There Were Days Between - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


There Were Days Between

he Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers played at the Boar’s Head, which had moved to the San Carlos Jewish Community Center in the summer of 1962, and a few other places on the Peninsula, but they could never get too serious because they knew that come fall Marshall Leicester would be going back to Yale. Still, Suzy Wood, who would later marry Marshall, says, “I remember making vests for the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers—they looked so clean and straight playing this straight old-timey music. Even at the time I couldn’t help thinking that the kind of morality, the kind of emotionality that the people who originated that music—these Appalachian, old-timey people—was very different from the people who were picking it up and saying, ‘Oh, this is the kind of music we’re going to learn how to play.’ The real old-timey lifestyle could not have been nearly as much fun as the imitators of the old-timey music probably thought it was. The [original players] were mainly poor people, rural people—farmers and millworkers—whereas this crowd was filled with intellectuals and kids from the suburbs, although a lot of them were genuinely poor—I guess you could say by circumstance—too.”

There’s no point in getting too hung up on the names and membership of the various acoustic bands Jerry played in during the period between 1962 and 1964, because the personnel was always fluid, depending on who was around and available, and there were relatively few real gigs—mainly at Peninsula folk haunts and a few in North Beach at places like the Coffee Gallery and Coffee & Confusion. Among the short-lived aggregations were the Hart Valley Drifters (Garcia, Leicester, Ken Frankel and Worth Handley were one incarnation; there were others); the Badwater Valley Boys (Garcia, Frankel, Leicester and Hunter) and the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers (Garcia, Nelson, Hunter, Joe and Jim Edminston). Other players who turned up in groups with Garcia at this time include Brooks Otis, Norm van Maastricht, Eric Thompson, Ellen Cavanaugh and a golden-haired fiddler named Kathy Ledford.

At the same time that Garcia’s friends were delving deeply into string band music, other players on the scene were intent on exploring country blues, which became popular in folk circles around the same time. Just as old-timey music had never really enjoyed much popularity outside of the rural South before the late ’50s, country blues had rarely been heard at all by whites before musicologists such as Mike Seeger, Alan Lomax, Sam Charters, Kenneth Goldstein, Frederic Ramsey Jr. and others scoured the South looking for surviving musicians from the first generation of “race record” artists, who’d recorded in the ’20s and ’30s. Many players were long gone, having died broke and in obscurity; others had given up music and taken jobs outside of music to survive. But there were great rediscoveries, too, and the same white, urban college audiences that propelled the folk and old-timey boom heartily embraced a legion of country blues greats, many of whom were able to make a good living playing music (most for the first time in their lives) on the folk club and festival circuit. This group, which also had a profound influence on many rock musicians who came up in the mid-’60s, included Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Sleepy John Estes, Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, Eddie “Son” House, Gus Cannon and Scrapper Blackwell.

Ever the musical omnivore, Garcia tried his hand at some of the popular fingerpicking blues styles of the day, but not with the same dogged determination he brought to his old-timey and bluegrass playing. It helped that Barbara Meier’s father had given him a stack of rare blues 78s, which Jerry dutifully studied in that obsessive way of his. But the best blues picker on the Peninsula in 1962 was probably twenty-year-old Jerry Kaukonen (whose real first name was Jorma), a Washington, D.C., native who had been playing blues guitar since the mid-’50s and had come west to attend Santa Clara University. He quickly became a regular at various local clubs like the Folk Theater in San Jose, the Top of the Tangent in Palo Alto and St. Michael’s Alley, and Garcia was duly impressed. “Jerry said to me, ‘You gotta hear this guy Jerry Kaukonen,’” says David Nelson. “Here was a guy playing Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis stuff the real way. We were totally blown away by him.

“One of the great aspects of the whole folk thing,” Nelson continues, “was you could be in a room hearing somebody playing and then say, ‘Here, let me try that.’ And if you have a good memory like Garcia, you can retain that. He could hear a song once and remember all the words and the chords and put together a rough idea of the picking stuff.”

By this time Jerry was already good friends with a blues-loving Peninsula kid named Ron McKernan, who had started hanging around Kepler’s, the various folk clubs and the tough bars over in East Palo Alto when he was still in his mid-teens. Ron was the son of one of the Bay Area’s original R&B/blues deejays, Phil McKernan, who was known by the colorful name “Cool Breeze” on KRE in the ’50s. By the late ’50s, though, the senior McKernan had quit the radio business to become an engineer at the Stanford Research Institute and he moved the family into a tract house in a working-class section of Palo Alto, near the East Palo Alto border. Ron became obsessed with the blues and R&B at a very young age, and he learned the rudiments of guitar and harmonica on his own. Most of his friends in school were black, and in his teens he started frequenting the bars of East Palo Alto. He had always looked older than his age, and he fit into the black street culture surprisingly well. He even acquired a nickname in East P.A., long before he was dubbed Pigpen: Blue Ron. He started drinking cheap screw-top wines like Ripple, Thunderbird, Hondo and Night Train when he was twelve or thirteen, to fit in with his black friends and to emulate the blues musicians he admired so much.

“When I first met Pigpen,” Garcia said, “he was hanging around Palo Alto and I was the only person around that played any blues on the guitar, so he hung out with me. And he picked it up, just by watching and listening to me, the basic Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff… . All the black people [in East P.A.] loved Pigpen. They loved that he played the blues. And he was a genuine person—he wasn’t like a white boy trying to be black. And he was pretty good, too. You know, Pigpen’s best shot was sitting around a room with a bottle of wine and an acoustic guitar, playing Lightnin’ Hopkins. He could improvise lyrics endlessly; that was his real forte.

“I spent a lot of time over at the Pigpen house, but it was mostly in Pigpen’s room, which was like a ghetto! I sat in his room for countless hours listening to his old records. It was funky, man! Stuff thrown everywhere. Pigpen had this habit of wearing just a shirt and his underpants. You’d come into his house and he’d say, ‘Come on in, man,’ and he’d have a bottle of wine under the bed. His mom would check in about once every five hours to see if he was still alive. It was hilarious! We’d play records, I’d hack away at his guitar, show him stuff.”

McKernan played some with both Jorma and Jerry, but mainly he worked alone, singing the blues at the Tangent, the Boar’s Head and at parties. Garcia and others noted that Ron didn’t seem to have the drive to be a real performer; mostly, he sang just because he loved it. Though not as overtly intellectual as a lot of people in the Kepler’s/Chateau crowd (which he became part of), he had read his share of Beat writers and poets, and he could quote Lord Buckley routines verbatim, not to mention make up his own weirdly imaginative stories, which he delivered in his characteristic black slang patois. As Laird Grant, who became one of Ron’s closest friends, said, “He wasn’t white. He had no color.”

In the fall of 1962 Garcia formed his first true bluegrass band, the Wildwood Boys, with Hunter, Nelson and Norm van Maastricht. “This was a major configuration of relatively long duration for those days,” Hunter recalled. “We even had a professional promo picture.”

It was in this group that Garcia honed his bluegrass banjo chops. He said that Earl Scruggs was “the number one, primo influence” on his bluegrass banjo work, but his playing was also informed by a number of other players, including Don Stover, who played with Bill Monroe in the ’50s, and then with the Lilly Brothers; Allen Shelton, who played with Jim and Jesse McReynolds; Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brothers; and J. D. Crowe. “Those are my favorite banjo players,” he said. “I think there’s something about [three-finger] rolls—you know in those days, pre-[Bill] Keith banjo style, you either played rolls, or else there were guys who played single-string stuff like Don Reno [of Reno and Smiley] and Eddie Adcock [of the Country Gentlemen]. I preferred the kind of problem-solving thing of trying to figure out how to make melodies work out of rolls.”

Speaking more generally about what attracted him to bluegrass banjo, he said it was “just the sound of the instrument, and then the fire, you know; the speed and all that. I was attracted by the intensity of it, really. And I was drawn to that incredible clarity—when something is going along real fast and every note is absolutely clear. That, to me, was really amazing—the Earl Scruggs instrumentals … the Mercury album that’s got ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ on it and ‘Pike County Breakdown.’ I just couldn’t believe the sound of it. It was just startling.

But Garcia refused to commit himself to just one style of music. Though bluegrass became his overriding obsession for about two years, he still dabbled in folk, old-timey and blues whenever the opportunity arose and there were players around. For instance, at the College of San Mateo Folk Festival in November 1962, put on by Rodney and Peter Albin, Garcia played as a solo act, in a duet with David Nelson, and then with a full group—one tape in circulation has him playing as part of the Hart Valley Drifters with Hunter, Nelson and van Maastricht; Hunter’s recollection is that the group was the Liberty Hill Aristocrats, with Hunter, Nelson and the Albin brothers. Whatever the particulars, over the course of a single day Garcia was onstage playing folk, old-timey and bluegrass.

David Parker was a twenty-year-old student at CSM and a friend of the Albin brothers at the time of the festival. “It was the first time I’d ever seen Garcia play,” Parker recalls. “He was playing guitar and singing. It was funny, because he didn’t go over too well. At that time he was sort of exploring the roots of American music and playing a lot of old-timey stuff. He played a lot of songs by the Carter Family, for instance. Most of the audience was fairly clean college kids into the Kingston Trio and the slicker kinds of sounds, and this sort of authentic old-timey stuff was a little strange to most of them. Also, most of the acts playing then would come on, do two or three songs and then go off, but Jerry got up there and he wanted to play a full set. So people first of all couldn’t relate to the songs he was playing, and then they started feeling like he was staying on too long, and giving him a rough time. But he went along and finished his set, playing what he wanted to play. The reaction didn’t seem to bother him too much. Then the next group that came on started by saying, ‘This song we’re going to do is not by the Carter Family,’ and that got a big laugh.”

“Jerry did bomb in his solo set,” Hunter remembered. “The sound system sucked to the point of inaudibility, and he just kept playing one ballade after another to the baffled crowd of scornful noninitiates. Too cool for words!”

It seems as though nearly everyone in the boho/folkie scene was broke most of the time, and a running automobile was considered a luxury. At one point, an acquaintance of Jerry’s named Bob Fees even chauffeured Garcia around on a semiregular basis in exchange for guitar lessons. As David Nelson put it, “It was the usual thing where people would be working temporarily. Employment was a thing you did sort of like houses—you’d work for two or three or four months someplace and then change to something else, and then you might not work at all for a while, and somebody else you knew would have a little money.”

Or not. David Nelson says that one of the staples of his diet during this era was ketchup sandwiches (twenty years before Ronald Reagan’s administration declared ketchup a vegetable!). “A box of Ritz crackers could be considered a meal. The refrigerator at the Chateau usually had like an old bottle of ketchup and something unidentifiable in a jar in it—like a science project, with three colors of mold on it.”

Bob Hunter was one of the more motivated members of the gang. He took on a number of odd jobs to make ends meet, such as driving a truck for a photo developer and working as a busboy, and later as headwaiter, at St. Michael’s Alley. He spent his free time reading, working on a novel, playing music when he could and dissecting James Joyce’s famously impenetrable Finnegans Wake. “I can remember Jerry and Hunter would read some of it, and then they’d close the book and continue; just making it up,” Barbara Meier says. “Jerry would laugh so hard. He loved that; he loved wordplay and he was very good at it.”

It was in 1962 that Hunter happily earned some money as a guinea pig in the government’s top-secret tests of psychedelic drugs at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park. He was given mescaline, psilocybin and finally LSD in a sterile, clinical setting that was somewhat hostile and forbidding; certainly a far cry from the tripping-gaily-in-the-redwoods model that would come into vogue when the lysergic genie came out of the (lab) bottle a couple of years later. Still, Hunter said, “I had no problems with acid. They gave it to me, and left me in a white room. I had no idea what was going to happen, although they had warned me about hallucinations, so I was prepared for that, psychologically.”

Ever the writer, Hunter typed up his experiences while they were still fresh in his mind, and of course he raved about what he’d been through to his friends. David Nelson remembers sitting in a coffeehouse with Garcia after the experiments and pumping Hunter for information, never imagining for a moment that psychedelics would ever make it out of the white rooms.

* * *

Garcia and Barbara Meier broke up late that fall after Barbara’s father learned that they had been sleeping together and insisted that she not see him again. She “cut off from him completely,” she says. “I left Menlo Park the minute I graduated from high school [in 1963] and I moved to San Francisco,” where she drifted into a much different world after she became the girlfriend of jazz drummer Tony Williams, the powerful but exquisitely tasteful skinsman in Miles Davis’s classic Quintet of the time. She reappears in Jerry’s life much, much later.

One evening in the winter of 1963 Jerry was hanging out and playing music at Kepler’s with Bob Hunter and David Nelson when he met nineteen-year-old Sara Ruppenthal, then in her sophomore year at Stanford. Their paths had undoubtedly crossed before, since Sara was good friends with Ira Sandperl and had done her share of hanging out at Kepler’s. “Ira was my mentor,” she says. “I loved that guy. When I went to Paly High there were a bunch of us intellectuals who were into folk music and the peace movement, working with the American Friends Service Committee.”

Sara was also friends with Joan Baez, who was four years older: “She was an important person in my life in those days, and I idealized her powerfully. She and Ira were the only people I could talk to about my life, from the heart. I would go down with Ira to visit her at Big Sur Hot Springs, where she lived in a little cottage on the cliff—that place became Esalen.

“Joan and Jerry weren’t really friends,” she continues. “He resented the fact that she had records out and he thought he was a better musician. He felt competitive with her and didn’t care for her nontraditional approach to music—the way she took from any source and personalized it.” During the early days of Jerry and Sara’s relationship, Baez approached Sara about accompanying her on what was to be her first European tour. “I’d traveled a lot and I knew how to get around in a foreign country,” Sara says. “She wanted me to come with her and be her companion, but that’s right when I was getting together with Jerry, so I made a choice between them.”

Sara played music, too, though before she met Jerry she had been more interested in sociopolitical folk songs than the sort of rootsy, traditional fare being served up by Jerry and his buddies in the back room at Kepler’s. Still, that first evening she was intrigued and amused: “Jerry, Hunter and Nelson were this funny trio; kind of like the Three Stooges. They were all so funny and I loved their music. They were very smart boys and always going so fast and hot and heavy with the witty repartee. It seemed like they were sort of all the same person. I remember I went home with Jerry to the Chateau because I had my roommate’s car. That was a treat for him because none of them had cars. It was so interesting to me to see kids who were my age but already off on their own.

“Hunter took me off the next morning out into the garden and said, ‘Here, try this, it’s a funny cigarette,’ and I didn’t know what it was; I was very naive. I had kind of a nice time wandering around the garden with him, high.

“I don’t know where Hunter lived in that house, but Jerry had this little room—you went around from the front door off the porch, around to the back of the house, which was on a hill, and into this basement storage room. It could have been a root cellar or a can cupboard kind of place. I think it had a dirt floor. He’d stuck a bed in there and there was a box with a candle on it, and that was it. There was no electricity. There were spiders. It was really funky. He didn’t spend much time there. Shortly after I met them, Nelson talked his parents into letting him come to live at the Chateau. Since he had some money from his parents, he got the front bedroom, which had probably been the old sitting room.”

For Jerry and Sara it was love and lust at first sight. Sara recalls, “He called me up a couple of days after we met—it was so sweet—saying ‘I’m really fucked up. I need to be with you. I can’t eat, I can’t even play music, man! You’ve gotta come and be with me.’ He was lovesick. He could be very sentimental.”

And careless. Just a few weeks into their relationship, Sara learned that she was pregnant. She told Jerry the news one afternoon while they were window-shopping at Stanford Shopping Center. “It was probably a Sunday—everything was closed,” Sara remembers. “I was pretty miserable and scared. I didn’t know what to do. And he said, ‘Well, I’ve always wanted to get married. Let’s get hitched.’ So then I took over and made the plans. I remember we went to Sears or Penney’s and bought him a suit. I think he was indulging my fantasy of having a white wedding, doing it up the way I wanted to do it. Everybody in his crowd was pretty excited that we were going to have a ‘shivaree.’”

It would be an understatement to say that Sara’s parents did not greet the news of her daughter’s impending nuptials with quite the enthusiasm she had hoped for. “My parents were horrified!” she says with a laugh. “He hadn’t completed high school. He had no future whatsoever. When we came to them saying we wanted to get married—at first we didn’t tell them I was pregnant—my dad said, ‘Look, we’ll send you around the world for the year. Think about it. Anything but that!’ They tried to talk us out of it.

“I had already gotten myself kicked out of school for being with him overnight, because in those days the dorms had very strict rules. This was a serious offense, to break the social honor code. It was pretty terrible for my family. But I was itching to have some life.”

Meanwhile, back at Kepler’s and the Chateau, some of Jerry’s friends were almost as surprised as the Ruppenthals that Jerry and Sara were getting married. “I was just the sort of kid who didn’t want them to get married,” says David Nelson. “I wanted to keep Jerry as part of the boys in the parking lot playing music. I was thinkin’, ‘It’s not going to be the same. He’s not going to be one of the boys.’ He took me and Hunter to the coffeeshop and said he was thinking about getting married and he wanted our opinion. I’m saying, ‘Oh no, don’t do it!’ and of course Hunter was very serious, saying, ‘Well, you know, Jerry, it’s a big undertaking, but if you can do it …’”

“When we decided to get married,” says Sara, “I insisted we invite his mother and grandmother, so we came up to the city and went to Harrington Street—just surprised Tillie out of the blue. He hadn’t been in contact with them for several years. Tillie and his mom were really glad to see him.”

Sara’s white-wedding fantasy was fulfilled on April 25, 1963, at the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. Tillie and Ruth made it down from San Francisco. Tiff Garcia was there, too. David Nelson was Garcia’s best man, and many of Jerry’s friends were in attendance, including Hunter, Laird Grant and others from the Chateau scene. The wedding even made the Palo Alto Times: SARA LEE RUPPENTHAL WEDS was the headline over a nice story about the event featuring a lovely formal head-and-shoulders portrait of the bride and groom—she with a lace mantilla draped over her head, he in a dark suit and a flower in his lapel—looking happily and dreamily off into space, their heads nearly touching. The caption under the photo read, “Stanford student is bride,” and in smaller type below that, “Mr. and Mrs. Jerome John Garcia.” Ah, young love!

The wedding reception was a big catered affair for about seventy-five people at Ricky’s, a ranch-style hotel on El Camino Real that Sara says was “the fanciest hotel in Palo Alto in those days.” Phil Lesh was among the revelers; it was he who summed up the reception in an oft-quoted remark: “It was priceless—all of her friends were at the booze; his friends were all at the food.”

“I remember after the wedding reception,” Sara says, “we went to my parents’ house with his family members and mine for a little private family gathering. Then we went back to the hotel to spend the night. Suddenly it hit us that we’d gotten married and we had no idea what this meant. And we both started to freak out, big time. ‘Oh my God! What have we done?’ I had been seeing a psychiatrist—part of the deal of Stanford suspending me was if I went to a psychiatrist they’d let me back in—and he’d given me a sleeping pill because I was pretty anxious about all this wedding stuff. So Jerry and I opened up this one little capsule very carefully and we each took half of this foul-tasting powder so we could get some sleep.”

The next morning, “We drove my parents’ ’59 Mercedes to Yosemite and we had a nice time there,” Sara says. “It was an adventure. We stayed in Camp Curry in one of those platform tent-cabins. We hiked around Angel Falls and bought him a cowboy hat. We stopped in the Gold Country. It was a sweet time; really, in a way we were just beginning to get to know each other. I think that was the most time we’d ever spent together up to that point.”

Shortly after they were married, Jerry and Sara moved to Mountain View, south of Palo Alto, “into a nasty little one-room shack behind a house for $75 a month,” Sara says. “Jerry would go off with his guitar in one hand, his banjo in the other, in his white shirt and black pants and vest, and hitchhike in from Mountain View to Dana Morgan’s—if he could get a ride, because he looked a little disreputable. He missed many of his lessons just because he couldn’t get there. And I’d be home in this miserable low-ceilinged little space listening to old-timey music and memorizing it, learning it by heart.” Sara’s parents gave her $100 a month to encourage her to stay in school, and she also worked part-time for her father in the Stanford Business School, where he taught.

Sara says she and Jerry started singing together almost immediately after they met. She was an eager pupil, learning the intricacies of the old-timey style for the first time. “I was never much of an instrumentalist,” she says, “but I always sang,” and their voices—his low tenor, her alto—blended nicely. As a duo called Jerry and Sara, they made a few public appearances, singing such nuggets as the Delmore Brothers’ “Deep Elem Blues” (which was later part of the Dead’s repertoire), “Long Black Veil” and the Carter Family’s “Foggy Mountain Top” at places like the Tangent and St. Michael’s Alley. But as she got further along in her pregnancy, Sara stopped playing. “I was feeling discounted and unappreciated,” she says. “We weren’t figuring out ways to connect well at all during the pregnancy. Motherhood became my primary preoccupation and that wasn’t interesting to him. Parenthood wasn’t something he could participate in—he had such ambivalent feelings about his mother that when I became a mother … you know, the madonna-whore syndrome: you can’t make love to your wife if you think of her as a mother. So he was running around and I didn’t know about it. And I was so innocent, so naive. And I got so uptight. It was not a happy marriage. We stopped being friends basically after we married.”

Which isn’t to say there weren’t good times along the way. Their mutual love of music allowed them to form a deep bond, and she was always very supportive of Jerry’s musical aspirations. “He was very ambitious,” Sara says. “He wanted to do something big. The Rooftop Singers came out with this old Gus Cannon song, ‘Walk Right In,’ and we thought, ‘Oh, we can do better than that.’ That was our plan. The phrase we used then was ‘destined for greatness.’ It felt very apt. Everybody recognized that he had some genius that he needed to do something with. It was obvious to me. That’s why I signed on to help support him make something of himself. I thought if he had a good woman behind him he could go far,” she adds with a chuckle.

“After we got married, we traded in his old banjo, my dear little rosewood Martin and another guitar, added to the money we’d received for wedding presents and from some wedding gifts we’d returned, and got him the fancy banjo of his dreams—a Weymann from the ’30s with the name ‘John’ inlaid on the peg head. Everybody called the banjo ‘John.’ That banjo had a very distinctive tone; sharp and metallic. We invested in this instrument because it was to be the source of our livelihood, and Jer played that sucker night and day, and got to be very good. He was a very dedicated musician, an aspiring virtuoso. If he couldn’t get in about four hours of practice a day, he’d be in a foul mood.”

Near the end of May 1963 the first Monterey Folk Festival brought together some of the biggest names in folk and traditional country music, as well as numerous local groups, for a weekend of pickin’ and singin’ at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, site of the famous jazz festival (and four years later, the Monterey Pop Festival). The lineup was impressive: Peter, Paul and Mary, the Weavers and the Rooftop Singers were the darlings of the moment in the mainstream folk world; Bob Dylan had still put out only one record, but his reputation was growing by the month. (Sara says she and Jerry walked out of Dylan’s performance at Monterey to protest his use of an amplified acoustic guitar.) Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, perhaps the most revered figures in bluegrass and old-timey, respectively, were on hand. So were three of the best young traditional bands—the New Lost City Ramblers, the Dillards and the Kentucky Colonels. The California bluegrass and string band communities turned out in force to see their heroes, and quite a few Bay Area players had the opportunity to play on smaller stages on the fairgrounds. The Wildwood Boys, with Garcia, Hunter, Nelson and Ken Frankel, won an amateur bluegrass open competition there. Garcia also entered (but didn’t win) a banjo contest that was judged by Doug and Rodney Dillard and the Kentucky Colonels’ banjo ace, Billy Ray Latham.

In the bluegrass community in 1963 the big buzz was about the young Amherst-educated banjo player in Bill Monroe’s band named Bill Keith. The Monroe band played an extended run at the Ash Grove as well as other shows around California around the same time as the festival, so the serious bluegrass fans, like much of Garcia’s Palo Alto crowd, got to check out Keith’s colorful and intricate style on many occasions.

“Garcia reacted to Keith’s playing immediately,” writes Sandy Rothman, one of Garcia’s bandmates in the Black Mountain Boys beginning in late 1963. “It changed his life, as it did for many banjo pickers worldwide, and from that point on I didn’t hear Jerry work as hard on any other banjo technique. With great diligence he set to work mastering the entire fretboard, ‘Keith-style.’ … Keith’s banjo approach allowed for dazzling displays of arpeggiated passages that swooped dramatically up the neck like musical parachute jumps.

“Jerry’s playing in the early ’60s might have been described as note-rich, maybe overstated at times, but it was always expressive and full of energy. Any way you looked at it, it was damn fancy banjo picking, consistently well executed. He was admired by progressives and staunch traditionalists alike.”

Eric Thompson, who preceded Rothman as guitarist in the Black Mountain Boys, formed just weeks after the festival, says of Jerry’s banjo playing, “He was pretty good, and inventive, but he didn’t have the sort of perfection that is the norm in that kind of music. Usually, bluegrass music—especially in the banjo playing—tends to be very perfection-oriented because Earl Scruggs was so amazing; he never had a note out of place. It was a very, very high standard. His role in the music never falters. He never plays extraneous notes. You can’t say that about Jerry, but on the other hand, he was very inventive, and that was great.”

* * *

Frank Serratoni stopped renting out rooms in the Chateau in the fall of 1963, so part of the crowd that was living there got together with other friends and moved into a huge turn-of-the-century Victorian in downtown Palo Alto, where Garcia’s recurrent paramour Phoebe Graubard had lived in a room. The two-story house at 436 Hamilton Street (long since demolished) housed David Nelson, Dave Parker, Willy Legate, Bob Hunter and Grace Marie Haddie. Actually, Hunter and Legate lived in a separate barnlike structure that had been divided into lofts, located behind the main house. Not surprisingly, the Hamilton Street house became a new locus of activity for all the residents’ friends.

Garcia spent a lot of time over at Hamilton Street because it was where a lot of his friends were, and because, as Sara noted, he had a difficult time preparing himself psychologically for the birth of his child. This is, after all, a guy who thirty years later told Sara, “I don’t have to grow up and I’m not going to.” So Jerry spent a lot of time away from his pregnant bride, hanging with the boys instead.

At least he was around for the big day when it came. On December 8, 1963, Sara went into labor, and she and Jerry went to Stanford Hospital together. Dave Parker and a couple of other friends went to the hospital to offer Jerry support. “We hung out in the hallways waiting and waiting for however many hours it was, smoking cigarettes and talking,” Parker says. “Then, finally, the baby was born and we got to see it through the window, and then we split and Jerry stayed with Sara for a while. He seemed really happy about being a new father and he and Sara seemed very much in love; it seemed like a good time for them.”

Sara says, “The day Heather was born Jerry stayed with me while I was in labor, which was lovely and nice, and he was there waiting for the news from the delivery room. [Fathers were usually not allowed in the delivery room in this era.] Parker was in the waiting room keeping him company. I remember Jerry skipping down the hall saying, ‘It’s a broad! It’s a broad!’ He was so happy. He’d dreaded having a son. He just didn’t think he’d be able to parent a boy, because he hadn’t really had a father to raise him.

“The next morning I remember waking up and, before I opened my eyes, sensing that someone was sitting next to the bed, and feeling this deep sense of satisfaction that I’d given birth, the baby was healthy, it had been a good, easy birth—hard, but no problems. I felt such a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. And here was my husband sitting next to me, keeping me company. Then I opened my eyes and it was Hunter. I was disappointed, crushed that it wasn’t Jerry. But it was great that there was Hunter. Hunter was a really good friend to me, a constant reliable presence. When I was doing homework, housework, taking care of the baby, he’d come by and just hang out and talk about stuff that was important to me.”

Hunter became baby Heather’s godfather (and he is also godfather to Sara’s son, Julian).

* * *

New Year’s Eve 1963 is a date that holds special significance in Grateful Dead lore because it was on that night that Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir supposedly first talked about playing together in a band. As Weir said, “I was wandering the back streets of Palo Alto with a friend when we heard banjo music coming from the back of the music store. We walked to the door and came in and it was Garcia waiting for his pupils, unmindful that it was New Year’s Eve and that they wouldn’t show up. We sat down and started talking and had a great old rave. I had my guitar with me and we played a little and decided to form a jug band.”

Garcia and Weir had met before this, but they weren’t exactly friends. Bob was a misfit rich kid five years Garcia’s junior, from nearby Atherton, which Bob once accurately described as “the Bel Air of Northern California” (a reference to the exclusive L.A. suburb). He was born in San Francisco in 1947, and became the second adopted son of a very successful mechanical and electrical engineer who designed heating and cooling systems for big buildings, hotels and factories. Frederick Weir also designed the modern-looking Weir homestead at 89 Tuscaloosa Avenue in Atherton, which was ready for the family in 1950. Bob was a jock growing up, into baseball and track. He had problems in school because he was “dyslexic in the extreme, and nearly functionally illiterate… . But they had never heard of dyslexia when I was young so they figured I was lazy, which I was.”

Even though he was essentially a nonreader, Weir says he managed to get good grades by developing a good memory and “an ability to bullshit teachers. I managed to stay awake for at least half my classes, and got A’s… . My main hobby and pastime was girls. I went to seven—count ’em—seven schools, and I was kicked out of every one I attended.” Actually, he dropped out of the last one—the exclusive Drew School in San Francisco—when he was sixteen.

Bob got his first guitar at fourteen as a gift for graduating from junior high school: “It was a pretty miserable guitar, but I learned to play it a little bit,” he said. “The first song I learned to play on it was [the Beach Boys’ version of] ‘Sloop John B.’” Weir was also heavily influenced by Joan Baez, and as he got further into playing he discovered other players and styles. “I started hanging out in the folk scene in Palo Alto,” he said. “Whatever was hot around there, including Jerry, was what caught my attention. There was a guy named Michael Cooney who showed me a lot of stuff. And Jerry, too.”

“His musical leader was Jorma,” Garcia said of Bob in a 1967 interview. “He used to go every time Jorma played, when he played in coffeehouses. Weir would go there with his tape recorder, tape the whole show and talk to Jorma extensively and watch him play the stuff, and study it all and go home and work it out. Jorma is where he learned a lot of his technique… . His whole approach to guitar playing was like Jorma’s, essentially.” At this point, Bob was viewed by most of the older pickers as “the kid,” tolerated but not particularly respected.

Weir’s New Year’s Eve tale notwithstanding, it was actually quite a while before the jug band got going beyond a couple of very informal get-togethers. In early 1964, Garcia, Sandy Rothman and David Nelson were still going strong as the Black Mountain Boys, and Jerry and Sandy were hatching a plot whereby they’d travel back East, collect some bluegrass tapes and maybe get themselves hired by Bill Monroe. Their link was to be Neil Rosenberg, of Redwood Canyon Ramblers fame. Rosenberg had managed Bill Monroe’s Indiana music park, the Brown County Jamboree (known far and wide as Bean Blossom) in the summer of 1963, had played banjo for Monroe on occasion and was living in nearby Bloomington.

In February 1964 Rothman wrote a letter to Rosenberg that read, in part, “Jerry Garcia and I, plus his wife and baby may (probably will) have a chance to drive out your way this summer some time after June to hear and tape music and relax. For me, the music and a chance to get unhung-up; for them the trip and bluegrass. If Jerry’s wife does come along, they of course will have to stay in a hotel or the like, and I will probably have no problem finding a place to sleep.”

“We were excited,” Sara says. “To get the opportunity to play with Bill Monroe—that was the pinnacle. The idea was that Jerry was going to play with Bill Monroe, get hired to be in the band. The South was like a foreign country, potentially dangerous. He and Sandy were worried about getting rousted by the rednecks, and rightly so. There was such a strong suspicion of Northerners, and then of weird kids… . We thought at first that Heather and I would go along with them, but it didn’t work out. I needed to stay in school to get the hundred dollars a month from my father; it was a little bribe.

“It felt like, ‘This is something hard for us, but it’ll be good for him and then if he gets work, when school is over in June I’ll move there.’ Another plan was I was going to go to school in ethnomusicology. I was the scholar. While he was playing music I could pursue my academic fortune.”

At Stanford, Sara had become a communications major, with a particular interest in film and broadcasting, but, she says, “as with playing an instrument, I got hung up on not being technically proficient, but it was a lively time and I did make a few little films, some using guys like Dave Parker and David Nelson as my actors.” Jerry also performed the soundtrack for a movie that one of the graduate students made about a camp for diabetic children. “That’s a treasure probably nobody even knows about—Jerry playing pretty guitar or banjo music. I can’t remember which.”

Meanwhile, Bob Hunter, David Nelson and Willy Legate were among a large group on the scene who became interested in the Church of Scientology, which in the early ’60s was just beginning to catch on in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. L. Ron Hubbard’s popular book Dianetics had come out in 1950, and in the intervening decade-plus the tenets of Scientology had been codified and a church hierarchy established, in which students of the discipline worked their way up through different courses, or “processes,” on their way to becoming “clear”—supposedly operating at full capacity without being dragged down by their own psychological baggage. Of course, that’s just scratching the surface of what goes on in Scientology—there’s a whole science fiction side involving human mental evolution to a sort of super-being, in control over thousands of years of past lives, and much more.

“I couldn’t figure out what these guys saw in this,” Dave Parker says of his friends. “Intellectual gamesmanship was certainly a key factor—it’s something those guys in particular were really good at. They could do that kind of stuff all day long, and that’s actually a lot of what went on in those houses—verbal fencing with ideas. So I guess it suited them that Scientology was something that was highly complicated and which presented you with this way to confront the world—and ‘confront’ was a word that Scientologists used to use a lot. I thought it was totally odd.”

Willy, Hunter, Nelson and Grace Marie Haddie got into Scientology deeply enough that they moved from the Bay Area down to Los Angeles, in part because more advanced courses were taught at a center there. Whether he was just naturally skeptical or too busy working on his music, Jerry never showed much interest in Scientology: “Jerry would never even have considered distracting himself with someone else’s scam in that way,” Legate says today.

And he certainly wasn’t about to give up smoking pot, which was strictly verboten in the Scientology world. Sara was anti-pot in those days, too, but for another reason: “I was kind of an uptight young mom,” she says. “But the main reason is Jerry got more irresponsible when he was stoned and even less reliable. He wouldn’t show up when he was supposed to or do what he said he was going to do, or the meager paycheck wouldn’t come home when we needed it for rent. If I would show up at Dana Morgan’s on the last day of the week, then I could make sure the check got into the bank. I put on a brave front but I wasn’t having a very good time.”

Shortly before his big trip east with Sandy Rothman, Jerry shaved off his goatee and cut his hair, in part, Sara says, because “he was afraid he’d get bothered by the rednecks with that beard. So I got to see what he really looked like—that was a shock,” she adds with a laugh. Sara’s photo album has a page of pictures of Jerry and Heather outside their little cottage taken on the morning Jerry left on the trip—“a sad day,” Sara says wistfully.

That day, in early May of 1964, Jerry and Sandy hopped into Jerry’s ’61 Corvair (finally—wheels!), went to a Payless store in Palo Alto to buy a case of reel-to-reel tapes and drove down to Los Angeles, where they stayed for a couple of days with Bob Hunter. Hunter recalls that Billy Ray Latham, the hot banjo picker from the Kentucky Colonels, came over one night and jammed with Sandy and Jerry. A day or two later, the Corvair headed out to the San Fernando Valley and linked up with all four members of the Colonels, who were driving east in Roland White’s station wagon to play at the Newport Folk Festival, Cambridge’s Club 47 and various other spots. The Colonels were definitely on a roll at this time—in February they had recorded what remains one of their finest works, a sprightly album of bluegrass instrumentals called Appalachian Swing!

The two cars caravaned east, mainly traveling Route 66, with its truck stops and Burma Shave signs and innumerable small towns. The early part of their route took them through Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Kingman and Amarillo, “where we stopped and went to all the Western shops,” Sandy says. “We mainly slept in the car and ate cheap Mexican food.” They alternated cars a bit, too—Sandy remembers Clarence crammed into the small backseat of the Corvair, and Sandy rode in the Colonels’ station wagon for stretches, too. Jerry mainly drove his Corvair.

They spent endless hours trying to tune in cool radio stations as they roared through town after town, and there was time for some pickin’, too. Rothman says, “We’d pull up at some truck stop with each car going to a different pump, sometimes really far from each other, and we’d agree to play the same tune in each of our cars in hopes of freaking out the guys at the gas station. But nobody ever said a thing. We tried that endlessly and thought it was just so entertaining.”

During their time in the Midwest, Jerry and Sandy spent nearly every waking hour on their bluegrass quest. In Indiana, Rosenberg introduced them to a tape collector (and musician) named Marvin Hedrick, who let them spend untold hours copying reels he’d made at Bean Blossom since the ’50s. On May 24, Rosenberg says, Jerry even recorded a Bill Monroe show himself.

Jerry and Sandy tried to persuade Rosenberg to introduce them to Monroe, but as Rothman recalled, “Neil was steadfast in saying we should talk to him ourselves. I remember as if it was yesterday how we tried to approach Bill, exactly where we stood, and how we posed with our instrument cases upright in front of us, slightly leaning on them, maybe like one of those Stanley Brothers album cover shots. Jerry and I always reminisced about this: How in the world did we think he was going to get our message—mental telepathy? Neither one of us had the courage or the slightest idea, or plan of action, how to tell him we wanted to play with him or ask him for a job. We were petrified. We never said a word.”

Jerry and Sandy spent about ten days with Rosenberg around Bean Blossom, making tapes and playing music together. They journeyed as far east as Sunset Park, a country music jamboree in Pennsylvania, where they encountered one of the hottest bluegrass mandolinists on the East Coast, a New Jerseyan named David Grisman. They also made a whirlwind trip south to Panama City, Florida, where Scott Hambly, onetime mandolinist for the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, was stationed in the air force.

Sometime in June, though, Jerry abruptly decided to head back to California. Sara says, “Sandy tells me this sweet story about how they were going along and having this adventure when Jerry suddenly said, ‘I’ve gotta go home. I’ve got to get back to Sara.’ Jerry wrote wonderful letters to me while he was gone—funny, delightfully descriptive letters about their adventures. When we broke up I burned them, and I’m so sorry I did.” Rothman elected to stay longer in the East, and later that year he actually did get to play with Bill Monroe, but he says the main mission of the trip with Garcia had been fulfilled by the time Jerry left: “We got our pot of gold; we got a whole case filled with tapes.”

Back in the Bay Area that summer, Jerry, Eric Thompson and a New York mandolinist named Jody Stecher formed a trio they called the Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys, and played a few gigs at places like the Tangent and Curt’s Copy Cat in San Francisco before Stecher went back to City College of New York for the fall semester. It was during this summer, too, that Garcia hooked up with Bob Weir and Ron McKernan (now and forever dubbed Pigpen, after the unkempt character from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip) to form Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, or, as it’s invariably referred to in Dead circles, “the jug band.”

Talk about a blip on the cultural landscape: jug bands had a very brief run as a popular form of folk music in the mid-’60s. As with the old-timey revival, the craze started in the East. The major proponent of the style was Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, which, like the late-’50s generation of string band players, went back to 78s by the original jug bands of the ’20s and ’30s for some of their material. In the years before the Depression, jug bands had sprung up like dandelions all over the South, though the most famous—like Cannon’s Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band—originated in Tennessee. While most of the popular jug bands from the music’s first era were black, in the ’60s revival the musicians were overwhelmingly white. Still, the instrumentation and the repertoire were similar. Jug bands invariably played a lot of humorous material—novelty tunes—and ribald blues-based numbers were also popular. Kweskin’s group also did a few rock ’n’ roll tunes jug band style, like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” Jug bands were usually loose and anarchic-sounding; they ended up having the perfect vibe for a place like the Tangent, filled with irreverent Stanford students.

“The jug band didn’t have the egregious discipline that bluegrass required,” notes Marshall Leicester. “And there was no way to make a living playing bluegrass. Jerry was married, he had a kid, he was looking for a way to find an accommodation with adult responsibilities—a problem he had for the next thirty years. But he was genuinely trying, working for Dana Morgan, and he was always trying to get together some kind of band that would keep him playing. And it was a real strain. Mother McCree’s was fun for him and it allowed him to get in touch with musicians who had been on different paths. We’d known Ron McKernan for years, but aside from sort of playing Lightnin’ Hopkins backup to Ron at parties and the Boar’s Head and places like that, making him part of the same musical scene sort of hadn’t arisen before.”

For a change, Jerry didn’t have to worry about whether this player or that was going back to school in September or after Christmas break: Mother McCree’s was mainly folks who were part of the same dropout culture he was from. The personnel was always changing: Bob Matthews thinks as many as twenty different people played with the group at one time or another; that may be an exaggeration. “I think I only lasted six months,” said Matthews. “I went from washboard to first kazoo, to second kazoo, to being out of the band. I think I was out of the band the night we were playing and Jerry leaned over to me in the middle of a tune and said, ‘Why don’t you take a break,’ and I got off the stage.”

Sara confirms, “In music, Jerry could take people on and be very direct and actually quite cruel to bandmembers if they met with his displeasure. People were scared of him. He was a hard taskmaster.” Adds Dave Parker, “Jerry was definitely the leader. He pulled it together and made it the way it was. He went out and found the gigs. Jerry came up with most of the tunes, too, though Pig knew a lot of blues.”

As for Bob Weir—well, he was spirited and kind of goofy and he played jug and Gary Davis-style fingerpicking guitar and sang decently, and already girls were crazy for his boyish good looks. “I was only sixteen at the time,” he said, “and I was kind of in awe of these guys I was playing with, because I was not any kind of journeyman musician at that point; I really had almost no experience.”

“That boy is a real space case,” Sara says fondly. “He was kind of lost, a poor little rich kid. He was such an adorable kid. Jerry and I kind of adopted him. Actually, a lot of people seemed to idealize our little family. We were parental figures for a lot of young musicians.”

The jug band rehearsed anyplace it could—at the Hamilton Street pad, Weir’s parents’ house or, as likely, in the garage of the cozy two-bedroom cottage Jerry and Sara rented after he returned from his eastern odyssey. Three fifty-one Bryant Court was a sunny little house with a small yard surrounded by a white picket fence, a great improvement over their previous residence.

Like the Kweskin band (and New York’s Even Dozen Jug Band, featuring David Grisman), Mother McCree’s took its repertoire from everywhere, it seemed: They lifted liberally from Jim Kweskin and company (colorful tunes like “Borneo,” “Beedle Um Bum,” “Washington at Valley Forge,” “Overseas Stomp”); there was a dose of old-time string band tunes like “Cold Rain and Snow” and “Been All Around This World”; there were jug blues taken from Cannon’s Jug Stompers (“Viola Lee Blues,” “Big Railroad Blues”) and the Memphis Jug Band (“Stealin’,” “On the Road Again”); relatively modern folk blues, like Jesse Fuller’s “Beat It On Down the Line” and “Monkey and the Engineer”; and Pigpen brought in his own repertoire of popular and obscure blues songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and others.

Dave Parker estimates that Mother McCree’s probably played twenty-five to thirty gigs over the course of seven or eight months. “There was no way we were anything even close to commercial,” he says. “It was really just a good-time thing. It was a little eccentric even for what tastes were in folk music at the time. I don’t think it was conceivable to any of us that it could be recorded and sold. But it sure was a lot of fun.”

At the same time the jug band was going, Jerry and Pigpen were also playing occasionally in an electric blues/rock group called the Zodiacs, fronted by a guitarist named Troy Weidenheimer. “While Jerry was teaching folk guitar, Troy was teaching electric guitar; he was known around town,” says Eric Thompson. “Troy had an R&B band that played Stanford frat parties and Jerry sometimes played bass in it and Pigpen was the singer. Troy could not only play exactly like Freddy King, he could move like Freddy King, too. During that period, Freddy had his blues song hits in the chitlin’ circuit and his instrumental hits in the frat circuit, and he was playing both kinds of gigs. So that was part of the Troy niche, those instrumental hits Freddy King had—‘Hideaway,’ ‘San Hozay,’ ‘The Stumble.’ The way white kids were relating to it it was like surf guitar in a way; instrumental music that you could dance to.

“When Jerry got interested in the electric guitar again, he devoured the Freddy King stuff, but he’d already been watching Troy do it, so he already knew a lot about it. The way Jerry was, every new wave of stuff that came along, he’d get really excited about it and just devour it. When he got excited about old-time music he learned lots of old-time songs and he did them with Sara and everything. When he got excited about bluegrass banjo he got all the tapes and dove into that. Same thing when he got back into rock ’n’ roll. He’d get going on something and there’d be no way to stop him—he’d get other people excited along with him.”

It’s hard to believe that the same guy who’d driven across the country determined to become one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys all but gave up the banjo and bluegrass by year’s end. Part of the problem, Jerry explained in 1981, was that “in the area I was in there were virtually no bluegrass musicians; very few, certainly nobody very good. I got to be quite a good banjo player, but I was really operating in a vacuum, and what I wanted was to have a great bluegrass band, but I only got occasional chances to put a bluegrass band together that was by my standards even acceptable. Although I had fun, none of them was serious or a very good attempt.”

“I think he got disenchanted with bluegrass,” Sara says. “It was clear he wasn’t going to make it in that world. Socially, it was just too foreign. This was all these West Coast kids, some of them were Jewish, some of them had Hispanic surnames, and there was no way they were going to be part of the bluegrass establishment. It wasn’t a good match socially.”

But there was something else tugging at Garcia as 1964 turned to 1965. For one thing, like half of America under the age of twenty-five, Jerry had been seduced by the Beatles, especially their film A Hard Day’s Night, which depicted life in a rock ’n’ roll band as just about the most fun that could be had on planet Earth. The Beatles were deliciously irreverent and in-your-face anarchic; untamable gadabouts on an endless lark, always living in a completely different universe than the pitiably straight forces that were constantly trying to control, or at the very least, restrain them. Certainly the jug band had some of that off-the-wall spirit, but the Beatles were a whole different level of fun—that was obvious. And the screaming girls were real.

“[The Beatles] were real important to everybody,” Garcia said. “They were a little model, especially the movies—the movies were a big turn-on. Just because it was a little model of good times… . It was like [they] were saying, ‘You can be young, you can be far-out and you can still make it.’ They were making people happy. That happy thing—that’s the stuff that counts—was something we could all see right away.”

“The Beatles were why we turned from a jug band into a rock ’n’ roll band,” said Bob Weir. “What we saw them doing was impossibly attractive. I couldn’t think of anything else more worth doing.”

But poking at Garcia’s other shoulder, all gruff and grumbly but still the essence of a different kind of cool, was Mr. Pigpen McKernan: “He’d been pestering me for a while; he wanted me to start up an electric blues band,” Jerry said. “That was his trip. Because in the jug band we used to do blues numbers like Jimmy Reed tunes and even played a couple of rock ’n’ roll tunes, and it was just the next step… . Theoretically it’s a blues band, but the minute we get electric instruments it’s a rock ’n’ roll band. Because, wow—playin’ rock ’n’ roll, it’s fun!

“It was always my impression that it was Jerry’s decision to form the electric band,” Dave Parker says. “That he was not that interested in playing the kinds of music he’d been doing before, and he’d done the jug band thing. That wasn’t something you could really do for a long time, and the excitement of electric rock ’n’ roll—what the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan were doing—was happening, and Jerry had this surge of energy to go and do that and make something happen.

“There was a feeling all around—and I think a lot of it came from Garcia—that anything was possible, so just pick out what you want to do and do it.