Garcia: An American Life (2000)
Some Rise, Some Fall, Some Climb …
uring the first week of December 1976 Robert Hunter had a flash of inspiration: “I wrote ‘Terrapin, Part One,’ at a single sitting in an unfurnished house with a picture window overlooking San Francisco Bay during a flamboyant lightning storm,” he recalled in his book Box of Rain. “I typed the first thing that came into my mind at the top of the page, the title: ‘Terrapin Station.’ Not knowing what it was about, I began my writing with an invocation to the muse and kept typing as the story began to unfold.”
Let my inspiration flow
In token rhyme suggesting rhythm
That will not forsake me
’Til my tale is told and done
“On the same day, driving to the city,” Hunter continued, “Garcia was struck by a singular inspiration. He turned his car around and hurried home to set down some music that popped into his head, demanding immediate attention. When we met the next day, I showed him the words and he said, ‘I’ve got the music.’ They dovetailed perfectly and ‘Terrapin’ edged into this dimension.”
The suite of songs and instrumental interludes that became known as “Terrapin, Part One” represent a culmination of sorts for the Hunter-Garcia writing partnership—a place where their deep folk roots blossomed into a mythic dimension outside of time, space and place; ancient yet eternal; a swirling galaxy of images, ideas and archetypal characters.
The opening section of the suite, “Lady with a Fan,” established the character of the storyteller, who spins the centuries-old tale from the British folk ballad “The Lady of Carlisle” (which had been sung in Appalachia at least since the nineteenth century, and was popularized in late-’50s folk circles by Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers). The story of “The Lady of Carlisle” is a simple one—a lady is torn between loving a brave army lieutenant and a brave sea captain. To choose between them she throws her fan into a lion’s den, saying whoever retrieves it will “gain a lady.” The lieutenant declines. The sailor fearlessly goes in among the lions, picks up the fan and returns it to the lady. As she offers herself to him, she says, “Here is the prize that you have won.”
In Hunter’s deft, poetic retelling, the characters are summoned up out of the storyteller’s fire (around which we are all presumably huddled) like visions:
Shadows of a sailor forming
Winds both foul and fair all swarm
Down in Carlisle he loved a lady
Many years ago
Here beside him stands a man
A soldier by the looks of him
Who came through many fights
But lost in love
While the storyteller speaks
A door within the fire creaks
Suddenly flies open
And a girl is standing there
Upon throwing her fan in the lion’s den, the lady asks the essential question:
“Which of you to gain me, tell,
Will risk uncertain pains of hell?
I will not forgive you
If you will not take the chance.”
The message is clear—love and life are filled with danger and uncertainty, and sometimes the greatest rewards require the greatest risks. In this case, the sailor triumphs and claims his lady love, but Hunter refuses to judge whether his is the smart path: “You decide if he was wise,” he tells us, adding:
The storyteller make no choice
Soon you will not hear his voice
His job is to shed light
And not to master
There, in a nutshell, is an elucidation of Hunter’s role as a poet/lyricist and as the voice of the Grateful Dead—offering nuggets of wisdom in shards of verse and elegant metaphor, but never telling us what to believe or how to think. One could go on to say that this song summed up the Grateful Dead itself. The band’s course was filled with tests, and time after time they ventured into the lion’s den. These experiences defined the band, but did they always take the wise course? Perhaps; perhaps not. Many who chose the more dangerous and mysterious path—Garcia included—did not survive as long as they might have.
Garcia set “Lady with a Fan” to one of his prettiest folk melodies—it could have been played as easily on lutes and flutes as on electric guitars. The next section of the song cycle was a brief instrumental passage that serves as a transition between the telling of the tale and a return to the storyteller, who invokes his muse again as the music rises to a new peak:
Inspiration move me brightly
Light the song with sense and color
Hold away despair
More than this I will not ask
Faced with mysteries dark and vast
Statements just seem vain at last
Some rise, some fall, some climb
To get to Terrapin
What and where is Terrapin? Is it an elusive Holy Grail for which we search our entire lives? A metaphor for heaven and/or nirvana? Is it death and resurrection, or the purgatory of an unending quest for meaning? “I can’t figure out if it’s the end or beginning,” Hunter writes in the song, “but the train’s put its brakes on and the whistle is screaming: ‘Terrapin’!” In “At a Siding,” a short following piece in the suite, Garcia sings, “The sullen wings of fortune beat like rain / You’re back in Terrapin for good or ill again,” as if this is a destination fraught with real or psychic peril.
“Jerry favors a certain type of folk song,” Hunter said when I asked about his and Garcia’s affinity for the kind of timeless folk themes that crop up in “Terrapin.” “He loves the mournful, death-connected ballad, the Child ballad stuff. This is a venerable source that has always spoken to him, and to me as well, which is one reason we got together writing songs—because of that haunting feel that certain traditional songs have. I just eat them up and so does he. It’s a point of absolute mutual agreement. ‘Terrapin’ gets that in spades. ‘Terrapin’ was our attempt to entirely surrender and go in that direction. That’s our little temple of that. It’s full of ghosts.
“It’s archetypal. It hearkens to something in us that is built into us partly genetically and partly by the culture we assimilate, the values built into popular songs. I try to go for something real basic when I write a song. It’s got to have these resonances to me or it’s not right. Unless, maybe, I’m trying to write a rock ’n’ roll song, and then I’m looking for rock ’n’ rollish resonances. But I’m generally deep-sea diving in imagery and getting things that sometimes—as in folk music—you don’t know quite what it means, but it’s resonant.”
“Terrapin Station, Part One” would form the backbone and provide the title for the Grateful Dead’s first Arista album, which they started recording sometime in January 1977. (It was “Part One” because Hunter wrote several other thematically connected songs for the suite, but Garcia elected not to set them to music. Hunter has performed other sections of the suite himself through the years, and the lyrics for the full work are printed in Box of Rain.) At the urging of Clive Davis, who felt that the Dead had the potential to make a great commercial album, the band agreed to work with an outside producer for the first time since a very frustrated Dave Hassinger was driven away from the Anthem of the Sun sessions in early 1968.
“When we went with Arista,” Garcia said, “we went with a spirit of cooperation, thinking, well, we’ve tried things our way; we’ve had our own record company, we’ve produced ourselves—we’ve done it a lot, in fact—and it’d be interesting to try somebody else’s approach totally and see where it takes us, because of the fact that our records—as records—have always been neither here nor there. They haven’t been relevant. We wanted some fresh ears—that was part of the reason it didn’t seem outrageous to us… . We’re very conscious of how easy it is to get into your own trip so much that you just don’t have any sense of it, no objectivity at all. It’s easy to do.”
Davis made a number of different suggestions from the ranks of top producers of the day, including a young producer based in Los Angeles named Keith Olsen, who was red-hot in the industry after producing a superb, multiplatinum pop album for Fleetwood Mac.
Garcia and Weir in particular liked Olsen, and at this point in the Dead’s history, with the smoldering, twisted ruins of Grateful Dead Records still vivid in the rearview mirror, the notion of making a more “commercial” record was fairly attractive. Besides, it’s not as if they were remotely close to going “pop”—neither the grandiose “Terrapin” nor “Estimated Prophet,” Weir’s strange new reggae tune in 7/4 time, were going to be AM radio fodder; far from it. But if Olsen could smooth some of the group’s notoriously ragged edges so that more radio stations might find the Dead palatable, perhaps it was worth a shot. So they agreed that Olsen would produce the record at his own Sound City studio in Van Nuys, northwest of Los Angeles. That worked out nicely for another reason, too: at the same time that those sessions were going on, Garcia and Dan Healy, aided by Susan Crutcher, could complete the sound work on the final dub of the Grateful Dead movie at Warner Bros. studios in nearby Burbank. The band, managers and a few Grateful Dead family types took over a wing of the inexpensive Van Nuys Travel Inn for nearly two months, and Garcia worked almost around the clock the entire time he was in Los Angeles.
Olsen had the band rehearse extensively before they began cutting basic tracks for the album, and he quickly learned that after years of improvising together and staying loose enough to follow the music that unfolded before them, the Grateful Dead had a lot of ingrained musical habits—some good, some bad—from his perspective.
“The cutting of tracks in general was very difficult because I was trying to get them to be tight,” Olsen says. “Mickey Hart is a real good drummer but he has a tendency to lean forward on the beat, and Bill Kreutzmann is a real laid-back guy and he lays back on the beat. So where’s the beat? Every single bass and snare drum beat, when you’d hear them together, would sound a little off to me. It was a mess. Mickey has the fire, Billy has kind of a groove. So I said, ‘Why don’t we orchestrate the drum parts? Okay, Billy, you get the hi-hat, kick [bass drum] and snare and an occasional cymbal. Mickey, you get all the tom fills, all the flash, all the color.’ And they did it. That’s the way we recorded.
“Garcia and Weir were both really good,” Olsen continues. “Garcia always played really cool stuff. He never played something the same way twice, but almost everything he came up with was cool. He just had endless ideas about everything. Weir is a real interesting guy in general. I spent seven months with him [recording Terrapin Station and then a solo album with Weir called Heaven Help the Fool]. He’s a sweetheart. He’s very talented in his own way, but definitely only in a Bob Weir kind of way. It’s like all the guys in the Dead are talented in a Dead kind of way. They can’t really run out and do that many other things because outside of that idiom they get lost.”
Olsen says the basic tracks took about six weeks to record, “and we didn’t get one basic for the first three weeks we were there. I kept throwing them away, saying, ‘It ain’t good enough, guys.’ Garcia would say, ‘Really?’ And I’d say, ‘No, Jerry, it’s not good enough.’ Bobby would say, ‘But we don’t play any better than this.’ And I’d say, ‘I’m going to make you play better. It isn’t too late!’”
The overdubbing process also took a long time, because Olsen was such a stickler for mistake-free playing. But, he says, “Garcia had so much fun. He’d be giggling in the control room. When we were doing this double-speed guitar stuff [speeding up the guitar electronically] and these double-speed harmony parts on ‘Terrapin,’ he was just laughing. I never heard anybody laugh so much when they were working. Garcia loved playing more than anything and he sat there and laughed while he was playing. It was great.”
During the period the Dead were recording the album, they played just five concerts—two in Southern California in late February, three at Winterland in late March—and at each of them they played both “Terrapin” and “Estimated Prophet” to universally fantastic reviews from Deadheads. Here were two new songs completely unlike any other in the Dead’s repertoire: “Estimated,” which appeared to portray the thoughts of some delusional messianic zealot—“a guy I see at nearly every backstage door,” Weir said—juxtaposed a dark, ominous, minor-chord reggae feeling with bright, major-chord progressions that were nearly as sunny and triumphant as those in Weir’s “Sugar Magnolia” jam. Garcia got to try out a new pedal effect for his guitar on this song—an envelope filter that gave each note he played a wah-wah-like thwack, depending on his picking intensity. And “Terrapin” was a complex and involved world of its own, moving from the timeless balladic opening to a stirring buildup that had almost martial overtones, finally leading to an explosion of nearly baroque-sounding unison lines and counterpoint that the band would play again and again, changing timbres and tones with each pass, the music swelling to heroic proportions and pulling back unpredictably.
Garcia introduced another major new song at the first of the March Winterland shows, though he didn’t actually have a hand in writing it. “Fire on the Mountain” had been written by Mickey Hart and Robert Hunter for the aborted follow-up to Hart’s first solo album, Rolling Thunder. “That was another Mickey Hart rhythm extravaganza with no melody,” Hunter said of the song’s origin. “He just gave me this track—bop, bop bopbopbopbop … —and said, ‘Make this a song, Uncle Bob.’ So I wrote ‘Fire on the Mountain’ to it and recorded over the tracks. I still think he did the best version of it years before the Dead got to it.” There was a literal fire on the mountain that inspired the song—a fast-moving wildfire that threatened Hart’s ranch. The pre-Dead versions with Mickey rapping through verse after elliptical verse were frenzied and ragged but actually suited Hunter’s lyrics perfectly. When Garcia finally tackled the song, he fashioned a melody of sorts for the verses but elected to sing only three, including this evocative middle verse, which, as usual, has metaphorical implications relating to the Grateful Dead:
Almost ablaze, still you don’t feel the heat
Takes all you got just to stay on the beat
You say it’s a living, we all gotta eat
But you’re here alone, there’s no one to compete
If mercy’s in business I wish it for you
More than just ashes when your dreams come true
Fire, fire on the mountain …
The main riff was an infectious repeating groove that had a slight Afro-Caribbean bounce to it. Half a year before Garcia started singing it, the groove turned up as an instrumental track he played on called “Happiness Is Drumming” on the extraordinary Diga Rhythm Band album. “Fire on the Mountain” was another song on which Garcia used the envelope filter to great effect. Every note had its own round, fat shape—you could hear the attack and decay—as the lead guitar line danced around, inside and on top of the big groove that the other players created with their own pounding instrumental voices. There are versions in which the envelope filter allows Garcia’s guitar to take on some of the character of steel drums, and others where there’s a hint of viola or French horn. Except for just a few versions over the years, “Fire on the Mountain” was always attached to the similarly driving and polyrhythmic “Scarlet Begonias.” “Scarlet-Fire,” as the sequence was called in Deadhead slang, became one of the Dead’s most popular song combos, perhaps even the most popular.
Many Deadheads regard the Dead’s spring 1977 East Coast tour as one of their finest, and it’s easy to see why. The infusion of new material—three of their all-time best songs—took the music in exciting new directions at the same time that the most successful tunes from Blues for Allah—“Crazy Fingers” and the triumvirate of “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower”—were reaching new levels of maturity. On that spring tour, too, the group continued to reintroduce songs that hadn’t been played since the hiatus; major songs like “Jack Straw,” “Brokedown Palace” and “China Doll.” And Garcia introduced two very different cover tunes. “Jack-A-Roe,” a peppy old British sea-song about a woman who dresses up like a male sailor so she can go to war at her loved one’s side, had been popularized by Joan Baez during Garcia’s folk days. The rubbery, syncopated “Iko Iko” came from New Orleans’s Mardi Gras Indian (actually, African-American) culture. Sugarboy Crawford cut the song as “Jockomo” in the late ’40s; the Dixie Cups had a fluke hit with a nearly a cappella version of “Iko Iko” in the ’60s; and Dr. John put the song on one of his albums in the early ’70s. It was that version that inspired Keith Olsen to suggest that Garcia cover the song with the Dead.
Working to tighten up their sound under Olsen’s benign whip had a tremendous influence on the Dead. During the spring 1977 tour the playing was crisp and rhythmically assured, as if they’d discovered some new source of power within themselves. Brimming with confidence gained from playing so powerfully, the band was then able to relax enough to open up their jams more in 1977, too. Songs like “Saint Stephen,” “Dancing in the Streets” and even “Not Fade Away” became springboards to all sorts of fascinating and inventive grooves that the band explored with tremendous zest and imagination.
Another reason Garcia seemed so exuberant on the tour was that the Grateful Dead movie—rather unimaginatively titled The Grateful Dead—was finally completed just before the band went out on the road, ending what he called at the time “two years of incredible doubt, crisis after crisis, as the movie was endlessly eating bucks. Every time I thought of something, my mind would come back to the film and I’d get depressed. It’s boiled down to about two hours and ten minutes now, but it sure took a lot of energy.”
The film opened with great fanfare at the giant Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan on June 1, 1977. Predictably, Deadheads loved it and everyone else pretty much ignored it, though it did get a handful of positive and negative reviews in the mainstream press. In some ways the film represents Garcia’s most fully realized tangible work of art. He spent longer on the project than on any other, and it stretched him in many new directions as he was forced to ponder how to communicate the totality of the Grateful Dead experience in both visual and musical terms. How do you show how the Grateful Dead interacts musically onstage? How, without a voice-over narration, do you explain what Deadheads are all about? How do you give some sense of both the tactile trippiness and the transformative power of the music? Imagine what it must have been like for Garcia to wade through all that raw footage that showed him every imaginable perspective of a Dead concert, when he’d only seen it from his own vantage point onstage for ten years—dancers in the audience spinning like gypsies; straight union vendors selling hot dogs in the cramped Winterland hallways; Billy Kreutzmann in action close up as seen over his left shoulder; a security guard dealing with kids trying to talk their way into the show; a wild nitrous oxide party backstage during the concert.
Working on the film “changed my outlook towards the whole thing,” Garcia said shortly after the film opened. “It gave me a greater sense of the unique value of the Grateful Dead, which is something of which I’ve been aware but haven’t known how to express effectively and don’t care to. It either is, or it isn’t.
“The film works very well on the contour of it—its energy is a good example of the Grateful Dead experience. It’s a translation of that idea, both coming from what it’s like for me—in my head, as abstract ideas, nonspecific images—and what it’s like for anybody.”
What’s striking, too, is that even though the film was already “out of date” in a sense when it was released—by 1977 Mickey was back and the group really had a very different sound—it was fundamentally true, and more than twenty years later it still communicates the essence of the music and the experience better than any other single work. What it said about the music and the crowd, in its own impressionistic way, is no less valid today than it was in 1977. Garcia could be a very tough critic of his own work, given to sometimes harsh revisionism, but he always spoke fondly of the movie. He remained rightfully proud of it for the rest of his life.
As usual, Garcia didn’t really have any time to savor the completion of the film. “He segued from the Dead movie to mixing Terrapin Station,” says Emily Craig, who worked as assistant to Garcia during the mixing sessions, “and I thought the song ‘Terrapin Station’ had a very filmic approach. They were physically cutting sixteen-track tape in between some very rapidly played guitar notes. It was really exciting and slightly bizarre. They were taking movements of music and treating them as if they were scenes. I think there was a lot of film influence in how that particular song got approached.”
The final overdubbing on the Terrapin Station album had been completed during the spring tour: “I remember working in New York [at Automated Sound],” Olsen says. “They were working at the Capitol Theater [in Passaic, New Jersey] or someplace doing shows and they couldn’t get back in the city until midnight. So we’d start to work at midnight and go from midnight to 9 A.M. Actually, it worked out well—they were ready to roll then. John Belushi [of the TV comedy hit Saturday Night Live] was there a lot, but after he passed out on the floor I barred him. I remember having to step over him when he was passed out.”
After the tour left the New York area, Olsen flew to London to work with the renowned British arranger Paul Buckmaster on orchestral parts for “Terrapin” and Donna Godchaux’s moving ballad “Sunrise,” which had been inspired by the death of Grateful Dead road manager Rex Jackson in an automobile accident in September 1976. “The orchestrations were written after the vocals were done because I wanted to complement the Dead instead of have the Dead complement some orchestration,” Olsen says. “So I took the tapes and went over to England. Buckmaster, being quite well-to-do for a string player, owned this house [in London] but he had put no furniture in it. So we had a tape deck on one side of the room and a remote control and charts all over the floor, and we were on our hands and knees on the floor writing out this part and that part.”
The orchestrations proved to be the most controversial element on the album, and Mickey Hart in particular hated Buckmaster’s light and breezy orchestrations on the otherwise furious drum duel known as “Terrapin Flyer.” Olsen says, “I told Garcia and Weir exactly what I planned on doing with the orchestrations and they gave me the go-ahead. I said, ‘Do I have to go through every member of the band?’ They said, ‘No, we’ll take care of it.’ But I don’t think they ever told anybody.”
The strings, a five-piece recorder consort, a horn section and a choir (for the last section of “Terrapin”) were recorded at three different London studios, and then Olsen brought the tapes back to California and he and Garcia mixed the record in a number of marathon sessions.
“It was a slightly strange time because almost nobody else was around or allowed in,” Emily Craig says. “The other bandmembers were in and out. Mickey drove off a cliff and was laid up for a while. And Deborah was persona non grata.”
The relationship between Garcia and Deborah Koons had started to unravel a bit as early as mid-1976, and by the beginning of 1977 Garcia had moved out of his Belvedere home and into a room in Richard Loren’s Mill Valley management office, which was in a nice house on a hill. By most accounts, the breakup was long and messy. Garcia was famously unassertive and nonconfrontational in relationships. He preferred ducking and hiding and allowing others—crew members, friends—to build an impenetrable wall around him to protect him from unpleasantness. It didn’t always work. In one incident, recounted by a witness, Deborah threw a container from a water dispenser through a window at Loren’s office after Garcia and a couple of his cronies repeatedly refused to unlock the door to let her in.
Rock Scully and others have suggested that the Grateful Dead crew was instrumental in destroying Jerry and Deborah’s relationship. But Richard Loren maintains, “Jerry drove her away as much as the crew drove her away. If Jerry wanted to have her by his side and the crew didn’t want it, she would have been there. So that doesn’t give Jerry credit for having a say in his love life. I think it was much deeper than that. Jerry was such a complex person that no woman was going to be part of all of his life. I think what part of him that she had was precious to her and vice versa.”
In Deborah’s telling of the relationship’s demise, she broke up with Garcia in November 1977, many months later than others claim. “I had been traveling with Jerry for about three years,” she said, “and I’d moved to California to live with him, and what I realized after those three years is that I felt that I’d lost my identity in Jerry’s life. I felt like I kind of dissolved myself in his life. And I wanted to not have to go everywhere with him and do everything with him—basically live his life. So I told him I didn’t want to travel with him anymore and I wanted to kind of pull back, and he got angry about that and we just reached a rocky place. I think that if we’d been able to be left alone, we could’ve worked it out, but such was the nature of Jerry’s life that there were a lot of people around him and they jumped in and started interfering and kind of taking over.”
Mountain Girl returned from her self-imposed exile on the Oregon coast to the Stinson Beach house in August 1977. She enrolled Sunshine and Annabelle in a public school in Bolinas, and then a few weeks later “Jerry showed up and said he was moving back in if that was okay with us,” she says. “We all stood there with our mouths hanging open. ‘Oh, okay.’ The bad part was I had come back and put the house on the market because I decided it had too many ghosts for me—I literally sold it the night before he came home. Anyway, he came back and it was a very nice moment for all of us, and we got to stay there for three or four months before the sale went through.”
Meanwhile, back in the corporate record business world, Arista Records boss Clive Davis directed his company to make a concerted promotional push for Terrapin Station when it was released in the middle of the summer of 1977, and the album did sell more in its first few months than the previous studio album on Grateful Dead Records, Blues for Allah. Still, there weren’t many radio stations willing to take the plunge and play the entire eighteen minutes of the “Terrapin” suite. “Estimated Prophet” garnered much more radio play (and does to this day), but Arista failed to break a hit single from the record. First they considered releasing a remixed version of “Dancing in the Streets,” augmented with horns; then they switched at the last moment and put out “Passenger,” a propulsive rock tune written by Phil Lesh and Peter Monk and sung by Weir and Donna Godchaux. It failed to catch on, however.
Reaction to Terrapin Station among Deadheads was decidedly mixed. Many were simply unwilling to accept a Grateful Dead slicked up by an L.A. producer using horns and strings. The record was also characterized by an odd sort of perfection—never a Grateful Dead quality. “It actually sounds like a record,” Garcia crowed at the time. “People won’t believe it’s us.”
The Dead were not exactly considered to be a band on the cutting edge in 1977; quite the contrary. That was the year punk and new wave hit with a vengeance, and with them the beginnings of a serious anti-hippie blacklash in the youth culture. With an amazing array of British acts crossing the Atlantic—the Clash, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker—and a new breed of U.S. groups tearing up the clubs—Blondie, the Ramones, Mink DeVille, Talking Heads—the Dead were suddenly regarded as terribly passé in rock-critic circles. Bands that jammed and played eighteen-minute songs were regarded as bloated, antiquated relics of rock’s past. Better to pogo furiously for the two minutes of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” than to wiggle in your seat to eleven minutes of “Peggy-O.” (For his part, Garcia professed to liking the Ramones, Elvis Costello and other new wave bands.) Pot was derided as a brain-rotting soporific; psychedelics were considered more ’60s detritus. Speed, cocaine and heroin were the preferred drugs in the punk/new wave world.
The Dead scene didn’t discriminate against any drugs, and by the end of 1977, cocaine and, to a lesser degree, heroin use were on the rise. When Mountain Girl first heard reports that a form of smokable heroin known simply as “Persian” had entered the scene, “I didn’t believe it. We associated heroin with crummy, dirty junkies on the street; the downward chute, where you’re flat on your back within two weeks. I thought it was totally antithetical to what I felt we were all about. Heroin is just such a dead-end drug. It doesn’t lead you anywhere but down. There’s no special enlightenment to be gained from it. It’s sheer wastage, beyond cocaine. Cocaine at least you get some work done, even if it’s not very good work.”
Heroin had been on the fringes of the Dead’s world since the ’60s. Some members of the extended Diggers family had been into smack, and it was used by a number of people in San Francisco bands, including Big Brother and Santana. Members of both of the Dead’s Watkins Glen mates—the Band and the Allman Brothers—had had problems with heroin, and the drug even gained a foothold at Mickey Hart’s ranch for a while. In his book, Rock Scully says that French concert promoters on the Dead’s 1974 Europe tour gave the band some potent China White heroin, and Ron Rakow admits that one Christmastime, on a whim, he took it upon himself to score some of the powder for himself and Garcia. But even in a world that embraced drugs the way the Dead did, heroin was widely regarded as the one true no-no. That is, until Persian came into the scene.
“When it first came around it was not called heroin; it was known as Persian opium,” says Alan Trist. “Of course it turned out to not really be opium, which is somewhat benign, at all, but a form of processed heroin. At first it was an experience of an energizing drug. Eventually, of course, you sort of fall down or get slopped out on it, but initially it isn’t like that—it’s energizing, particularly if you combine it with cocaine. It was in some respects ideal for the situation that Jerry was in. It allowed him to do a tremendous amount and not be bothered by all the pressures. Eventually, of course, it turns on you and it has the opposite effect, which is perhaps not that recognizable to the user, but is to others.”
“When you’re a guy like him,” Richard Loren says, “you’re in the center of a maelstrom, a whirlwind. Everybody’s asking questions, everybody wants you to give a decision on things, everybody wants help, everybody needs you just for a second. Plus you’ve got to play good music. Everybody’s dependent on you. You’re one large breast and nipple. So you’ve got all these demands on your time, so you’re taking more coke to be able to do more things and then all of a sudden you’re ‘burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,’ as Dylan said [in “Shelter from the Storm”]. And when the Persian came in it was like ‘Phew!’ I saw that it relaxed him.”
Richard Loren adds that because Garcia was wired on cocaine so much of the time, “his body needed the tranquility that heroin offers, without damaging the liver the way alcohol does. It was something that relaxed him. I think he might have died sooner of a heart attack if he hadn’t done heroin. Because on coke you’re racing, racing, racing.”
For a considerable period, Garcia’s involvement with opiates was relatively light and didn’t seem to be a significant problem. He wasn’t lacking in energy, he was still mostly his genial self, and his creative drive was definitely still intact. So much so that in the second half of 1977 and the winter of 1978 he and the Jerry Garcia Band spent hundreds of hours in the Dead’s Club Front rehearsal space cutting an album of completely original material—Cats Under the Stars.
“We put so much blood into that record,” John Kahn said. “That was our major try. It was all new material and we did it all ourselves. We spent so many hours in the studio. When we were inside there we didn’t know if it was day or night except for this one little crack in the ceiling that would allow you to see if it was dark or light. I remember one stretch where it changed three times before I left the studio.”
“I worked real hard at it and was very diligent and almost scientific about it,” Garcia said. “There was a lot of heart in it, you might say.”
Though a few of the songs were performed on the East and West Coasts in the late fall of 1977, the songs were mostly unknown to Deadheads around the country when the record came out in April 1978. The album accurately captured the gospel vibe of that version of the JGB with Keith and Donna and Ron Tutt, and the songs wore well through the years, developing nicely in concert.
The opener, “Reuben and Cherise,” was a favorite of both Hunter and Garcia. Musically and lyrically, the song was somewhat reminiscent of parts of the “Terrapin” suite: like “Lady with a Fan,” it was a linear story with mythic overtones dealing in part with true and transcendent love, and laced with symbolism. (Hunter acknowledged that the song was influenced in part by Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus’s 1960 film that retells the Orpheus myth in a Brazilian Carnaval setting.) And like the instrumental track “Terrapin Station,” the jam at the end of “Reuben and Cherise” revolved around a clever melodic figure that changed subtly over the course of many repetitions. Using the envelope filter on his guitar, Garcia elicited a hornlike tone that gave the song an almost regal quality, as if it were being played by some troubadour before a king centuries ago.
Cherise was brushing her long hair gently down
It was the afternoon of Carnival
As she brushes it gently down
Reuben was strumming the painted mandolin
It was inlaid with a pretty face in jade
Played the Carnival Parade
Cherise was dressing as Pirouette in white
When a fatal vision gripped her tight
“Cherise, beware tonight”
Garcia’s double-tracked acoustic rhythm guitar line propelled the song briskly, and Keith Godchaux contributed some of his boldest playing on this standout tune. One could imagine that “Terrapin” might have sounded something like this had Garcia, rather than Keith Olsen, produced that record.
From that dense but powerful opening song, the album progressed through a number of different interesting moods. “Love in the Afternoon,” by Hunter and Kahn, was a light, easygoing tune that fell somewhere between reggae and a samba. “Palm Sunday” was one of Garcia’s shortest songs—just a little more than two minutes long—but it’s one of his prettiest. For the first minute of the tune, Dave Burgin plays a lovely line on the chromatic harp while Garcia plays acoustic guitar underneath. Then Garcia and Donna Godchaux sing a beautiful gospel-inflected unison duet on the song’s lone verse:
The river so white
The mountain so red
And with the sunshine
Over my head
The honky-tonks are
All closed and hushed
It must be Palm Sunday again
“I really loved that tune,” Donna says wistfully. “Every Palm Sunday after that I would call Jerry and say, ‘Hey Jerry, looks like Palm Sunday again,’” she laughs.
Both “Cats Under the Stars” and “Rhapsody in Red” allowed Hunter and Garcia to address their mutual love of music itself. In the former, Garcia worked through what sounded like a quirky blend of New Orleans funk and ’30s pop and jazz styles, while Hunter, who said he based the lyrics on a doodle he drew, depicted a world for the musicians in the JGB to jam in:
Cats on the bandstand
Give ’em each a big hand
Anyone who sweats like that
Must be all right
“Rhapsody in Red” sounded like a midtempo Chuck Berry song as John Lennon might have rewritten it. Garcia played a piercing electric guitar line through the entire song, and this is one of several tunes on the record that benefited from a sympathetic organ overdub by Garcia’s old compadre Merl Saunders.
The longest track on the album was “Rain,” a somewhat Beatlesesque tune written and sung by Donna, and with a lush orchestration by John Kahn that featured Keith’s brother Brian and sister-in-law Candy on violins. Kahn’s instrumental “Down Home” had no lyrics at all: It was just Donna singing wordlessly above a nicely arranged backup chorus of stacked “oo-oo” vocals and an acoustic bass line; a serene but slightly melancholy Southern gospel interlude that one could imagine hearing in a film like the black musical Cabin in the Sky. Then, with barely a break, “Down Home” rolls into a lazy shuffle called “Gomorrah,” a Sunday school parable (with a dash of irony delivered by the Reverend Garcia), to end the album.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Garcia said in the early ’90s, “Cats Under the Stars is my most successful record—even though it’s my least successful record! I’ve always really loved it and it just never went anywhere.”
Garcia admitted he was disappointed that both rock radio and so many of his fans ignored the record. It was a beautifully made album loaded with strong melodies and sure rhythms. In a way it felt like a continuation of the “Terrapin” vibe, though perhaps lacking that work’s deep, heartfelt passion. There was no great revelatory moment—no “inspiration, move me brightly”—where Garcia’s and Hunter’s souls clearly merged in mystical union and sang with one voice. But the album stands as one of the most cohesive and fully realized projects Hunter and Garcia worked on together; and it represents the last great studio collaboration between Garcia and John Kahn.
By the time Cats Under the Stars came out in April 1978, Ron Tutt had left the group, replaced by L.A. drummer Buzz Buchanan; and Maria Muldaur, who was John Kahn’s girlfriend, had been added as a second harmony singer. (She appeared on two songs on the album.) The combination of Donna and Maria boosted the JGB’s gospel quotient, but Buchanan, though talented, didn’t have the supple touch that Ron Tutt is so revered for.
“That version of the group with Maria sounded really good,” Kahn said, “but it didn’t end up being a good idea to have two couples in the band. There would be huge fights. Let’s face it—it’s an abusive lifestyle. It’s not the best way to have a relationship.” Still, Kahn said of the group at the time, “We’ve really become a band. It’s not just something Jerry does in his spare time or that I do in my spare time or anything like that.”
“Not only is it a band,” Garcia enthused, “but it’s a band that has this thing of consonance… . This band represents an amazing agreement. By contrast, the Grateful Dead represents amazing disagreement in terms of everybody having tremendously different ideas about music. But that’s interesting for other reasons. This gets us all off in the same way. When the Grateful Dead gets off, everybody gets off differently.”
By mid-1978 Garcia, Kahn and Keith were all sliding toward heavier drug dependency, and Keith in particular seemed to be completely wasted much of the time onstage with both the Jerry Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead. His playing, once full of life and overflowing with imaginative ideas, often became blocky and monochromatic during this period, and he wasn’t nearly as responsive to the other musicians.
“Unfortunately, Keith was determined to do all the bad things that everybody else did,” Mountain Girl observes. “That was one of the goals—to get messed up. He really liked to get trashed, and I think he was also an influence that way. He didn’t really care how rubbery he got, and because he wasn’t right out front in the band he could afford to get more rubbery.
“But I actually really enjoyed Keith,” she continues. “He was a trip and sometimes he was very sweet. He definitely fit for a while. I thought he had a number of different talents.”
By the end of the year, though, Garcia had dissolved the Jerry Garcia Band, and his relationship with Keith was strained. “Jerry caught him stealing something inside his briefcase; his drugs or something,” John Kahn said. “He was inside Jerry’s briefcase and then he was gone [from the JGB] right after that. I’m sure he would have been gone anyway. It was in the works that they were going to split up. But Keith would burn me and Jerry out of drugs all the time. He made Jerry mad for a period of time and it culminated in that.”
Garcia was beginning to have his own problems with the Persian, too. “Jerry had been kind of quiet, but at least he’d been home,” Mountain Girl says. “But he was definitely a little subdued, so I guess he was getting into some stuff. At that point I didn’t see it at home really; that came a little later, but I could tell something weird was happening.”
Deborah Koons said that she hung out with Garcia again in the spring and summer of 1978 and found him “very unstable. He was bouncing around, staying different places.” By this time Deborah had enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, which took up a lot of her time, “and the farther away I got from that whole scene, the better I felt, so I just kept going. I didn’t see him again for fifteen years.”
Again, it’s difficult to gauge the effect Garcia’s drug use might have had on his playing at this time—there is no noticeable drop-off in the quality of his performances. Shows were generally a bit shorter than they had been, but they were not lacking in focus or energy. Indeed, in the few videos from 1978 that are in circulation among traders, Garcia is tremendously animated. In a black-and-white video of the Dead at Duke University in April 1978, Garcia is smiling, gesturing, doing Pete Townshend “windmills” on his guitar, even joining in on the drum solo as if he’s been possessed by the spirit of Gene Krupa. And the one cover tune Garcia introduced in the spring of 1978 showed that his puckish spirit was intact. The Dead’s version of Warren Zevon’s playfully macabre “Werewolves of London” (which had just come out on Zevon’s second album) was a howl—literally.
The band continued mainly to play large gigs—including stadium shows in Santa Barbara (where Zevon was among the opening acts), Kansas City and Eugene, Oregon—but in the summer of ’78 they also played their first shows at the 9,000-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater, outside of Denver, which would become one of the Dead’s magical “power spots” over the next decade. Set high on a hill amid towering rock slabs, with a magnificent view of Denver across the distant plain, Red Rocks was right out of a Zane Grey novel—it was the most overtly Western environment the Dead played in; the perfect place for a band that sang about outlaws, saloons and gamblers. It was its own world, completely cut off from civilization, and for band and Deadheads alike it was both haven and heaven.
Shortly after the Dead’s first shows at Red Rocks in July 1978 the band started working on their second album for Arista, Shakedown Street. It was Garcia’s idea that they work at Club Front—he had enjoyed making Cats Under the Stars there. No one was anxious to go to Los Angeles after their experience making Terrapin Station. At Club Front they’d be close to home; it was their place.
The band agreed to use an outside producer again, but this time they went outside traditional production circles and selected a musician who had also produced a couple of his own band’s records—Lowell George of Little Feat. “We chose Lowell George because we wanted someone who understood band mechanics,” Garcia explained in 1978.
Lowell George was truly one of rock music’s great spirits—a big furry bear of a guy who always seemed to have a smile on his face. He was also one of the finest slide guitar players of all time, a soulful and expressive singer with a gruff, bluesy voice, and a gifted songwriter with a truly warped and unusual perspective on the world. Little Feat and the Grateful Dead were simpatico in the same way that the Allman Brothers and the Dead were: they loved to jam, they drew from many of the same musical sources and they enjoyed getting high and playing for dancing crowds. But whereas the Dead and the Allmans seemed to connect most on some mutual psychedelic plane, the Dead and Little Feat met on a polyrhythmic plane: No one played funky, syncopated N’awlins-style rock ’n’ roll better than Little Feat, and they also had their share of quirky shuffles—a little like the Dead, but with a bluesier edge.
“I really liked Lowell a lot,” Bill Kreutzmann said. “Whereas Keith [Olsen] always wanted to be the director-producer type and wear the higher hat—to work in the upper office, so to speak—Lowell was really like a member of the band more. If we were working on a song and he didn’t feel it was going right, he’d just grab a guitar and come into the studio and show us how he felt it. That was one of the ways he’d communicate, and it worked great. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Most of the songs on the record had never been played live by the Dead. The exceptions were “Fire on the Mountain”; Weir’s Latin-flavored retooling of the old Pigpen vehicle “Good Lovin’”; and a revamped version of “New Minglewood Blues” that Weir called “All New Minglewood Blues” (though it actually wasn’t so new).
Garcia had three new songs to contribute to the album. “Shakedown Street” was the Dead’s original contribution to the age of disco—after all, 1977-78 was the heyday of Donna Summer, the soundtrack mega-hit Saturday Night Fever and dozens of one-hit wonders who lit up the disco dance floors with a song or two and then were never heard from again. Conversely it was also the era of “disco sucks,” and more than a few Deadheads were horrified when they heard “Shakedown Street” for the first time, particularly coming on the heels of the group’s lamentable disco version of “Dancing in the Streets.” The disco-haters needn’t have worried, however. Just as the “disco” “Dancing in the Streets” became a fascinating vehicle for some intense rhythmic jamming when the band played it live, “Shakedown Street” developed far beyond its steady rhythmic pulse in concert. It gave the band a chance to explore the funky R&B side of their roots, which had been nearly dormant since Pigpen’s departure. The big jam in the last third of the song would’ve done Parliament/Funkadelic proud.
“If I Had the World to Give” was perhaps the most straightforward love ballad that Hunter and Garcia ever wrote together. On the surface it seemed almost like a traditional pop love song from the ’40s or ’50s, but Garcia’s musical setting was salted with some chord choices that lent the piece a certain sadness, and lyrically there was a hint of darkness amid the bliss. The Dead played the song live only three times, possibly because Garcia had considerable difficulty negotiating its difficult vocal leaps. That’s a shame, because all three versions packed a powerful emotional charge, with Garcia reaching deep down in his soul during his raw, screaming guitar breaks. The version on Shakedown Street was technically very strong—Garcia felt it “came out really nice”—but it didn’t quite have the visceral quality the song had live. Who knows what it might have become if Garcia had kept playing it through the years?
“Stagger Lee” was a tune that worked well both live and on the record. Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Casey Jones,” it was a case of Hunter and Garcia embellishing a venerable song tradition. There are “Stag-O-Lee” and “Stack-O-Lee” songs dating back more than a hundred years, and everyone from Mississippi John Hurt to Doc Watson to Dr. John covered versions of the story/song through the years. In most of the different “Stagger Lee” songs, the title character is a bad dude who kills a fellow named Billy Lyons after Billy steals Stag’s Stetson hat.
Hunter’s telling of the story is wonderfully colorful. His setting is “1940 Xmas eve with a full moon over town,” and instead of stealing Stagger Lee’s hat, Billy DeLyon wins it in a dice game and then gets blown away. Hunter adds an ineffectual policeman named Baio to the tale, but the central character is really Billy’s wife, Delia, who is bent on revenge.
As Stagger Lee lit a cigarette she shot him in the balls
Blew the smoke off her revolver, had him dragged to City Hall
“Baio, Baio, see you hang him high
He shot my Billy dead and now he’s got to die”
“Stagger Lee” was Hunter and Garcia’s last stab at bringing the oral tradition of narrative storytelling into the present day. It was also one of their most successful attempts.
The other new songs on the album were Weir and Barlow’s humorous testosterone-fueled rock rave-up “I Need a Miracle,” another wispy, romantic ballad by Donna called “From the Heart of Me” and a strange little percussion excursion titled “Serengetti.”
The sessions for Shakedown Street were—like Lowell George himself—extremely loose, especially compared with Keith Olsen’s demanding studio regimen. (Which is not to imply that Olsen didn’t like to party with the band; he did, but he also asked more of the group than Lowell did.) There were many long, unproductive days and nights in the studio—sessions that were frittered away getting high. Lowell and Garcia were each independently using both coke and heroin (mainly lots of the former), and the band as a whole was in a bad period in terms of substance abuse.
The band fell behind schedule making the album and because of commitments to tour with Little Feat, Lowell was unable to work on the record after the basic tracks were recorded. This may have actually been a good development. Midway through the project Garcia told a writer, “Really, it’s better to work without a producer at times. I’m not happy with all the basic tracks on this—but I’m never completely happy.”
The group had hoped to have the record completed by the end of August, because looming in mid-September was the Dead’s greatest adventure yet: a trip to Egypt for three concerts at the foot of the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. The album could wait.