The Grateful Dead have represented more than just another rock band in the lore of American popular culture. Whether you love them, or are bored blind by their long jams, the Dead are legion as recalled by Susan Green in this reflective piece.
I haven’t caught either version, but did spend some time with the Dead in May of 1978 on assignment for a Vermont daily newspaper. Although backstage access had been arranged by some well-connected music business person, a big part of our plan was upended when a photographer named Charlie and I got to the Thompson Arena at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Told no cameras, notebooks or tape recorders would be allowed, we were journalists without the necessary tools who managed to persevere. My memorization skills had to kick into high gear. Here’s what happened:
After a 5 p.m. sound check, the Dead and their crew assembled for a meal. Garcia playfully attempted to fork a piece of steak from a roadie’s plate, but the guy pretended he would hit him in the face with a gooey cake in retaliation. Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist, told drummer Mickey Hart that he was on his customary afternoon run when police ejected him from the small airport adjacent to the hotel where they would be staying that night. “That’s a drag,” Hart commented. “It’s a runway, isn’t it?” For some reason, the two then tried walking backwards on their heels.
|The Grateful Dead|
One nervous fan was stumbling over his words, trying to ask the enigmatic Garcia a question. Something about how he deals with nights when things don’t go well. Grinning a wide, toothy smile, the then-35-year-old acid rock veteran offered the young man a brief discourse on polarity: Good and bad exist side-by-side, in the same breath, he explained. His speaking voice was higher than might be expected from listening to him sing.
During a subsequent gathering at their hotel, he was clowning around with bass player Phil Lesh and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux. They were surrounded by several admirers who laughed at Dead in-jokes they probably didn’t really understand. There was a bottle of vodka and a bottle of mescal (a cousin of tequila) with a worm in it, but no mixers and no glasses. “We sure know how to throw a great party,” Garcia said, deadpan. “Boy, are we having fun time.”
He began harmonizing with Lesh and Godchaux on an impromptu chorus of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” They lamented the fact that no cassette of Saturday Night Fever was available to put on the tape deck. Dead meets disco. Sitting next to Garcia, an ardent admirer gushed: “I’ve been waiting 11 years to be right where I am now!” The guitar virtuoso laughed. “And it don’t amount to a hill of beans,” he contended. “We’re just like everybody else.”
Jerrry Garcia and Bob Weir
Since the beginning, the group had recorded every performance, 80 percent of which was not worthy of making it onto an album, according to Garcia. They tried using horns in their live act, but found that addition required endless rehearsals. “It was too difficult to blend into our sound,” he said. The Dead had never enjoyed a hit single or a best-selling album, yet their staying power was unique. “I like growing old,” Garcia noted, chain-smoking as the party fizzled out at dawn. “It gets better every year.”
I wondered why the band booked cookie-cutter chains rather than picturesque little inns off the beaten path. “It wouldn’t be The Road if we didn’t stay in place like this,” Garcia mused.
After no more than four hours sleep, by noon he was seated at a table in the nondescript hotel’s restaurant. Charlie and I joined him. Garcia either didn’t notice or didn’t care that I began taking notes. He had ordered a chicken sandwich that was half-eaten, but continued consuming coffee and cigarettes throughout the conversation, explaining “I’m into a non-health trip.”
And, in a recent instance, direct. Garcia talked about being at the helm of The Grateful Dead Movie, released the previous year, and now wanted to tackle a feature film. The science-fiction buff had purchased the rights to Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, a novel he described as “very cinemagraphic.”
Garcia said Deadheads at concerts calling out requests for their favorite songs most often wanted “Dark Star,” a trippy ode to a black hole in space that allowed the musicians to go wild with their trademark improvisation. “What they don’t realize,” he added, “is that there’s a little bit of ‘Dark Star’ in everything we do. In fact, there’s a little bit of ‘Dark Star’ in everything.”
In 1996, Dark Star would become the title of Robert Greenfield’s oral biography posthumously published on the first anniversary of Garcia’s death from a heart attack related to abuse of cocaine and heroin. Last year, Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story, 2010) announced that he will direct an adaptation of the book for a movie chronicling the early days of the psychedelic icon who loved tension.
- originally published on April 20, 2011 in Critics at Large.