Feb 1, 2019

1970: Myths of the Dead


It has only been in the last year that the Grateful Dead have started to make the same impact nationally that they have enjoyed for years in San Francisco.
The band's popularity has grown to startling proportions, especially on the East Coast, where their concerts habitually sell out, no matter how frequently they play the area. Even the records are starting to sell in reasonable quantities - while they are not yet in the Gold Record class, both "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty" have done very well.
A straightforward success story of hippie capitalism in action, or so it would seem.
And yet, and yet, the Dead are not entirely what they seem to be - more than any other band, they are the victims of many myths. Some of the myths once had a bit of truth to them, but time goes on, and no one, least of all a band as fluid and experimental as they, can remain unchanged and untouched in their music and their lives.
Perhaps the time has come to explode some of these myths, for they not only distort and detract from the central point of any band - its music - but they can also cause definite harm.
Everyone is interested in the beginnings of the Grateful Dead and how they grew; everyone, that is, except the Dead themselves. Their description of how they finally formed their band is loose and vague - a jug band in San Francisco, then the Warlocks, then the Grateful Dead. It doesn't really matter how they finally got together, the important thing is that they did. Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh have been friends for nearly ten years, but Jerry was playing with Bobby Weir in an earlier group long before Phil ever joined them. And Jerry and Pigpen McKernan played together in a totally different band. All the members of the Grateful Dead were in San Francisco and part of the cultural explosion going on there at the start of the 1960's.
And it is here that the myths come into full bloom. Tom Wolfe, in his book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," puts the Grateful Dead as central figures in Ken Kesey's Trips Festivals, but the truth is that at the time, the band members (not yet joined into the band) were teenagers who had little to offer Kesey and his friends in the way of intellectual experimentation that they wanted. Phil Lesh remembers going to Kesey's parties with any girl he wanted particularly to impress. But Kesey was likely to throw them out, since they were just kids unable to contribute to the evening. True, they actually participated in one Merry Pranksters trip to the extent that they travelled with them on a truck for 200 miles. Then the truck broke down. So much for that. The involvement was never any more serious than it was for many others who were involved in the music and art scene in Berkeley at the time.
But the memory, the distorted memory lingers on, compounded by the fog of "acid rock" that was bestowed in the group in the famous "summer of love" in 1967. And it is this misnomer which has so often caused trouble for the band, for their audiences, which misinterpret just exactly what that means.
Phil Lesh described acid rock as "rock you listen to while you are tripping on acid." It does not mean that the musicians are tripping. Actually, it would be most difficult for any band to play good music while stoned out of their minds.
Bobby Weir said it: "You must remember that as musicians, we must be temperate. Of all the people who get carried out of our concerts on bad trips, the Grateful Dead are never among them." But the connection remains in too many minds of people who think that the only possible way to truly understand the music is to hear it while they are wrecked on some sort of drugs. So the Dead are faced with audiences who are much more prone to trip out than is generally found. The problem is compounded by the generosity of those who are more than happy to share their acid, good or bad, with anyone who wants it. The Grateful Dead do not give out acid - another myth, that they enjoy "electrifying" their audiences. They don't have to. They know that their music can stand on its own merits and can afford to be heard by people who are unstoned.
But that belief of constant drug-taking continues to intrude. You can also find Hell's Angels around the Dead - a friendship that goes back to the days when they were both persecuted minorities in San Francisco. It all seems to indicate more of an open-mindedness that sometimes borders on the naive, a contradiction in light of their genuine intelligence. And it is the intelligence that counts in the music. The group knows that temperance is a necessity, that good music does not suddenly and magically appear without a tremendous investment of time, self-discipline, and effort.
It is called paying dues.
And the Dead are still paying dues. More than any other group of comparable stature, they continue to tour and play. In 1969 [sic], they played 20 separate engagements in the New York area alone - not 20 shows, but 20 different series of dates ranging from two to four nights. Jon MacIntire, the group's manager, complains that they are now more of a New York group than a San Francisco group, purely in terms of numbers of concerts given in either city.
And the concerts themselves have a whole set of myths clinging to them like barnacles. The myth of a free concert - no myth, actually, for the Dead, in effect, invented the free rock concert and did many in parks all over the country. But that requires permits which the change of political climate now makes excessively difficult to get. And unfortunately, it has led some kids to believe that they should never have to pay to see a Dead concert. But music is their livelihood. They have to do lots of paid dates to support themselves and the "family," which now numbers more than 50 persons. In addition, there is the staggering cost of life on the road for a show that must take at least 15 people in order to function properly.
Free concerts are a gift, they are not something that can be demanded, but because they have made these gifts before, the Dead are now faced with serious problems of gate-crashers and would-be rioters who try and force their way into the concerts. All the band members I talked to viewed with distaste the kid who, as Pigpen put it, "thinks that rock and roll owes him a living." Neither rock nor the Dead owe anyone a living. Nevertheless, this attitude [of] a certain percentage of their audience is creating real difficulties for the band. They are now in a situation where they are being forced to play bigger halls than they like, just to have the extra money needed to pay for larger security forces that the promoters are demanding as insurance against damage to their property.
It would probably be a severe shock to any fan who thinks of the Dead as the ultimate in anti-Establishment thinking to hear their views on the police at most of the concerts. While Jerry and Phil and Bobby all agree that it is unwise to make generalized statements, they concur that for the most part, the police have behaved with great dignity and restraint in the face of extreme provocation. They have seen gross exceptions, but mostly they have handled themselves extremely well when pitted against that small segment of the audience who are more interested in making trouble than in listening to the music. Jerry Garcia remembers happily that an Irish cop of about 45 came up to him after a concert in Boston and shook his hand and told him how much he enjoyed the music. Jerry found it heartening that his work was more inclusive in appeal than he otherwise supposed.
And yet, and yet - for the Grateful Dead are nothing if not honest, and therefore full of contradictions - when asked what they thought of their fans, Phil Lesh said, "I love each and every one of them." The tone was slightly facetious, but then later he repeated the statement and added, "You can quote me." The group does appreciate their fans - those famous "Dead freaks" who have been known in their excess of enthusiasm to travel 14 hours to find one of their concerts, and all those who show up whenever and wherever they play the neighborhood, no matter how often that is. Music without an audience is not music, and the Grateful Dead know this.
Where you are depends on where you have been. The Dead used to live together in a communal house in San Francisco, but times have changed and the family has expanded. Now that most of the band members have old ladies, and more and more people are added to this extended family system, a communal house is no longer practical or desirable. As a result, each one has his own house or ranch in Marin County, north of San Francisco, although family members do tend to float from house to house, staying at each for periods ranging from several weeks to several months. The arrangement is fluid and informal, but still gives everyone space to breathe, as well as a sense of roots. But it is this new direction to homes and land surrounding them that prompted Bobby Weir to make his comment that "We are neo-rednecks. Mr. and Mrs. America, that's us now." Bobby went on to explain that his nearest neighbor is the local sheriff, and that they get along very nicely on a rancher to rancher basis.
But then, as I have said before, the Grateful Dead are not ever what you expect them to be. We have all had a hand in distorting their image. They get confused with the "new politics" in spite of the fact that they refuse to support any specific politician or candidate. And then become upset when people expect them to get out and support the revolution in ways that are inimical to them. They feel, and rightly, that their music is making a revolutionary statement and that that should be enough. But they do help when they find an individual whose ideas impress them. For instance, on a recent plane trip across country, the band met Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panthers.
He told them his philosophy; they were impressed by what he said, as well as his personality. As a result, they agreed to do a benefit for the Panthers that was held in New York on Christmas Eve. They were questioned about this, and asked why, the explanation was simple and a good demonstration of how the group operates. They were impressed by Newton himself and felt that his philosophy was humanistic and benevolent. So they chose to disregard the several and conflicting Panthers credos that have been published on the grounds that all media deal in second-hand information and are therefore likely to be inaccurate. Not just inaccurate as far as groups like the Panthers are concerned, but distorted overall. Jerry Garcia would like to talk face to face with President Nixon, just to find out what his opinions really are.
But no one should give the band a group personality. Each is his own man, and they do not always agree with each other. There is a wide divergence of opinion on politics ("Are you all pacifists?" "No. The drummers are the most violent."), promoters, and music. Phil Lesh originally studied classical violin and trumpet, and even now retains an interest in Renaissance choral music and "any music that is used to get people high." Old church music, which was played in conjunction with incense and highly theatrical liturgy, is thus a prime interest. Jerry's musical beginnings are diametrically opposed to that. His first guitar was electric and his first loves were straight 50's rock. A later interest in country music was developed when he met country musicians in the army. Jerry Garcia in the army? Yes. And yet, two such diversified beginnings can blend and complement each other. There is mutual respect and a shared interest in extending themselves as musicians. Phil's bass playing is now at the stage where he can combine both rhythm and melody simultaneously ("stasis and motion" is the way he describes it). Jerry, more than any of the others, spends his spare time playing sessions on the albums of his friends - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers," Paul Kantner's solo LP, and Howard Wales' album for Douglas.
What they all care about is the music.
Life-styles, as such, should really be their own business. When they were told that someone who had heard them on both coasts considered that no matter how good [they] ever were in New York, it couldn't compare to a good night in San Francisco, they disagreed strenuously. Bobby Weir stated that some of their best concerts had been done in New York. Basically, the group likes to get off with their music, and since the more they play the higher their standards become, they have to play better and better to satisfy themselves. Result: the best shows are the most recent shows. Usually. They are the first to admit that their off-nights are totally irrevocably off. And it still sometimes happens, especially when they are tired from too much touring. They hate touring. Well, who doesn't? The only consolation is the music, so they feel compelled to make that as good as possible, for their own sakes, as well as the audience's.
The music gets better and more varied. Originally an all-electric set, the Dead have, in the last six months, expanded the format into "An Evening With The Grateful Dead." Now they can include more of the things that interest them, and in addition, leave themselves free to play with different people. The result is a three-part program that starts with an acoustic set, moves on to the New Riders of the Purple Sage - a country-rock group that includes Jerry on pedal-steel guitar and Mickey Hart on drums, as well as a tiny dynamo of a singer called Marmaduke (who has been a member of the Dead family for years) - and finally ends with the electric Dead that everyone loves. The whole concert frequently runs for five hours. How long will they continue to use this format? Phil says that they usually work in cycles that last about a year, so this one has another few months to go, before a further stretch of their talents and energies will be needed to make them happy.
Certainly this latest expansion has brought a wonderful new dimension to the group. Where previously they were noted for their instrumental work, they now do some fine singing. The three part harmonies remind many of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and not without reason. Crosby and Stills have both been long-time close friends of the group, and the story is that they have helped them with their singing. This, in turn, has brought Robert Hunter's lyrics into the foreground as never before, showing them for the integral part of the band's magic that they are. Hunter has been with the group since the beginning and frequently travels with them, although he never performs. The performers envy him the option of going on the road or not, as he wants, and cannot wait for the day when they do not have to tour quite as much as they do now.
Their plans for the future include any number of ideas that they recognize as fantasy. The proto-fantasy would be an independent record company encompassing the Dead, the Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Another is finally having the financial means to play only when and where they want. The reality though is getting better. The group have full control over the production and packaging of their records. The albums are self-produced, and they have at last learned through their mistakes how to do good records as well as good live performances. And Warner Brothers Records is now looking for land in the Frisco area to build them a recording studio - a rare honor, since it will be the first studio built and owned by the company.
The only recent record about which they are unhappy is one called "Vintage Dead." This contains old tapes of the group as they were recorded at the Avalon Ballroom in 1966. When they signed a contract to allow the tapes to be used, it was intended to be one of a 10-record set covering the early history of San Francisco rock. Unfortunately, the company which had bought the tapes went bankrupt, sold its catalogue to another company, which then released a record containing not only a portion of those tapes, but also some other tapes they had acquired. In the group's estimation, both they and the prospective buyers have been burned. But they are philosophical about the whole thing and plan no legal action, since in all likelihood, the record would be on the market for at least a year before any judgment could be handed down. By then, it will have been bought by most of the people who are interested in having it in their collection.
They would like to do more television in the future, but on their own terms, as they did in the instance of the local San Francisco educational station which broadcast a live four hour performance of quintessential S.F. rock - the Dead, the Airplane, and Quicksilver. Any further programming of that type would ideally be "live" since they feel that even videotape weakens the immediacy of the music. But they are realistic enough to know that this will be some time coming, if at all. Certainly the commercial networks are loath to try and tackle anything as spontaneous and uncertain as the music of the Grateful Dead. But another fantasy in which they indulge is the one where they get to play a live show on New Year's Eve and keep wishing everyone a Happy New Year each hour as it comes in across the country. Just a nice cheery standard five or six hour concert with the Grateful Dead. Well, it would be [a] refreshing change from Guy Lombardo!
So they go on their way - still in debt after all these years from supporting so many people. Presumably, they could get clear financially, but that would mean giving up their help to those whom they believe should be helped. For example, they are the sole support of an experimental electronics firm in San Francisco. And they are trying to raise the money to get their friend and former sound man, Owsley Stanley, out of jail. But these are gifts, freely given, with love from the Grateful Dead. They are in some ways a most surprising collection of people, but in others just what you would expect. Good ol' Grateful Dead.

(by Penelope Ross, from Hit Parader, June 1971)

Picture caption: "By and large, some of our policemen are wonderful."

Much of this article was drawn from these November 1970 interviews:

Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com.


  1. Though published in June 1971, this article was written months earlier in late 1970, after some interviews the band gave during their New York stay in November '70. (Such a long time lag wasn't uncommon.) Some details were already out of date - for instance, writing of the Dead's three-part acoustic/electric format, Ross asks, "How long will they continue to use this format?" But it was already over by the time she wrote. She also refers to the Black Panthers benefit in New York on Christmas Eve, which didn't happen.

    One of the published interviews mentions that "Penny Ross, Warner’s New York publicist" sat in during the interviews. And indeed, as well as being a freelance music writer, Ross was a publicist for Warner Bros (she later became a publicist for Elektra, then CBS) - https://www.linkedin.com/in/penny-ross-0181a627
    So this was hardly a disinterested article!
    There's barely a peep about the Dead's relationship with Warners, except that the Dead "have full control over the production and packaging of their records," and "Warner Brothers Records is now looking for land in the Frisco area to build them a recording studio," which implies that Warners is quite a generous label! The debt to Warners that prompted all this heavy touring isn't mentioned, and the idea of the Dead having their own independent record company is dismissed as a "fantasy."

    But at any rate, Ross paid close attention to the band's interviews to compile this piece, which is based around many of their quotes. It's quite extensive about the current state of the Dead and how they differ from their public image. I was most interested in the small bits that didn't appear in the original interviews - for instance, McIntire complaining that the band is now more a New York group, or Garcia being thrilled when an old cop said he enjoyed the music.
    The extent to which they played in New York is somewhat exaggerated; nonetheless they'd played quite a few shows there in 1970, and would again in '71. When one fan says they're at their best in San Francisco, Weir disagrees: "some of their best concerts had been done in New York." They say they're playing better now than ever before.

  2. The 'myths' Ross wants to dispel actually turn out to be not so untrue:
    - Ross claims that the Dead played little part in Kesey's Acid Trips, since they were "teenagers who had little to offer Kesey," "just kids unable to contribute to the evening," and suggests that Kesey had no interest in them, and they were only 'on the bus' for one trip (and the truck broke down, and that was that). This is totally false, but it was due to the band themselves downplaying their own contribution when asked.
    - the "acid rock" myth of a stoned band and tripping audience is dismissed - again, this was emphasized by the band saying that they're temperate themselves and listeners don't need to be high. On the other hand, despite the band's insistence that they didn't dose their audiences, plenty of people around them did.
    - the myth of free shows: "no myth, actually," she admits, but now a pernicious and unmet expectation since the band could rarely play for free anymore. The "free music" crowd breaking into shows, it must be said, wanted all shows to be free, not just the Dead's, but there was an expectation that the Dead in particular "owed" them free music.

    There is something of an emphasis on the Dead becoming more Establishment - sympathizing with the police, getting ranches, staying out of politics - really not the drugged-out counter-cultural hippies of common lore. But this isn't just Ross polishing up the Dead's image to make them more palatable to a mass audience, there's certainly a streak of truth in it: things had changed quite a bit for the Dead since their original public image had formed in '66/67, and almost everything written here was said by the band. Ross was quite right to notice that the Dead were fluid, contradictory individuals, changing with the times, and not always what people expected them to be.