G is for Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead have become a family to me, maybe more of a virtual family, but a family none the less.  The Grateful Dead have passed down stories through their songs and these stories are worth retelling as a long strange trip.  To me the Grateful Dead are eternal, their music transcends space and time and runs deep to the primal core of what it means to be a human being.  The group is not together any more, unless you consider remnants and spinoffs, once Jerry Garcia died in 1995, so sadly there is no more Grateful Dead.  I will always identify myself as being a Deadhead and I plan on writing some more posts on this group.  Most bands can be copied, but it is not easy for a band to mimic the Grateful Dead sound.

The Library of Congress chose to archive an entire show by The Grateful Dead, the concert was performed at Cornell University on 5/8/77.  In 1999, their album Workingman’s Dead was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and in 2007, they won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.  They released thirteen studio albums and nine contemporary live albums during their career, and more than 100 live recordings of their music have been released, but their only Top 10 hit was ‘Touch of Grey’, which peaked at number 9 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and reached number 1 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in 1987.

Being called a Deadhead is not an insult, it simply means that you are a part of something greater, that being a large group of devoted fans who listen to the music of the Grateful Dead.  Deadheads are passionate, they trade tapes and they discuss the songs that were played at every show and they compile statistics showing how many times each song was played.  The Grateful Dead made albums, they released more than two dozen singles, and a number of videos, but they are best known as a touring band.  If you group all of their concerts together, they played to an estimated 25 million people over their career, which is more than any other band in history.  In 1998, The Guinness Book of World Records certified that the band had played the “most rock concerts ever performed” at the time being 2,318 live concerts.

The Grateful Dead set a record for attendance of a single band being the first group ever to have a 100,000-crowd concert, when they played at the Raceway Park, Englishtown, New Jersey on September 3, 1977.  There have been larger crowds at some Free Concerts, but this remains the largest ticketed concert in the United States to date and I was there.  I was also there when they also performed at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in 1973 along with 2 other groups to an estimated 600,000 people.

The Grateful Dead formed in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1965 and they are considered one of the originators of jam band music.  They were exceptionally dedicated to performance perfection, musical originality and vast, fee-form jams.  The founding members were Jerry Garcia on guitar and vocals, Bob Weir on guitar and vocals, Phil Lesh on bass and vocals, Bill Kreutzmann on drums, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on organ, harmonica, percussion, and vocals.  Pigpen died in 1973, but the other four remained with the band for its entire 30-year history.  Second drummer Mickey Hart was also in the band for most of that time.  Others who were band members at different times were keyboardists Tom Constanten, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick, and Bruce Hornsby, and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux.

Their first four keyboard players died untimely deaths and because of this, playing keyboard for the Grateful Dead has been called the most dangerous job in Rock and Roll.  Three of them died before they reached their 38th birthdays.  Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was a hard drinker, mostly whiskey and flavored fortified wine, he was never quite sober, even when he woke up in the morning, as most days he’d wake up drunk.  He was found dead in his apartment at age 27 on March 8, 1973, as the result of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage.  Keith was killed in a car accident at age 32 on July 23, 1980 after he left the Grateful Dead.  Godchaux and a friend drove from a toll plaza into the back of a flatbed truck and he died two days later from injuries sustained in the crash.

Brent Mydland died in his Lafayette, California home of an accidental drug overdose of heroin and speed on July 26, 1990, at the age of 37.  Vince Welnick was diagnosed first with throat cancer, then emphysema in 1995, although he beat the cancer, the emphysema was more persistent.  Welnick was described as a sensitive guy who was overcome by depression when Jerry Garcia died and he attempted suicide with pills on the tour bus.  After this, he was officially excluded from most GD reunion events, shunned by the group and the fans.  All he wanted to do was play with them, and they wouldn’t let him, and wouldn’t even speak to him.  Welnick sought psychiatric treatment and began taking antidepressants and he battled depression for 10 years.  He died by suicide at age 55 on June 2, 2006 after cutting his own throat in front of his wife.

Pigpen was heavily influenced by African-American music, particularly the blues, and he enjoyed listening to his father’s extensive collection of records and taught himself how to play harmonica and piano.  He played blues and was accepted as a regular in the black nightclubs of East Palo Alto in his early teens.  Phil started playing the violin at age 8 and he went on to study composition with the great Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio to augment his classical training.

Bill Kreutzmann’s fate as a drummer was sealed the day that he was kicked out of his sixth-grade band class by the teacher who told him, “Billy, you can’t keep a beat.”  This didn’t shut down his passion for playing drums, as drumming is what he was meant to do.  The thirteen-year-old hopped on his bike and headed for downtown Palo Alto in search of a drum teacher and he saw a sign on a music store that was offering $3 drum lessons, so Kreutzmann learned from Lee Anderson.  By 1964, Billy was playing in a band called The Legends, and that year he met Jerry Garcia when he was at Dana Morgan’s music store, where Jerry worked, when Billy’s dad sold Jerry an old banjo.  Mickey Hart played in marching bands both high school and military (Air Force) and he worked for his father at a drum shop.  He committed to percussion from the beginning and became a titled world-champion rudimental drummer from a family of drummers and studied Indian rhythmic intricacies with Zakir Hussein and Ali Akbar Khan.  Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are together known as the “Rhythm Devils” due to their dual drumming.

Bob Weir was adopted by a rich California engineer, and as a kid, he spent a lot of his summers on a cattle ranch.  His undiagnosed dyslexia gave him trouble at school, so he was labeled a troublemaker and shipped off to boarding school, where he met future songwriting partner John Perry Barlow.  After being kicked out of the school, Weir returned to the Bay Area, where he bummed around the burgeoning folk scene and came into contact with Jorma Kaukonen, of the Jefferson Airplane who first taught him how to play guitar.

When Garcia was 15, his older brother Tiff, who years earlier had accidentally lopped off Jerry’s right-hand middle finger while the two were chopping wood, introduced him to early rock & roll and rhythm & blues music.  He asked his mother to get him an electric guitar for his upcoming birthday, but she got him an accordion, which drove him nuts, so she finally traded it in at a pawnshop, and Jerry got electric guitar and an amplifier.  By the early 1960s, Garcia was living in Palo Alto, Calif., hanging out and playing in the folk-music dubs around Stanford University.  He started working part time at Dana Morgan’s Music Store, where he met several of the musicians that would eventually dominate the San Francisco music scene.  In 1963, Garcia formed a jug band, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, which eventually evolved into the Warlocks and then they became the Grateful Dead.

In March 1967, the Grateful Dead released their eponymous debut album on Warner Brothers with David Hassinger an engineer who had worked with the Rolling Stones producing it.  At this time the group was still learning how to be a band and they weren’t that good yet.  The album was considered a big deal in San Francisco, but it did not get much airplay outside of the Bay Area.  The album peaked at 73 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart.  In 2007, The Grateful Dead was included on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 40 essential albums from 1967.

The album contained 9 songs and two were originals, ‘The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)’ which is credited to the band and sung by Jerry Garcia and ‘Cream Puff War’ which was written and sung by Jerry.  Jerry was the lead singer on three other songs, ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ which was written by Obray Ramsey, ‘Sitting on Top of the World’ written by Lonnie Chatmon and Walter Vinson and ‘Morning Dew’ which was written by Bonnie Dobson and also credited to Tim Rose.  Jerry shared vocals with Bob Weir on ‘Viola lee Blues’ which was written by Noah Lewis.  Bob Weir sang lead vocals on two songs, ‘New, New Minglewood Blues’ another Noah Lewis tune and the Jesse fuller song ‘Beat It on down the Line’.  Pigpen sang ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ which was written by Sonny Boy Williamson.

Anthem of the Sun was their second album which was released in 1968 and it came much closer to capturing what set this band apart from other groups, their thrilling live shows.  This album featured a second drummer Micky Hart, a new lyricist Robert Hunter and the avant-garde keyboardist Tom Constanten who was a friend of Lesh and Garcia.  Hunter made his first lyrical contributions to the band with ‘Dark Star’, but this would not be recorded for another year yet.  He added words to the Lesh/Pigpen composition ‘Alligator’ on this album.  It was rated 87 in the US, but in 2003, the album ranked number 287 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Relations between the band and producer Dave Hassinger broke down on this album with the band exploring decidedly more experimental territory and Bob Weir looking for a “thick air” sound on ‘Born Cross Eyed’.  When Dave left, Dan Healy their sound man stepped in as his replacement.  This album became a way for the Dead to try out a lot of things, to see what things might work and might not and Jerry Garcia played lead guitar, acoustic guitar, kazoo, vibraslap, and sang, Mickey Hart played drums, orchestra bells, gong, chimes, crotales, prepared piano, finger cymbals, Bill Kreutzmann played drums, glockenspiel, gong, chimes, crotales, prepared piano, finger cymbals, Phil Lesh played bass guitar, trumpet, harpsichord, kazoo, piano, timpani, and sang vocals, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan played Hammond and Vox organs, celesta, claves, and sang, Bob Weir played rhythm guitar, 12-string guitar, acoustic guitar, kazoo, and sang, while Tom Constanten played prepared piano, piano, and electronic tape, so this tripped-out album was crammed with unusual accents.

This album only contained five songs, but they were all originals.  The album starts off with ‘That’s It for the Other One’, which is known simply as ‘The Other One’, and this song took the form of a dizzying suite divided into four separate parts, ‘Cryptical Envelopment’ (Garcia), ‘Quadlibet For Tender Feet’ (Grateful Dead), ‘The Faster We Go The Rounder We Get’ (Weir, Kreutzmann) and ‘We Leave The Castle’ (Constanten).  This song is a miracle of ingenuity that was put together by Garcia and Healy, by overlaying several concert performances and mixing them together.  They used a 1968 Valentine’s Day performance at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom as its core, and incorporated passages of the song recorded at shows at Lake Tahoe’s King’s Beach Bowl and the Shrine Auditorium in L.A.

The second song on this album is ‘New Potato Caboose’ which was written by Phil Lesh and Robert Petersen.  Petersen would later provide lyrics for three other Grateful Dead songs, ‘Unbroken Chain’ recorded for Mars Hotel, ‘Pride of Cucamonga’ also recorded for Mars Hotel and ‘Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues’ which was performed only once in 1986.  Petersen was part of the artistic community from which the Grateful Dead emerged.  He formed a friendship with Phil Lesh when they were both students at the College of San Mateo, and Lesh credited his mad beatnik buddy Petersen with providing him with a real bohemian education.  Petersen died in 1987.

In ‘New Potato Caboose’ Petersen paints a picture of a landscape, that was once green, but is now the color of bone with his lyrics, “Last leaf fallen, bare earth where green was, bone.” ‘New Potato Caboose’ came together over time, with Pigpen adding a celesta part to the intro, Jerry a melodic phrase for the verse, and Mickey a glockenspiel riff and a very important gong roll.  Bob sang lead on the song, since Phil wasn’t ready to try singing leads yet.  The second line, “Above Madonna, two eagles hang against a cloud”, could be a reference to a stained-glass panel of two eagles and a cloud set in a door in the Dead’s house in Haight Ashbury where they lived from 1965-1968.  710 Ashbury Street was a boarding house where band managers Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin first set up the band’s office, before the group moved in.

Aoxomoxoa was their third studio album released in 1969 and it was originally titled Earthquake Country.  Just as things seemed to be going so well, the American electronics company Ampex manufactured and released a new 16-track multitrack recording machine, and the Dead were so keen to try it out this new technology because it would double the number of tracks available to them, that they dumped all the songs that they had already recorded and spent the next eight months off-and-on, experimenting and re-recording all the music again from scratch.  The title Aoxomoxoa is a meaningless palindrome that was created by cover artist Rick Griffin and lyricist Robert Hunter.  All tracks on this album were written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, except for ‘St. Stephen’, which Phil Lesh also contributed to.  Aoxomoxoa was the first time the band would showcase acoustic arrangements (as on ‘Mountains of the Moon’, ‘Rosemary’, and ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues’), which would become the focus of the next two studio albums.

The two albums Earthquake Country and Aoxomoxoa would have been very similar in the songs that they contained, as they both had ‘Saint Stephen’, ‘China Cat Sunflower’, ‘Mountains Of The Moon’, ‘Doin’ That Rag’, ‘What’s Become Of The Baby’ and ‘Cosmic Charlie’ on them.  Earthquake Country featured ‘Dark Star’, ‘The Eleven’, ‘Clementine’ and ‘The Barbed Wire Whipping Party’, whereas Aoxomoxoa included ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues’ and ‘Rosemary’.  The album credits some additional musicians, John “Marmaduke” Dawson and David Nelson.  Marmaduke founded New Riders of the Purple Sage in 1969 with David Nelson and Jerry Garcia.  Peter Grant is also listed as supporting personnel and Jerry played in the bluegrass band High Country with Peter Grant who also played banjo on ‘Me and My Uncle’.  Three other names are listed, Debbie, Mouse and Wendy as additional musicians, and although it does not say what instruments they played, this is most likely Wendy Weir, the sister of Bob Weir, Stanley Mouse an American artist who created a lot of Dead posters and album covers and Debbie Eisenberg, who I know little about.  The Grateful Dead could literally play ‘Dark Star’ hours, divulging into walls of feedback, space jamming instrumental improvisation with drumming accompanied by the Robert Hunter lyrics where a star crashes, reason tatters, searchlights seek, the mirror shatters, a hand turns to a flower, and a mysterious lady disappears which are all meant to describe change.

Live/Dead was their next album which was a double album and as the title reflects this is a live album which was recorded over a series of concerts in early 1969 and released later the same year.  The album reached number 64, which was better than their previous studio albums, which didn’t sell as well.  They put more money into their previous albums than they got back in return and this one helped buy the group some time.  Their sound man Owsley “Bear” Stanley, was able to capture the band at one of its peak periods and on its home base.

Two of the seven songs were recorded at the Avalon Ballroom on January 26, 1969, and the others were recorded at the Fillmore West on February 27 and March 2, 1969.  Two songs were covers ‘Turn On Your Love Light’, which was written by Deadric Malone and Joseph Scott and ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ which was written by Reverend Gary Davis.  One song ‘And We Bid You Goodnight’ is listed as traditional and the rest are originals.  In 2003, the album was ranked number 244 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and it went to 247 on a 2012 revised list.  ‘Dark Star’ takes up the first side of this album, and it was initially released as a single in 1968, backed with ‘Born Cross-Eyed’ and it was included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list and was ranked at number 57 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.

‘Turn On Your Love Light’ is sung by Ron McKernan and the fifteen minute rendition takes up side three of this album and when the Grateful Dead performed this at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, it lasted more than 45 minutes.  This is a cover of a 1961 singe by Bobby “Blue” Bland but the Dead made it their own by pushing and pulling on this song until it became something else entirely.  Janis Joplin sat-in with the group on at least two occasions, June 7, 1969 at the Fillmore West and again on July 16, 1970 at the Euphoria Ballroom in San Rafael, California.  In both instances she helped Pigpen sing ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’.  Joplin had a brief romance with founding Grateful Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and she was friendly with the other members of the band as she lived nearby.  This became Pigpen’s signature song, as this let him express his anguish about having his heart broken, as he needs this loving so bad that he gets down on his knees to beg his baby to come back into his life.

The title of Workingman’s Dead was coined by Jerry Garcia when describing the new sound of the band.  Well, the first days are the hardest days.  Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia met when they were teenagers, being just one year apart in age and they formed a bond partly through the shared experience of losing a father, Garcia through death, Hunter through divorce.  Jerry asked Robert if he could write more songs that drew listeners in, so their fans could sing along with the group and Robert came through on their fourth studio album from 1970 Workingman’s Dead, as this changed the Grateful Dead forever, because they focused on songs instead of jams.

They shifted to mostly acoustic material which brought their harmonies to the forefront and also put a spotlight on Robert Hunter’s lyrics for the first time.  This album felt almost like the work of a completely different band, because they took a radical stylistic shift away from psychedelic music to songs that had a warm and intimate acoustic glow and this set the band on a course that would eventually make it one of the most popular acts America ever produced, with a devoted fan base second to none.  After spending years out on the fringe, the Dead finally had some success. and Workingman’s Dead allowed them to enter the rock mainstream.

In March 1969, Garcia bought a Zane Beck pedal-steel guitar at a music store in Colorado.  In the summer of 1969, Stephen Stills was living on Mickey Hart’s ranch in Novato, as they both had a love for horses and this was the year that Crosby, Stills & Nash got very popular because of their trademark harmonies.  Musical bonds formed and Stills heard that Jerry had just started playing pedal-steel guitar and Crosby suggested that Stills approach Garcia about playing this new instrument on ‘Teach Your Children’ for their new CSNY album Déjà Vu.  This kicked off a period of close musical and personal relationships between various members of the two bands and Stills always remained close with Hart, and Garcia enjoyed jamming with Crosby.  The Dead heard CSNY sing together many times, and that something rubbed off on them and they credited this for sharpening up their vocal sound, as they learned how to stack vocals.

Hunter often typed lyrics day and night and fed them to Garcia, who would quickly set them to music, sometimes within hours of their delivery and many of these songs were used for the Workingman’s Dead album.  Before the album was released, the Dead were playing ‘Dire Wolf’, ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘High Time’ at their concerts and then Pigpen began singing ‘Easy Wind’.  The album reached No. 27, the band’s highest showing at the time.  It was also their first million selling LP. ‘Uncle John’s Band’ was pulled as a single, and it made it to No. 69.  The Grateful Dead started out the 1970s with the infamous Drug Bust in New Orleans, that took place early in the morning of Jan. 31, 1970, and led to them writing the song ‘Truckin’’ that appeared on their next album American Beauty.

All of the songs on Workingman’s Dead were written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, except ‘Easy Wind’ which was a sole Hunter effort and ‘Cumberland Blues’ where Lesh collaborated with Garcia and Hunter.  David Nelson played acoustic guitar on ‘Cumberland Blues’.  Two of their songs on this album ‘Dire Wolf’ and ‘Black Peter’ both speak about death, and the 18-year-old African American Meredith Hunter was killed at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert along with the Tate-LaBianca murders of six people on August 9–10, 1969 done by the Manson Family were still fresh in everybody’s minds at this time.

There are only eight songs on this album which was influenced by the Bakersfield’s outlaw country sound, sort of like a honky-tonk take on the country music performed by Buck Owens or Merle Haggard from the ‘50s.  Robert Hunter and the Dead started writing shorter, twangier songs with simpler, more direct lyrics that were inspired by listening to The Band’s first two albums.  ‘New Speedway Boogie’ was written as a response to the Altamont concert tragedy and ‘Casey Jones’ became an unprecedented radio hit that gained the Dead more college-aged fans nationwide and it may be the best-known song done by the Grateful Dead.

Sadly, I have to end this post here, as it is already way too long and I probably lost most of my readers two thousand words ago.  It is too bad that I wasn’t able to get to American Beauty or Europe 72, but it is very possible that someday I will pick up this post again and continue where I left off.  Thanks for taking your valuable time to read my ramblings and please leave me a comment, if I did not put you to sleep.

20 thoughts on “G is for Grateful Dead

  1. I know you enjoyed this one a lot. This is one band that stuck but it’s principles for the most part.
    I still like Weir’s “thick air” comment. Pigpen was probably the best showman they had…he got the crowd going.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim, I read all 4000 words and have saved it. The only song I listened to was New Potato Caboose. Not bad. I don’t think you had mentioned before that it was Jerry’s brother that chopped his finger off.

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  3. Definitely an interesting history for a legendary band. I knew “some” of it as my late uncle was a Deadhead and sometimes I listened to his concert tales. However, I had no idea Jerry’s brother was the reason for the missing finger, or that Bruce Hornsby had been part of the group.

    Nice write-up!

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