I got the time booked, and I may be going into the studio. So, one by one, they start coming around. Lesh and Garcia—‘Hey man, I hear you got some time booked at Wally Heider’s. Need a bass player? A guitarist?’ etc. It’s kind of like the Tom Sawyer routine with the fence. And I say, ‘Wel-l-l, I wanna be careful and get just the right musicians for the record, you know.’ Of course I ended up with the Grateful Dead on the record, which I figured up front. I don’t have any reason to believe anybody thought it’d be any different. And we had a great time making the record.”

The album contained several songs the Dead had performed for a while, including “One More Saturday Night,” “Mexicali Blues” (both augmented by the Tower of Power horns on the record), a driving rocker called “Greatest Story Ever Told,” with lyrics by Robert Hunter, and a studio version of “Playing in the Band” that far surpassed the crude early live reading on “Skull and Roses.” It still stands as one of the Dead’s finest recordings; that rare studio track that is both powerful and spacey and shows off the band’s formidable control of dynamics. Two other songs on Ace also found their way into the Dead’s repertoire. The syrupy but powerful ballad “Looks Like Rain” debuted in the spring of 1972; and the lovely, folk-flavored “Cassidy” came alive onstage beginning in 1976. In the latter, lyricist John Barlow deftly interwove flashes of Neal Cassady’s life and the birth of Eileen Law’s daughter—named Cassidy—at Weir’s house in West Marin in early 1972.

Ace also marked the first time Donna Godchaux sang with the band—in typical Marin hippie-speak, she’s credited on the album with “harmony, the chick vocals.” There was obvious chemistry between Donna and the band during those sessions, so it was not at all surprising that when the Dead next went out on the road, Donna joined them. She sang onstage for the first time at a March 1972 benefit concert for the New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels at the Academy of Music in New York City. At first she sang harmony on just a few songs, but by the fall 1972 tour Donna was completely integrated into the lineup (though there were still long stretches when the band would jam and she would leave the stage).

Garcia’s first solo album, entitled simply Garcia, was released near the end of January 1972 and, predictably, Deadheads snapped it up by the thousands. A number of FM radio stations played different songs from the record, mainly “Deal,” “Sugaree” and “The Wheel.” Warner Bros. even released a single of “Deal” backed with “The Wheel,” though it was not successful in that format.

Garcia was also prominent on another album that came out in the winter of 1972, Merl Saunders’s Heavy Turbulence, on Fantasy Records. The album gave a fairly good picture of their club band from this era. The core lineup for part of ’71 and ’72 included former Creedence Clearwater Revival member Tom Fogerty on rhythm guitar in addition to Garcia, Saunders, Kahn and Vitt. On several cuts, Merl’s friends the Hawkins Family singers and saxophonist Bob Drew joined in, too. The record mixed original songs by Merl with cover tunes the group played live, such as the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (sung by Garcia) and an instrumental version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

The Saunders-Garcia group was loose enough during this era that musicians came and went freely without there being a huge impact on the group’s overall sound. Bill Kreutzmann sometimes played drums instead of Bill Vitt, Tom Fogerty was in and out, and during March of 1972 Santana’s Armando Perazza played percussion. As Merl says of Perazza’s addition, “He fit right in. Our music didn’t change. It was just like adding a little pepper to it.” It was that way with nearly all of the support players who floated through Garcia’s bands over the years.

The group’s live repertoire was a mixture of the material on Heavy Turbulence and songs such as “That’s All Right Mama,” Motown tunes like Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her,” J. J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” Dylan songs like “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and Ray Charles’s “Lonely Avenue.” Every song the group played was an excuse to stretch out and jam—few songs clocked in at under ten minutes, and most were considerably longer. To the very end, Garcia’s solo bands always retained some of the flavor of the original Matrix and Keystone Korner jam sessions.

Not surprisingly, the more the band played, the bigger the following they attracted, even though they stuck to small clubs exclusively. As Merl put it, “The first few times we played, there would be between twenty and thirty people there and we’d split maybe fifty dollars between us at the end of the night. And that was fine. Jerry’s really the guy who taught me the value of money—it don’t mean a fuckin’ thing. Having fun is what’s important. Anyway, from there it got to be a couple of hundred people at every show, and eventually it was, ‘Hey, I just flew in from Boston to see you guys,’” he says with a laugh.

Garcia also found time to play a handful of shows on the East Coast in the winter of 1972 with Howard Wales’s new group, in part to help promote the record of jazz instrumental jams they’d made together during 1971, Hooteroll? Though he was billed only as a “special guest” on the tour, Garcia was obviously the main attraction for many of the fans who turned out for the shows, some of whom became disgruntled when Garcia only played on a few songs during each concert.

“I didn’t really go on the road that time to play,” Garcia said a couple of years later. “The thing was really misrepresented. I just wanted to get Howard out playing and the band had a nice thing going which really didn’t have much to do with me. I was just there fucking around.”

That experience probably influenced Garcia’s decision not to take his club band with Saunders out on tours beyond the West Coast. Hell, that band didn’t even have a name—usually they just went by “the Group.” “It’s like a low profile is more desirable to me,” Garcia explained. “The Dead and the Group are two different trips. And [the Group] has a lot less pressure associated with it because we haven’t made an effort to get famous at it. That’s one of the things that makes it possible. I couldn’t take the pressure of being a double celebrity. It’s a drag just being it once.”

* * *

The Dead’s highly anticipated Great Tour of Europe had first been planned in the spring of 1968 and was talked about every year after that. It finally became a reality in the spring of 1972—at last, the tour made economic sense for everyone involved. The Dead were out of the hole financially and could afford to take a few smaller paydays on their way to (they hoped) building a strong European fan base. Warner Bros., now suddenly in love with this band that actually sold a lot of records, had three albums to promote in Europe—“Skull and Roses,” Garcia and Weir’s Ace. And the Dead agreed to bring their sixteen-track recorder on the road and deliver another relatively inexpensive live album to Warner Bros., a plan that would justify sending more than forty people—band, crew, managers, office staff, wives and girlfriends—on a seven-week, twenty-two-concert working vacation.

“We hoped that we’d play to enough people every night to make it worth our while,” Phil Lesh said. “It turned out to be fairly successful, if I remember correctly. I mean, the halls weren’t sold out, but it wasn’t like some places we played in the States where we’d play in a basketball-sized arena and there’d be 300 people down front. Maybe we were trying to prove something to the few people that were interested enough to come see us.”

Actually, the tour was quite well attended, especially in England and Germany. The band’s first shows in cold and rainy London at the beginning of the tour were rapturously received by 8,000 British (and a few American) hippies each night, and warmly reviewed by the British rock press, which wasn’t nearly as hostile and jaded in those days as it is today. After a disappointing show in Newcastle, before what Weir called “the coldest, stiffest audience I’ve ever played for,” the Dead took an overnight ferry to the Continent, and that’s when the adventure really began. The entire Dead retinue traveled in two buses, one of which was designated the Bozo bus, the other the Bolo bus.

“The Bozo bus was for people who wanted to be tripping out and raving all the time,” Bob Hunter said. “The Bolo bus was people who preferred to sink totally into their own neuroses, or just sleep.”

The happy wanderers managed to smuggle quantities of pot, cocaine and LSD into Europe. Of course their reputation preceded them, so they were able to score dope on the road, too, much to everyone’s delight. Some folks took to wearing clown masks from time to time, just for absurdity’s sake—the band even wore them onstage once or twice. They were loose and wild on the road, yet their itinerary took them to luxury hotels, expensive restaurants and a few venues, such as Amsterdam’s Concertegebouw, that had hundreds of years of staid tradition behind them.

“We were something of an invasion,” Rock Scully said. “Because there were so many of us we could just take over a hotel or a restaurant. That’s the meaning of the big American shoe coming through the rainbow on the cover of Europe ’72. Most of the people had never been to Europe before, and it was also the longest Dead tour ever, so a group consciousness developed that tended to exclude the surroundings.” Which is a nice way of saying that the Dead family marauded through Europe like Huns, partying instead of pillaging.

Musically, the Europe tour was one of the Dead’s strongest ever. “We played great,” Phil said many years later. “Keith was just coming into his own, really. And I gotta say that Billy played like a young god on [that] tour. I mean, he was everywhere on the drums, and just kickin’ our butts every which way, which is what drummers live to do.”

The wide-open jamming tunes like “Dark Star,” “Truckin’,” “The Other One” and “Playing in the Band” went to spaces they’d never been to before, as the group fearlessly deconstructed rhythms and melodies, broke down familiar forms and then reassembled the individual components of their sound in fresh ways. With Keith banging out unusual, blocky chord clusters that sounded as if they were straight out of Sun Ra or Cecil Taylor, and Garcia sometimes riding his wah-wah pedal to create bizarre, growling crescendos, the Dead delved deeper into dissonance than ever before—the twenty-five-minute versions of “Dark Star” from 1969 sounded like mellifluous poetry compared with the edgy cacophony of so many of the 1972-74 versions. Still, the group never abandoned its fundamental lyricism. Out of the noisy chaos would eventually come form and consonance, and at this point the band was always able to play music of amazing delicacy as well.

Two new Hunter-Garcia songs were premiered on the European jaunt. “He’s Gone” was a slow shuffle Garcia composed just before the trip. “I remember working on it in a little apartment I had in in the city [San Francisco],” he said. “It’s when I was playing lots and lots of shows with Merl at the Keystone Korner. I had an apartment where I could hang out on nights I didn’t feel like driving all the way back to Stinson Beach.” Hunter said of his lyrics for the tune, “It was considerations of Lenny [Hart] that kicked off the [opening lines]”:

Rat in a drain ditch

Caught on a limb

You know better but I know him

Like I told you

What I said

Steal your face right off your head

“So the song started that way, but later on it became an anthem for Pigpen, and it’s changed through the years,” Hunter said. “These songs are amorphous that way. What I intend is not what a thing is in the end.”

“Me neither, for that matter,” Garcia added in the same joint interview. “We don’t create the meanings of the tunes ultimately. They re-create themselves each performance in the minds of everybody there.”

The other new Hunter-Garcia song was an unclassifiable slice of vintage Americana (old-timey rock?) called “Brown-Eyed Women,” which served up some colorful characters and vignettes from America’s not-too-distant past:

Delilah Jones was the mother of twins

Two times over and the rest was sins

Raised eight boys, only I turned bad

Didn’t get the lickings that the other ones had

Brown-eyed women and red grenadine

The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean

Sound of the thunder with the rain pouring down

And it looks like the old man’s getting on

While he was in Europe Garcia also put music to a set of lyrics that Hunter had written in New York’s Chelsea Hotel in mid-1970. “Stella Blue,” which debuted at the Dead’s first concert after the European tour—a June show at the Hollywood Bowl—is one of the duo’s most powerful ballads, with music that sounds almost as if it could be from the songbook of Billy Strayhorn, and lyrics filled with a world-weary loneliness and melancholy; a “brittle pathos,” as Garcia once described it:

All the years combine

They melt into a dream

A broken angel sings

From a guitar

In the end there’s just a song

Comes crying like the wind

Through all the broken dreams

And vanished years

Stella Blue

Garcia said that “Stella Blue” was “a good example of a song I sang before I understood it. I understood some sense of what the lyrics were about, but I didn’t get into the pathos of it… . Originally I was taken with the construction of it, which is extremely clever, if I do say so myself. I was proud of it as a composer—‘Hey, this is a slick song! This sucker has a very slippery harmonic thing that works nicely.’ That’s what I liked about it. It wasn’t until later that I started to find other stuff in there.”

The song managed to stay fresh and vital until the end; in fact, it became more powerful and Garcia sang it with greater conviction as the years went by. In a way, it was a song about the end of life and was better suited to the tired and broken Garcia of fifty than the strong, confident man of thirty who first sang it.

Pigpen was still three years shy of his thirtieth birthday when he played what turned out to be his final show with the Grateful Dead—that same Hollywood Bowl concert three weeks after the end of the European tour. The trip to Europe had been hard on him, even though he conscientiously avoided booze the entire time, which was no easy feat in Germany and France.

“When they came back from Europe, the rest of the band would go on tours,” Eileen Law said. “Keith went out and Pig stayed home. Pig would call the office—it was just a skeleton crew—and he was really having a hard time with the band on the road and him being out of that. He would call and just want to talk. We all felt really bad for him because here was this person that I once thought was a Hell’s Angel, and now he was this little thin person. It was like seeing someone get cancer and then just deteriorate. He had this thin, thin face, but he’d still have his little hat on.”

The Dead kept on rolling along without Pigpen, though at most stops on their tours in 1972 Weir or Lesh would mention from the stage that Pigpen was sick back in California and “we’ll all send your best wishes back to him,” or words to that effect.

* * *

By the middle of 1972 the Dead had pretty much decided to leave Warner Bros. Records and explore the possibility of starting their own independent label. This is something the bandmembers, and Garcia in particular, had been thinking about for years, but it was Ron Rakow, an associate of the group’s since the Haight-Ashbury days, who came up with the plan to make the dream a reality.

The problem with Warners, as Rakow and the Dead saw it, wasn’t just that it was a straight company. They believed the label was inefficient at marketing the Dead’s records, and that a group with such a devoted nonmainstream following would be better served by specialized promotional methods that were beyond the grasp of a conventional record company. And Warner Bros. was even considered the hippest of the major labels in the late ’60s and early ’70s—the company was home to such idiosyncratic artists as Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell.

On July 4, 1972, at a meeting at Billy Kreutzmann’s house, Rakow presented the band with a ninety-two-page document called “The So-What Papers,” outlining his findings about the feasibility of the Dead starting their own record company. Rakow was nothing if not an enterprising schemer. For instance, his original vision was that the Dead would get the capital to launch their label from the Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Company Act (MESBIC). “I had hippies declared a minority,” Rakow says. “They were going to give us the money.”

In October 1972 Alan Trist, Garcia’s buddy from the early Palo Alto days, who’d come back to America from England in the fall of 1970 and stepped into the Dead’s somewhat amorphous management structure, presented the group with a summary and analysis of different options facing the band. These included Rakow’s plan for total independence from the straight music industry by setting up a Dead-controlled franchise distribution and mail-order system; a scenario favored by Owsley to have Deadheads buy an annual “subscription” to the Dead’s records; and, the most conservative option, starting a custom label within a major record company, along the lines of the Beatles’ Apple Records or the Jefferson Airplane’s Grunt Records.

In the end, the band decided to take the big step and go completely independent, which is the option Garcia favored strongly from the beginning. Rakow finagled a deal with Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler, selling the foreign distribution rights for the Dead’s albums for the $300,000 that was needed to start the company. By the spring of 1973 a company structure was in place, with Rakow installed as president of the fledgling label.

But before any of that could happen, the Dead still had to fulfill contractual obligations to Warner Bros. In the late fall of 1972 Warners put out the three-record live set Europe ’72 (the group’s third live album in four years), and it raced up the Billboard charts to number 24 in a matter of weeks, easily justifying the tremendous expense of the tour for Warners. The album’s six sides painted an even better picture of what the Dead were all about than “Skull and Roses” had. There were old and recent concert favorites like “Morning Dew,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” and “Truckin’”; two long, spacey jams; Garcia’s cover version of Hank Williams’s “You Win Again”; and nearly an album’s worth of previously unrecorded tunes—“Ramble On Rose,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Mr. Charlie” (a rollicking Hunter-Pigpen song), “Jack Straw,” “He’s Gone” and “Brown-Eyed Women.”

The band saved themselves a lot of time and money by putting new songs on both “Skull and Roses” and Europe ’72, but in later years both Hunter and Garcia said they were sorry the band never tackled those songs in the studio. “To me, all that material was sort of the kicker follow-up album to American Beauty,” Hunter said. “Instead we put out this three-album package that sounds wonderful, but it spread out the material so much we never got a chance to hear what those songs would have sounded like as a package. I personally would’ve liked to hear those songs on an album of their own.”

Another new Hunter-Garcia song that would have fit perfectly on that mythical studio album was “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo,” which the Dead first played in the summer of 1972. It was a playful country-flavored song that felt like an old-time fiddle tune with a dash of early jazz thrown in—Duke Ellington had cut a song called “East St. Louis Toodleoo” with his group in 1926. Lyrically, the song offered an intriguing pastiche of allusions and metaphors, from Bible figures to gambling to seamen’s lore. Once again, the main character is a troublemaker on the move, cursed by destiny and fate:

On the day that I was born

Daddy sat down and cried

I had the mark just as plain as day

Which could not be denied

They say that Cain caught Abel

Rolling loaded dice,

Ace of spades behind his ear

And him not thinking twice

Songs like this wouldn’t have had the kind of resonance they did if Hunter hadn’t been able to somehow connect them to Garcia’s real-life persona. Hunter was able to write songs for Garcia that weren’t usually autobiographical, yet attitudinally they fit him to a tee. Garcia could play the reprobate in these songs because that’s how he viewed himself to a degree—a fuckup who’d succeeded against all odds.

Still, Garcia once noted, “I don’t really very often relate to the characters in the songs. I don’t feel like ‘Okay, now this is me singing this song.’ … Actually, I relate better to Dylan songs more often than not. Sometimes I feel like I’m right in those songs; that is to say, that it’s me speaking… . That rarely happens to me with Hunter’s songs, but something else happens to me with Hunter’s songs that I think is more special. And that’s the thing of them coming from a world—some kind of mythos or alternate universe that’s got a lot of interesting stuff in it. And I feel like I’m in that world and of it somehow; or at least I know it when I see it, and I feel like I have something to say about it and I’m participating in it, but in a different sort of way. It’s participating in the mythos.”

And the songs were open-ended enough for the audience to enter into that world and imagine that it was also their strange universe of real and imagined people, places, feelings and dreams.