ON TOUR WITH THE DEAD
Walking into American Airlines out at LaGuardia to meet the Dead on a May afternoon. People gathered around a taxi run up on a traffic island. NBC's filming the scene. A body lies in a pool of blood, partly covered with a yellow raincoat.
"Yeah, he shot his girl friend and the cab driver. When he saw the cops coming, he blew his brains out."
Sitting with Jon McIntire, their manager, waiting for the plane. A hand descends on his shoulder.
Weir: Hey man, how you doing?
McIntire: How'd you get here?
Weir: We came in down there. The rest of the guys are waiting for their guitars. You can't miss them.
McIntire: Yeah, I guess they do look kind of weird.
You don't interview Jerry Garcia; someone gets him started on a subject and the discussion goes on until it's time for him to leave. A radical film maker is in the hotel room, trying to convince him that he should help people channel their energies into the revolution. Garcia explains over and over that energy is an individual thing that finds its own natural outlet; if you try to channel it, you pervert it. The phone rings and Garcia has to leave for the Fillmore. It turns out the guy really wants Garcia to get a film of his shown between sets.
The Dead are invariably victims of the 60-or-90-minute time limit imposed by the standard concert format. They just aren't into performing a set of precisely arranged, timeable songs that build to a prearranged climax and neatly end in a practiced encore. Their songs serve as a framework within which they make something happen each time. They're a take-off point for incredible jams. When the Dead do manage to get off in a one-hour set, it's just too painful to break it off. Mostly they just don't get off. Their last sets are legendary, going on into the night until band and audience are completely drained.
Three straight hours with the Dead. It begins with a gentle acoustic set - mostly stuff from the new album, then shifts into C&W with the New Riders, and peaks in the final electric set.
The first time around it just didn't go. Hassles: plane two hours late, no dinner, no sound test, amplifier doesn't work, typical first show Fillmore audience.
Idiot: Go back to electric!
Garcia (gently): Relax, man. It's gonna be all right.
For the Dead it was. Gently building to its own soft climax. Substituting in New Riders at various points for mandolin and guitar, Garcia going briefly electric. Weir so up by the end of the set that he wanders around backstage with his guitar, playing the last song over and over again. Finally coming to rest under the light on the balcony of the stairs to the dressing rooms. Nobody can hear him over the between-set records on the sound system, but a crowd of backstage people gathers anyway just for the picture.
The audience merely tolerated the set.
"All right, Riders, let's ride."
So Garcia and Hart lead them out. Marmaduke, songwriter, lead singer, rhythm guitar; Dave Nelson, lead guitar; Dave Torbert, bass. Nervous, introverted - their first tour, their first New York appearance. Three guys kicking around Marin County playing folk music who got to know Jerry Garcia. When Garcia's pedal steel interest got to be too much for a few C&W numbers in the middle of a set, he got together the New Riders.
A solid C&W set. The audience is getting interested. The New Riders finish off with an incredible "Honky Tonk Woman" that goes on and on. The audience finally gets off. The New Riders come off the stage elated, but soon withdraw again waiting for the second set.
Groupie: Gee, Jerry, you've shaved.
Garcia: Yep, I've shaved.
Actually out in the audience for the first time waiting for the Dead to go on. Incomprehensible red fists reach up on the drums.
Zygote: When did you first add the fists?
Hart: We added the fists at MIT.
Zygote: Was this after Kent State?
Hart: No, it was before that. The Cambodia thing had just started and they were starting a student strike.
Zygote: Does this mean you're getting more political?
Hart: It's not that we're political, at this point it's survival. We've been part of the revolution a long time, you know, it's just that we're not political.
Garcia: All that stuff is a waste of fucking time, man. When you get into the whole political trip, you find yourself going to the politicians and you realize that it's all super sensational and that those fuckers don't know what they're talking about. I should think that all that stuff is going to like die away.
Zygote: What's going to happen?
Garcia: I don't know. I don't think it's going to be safe to play a scene like this. You know, I don't think it's even going to be safe to have long hair. There's an emphasis [on] change and it's because of all the political shit that has to happen. But like the thing that I do is play music. The rest - you know - I just try to avoid the rest of it.
The set starts building with "Casey Jones" and peaks with "St. Stephen." They calm down into "That's It for the Other One." Hart and Kreutzmann get off. Delicate, together, four arms - two extensions of the same being. They conclude with "Cosmic Charlie." It fits the audience.
Cosmic Charlie, how do you do,
Shuckin' on down the avenue?
Dum de dum, de doodleley do,
Come on home, your mama's callin' you.
Everybody's up cheering. They come back and wrap it up with "New, New Minglewood Blues."
Zygote: Last night it seemed that everything was set up to build. You started off acoustic, then went to the Riders, and finished off electric. Last time you were here, you sort of went the other way: you started off very big, then went acoustic, then back to the electric.
Zygote: Does this format change from thing to thing...
Garcia: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, but mainly we're working with that format of starting with the acoustic stuff and building it up from there. You know, with the New Riders it provides a convenient bridge because we can get a huge range.
Zygote: Last night, the audience at the first set seemed to have a really hard time getting off on the acoustic...
Garcia: Yeah, it requires a little concentration.
Zygote: Was the second show better?
Garcia: Oh yeah, the first show wasn't a bad show, though the audience was kind of a drag.
Saturday afternoon, Temple Stadium. Philadelphia. Backstage is one end of the stadium marked off by a wooden snow fence. Somehow, three kids have bluffed their way back there and are talking to Jerry Garcia.
First Kid: Where's Ken Kesey? Is he with you?
Garcia: No, he's out in Southern California right now.
Second Kid: How about Owsley, is he here?
Garcia: No, Owsley can't leave the Bay Area.
Second Kid: Can't he?
Garcia: No, he just got out of jail.
Second Kid: Did he?
First Kid: The new album, what will it be like?
Garcia: I like it better than any album we've done.
First Kid: That's all we do is sit around and get smashed and listen to that album...
Garcia: We get smashed and make them...
Second Kid: You want to come over and see the place when you get done?
Garcia: No, no. We're flying out right afterwards.
Third Kid: We went all the way up to New York to see you last time.
Garcia: You should have been there last night, man. That was one of the best gigs we've played.
Third Kid: Yeah?
Second Kid: It must be a bummer here.
Garcia: We'll try not to make it a bummer. We'll try to make it at least fair.
First Kid: Is Ron going to sing today?
First Kid: Yeah.
Garcia: Yeah, oh sure. He always sings a couple of tunes. Sure wish there was some sunshine. This grey shit stinks.
Third Kid: It stinks, man. There's never sunshine here.
Garcia: Really? What do you think of Philadelphia?
Third Kid: It sucks.
Garcia: I don't know, man. I've never been here long enough to tell what it's like. We've had a few great times here.
There's a label on Garcia's big red Gibson: "Blackjack Garcia, the baddest fuckin' guitarist in the world." He checks the guitar carefully before each performance, wiping the strings, debating whether he should replace them or not.
Cactus so loud you can only make out occasional words. Lesh and Garcia worried about threatening sky - rain clause in their contract after Woodstock where Garcia was getting bad shocks from his guitar. Garcia and Lesh into a song about rain. The words are unintelligible but everybody laughs.
Mickey Hart is off by himself drumming along with Cactus on the top of an amplifier, looking a bit like a little kid with a baseball hat perched up on top of his head. The mood is good. The Dead are just rapping with anybody who walks up.
Sam Cutler, the road manager, hassling back and forth from the promoter to the Dead. Scheduled to go on at 6:00 and catch 9:30 plane. Already 6:30 and Steve Miller is just setting up. Miller agrees to change with the Dead so they can make the plane. The promoter's mad. Equipment has to be changed. More delays. The rain comes. A big black plastic sheet envelops the stage, covering everything but the side toward the audience. Too low - depressing. Like playing under a rock ledge.
More Hassles. The people with backstage passes have been sitting in the area between the snow fence and the stage all day. The management sends in three heavies and clears the area. Things are going sour.
The guards leave - the Dead come on - the fence goes up in the air - the front of the stage is packed with dancing people. Dead jamming away. Dragon's fire flares up behind the amplifiers - the smoke rolls out from under the plastic.
People in the back calling for the dancers to sit down. More rain.
Lesh: Sit down, stand up. Sit down, stand up. Why don't you all take off your clothes and get wet.
In the middle of "Speedway Boogie" - song about Altamont. More heavies clearing the front of the stage again. End of song - Cutler half-heartedly apologizing, something about a clause the management put in the contract that the area has to be cleared. Band yelling "Bullshit," Lesh muttering, "One small match, that's all you need."
Lesh: I thought they were going to rip the thing down. I was going to yell "Tear down the walls."
Zygote: They were too hung up.
Lesh: Yeah, well that's what walls are for, to hang up people.
"New, New Minglewood Blues" - half-hearted, keeps the set going. Pigpen out in front for "Lovelight." The Dead are off again. Jamming on and on. Cherry bomb goes off on last beat. More smoke. It's over.
The management is more pissed. The set ran 20 minutes over.
Rushing to get equipment loaded for the plane. Short one vehicle. The management refuses to help. "They didn't cooperate with us, why should we cooperate with them." Promoter hassling equipment men. "Hurry up and get your shit out of here." Standing in their way. The equipment guy mutters something and the promoter attacks him. Both are swinging. Our photographer begins shooting. We're scared - the promoter's heavies are moving in.
The fight stops in time. Nervously standing around a pile of instruments making arrangements, in front of a row of glaring ex-pugilists. We end up driving the equipment to the airport, thankful to get the hell out of here.
"I don't think it's going to be safe to play a scene like this. You know, I don't think it's even going to be safe to have long hair. There's an emphasis [on] change and it's because of all the political shit that has to happen. But like the thing that I do is play music. The rest - you know - I just try to avoid the rest of it."
"It's not that we're political; at this point it's survival."
(by Harry Jackson, from Zygote vol. 1 no.4, July 22, 1970)