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Rock & Roll Saturday – Grateful Dead

August 6, 2011

“There is a road, no simple highway,
between the dawn and the dark of night.”
Ripple (American Beauty, Grateful Dead, 1970)

Rock and Roll Saturday’s has been committed to an in depth look at the songwriters and musicians that have not just influenced the sound but changed the landscape of music. You simply cannot have that discussion without putting a microscope on the Grateful Dead and fleshing out all the small nuances they contributed to the building of a genre. The Dead not only changed the landscape of rock and roll, they brought along a generation to help them do it.

“A box of rain will ease the pain, and love will see you through.”
Box of Rain (American Beauty, Grateful Dead, 1970)

The circumstance that would plant the seed of the Grateful Dead happened on a late Saturday night when Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia came together for a session on The Midnight Special, a radio program at KFPA in Berkeley, CA. (Not affiliated with The Midnight Special, long time staple of WFMT, Chicago)

The Warlocks - 1964

Shortly after they met for that duet, Lesh joined Garcia’s band, The Warlocks, which included the remnants of a Palo Alto jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. The band changed its name to “The Grateful Dead” after finding out another band [Warlocks] had signed a recording contract. The first concert as The Grateful Dead was in San Jose on December 4, 1965, at one of Ken Kesey‘s Acid Tests.

The Grateful Dead were:

Jerry Garcia – Banjo and Guitar
Bob Weir – Guitar
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – Organ
Phil Lesh – Bass
Bill Kreutzmann – Drums

Lesh was the last member to join the Warlocks before they became the Grateful Dead. With the exception of McKernan, the core of the band stayed together for 30 years, until Garcia’s death in 1995. On March 8, 1973, McKernan was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, CA.

Many stories have circulated around bandlore about how they came up with their new name. You are free to pick yours, although I like the one where  Phil Lesh said, “Jerry found the name spontaneously when he picked up a dictionary and the pages fell open. The words ‘grateful’ and ‘dead’ appeared straight opposite each other across the crack between the pages in unrelated text.”

“She’s got everything I need. Takes the steering wheel when I’m seeing double,
pays my tickets when I speed.”
Sugar Magnolia (American Beauty, Grateful Dead, 1970)

With a few notable exceptions the lineup remained unchanged across the decades. Mickey Hart joined the Dead as the second drummer in September of 1967. He and fellow drummer Bill Kreutzmann became close friends and earned the nickname “the rhythm devils”.

After McKernan’s death new members rotated through the keyboards position one after another for several years, including singer/songwriter Bruce Hornsby between 1990 and 1992. For most of the later years  Vince Welnick, former keyboardist for The Tubes, was in for keyboards and vocals. He stayed with the Dead until Garcia’s death in 1995. Welnick committed suicide in 2006, becoming the fourth former Dead keyboardist to die.

“I will get by/I will survive.”
Touch of Grey (In the Dark, Grateful Dead – 1987)

Across the years The Grateful Dead achieved cult status. Their fans dubbed, “Deadheads“, could be found in small caravans traveling about the country following their beloved Dead like some Pied Piper. Little hippie cottage industries grew up around the Dead phenomenon as a circus like atmosphere surrounded every show. Between “Bear wear” consisting of tie-dyed tee-shirts, hippy beads, posters and pins, there was something for Deadheads of all ages. And just under the surface the marijuana business flourished.

In many ways Deadheads were the first social media.

“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.”
The Boys of Summer (Don Henley – 1984)

Jerry Garcia would have celebrated his 69th birthday on August 1st. Instead, Garcia died in a treatment center in Northern California nearly 16 years ago. Through the years we’ve lost so many musical icons you would think we would be used to it by now. But no – there is a void in my world shaped a lot like Jerry Garcia.

If he were here today he’d probably say somthing like….

“What a long strange trip it’s been.”
Truckin’ (American Beauty, Grateful Dead, 1970)

For a full lineup of the Grateful Dead for the thirty years between 1965 and 1995 go here.

For a comprehensive Grateful Dead setlist (1965-1995), go here.

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