Where Is the Child Who Played with the Sunshine? - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


Where Is the Child Who Played with the Sunshine?

he band’s exodus to Marin County began in the spring of 1968, when Jerry and Mountain Girl moved into a little house behind the Silver Peso bar in downtown Larkspur. Shortly after that, Weir and Mickey found a place in Novato; Phil and Rosie settled in Fairfax; and Billy moved out to rural West Marin, off Lucas Valley Road. Pigpen stayed in San Francisco a while longer than the others, living with Veronica in a converted church that was owned by the Dead’s sometime lawyer Brian Rohan. Eventually they left, too, moving into Weir’s digs, while Mickey moved onto a ranch in a rustic, undeveloped part of Novato. Actually, the ranch had been under hippie control for some time already—it was being leased from the city by Rock Scully and Jonathan Reister, a fourth-generation Kentucky horseman who had been one of the managers of the Carousel Ballroom and a pioneer of the West Coast acid scene before that. Dubbed the “Pondareister” (or, after Mickey moved in, “Hart’s Delight”), the ranch became a bucolic hangout for the entire Dead scene, a place where people could ride horses and live out their fantasies of being pioneers of the new Wild West. Mickey eventually took over the lease for the ranch and built a recording studio—the first bandmember to do so—in the barn on the property.

After several years of everyone living on top of each other in the Haight and doing everything together, the move to Marin must have felt like getting a friendly invitation to slow down a tad, take it a little easier.

“It was never the same again after we left San Francisco,” Rosie says. “That was definitely a transition. Before that, we were all living together and being together and we did that for a couple of years. It changed after that. Then it became different nuclear units—couples and families were starting. Then the gigs became the focal point, or the rehearsal place. But that was okay. By then we all needed a little more space.”

Anthem of the Sun came out in July 1968 and proved to be a challenging disc for Warner Bros. to market, even in an era when free-form FM radio stations were popping up all over the country. Nothing on the record was remotely “commercial” in the traditional sense—short and punchy—and since each side tracked continuously, it was difficult for deejays to, say, drop the needle onto “New Potato Caboose” and play only that. Rather than touring to promote the record, the Dead stayed in California the entire summer and actually began working on their third album in early September. It was as if the process of making Anthem of the Sun had been the important thing for the Dead—learning how to make a record themselves—and the end result was secondary.

By that summer, the songwriting partnership of Garcia and Hunter was picking up steam. Joining “China Cat” and “Dark Star” in their canon that June was a big, rubbery rock song called “Saint Stephen,” with music by Garcia and Lesh, tandem lead vocals by Garcia and Weir, and a catchy central riff that sounded almost like a spry Elizabethan dance played on rock instruments. Hunter said he wrote the lyrics over the course of a couple of inspired evenings with a light, lilting feel in mind, “and then [the band] put this up-against-the-wall-motherfucker arrangement on it. We came up with a hybrid that hit between the eyes!”

Lyrically, the song is quite obtuse—we never really learn who Stephen is or why “wherever he goes the people all complain,” for instance. But in a way “Saint Stephen” is the prototypical Hunter composition, blending vivid psychedelic imagery (“Ladyfinger dipped in moonlight / Writing ‘What for?’ across the morning sky”) with a scattershot of lines and couplets that might have been drawn from the yellowing pages of some now forgotten culture’s Book of Wisdom, or its epic tales. In the jumbled swirl of images—“sunlight splatters dawn with answers”—and aphorisms—“Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills / One man gathers what another man spills”—there’s an oddly reassuring tone to the piece as a whole, as if the poet is reaching out to share something with us, and what that is will become clear … when it becomes clear, if you’ll pardon the Zen. Hunter made a point of never explaining what his lyrics “mean” or his intention with a given song, “because if it is that concrete, if I can really explain it, I might as well write books of philosophy,” he said. “The poet is touching and questioning; it’s open to interpretation.” And as with all poetry, the way Hunter’s lyrics resonate with someone depends on that person’s sensitivity, openness, the particulars of his or her own life and a thousand other undefinable factors that sometimes magically allow insight to bloom where before there was opacity or confusion.

“Saint Stephen” was the first song the band tackled when they went into Pacific Recording in San Mateo in early September to begin work on their album. Armed with their extensive studio experience making Anthem of the Sun, the Dead were determined to take their time and make a record that was a true studio creation rather than something that reflected the way the group played live. Bob Matthews was elevated to chief engineer for the project, which, like Anthem, ended up sprawling over many months in between Dead tours. In fact, a few months into the project, Matthews was able to get a hold of the first sixteen-track tape recorder made by the Ampex Corporation (based on the Peninsula), and the original eight-track tapes that had been made on a few songs were transferred to sixteen-track and then added to. Now, in the case of the Grateful Dead, doubling the number of available tracks wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because they took the increased tape capacity as a challenge to experiment even more in the studio, which meant everything took longer than expected. It didn’t help, either, that the band was dabbling in all sorts of mind-altering drugs in the studio just to see how they affected their work. Besides the standard pot and LSD, Garcia said they sometimes sipped beverages laced with the powerful hallucinogen STP in the studio—“which made it a little weird; in fact, very weird,” he said—and brought in tanks of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), a drug noted for the way it colors aural perception.

One track the band worked on that fall, Hunter and Garcia’s “What’s Become of the Baby,” was recorded and mixed in part on nitrous oxide, and the finished song actually has some of the character of a nitrous experience, with its slow, surreal, electronically treated Garcia vocal floating eerily above a ghostly wash of feedback, reverb-laden gongs and other completely indistinguishable instruments. It’s a truly odd number—essentially just voice and electronics—and light-years from Garcia’s original conception of the song as “baroque… . The original setting I’d worked out was really like one of those song forms from the New York Pro Musica.” Later, though, “I had a desire to make it much weirder than that and I didn’t know how to do it… . I had something specific in mind, but simply couldn’t execute it because I didn’t have the tools. It’s too bad, because it’s an incredible lyric and I feel I threw the song away somewhat.”

It’s true that Garcia’s sonic experiments did ultimately obfuscate some of Hunter’s best late-’60s lyrics, which were filled with exotic psychedelic pictures and a strong metaphorical undercurrent that could easily be interpreted as being about lost innocence and the vanished promise of the acid culture’s golden days:

Scheherezade gathering stories to tell

From primal gold fantasy petals that fall

But where is the child

Who played with the sunshine

And chased the cloud sheep

To the regions of rhyme?

There were strange goings-on outside the recording studio, too. In September and October 1968, three years into their history, the Grateful Dead faced a crisis that nearly derailed the group. Garcia and Lesh determined that Weir and Pigpen weren’t pulling their weight musically in the band, weren’t in tune with the more complex compositions the band was writing and, according to Rock Scully, “Jerry kind of put it on me to fire them. It was a totally musical decision. Bobby wasn’t progressing—he was still playing the electric guitar like an acoustic guitar, and Jerry was trying to get him to loosen up and be a rhythm guitar player. Bobby was still a student, but not listening.” Bobby had nearly been fired in the fall of 1967, and as Jonathan Reister, their road manager beginning in mid-1968, says, “Bobby was our little juvenile delinquent. Most of the band fights were about his guitar playing.”

As for Pigpen, Scully said, “I don’t think that Pig, without being high on LSD, could quite understand the direction the music was taking. And their music did change a lot in that period. Jerry spent a lot of time trying to describe and explain where he thought the music was going, and so did Phil. Phil was a very high dude in those days. Now he’s considered a genius, but in those days he was just this weird ex-postal worker who’d just taken up the bass but had some really neat ideas musically. He was willing to push that envelope.

“But if the firing had to happen, it happened at a good time, because we were just sort of doodling in the studio. We weren’t making any money. We didn’t have any gigs booked, so there was really no loss, except emotionally. I was against it, but Jerry put it on me as the manager to do it. Phil was behind it and so was Kreutzmann. But to fire nearly half your unit …”

Scully said that Pigpen took the firing hard, but in Garcia’s rosier memory, “we never actually let him go; we just didn’t want him playing keyboard, because he just didn’t know what to do on the kind of material we were writing. It seemed like we were heading some [musical] place in a big way and Pigpen just wasn’t open to it.”

No one seems to remember exactly how long Weir and Pigpen were out of the band. Weir suggested it was “a couple of months,” but using Deadbase’s show list as a guide, it appears there was never a period of more than two weeks between Dead shows at any time during September or October 1968, so it couldn’t have been too long. “It didn’t take,” Garcia noted with a laugh. “We fired them, all right, but they just kept coming back.”

Nevertheless, during October the Dead minus Weir and Pigpen played a loose series of jam nights at the Matrix club as Mickey and the Hartbeats, and invited a variety of musicians down to play with them, including Elvin Bishop, Paul Butterfield, Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden. Though a few of the jams that came out of these evenings were centered on some of the Dead’s most open-ended material, like “Dark Star” and “The Eleven,” mostly the musicians stuck to blues tunes and various progressions that gave everyone plenty of room to blow.

The Weir problem evidently took care of itself over time—he rededicated himself to his instrument to the satisfaction of his detractors. To get around the problem of Pigpen’s limited skills as a musician, the Dead hired Tom Constanten to play keyboards beginning in November 1968. “Pigpen was relegated to the congas at that point,” said Jon McIntire, who was brought on board to help road manager Jonathan Reister in the summer of ’68, “and it was really humiliating and he was really hurt, but he couldn’t show it, couldn’t talk about it. He never came up to me and said, ‘I can’t stand what they’re doing to me,’ or anything like that. I bet he didn’t say it to anyone; I don’t even know if he said it to himself—maybe when he went for the bottle the first time after it happened he said it to himself.”

Constanten was even more a stranger to the rock world before he joined the Grateful Dead than his friend Phil Lesh had been. You’ll recall that Phil and T.C. took music classes together at UC Berkeley (although T.C. originally enrolled there to study astrophysics) and that they studied with Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, and then T.C. continued working under Berio’s tutelage in Europe. Later, on Berio’s recommendation, T.C. hooked up with another well-known avant-garde composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, in Darmstadt, Germany, and in Brussels he studied with Henri Pousseur. Upon returning to the U.S. in the mid-’60s, T.C. enlisted in the air force as a way to avoid being drafted into the army. Though he regarded his stint in the military “like a bullshit job with a silly suit,” at least it gave him time to compose—indeed, T.C. was very prolific during his time in the military, and a few of his orchestral works were performed by the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra.

On his furloughs T.C. would often go to the Bay Area, where Phil was playing first with a crazy electric blues group called the Warlocks, and then with the Grateful Dead. Not surprisingly, hanging out in the Dead scene brought T.C. in contact with the psychedelic underground, and he was personally responsible for bringing quite a bit of LSD to his hometown of Las Vegas. He was still a short-haired serviceman when he worked with the Dead on Anthem of the Sun in the fall of 1967 and winter of ’68.

Constanten was discharged from the air force on November 22, 1968, after serving three and a half years, and he immediately took the group up on its earlier invitation to join the band on the road. He flew to Ohio the next day and played his first gig with them on November 23 at Ohio University in Athens. Although he hadn’t had a chance to rehearse with the band, “I’d heard the albums, I knew the changes and knew I could land on my feet in improvisatory situations.” Immediately the Dead’s jams took on a new richness with the addition of T.C.’s organ work, though he felt his playing was tentative at first.

T.C. said that he felt hampered by having to play the same cheesy-sounding Vox Continental organ that Pigpen usually took on the road: “I didn’t like the sound it put out at all. There was something about the Continental in that particular band that grated. The Dead’s guitars were these strands of gold and filaments of light, but the Vox was like a hunk of chrome. I had terribly mixed emotions about everything I was playing because the sound didn’t please me. After a bit of moving, shaking and agitating, I convinced them to let me play a Hammond B-3, which I was able to enjoy a bit more.”

(Garcia changed his axe at some point in 1968, too, retiring his Guild Starfire and picking up the warmer-sounding Gibson SG Les Paul model. In ’69 he switched back and forth between that guitar and a regular Gibson Les Paul.)

In January 1969 the group returned to Pacific Recording to cut tracks for “China Cat Sunflower” and two new Hunter-Garcia songs, “Mountains of the Moon” and “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” both of which Garcia decided to put in settings dominated by acoustic guitars. That’s about all those two songs have in common, however—they couldn’t be farther apart lyrically and in terms of the mood each creates.

With its flowery T.C. harpsichord line, “Mountains of the Moon” sounds like a throwback to an earlier age; it’s practically a minuet. And Hunter’s lyrics paint a picture of a mythical world far removed from our own:

Twenty degrees of solitude

Twenty degrees in all

All the dancing kings and wives

Assembled in the hall

Lost is a long and lonely time

Fairy Sybil flying

All along the all along the

Mountains of the moon

“That song turned out nicely,” Garcia said. “I don’t know what made me think I could do a song like that, but something at the time made me think I could do it.”

Hunter once said that “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” was the only song he ever wrote drunk, but that’s not to suggest that lyrically it’s sloppy or anything less than clever. “Dupree’s” was the first of a handful of songs that Hunter and Garcia wrote together where they essentially plucked stories out of the folk/blues tradition and reworked the themes in their own way. In this case, there were already a number of songs, dating back to the ’20s, that told the (true) story of Frank DuPre, who in December 1921 robbed an Atlanta jewelry store to get a diamond ring for his girlfriend and killed a policeman while escaping the scene. The dapper DuPre was hanged in September 1922, and he instantly became the subject of various songs in both white and black folk music circles. “Hunter and I always had this thing where we liked to muddy the folk tradition by adding our own songs to the tradition,” Garcia said. “It’s the thing of taking a well-founded tradition and putting in something that’s totally looped. So that’s Hunter’s version of that [song]. Originally, it’s one of those cautionary tales; one of those ‘Don’t take your gun to town’-type tunes. So Hunter elaborated on that in a playful way.”

At concerts during the winter and spring of 1969, the band sometimes paired “Dupree’s” and “Mountain of the Moon” at the beginning of their second set, with Garcia and Weir playing acoustic guitars onstage for the first time in the Dead’s history. Then, more often than not, those songs gave way to “Dark Star,” as the set would leave the warm, homey acoustic plane for more remote galactic destinations. The band loved to set up those kinds of juxtapositions—acoustic into electric music, country tunes coming out of space jams or an out-of-control, high-energy romp like “The Eleven” abruptly followed by a slow blues tune like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” which Garcia sang and played with such unbridled passion in the late ’60s.

A third acoustic tune Hunter and Garcia wrote around this time was a wispy ballad called “Rosemary,” which, according to T.C., Garcia brought into the studio as a completed four-track tape. It’s just a Garcia vocal (altered by running the signal through a Leslie organ cabinet to give it a weird, treated quality) and two fingerpicked acoustic guitars, double-tracked by Garcia; there’s no bass, drums or keyboards. The band never performed the song in concert, and there’s no evidence the other members of the group ever played it at all. Lyrically, “Rosemary” feels almost fragmentary, as if it’s just a part of some larger song.

The band worked up a couple of new electric Hunter-Garcia songs in the studio in the winter of ’69, too. “Doin’ That Rag” was a curious, quirky, lighthearted little number with a hint of a jug band feel in places. With its succession of quick tempo changes between verse and chorus and even within each chorus, it was a fairly difficult tune for the band to perform live. That’s one reason Garcia only played the song for a few months in ’69; he also once said he had a tough time getting into the lyrics, which do lean toward the cryptic and inaccessible:

Sitting in Mangrove Valley chasing light beams

Everything wanders from maybe to Z

Baby, baby, pretty young on Tuesday

Old like a rum-drinking demon at tea

“Cosmic Charlie” was a more successful song all the way around, a loping midtempo number with unison lead vocals by Garcia and Weir and a screaming Garcia slide guitar line that weaves through the entire song and is so on the money that it prompts the question: Why didn’t Garcia play slide guitar more during his career? He also plays a fingerpicking acoustic guitar line that gives the blues-based tune a dash of Mississippi John Hurt or Reverend Gary Davis feeling. Hunter’s words seem to be, at least in part, a gentle, mocking put-down of undirected, “cosmic” hippie types:

Cosmic Charlie, how do you do?

Truckin’ in style along the avenue

Dumdeedumdee doodley doo

Go on home, your mama’s calling you …

Say you’ll come back when you can

Whenever your airplane happens to land

Maybe I’ll be back here, too

It all depends on what’s with you

Garcia admitted that in many of the songs he and Hunter wrote in 1968, “we were both being more or less obscure, and there are lots of levels on the verbal plane in terms of the lyrics being very far-out; too far-out, really, for most people.” He also complained that some of the music he composed during that period was unnecessarily complicated and difficult to sing. Of “Cosmic Charlie,” for instance, he noted, “It doesn’t have any room to breathe” and “trying to sing that song and play it at the same time is almost impossible.” “Cosmic Charlie” was not performed very often (the final version was in 1976), but it was always a fan favorite—during the ’80s and ’90s a group calling itself the Cosmic Charlie Campaign wrote letters and circulated petitions in a futile effort to get the band to play the song again.

In the winter of 1968-69 the Dead started to venture more regularly outside of California. In November and December of 1968 they hit three cities in Ohio, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Louisville on one swing, and Houston and Miami on another before closing the year as headliners for “The Fillmore Scene at Winterland” New Year’s Eve bash that also included Quicksilver and two of the best “second-generation” San Francisco rock bands, Santana and It’s a Beautiful Day. Then, after working more on their third album during the first three weeks of 1969, the band hit the road again, playing Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York City (opening for Janis Joplin at the Fillmore East) and Philadelphia—a grueling two-week trek across frozen tundra to snowbound cities that earned little money at most stops. Looking back from a time when rock tours gross millions of dollars and top bands routinely stay in luxury hotels, it’s sometimes difficult to picture an era when there really wasn’t a touring “industry” in rock, and bands had to continually scramble to find airplane flights, hotels to stay in and places to play.

“I got kicked off seven national airlines for holding up flights so that two hundred people missed their connections; things like that,” says Jonathan Reister. “We were sometimes checking in two hundred or three hundred pieces of equipment as extra baggage. I’d have thirteen, fourteen, fifteen tickets [for the band, managers and crew] and I’d check in the equipment as extra baggage for each of us. It took forever, and sometimes it also made the plane heavier than it should have been.”

Typically, the entire band and crew would travel from place to place using Rock Scully’s American Express card as their collateral, whether Scully was there or not. “That was the only credit card we had and we owed $10,000 on it all the time—that was our limit,” Reister says. “I was sending money back from the road all the time just to keep the card open for another day or another week. Everything was a hustle—not that we were burning people, just that we never had quite the right cards or documentation, and of course we looked outrageous. I finally told the band, ‘Look, don’t come anywhere near me when I’m getting the car; don’t come to the rental desk with me.’ Which, of course, Weir loved to do, and then he’d act weird. Jerry really stood out a lot in those days, too, because he used to wear this brightly colored serape and he had a big natural, and people had never seen anything like that in Nebraska. It was like walking with an apparition. I always had short hair and a cowboy hat, but everyone would stare at Jerry.”

“Occasionally you’d arrive at these cheap hotels and they wouldn’t know you were a bunch of longhairs until you got there, and they’d refuse to let you in,” Jon McIntire remembered. “That happened to us several times. First you’d try to be diplomatic and try to convince them to let you stay there. Usually I was successful at that. But sometimes I couldn’t do that and we’d have to scramble to find another place.”

“We’d walk into a Holiday Inn or someplace and they’d say, ‘Oh no you don’t, not here!’” Garcia recalled with a laugh. “We got that kind of reaction the first couple of years we were out. People weren’t used to seeing freaks back then. That was still a big novelty. That was fun for us ’cause it was the last chance you had to shock people, just by the way you looked, just by the way you were. You didn’t have to think about it or work at it at all. You could just walk down the street and people would go, ‘Oh my God!’ That was fun. We got in on the last of that probably.”

Of course the restaurateurs’ and moteliers’ fears were occasionally well-founded. As Weir put it in 1995, “We left some smoking craters of some Holiday Inns, I’ll say that. There were a lot of places that wouldn’t have us back.”

And while the Dead were unknown in many cities in the late ’60s, their reputation as free-spirited drug users preceded them in some areas. When the group arrived in Miami in the spring of 1969, for example, “the chief of police actually came onto our plane, asked who the road manager was and then told me, ‘We’re going to follow you everywhere you go,’” Reister says. “St. Louis was another bad town. The police showed up in force at the airport and introduced themselves. ‘We’re here. We’re gonna watch you sons of bitches. We want you out of town as soon as possible.’ They made it very clear they did not want us there. They thought we were going to get their daughters high and fuck ’em—and they were right,” he adds with a chuckle.

Mostly, though, life on the road for the Dead in the late ’60s was what it has always been for traveling musicians: tedious, uneventful; marking time between the gigs, which is where the band would really come alive and enjoy themselves. “Jerry was my roommate on the road, and he wasn’t much into the late-night party scene in those days in hotels on the road,” Reister says, “at least outside of the big cities on the East Coast. There was always more happening in New York or Boston, of course. But one of my favorite memories of Jerry is being in a motel somewhere, with him sitting on the edge of my bed watching Captain Kangaroo with no sound, playing scales on his guitar while I was on the phone to the next city or whatever. He was a marvelous guy; a great storyteller. Well-spoken, well-read, a lot of fun to travel with.”

As 1969 rolled along, both Warner Bros. and the band became increasingly concerned about the group’s precarious financial state. Though the group toured more in ’69 than in any previous year, they barely broke even on the road, and the album was costing an astronomical amount for that era—close to $100,000. Then, from out of nowhere, came Lenny Hart—Mickey’s dad—who had become a Christian fundamentalist preacher, full of fire-and-brimstone sermons and, strangely enough, a rap that convinced the Dead he could manage the group’s business affairs and sail the good ship Grateful Dead into calmer waters. “Lenny was a preacher and he preached the gospel of the band,” Hunter said. “He was dynamic and intelligent, and if he was a Jesus freak, then he could probably be trusted, so that was okay with the band.

“It was a signal moment: he asked us what we wanted. And we said it—we wanted to do this for the rest of our lives. It wasn’t supposed to be possible in rock; it was a teenage phenomenon. You lasted five years and it was over.”

“What we wanted to do was play music, and we didn’t want to have to be businessmen,” Garcia said. “We didn’t even want to decide; we just wanted to play… . It never occurred to us that there were options. It never even occurred to us that you could plan. We were truly coming from an unstructured space.”

Reister and Hunter were among a small group who say they never trusted Lenny Hart, and even warned the group against hiring him, but it would be several months before the wisdom of their position became apparent to everyone else.

“The band was always wishy-washy about these kind of things,” Reister says. “One of Garcia’s bad character defects is that he’d just go with the flow. Nobody wanted to hassle in those days, so they sometimes took the easy way out, which wasn’t always the smartest way.”

The Dead’s third album, Aoxomoxoa (a title concocted by cover artist Rick Griffin in consultation with Robert Hunter; the Dead’s original title for the record was Earthquake Country), appeared in record stores in late June 1969, after eight months of on-and-off recording and mixing sessions. Although the album contained nicely nuanced versions of Dead concert favorites like “Saint Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “Cosmic Charlie,” the record’s overall feel was quite different from a Dead show during this era. There was no jamming to speak of; three of the songs were driven by acoustic guitars; there was the peculiar and not particularly successful vocal experiment “What’s Become of the Baby”; and Weir and Pigpen had no lead vocals on the album—indeed, Pigpen does not appear on the record at all. The album was not a commercial success—though “Saint Stephen” did get some FM airplay—and the single release of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” backed with “Cosmic Charlie,” was an utter failure.

“I like that record personally, just for its weirdness really,” Garcia said a couple of years after the album came out. “The tapes were well-recorded, and the music is well-played and everything on it is really right. It’s just that it was our first adventure with sixteen-track and we tended to put too much on everything. We tended to use up every track, and then when we were mixing, we were all of us trying to mix. It came out mixed by committee. A lot of the music was just lost in the mix, a lot of what was really there.”

It’s telling that in late 1971 Garcia and Lesh went back into the studio and completely remixed the record, stripping away entire parts—like the otherworldy female backup vocals on “Mountains of the Moon” and the cute barbershop quartet-style vocal ending of “Doin’ That Rag”—and generally making a leaner, better-sounding album. (The CD version of the album is the remix, so in essence the original Aoxomoxoa is “lost.”)

The middle of 1969 found the group playing some of its most adventurous and challenging music, with long, beautifully developed versions of “Dark Star,” “That’s It for the Other One,” “The Eleven” and “Love Light” being commonplace, and songs like “Saint Stephen” and “China Cat” becoming more powerful and assured almost with each playing. By then, most of the material from Anthem of the Sun had either receded to the background or, in the case of both “New Potato Caboose” and “Born Cross-Eyed,” been dropped altogether, never to be played again by the Dead. The band’s approach—born of endless rehearsal during the Anthem era—of connecting tunes together continued to be a vital part of their operating ethos all the way up until Garcia’s death, but it’s fair to say that by mid-1969 there was very little collective composition going on. The band still rehearsed occasionally (though less and less as they toured more), but their sessions were no longer characterized by the sort of obsessive pursuit of the unknown that had characterized late ’67 and ’68, when they were discovering the raw power of the sextet and, in essence, beginning to forge their mature group sound. By the spring of ’69 it was also clear that Hunter and Garcia were becoming serious songwriters, and that Garcia was as interested in directing his energy toward becoming a craftsman in that area as he had been in honing his instrumental voice in earlier years. This was the beginning of the golden era of the Hunter-Garcia partnership and a gradual simplification of the Dead’s sound, as the duo moved away from the strange, often impenetrable imagery of their most psychedelic pieces into a somewhat simpler folk and country vein.

For Hunter, the epiphany that led him to pursue a new direction in his writing was hearing Music from Big Pink, the debut album by the Band. The onetime backup group for Bob Dylan had fashioned an extraordinary record that tapped into many of the same Southern roots the Dead originally drew upon, and in guitarist Robbie Robertson the Band had a songwriter capable of spinning the group’s influences into something that was utterly new while still sounding familiar. And the Band’s eponymous second album (aka “the Brown Album” after the dominant color on the cover), released in 1969, was even more successful at depicting characters who inhabited some mythic dimension from America’s past yet seemed to speak clearly to a late-twentieth-century audience.

“I was very much impressed with the area Robertson was working in,” Hunter said. “I took it and moved it west, which is the area I’m familiar with, and thought, ‘Okay, how about modern ethnic?’ Regional, but not the South, because everyone was going back to the South for inspiration at that time.”

Hunter found that Garcia’s own tastes were moving in the same direction as his—that Jerry was more interested in writing songs like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” (which would have fit nicely on either of the Band’s first two records) than “What’s Become of the Baby.” And it helped that beginning in late ’68 or early ’69 the two actually lived together: Garcia and Mountain Girl gave up their Larkspur cottage and, with Hunter and his girlfriend, Christie, moved into a wonderful house at the end of Larkspur’s redwood-studded Madrone Canyon, just a few blocks from Janis Joplin’s Baltimore Canyon house, as fate would have it. The house at 271 Madrone sat on an acre of land, had a creek running behind it, tall trees surrounding it and morning light that came through the branches in great golden shafts.

“I’d be sitting upstairs banging on my typewriter, picking up my guitar, singin’ something, then going back to the typewriter,” Hunter recalled. “Jerry would be downstairs practicing guitar, working things out. You could hear fine through the floors there, and by the time I’d come down with a sheet and slap it down in front of him, Jerry already knew how they should go! He probably had to suffer through my incorrect way of doing them,” he added with a chuckle.

“Hunter was up twenty-four hours a day, chain-smoking, and he’d come down in the morning and he’d have a stack of songs,” Mountain Girl says. “‘Wow, Hunter, these are fantastic.’ ‘Do you really think so?’ And he’d challenge Jerry to sit down right then and write a tune for it; or he might have already worked out some chord changes for it and Jerry would say, ‘Oh no, man, that’s not the way it should be; it should be like this.’ But to see Hunter walk out of his room in the morning with a stack of freshly minted tunes was pretty exciting. It was just incredible how fast those tunes fell together once they got on them. It was a tremendous time for everybody.”

The first three songs Hunter and Garcia produced in the Madrone house in the spring of 1969 were indicative of the direction their work was heading in this era:

“Dire Wolf,” which Hunter wrote one night after staying up late with M.G. watching the Sherlock Holmes film The Hound of the Baskervilles, told a tale of the struggle between man and nature, in which a settler in the snowy “timbers of Fennario,” after having a supper of “a bottle of red whiskey,” tempts fate by inviting a wolf into his isolated cabin and then playing a game of cards with the beast, presumably to determine the poor man’s ultimate fate—sort of a backwoods version of the chess game in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In this case, the theme is much darker than the presentation. Garcia’s musical setting for Hunter’s story is light and folky—as if it might have come from the campfire sing-along mentioned in the last verse—even though the opening verse makes it clear that the narrator probably perishes (“I said my prayers and went to bed, that’s the last they saw of me”). The chorus is a plaintive “Don’t murder me / I beg of, you don’t murder me / Please don’t murder me,” which Garcia always seemed to sing with a sort of amused “poor sucker” tone in his voice.

In its first versions in the spring of 1969, “Casey Jones” was much more country-flavored than the song that ended up on Workingman’s Dead a year later, more like something that could have been lifted out of the repertoire of Buck Owens. Of course Buck Owens wasn’t about to sing a song with lyrics like these:

Driving that train, high on cocaine

Casey Jones you better watch your speed

Trouble ahead, trouble behind

And you know that notion just crossed my mind

Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” the Hunter-Garcia “Casey Jones” put a new spin on an old story, and actually blended two different song streams from the oral tradition. As Garcia explained, “There’s a whole tradition of cocaine songs—‘Cocaine’s for horses, not for men / Doctors say it’ll kill you, but they don’t say when’; they have lyrics like that. Then there’s a whole group of ‘Casey Jones’ songs, so we thought it would be fun to combine these two traditional ideas and put them into one song.” It was more than coincidence that the song was written at a time when cocaine first started to turn up in the Dead’s scene with some regularity, though at first the white powder was regarded more as simply a pleasant pick-me-up to be enjoyed when it was around, rather than as an essential tool for surviving the rigors of the road, as it was viewed later. And while the straight media were scandalized by the song’s supposed glorification of cocaine—Hunter acknowledged he put cocaine in a “lightly romanticized context”—the lyrics reveal that it is a cautionary fable, not an endorsement of the drug. After all, Hunter’s Casey Jones character, like the real early-twentieth-century figure all the tradition’s songs are based upon—John Luther Jones of Cayce, Kentucky—dies in a train wreck.

“I always thought it’s a pretty good musical picture of what cocaine is like—a little bit evil, and hard-edged,” Garcia said. “And also that sing-songy thing, because that’s what it is, a sing-songy thing, a little melody that gets in your head.”

The third Hunter-Garcia song introduced that spring was the most hard-core country of them all, the exquisite, melancholy ballad “High Time.” Musically, the song could have come from any one of the top Nashville or Bakersfield writers of the day, but lyrically it was much more complex than it appeared on the surface, with its deft intermingling of past, present and future, anticipation and regret, clarity and confusion. Garcia once complained that he wasn’t a good enough singer to do the song justice; nevertheless, it became one of the group’s most successful live songs in mid-’69, a plaintive little Patsy Cline saloon break in the midst of the band’s nightly journeys through distant nebula and intricate psychedelic dreamscapes. The Dead in the second half of 1969 were really three bands in one—the jamming band that stretched in every conceivable musical direction in search of new sounds, new musical shapes and uncharted emotional terrain; the funky R&B machine that took over when Pigpen strutted the stage during the group’s extended workouts on “Love Light” and “Hard to Handle”; and the country band that sparkled on the short, punchy new Hunter-Garcia originals and Weir-sung tunes like John Phillips’s “Me and My Uncle” (actually a Dead staple since ’66), the traditional song “Slewfoot,” the Springfields’ “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”

The Dead’s turn toward country coincided with (but was not necessarily influenced by) a movement in that direction in rock music as a whole. Near the end of 1968 the Rolling Stones released Beggar’s Banquet, which contained a big dollop of country blues. The Byrds had ambled down a country road during Gram Parsons’s brief tenure with the band; he and Chris Hillman then split off from the Byrds to form the countrified Flying Burrito Brothers. Bob Dylan emerged from the symbolist forest he’d created on John Wesley Harding and simplified his sound to cut Nashville Skyline. Poco had risen out of the ashes of the original country-rock band, Buffalo Springfield, and immediately developed a strong hippie following. In mid-1969 another Springfield alumnus, Stephen Stills, got together with another ex-Byrd, David Crosby, and former Hollies singer Graham Nash to form the mainly acoustic trio Crosby, Stills and Nash. They recorded an album that fairly glistened with bright harmonies and warm, acoustic textures, and had a deep impact on many bands, the Dead included. In fact, Crosby and Stills spent a lot of time around the Dead scene during 1969, mainly at Mickey Hart’s ranch, and the band often credited those two with influencing them to spend more time working on their harmony singing, which had never been the band’s strong suit, to put it kindly.

“They had listened to us a lot,” Crosby said, “and they liked what happened when three-part harmony went over a good track. It’s very generous of them to credit us with it, but we never sat down with them in a room and said, ‘Okay, now, you sing this, you sing this.’ That never happened. Those guys are brilliant. They knew exactly what they were doing, and they evolved their own version of it. They just credited us to be nice.”

Of course Garcia had strong country inflections in both his singing and playing dating back to his folk and bluegrass days, but in March of 1969 he took it a step further when he bought a Zane-Beck (ZB) pedal steel guitar in Denver during the band’s spring tour. Garcia had owned a Fender pedal steel back in 1966, but at that point he found it too complicated to set up and too difficult to find time to learn how to play, so he sold his instrument to Banana (Lowell Levenger) of the Youngbloods. When the Dead returned to California after the tour, Garcia took the pedal steel to the band’s rehearsal hall in Novato and began teaching himself the rudiments of the instrument. Interestingly, in the mid-’60s and early ’70s there were a number of city-bred banjo pickers who took up pedal steel, including Eric Weissberg, Winnie Winston, Tony Trischka, Mayne Smith and, perhaps most notably, Bill Keith, who had been one of Garcia’s major banjo influences.

“When I heard that Jerry had bought a pedal steel,” John Dawson recalls, “I boldly invited myself over to his house to hear what it sounded like. I brought my guitar along and I played him a couple of my songs and he literally sat there and dove into the pedal steel guitar, like jumping into a swimming pool without even checking the water. We had a nice evening and that was really the beginning of the whole New Riders thing.”

Dawson had been on the periphery of Garcia’s world since the Palo Alto days. He had been part of the early acid scene on the Peninsula and was a witness to the birth of the Grateful Dead, but he was never very interested in playing rock ’n’ roll himself, and instead spent hours listening to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, “getting off on how they used electric guitars to make this real sparse but beautiful sound,” Dawson says. “Their harmonies were crisp and clean and the songs made good sense. If you were a guitar player and you wanted to play country, you had to listen to Don Rich [Owens’s guitarist]. Everybody did, including Jerry, of course. We’d all listen to that Carnegie Hall record that Buck Owens did and try to figure out how [Rich] made those sounds.”

Dawson had seen Garcia on and off through the Dead’s first few years, but it wasn’t until Garcia bought the pedal steel that their musical worlds finally intersected. “At that time, I had a gig at this coffeehouse/hofbrau in Menlo Park called the Underground, playing Wednesday evenings, and I invited Jerry to come down and join me,” Dawson says. “It was just the two of us—me on guitar and Jerry on pedal steel. I would play my own songs and I was also doing covers—Dylan stuff like ‘I Shall Be Released,’ and Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’ and Del Reeves’s ‘Diesel on My Tail.’ At that point Garcia was already becoming Garcia. He was already a bit of a celebrity. So once the word got out that it was me and Garcia there—and it was more Garcia than me, of course, because no one knew who I was; but it was my thing that Garcia was doing his thing to—we got some pretty big crowds that summer. The teen crowd would come out of the nearby pizza parlor and they’d fill up the place. It got to be a nice little scene.

“At first, Jerry didn’t have the slightest idea what the real steel players were up to. What he played was just his idea of what they were doing and what sounded good to him. He basically just put on the finger picks, turned the thing on and just started playing. He was checking it out: ‘Let’s see, this goes here. If I do this, this happens. What if I do this?’ He didn’t read any books; he just sat down and played it. Pick the thing, step on a pedal, move the slide.

“After a while we decided to make a little band out of this,” Dawson continues. “David Nelson was available. He was living in Big Brother’s warehouse up in San Francisco—he was going to be a member of Big Brother; this is after Janis left, of course. She went on and formed her own band somewhere along the line. But Nelson had always loved country music, so he was up for being in a band. Then we needed a bass player, and [Bob] Matthews tried it and Hunter was interested, but I can’t actually remember ever playing with him. So finally we said, ‘Hey Phil, won’t you play with us? It’s really simple shit—not like the stuff you play in the Dead.’ And Mickey was into it, so he joined. But he was always a little weird to play with because he likes off-rhythms. Billy plays the straight shit and Mickey plays the weird stuff against that. Anyway, we got together and we rehearsed at Mickey’s barn.” The band was dubbed the New Riders of the Purple Sage, after the famous Western novel by Zane Grey (with a nod to a Western swing band called the Riders of the Purple Sage).

By the beginning of June, Garcia occasionally played the pedal steel onstage at Dead shows, too, on songs like “Dire Wolf” and “Slewfoot.” Then, beginning in late August 1969, the Dead played their first few concerts with the New Riders as the opening act. “It was great,” Dawson says. “With simply two additions to the Grateful Dead’s tour you had a whole five-piece band.” It wasn’t until the middle of 1970, however, that the Grateful Dead-New Riders partnership really blossomed on the road.

The Grateful Dead played 145 gigs in 1969, and in no other year did they play such a broad variety of venues. Close to home they usually played the Carousel/Fillmore West, Winterland (where the Dead were still second-billed to the Airplane) and the Family Dog at the Great Highway (after Chet Helms had to close down the Avalon Ballroom). But they also played one-nighters at local colleges and high schools and, at year’s end, a few shows at the “New Old Fillmore”—a short-lived revival for the original Fillmore Auditorium. Out of town, shows happened at large and small colleges, medium-sized theaters, ballrooms here and there (though those were fast disappearing by mid-1969) and, of course, rock festivals.

Ever since Monterey in June 1967 there had been attempts all over the country to put on multi-act festivals, some of them successful, many of them not. The Dead had played a few of them—the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival in San Jose in May 1968; the Newport (California) Pop Festival in August ’68; the Sky River Festival in Sultan, Washington, in September ’68; the Big Rock Pow-Wow in West Hollywood, Florida, in May 1969—and by the summer of ’69 they had a well-established reputation as a good-time, good-vibes live band that always succeeded in getting a crowd up on its feet. (It didn’t matter that no one bought their records. The rap on the Dead was always “You gotta see ’em play live!”) So it’s not surprising that the promoters of a three-day festival taking place on a farm near the upstate New York town of Bethel in the middle of August 1969 would book the Dead, along with two dozen other acts. This, of course, was Woodstock.

It was never easy persuading the Dead to play these kinds of gigs. They were just as happy booking smaller but potentially groovier shows like the Celestial Synapse Celebration at the Fillmore West, where everyone took acid and danced till dawn, or the Expanded Spiritual Music Concert—a psychedelic Easter celebration the Dead were supposed to headline at Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium but were eventually banned from because Jim Morrison had allegedly exposed himself there. The venue’s director, George McLean, viewed the Dead as “the same type of people and the same type of music as the Doors; it’s this underground pop,” he said at the time. Initially, the Dead were apprehensive about appearing at Woodstock, “but [festival promoter Michael] Lang’s people really went a long way to assuage us,” Rock Scully said. “They went after the Pranksters to be kind of overseers of security, and Wavy Gravy to help feed people and look after bum trips and all that kind of stuff, so eventually they met most of our demands and we believed it might run fairly smoothly.”

In the end, Bill Graham helped talk the Dead into playing the festival, and for his trouble Graham managed to land a then-unknown band he was managing—Santana—on the bill as well. The Dead were promised a hefty (for them) $15,000 for their hour-long set. “There were certainly other bands on the bill that were selling more records than us and could demand more money,” Scully said, “but they really wanted us to be there and thought we should be there—even then back East we were sort of a mythological, sociological movement rather than a musical one.”

The Dead were put on the schedule for Saturday afternoon—after Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, Janis Joplin and Mountain, and before Sly and the Family Stone, the Who and the Jefferson Airplane; heavy company. The promoters put the band up in a Holiday Inn in the nearby town of Liberty, along with the Who, most of the Jefferson Airplane, Richie Havens and a few other acts, but there wasn’t much time for partying there—by Thursday evening, the day before the festival opened, it was obvious that the event was going to be much bigger than anyone had imagined, and with every road approaching the area completely clogged with traffic, the band opted to take helicopters to the concert site a day early.

What they found when they arrived was staggering—people as far as the eye could see, and not just in front of the stage, but everywhere. By Friday night there were close to 250,000 people, and another 100,000 or more hiked miles from cars and buses they abandoned on country back roads and even the New York State Thruway the following day. With tens of thousands of people arriving by the hour, the promoters were forced to tear down the fences and let everyone in for free.

Garcia wandered casually around the festival site on Saturday, high on the Czechoslovakian acid that was making the rounds backstage. He spent some time at the Pranksters’ encampment, where there was a small “free stage” with an open mike for anybody who had a song to sing. The old Prankster bus, Furthur, was parked in a semicircle with other hippie buses next to the stage—this would be its last big road trip before it was literally put out to pasture on Kesey’s Oregon farm. Kesey himself didn’t go to Woodstock; he stayed home and played farmer instead. Mountain Girl was a no-show, too—she was five months pregnant (by Jerry) and wasn’t up for being in a crowded festival in hot and humid New York in August.

Hot, humid and rainy. There were fierce downpours on and off during much of Saturday, turning Max Yasgur’s farm into a giant mud bowl. There wasn’t enough food and fresh water to go around, and the limited number of portable toilets wouldn’t have been enough for a crowd half the size of the one that actually turned up.

No doubt everybody who went to Woodstock has a different survival story to tell, of hardships that rivaled the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Yes, there were bad trips and injuries and thousands of people who didn’t like it one bit and left early, dog-tired and disgusted. Everything we’ve ever heard about the festival is probably mostly true, even the stuff made up by the thousands of people who didn’t go but said they did. The myth—the epic story of biblical proportions!—is all-encompassing enough to absorb every tall and small tale thrown at it, because the essential truth of the festival is not in dispute: the vibes really were good for the most part, people did help each other out and the music by and large was outstanding, occasionally even transcendent.

So that’s some of the myth. But the Grateful Dead wouldn’t be the Grateful Dead if their experience of Woodstock didn’t deviate from that myth. They must have said it in countless interviews: “We sucked at Woodstock.” Through the years the band members have delightedly told the particulars of their Woodstock debacle with a mixture of mock horror and actual glee, as if failing miserably—while high on acid, no less—at the most famous concert of all time was a badge of honor (remember, “Never trust a Prankster!”), or, more likely, part of a great cosmic joke that they were the butt of. All of a sudden the Dead found themselves onstage, several hours late because their equipment was so heavy that it broke one of the rotating pallets it was placed on and had to be taken down and set up again after it was fixed. They’d hoped to go on in the fading light of afternoon to help the trippers make that sometimes difficult transition from day into evening, but instead it was pitch-dark when they hit the stage, and a howling wind was blowing down the hillside, actually threatening to move the huge stage backwards in the mud.

“We were just plumb atrocious,” Garcia said. “Jeez, we were awful! We were on a metal stage and it was raining to boot and I was high and I saw blue balls of electricity bouncing across the stage and leaping onto my guitar when I touched the strings.” To make matters worse, random CB radio signals kept erupting out of the PA while the band played, and “people behind the amplifiers kept yelling, ‘The stage is collapsing! The stage is collapsing!’” Garcia said.

“The thing about Woodstock,” he noted many years later, “was that you could feel the presence of invisible time travelers from the future who had come back to see it. You could sense the significance of the event as it was happening. There was a kind of swollen historicity—a truly pregnant moment. You definitely knew that this was a milestone; it was in the air. As a human being I had a wonderful time hanging out with friends in the music business and sharing great little jams. But our performance onstage was musically a total disaster that is best left forgotten.”

The Dead didn’t have much time to lick their wounds and contemplate the magnitude of their failure at Woodstock, and that’s probably a good thing. Four nights later they played at the Aqua Theater in Seattle, with the New Riders on the bill for the first time, and everyone was all smiles. The crowd dug the Riders’ country-rock and loved seeing Garcia sitting behind the pedal steel, a big grin peeking through his bushy black beard for nearly the whole set. And there was a string of other smaller festivals that summer where the Dead played considerably better than they had at Woodstock. The Bullfrog 2 Festival in St. Helens, Oregon, and the Vancouver Pop Festival both took place within a week of the Dead’s Woodstock appearance; the New Orleans Pop Festival was two weeks later.

Originally there had been plans to put on a three-day Wild West Festival the week after Woodstock at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium, right next to Haight-Ashbury, but the event collapsed in the face of civic opposition and the ceaseless harangues of various radical politicos who believed the fest was going to be overpriced (at $3 a ticket!), insensitive to the needs and desires of the non-hippie community and a poor excuse to bring dozens of police—“pigs” in the parlance of the Left—into the neighborhood.

That fall, however, a plot was quietly hatched to put on a giant free concert in early December at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park. Now ordinarily this might seem like off timing for an outdoor show in San Francisco, since December is smack-dab in the middle of Northern California’s rainy season. But there was an ulterior reason for scheduling the show then: in late November the Rolling Stones would be wrapping up their first U.S. tour in three years, and they thought it would be fun to play for free in the city where both the hippie movement and the concept of free rock ’n’ roll in parks had been born. And, oh yes, the Stones were going to film the entire tour, and they liked the idea of using footage from the free show as a triumphant climax for their movie—a one-day mini-Woodstock that would put the Stones at the pinnacle of the rock heap as the ’60s drew to a close. Take that, John, Paul, George and Ringo!

“Originally the idea was nobody would say anything,” Garcia said, “and we’d sneak the Rolling Stones into the park or something like that, [they’d] play for half an hour or forty minutes and then beat it; it would be low-level. But they were making the documentary at the time and they saw it as kind of a photo op.” So when asked about rumors of the guerrilla concert at a press conference in New York at the end of their tour, just two weeks before the event, Mick Jagger spilled the beans and confirmed that the Stones were hoping to play a free concert in Golden Gate Park on December 6.

“That was it,” Rock Scully said. “Within half an hour of that announcement, I got a call from the Park [Department] saying we couldn’t do it. Consequently we had to find a place really quickly to do it because everybody knew that they had just made an announcement in New York City that they were going to play for free in San Francisco and everybody was heading there.” For the next two weeks the organizers frantically searched for a site that could accommodate an expected influx of 200,000 people.

Finally, just twenty-four hours before showtime, Dick Carter, who operated Altamont Speedway, forty-five minutes east of San Francisco in a hilly, windy, sparsely populated part of the East Bay, offered his facility. No one involved with the concert knew anything about Carter or Altamont, but there was no time for a thorough analysis of the situation. On the surface, at least, it must’ve seemed as though the day had been saved—the Speedway area appeared to be large enough to accommodate the expected deluge, and the site was accessible by a multilane interstate highway.

As soon as the venue was announced, the invasion began from every direction. As workers raced against the clock to build the stage, and equipment trucks filled with band equipment descended on the speedway, thousands of people arrived in the dark and staked out positions in front of the stage and on the surrounding hillsides. Luckily there was no rain, but it was bitterly cold that night, so people built bonfires to stay warm. By daybreak on December 6 there were already more than 250,000 people at the site and traffic was backed up for miles on every approach road. In all, about 350,000 showed up—or tried to. In the grand tradition of Woodstock, thousands of cars were abandoned along the highways and people hiked miles along the roads and over the grassy hills in the reddish glow of the first morning light. And why not? It was sure to be a helluva show—besides the Stones, scheduled acts included the Dead, the Airplane, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

By the time the concert got going in midmorning, however, it was clear that there had been a major miscalculation. The Stones had hired members of the Hell’s Angels to provide security around the stage (in exchange for gallons of free beer), and apparently the Angels’ idea of crowd control was to use violence and intimidation to keep people in line. Most of the senior members of the motorcycle club were elsewhere that weekend, so the security jobs fell mainly to relative neophytes. Memories of how peaceful the Angels had been when they guarded the generators and cared for lost children at the Human Be-In were quickly replaced by the nightmarish spectacle of tough young bikers high on alcohol, acid, amphetamines and barbiturates wailing on people with pool cues just a few feet from the stage. And the violence took an ugly, surreal turn when Jefferson Airplane lead singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious during the band’s performance when he tried to stop an Angel from beating someone right in front of the stage.

Shortly after that episode most of the Dead arrived at the site by helicopter. In Gimme Shelter, the film about the Stones’ tour and Altamont made by the Maysle brothers, Santana drummer Michael Shrieve approaches Garcia and Lesh at the makeshift heliport and informs them of the bad scene going down inside the speedway. “Hell’s Angels are beating on musicians?” Lesh asks incredulously. “It doesn’t seem right, man.”

“It was like hell; it was like a nice afternoon in hell,” Garcia said years later, a fatalistic chuckle in his voice. “The light and everything was just so weird. The light was this kind of baleful red dusk, kind of particulate air, like [if there were] piles of smoking tires; the smell of sulfur. Jeez, it was horrible; it was so hellish.”

The Dead were scheduled to go on right before the Stones, but at the last moment they backed out of the concert altogether. “We felt that it would not have done any good for us to play, and it would have only prolonged the agony,” Lesh said. “Unfortunately, the Rolling Stones apparently were waiting for sundown [to go on] so they could make a film, and that’s why it went on and on. So it turns out it probably would’ve been better for us to play, just to fill up that time. But when music was happening, the crowd would surge toward the stage, security would beat them back. So we didn’t want to contribute to that.”

The violence escalated during the Stones’ set, with the Angels beating dozens of people in the crowd for the slightest transgression, and culminated in the stabbing death of a gun-wielding man just a few yards from the stage, as Mick Jagger sang “Under My Thumb.” (The killing is captured in the Maysles’ film.) The show limped to its conclusion, and though many who didn’t see any violence enjoyed the concert, thousands came away from the event dazed and disillusioned.

“It was completely unexpected,” Garcia said two years after Altamont. “And that was the hard part; that was the hard lesson there—that you can have good people and good energy and work on a project and really want it to happen right and still have it [go] all weird. It’s the thing of knowing less than you should have; youthful folly.

“It was another big scene. Woodstock was the big beautiful scene and Altamont was the big ugly scene. I don’t really know what conclusion to draw from it, except that big scenes can go either way. You can tie in a lot of stuff about the Rolling Stones and black magic and all the rest of that shit—karma and whatever. But anytime you have a big scene, you have that potential there; the potential for it to get ugly.