Aug 1, 2014

January 1968: Praise for the Dead


One of the most influential groups to emerge from the musically prolific city of San Francisco is the Grateful Dead. Universally recognized as the leading exponent of that city's sound, the Dead are taking over where the Airplane left off. Proving that is the fact that After Bathing At Baxter's, the Airplane's latest recording, is dying on the record stands, whereas the Grateful Dead's second album is being impatiently awaited.
The Dead's sound can be best described as the new blues. With raunchy chords and funky sounds, they grip their live audiences with a burst of sound that patrons of San Francisco's famed Fillmore Auditorium maintain cannot be duplicated on records.
Led by Jerry Garcia, who commands an almost religious respect among his copious followers, the Dead come on with hard, hoarse, screeching sounds that are almost unbelievable. Garcia himself admits, "I don't believe the live sound, the live excitement can be recorded."
Besides Garcia, who was born in Mazatlan, Mexico, there is Phil Leash on bass. Leash recounts his life: "born in a jail cell, the last of a line of at least three generations of horse thieves. Thereafter, history took over leaving me bewigged, lathered and ready for the axe."
Ron McKernan, better known to everyone as Pigpen, was born in San Bruno, California. Before joining the Dead, Pigpen was the leader of an all-organ blues band. He earned his nickname while still in high school. "I began singing at 16. I wasn't in school, I was just goofin'. I've always been singing along with records, my dad was a disc jockey, and it's been what I wanted to do." One noted San Francisco jazz/pop critic has called Pigpen "one of the major bluesmen in America."
Bill Sommers, who is their drummer, played in about ten bands until the Dead finally asked him to join them. Bill has a background in football at Stanford.
Their rhythm guitarist is one of the youngest guitarists ever to play with the Dead. Bob Weir was only 18 when he began playing with the group. Weir is also a fine artist whose rather interesting interpretation of Pigpen is being worn on thousands of tee-shirts across the city.
The group is extremely together. Working and living together has brought the group so close that it is almost impossible to tell where one mind stops and the others start. This closeness, this ability to become one being, is perhaps the greatest asset any group in pop music today can have. Through the closeness of sound and mind, they can make their individual achievements heighten considerably as a group.
They are at their best in front of an audience. They have fun while on stage, and it is evident that this is where they want to be. Garcia explains, "Audiences are where it's at. We get into a thing by ourselves, but if there's a few people listening it makes a big difference."
Phil Leash perhaps sums up the Dead's sound best when he states, "you just do what you do and we all kind of fell together. We orbit around a common center. It is impossible to define but it has something to do with making good music of any kind. That's the Grateful Dead."

(by Tony Leigh, from KRLA Beat, 27 January 1968) (p.19)

The KRLA Beat archive of issues from 1964-1968 is here:


  1. KRLA Beat was a charming Los Angeles pop-news magazine that ran in the mid-'60s. While it mostly focused on news & gossip in the top-40 pop-music scene, it also ran interviews & reviews - for instance, the 3/9/68 issue has a lengthy interview with Jefferson Airplane, and the 3/23/68 issue has a long article on Cream's show in Santa Monica.

    While the Airplane got more coverage due to their success, here KRLA turns its attention to the Grateful Dead... You'll notice the tall tales here: I suspect this reporter didn't actually talk to the Dead, but took his quotes from previously-printed stories about them. A few details, for instance, come from the fake promo-biographies the Dead gave to the press in '67. Ralph Gleason is quoted in praise of Pigpen, and reviews of his may have been used here; and a couple lines may come from a Newsweek article that mentioned the Dead.

    Nonetheless, though this doesn't have any original reporting, it does at least show the perceptions of the Dead that were being printed at the time - that they were "taking over" from the Airplane as the leading SF group; that their audiences say their sound "cannot be duplicated on records;" that Garcia already "commands an almost religious respect among his copious followers."
    There are a couple serious comments from Garcia, too, that the audience "makes a big difference" in how they play; and "I don't believe the live sound, the live excitement can be recorded." (Of course, the Dead were recording their shows for their second album when this was printed...)
    It's uncertain whether this reporter had even seen them or cribbed his descriptions entirely from the SF press - he notes their "hard, hoarse, screeching sounds" - but he does mention their "closeness, this ability to become one being" that's present in their music.

  2. There was no mention of Mickey Hart and the author stated that "the rhythm guitarist is one of the youngest ever to play with the Dead".That is a very odd statement and seems to imply that there were guitarists other than Garcia and Weir who had played in the band.Somehow I am always surprised at how early in their career the Garcia worship had set in,this is the earliest instance I have come across it being mentioned.

    1. The author probably didn't know about Mickey. My guess is he might not even have left his office to write this; just used some previously printed articles to put it together.
      For instance, the line about Weir comes from the fake bios (which were printed in Rock & Roll magazine, and maybe elsewhere): "Only 18 years old, he is, nonetheless, the youngest rhythm guitarist ever to play with the Dead." A couple other fake biographical details also come from there:

      Lesh's line about being "born in a jail cell," etc, comes from an alternate set of band bios, written by the band:

      The description of "their hard, hoarse, screeching sound" and Garcia's line that "I don't believe the live sound, the live excitement, can be recorded" come from a Newsweek article about the SF music scene printed back in December '66!

      So I assume other bits of this were taken from other articles I haven't spotted. A lot of KRLA Beat's reporting on bands was this kind of second-hand news compiled from other sources - nothing wrong with that (that was its main purpose, after all), so long as we know that's what it is & recognize the writer probably isn't drawing from any personal knowledge of the Dead.

      It strikes me that the Dead's high stature here (and in other '67 articles) is based almost entirely on their live shows - since they had just one album out, and I assume it wasn't flying off the shelves in Los Angeles. So aside from the early notice of Garcia's followers' "almost religious respect," it was also recognized very early on that Dead recordings weren't "where it's at."

    2. I found another source for this article - the descriptions of Pigpen & Bill, and parts of the last two paragraphs, were copied from an article Jann Wenner wrote on the Dead in early '67:

  3. Gotta' get down to Mazatlan.....mebbe pick up a Weir
    designed Tee