"All sorts of people from different generations were living here, and when you walked past their houses, the wind would blow every variety of music through the air," Lesh recalled this summer, shuffling down Haight Street to retrace those steps. At sixty-five, Lesh is still wiry (he is meticulous about his diet, in part because he had a liver transplant in 1998) and exudes an unlikely boyish quality (an effect of his effusive high spirits, which his new liver helps sustain). "It was a kind of musical stream of consciousness, like the sound of the inside of your mind when you're not thinking or focusing on anything in particular -- all this flux of feeling and thought. It reminded me of Charles Ives, because that's where I was coming from."
It was also a hint of where Lesh would soon be going -- and where he would help take American music with the band he joined as bass player in June 1965. The nucleus of that group -- leader and string-instrument master Jerry Garcia, 23 at the beginning of '65; rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, 18; and singer and blues-harp player Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, 20 -- had come together in Palo Alto, California, some time earlier to play old-timey music as members of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Early in '65, the three of them dropped the jugs and washtubs, and added a hard-driving drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, 19, to become an electric bar band, the Warlocks. By the end of that year, the group was transformed for good and had come to embody its time and place -- steeped in the San Francisco Bay area's tradition of unorthodoxy, entwined with the blossoming psychedelic culture, the band found its name, the Grateful Dead, by chance (Garcia opened the dictionary to a random page and took a phrase that caught his eye) and found unique sources of identity in its mercuriality, submission to happenstance and inclination to anarchy. Comprising musicians with wildly divergent backgrounds and creative orientations, spontaneous and volatile, the Grateful Dead embraced the effect of a walk down the streets of Haight-Ashbury in 1965, making surprise, collusion, indulgence and disorientation the stuff of its art.
How, in the course of one year, did a jug band from the Northern California peninsula become one of the most important -- and by far the most durable and influential -- musical phenomena to have risen out of Sixties San Francisco? "There are these power centers, like Machu Picchu, like Everest, like Stonehenge, places like that, and one of the main power centers on this continent is the manhole cover at the center of Haight and Ashbury," says Wavy Gravy, the jester of the psychedelic court, who may or may not have been the one who poured the acid in the Kool-Aid that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters served to the multitudes seeking psychoactive kicks. "I'm certain of this because, in an altered state, I happened to walk onto the manhole cover while the Dead was playing at the Haight Street Fair, and at that exact moment, I saw a rainbow over Jerry Garcia."
OK . . .
"Haight-Ashbury was like a giant Certs commercial," Wavy Gravy explains, "with the Cert shooting out these waves in all directions -- ding, ding, ding, ding, beep, beep, beep, beep! The Dead were caught in those waves. You see?"
Yes. Definitely. There seems no harm, though, in considering a few somewhat less trippy notions.
In fact, the Grateful Dead weren't born in Haight-Ashbury. Despite the band's eventual prominence in the flower-power scene and the budding of its long-term fan base in the tie-dyed fields of the Haight's Buena Vista Park, the Dead were a product of another place about thirty miles to the south: Palo Alto, where an amalgam of cultural forces was coalescing just as the core founders of the band were entering adulthood. Stanford University, a major center for Cold War weapons research, filled the vicinity with parents allegiant to the hard sciences and Eisenhower-era values. When their kids started maturing, they began asserting their own generational identity by dressing like farmhands -- in bluejeans -- and listening to simple music played on wooden instruments and sung in a plaintive vernacular. Folk music was suddenly voguish, replacing jazz in the coffeehouses that had sprouted up in the bohemian student areas in Palo Alto (and virtually every other college town in the United States) during the postwar years. The Kingston Trio, the boy-band avatars of the folk craze, started in Palo Alto. So did Joan Baez, the imperious folk queen of the early Sixties.
And so did Jerry Garcia. Son of a leader of a big band (who named him after songwriter Jerome Kern, composer of the musical Show Boat and standards such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"), Garcia moved to Palo Alto, after finagling his way out of the Army, because he knew a girl in the area, and he found work teaching banjo and guitar at an instrument shop. Garcia had toyed with rock & roll as a teenager in San Francisco (and even played electric guitar on Bobby Freeman's 1958 hit "Do You Want to Dance," according to Grateful Dead legend) but became obsessed with traditional acoustic music in Palo Alto. A few years before he got together with Weir and McKernan, he was developing a reputation among musicians in Northern California for his work in a couple of string bands: an old-timey trio, the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers (with guitarist Marshall Leicester and fiddler Dick Arnold), and a bluegrass trio, the Wildwood Boys (with guitarists David Nelson and Robert Hunter, the latter of whom would later reunite with Garcia as a lyricist for the Dead).
Garcia was also developing an extramusical mystique. "He was very advanced at the time, compared to everybody else," says Nelson, who continued to play with Garcia over the years and now tours with a Dead-style jam band. "People thought he was arrogant, but I never saw that. The first time I saw him, sitting in a bookstore, it was summer, so it was hot, and there's this guy with an open shirt, and he was incredibly hairy, and he's kind of dark and surly, and he's strumming a twelve-string, real kind of quiet, with this really kind of intense-like stare. He had a little wreath of something in his hair, like some girl had woven some vines into a wreath. He was playing quietly -- you could hardly hear it, but it was very intense, very captivating. He had some kind of aura. 'Who's that?' I just couldn't take my eyes off him."
Marshall Leicester saw a careerist streak to match -- and facilitate -- Garcia's acute sense of creative purpose. "He was a complicated individual: a guy with a very strong drive to find what it was he wanted to do and do it, even if he didn't know what it was," says Leicester, who is now a literature professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "He would pick up stuff and drop it, and that often involved picking up people and dropping them on the way to finding what he wanted to do. I can say that innocently, because it didn't happen to me. He had an artist's stubbornness about finding whatever that vision would turn out to be and sticking to it."
The store where Nelson first encountered Garcia, Kepler's Books and Magazines, was a modest shop run by a lefty activist, Roy Kepler, and co-managed by a local pacifist guru, Ira Sandperl. It had an open area with tables and a coffee urn on the left, as you walked in, which was the hub of the literary-music axis that gave the Palo Alto scene much of its gravitas and cachet. Ken Kesey, the novelist and LSD-head, had moved to Palo Alto on a fellowship to the Stanford Writing Program and stayed in town, working as an orderly in a psych ward while he wrote a novel drawn from the experience, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. When Jack Kerouac shook off Neal Cassady, the charismatic hanger-on who inspired On the Road's Dean Moriarty, Cassady bestowed the end of his leash to Kesey, thereupon gracing Palo Alto with an accessible -- indeed, ubiquitous -- Beat presence.
To a well-read autodidact like Garcia, and to musicians and writers with scholarly bents like Hunter, Leicester and many of their friends in Palo Alto, books and stringed instruments seemed of a piece. There was earthy poetry in those odd, cryptic folk songs about betrayal, death and spirits, and the process of unearthing the material on old 78s in thrift stores and flea markets had an element of scholarship. Garcia and his contemporaries gathered nearly every day at Kepler's, trading songs and books and ruminating on their meanings. At night they played in clubs such as the Top of the Tangent and the Boar's Head, both of which were rooms on the second floors of bookstores.
Recalling those days this summer, Ira Sandperl walks down the aisles of the current incarnation of Kepler's, an airy corner store in a modern building half a block from the original location, which is now a leather-furniture store. "I had to kick the Grateful Dead out of the store every night, before they were the Grateful Dead -- Jerry Garcia and those guys," says Sandperl, who now uses a walker but seems fiery enough to bop an antagonist on the head with it (unless he's still a pacifist). "They would play the same song all night, and they never knew when to stop. I had to get them out of there. They were maddening."
Bob Weir, a high-spirited rich kid with severe but undiagnosed dyslexia, had been expelled from a string of private academies around the Peninsula and ended up in Menlo-Atherton High School, near Palo Alto, in 1964. "He was incorrigible -- he was into being different," recalls his classmate Bob Matthews. "He liked music, liked playing music, played guitar really well, played it a lot and was into snowing the girls. He was pretty -- the girls all went for him, and he was plenty happy with them." Weir and Matthews were sophomores, as Matthews remembers, or maybe juniors, as Weir says, when they started a band with Jerry Garcia.
Matthews recalls that he and Weir hitch-hiked to Berkeley after school one day and sneaked into a twenty-one-and-over club to see a group they had heard on a new record: the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, a raggy-looking ensemble of young people playing a musical hodgepodge, by turns old-timey, funky, bluesy and jazzy, on farmhouse instruments such as washboards, kazoos and jugs, as well as traditional banjos and guitars. "The next day, Bob and I walked into Dana Morgan's music store, where Jerry was in his little tiny cubicle that he taught lessons in -- if he wasn't working, he was always practicing," says Matthews. "We said, 'We decided to start a jug band last night.' Without dropping a note, Jerry said, 'Oh, good -- I'm in it.' And that's how the Grateful Dead started."
Four decades later, Weir, now fifty-seven, remains hardy and attractive, despite his thick, graying beard. Early this summer, he sat on the patio behind the Depot bookstore and coffee shop in Mill Valley, the town on the rim of Northern California's Mount Tamalpais where he has lived for years, and he sorts through his memories of the birth of the Dead. "It all started in places very much like this," he said, slowly turning his head to his right, in the direction of the book stacks inside. "I really couldn't read very well, so I felt a little funny in a bookstore. I still do, though we're outside, so that helps.
"We were pretty much the Dead before we were the Dead," Weir said, staring straight ahead as he talked -- not at anyone in particular, just straight ahead, as if he were onstage. "We were a jug band first, and that band had the whole essence of what the Grateful Dead became." Indeed, with the addition of McKernan, a gut-bucket blues singer who was a fixture in Palo Alto music circles, the group contained not only three core members of the Grateful Dead but also the band's genetic code. Called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, it was an unstable, anarchic, improvisational troupe of individualists making smart, fun music that conjured a party atmosphere. The heart of the enterprise, the jug, provided both the tuba-style foundation for the music and a symbol of illicit thrills; to the poor folks of the 1920s and 1930s (black and white) who played the original jug-band music, a jug was for holding corn whiskey, and the fact that it had been emptied and was therefore tootable was a sign of feeling good from the inside. It wasn't LSD but the closest thing on the Mississippi River.
As Geoff Muldaur, a guitarist and singer for the Kweskin band, explains the genre, "The essence of the jug-band idea is people jamming music for free and for fun with an extremely unrehearsed, spontaneous nature to it. As we saw it, and Jerry and Bob followed suit, it had no idiomatic boundaries. It was more of a medium to grow things in. It was eclectic, in that there was a lot of jazz playing going on, a lot of blues playing going on." The style was "a springboard, for us and for the Dead," Muldaur says.
"Hipness is a thing that keeps changing, and people who were in their late teens and early twenties in the early 1960s found jug bands incredibly hip," recalls the singer and songwriter John Sebastian, whose own passion for the style has sustained his entire career; he started professionally (under the name John Benson) in the New York-based Even Dozen Jug Band (which included the mandolin player David Grisman, with whom Garcia later recorded several albums' worth of traditional material), he formed the Lovin' Spoonful as an electrified jug band, and he now leads his own winkingly titled J-Band. "A lot of that appeal to those people had a cultural backspin on it -- like, this music has no reference to my frame of reference. It has a sense of fun, of course, but in that sense of fun a kind of deflation of the idea of an entertainer as a big shot. Jug-band music is kind of like compost -- it's this very rich fertilizer."
Weir's specialty in the band was the jug, in part because playing it made him hyperventilate and get high. "Jug-band music was minstrel music," Weir says. "It was blues music -- it wasn't electric urban blues, but it was old-style urban blues. The jug-band tradition went all the way from New Orleans to Cincinnati, and all along those stops the same rhythms and the same harmonic structures that those guys used to play back then stayed. Playing in the jug band, I learned a healthy respect for the roots of the music. You honor the roots, and you're tapping into a vein -- there's juice there.
"Somebody got us a gig at the Tangent, and we became fixtures there. We were putting on a party, and people would dance, and stuff like that. We became popular, immensely popular. We owned the place, almost from the first night."
In July 1964, a couple of Stanford students recorded Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions for a college radio show, Live From the Top of the Tangent. The band's program that night (issued on CD in 1999) shows Garcia and McKernan in strong voice doing material later associated with the Dead (including Jesse Fuller's "The Monkey and the Engineer" and "Beat It On Down the Line"). The broadcast ended with an interview in which Garcia spoke for the group. "We have quite a large area," he said of the group's musical terrain, "and that makes it more fun for us -- certainly more satisfying, because it doesn't restrict us to one particular idea or one particular style. The result, I think, is pretty interesting, and it's just a gas for us. We'll play music as long as we're all together and we all live in the same area. It's fun, and it's rewarding. We don't expect to make a fortune at it or ever be popular or famous or worshipped or hit The Ed Sullivan Show or the circuses or the big top. As long as we can play, we'll play, regardless of what it's for, who it's for or anything. It's fun for us -- that's the important thing."
The importance of things soon changed for Garcia, Weir and McKernan, who were, after all, young and American -- far from immune to the power of The Ed Sullivan Show. By the end of 1964, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones liberated rock & roll from the offices of the Brill Building and revived it four blocks away, right there on Ed's soundstage. "Toward the end of that year," Weir remembers, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions "started mutating into a rock & roll band."
The Beatles and the Stones "hit us in a big way," Weir says. "I was working in the music store where Jerry worked, and -- well, we were thinking while we were working at the music store, all those shiny electric instruments are starting to give us the come-hither. And just around then, the son of the owner of the music store said, 'Hey, listen, you guys want to start a rock & roll band? I'll loan you the instruments if I can play bass.' The Beatles came out, and there was life to what they were playing. Rock & roll seemed viable -- it seemed less like prepackaged, marketed pap and more like there was some expansiveness to the music. So we became a rock & roll band at that point."
Phil Lesh, who was friends with Garcia and watched his musical progress closely, saw various incarnations of the jug band and attributes its transformation to McKernan, whose tastes leaned far more toward the Stones than the Beatles. Of course, Lesh and Weir have not agreed on much in some time. (Their elemental disagreement over the mission of the band -- carrying on musical tradition or experimentation -- along with more mundane conflicts over business, prevents the surviving members from playing together in their fortieth anniversary year.)
"That was a neat metamorphosis, because Jerry and Pigpen had been trying to work some kind of thing out for years," Lesh says. "In Palo Alto, they finally got it together with this jug band -- a jug band is kind of a magpie's nest of influences, just like the Grateful Dead turned out to be. Pigpen was into the Chicago blues, and it was his idea: 'Let's get a drummer and make it an electric blues band.' It was just such a natural thing to happen."
The drummer they got was the best one they knew and the one they knew best: Bill Kreutzmann, who had played in a local R&B band and was teaching in the instrument store alongside Garcia and Weir. A big, quiet man who said he related to Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Kreutzmann was married with a baby daughter at eighteen, when he was still in high school, though his playing was fiery and wild. Garcia would claim (in an interview with the band's official biographer, Dennis McNally) that he "really, really didn't understand anything [Kreutzmann] said. He was just like, 'Rcty rcty shdd.' You know, what? 'Rrrrou.'" (Kreutzmann, through a representative, declined to be interviewed for this article.) But his drumming spoke to Garcia. "He was all over the place," Garcia told McNally.
The guys chose a dark, forbidding new name -- the Warlocks (which would later be an early name for a band of another sphere, the Velvet Underground). Lesh joined in May 1965, after the first set of a Warlocks gig at a pizza parlor in Menlo Park that Lesh attended, high on acid, and enjoyed so well that he danced by himself in front of the bandstand. Garcia cornered him and announced, "Hey, man -- you're going to be the bass player in this band," as Lesh recalls. Such was Garcia's intuitive sense of the two men's companionability, his faith in Lesh's fundamental musical acumen and his disdain for the rudimentary plunking of the music-store owner's son, whose father repossessed the band's equipment. (Garcia hustled up replacement gear on loan.)
The Warlocks started as a bar band playing covers, though the tunes Garcia and his bandmates chose betrayed their devotion to traditional music and their archival bent. In their first year together, they were doing lots of old blues numbers updated though electrification, like the Stones -- Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee" and Jerry Reed's "Big Boss Man" -- but they mixed them with folk songs such as "I Know You Rider" and jug-band tunes like "Viola Lee Blues" and Gus Cannon's "Stealin'." Musically, their interpretations were always idiosyncratic -- Garcia's solos were never pure blues but were rooted in the diatonic scales of bluegrass, and Lesh remained an avant-gardist, approaching the bass very much like the jazz trumpet he used to play. The band was a farrago of aesthetics from the start.
"They were a cover band with a blues accentuation because Pigpen was their vocalist, but the DNA of the band is a synthesis of all American music, and they had that from day one," Dennis McNally says.
"Everything we ever did was a demonstration of the value of cross-fertilization," Lesh explains. "It was unconscious at first, but when we started looking at each other, we had all these different influences. We had classical, jazz and avant-garde electronica in my case; we had rock & roll, bluegrass and folk music in Jerry's case; we had rock & roll and folk music with Bobby; we had blues and R&B with Pigpen; and we had jazz and rock & roll with Billy. The first song we ever did was an old folk song ["I Know You Rider"], and we rocked it out. Then we took a jug-band song ["Viola Lee Blues"], and we electrified that and rocked it out. I used to think of our music as electric chamber music. Bobby used to call it electric Dixieland."
Like the Beatles in Hamburg, the Warlocks jelled as a group -- as much as they ever would -- when they landed steady work in one spot and got to play set after set, night after night. For six weeks beginning in the fall of 1965, the band played five forty-five-minute sets (with a fifteen- minute break) per night, five nights a week, at a club for down-and-outers called the In Room in Belmont, a suburban town north of Palo Alto. "That's where we started getting a little out," Lesh says. "We'd play one song for forty-five minutes -- 'Midnight Hour,' by Wilson Pickett. We thought it was OK to do that, because the only people who were in there were people who were sitting at the bar drinking, and occasionally some people would come out and dance. I don't know if we drew people in or pushed them away. But I know that over that six weeks we really evolved our playing to a point where we could take it out and be free with it and just listen to each other play and find musical ideas and find whole musical structures -- in the ozone, as it were.
"We borrowed it all from Coltrane. I started encouraging everybody in the band to listen to John Coltrane -- 'Check it out, see what these guys do.' They take one chord, the tonic chord, and just play all over it. 'We can do that too!' I wanted to make our music something really amazing -- I wanted it to be jaw-dropping and turn on a dime and do all of those things that I knew music could do, and nobody told us we couldn't do it. I shouldn't say 'I,' though -- Jerry was behind it the whole way."
It was at the In Room that the Warlocks not only found their voice as a band but began their long-running discourse with inner voices. They were swept -- no, they dived, in group formation -- into the vortex of the LSD culture that Kesey and his troupe of Pranksters were just beginning with their Acid Tests of psychoactive evangelism around the Bay area. At first, the members of the band (or at least most of them, much of the time, Weir excepted) had an unofficial policy of performing while straight (or relatively straight, after smoking pot and/or drinking) and tripping only offstage. Soon, they began to entwine their creative lives and psychoactive lives. In little time, the two were inseparable.
"We got one night off a week," says Weir, "and every Sunday we'd go out and take acid, because that was just starting to come around. There were woolly freaks in the audience, and they were high, and we related to them -- got a kind of contact buzz off them.
"Then, one night -- I guess I was the first guy in the band actually to take acid. I had some, I took it and went to the gig -- I think it was a Tuesday night at the In Room, and all the guys in the band were watching me to see if I was going to make it through the evening. 'Isn't that a little radical?' And I made it through the evening. It wasn't a good night or a bad night. There were some challenges involved, because I think I overdosed myself. I was profoundly disoriented, I'll tell you. But I made it through the evening. And so shortly on the heels of that, the rest of the guys figured, 'OK, if the kid can do it, we're good to go.'
"Sometimes we'd freak out -- we'd plug in, try to play and just jump ship and come back later when we weren't peaking and give it another go, and it would work. The LSD gave us an insight, because once you're in that state of profound disorientation, you play stuff out of muscle memory that you're used to playing, but it will sound way different to you, and in that you'll find all kinds of suggestions of places to take it. Bit by bit, we'd follow those pathways. We were taking acid every week for a couple of months, and I think we learned what we were going to learn with that method in that couple of months. We learned in that time an important lesson, to try to step back from what it is you're playing -- not be there, to step back and let the song be itself. All we were there for was to be there to help the song, to do a few physical things to let the song happen, and the song would take care of itself."
Four decades after LSD was all the rage, neuroscientists have only a partial understanding of how the drug works. According to Dr. David Nichols, a medicinal chemist at Purdue who has written on the biochemistry of hallucinogens, LSD affects four regions of the brain associated with wakefulness, perception and information processing, enacting changes that can have a profound impact on band musicians jamming while they're tripping. They can go into a state both dreamlike and hyperconscious; things that previously seemed insignificant about the music then seem strikingly novel.
The resulting music is most effective to listeners who are in the same altered state, of course. To others, it may come off as magnificently inventive or numbingly meaningless. Then again, so can performances by utterly straight performers.
"Everybody focuses on the drugs when they talk about the Grateful Dead," notes Mickey Hart, the percussionist who joined the band, alongside Kreutzmann, in 1967. "First of all, the band only played while tripping for a very short period a long time ago. We went on to play for years and years after that, and the music continued to be spontaneous, inspired and unpredictable -- sometimes wonderful, sometimes not. But it wasn't the drugs' fault. That's the function of creative group improvisation. That's the risk we took as group improvisers. We used acid as a tool, and it helped us feel the music in a different way. We continued to use what we learned from that and didn't need the acid anymore."
At some point around the beginning of November 1965, Phil Lesh was record shopping and picked up a single with the name Warlocks on the label. His band had not made the record. (Neither had the New York group that would become the Velvet Underground.) On November 3rd, the band recorded a handful of demos in San Francisco and used the name the Emergency Crew for the sessions. Nine days later, Garcia, Weir, Lesh and Kreutzmann met at Lesh's apartment on High Street (no joke) in Palo Alto, where he had moved from Haight- Ashbury to be close to the rest of the band. As Lesh remembers, he and Garcia flipped through a copy of a book of quotations, spouting phrases for consideration as a new band name, and none seemed better than the idea that Garcia came with: the Mythical Ethical Icycle Tricycle. Finally, Garcia opened Lesh's dictionary to a random page, and a pair of words "jumped out at him." Garcia blurted out, "Grateful Dead -- that's it," and let out a whoop.
Garcia, recalling the occasion some time after the fact, doused a bit of sand on the ostensible magic of the moment. "Nobody in the band liked it," he remembered (in an interview quoted in Blair Jackson's 1999 biography Garcia: An American Life). "I didn't like it, either, but it got around that that was one of the candidates for our new name, and everyone else said, 'Yeah, that's great.' It turned out to be tremendously lucky. It's just repellent enough to filter curious onlookers and just quirky enough that parents don't like it."
Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, "Pigpen" McKernan, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann were still living in Palo Alto, the band's birthplace, and they had no record contract. But the Dead were now alive, fully formed and beginning to stir up their rich, pulpy stew of American music.
Phil Lesh walks up to the front of 710 Ashbury Street, a decorous three-story Victorian that housed all the members of the Grateful Dead for a few months, a year after the band settled on its name. The block is now gentrified, and the house has been fastidiously restored. At the bottom of the front steps, there's a wrought-iron gate with gold leaf on the filigree. Lesh tugs at it, finding it locked. "We never locked anything," he says with a chuckle. "Of course, we didn't have anything to steal, except our guitars, and everybody else on the street already had a guitar."
On the walk toward Haight from Ashbury, no music came from the windows of the houses, most of which were closed to keep in the air conditioning. Lesh stops for a moment to consider a notion: With Jerry Garcia dead, is silence on the streets of Haight-Ashbury somehow fitting?
"It has a certain poignancy, the silence," Lesh says, gazing down the street. "But I don't think Jerry would have liked it."
Then he smiles. "I don't really hear silence, anyway. I hear music in my head, and that makes me think of Jerry."