Apr 7, 2017

Early 1967: Dead Praise


I first heard them play over a year ago. After the set I wandered up to the bass player (long blonde hair, blue corduroy pants, a yellow velvet shirt) and asked for the name of the group.
"The Grateful Dead."
"The Grateful Dead," he said.
It is amazing what this band can do. In a long while of listening to all the "new rock and roll" groups that have come to and from San Francisco, the Dead is the only one (among about 10 in the world) that set after set, weekend after weekend, grabs me out of my chair every time.
The nucleus of the Grateful Dead was a Peninsula band: Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions.
Three of the current members were in it: Jerry Garcia, 24, lead guitarist; rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, 19, then a junior in high school and from a social Atherton family (the band played for his sister's debutante party this summer); and Ron McKernan, 21.
Ron is better known as "Pig-pen," an affectionate name having something to do with his rather outrageous appearance. "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."
He has a rich voice which reaches all the inside places of the pains of life. Noted jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason named Pigpen "one of the major bluesmen in America."
Mother McCree's went on for a while until a year and a half ago they decided to do rock and roll. "Rock is more immediate music; it's closer to what's happening in people's heads."
Bill Sommers, 20, from a Stanford football background, had played in about 10 bands until they asked him to join. Although the best drummer in the Bay Area, he had been holding down a fulltime short-hair job. Bass player Phil Lesh, 28, was the last to join.
The Grateful Dead (look the phrase up in Webster's) spent six months "in the woodshed" between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver.
"Woodshedding" was working out new material, tightening arrangements, living, suffering and starving together, a process which, like the Beatles in Germany, brings a group so close in their minds and their music that they can make the group sound a greater total than the sum of five individuals.
It will be difficult to capture the spirit and excellence of this group on a record. (They are now with Warner Brothers.) One of the great pleasures of the group is their incredible stage presence. They have fun.
Jerry sings very sadly and quietly, especially on numbers like Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Pigpen plays the harmonica and organ, both in a style which is best described as alternatingly marauding and mysterious.
Phil and Jerry do most of the writing.
"The lyrics are nonsensical and banal," they explain.
"You just do what you do," Phil says, "and we all kind of fell together. We orbit around a common centre. It is impossible to define but it has something to do with making good music of any kind. That's the Grateful Dead."

(by Jann Werner, from the Ottawa Journal, 5 May 1967)

Thanks to Dave Davis.


  1. The date & newspaper are misleading - this was an article reprinted from some earlier source, and it was certainly written much earlier than May '67.
    Jann Wenner says here that he "first heard them play over a year ago." He told the story in the Signpost to New Space introduction:
    "The first time I saw them...San Jose, after a Rolling Stones concert. [12/4/65] I wandered into a Kesey scene there that turned out to be their first Acid Test. I remember asking someone (who turned out to be Phil Lesh) who they were. 'We're the Grateful Dead,' he said, and the impact, in my state of mind at that point, was severe."
    This article seems to come from late '66 or early '67 - he mentions the Sep '66 debutante ball the Dead played "this summer," and says the Dead started playing rock "a year and a half ago." He notes that the Dead are now on Warner Brothers, but says that "it will be difficult to capture the spirit and excellence of this group on a record," so apparently there's no album yet.
    So late '66 would be my guess. On the other hand, he quotes a Ralph Gleason article from March '67 (which notes Pigpen's "outrageous appearance" and calls him "one of the best bluesmen in America") - but that article talks about the new album, so maybe Gleason himself was recycling quotes from an earlier piece!
    The ages are accurate except for Phil's, probably a typo - he was 26.

    There are some brief quotes from the band - Phil admits that their lyrics are "nonsensical and banal," and they say they stopped playing jug-band music because "rock is more immediate music; it's closer to what's happening in people's heads."
    Wenner is struck by their fun shows and "incredible stage presence." He singles out 'Baby Blue' as a good number they do, and says that "Jerry sings very sadly and quietly." (Which isn't represented much on our few tapes of that period!)

    1. The Gleason article turns out to be from Sep '67, so that was a false clue - Gleason must've been quoting an earlier article.
      Most likely this Wenner piece is from no later than January '67.

  2. Wenner wrote a column for the Daily Californian at UC Berkeley through 1966, initially under the name "mr. jones" - possibly that's where this article first appeared. (I think he left school in early '67.)
    He'd mentioned the Dead in earlier articles. For instance:
    2/24/66 - "The group which, if it ever makes it, will make it the biggest, is the Grateful Dead." [An amazingly early prediction!]
    5/12/66 - after seeing the Dead's 5/7/66 show at Harmon Gym, UC Berkeley, he said that 'Midnight Hour' was the highlight: "one of their best numbers, and the best version of that song I've heard any group do."
    10/26/66 - "What's happening are Pigpen tee-shirts, which come in three assorted, various, sublime, colorful colors. If you don't have a friend in the group who could have given you one free, they're available for $2.50 from the Grateful Dead Fan Club, P.O. Box 31201, San Francisco... Ken K. Kesey, who wrote two excellent books, is somewhere around. That's his bag and although I would rather listen to the Grateful Dead, I'm supposed to know what Kesey is up to... Who cares? People who want to be hip."
    Unfortunately the Daily Californian issues from 1966 aren't digitally available online yet, so that's all I can find for now.

  3. The Daily Cal is starting to put their archives online, but alas they don't have much yet except 1964, may 1966 and Jan 1981. If you donate $6,000 they will put up any month you want. Before I look closely at the Greek shows over the next year or so to write about them, I can luckily just drive up from LA to the campus to look through the microfiche. Many schools like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Yale, Princeton, even Bates College in Maine have very through historic archives. I've been finding lots of material there. I had forgot that Jann wrote at Cal. I haven't looked through the early Rolling Stones since I looked at the bound issues at my college library around 1978, but I did acquire all the issues with Grateful Dead or Jerry covers. Since so much of the SF Chronicle archives are not online too, sounds like a field trip to the Bay Area is in order. I'm glad to share what I have if you are looking for anything specific.

    1. Yeah, not much of the Daily Californian is online yet except 1964. They're asking for donations of $60/month or $600/year to digitize the rest:

      Wenner started writing columns in Feb '66, but I'm not sure when he stopped, probably by winter '67. I'm sure other researchers have been through the issues, but I don't have a listing of Dead mentions in the Daily Californian.
      One researcher wrote, "Jann Wenner had been a writer for the Daily Cal under the pseudonym of Mr. Jones... His first few columns (the first being, apparently, on 2/2/66) were concerned with the San Francisco scene - replete with descriptions of the infamous Acid Tests and what they were like, and the musical scene. And Mr. Wenner's musical judgment was pretty sound too, as in one column which reviewed some local bands he was able to pronounce the Grateful Dead as the most promising and likely to rise to national prominence."

      And yes, the SF Chronicle is probably a goldmine on the music scene (at least Gleason's articles), so it's frustrating that it's not online. The Dodd/Weiner GD bibliography lists many Dead articles in the Chronicle, but isn't complete.

      One thing that would be nice to find, is that Gleason and Wenner each wrote about the 5/7/66 Harmon Gym show, but I only have one line from each review, quoted in other places.

  4. I believe this article originally ran in Sunday Ramparts magazine, where Jann Wenner was an editor in late '66/early '67, but I haven't found the original publication date.