The Grateful Dead
Are Alive and Well and Living Near San Francisco
I got introduced to the Dead about a third of the way along their career which spanned from around 1965 right through this year (and soon into next year).
Live From The Mars Hotel (one of my personal favorite albums) had just been released, but I was initially weaned on Working Man’s Dead, American Beauty and the live “Skeleton” album which features the classic “Bertha,” “Warf Rat,” “Not Fade Away” and the first rendition of “Playing In The Band.” These albums were in my friends collections so they were what I got to hear the most.
> Except for “Not Fade Away” you probably never heard of the rest of those titles, but they are very well known to hard core fans called “dead heads” who are so dedicated that they would hitch hike 2,000 miles to a strange place to see the dead without a concert ticket at a show that was already sold out.
Since the late 1960’s the Dead has consistently been the #1 drawing and most profitable live touring band of all times, largely due to the dead heads who would see to it that any arena was sold out.
The Dead would reward their fans by always releasing a small block of tickets hours before each concert so the late arrivals would get a chance to see the band!
They didn’t only play arenas, they also played mid-sized clubs like the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California, a very intimate setting that gave you an appreciation for dual drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann whose collective four arms could be seen swinging through the air during the long sets of songs the Dead were famous for.
A typical full blown Dead concert would start in the afternoon with other cult bands in their circle of friends, such as Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airman, plus the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
The Dead would come on around sunset and play for an hour, then take a break. An hour later in pitch darkness they would return to the stage and play til midnight. You got your $25 worth with the Grateful Dead!
> The most exotic place they ever played was at the base of the Pyramids in Egypt, which was part of their “Blues For Allah” album tour in the in late 1970’s.
You couldn’t really pigeon hole the music of the Dead, either! Signed at the peak of Hippie Feeding Frenzy when RCA, Capital, Columbia and Warner Brothers sent representatives to San Francisco to sign any long haired person with a guitar (Blue Cheer, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, etc., etc., etc.,), their first album was raunchy, grungy, fuzz guitar and blues based music which featured the late Rod “Pig Pen” McKernan on organ and vocals for songs like “Hello Little School Girl” and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia singing on “The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion.”
Their second album was highly experimental and tried to capture the flavor of the Ken Kesey-Owsely Stanley Electric Koolaide Acid Test events that helped to start the “turn on, tune in and drop out” movement associated with hippies, flower power, free love and of, course, drugs like pot, acid and ‘schrooms.
> This album, which did feature some commercially oriented songs such as “St. Stephen” was largely a medley of several songs that spanned half a side, prompted a Warner Executive to write the Dead and admonish them that songs are supposed to be “3 or 4 minutes long” not 15 or 20 minutes.
This, however, was largely how the Dead approached playing songs publicly in live concerts. They didn’t just do 4 minute song after another 4 minute song. They did long, long solos which included drum solos by Mickey Hart on various percussion instruments and “spaced out” effects.
There albums were recorded in a storefront in San Francisco or Oakland, California, largely by Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor (yes, the Dead were using a woman engineer and producer as far back as 1970, this is a rare treat in today’s world as women producers are still a rarity) on 8 track and later 16 track recorders.
They worked a lot like George Martin did with the Beatles, crafting and perfecting a song by cutting tape and putting song B along side the tracks for song A, then fading between the two to create the medley.
Their next album would more than satisfy the record company, but it also alienated a few hard core dead heads who associated the band with fuzzed out, blaring metal and grunge like guitar work, for Working Man’s Dead would be a very acoustic album that included some country and folk touches.
> The lead song was “Uncle John’s Band” which was a calypso featuring acoustic guitars, steel drums and hand drums. That music was a far cry from “For The Other One” or “St. Stephen” off the previous album, but that previous album did contain the softer “Mountains of the Moon” so the audience shouldn’t have been too surprised, especially in view of founder father Jerry Garcia’s past.
Garcia moved to San Francisco from Pennsylvania, where he had been a folk oriented banjo player. Once moved into the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, he formed the Warlocks with Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh on bass, Rod “Pig Pen” McKernan on keyboard and Bob Weir on guitar, started playing block parties in the Electric Acid Test scene back before LSD was illegal. Their “pad” got busted more than once in that era of free love, pot, ‘schrooms, Tim Leary, Richard Alpert, Ken Kesey and flower power. Their music was largely Marshall Stack hard rock played with Les Paul guitars set to 11 on the dial.
The next cut was another acoustic ditty with a definite country feel called “Dire Wolf” which feature Garcia on pedal steel guitar.
Garcia was an exceptional, but highly underrated or acknowledged, pedal steel guitarist whose crowning glory is heard on the classic Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cut “Teach Your Children.” On his own later solo efforts Garcia would do some exceptional pedal steel playing on cuts like “The Wheel.” No one else comes close to his wit, style, approach or melody work on pedal steel playing!
Garcia also did some banjo picking on the second side with “Cumberland Blues.”
The rest of the album was filled with blues shuffles and one solid radio hit called “Casey Jones” which feature the first instance of the classic Jerry Garcia “Dead” sound that would become his trademark with the band for lead guitar work.
Many fans couldn’t get into this album and referred to that era has the Dead’s long “country trip” which kind of continued with the next album, American Beauty.
> Beauty was more of a light rock and folk album, starting off with a Phil Lesh song that got a lot of airplay when Garcia died a few years back from heart failure, called “Box of Rain.” This was actually written for Lesh’s father and didn’t even feature Garcia on much of anything (the lead solo was played by The New Rider’s guitarist), but radio used it as an ode to Garcia.
A much better ode was commissioned by the Grammy awards committee, featuring a keyboard rendition of Garcia “Classics” that I totally felt expressed some of his best works including “Scarlet Begonias” off the Mars Hotel album. I was really impressed and amazed that the Grammy people chose to recognize Garcia and the Dead and did an exceptional job showing off key elements of his work in a way the mass audience could embrace without totally alienating dead-heads who would at least know the songs as being worth while.
American Beauty spawned another big radio hit and the Dead’s anthem: “Truckin” which is a song about their life, their friends and being on stage.
This album also featured the last performance by Pig Pen who would die shortly thereafter from liver related problems. His last offering was also a crowning glory called “Operator” which was a nice ditty and featured him in good form.
All the Dead albums where heavily laced with philosophical content from their lyricist Robert Hunter and spoke about the world around us as seen through his (their) eyes.
Some were straightforward, like "Jelly Roll Blues," others were mystical like "Mountains of the Moon," others were philosophical like “For the Other One.” On this new album they spoke of life and relationships in songs like “Attics of my Life” but also get straight forward with the country flavored ditty “Friend of the Devil” which featured one of Garcia’s old folk buddies on mandolin who came out for a visit, got thrown into a room with a mic and told to just play what he felt, which he did excellently on that one and on "Ripple," which is on the back side.
> The next album was a totally new trip that alienated even more fans, including lots of my dead head friends who couldn’t get into the poppy, light jazz and still country tainted “Live From The Mars Hotel” which featured two Phil Lesh songs, one with an outstanding pedal steel solo by Garcia (“Pride of Cucamonga”) and a jazz ditty called “Unbroken Chain.” But the most alienating thing was probably the use of their new keyboard player’s wife as a background singer. Some people felt they could see what the Beatles would have sounded like if Yoko was on Magical Mystery Tour or Abbey Road.
Speaking of the Beatles, Paul McCartney is often a fixture back stage at Dead shows when he's around the area!