THE CULT OF THE DEAD
Faster than a speeding speed freak...more powerful than their 16-track recordings...able to leap tall speakers with a single bound...look...up on the stage - it's a gang of freaks...no it's a psychedelic movie...no...it's the Grateful Dead.
To their legions of cultists, the Grateful Dead is not just another electrified rock group. Keith Godchaux, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutman, Bob (Pigpen) McKernan, Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, cumulatively the Grateful Dead, represent music carried into a world without time or space, the ultimate trip of an ever-present electric consciousness.
To the Dead, a concert isn't a concert - it's a "turn-on." Judging from their recent turn-on at Frankfurt-Hoechst's Jahrhunderthalle, not only were they turned on, but the audience was turned on and tuned in to their brand of cosmic rock.
The Dead began their musical conversation with a soft, folk-oriented set, shifting then to country and rock-styled country standards.
Leading the audience through the world of rock, they finally arrive at the total unity of the evening as they launch into a forty-minute version of "Saint Stephen."
The San Francisco-based group got its start in 1964 when Garcia, McKernan, and Weir met in a music and record store in Palo Alto, Calif. and formed Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, a country bluegrass group.
Mother McCree couldn't get any jobs so they decided to go electric rock. The music store owner loaned them equipment and played bass guitar in the group, which was then joined by drummer Bill Kreutzman. The Dead, known then as Warlock, did fairly well in bars and clubs, and then discovered that another California band was also using the name Warlock.
Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir describes how the group came up with their present name: "We decided to thumb through the Oxford Dictionary, so Jerry got up and walked over and spun the dictionary, stuck his finger in, and came out with the grateful dead.
"It's an ethnological term, it has to do with a guy named Childs who went around and catalogued a lot of folk ballads from Northern Ireland and Scotland back before the turn of the century. There was a whole section that he did on what were the Grateful Dead ballads, the Grateful Dead ballads being visitations and stuff like that, generally having to do with people that had died and come back and been kind of glad."
Bearded lead guitarist Jerry Garcia explained further: "Let's see, the classic story is the one where somebody dies, but there's some dishonor connected with the death, so they can't really rest until the matter is settled, and then when it is settled that puts them in the category of being Grateful Dead. It's just what it sounds like...Grateful Dead."
Red-haired pianist Godchaux joined the Dead after jamming with Garcia in several small clubs in the San Francisco area. Godchaux' wife, Donna, helps out with the group's vocals and according to Weir, "is being worked into the group more and more."
Bassist Phil Lesh is the only member of the Dead who has a classical background. Lesh was a child prodigy on the violin and later a Stan Kenton-style jazz trumpeter and arranger. In the mid-60s Lesh was working as a part-time engineer at radio station KPFA while he was composing twelve-tone electronic music.
Garcia talked him into joining the group and says of the lanky ex-prodigy, "Phil has absolute pitch and this vast store of musical knowledge, just the complete classical music education."
During this period, the group was living in La Honda, Calif., a block down the street from Stanford University resident writer Ken Kesey, who at the time was engaged in government-sponsored research into LSD.
As Tom Wolfe said in his book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," recounting those days, "The Dead got on the bus, made that irrevocable decision that the only place to go was further into the land of infinite recession that acid opened up. They were true explorers. They decided to cross the great waters and bring back the news from the other side."
Much of the book, which recites the adventures of the Dead, Kesey, and his band of "pranksters" during their six-month long tour of the United States in the first psychedelic school bus, is "erroneous," according to Weir.
During an acid test, the Dead would play a gig in a rented hall while the pranksters created light shows. Everyone - audience, band, pranksters - were on LSD and the point of the test was to see what happened.
Garcia has described those days as "a tapestry, a mandala - it was whatever you made it. When it was moving right, you could dig that there was something that it was getting toward, something like ordered chaos. The test would start off and then there would be chaos. Everybody would be high and flashing and going through insane changes during which everything would be demolished, man, and spilled and broken and affected...just people being there, and being responsive."
"It wasn't a gig, it was The Acid Test where anything was okay. Thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a room full of other thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far out, beautiful magic."
The Acid Tests stopped in the spring of 1966 when Kesey escaped the narcotics squad by tripping to Mexico. In June, the Grateful Dead moved into 710 Ashbury in the center of San Francisco's famed Haight district.
"Happy families are all alike," said Tolstoy, but the happy family at 710 Ashbury was so different that they became an institution to the burgeoning hippie community. The Dead gave free concerts which gave rise to their reputation as a "people's band."
That same year, the group signed with Warner Brothers records and their first album, "The Grateful Dead" was released.
The album, their straightest musically, proved unsuccessful although several of the numbers, "Beat It On Down The Line," "Good Mornin' Little Girl," and "Morning Dew," are now Dead classics.
Their next album, "Anthem of the Sun," released in 1968 was recorded in four studios and at 18 live performances. The album contains "Alligator," which has become, more than any other, the group's theme song.
The Grateful Dead was busted for possession of marijuana during narcotics raids in 1967 and again in 1970.
After the 1970 bust in New Orleans, the group returned to San Francisco and recorded "Workingman's Dead." As a promotion for the album, the Dead joined Janis Joplin, Big Brother, Ian and Sylvia, The Band, and Bonnie and Delaney for a concert tour across Canada by train. This vast assemblage of rock talent managed to play only three halls and the trip has been recorded in rock annals as the biggest rock-and-roll drunk of all times.
But 1972 promises to be "The Year of the Grateful Dead," Their latest live double-album "Grateful Dead" earned the group its first gold record and they're in the middle of a sell-out European tour.
The Dead will perform at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw May 10. The following evening the Dead will appear at Rotterdam's Civic Hall.
The Deutsches Museum in Munich will be the scene of a May 18 concert, followed by a three-day engagement at London's Rainbow Theatre May 26-28.
A solo album by Garcia was released this January, and Weir and Pigpen are also working on solo albums.
Songwriter Bob Hunter has been with Garcia since 1960 when both were released from the Army.
"When Hunter first started writing words for us," Garcia explained, "originally he was a poet. He was into that magical thing with words, definitely far-out, definitely amazing. The early stuff he wrote that we tried to set to music was stiff because it wasn't really meant to be sung. After he got further and further into it, his craft improved..."
Bob Hunter's words and the music of the Grateful Dead, cosmic, mind-blowing electrified rock, have become part of the common language of young people today from Berlin to Berkeley.
(by Cal Posner, from Stars and Stripes, May 9, 1972)
Thanks to Dave Davis.