I Can’t Come Down, I’ve Been Set Free - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


I Can’t Come Down, I’ve Been Set Free

kay, Jerry’s the lead guitarist; no question about that. Weir is certainly a good enough guitarist to take a stab at playing rhythm; after all, he’s already beyond the sort of simple chords required in most rock and blues songs. Pigpen’s been known to play some blues piano—get him an electric organ and you’ve got a double threat who can play keys and harmonica. Drums—that’s a sticky one. Dave Parker says, “I had good enough rhythm to play something like the washboard, but I hadn’t ever played drums, so when Jerry wanted to start an electric band, right at the first there was some thought maybe I could learn to play the drums—that’s how funky it was! But Bill Kreutzmann was already a skilled drummer who’d played around a bit and taught, so he was a much better choice.”

Ah yes, Bill the Drummer, as he was known for the longest time. Bill Kreutzmann was another Palo Alto product. His father was a small businessman and his mother was a choreographer who taught dance at Stanford. He started taking drum lessons when he was about twelve, and he got his first drum kit shortly after that. Though teachers and friends urged him to get involved with his high school band, “I wouldn’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “I went and heard the band one day and said, ‘Are you kidding?!’ It was just lame orchestra stuff, with nothing for the drummer to do.” Instead he gravitated to rock ’n’ roll, which he’d loved since he was a tyke listening to Elvis and Fats Domino. He was in a band called the Legends for a while, playing rock ’n’ roll and R&B—“whatever was popular. It wasn’t too soulful, though, and I think I was probably the most serious about music then; we were just teenagers.”

While still in high school, Kreutzmann started hanging out at the Tangent, where he heard Mother McCree’s on numerous occasions. “I went down there faithfully and listened to them all the time,” he said. “I really got off on those guys; I really liked them a lot. My heart just said, ‘This music is really cool.’” Bill also got a job at Dana Morgan’s as a drum teacher, so he and Garcia were tight by the time the jug band was winding down and the dream of starting an electric band was coming to the fore.

For a bass player, the obvious, easy choice was Dana Morgan Jr., who already played electric bass, ran the music store his father had founded and also provided some of the equipment the band needed, as well as an after-hours rehearsal space. (The back room at Kepler’s wasn’t about to accommodate this noisy bunch.)

The fledgling band called themselves the Warlocks, an appropriately sinister name for such a motley-looking group. Pigpen was the closest thing the band had to a frontman, and he looked like some tough mutha who’d just roared up on a Harley. His acne-scarred face was nearly obscured by dark bangs and a mustache, and he dressed in black chinos, boots and either a jeans jacket or a leather vest. Garcia was letting his hair grow longer, and he too went for the Keith Richards/Bill Wyman look, with long bangs and hair down over his ears, though it wasn’t quite to his shoulders yet. In fact, in look and feel there was definitely a parallel with the Rolling Stones, who were a strong early influence on the Warlocks, since they drew from many of the same musical sources—American blues, R&B and rock ’n’ roll. Of course the Warlocks also dug every Beatles album that came out, but they couldn’t really imitate the Fab Four. They didn’t have the looks or the vocal chops, to put it mildly. More to the point, the Warlocks were more in tune with the rough-and-tumble vibe of the Stones or the Animals or even Van Morrison’s band, Them.

And let’s not forget that this group had metamorphosed from the jug band. A lot of the songs the Warlocks played came straight from the Mother McCree’s repertoire, which meant that even in the group’s nascent days it was stunningly eclectic and quite a bit different from most of the other electric groups on the scene. Yes, there were other bands around that played “Smokestack Lightning” and “Johnny B. Goode” and “It’s All Over Now,” but they weren’t playing “Stealin’” and “Overseas Stomp” (also called “Lindy”), “I Know You Rider” and “Viola Lee Blues.” And they didn’t have the same reckless abandon that nearly everyone who heard the Warlocks could sense immediately. “We were always motivated by the possibility that we could have fun, big fun,” Garcia said. “I was reacting, in a way, to my bluegrass background, which was maybe a little overserious. I was up for the idea of breaking out. You know: ‘Give me that electric guitar—fuckin’ A!’”

In retrospect, it’s remarkable that the Warlocks were able to survive their first few months together, because what they offered musically wasn’t what most kids going to clubs and dances were looking for in a rock ’n’ roll band in early 1965. There was no Bay Area “scene” yet, and most of the local rock bands that enjoyed any kind of commercial success were so heavily influenced by the British Invasion bands in look and sound that no one took them too seriously. The San Francisco group the Beau Brummels and the Peninsula’s own Vejtables rode the wave with enough panache to actually score regional hits on Autumn Records, the label run by the popular KYA disc jockeys Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue and Bobby Mitchell. But it was clear that most of these bands, in their imitation Brit threads or worse—hideous “theme” outfits (picture, if you dare, groups that looked like low-rent versions of Paul Revere and the Raiders)—were never going to get beyond the local CYO dance. There are still a few souls out there who speak with some fondness of groups like the Baytovens (a Beatles rip), William Penn and His Pals (with Gregg Rolie of Santana and Journey fame), the Syndicate of Sound and the Mojo Men, but by and large the bands were patently unoriginal, and none of them survived very long.

For one thing, there weren’t many places to play. High school and YMCA dances were the big time for most groups. Some of the lucky ones got to play on the college fraternity circuit, but it was rare that bands played much outside their immediate area. In other words, Peninsula and South Bay (San Jose) groups usually worked that territory almost exclusively; same with San Francisco and East Bay bands. The really popular groups might get to play a couple of songs at one of KYA’s multiact extravaganzas at the Cow Palace, on the same bill with national headliners like the Righteous Brothers, Sonny and Cher and Phil Spector’s various aggregations (who themselves would play only a handful songs at the most). And then, of course, there were a million smaller “Battle of the Bands” shows all over the Bay Area, as Eric Burdon clones went up against George Harrison imitators and Gerry and the Pacemakers wanna-bes for that night’s and that club’s embarrassingly small cash prize (and the attendant bragging rights). Mike Shapiro, lead guitarist for William Penn and His Pals, said that “We used to battle-of-the-bands with [the Warlocks] at the Cinnamon Tree on Industrial Road in San Carlos. We actually lost to them and I thought they were the shits.”

By conventional standards, the Warlocks likely were “the shits.” There were probably fifty local bands who could play Kinks and Beatles covers more faithfully, who could nail the drum and bass parts off the first couple of Stones records exactly, who could hit the high notes of those tight British Invasion harmonies with ease. Fortunately for the Warlocks, right from the start they attracted a decent-sized following of like-minded dropouts, crazies and adventurous party animals who didn’t care for note-for-note reproductions of 45s that were on the radio and weren’t interested in lead singers wearing ruffled Edwardian shirts, but who wanted something a little rawer and more real. Many of the people who had supported the jug band also followed Garcia, Weir and Pigpen when they started playing electric music.

One of the group’s original fans, Sue Swanson, remembers early Warlocks rehearsals at Dana Morgan’s where the group would listen to records and try to learn songs. “My job was to change the 45s,” she said. “‘Play that part again!’ It was a crummy little phonograph that would sit on the counter. I’ll never forget the sound of them practicing in there, and all the cymbals and everything in the whole room would be going. The whole room would be making all this noise.”

It was mainly a big contingent of Peninsula friends and a few curious onlookers who made the scene at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor on Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, where the group played some of its first gigs in May of 1965. Pigpen and pizza: what a combination! It’s hard to say whether Magoo’s was a step up or a step down from local haunts like the Continental Roller Bowl in Santa Clara or Big Al’s Gas House in Redwood City, but at least it was a place to play, and the fans turned out in force. “When we were in the Warlocks,” Garcia said, “the first time we played in public [at Menlo College], we had a huge crowd of people from the local high school, and they went fuckin’ nuts! The next time we played it was packed to the rafters. It was a pizza place. We said, ‘Hey, can we play in here on Wednesday night? We won’t bother anybody. Just let us set up in the corner.’ It was pandemonium, immediately.”

During this time, Jerry and Sara were living in the cottage on Bryant Court with baby Heather, now a year old, and trying to keep the marriage together despite Jerry’s overriding obsession with his music and his apparent lack of interest in being a family man. “Before Heather’s first birthday, sometime that fall, my mom said, ‘Why don’t you guys go away together?’” Sara says. “She was worried about us because clearly we weren’t spending much time together. ‘I’ll take Heather,’ she said. So we drove down to Disneyland and just played.

There were a few changes in the inner circle of friends. David Nelson returned from his Scientology training in L.A. as the new guitarist of a fine, already established bluegrass band called the Pine Valley Boys, which included an L.A. fiddler named Richard Greene and two hot Bay Area pickers, banjoist Herb Pederson and mandolinist Butch Waller. Nelson says he had intended to return to L.A. for more Scientology courses, “but we got more and more gigs with the Pine Valley Boys. Then one day I was in Palo Alto seeing Dave Parker and we were talking and he brought out a joint. He said, ‘You’re going to tell me you’re taking Scientology over this?’ And I said, ‘Uh, no!’” he laughs. Willy Legate and Robert Hunter stayed with Scientology a little longer before arriving at the same decision.

And then along came LSD. “One time Rick Shubb got some,” relates David Nelson. Rick Shubb was from the Berkeley bluegrass world, a friend of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers and a talented banjo player himself. “It coincided with Rick needing a house, and Dave Parker and I needed a house, too. He found this place on Gilman Street [in downtown Palo Alto], right across from this piano store. We got the rent money together and Rick said, ‘I’ve also got some LSD.’ We thought, ‘Great, we’ll take it on the day we move in.’

“So we all go down there—me, Rick, Butch Waller, Dave Parker, Bonnie [Guckel, later Bonnie Parker, Dave’s wife], Garcia, Sara and Eric Thompson. We were all taking it for the first time. We’d seen that book The Psychedelic Experience, which gives you information like, ‘You might want to be by yourself for a while.’ So we all started out alone and then we came together slowly. ‘Hey, you look different.’ ‘Yeah, everything is in Technicolor.’ And all of a sudden we were just this house full of insane kids giggling and saying, ‘Hey, man, look at this!’ ‘Wow, man… .’” We had a superball inside that we were playing with, and later we played basketball outside. That was a great day. I think we listened to Ravi Shankar. I thought that was appropriate.

Sara says, “I remember after the evening was over and Jerry and I went home, we freaked out badly; the two of us. It was another one of those ‘Oh my God, what are we gonna do?’ situations, just like when we got married and when Heather was a newborn. We drove over to Hunter’s house, not realizing that we were capable of doing something if we could drive and find our way. But we were absolutely freaked out. We beat down the door, woke up Hunter and said, ‘We’re scared. We don’t know what’s happening. We don’t know what to do.’ We went to him because he had The Tibetan Book of the Dead, so clearly he could help us. So he kind of pontificated and after maybe consulting the book, he said, ‘It’s okay.’ ‘But you don’t understand—’ ‘It’s okay!’ He just cut through the freak-out and we were so relieved. ‘Of course it’s okay! Thanks, man. Sorry we woke you up!’”

“The world was really innocent then,” Garcia commented. “Or at least innocent of those experiences. So you could go around and be completely crazy, and the most people would suspect you of was being crazy. They didn’t think it was drrrrugs! I was glad to be in on that. That was a remarkably lucky moment historically; that was fun.”

Explaining psychedelics to someone who has never taken them is nearly impossible; it’s as difficult as it is to use words to describe a piece of music so a person can “hear” it. Descriptions of acid trips, in particular, invariably just sound scary and weird, to the point where the uninitiated undoubtedly wonder why anyone would put themselves through such an unpredictable and potentially frightening experience. There are as many answers to that as there are people who have tried psychedelics—and at this point that would have to be millions of people worldwide. Some are seeking some sort of spiritual fulfillment or enlightenment, some are intent on exploring unseen corners of their own minds, and some are just thrill-seekers out for what they hope will be a good time.

Various natural psychedelics—peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, morning glory seeds and others—have been used for more than ten thousand years by different peoples and tribes, mainly for religious purposes. “This particular chemical family has always been a key to a spiritual dimension or a parapsychological dimension,” says Steve Silberman, a Grateful Dead scholar and veteran psychedelician. “You don’t have to even speculate about whether there is a God out there; it’s obvious from accumulated cultural evidence that these chemicals are a key to the experience of the sacred.”

The use of psychedelics in Western culture was rare until the mid- twentieth century, when knowledge of the revelatory properties of psilocibin mushrooms, peyote and LSD (which was synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in the late ’30s) began to spread among the ranks of researchers and intellectuals. The British writer Aldous Huxley wrote glowingly of his transformative experiences with psychedelics in the widely read books The Doors of Perception and Between Heaven and Hell. Henry Luce, founder of Time and Life magazines, took LSD a number of times, and in May 1957 he personally approved a seventeen-page Life story by the American ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson about his ecstatic experiences in Mexico with “magic mushrooms.” That article, in part, inspired Timothy Leary, a young clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, to make his own journey of psychedelic discovery to Mexico, and later to use psilocibin as a psychiatric tool. Not surprisingly, psychedelics spread into the Beat world, too. Through Leary, Allen Ginsberg obtained a large quantity of psilocybin, which he distributed to various Greenwich Village poets, artists and jazz musicians.

Most of the people in Garcia’s crowd had already read writings on psychedelics by Huxley, Leary and philosopher Alan Watts, so they were tuned into the spiritual possibilities of the experience. Perhaps what they didn’t expect, however, was that psychedelics would provide hours and hours of funny-scary goofball fun.

Garcia said, “That first trip … we just wandered ’round and ’round the streets bumping into each other and having these incredible revelations and flashes. It was just dynamite; it was just everything I could hope for it to be for me.

“It was like another release, yet another opening. The first one was that hip teacher when I was in the third grade; and the next one was marijuana and the next one was music and the next one was—it was like a series of continually opening doors.”

* * *

In May 1965 Phil Lesh reenters our story. He was living in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco with Tom Constanten (T.C.), and working for the post office as a driver—shooting speed and driving aggressively through downtown rush-hour traffic, blasting a little transistor radio he smuggled onto his truck, digging Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Lovin’ Spoonful and all the other hip groups that were suddenly transforming AM radio and a lot of the people who were tuned in to it. This was a relatively new world for Lesh, who, after his unhappy tenure in Berkeley’s music program in 1962, had studied at Mills College in Oakland with the eminent modern composer Luciano Berio, then drifted to Las Vegas (T.C.’s hometown), where he took odd jobs and spent his days composing. From Las Vegas, Phil moved to Palo Alto, and then to San Francisco, where he began his wild ride as a driver for the post office. Phil’s career as a postal worker came to an abrupt halt one afternoon after his superior complained that the haircut he’d forced Phil to get wasn’t short enough. “I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and I quit,” Phil said. “And the rest of that spring I spent letting my hair grow and taking acid and fuckin’ off, having fun, and being supported by my girlfriend.”

Then, “somebody came in with the word that Garcia’s band was playing such-and-such a night at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor,” Phil said. A week earlier, in what he called “a stoned moment” at a party in Palo Alto, he’d told Garcia that he’d been thinking of taking up an electric instrument, possibly the bass. He and a few friends dropped acid and bopped down to Magoo’s to check out the Warlocks, and “During the set break, Jerry took me off to a table and said, ‘How’d you like to play bass in this band? Our bass player’s not a musician and we have to tell him what notes to play.’ I said, ‘By God, I’ll give it a try.’” Phil had been duly impressed by what he heard at Magoo’s that night: “It was really happening. Pigpen ate my mind with the harp, singing the blues. They wouldn’t let you dance but I did anyway.”

Around the first week of June, Phil moved down to Palo Alto to devote himself full time to the Warlocks. At first he borrowed an instrument; then his girlfriend, Ruth, bought him his first electric bass—“a single-pickup Gibson with a neck like a telephone pole,” he said—and he picked up pointers on the rudiments of the instrument from whoever was around: Garcia, a young folk picker named John Dawson (who would later form the New Riders of the Purple Sage), David Nelson, Eric Thompson. “I remember exactly when it was clear that Dana Jr. was not exactly with the program on bass,” says Eric Thompson. “Jerry said, ‘We’re gonna get Phil.’ Phil moved to the room across from me in this house and he’d never touched an electric bass before. I remember him picking up the bass for the first time and saying, ‘Oh, how does this work?’ and he started figuring out how to play scales on it immediately, very methodically.”

One of the things that made Phil such an interesting player from the start is that he didn’t have any preconceived notions about what the bass’s role in rock music should be. This is not someone who had studied James Jamerson’s solid, steady bass work on Motown singles, or Bill Wyman’s thick grooves with the Stones. Nor had he spent time investigating the more inventive rock bass players of the era, like Paul McCartney, whose melodic approach made the instrument sing in ways it never had before, and the Who’s redoubtable thunder machine, John Entwistle. What Phil had heard, and no doubt subconsciously absorbed, were some of the great acoustic bassists in jazz—Charles Mingus, Scott La Faro, Jimmy Garrison, Ron Carter and others—who succeeded in moving the bass beyond a mainly rhythmic supporting role into complex and sophisticated new realms that more fully exploited the instrument’s broad range of sonorities. Even so, Phil said in 1990, “I don’t study other bassists, and I don’t think I’ve really drawn much from them. In my own style of playing, I’ve been influenced more by Bach than any bassists. Actually, you can go back even further—Palestrina, sixteenth-century modal counterpoint.” That’s all well and good, but at the beginning Lesh had to work his way through some of the basic blues-based progressions just like anyone else, if only to understand them well enough to be able to discard them with confidence on his way to finding something more interesting and challenging.

Garcia and Weir would have to have been considered novices on their instruments, too. Weir had never played electric guitar before, and Garcia hadn’t played it since he moved to the Peninsula at the end of 1960, more than four years earlier. And in between his stints playing electric, Garcia had ventured far afield from the chugga-chugga simplicity of his Chuck Berry days into various acoustic country and blues fingerpicking styles, and then on to banjo, with an evolution from frailing to Scruggs-style, with a daring dash of Bill Keith thrown in there at the end. The Warlocks’ eclectic mélange was a new world for Garcia, as was his axe, a red Guild Starfire. He said that in his early days with the Warlocks he listened extensively to Freddy King and B. B. King, and indeed, those influences can easily be heard in his playing from 1965 through the middle of 1967. But the country and bluegrass influences were also present in his electric work.

“I put my first real energy in music into the five-string banjo,” Garcia said. “That was the first time I ever said, ‘How do you do this?’ It was like cracking a combination lock. I slowed the records down and painstakingly listened to every lick and worked them out. I did a complete breakdown—as close as I was able—to learn how to play bluegrass banjo. And having gone through that process with banjo, when I went to electric guitar I knew how to learn it. And my taste in music is kind of informed by the banjo in a way, too. I like to hear every note. I like that clarity and separation of notes. And that characterizes my guitar playing, too. So I came at it sort of backwards.”

On the other hand, Garcia noted, “For me, just going and playing the electric guitar represented freedom from the tremendous control trip that you have to have to be a banjo player.

“I’d put so much energy and brainwork into controlling the banjo that, after psychedelics, what I wanted to do more than anything was not be in control nearly so much. And playing the electric guitar freed me! So for me, it was a combination of the times, a lucky moment, and it was much easier putting together a rock ’n’ roll band or an electric band than having a bluegrass band.”

Garcia didn’t completely turn his back on bluegrass when he started playing electric music. He’d occasionally do some acoustic pickin’ around Gilman Street with David Nelson and the other members of the Pine Valley Boys, and on a couple of occasions in 1965 he traveled down to the Ash Grove in Los Angeles to see his friends the Kentucky Colonels. During 1965 the Colonels added fiddler Scott Stoneman, the troubled black sheep of the famous Stoneman Family of country musicians (whose lineage stretched all the way back to the ’20s), and this player made a lasting impression on Garcia:

“I get my improvisational approach from Scotty Stoneman, the fiddle player. [He’s] the guy who first set me on fire—where I just stood there and don’t remember breathing. He was just an incredible fiddler. He was a total alcoholic wreck by the time I heard him, in his early thirties, playing with the Kentucky Colonels… . They did a medium-tempo fiddle tune like ‘Eighth of January’ and it’s going along, and pretty soon Scotty starts taking these longer and longer phrases—ten bars, fourteen bars, seventeen bars—and the guys in the band are just watching him! They’re barely playing—going ding, ding, ding—while he’s burning. The place was transfixed. They played this tune for like twenty minutes, which is unheard of in bluegrass. I’d never heard anything like it. I asked him later, ‘How do you do that?’ and he said, ‘Man, I just play lonesome.’”

Garcia definitely saw the connection between what the Warlocks were playing and his former life as a bluegrass picker: “It’s a string band fundamentally, even though it’s electric. And the addition of drums made it more like bluegrass, which is a more intensely rhythmic kind of music. I viewed the Grateful Dead from the beginning, or the Warlocks, as a blues band in one sense, in other words the instrumentation is traditionally what a blues band has had. But it’s also a kind of mutated bluegrass band on a certain level. Bluegrass is a nice metaphor for how music can work as a group. Bluegrass is a conversational music and I thought it would be nice to have an electric band that was conversational—where the instruments talked to each other. It’s a way to organize music.”

The coup that ousted Dana Morgan Jr. from the Warlocks and installed Phil Lesh as the new bassist signaled the end of the bandmembers’ association with Dana Morgan Music, too, so the action shifted to another instrument store, Guitars Unlimited in Menlo Park. After the group was forced to return some of the equipment they’d borrowed from Dana Morgan’s, Garcia’s mother and Bill Kreutzmann’s parents helped the group buy some new gear, and for a while Billy acted as their de facto manager, dealing with club bookers trying to get them gigs. Later, Phil’s friend Hank Harrison did a brief stint as their manager. The Warlocks rehearsed wherever they could, including in the homes of various friends’ parents. Garcia drove the band hard, insisting they practice nearly every day, even though gigs were scarce for a while.

All that changed in September when the Warlocks started playing regularly at the In Room, a lounge in a Belmont hotel that was trying to attract a younger crowd. Five nights a week, five sets a night for six weeks, the Warlocks held court at the In Room, getting weirder and louder, but also better, with each passing week. The crowds varied from night to night; not surprisingly the band drew best on weekends. Working in the same environment night after night gave them a chance to hone their chops and get to know each other’s idiosyncrasies as players and performers. In essence, they learned to play their instruments together (though obviously the learning curve was higher for some than others), and that is one reason why the Warlocks, and later the Grateful Dead, played so well together. “When we first started working,” Garcia said, “we were really working hard. I never saw anybody. When we were working the bars, I lost contact with almost all my friends ’cause the Warlocks were playing every night, and on Sundays, afternoons and nights. We were booked solid.”

In another interview Garcia said, “The only scene then was the Hollywood hype scene, booking agents in flashy suits, gigs in booze clubs, six nights a week, five sets a night, doing all the R&B-rock standards. We did it all. Then we got a job at a Belmont club and developed a whole malicious thing, playing songs louder and weirder… . For those days it was loud, and for a bar it was ridiculous. People had to scream at each other to talk, and pretty soon we had driven out all the regular clientele. They’d run out clutching their ears. We isolated them, put them through a real number, yeah.”

With the exception of Pigpen, who eschewed drugs in favor of his beloved screw-top wines, the Warlocks smoked pot whenever it was around—and by 1965 it was rolling up the coast in increasing quantities as more and more people discovered it. And they took LSD, which was still legal (though underground), with increasing regularity. At this point there was no regular, reliable source for the drug, but it was popping up simultaneously in San Francisco, Berkeley, the Peninsula and the South Bay, so obtaining it wasn’t that difficult. At the In Room, “we’d be sneaking out in the cars, smoking joints between each set and so forth,” Garcia recalled. “One of those days we took [acid]. We got high and goofed around in the mountains and ran around and did all kinds of stuff, and I remembered we had to work that night. We went to the gig and we were a little high, and it was all a little strange. It was so weird playing in a bar being high on acid. It was just too weird; it definitely wasn’t appropriate.”

Heads, in the drug sense of the word, were few and far between on the Peninsula in 1965—there weren’t many beyond the Warlocks’ scene and the crowd that had hung out around the Offstage club in San Jose. But not too far away, just up over Cahill Ridge, across Skyline Drive, down twisty Highway 84, and deep in a magical redwood-forested community midway between Palo Alto and the Pacific known as La Honda, something big was cookin’. The word came down through the jungle telegraph that there were strange doings at Kesey’s place.

Ken Kesey was already a semilegendary figure by the time the Warlocks cruised over to La Honda for the first time in the fall of 1965. An Oregon native who had attended the University of Oregon in Eugene and distinguished himself as a wrestler and drama student in the mid- and late ’50s, Kesey and his wife, Faye, moved to Palo Alto in 1958 after the aspiring novelist won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and was admitted to the Stanford Writing Program, which was founded and spearheaded by novelist Wallace Stegner. Ken and Faye moved into a little cottage on Perry Lane, a bohemian enclave in Menlo Park since the ’20s, and fell in with a hard-partying intellectual crowd that included Ed McClanahan, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Chloe Scott and Kesey’s future Merry Pranksters partner Ken Babbs. Though a country boy at heart, Kesey became intoxicated by the Beat scene in San Francisco (and its ripples on the Peninsula)—so much so that he abandoned a novel he was writing about football and began a book called Zoo, which chronicled the adventures of a rodeo rider’s son who moves to North Beach and becomes part of the Beat scene.

There were other intoxicants, too: Kesey was introduced to pot on Perry Lane, and like Robert Hunter a couple of years after him, he made the life-changing decision to volunteer for the government’s tests of psychotomimetic drugs at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park. It’s only in the past fifteen years that the truth about these experiments has been revealed—how the CIA wanted to study the effects of psychedelics on people, with a notion that perhaps drugs could be used against our enemies in some way: disorienting them, scaring them, perhaps making them tell us truths and secrets that conventional interrogation could not elicit. Kesey’s and Hunter’s descriptions of their test environments are fairly similar—the bright white rooms and dispassionate scientists who clearly had no handle on what was really going on inside their test subjects; whose periodic checks of Kesey’s blood didn’t tell them anything real; who never got an inkling of the completely indescribable profundity of the experiences they were routinely dispensing in pill and capsule form; who never once suspected that a guy like Kesey would be so moved by what he felt that he would take it upon himself to secrete away his own stash of these substances.

Peyote also made it to Perry Lane, direct from a place in Texas called Smith’s Cactus Ranch. It was legal, too—it probably never occurred to government types that anyone other than Native Americans would have any use for the stuff. Kesey said that the first part of the book he was writing at night while he worked in the psychiatric ward at the Veterans Hospital, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had emerged and crystallized while he was high on peyote. So it’s not too surprising that the pivotal character in the book is an Indian, Chief Broom.

“It was a real tribal scene at Perry Lane,” said novelist Robert Stone in Ken Babbs and Paul Perry’s superb oral history of Kesey’s world in the early and mid-’60s, On the Bus. “It was tribal in part because we were amusing ourselves with these experimental drugs… . We were young and thought we were just incredibly sophisticated and bohemian to be doing all this far-out stuff.”

During the year that Alan Trist was in Palo Alto, “My parents had a Spanish house right there behind Perry Lane; in fact, the backyard of my house looked over into the backyard of Kesey’s house, when he had his little cabin there. And Jerry often stayed over [with me]. We didn’t know Kesey, but we were aware of him, because he already had a reputation as a writer and he had a little scene around him. So we were curious about that, and I remember being in my backyard and peering over the fence with Jerry and hearing a party going on there, so we went around—I can’t remember if it was that night or another night—and we tried to gate-crash the party. So we did and we were unceremoniously thrown out. The person who connected our scene—what would be the Grateful Dead scene later on—to Kesey, was Page Browning, who was part of the Chateau scene.”

Kesey finished One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the spring of 1961, and that summer he and Faye and their two kids moved back up to Oregon so Ken could do research for his next novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, a sprawling saga about a logging family. That autumn they returned to Perry Lane, and for the next year-plus Kesey worked diligently on his opus, while still finding lots of time for extracurricular partying, psychedelic and otherwise. The cottage on Perry Lane was razed by developers in June 1963 and was eventually replaced by more upscale housing. By the time the bulldozers arrived, though, Kesey had already found a cabin deep in the La Honda redwoods that was perfect for his needs. It offered the isolation he needed to complete his book, and it was a great party pad, if a bit off the beaten track from Menlo Park. Kesey hoped that the spirit of the old Perry Lane scene would somehow follow him over the mountain down to this magical, sylvan hideaway that looked like something out of Tolkien. But the vibe around Kesey was beginning to change—he had started to attract more friends who shared his interest in chemical exploration, and a sizable contingent of the Perry Lane crowd chose not to make the drive over the hill to La Honda once things started to get more psychedelic than literary.

Kesey was changing, too. By the time he completed Sometimes a Great Notion he had become somewhat disenchanted with the novel as an art form and was looking for new, less static media in which to express himself. Like everyone else in the hip culture of 1964, he was turned on by the Beatles and Dylan and innumerable filmmakers, artists, dancers and writers who seemed to be in the vanguard of some bold but undefinable new movement outside mainstream culture that was picking up steam with each passing month. Kesey talked about what he called the Neon Renaissance: “It’s a need to find a new way to look at the world, an attempt to locate a better reality, now that the old reality is riddled with radioactive poison. I think a lot of people are working in a lot of different ways to locate this reality: Ornette Coleman in jazz, Ann Halprin in dance, the New Wave movies, Lenny Bruce in comedy, Wally Hedrick in art, Heller, Burroughs, Rechy, Günter Grass in writing and those thousands of others whose names would be meaningless, either because they haven’t made it yet, or aren’t working in a medium that has an it to make. But all these people are trying to find out what is happening, why and what can be done with it.”

In the spring of 1964 Kesey decided to drive from California to New York with a few buddies to check out the New York World’s Fair and attend a publication party for Sometimes a Great Notion. Originally, Kesey, his friend George Walker and a couple of others talked about throwing a mattress in the back of a panel truck and cruising across the heartland that way, but then the idea seemed to take on its own incredible momentum, and the result was the fabled psychedelic bus trip of song, story and a never-completed cinema weirdité film. Convinced that film was the new way he and his friends could make art that was more immediate, pliable, real and relevant, Kesey had invested a good chunk of his royalties from Cuckoo’s Nest into buying film and audio recording equipment.

Ken Babbs, who had been part of the Stanford Writing Program, returned from a tour of duty as a chopper pilot in the quickly escalating Vietnam War and signed on with Kesey to go east for the great adventure. Babbs also helped find the mode of transport for the trip, a 1939 International Harvester school bus that Kesey bought for $1,500 and which he and his friends transformed into the perfect tourmobile for the dawn of the psychedelic age—complete with bunk beds, a kitchen, a cut-out rooftop perch, plenty of room for all the wires, speakers and odd equipment that were needed to make the movie, and a paint job (by everyone!) that mixed a million eye-popping colors, swirling patterns, mandalas, op-art geometrics and symbols of unknown origin and meaning, all slopped and glopped on with brushes, walked on with paint-covered feet, poured on in great rainbow streams and sometimes even meticulously labored over in the fashion of Michelangelo high on his scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel. And who was to say that pulsating green curlicue leaping from a field of crimson and midnight blue on the right front fender wasn’t Adam’s finger touching the hand of God? The destination sign on the front read FURTHUR, and on the back WEIRD LOAD.

By the time the bus pulled out of La Honda in mid-June for points south and east, the crew, dubbed the Merry Band of Pranksters (or Merry Pranksters for short), numbered fourteen and included a strange assortment of old and new friends, neighbors, relatives (Kesey’s brother Chuck and Babbs’s brother John) and, to share the driving duties with George Walker, none other than Neal Cassady, the fast-talking, larger-than-life hipster hero of Kerouac books—he was Dean Moriarty in On the Road, Cody Pomeray in The Dharma Bums and Visions of Cody—and Beat-era associate of Ginsberg and Burroughs. Everyone got a new name—Sir Speed Limit (Cassady), the Intrepid Traveler (Ken Babbs), Zonker (Steve Lambrecht), Gretchen Fetchin’ (Paula Sundstun), etc. Almost nothing was planned: “In the bus trip we were working at being spontaneous,” Ron Bevirt (aka Hassler) said in On the Bus. “And we were working at having fun. We were really having fun! And we were Pranksters.” Added Ken Babbs: “We were astronauts of Inner Space, which is as big as outer space. As above, so below. We popped acid, flopped on the floor, hooked up tape recorders and rapped out whole novels. We got up on our feet and played musical instruments, acting out parts we made up on the spot. This wasn’t a summer lark, but a legitimate literary endeavor of artistic merit, holding the promise of commercial success.”

Mainly it was an acid-drenched coast-to-coast goofin’ and freakin’—sort of a traveling dada circus; a rolling conceptual art piece that we now know was actually the signal flare for the great psychedelic bombardment of America that was to follow shortly in Furthur’s Day-Glo wake. You have to give the Pranksters credit for chutzpah: their route to the World’s Fair took them through the heart of the South at a time when racial tensions were at their absolute highest—civil rights workers were being murdered, their bodies dumped by the roadside, that horrible summer. It was mile after mile of cultural weirdness and potentially bad vibes, yet here was the bizarre-looking contraption just swarming with laughing, barely coherent young men and women, spilling out of the magic bus with cameras and musical instruments and God knows what else. They were greeted mainly by delighted, if puzzled, faces—“Gee, never had one of those come through here before”—and curious police patrol cars making damn sure the thing kept movin’ right on through town.

Not surprisingly, the bus caused quite a sensation when it finally arrived in Manhattan. Even though New York is a city that takes weirdness in stride, no one had ever seen anything quite like this blur of bright colors clattering noisily through the midtown streets like some hyperkinetic vehicle from a ’30s cartoon. The World’s Fair, out in the Flushing Meadows section of Queens, was already good and strange, so the Pranksters weren’t quite as conspicuous in that setting. Hell, they could have put the bus in there next to GM’s Futurama or Buckminster Fuller’s mammoth geodesic-domed U.S. Pavilion—which had spaceships outside and Warhol paintings inside—and attracted a line of sight-seers in no time.

The bus arrived back in La Honda near the end of August 1964 after a relatively quick and calm (by Pranksters standards) journey across the northern Midwest, the Canadian Rockies and down the Northwest coast. Cassady and Hassler had returned to California separately in advance of the bus, so the Pranksters’ exploits were already infamous on the Peninsula by the time the bus rumbled, sputtered and gasped its way onto Kesey’s property.

* * *

Before we get back to Garcia’s story, we need to meet one more significant new character—Carolyn Adams, Jerry’s future girlfriend and wife, who became an integral part of the Pranksters’ scene almost immediately after the bus trip. “It was shortly after that that I ran into Neal Cassady and Bradley Hodgman at St. Michael’s,” she says. “They had just come back from the Prankster bus trip. They came up to my table and said, ‘Do you want to go for a ride and smoke a joint?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ I guess I was sort of the ‘babe.’

“I knew who Neal was, of course. Plus he had all his clippings in his wallet! I was an attractive eighteen-year-old and he was a celebrity and I thought he was a weird old guy. Bradley had a Beatle haircut and had been a tennis star at Stanford who also liked speed, and I guess he ran into Neal on the speed circuit. I thought Bradley was really quite cute. Anyway, I decided these guys looked interesting and I went for a ride with them and the ride ended up at Kesey’s and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, look at these people!’ The bus was there in the trees. It was incredible. This beautiful place and the bus was just shimmering in the gloom. And here were all these weird people. I felt instantly at home with them. They’d just gotten back from New York and they were still very high on it, partly with exhaustion I think.”

Carolyn had only been in Palo Alto about a year when Cassady swept her into the Pranksters’ orbit. She had grown up in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the Hudson River valley, the daughter of an entymologist/botanist and a grade school teacher. She had two brothers, five and seven years older, who went to Swarthmore and Haverford out of high school. “They were golden, they could do no wrong; on the crew team, great grades,” she says. “I came along and I did really well for a while, and then when I was about twelve or thirteen it all fell apart for me and I got into the heavy rebelling. I got suspended, which was rough for my parents because my mom was on the school board. I couldn’t stand all that stiffness and regulation. There was just too much of it. I became a sort of class clown, as well, and pulled lots of stunts and was thrown out of high school a few weeks short of graduation.”

She managed to collect her diploma by mail, and in the summer of 1963 Carolyn and the younger of her brothers drove to Palo Alto. “He was in the psychology program [at Stanford] with rooms full of monkeys; I thought it was the nastiest possible scene,” she says. “So I got a job at Stanford. I immediately got hired by the organic chemistry department, making over $400 a month, which was really good back then. But all these organic chemistry guys were leching on me when I was on the graveyard shift, so it wasn’t as cool as it sounds.”

Unbeknownst to Carolyn when she took the chem job at Stanford, some of the scientists she worked with were involved in complex drug research: “They were working on psychedelic drugs and they never told me. What I did know is that when they would send this stuff down for analysis they would look at me really funny and tell me to be really, really careful with the samples. There was a lot of unpsoken stuff going on that I had no clue about. I had no idea about consciousness-expanding drugs.

“Then this Life magazine article came out and it had Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert talking about seeing God, and I thought, ‘Wow! I want to see God, too,’ and I vowed that if any psychedelics came my way I’d try it.”

So she did. “I tried one of the drugs, which turned out to be this leafy African drug called ibogaine. It changes your head and initiates you into the channel of the ancestors. I ended up passing out at my workstation, and when my boss came in at seven-thirty the next day, there I was.”

A few weeks later Carolyn was fired, and shortly after that Cassady showed up. Her boyfriend in Palo Alto had already turned her on to pot, “but I took acid for the first time twenty-four hours after meeting the Pranksters. They were having their debriefing—they’d gotten back from New York and everyone had gone back to their houses to see how everything was, do the laundry and all that. It was a couple of weeks after the bus trip. And of course the debriefing was an excuse for a party, and I got high with them. I thought it was the greatest stuff in the world. My first dose was a really light dose—just enough to see the redwood needles start rearranging themselves in all sorts of intricate Celtic patterns.”

Cassady gave Carolyn her Prankster name, Mountain Girl (to this day, most of her friends call her “M.G.”), but it was with Kesey that she bonded immediately. “We had an instant rapport because I had read Sartre and Albee; I was a reader,” she says. “In my family we read Shakespeare to each other; we had a literary tradition.” Their relationship became physical soon after they met. “I was an interloper to Faye,” Carolyn says. “It was very difficult for her and I was pretty unsympathetic, as young people will be. But I just adored her kids and I thought she had a marvelous family.”

Over the next several months the scene at La Honda continued to grow “and more and more people started glomming onto it and showing up,” Carolyn says. “Ken developed the idea of having these Saturday night parties, and that’s what eventually led to the Acid Tests. It became just a huge social scene.” The Pranksters had set up loudspeakers and colored spotlights in some of the trees on Kesey’s property, and the house itself became a chaotic multimedia center, with music usually blasting at all hours, and M.G. and others working in fits and starts trying to edit the bus footage and audiotapes into a manageable feature film. There were forty-five hours of film to wade through, much of it poorly shot and as incoherent as one might imagine a film of people on LSD and/or amphetamines shot by cameramen high on those same substances would be.

It was only a matter of time before the Warlocks hooked up with Kesey and the Pranksters. In the fall of 1965 the Warlocks were experiencing a bit of an identity crisis. Not that they weren’t getting along and playing music that everyone agreed was evolving to be more interesting, more far-out, every day. It’s just that Phil, or someone, thought they saw a 45 in a record store one day by another group called the Warlocks—beaten to the punch!—though to this day no one has ever confirmed that the record or the other band even existed. Maybe it was a sign; at the very least it was an auspicious opportunity to come up with a moniker that had more weight, in the cosmic sense. “The Warlocks” was a little too Roger Corman B-movie—it was easy to imagine it as the title of a bad mid-’60s gore film. But it wasn’t easy coming up with a new name. The group bandied about a thousand possible names—serious, funny, surrealistic tags that didn’t quite resonate for one reason or another. When they drove up to San Francisco on November 3 to record their first demo tape at Golden State Studios, they went under an interim name, the Emergency Crew; not bad, but not really them either.

That tape, often bootlegged through the years, is the only surviving musical artifact of the band’s pre-Grateful Dead period, and it barely hints at the group’s power as a live act (a problem that would dog the Dead for the rest of their album-making days). In 1964 and ’65, Golden State Studios was the place where up-and-coming bands recorded demos and albums for Autumn Records, the label owned by Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell. The studio was geared to cranking out tapes quickly and cheaply, and Sylvester Stewart, later famous as Sly Stone, was a house producer, known then for being somewhat autocratic and more than a little crazed. John Haeny generally engineered the sessions.

The Emergency Crew cut six songs that afternoon, four originals and two cover tunes. Garcia sang lead on only one song, “Can’t Come Down,” a Dylan-inspired number (shades of “It’s Alright Ma”) in which Jerry sings/raps verses such as the following: “They say I’ve begun to lose my grip / My hold on reality is startin’ to slip / They tell me to get off this trip / They say that it’s like a sinking ship / Life’s sweet wine’s too warm to sip / And if I drink I’ll surely flip / So I just say as I take a dip: I can’t come down / It’s plain to see / I can’t come down / I’ve been set free / Who you are and what you do don’t make no difference to me.” It ain’t Dylan, or Robert Hunter for that matter, but at least it’s an attempt to put into words some of the feelings and attitudes of the early psychedelic age. And the music isn’t bad, either: Pigpen blows harp with zest and power all through the tune, Billy drives the track with his sure, steady beat and Garcia gets in a nice speedy guitar run as the song fades at the three-minute mark.

“Mindbender” (also known as “Confusion’s Prince”) is dominated by a guitar riff that sounds as if it were lifted off Johnny Rivers’s “Secret Agent Man,” and the group’s vocal weaknesses are clearly brought to the fore—Phil and Bob’s tandem lead vocal is anemic and slightly off-pitch, and the harmonies are ragged, to put it charitably. Instrumentally, Pigpen’s piercing Vox Continental organ predominates, though Garcia also gets in a fine solo. The next track, “The Only Time Is Now,” with Phil’s vocal again highest in the mix, has an unmistakable Byrds quality to it, complete with heavy vibrato on Garcia’s guitar and stacked harmonies that the Emergency Crew couldn’t pull off if their lives depended on it.

The remaining three songs each showed a different side of the group (which, of course, is usually the point of a demo tape). “I Know You Rider” was from the folk and blues world; it was an electrified holdover from the days of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. “Early Morning Rain,” written by Gordon Lightfoot, was arranged by the group as a mild slice of folk-rock, which was all the rage then. But the song where the band really cut loose was “Caution,” a locomotive blues jam that Bob Weir said had been inspired by Them’s “Mystic Eyes.” The interweaving of Phil’s relentless, propulsive bass line, Weir’s slashing rhythm guitar attack and Garcia’s wiry lead offers a glimpse of what was ahead; alas, it fades abruptly at just over three minutes. Live, it was one of the songs that the band stretched out on a bit.

It was sometime in November 1965, while the band and a few friends were sitting around Phil’s apartment on High Street in Palo Alto, smoking DMT and thumbing through a gargantuan Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, that the group’s name was revealed (cue biblical trumpets!). As Jerry said in his oft-quoted 1969 description of the episode, “There was ‘grateful dead,’ those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, y’know, like everything else on the page went blank, diffuse, just sort of oozed away, and there was grateful dead. Big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, ‘How about Grateful Dead?’ and that was it.” Later, he noted, “Nobody in the band liked it. I didn’t like it, either, but it got around that that was one of the candidates for our new name and everyone else said, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ It turned out to be tremendously lucky. It’s just repellent enough to filter curious onlookers and just quirky enough that parents don’t like it,” he added with a laugh.

Perhaps the most common misconception about the name is that it derives from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. In fact it comes from a folktale that is found in many cultures dating back hundreds of years. As that Funk and Wagnalls dictionary defined the term, it is “a motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero’s coming upon a group of people ill-treating or refusing to bury the corpse of a man who died without paying his debts. He gives his last penny, either to pay the man’s debts or to give him a decent burial. Within a few hours he meets with a traveling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune, saves his life, etc. The story ends with the companion disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the other had befriended.”

Garcia stumbled upon the name during a period when the band wasn’t playing many gigs, but they still rehearsed regularly to keep their chops up and try to develop new material. Garcia admitted that the grind of playing five sets a night, six days a week eventually became stultifying: “We just did it and did it and did it. And we got good doing it. It was a great way to get good. And we were young enough to love it. And we made enough so we could quit our day jobs. That happened immediately; that was the first thing that happened with us. But we were already burning out on the professional level that was available to us about the time the Acid Test came to our attention.”