PLAYING IN THE BAND
For the second time in the last two years, psychedelia's number one band, the Grateful Dead, have come to Europe to play for their fast increasing legions of devotees both here and on the Continent. Two years ago the Hollywood Festival appearance was a let-down for them, but not for the five hundred or so who trekked up to Staffordshire to see a band that were already a legend. Today the Dead are fresh from two sell-out extravaganzas at the Wembley Pool and with their last three albums have upped their appeal to that of 'a really big band.' Danae Brook, a longtime friend of the band, takes a look at the Dead of the old days in San Francisco, and of today.
Well the Grateful Dead are here. Mythic mystical revolving crystal globe from the history of psychedelic rock. Purveyors of energy through lapsed time. Mothers of invention surrounded by children. The Grateful Dead must have hovered in the minds of many English people confronted by the paradox of their simply chosen name - Garcia opened a dictionary one day and there sat Grateful Dead in perfect juxtaposition on the page. The two words stayed not only with the band, but with those who have tuned in to their music at any junction over the past seven years, or those who once upon a long time ago took the fearsome acid trail and found out not to be afraid of the unknown.
The Dead were into acid before it became illegal. In 1965, Bob Hunter, the Dead's songwriter, and Ken Kesey, writer friend of Garcia, later to become leader of the Merry Pranksters and instigator of the Acid Tests, sampled l.s.d. under hospital guidance. 'They gave Hunter acid, psylocibin, and mescalin and put him in a little white room to watch,' says Garcia. The same thing happened to Kesey. 'They paid him to get stoned,' Pigpen remarks. Which started the pursuit of psychedelics, the Merry Pranksters, the Acid Tests where dances were held at the Family Dog, with the Dead's music and two bowls of punch set side by side, one spiked with l.s.d., one not; there were the Mime Troupe benefits, the Trips Festival, the Dead taking over the empty Carousel Ballroom for party nights and good times, the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, Haight Ashbury the street where the first freaks lived on love dope discovery and not much else because the time was right, the sun was hot, beautiful Golden Gate Park stretched to the ocean, and through it all the Dead's music swelled and grew with each new adventure. After that came the Monterey Festival where San Francisco's sound was heard for the [line missing] pretty soon the San Francisco hippies were legendary, the Dead among them.
So we have a skeleton hung in the cupboard of English minds, but only briefly, at Newcastle two years ago, brought out and dusted in public here. But this Easter Sunday saw the arrival at London Airport of forty-five of the Grateful Dead family, and on April 7th and 8th they filled an ice-pool with liquid fire.
Each of their two Wembley concerts lasted four hours and packed in an 8,000 capacity audience. Considering the obstacles hurled in their path, it is amazing they arrived at all, let alone filled Wembley at ten days' notice.
The journey here has a tangled history we have come to expect from this band. So many rumours in the past few years of their advent here, which have come to nothing. Most disappointing of all was their failure to show up at the Glastonbury Festival last year.
'Don't know why we didn't make it,' Garcia says now. 'It just wasn't right at the time.' But they are much interested in energy centres of the earth and the ley lines, and not only plan to visit Glastonbury when they come back to England after their European tour ends in the last week of May, but may also record a side of the double L.P., to be put out as a benefit for Glastonbury.
'So far we haven't gotten round to cracking Europe,' said Bob Weir when they arrived in London. 'But now we've finally made it! We're bringing everybody because it seemed like the thing to do. It makes it like a party going through Europe rather than a working tour.'
But even this time it was hard to get it on. First tour manager Sam Cutler, ex-roadie to the Rolling Stones, came over to smooth the way and set up gigs. He arranged a deal with producer John Morris for the band to play four nights at the Rainbow. Morris set up meetings with the European promoters, Cutler made a lightning tour of six countries - Germany, Denmark, France, Holland, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, returned with details to San Francisco, and sent back word that the band was ready to go. Then the Rainbow collapses under dire financial strain. Impossible to find a way round the situation, so Morris suggests the Hammersmith Commodore, a pretty art-deco theatre that holds 2,200 and is used as a Bingo hall. The band is about to leave for New York. The family road trip has begun. They say yes. However neighbouring residents in Hammersmith get wind of proceedings and fearing for their sleep, put a council damper on those plans. By now the band is playing the Academy of Music in New York. Only alternatives are afternoons at the Lyceum and a night at the Roundhouse (which won't appeal to the roadies who have over 7 tons of equipment to move), or the marathon effort of Wembley's 8,000 capacity pool for two nights. At least there is time to set up at Wembley. Rock Scully, one of the Dead's managers and oldest of friends from Haight days and the Diggers, arrives to check it out. He gives the okay. There are only ten days left to performance time, with slothful Easter weekend falling in the middle. But Scully's arrival made it all real, and released a shock of energy that built and built until Wembley was hung with parachute silk and the band turned on 16,000 curious British Deadheads.
Two years ago, on their one other visit to England, they played the Hollywood Festival at Newcastle-under-Lyme on a day of bluebell brightness. They say they didn't get off playing there, and were disappointed in the audience reaction. As musicians their dependence on audience feedback is marked. They set up a vibration and to get high themselves like to feel it come back. To me the Hollywood audience seemed very enthusiastic. But then I'm used to English undemonstrativeness and Americans aren't. It was a three hour set and at the end it seemed a whole field of waving bodies would deluge the stage. They smile at their disappointment now, because Wembley amazed them: 'It's the same as at home,' said Garcia in delight.
When they arrived in London, most of the old ladies were still blown out by [the] reaction to their band in New York. It seems they caused near riot. Every night the audience knew the words of all the songs, it was impossible to keep the stage clear, and, which is new to them, members of the band were stopped in the street confronted by autograph books and 'hey man!' wherever they turned.
'I guess the Grateful Dead is a big band now,' said Susila, wife of drummer Bill Kreutzman. 'It's surprised us all!'
But if they weren't a big band they wouldn't have enough money to take 45 people on a tour of Europe.
'This is what we do when we're rich,' smiles Garcia. And not long ago they were broke. Their manager, father of ex-drummer Micky Hart, dipped his hands in the till so deftly that it left the Grateful Dead thousands of dollars in debt. It is only in the past year that things have eased up enough financially for them to take a holiday, take on another musician (Keith Godschaux the pianist joined them last summer), and bring the family on tour.
It is not only financial reasons which make it an unusual event for all the old ladies to be on the road. It is also because they have children. Susila and Bill Kreutzman have a son, Justin; Garcia and Mountain Girl have a two year old daughter, Annabel, and raise Sunshine, Kesey and Mountain Girl's daughter. This time the kids have been left with friends and the few members of the family left behind to cope with the office in California. Ramrod, the Dead's quippie who used to be a Merry Prankster along with Mountain Girl and was busted with Kesey in Mexico, is the only one to bring a child, and that's because his son is at the manageable six month stage.
They have two sleek coaches to take them through Europe. One coach has a small kitchen in the rear with facilities to brew coffee, store glasses, and keep coke cold. The other has a lavatory and a bilingual Danish driver who speaks no English. Journeys are made as comfortable as possible by stocking up with musical instruments, cards, food, books, plastic masks, and drinks.
Seven tons of equipment goes in trucks, while the ten quippies ride on the bus. Reason for the large crew is that Bob Mathews, who runs Alembic studios, the Dead's recording outfit, has brought all the equipment necessary for 16-track recording of performances. So there are his people as well as the Dead's own equipment handlers. The office too, is on the road, including road manager Sam Cutler, managers Rock Scully and Jon MacIntyre, business manager David Parker, Allen Trist who organises the Dead's publishing company - Ice Nine, [the] Dead's personal tour photographer Mary Anne, their lighting lady, Candice, several secretaries, plus Dale Franklin who is also secretary to the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the band for which Phil Lesh played bass at the beginning, and Garcia played pedal steel.
Added to this array now is Donna Godschaux, wife of Keith the pianist, who, since New York, has begun to sing with the band. She used to do back up sessions on albums for singers like Presley, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, and Dionne Warwick, but until the Academy of Music has never been on stage. It is new for the Dead, and new for her, but she expresses no fear, only elation. 'I have no words for how much I love them,' she says. 'They have changed my whole life.'
Her passion for this family of freaks is symptomatic of the fervour they inspire both within their own membership and from those close enough to get close. Perhaps part of the reason the bonds are so strong is that they go back so far. Hunter met Garcia in 1959. In 1961 they met up with Pigpen, Phil Lesh, Allen Trist - now in charge of the publishing company - and a couple of years later, Bob Weir.
Weir, still only twenty-four, recalls the first time he and Garcia formed the idea of playing together.
'It started on New Year's Eve, 1964. I went into the music store where Garcia was teaching guitar and banjo. That night he was sitting in the back of the store waiting for his students to show up and couldn't understand why they didn't. It occurred to me that it was New Year's Eve and the kids would figure it a holiday. Garcia took the point and we just more or less rapped all night and figured it might be nice to start a jug band just as an obscure side-line. Garcia was then playing in a pretty good bluegrass band and he thought he might like to start something new just to fill in the idle hours. He'd known Pigpen a long time, and they'd played together in the Zodiacs. He thought jug band music would be right up Pigpen's alley.
'So we started the jug band and it just worked itself into a rock and roll band with short interim personnel changes. We got Billy Kreutzman our first drummer, and for the first couple of months the bass player was the owner of the store, who got us all our equipment. Then it got to the point where we became a serious hard-working rock and roll band and he couldn't make it any more. He had to run the store. Phil was a trumpet player at the time. He came to see us play and Garcia said hey - you've got perfect pitch - if you can learn to play bass how would you like to play with us? He did.
'The Warlocks were conceived around New Year's Eve 1965. We've been together since then, although we changed the name to Grateful Dead a few months later because there was another band called the Warlocks.
'I guess that's [a] quarter of my life. We were all born and raised in the Bay area except for Keith who was born in Seattle and raised in the Bay area. When we got together we were all from Palo Alto, with the exception of Bill, who just visited there with regularity.'
Weir hies from a well-off upper middle class family who sent him boarding school hopping at an early age. Palo Alto was where he wanted to freak out and drop out and all those falling from tradition things that went with the first period of turning on.
'We got with the Acid Tests when we were living at the Chateau, a big house only a few blocks away from where Kesey lived on Perry Lane. They were giving a party, a real high fun party, and a good party needs a rock and roll band. Somebody went up to Kesey and said there's this group of freaks that's a bug-eyed rock and roll band. It sounded like just the thing, and it was fun hanging out. I guess that's more or less the sum and total of how we got together. We were drawn together by good times.'
After the Acid Tests they moved to L.A., then back to San Francisco, stayed there a while, then everybody started to drift back into Marin County where they've been since.
For the future, they'll continue changing:
'We've just added a piano player,' says Weir. 'Donna, his wife, is a great singer and we're working on bringing her into the act. Then Garcia and I were talking about doing a tour with maybe a brass section or a string section. But generally we'll just be the Grateful Dead, doing what it is we do.'
What exactly it is they do, people are at odds to define. Garcia has said: 'In the popular...media...world, we're just a rock and roll band. We play rock and roll music, and it's part of our form, our vehicle - but it's not who we are totally...'
According to him, the function they fill in their own little society, which is really not so little, is to act as a signpost to 'a new place.'
If they do in fact do this, it is not so much because their music is exceptionally good, with a wide range from blues through country and western into rock and roll and then space-age electronic composition, but because they set an example to those who have talked about and tried to form an alternative way of living. They have managed to survive with a certain purity, both musically and ethically, the constant hype and bullshit surrounding what has now become the Music Business - an octopus with countless tentacles. Ploughing what profits there are straight back into their own co-operative will eventually make them independent of external powers such as record companies, publishing companies, and agents. The inevitable expansion of Alembic studios and Ice Nine Publishing will see to this. They do not work for vast sums of money to keep the musicians in luxury, they work for enough to keep a community of well over forty five people alive, working, and happy. They seldom quarrel among each other, and if tension builds up are familiar enough with each other's private mechanism to know where to blow the fuse.
No one member of the band has a superstar complex waiting to be unleashed on the public. Garcia, I suspect, would like to relinquish some of the Mr. Goodvibes limelight people insist on handing him - Weir is ready and able to move into a more forward position on stage and off, and does - Keith Godschaux has brought another dimension to their sound. The balance is easy, its secret perhaps that it constantly changes.
It will be nice to see them get a good run for their time at Bickershaw. It is the music they use for a language, and with as much time as they like, virtually, to set up and warm up, it should be a long hot summer evening - with a lot of grateful heads.
(by Danae Brook, from Frendz magazine, April 1972)
Thanks to Simon Phillips.