Hit Like A Hammer

Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions were a short live jug band that included Jerry Garcia, Pigpen and Bob Weir.  That group formed in the Spring of 1964 and played through the Summer of that year with the line-up of Jerry Garcia on guitar, kazoo, banjo and vocals, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan played harmonica, footcrasher, a hi-hat cymbal and sang vocals, Bob Weir played guitar, washtub bass, jug, kazoo, and sang vocals, Dave Parker played washboard, kazoo, tin cup, and vocals, Tom Stone played banjo, mandolin, guitar, vocals and Mike Garbett played washtub bass, guitar, and kazoo.

The Warlocks were formed in Palo Alto at the end of 1964 when the original members of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions decided to plug in and try rock and roll at the urging of McKernan, as the Beatles and the Stones were doing good with this, instead of continuing with their folk music.  They added a rhythm section that included Dana Morgan Jr. on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums.  Dana owned a music store so the band got to use the instruments and amplifiers that they otherwise couldn’t have afforded.  Their camaraderie was strong, because they all lived together in a house in Height Ashbury, San Francisco.  Their first performance was in May of 1965 at Magoo’s Pizza in Menlo Park. Dana couldn’t keep up with both the music store and the band, so Phil Lesh who was an old friend of Garcia’s stepped in one night to play bass.  Bill Kreutzmann was taking drum lessons at the music store, and at this time they were essentially the Grateful Dead, although they didn’t actually change the name for a couple of months.

In early 1965, the Warlocks were playing a mixture of folk, blues, and rock and roll in San Francisco, which eventually melted into their own unique sound.  They began to attend parties thrown by Ken Kesey, and they performed at what was to become known as the first ‘Acid Test’ (ritual gathering to experiment with drugs) in November 1965. Garcia became known as ‘Captain Trips’, as the Acid Test planted the seeds from which the Grateful Dead grew like Jack’s beanstalk.  This event proved to be the most profound building block of the band’s early days.  Jerry Garcia said, “The whole world just went kablooey”, recalling his first experiences being stoned on acid.  The second Acid Test was held on Dec. 4, with the third set for the 11th.  In between those dates, the Warlocks had agreed to perform a benefit concert for the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

The benefit was turning into a genuine happening.  The bill also included Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society, John Handy Quintet, the Mystery Trend and the Gentlemen’s Band.  Because of the attendance of a different benefit show the band had recently played, and the buzz surrounding this one, promoter Bill Graham decided to hold this event in a larger venue, one that would soon become legendary.  Graham secured the use of the Fillmore auditorium, and nearly all the pieces were in place.

Phil Lesh thought that their group should change their name from the Warlocks, because there were two other bands also using that name, one in El Paso and one in New York.  In the end, neither of those other bands kept the name Warlocks, they switched to ZZ Top and The Velvet Underground, respectively.  The Warlocks were over at Phil’s house, when Garcia opened a massive two volume old Britannica World Language Dictionary (however others describe this as the Funk & Wagnalls Folklore Dictionary and others say it was an Oxford Dictionary).  I guess it really does not matter, as it all amounts to Garcia focusing on the words ‘Grateful Dead’ that he saw.  This chance encounter was one of those moments for him, it was like everything else went blank, and just sort of oozed away, and there it was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters edged all around in gold, a stunning combination of words blasting out at him.  Garcia said that seeing the words Grateful Dead on the page was astonishing and truly weird, but he found it to be really powerful.  So Garcia said, “How about Grateful Dead?”, and that was it.  Everyone recognized that power, and the name struck a chord of mythic resonance, with a contemporary ring, echoing the past and rippling the future.  Phil Lesh remembered that it hit him like a hammer and it seemed to describe their group so perfectly that he started jumping up and down, shouting, “That’s it!  That’s it!”  Kreutzmann and Weir were more skeptical, but Garcia and Lesh’s relentless enthusiasm banished any qualms, and in December, the Grateful Dead made their formal debut.

The dictionary entry read something like this:

GRATEFUL DEAD: The motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero coming upon a group of people ill-treating or refusing to bury the corpse of a man who had 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 travelling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune or saves his life.  The story ends with the companion disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the hero had befriended.  The name has also been attributed to this quote, though it’s generally believed that they came across this one later:
“We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night
the ship of the sun
is drawn by the grateful dead.”

Graham was not happy about the new name, because they were already an established band called the Warlocks.  Graham told them that the Grateful Dead gave him the creeps.  Bassist Phil Lesh told Graham, “I’m sorry.  This is the decision we’ve made.  Here’s what you do, put ‘Formerly the Warlocks’ in the space where the poster picture would go.”  This would be the first in a long series of clashes between Graham and the Dead for many years to come.  The name Grateful Dead is a reflection of the universal belief that we should honor the bonds of humanity, and the underlying idea of the Grateful Dead motif resonated strongly with the Haight-Ashbury counterculture.  At its simplest, the idea expresses karma, reflected in the Deadhead mantra “what goes around, comes around”, or more simply, give with no thought of reward, and you will be rewarded.

It is interesting to contemplate the simple serendipity of Garcia’s discovery, about a hero who meets a group of people who refuse to bury the corpse of a loafer.  When this hero pays the debts of the deceased, he is rewarded with good fortune and the ripples that act of gratitude became the origin of the Grateful Dead.  Choosing that entry placed the Grateful Dead’s art and achievement alongside the deeper meanings and implications of the folk motif itself.  The imagery evoked by those two words has had a huge impact on pop culture and it is quite fitting that the music has never stopped.

Written for FOWC with Fandango – Grateful.

24 thoughts on “Hit Like A Hammer

  1. Great post Jim. Do you know if by some chance their debut at Magoo’s Pizza was recorded? The Grateful Dead did things their own way and it worked… the opposite of what you are supposed to do like hit singles and a sex symbol for a frontman. Even the name went against convention…I have a huge admiration for them.

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    1. Magoo’s Pizza Parlor doesn’t exist anymore. I found a poster advertising the event, but there are no recordings or photos from this event on May 5, 1965. The Warlocks considered it a success when their audience outnumbered the members of the band. I read that they played these 5 songs, Cold Rain and Snow, Stealin’, Little Red Rooster, Off the Hook (Rolling Stones cover) and Good Lovin’. The Warlocks continued playing Magoo’s every Wednesday in May, but come June the increasingly rowdy fans at the shows violated the local ban on dancing. According to Phil Lesh, the venue discontinued live music because people just wouldn’t stop dancing.

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      1. “people just wouldn’t stop dancing” hard to believe it was a ban on it.
        I didn’t think it was and it was before that started but I just wondered. Good setlist. Thanks for the info Jim.

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  2. Just getting around to reading this tonight. I figured you’d write a post about the Grateful Dead, given today’s word. This was a comprehensive, very informative post. You sure do know your Dead.

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