The Desert Stars Are Bright Tonight - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


The Desert Stars Are Bright Tonight

he notion of the Grateful Dead playing at the pyramids had been tossed around in stoned conversations almost since the band started. The fantasies didn’t stop there, either: Why not play Machu Picchu and Easter Island and the Great Wall of China and Stonehenge? Imagine what it would be like if the Dead brought their music to ancient, spiritually high places! Perhaps they could tap into the mysterious power of those spots, stir up a few ghosts from the collective consciousness—channel an Inca healer or Druid priest or Egyptian king. At the very least it would be a blast for the band and family and the hearty fans who were willing to make the long journey.

“I’m into the psychedelic archaeology of the ancient world,” Phil explained, “the structures that mark the channels of earth energy and places of power. No matter what anyone thinks they might be, there is definitely some kind of mojo about the pyramids. When you get there you find out there is power.”

The idea inched toward becoming reality after Richard Loren visited Egypt in 1975. As he explains, “When I lived with Marty Balin for the first three weeks that I came here [in 1970], Marty was an avid reader and an avid fan of Egypt. He introduced me to Egyptology and Egypt as a country, and I fell incredibly in love with it. I read all Marty’s books about it and it became a real hobby for me. The first chance I had to take a vacation from the Grateful Dead I went to Egypt for three weeks. Then I went a second time the next year. I was on a horseback ride with a friend near the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx and I remember riding along and then all of sudden I turned around and I saw this stage to the left of the Sphinx and I saw the pyramids and it dawned on me, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the Grateful Dead could play in Egypt?’ I brought the idea back with me and I took it to Jerry first. He thought it was a great idea and that we should go for it, so I presented it, with Jerry, to the Grateful Dead. ‘Yeah, man, that’s far-out. Great, great, great!’ We put together a committee to try to make this happen, and that committee was comprised of Alan Trist and myself and Phil Lesh, who was the band’s representative. Jerry got totally into Egyptology and the mysteries of the pyramids, of course. And my office became Egypt for that period. It took two years to get there from when the idea came up in January of 1976.”

No rock ’n’ roll band had ever played at the Sound and Light Theater in Giza before—it was used mainly for a dramatic tourist show about the pyramids and the Sphinx, and occasionally for concerts of Egyptian music. But there was a stage and seating for about a thousand people, and that’s what had caught Loren’s eye. The Dead faced numerous obstacles in gaining permission to play the gigs there, but early in the process they managed to find a couple of allies in American diplomatic circles who wrote letters to the Egyptian ambassador in Washington and the minister of culture in Cairo to lay the groundwork for a formal request.

“Then Phil and Richard and I got on our suits and we flew to Washington and went to the Egyptian embassy and we had a big meeting there with the ambassador,” Trist says. “This was our big hurdle—if the Egyptian ambassador in Washington said it was okay, then we could go on to the next step. The meeting went very well, and the thing that pulled it off really was Phil. The Egyptian ambassador had a crucial qustion in his mind which was very simple: ‘Why do you want to play there? You’re a rock ’n’ roll band—what’s this all about?’ And Phil’s answer was, ‘Because as musicians we have learned that playing in different places and in different cultures influences our music in ways that we treasure.’ Well, you could see the ambassador light up and smile. He loved that answer, because it was so genuine. It was totally from a musical perspective and not loaded up with political stuff or cultural stuff or commercial stuff. It was very pure. And it was pure. Our wanting to go there had nothing to do with money or detente or any of that.

“So after we had the ambassador’s blessing, the three of us went to Cairo and we spent two or three weeks there seeing the minister of culture, the minister of information, the director of the Sound and Light Theater and all these other officials. It took forever to get all these appointments done. The minister of culture would say, ‘I’m having a sauna at four o’clock. Meet me there.’ And we’d go there and he’d already have gone off somewhere else. It took days to get anything done. Then Richard and I went back to Egypt two more times after that trip to work on logistical things.”

Finally, the Dead won over everyone they needed to, and the gigs were scheduled for September 14, 15 and 16, 1978. As part of their agreement, the Dead could not take any money out of the country after the shows—all proceeds from the concerts went to the Department of Antiquities (which was involved in the protection and restoration of ancient sites in Egypt) and to the Faith and Hope charity for handicapped children, a pet project of the wife of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who, as fate would have it, would be in America trying to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel at the time of the shows. Arista Records agreed to contribute some money for the trip, and paid for multitrack recordings to be made for a live album.

The band warmed up with two shows at Red Rocks at the end of August (where they debuted “I Need a Miracle,” “Stagger Lee,” “Shakedown Street,” “If I Had the World to Give” and “From the Heart of Me”) and then a big moneymaking concert at Giants Stadium in northern New Jersey to help defray some of the costs at the Egypt trip. Of course if a rock band made an excursion like that today, the venture would probably be underwritten by some corporation in conjunction with MTV or a cable television channel, but that was not the Dead’s way of operating, then or later. In fact, everyone in the Dead family paid most of their own way there. And a tour of Europe was booked for after the Egypt trip to make the trip east even more worthwhile.

On September 4, more than two hundred Grateful Dead family and friends flew on a chartered jet to New York, where they picked up the band and crew, and then made their way across the Atlantic to Paris and on to Cairo. For nearly two weeks the Dead and their friends took over the Mena House hotel, a luxurious (for Giza) four-story building a stone’s throw from the Great Pyramid. Days were spent wandering ancient sites in small groups, learning to ride camels, lounging by the Mena House pool, dining on local specialties, smoking hashish and preparing for the shows. Quite a collection of fellow travelers were along for the ride: Owsley, Kesey, Babbs and assorted Merry Pranksters, Deadhead basketball star Bill Walton, writer-humorist Paul Krassner, David Freiberg, John Kahn (who was in charge of recording the shows), Bill Graham (there as a tourist instead of a promoter for a change) and a few hundred fans from all over who’d scraped together enough money to make the trek. Among the Dead family no-shows were Rock Scully, who had been out of the scene for a while, and Robert Hunter, who Garcia joked was “too mean” to go. “That rat,” Garcia said. “He was too stingy to buy a ticket. He convinced himself it wouldn’t be important.”

“It was probably the most exciting thing a lot of us had done,” Mountain Girl says, “because it was really, really different. Europe at least you can be assured of certain things, but in Egypt, forget it. It’s a really different culture. It was truly the third world, with salesmen on every corner and donkey dung underfoot, bad water and great hash from the taxi drivers at really high prices. There was a lot of sexual harassment for the women. Lots of petting and fondling and grabbing. I had men stop me on the street and ask, ‘How much do you weigh?’ Because there, the bigger you are the better; big gals are in,” she laughs.

“It was overwhelming,” Trist says. “There wasn’t one minute that we weren’t naturally on a high day after day. People could hardly sleep because the energy was so intense. So that was the context of the gig. On top of all this, the music was almost incidental; or certainly the context of other things going on was much greater than any other gig I’d ever been to.”

It’s probably going too far to say that the shows themselves were anticlimactic, but nearly everyone agreed that the Dead had played much better. The band was hampered by a number of factors. Bill Kreutzmann cracked a bone in his wrist in a fall from a horse and could only play with one arm. (“When asked by the Egyptian press what it was like playing with one arm, Billy said, ‘In the land of the limbless, a one-armed drummer is king,’” Trist notes with a laugh.) The piano tuner who was supposed to go to Egypt with the band backed out at the last minute, so Keith’s piano was horribly out of tune all three nights. John Kahn severely sprained his ankle in a tumble down the stairs of the recording truck, and then he and Garcia spent much of the time doped up on prescription pain medication, since there was no Persian to be found there. “John and Jerry were taking these painkillers and snoozing their way through Egypt basically,” M.G. says. “That’s when I really began to associate snoozing with drug use. That had never been a problem before, but the long snoozes got longer and longer and more and more frequent.”

“Jerry wasn’t in the best of spirits; he was having some difficulties with things,” Richard Loren says. “The Dead are a collective and they’re not going to put on a great show if they’re not all feeling good. They were happy to be there and everything was wonderful there, but there was a lot of personal angst and anxieties going on amongst themselves.”

“Jerry was definitely going through something, but I couldn’t tell you what it was,” John Kahn corroborated. “Even though I spent a lot of time with him, sometimes he’d shut me out, just like he shut out other people, and he just wouldn’t talk about stuff. I didn’t push him; I figured when he wanted to talk about something he would. The rest of the time I gave him his space, which is one reason I think he liked to hang out with me.

“I know he wasn’t entirely happy with how Shakedown Street was going. I know he was unhappy with certain things about the Grateful Dead at that time—Keith was kind of out of it; Jerry and Phil were kind of distant in that period. I think there was also some weird fallout in his personal life—the thing with Deborah was over and here he was in Egypt, and M.G. was there, but not really ‘with’ him. It was a little weird, but even so, I think he would tell you he had a great time. Everyone did. We talked about little things that happened on that trip for years. We even talked about it a little the last time I saw him, just before he died.”

The concerts attracted 1,000 to 1,500 people a night. About half were Americans and Europeans, half Egyptians. Madame Sadat and a number of other government dignitaries were on hand for the first night’s performance. Each concert opened with a set by Hamza el-Din, a Nubian friend of the Dead’s who had been a sort of one-person ambassador for traditional Egyptian music in America since the ’60s, well-known in world music circles years before his association with the Dead. At the shows, Hamza was joined by a small troupe of Nubian friends playing ouds and tars (a tar is a deeply resonant single-membrane hand drum that looks like a giant tambourine), singing and clapping their hands rhythmically in a set of Egyptian folk songs. Then the Dead came out and joined forces with the Nubians on a rhythmic improv, with Garcia’s guitar singing sweetly above the clapping and drumming. The first night that cross-cultural jam eventually segued into the Dead playing “Not Fade Away.” The second night it was “Deal.” The third night it was “Fire on the Mountain.” Otherwise, the Dead played the same kind of material they played in San Francisco and Des Moines and Boston: cowboy tunes, Chuck Berry rock ’n’ roll, “Stella Blue” and “Terrapin,” “The Other One” and “Shakedown Street.”

The final night was the magic night. The concert coincided with a total eclipse of the full moon, and nearly everyone in the Dead’s extended family decided to throw caution to the wind and trip for the occasion. Kesey had brought a Murine eyedrop bottle filled with liquid LSD, and he nearly emptied it that night putting drops on eager tongues.

“Take a perfect setting,” Garcia said later. “What could be better? What could be more amazing? A total eclipse, a full moon, the Great Pyramid; everything perfect and we went and played shitty. It didn’t really matter. We had a wonderful time, man, we really did. We got a lot out of it. We got off like bandits. It was great.”

“Maybe the whole thing was just a little overwhelming,” Donna Godchaux observed in the mid-’80s. “Our expectations were so high I think we were a little disappointed we weren’t ‘beamed up’ or something. It’s definitely something I’ll never forget, a real highlight in my life.”

To the dismay of their British fans, the Dead abruptly canceled the shows they’d scheduled for London’s Rainbow Theatre following the Egypt trip, in order to finish Shakedown Street and have it come out before their November U.S. tour. Back in America, Garcia listened to the multitrack tapes of the Egypt shows and his worst fears were confirmed: the performances weren’t good enough to put out as an album. The Egypt trip had cost about half a million dollars, and there was no “product” to show for it.

Since Lowell George was not available to work on overdubs or mixing for Shakedown Street, Garcia brought in John Kahn to help the band finish the album, but “nobody seemed to be that into it,” Kahn said. “They just wanted it to be done. It was a horrible experience; a pain in the ass doing it. They’re all so difficult. There are so many of them and they have pretty much an equal voice. You have Mickey making sure that every track is filled with some kind of percussion sound, and at the same time you’re having to make sure everyone else gets heard, too. It was just tedious; it was real hard work. I ended up playing a lot of the keyboards on it because Keith would ditch the sessions a lot. I was down in L.A. when they were doing Terrapin Station and I remember he missed a lot of those sessions, too. I ended up playing most of the Hammond organ on Shakedown Street—that’s me on ‘I Need a Miracle’ and ‘Good Lovin’.’ But everybody seemed kind of scattered then, including Jerry.”

By this time, Jerry, Mountain Girl and the kids were living in a house in Inverness, a remote but beautiful little community by the sea in west Marin. M.G. had bought a small business, the Foggy Mountain Bakery, to occupy some of her time, and Jerry was spending endless days and nights at the studio. According to M.G., after the Egypt trip Garcia’s drug use began to escalate noticeably. “That was when I really saw that he was into something that was addictive and weird,” she says. “He was smoking this stuff on tin foil, and that was the first time I caught on that something was wrong. He told me it was opium, so it was okay. I said, ‘I don’t really like opium much; it makes me dizzy.’ It’s fine if you want to get to sleep, but I had to do the dishes and keep the house together and all this other stuff.

“I tried [the Persian] one time by accident, Jerry had left a bunch of this stuff around the house and I didn’t really know what it was. He left some out on the tin foil and I smoked it and I passed out and threw up the whole thing! I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is not opium! I know opium and this isn’t it.’ So I confronted him about it. I was really, really upset. And he admitted he was strung out. And I ranted a bit and he stalked away. Basically I told him he had to choose between that and us; our scene. And that scared him. A couple of days later he came back and said he was going to kick; that he was kicking. I didn’t know what to do. I had to go to work. I didn’t know anything about kicking. I didn’t want to call Synanon or some place like that. I couldn’t think what to do or who to call. So he kind of gruffed around the house for a couple of days and then split again.”

Shakedown Street was completed in time to hit the stores in the beginning of November, as hoped. A single of “Good Lovin’” backed with “Stagger Lee” was released but didn’t sell many copies. The album itself sold fairly well—actually, better than Terrapin Station had initially—and both the title song and “I Need a Miracle” became popular songs on FM radio for a while.

The band’s tour kicked off on a high note with an appearance on Saturday Night Live before the largest viewing audience they’d ever played for—an estimated fifteen million viewers. Garcia had long proclaimed his distaste for playing on television, which he once said was “just the wrong form for the Grateful Dead. I mean, it’s about enough time for us to tune up. Also television is kind of reductive. The band playing on television seems reduced. It doesn’t come through.” Nevertheless, Saturday Night Live in 1978 was much hipper than “regular” TV, with some cast members and writers nearly as enamored with pot and cocaine as the Grateful Dead, and it was probably the most popular program on television with the Dead’s core demographic audience. The group played three songs on the show—“Casey Jones,” appropriately enough, and a medley of “I Need a Miracle” and “Good Lovin’.” Outwardly they seemed to be having a ball on the show, and Garcia in particular seemed to play to the cameras more than the others. He might not have liked television (though that is debatable), but he understood its power and he almost always played well on TV.

The rest of the tour, which stretched from the second week of November 1978 all the way to mid-February 1979 with just a few short breaks, was reasonably solid musically, but fraught with personal crises. In late November Garcia came down with a severe case of bronchitis, no doubt exacerbated by smoking Persian and freebasing cocaine (not to mention his usual chain-smoking of unfiltered cigarettes), and he was hospitalized for a couple of days. Keith was barely a factor onstage at this point, and offstage he could be surly and even more uncommunicative than usual.

“Keith’s and my personal life then was so horrible,” Donna recalled, “and in the band as a whole the feeling was, ‘The music stinks. Every concert stinks.’ Things got to a point where on every conceivable level things were so bad I went to the road manager and said, ‘I’ve gotta go home.’ And I did. I left and missed the last couple of dates [in Buffalo and Detroit in January 1979]. Then Keith and I did one more tour, discussing all along the way how we could get out of it. It was horrible, because we weren’t quitters.”

At the same time, the band was wondering how they could relieve the Godchauxs of their duties. Keith had been a problem for a long time, and Donna, though obviously talented, had trouble hearing herself onstage amid the loud instruments and frequently sang off-key. There was no way one could be fired and the other retained, so it was decided both had to go.

According to Donna, “What happened was after I left that tour, then Keith and I decided we wanted to get out and start our own group or do something else—anything else. So we played that benefit concert at the Oakland Coliseum [February 17, 1979’s Rock for Life benefit to end environmental cancer], and then a few days later there was a meeting at our house and it was brought up whether we should stay in the band anymore. So we discussed it, as a band, and we mutually decided we would leave. I’ll tell you, I instantly felt like about a billion pounds had been lifted off me.” Tragically, Keith was killed in an automobile accident a year and a half later.

By the time Keith and Donna left the Dead, the group had already decided on a replacement: Brent Mydland, who was the keyboardist and backup singer in Bob Weir’s solo band. Brent recalled, “Bob gave me a call one night out of the blue and said, ‘Would you be interested in being in the Dead? It’s not for sure, but Keith and Donna might be leaving soon, so you ought to check out some of this stuff,’ and he gave me a list of some tunes to listen to—fifteen or twenty songs.

“I knew quite a few of them. I’d liked the Grateful Dead when I was younger, though I kind of lost track of them in the early ’70s. In fact, when I first met Bobby, I didn’t even know the Dead were still together.”

Brent and the Dead had about two weeks of rehearsals at Club Front before their first gig together at San Jose’s Spartan Stadium on April 22, 1979. Sitting behind a Hammond B-3 organ with his long blond hair and bushy beard, Brent looked a lot like the young Gregg Allman. It was immediately apparent that he was a much more physical player than Keith—he really threw himself into his playing—and because he played a broader range of keyboards, he drew from a wider sonic palette than his predecessor. Whereas Keith had always been an acoustic piano man first and foremost (with occasional periods of investigating the Fender Rhodes electric piano), Brent’s heart was in the B-3, and he was also adept at synthesizer. Coming into a band that was already fourteen years old, with the kind of history the Dead had, must have been intimidating, but Brent was a quick study and a reasonably confident player.

“What we wanted was a keyboard player who wasn’t a pianist,” Garcia explained in early 1981. “The whole thing was that with piano, guitars, bass and drums, what you’ve got is an all-percussion band. What we wanted was a keyboard to provide color and sustain and some of those qualities that guitars don’t provide, and Brent has been real good at that. He’s been adding a lot of texture and color and he’s also a fine singer, probably the best of all of us, so our trio singing is real nice.”

Indeed, the most noticeable change when Brent came into the Dead was the improvement in the band’s vocal quality. Garcia was always the surest, most pitch-conscious singer in the group, while Weir and Donna tended to slide around notes, which made for some awkward harmony blends. But Brent’s craggy tenor was steady enough to nail the high end in a harmony, and combined with Garcia’s vocal, it set up an easy pocket for Weir to slip his part into. Garcia seemed visibly elated and energized by the band’s new vocal power. Songs with prominent three-part harmonies like “I Know You Rider,” “The Wheel,” “Mississippi Half-Step,” “Eyes of the World” and “Truckin’” sounded better than they had in a while, and the vocal combination of Brent and Bob on songs like “Mexicali Blues,” “Playing in the Band” and “Cassidy” brought out new subtleties in those tunes.

The first tour by the new band in the spring of 1979 was very well received by Deadheads. Not surprisingly, some of the jamming was a bit tentative, as Brent adjusted to his role and the band got used to him, but it caused only a minor disruption in the band’s evolution.

The other exciting development on that tour was the addition of “the Beast,” a massive new setup of drums behind Mickey and Billy. The Beast had evolved out of Mickey’s work on the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s moody, impressionist Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. When Coppola asked the drummer to contribute an all-percussion score that could be used in different parts of the film, Mickey collected dozens of drums and percussion devices and even had some new drums built to be able to convey the feeling of the jungle and the horrors of war. There were other influences affecting the drum solos around the same time, too: Mickey studied Japanese taiko drumming with a troupe called On-Deko-Za, and he brought some of that music’s precision and articulation into his solos; Billy began playing the African talking drum regularly; and Mickey brought the Egyptian tar into his arsenal. Over the next few years, the drum solo became more exotic and compelling as Mickey introduced instruments with distinctive and unusual timbres, such as the marimbalike African balafon, a one-stringed South American drone instrument called the berimbau, and resonant bronze Tibetan bowls that ring like temple bells when flicked lightly with a fingertip.

Garcia’s ongoing involvement with heroin and cocaine was exacerbated by the return, shortly after the Egypt trip, of Rock Scully. The onetime Grateful Dead manager had drifted off during the band’s performing hiatus (and even spent time in prison for drug possession), but had now finagled a position as the press liaison for the group, and in no time was back in the thick of things. Garcia moved into a downstairs bedroom in the house at 84 Hepburn Heights in San Rafael where Scully and his wife, Nikki, lived, and he and Scully became partners in Persian; indeed, Scully became one of Garcia’s main procurers.

John Kahn was also wrapped up in this increasingly dark circle of coke and Persian users. Like Garcia, though, he continued to be quite productive musically. In December 1978 he formed a group called Reconstruction around Garcia and a quartet of jazz players—drummer Gaylord Birch, reeds player Ron Stallings, trombonist Ed Neumeister and organist Merl Saunders.

“Reconstruction was going to be a band that would do more jazz, explore that avenue on a deeper level than the old Merl and Jerry thing,” Kahn recalled. “It was supposed to be a thing where if Jerry was going to play in the band, which he ended up doing, we could still do work when he was out of town with the Grateful Dead. That was the point. In which case we’d have another guitar player. It was supposed to be something I could do when Jerry was away with the Grateful Dead, which seemed to be more and more of the time. I actually did it a few times—I did some gigs with Jerry Miller of Moby Grape. He was a really good guy and a great player. I wasn’t really planning on Jerry being in the band originally, and then when he was in the band it sort of changed everything from what the plan was. Then, when he left for Grateful Dead tours, we were never able to really get anywhere because everyone expected to see Jerry in there. But it was fun for a while; we had some nice gigs. It was fun making Jerry play those real difficult songs. The horn players used to make fun of Jerry and me for being late or taking drugs or whatever—the same old stuff—and then I’d listen to tapes and we were the only ones who could play the songs right!”

The group had a different repertoire from any of Garcia’s other solo ventures. While there were some holdovers from the Jerry Garcia Band, like “Someday Baby,” the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” many of the tunes were new to Garcia including “Soul Roach,” “L-O-V-E,” “Get Up and Dance” and other songs brought in by Merl Saunders. And this time out there were four soloists in the band: the two horn players, Merl and Garcia.

The approach was to play jazz and rock together but still be danceable,” Merl comments. “It was a great band for a while. Jerry liked that it gave him a totally new structure to work with, with these great horn players and a different set of tunes. These were really excellent musicians. And because they came from outside the Grateful Dead world, they related to Jerry as just another player, not a ‘star.’”

Reconstruction stayed together for only nine months, and except for three shows in Denver in April 1979, they never left the Bay Area. Merl believes that Garcia’s increasing drug dependence played a role in the dissolution of the band. “He seemed pretty clean at first,” he says, “but then I saw him start to slip, and then there was a night when he didn’t show up for a gig, which was done purposely, I think. It was sabotaged. [Saunders won’t say by whom.] They didn’t tell him there was a gig to get to. And shortly after that he and John started a different group and I sort of lost touch with him.”

In mid-1979 the Grateful Dead returned to Club Front to begin recording Go to Heaven, their first album since Brent Mydland joined the band. Though no one in the group had been particularly happy, in retrospect, with either Terrapin Station or Shakedown Street, they agreed once again to enlist an outside producer. They remained convinced that with the right producer they might actually turn out a bona fide hit single. As the years went on Garcia seemed increasingly unwilling to shoulder the responsibility for running the Dead’s recording sessions, so they looked outside their ranks for a firm but sympathetic hand. This time they settled on a British producer who’d already struck gold and platinum working in America—Gary Lyons, who was best known for working with the hard rock group Foreigner.

“I guess I was considered sort of a hot producer at the time,” Lyons says, “and the Dead had the reputation as being the Bermuda Triangle for producers.”

Garcia had only three original tunes to offer for the sessions. His songwriting output had been on the decline since he started smoking Persian regularly, the Cats Under the Stars material in 1977 being his most recent burst of solid collaboration with Hunter.

“Alabama Getaway” was a rare rock ’n’ roll tune from Garcia, a catchy bit of Chuck Berry-inspired riffing, with lyrics that sounded as if they could’ve been matched to an old prison blues.

“Althea” was back in the vein of other Garcia midtempo shuffles, but lyrically it was something new—a sly evocation of a powerful woman; “the helpful lady, big sister kind of,” Garcia said. “Minerva,” Hunter suggested, referring to the Roman goddess of wisdom, invention and martial prowess. In the song, Garcia’s character looks to Althea for advice:

I told Althea I was feeling lost

Lacking in some direction

Althea told me upon scrutiny

That my back might need protection

I told Althea that treachery

Was tearing me limb from limb

Althea told me: “Now cool down boy—

Settle back easy, Jim”

Althea continues to outline the faults of the main character, who is “loose with the truth” and “honest to the point of recklessness / self-centered in the extreme.” But in a clever twist at the end, the singer reveals his true colors:

I told Althea

I’m a roving sign—

That I was born to be a bachelor

Althea told me: “Okay, that’s fine”

So now I’m trying to catch her

The band cut basic tracks on a third Hunter-Garcia tune called “What’ll You Raise,” which was overflowing with gambling metaphors, but Garcia said, “I wasn’t too happy with it. It was too much like what we’ve done and so I dumped it.” He did have one other lead vocal on the album: a lively rearrangement of one of the group’s oldest cover songs, “Don’t Ease Me In,” the A side of the Warlocks’ first single in 1965.

Go to Heaven was the first Grateful Dead album since Anthem of the Sun to contain more original songs written by Weir than Garcia. And Weir’s three new tunes, all with lyrics by John Barlow, showed his continuing maturity as a songwriter. “Lost Sailor” was an odd but appealing ballad about confusion and wanderlust, filled with unusual, clashing chords. The lost sailor’s dilemma was resolved in the rollicking, optimistic “Saint of Circumstance” (the two songs were connected in performance for many years), which concluded with an anthemic sing-along that seemed to speak for both the Dead and their fans: “I sure don’t know what I’m going for / But I’m gonna go for it for sure.” The third Weir-Barlow song, “Feel Like a Stranger,” was very much a song of the ’70s—an emotionally icy funk tune about lust and alienation on the disco floor. (Some have also suggested that “Feel Like a Stranger” reflected some of Weir’s alienation during this period, when Garcia was increasingly withdrawn.)

“When I first started working with them on the record,” Gary Lyons remembers, “they had the songs but they hadn’t had the chance to develop them much onstage at that point, which I gather is not the way they generally worked. So they’d come in and everybody would have all sorts of suggestions for tempos and feel. Jerry more or less had his things worked out, so it became a question of capturing that magical moment, which was not easy—‘Althea’ was a tune we must have recorded a hundred times. We’d do it ten or fifteen times and then go on to another song, and come back to it later or the next day or whatever. Eventually it fell into place and it came out quite nicely.

“Jerry always had a good idea of what he wanted on a song. With Jerry’s main tunes on that album, ‘Alabama Getaway’ and ‘Althea,’ the band was riding on Jerry’s rhythm completely, so it had to be right in the groove or it wouldn’t work. Otherwise it sounded very sloppy. Sometimes in the studio it took a while to get that groove, but when he heard it he knew it right away.”

As with both Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street, eventually work on Go to Heaven bogged down. During their fall 1979 East Coast tour the Dead found themselves working on overdubs for the record at New York’s Media Sound studios during the day and then playing at Madison Square Garden or Nassau Coliseum at night, in an attempt to meet Clive Davis’s pre-Christmas deadline. Despite the heroic effort, they missed that deadline and the record was finally released in April 1980.

The album itself was a mixed bag—technically well-recorded and -mixed but curiously uninvolving. All of the songs on the record would develop more as they were played in concert over the next few years, particularly Weir’s songs, which were a bit stiff on the record. Actually, this was typical of Weir’s material through the years—his songs evolved much more slowly than Garcia’s did. They were also much more difficult to play, with strange tempo shifts, peculiar instrumental voicings and sometimes elusive melodies. (Those were their strengths, too, and why Garcia liked them so much from a player’s perspective.) Garcia rarely strayed far from his folk, country and R&B roots in his writing, though he certainly created his own oeuvre from those strains. Weir’s writing was always quirkier and less tied to specific genres; more purely “original,” for what that’s worth.

* * *

On June 7 and 8, 1980, the band marked their fifteenth anniversary (which they measured from the week in June 1965 when Phil moved to Palo Alto to join the Warlocks) with a pair of concerts at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado, long a hotbed of Deadhead activity. Then, after a few shows in the Pacific Northwest, the Dead flew up to Anchorage, Alaska, for three concerts in a high school auditorium. At first there was a notion to go to Japan after the Alaska shows, but it was financially prohibitive and there were serious concerns that Garcia might end up in a Japanese jail if he didn’t stop using drugs—which was not likely. Most of the band and entourage took advantage of their time in Alaska to check out the state’s natural splendor, and Mickey even went on a little recording expedition in the northern part of the state, looking for native drummers as he had in Egypt. Garcia, however, stayed in his room the whole time; “He didn’t do anything,” Richard Loren says, disappointment in his voice. The concerts themselves were generally quite good, and the third show had a special vibe because it took place on the night of the summer solstice, when the sun shines for twenty-four hours in Alaska.

When Bill Graham heard that the Dead had celebrated their fifteenth anniversary with shows in Colorado, he approached the band about doing something special to mark the occasion in the Bay Area, too. They settled on an extended series of shows at the relatively intimate 2,000-seat Warfield Theater. It started out as nine concerts, but eventually stretched to fifteen.

Around the same time, the Dead decided that their next album for Arista would be a live one—their first since the early ’70s—and that at the Warfield they would not only play (and record) their standard two electric sets each night, but a full acoustic set as well (for the first time since 1970). The band also booked this three-set extravaganza for two nights in New Orleans following the Warfield series, and then for eight nights (also recorded) at New York’s 8,000-seat art deco showplace Radio City Music Hall, with the final concert on Halloween night. Upping the ante, the Dead, at the suggestion of Richard Loren and concert producer John Scher, decided to televise the Halloween show live to sixteen East Coast and Midwest theaters that would be specially equipped with rock ’n’ roll sound systems. This was the first rock ’n’ roll closed-circuit telecast of this sort.

“We thought that on the East Coast, where we have a problem of sort of too large of an audience, maybe it would be a good way for us to be able to play fifteen places in one night, and maybe there would be something to that,” Garcia said. “It was really an experimental idea top to bottom… . We did it mostly as a gesture to our audience to see if there wasn’t something we could do apart from living on the road—something that would maybe allow us to be a little bit more selective—and also to see if the experience would have any value to the concertgoer. So it was an interesting experience for us, and it paid for itself.”

To direct the live telecast, make a separate Showtime cable TV special (Live Dead!) and, later, a commercial video (Dead Ahead) edited from videotapes of the last three shows of the Radio City series, the Dead hired Len Dell’Amico, a graduate of New York University’s prestigious School of Film and Television. Dell’Amico came to the project with extensive experience directing live music video shoots for John Scher’s company—in fact, Dell’Amico first shot the Dead for Scher in 1976, and he was also the director of a 1978 Capitol Theater telecast during which Garcia was so sick he could barely sing. But Dell’Amico didn’t actually meet Garcia, whom the director described as “the point man on all things visual” in the Grateful Dead, until he was flown out to the Bay Area in late September 1980 to discuss the Radio City telecast, a little more than a month away.

At the time of their meeting, almost nothing had been conceptualized about what the telecast would consist of besides the concert itself. After all, there was lots of nonmusic airtime to fill: the pre-show and then two thirty-minute-plus breaks between sets. “When I got there,” Dell’Amico says, “we had zero, and when I left a week later we had brought [Saturday Night Live writer-comedians] Franken and Davis out, wrote the comedy out, rehearsed it and shot it. Money was no object whatsoever, which was alarming. I mean, to shoot all the comedy just to see if it would work? And then redo it all at Radio City? At Radio City, the union bill alone was several hundred thousand dollars, which in today’s dollars would probably be about half a million.”

The choice of Al Franken and Tom Davis as hosts for the telecast turned out to be perfect. They were already famous for their dark, deadpan, politically and culturally hip humor, and they loved the Dead to boot. The band appeared in various backstage skits that were shown during the set breaks at the concert. The supposed theme of the night was a telethon to raise money for “Jerry’s Kids”—a takeoff on Jerry Lewis’s annual muscular dystrophy fund-raising event—with down-and-out hippies vying for our sympathy and pledge dollars. In one segment, Garcia—looking at once nervous, bemused and a little coked up—tried to auction off his missing finger, which he presented to the TV cameras in a nice little box. At another point, Davis went up to Garcia and in his endearing/annoying way asked the guitarist if he had any cocaine. Steve Parish played his tough roadie role to the hilt, throwing Davis to the ground. And in one of the evening’s best skits, Davis interviewed former secretary of state Henry Kissinger (actually, Franken in a superb $2,000 makeup job) about his love of the Grateful Dead. All goes well until Davis is shocked to discover that Kissinger is secretly recording the concert with equipment he’d smuggled in. Franken and Davis also got the closed-circuit audience involved in the fun by periodically mentioning incidents that were reportedly happening in the different closed-circuit theaters.

All in all, the comedy part of the event showed conclusively that the Dead had a sense of humor about themselves, and that they were also on the same wavelength as their audience and understood who they were—of course that was evident from the Dead movie as well. The stoned, tripping, Halloween-costumed crowds at Radio City and watching the telecast live in theaters cheered wildly for every routine, no matter how bad the acting by the bandmembers, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy poking holes in their own myth. (The show turned out to be educational, too. Quiz question posed to Deadhead: “Who dosed President John F. Kennedy?” Correct answer: “Lee Harvey Owsley.”)

The Halloween telecast was the wild capper to the Dead’s twenty-five-show run of three-set concerts celebrating their fifteenth anniversary. But what was most thrilling for the thousands of fans lucky enough to get tickets for the shows was the opportunity to see the Dead in more intimate surroundings. Not that Radio City is like Carnegie Hall, but since the Fillmore East days the Dead had played in the New York area primarily in stadiums and arenas. And Radio City was a trip in itself.

The great musical treat was the acoustic sets, which were much more interesting than their 1970 counterparts. Unlike the ’70 sets, which were mostly just Garcia and Weir playing as a duet, with an occasional appearance by Lesh or Pigpen, the ’80 acoustic sets involved the entire band playing in close proximity onstage. Brent played mainly acoustic piano, the drummers played small kits or little percussion instruments and Phil’s bass was turned down in proportion to the level of Weir’s and Garcia’s guitar volume. The repertoire for this remarkable acoustic ensemble was typically eclectic and came from “our collective musical background,” as Garcia put it. It included old and more recent folk, country and blues tunes, such as George Jones’s “The Race Is On,” Elizabeth Cotten’s “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” the Memphis Jug Band’s “On the Road Again,” “Deep Elem Blues” from Texas in the ’20s and Jesse Fuller’s “The Monkey and the Engineer.”

The real revelation of the acoustic sets, though, was the Grateful Dead tunes, most of which had never been played acoustically before. “China Doll,” with Brent on harpsichord, was imbued with a fragility that made the song extra-chilling. “It Must’ve Been the Roses” and “To Lay Me Down” allowed Garcia, Mydland and Weir to flex their vocal chops and explore the delicacy of the melodies. The surprising power of jamming tunes like “Bird Song” and “Cassidy” demonstrated that the band’s deft interplay did not require loud electric instruments. In fact, the relationship between the instruments sounded virtually the same as in the electric band, stripped down to a more elemental level.

Every acoustic set ended with “Ripple,” which the band hadn’t played since 1971. Just about everyone in the theaters would sing along on the song, which just ten years after it was written somehow felt ageless, as old and wise as the disparate songs the Dead had plucked from long-gone pickers and singers. It was quite moving to hear Garcia sing “Ripple”—a slight smile peeking through his beard, which was just beginning to show flecks of gray then—because in that setting the song seemed like an affirmative and empathetic transmission from his soul to every person in the audience.

“[Playing an acoustic set] was a nice way to start the show,” Garcia noted. “It kind of changed the emotional paper of the show, since the acoustic set we did had a real intimate quality; it wasn’t a high-energy thing. It was a kind of relaxing and intimate experience for both us and for the audience.”

Some of the electric sets were a tad subdued, compared to the tours directly before and after the three-set shows, but no one was complaining—everyone knew that the Warfield, New Orleans and Radio City series were rare and special events. The band knew it, too, and stayed relaxed but focused throughout the month-plus of marathon shows. Garcia was definitely in the best condition he’d been in for quite a while, both physically and mentally, and this burst of positivity carried through a fine three-set affair New Year’s Eve at the 7,500-seat Oakland Auditorium (the de facto successor to Winterland, which closed after New Year’s Eve 1978) and into the first part of 1981, when Garcia and Len Dell’Amico worked on the Dead Ahead video together.

“At the time of Dead Ahead, as everyone pointed out to me much later,” Dell’Amico says, “Jerry had gotten himself into a very healthy position, apparently for the sake of doing this project. So I came away from it with a distorted view because he was so acute and in such good shape. I couldn’t imagine him not being in good shape.”

During that fall of 1980 the mood of the band and the crowds seemed so high it was easy to forget that there was an insidious malaise creeping across the Dead’s world, and that Garcia’s drug dependency was only arrested, not stopped. Darker days were still to come.