So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead

In 1970, the Grateful Dead's repertoire made them the most eclectic, fearsome, and versatile American rock band of their time.

Excerpted from So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead by David Browne. Copyright © 2015 by Da Capo Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.


San Francisco,

February 16, 1970

The target-practice gunfire had silenced, the women who fed and tended to them were home, and their Hells Angels buddies were swaggering around elsewhere. On this chilly, drizzly day the members of the Grateful Dead straggled in from different parts of Marin County, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and buzzed an intercom at a purple door on Brady Street. Tucked away in a grimy, industrial section of San Francisco, the building didn’t remotely hint at rock-star glamour, and squatters had taken over a crumbling building next door. To attain the proper head-shop mood at Pacific High Recording, the bandmates lit candles and draped multicolored cloths over their amps, brightening up the burlap sacks the studio owner had hung on the walls.

Starting in 1966 outside Los Angeles and continuing in the Bay Area two years later, the West Coast had been rattled by a series of unsolved murders attributed to an anonymous slasher calling himself, with cinematic flair, the Zodiac Killer. The killings had freaked out many in the Bay Area, and Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s lead guitarist and reluctant leader, was among them. During at least one drive home to his rented house in Larkspur he’d stopped at a red light, glanced over, and wondered whether the person who’d pulled up alongside him was the killer.

“Please don’t murder me,” he thought, words that would wind up in the song they would be putting on tape that February night at Pacific High Recording. “Dire Wolf,” a wintry tale of mangy animals and a card game in the woods, may have been born of fear and murder. But Garcia’s folkish melody was sprightly and jaunty, as if he were daring the Zodiac maniac to come after him. Onstage at Winterland a few months before, he’d even dedicated one of its earliest performances to “the Zodiac.”

The Dead weren’t easily startled; after all, they’d already witnessed plenty. They’d met in and around Palo Alto over the course of the last decade and, by sheer will if not always musical aptitude, had transformed themselves from folkies, blues fanatics, and classical-music players into a rock ’n’ roll band. Along the way they’d been busted and endured jail time. They’d fought with record company bosses. They’d laughed and gotten high together, but they’d also flashed moments of anger and frustration with each other. At one point a few of them had fired some of the others, although the split lasted barely a few weeks.

Little of that turmoil seemed to derail them; if anything, troubles only made them stronger. About two weeks before, the band had been in their hotel rooms in New Orleans, partying after a show, when a barrage of narcotics cops burst in, resulting in drug-charge arrests of most of the band and some of their crew. Eventually they’d dodged that bullet as well: the head of their label would spring them by contributing to the reelection fund of a local politician — hardly legal, as he would later admit with a laugh. According to drummer Mickey Hart, even the arrests worked to their advantage. “We became famous for getting busted, and every time we did, we raised our price,” he says. “After we were busted we had a meeting with everyone, girls and wives, and said, ‘We should double [our concert fees].’ Back then just getting your name known was a big thing, and we never got any press.” One of their most popular songs, ‘Truckin’,” would even emerge from the whole mess.

The musicians who began assembling at the studio on Brady Street were more complex than their public images. At twenty-six, his face encircled by a mustache, beard, and Brillo-pad-thick head of dark hair, Garcia exuded a beatific papa-bear openness, like a particularly benign guru. (The year before, Rolling Stone, a relatively new counterculture magazine that wedded a love of rock ’n’ roll with deep journalistic reportage, had put Garcia on the cover by himself, the first major signal that the guitarist was becoming the group’s public persona.) At twenty-nine, bassist Phil Lesh had an easy laugh and could flash a prankster’s grin, but his shag haircut and glasses lent him the look of a hip but strict professor, and aptly so: beneath that affable exterior lay a taskmaster and perfectionist. At twenty-two, Bob Weir was the most classically handsome and gracious of the bunch — the women in the audiences couldn’t get enough of his pony tail and girlish frame — but beneath his calm-river exterior was a genuine eccentric, heard in his pick- and-strum approach to rhythm guitar and his unapologetic penchant for practical jokes.

The rhythm section players were comparatively clear-cut. Setting up his collection of percussion instruments, including maracas and congas, was Hart, twenty-six, who combined the mustache and hat of a Cossack with the bucking- bronco energy of the Brooklynite he was.

Bill Kreutzmann, the other drummer, was the least hippie-looking of the bunch, although his surly ranch-hand smirk made him almost as charismatic as Garcia; at twenty-three, Kreutzmann was already on his second marriage.

In terms of public image versus private life, however, none of the Dead had anything on Ron McKernan, the singer, harmonica player, and keyboard player known affectionately as Pigpen. The previous year he’d shown up for a photo shoot in a scrunched-up cowboy hat and carting along a fi rearm and bullets. Riding horses on one of the band’s ranches, Pigpen, all of twenty-four, looked the most natural in that role — less like a musician and more like a posse member about to give chase to a bank robber — but as everyone learned, he was actually the most sensitive of the bunch. When one of the women who crashed at their home woke up in the middle of the night and saw Pigpen in her doorway, she needn’t have worried; he came over and put an extra blanket on her.

The road they were traveling was still full of potholes. They were largely broke and in debt to their record company to the tune of almost $200,000. Their small but loyal road crew was stretched to the limits by slapdash planning that saw the Dead sometimes playing consecutive shows hundreds of miles apart. One of those busted with them in New Orleans was their sound engineer and former financial backer, whose future — both personally and with the Dead — was now uncertain. Some within their scene — a world that appeared loose and mellow but was, in fact, guarded and suspicious of outsiders — were growing wary of their new business manager, who happened to be related to one of the band members. Thanks to any number of in-flight pranks — like the time Weir pulled out a fake gun and “shot” Pigpen and Lesh, after which a pillow fight ensued — every airline except TWA had banned them. That fact hardly surprised one journalist, who accompanied them on a commercial flight and saw them openly sniffing cocaine off a knife being passed around their seats.

And yet for all the drama and craziness, which were as much a part of their world as quality weed, the Dead were preparing for a wilder and bigger ride as the decade began. Their newly hired road manager was promising them more work and better organized tours, and he had the experience and brazenness to make it happen. They were on the verge of moving into a new building, a shingled two-story house in San Rafael, complete with a few palm trees on the property, that would become their base of operations for over three decades.

Most importantly, their music was expanding in scope and power. Less than a week before this February recording session the band had returned to New York’s Fillmore East, a former vaudeville hall that promoter Bill Graham, both the Dead’s champion and sometimes adversary, had transformed into the city’s leading rock ’n’ roll theater, its counterculture church. In 1967 Time magazine had dubbed the Dead’s music “acid rock,” but as those seminal Fillmore shows revealed, that description was now as outmoded as their previous band name, the Warlocks. At the Fillmore they could play one of their own dirgy country ballads, “High Time,” or a lanky, vampy cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.” They could strip it down, strumming an acoustic version of the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” or Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Katie Mae,” the latter a showcase for Pigpen’s country blues side. (Decades later “unplugged” segments at concerts would be de rigueur; in 1970 the changeover was almost unheard of.) They could also dive into “Dark Star,” which sounded like nothing else in rock ’n’ roll at that moment: its lilting, dainty melody gradually whipped itself into a group whirlwind, collapsed into itself, stripped down to bits of feedback and drums, and then began rebuilding, instrument by instrument, finally finishing one night just nineteen seconds shy of a half-hour.

During the same shows, the drummers would get ample time for tribal duets during “Alligator,” and Lesh was rarely as unobtrusive as bass players were in more traditionally minded bands; from time to time his bass would pop like a gopher sticking its head up from different parts of a lawn. (It was almost as if he were taking solos while the others were still playing.) During “China Cat Sunflower” Garcia’s guitar danced a sweet jig around the melody; other times, reflecting his own mood swings, his playing could be testy and terse. By the end of each night it was clear the Dead weren’t just West Coast weirdoes; their repertoire made them the most eclectic, fearsome, and versatile American rock band of its time, perhaps ever.

The Grateful Dead’s Existence Outside the Normal Confines of Society

As Fillmore East manager Kip Cohen saw for himself, the scene wasn’t merely about the music; the Dead were beginning to symbolize a new lifestyle paradigm. The Dead had first played the venue in June 1968, and with each run since, they’d attracted larger, more impassioned crowds. To Cohen, many of them seemed like kids from Connecticut suburbs who’d ventured into the nasty big city to see the Dead and get wasted. When the sets ended, often in the early morning hours, the Fillmore staff found itself with “a roomful of people freaking out on acid,” Cohen says, and the staff did what it could to make sure the kids wound up on the right train home or had a place in town to crash. Those fans were an early sign that the Dead were on the verge of transforming from a cult band to a larger, more national one. Indeed, in 1970 they were preparing to play the most shows — about 150 — they would ever do in a year by that point. That number meant more travel, more employees, and more temptations once they were out on the road, but during that early period no one yet knew how it would all impact them.


Sam Cutler, who popped into the Pacific High sessions now and then, should have been accustomed to rock ’n’ roll madness. He himself was a road-dog buccaneer; with his thin face and mustache, he looked like Captain Hook after a visit to a leather-jacket emporium. Cutler had worked for the Rolling Stones the year before, helping shepherd them around America on the band’s first tour of the States in four years.

Starting in January 1970, he’d begun a new job, tour manager for the Dead, a task that also involved plenty of opportunity to hang with what he first thought were a group of loosey-goosey West Coast hippies.

About two years earlier most of the Dead had fled the Haight (or “Hashbury,” as the New York Times Magazine had dubbed their former neighborhood) for Marin County, just north of San Francisco. They relished the sprawling area’s meandering, tree-shrouded streets, which looked like paths running through Muir Woods, and one by one they settled into various ramshackle houses, ranches, and quasi-communes in towns like Novato and Larkspur. In the privacy of the Marin woods they could do whatever they wanted, or at least close enough to it.

Cutler witnessed that for himself during one of his early visits to Hart’s Novato ranch. A television had been dragged out of the house and, with long extension cords, had been set up in a dry creek, and one hundred rounds had been loaded into various guns. With the TV on, there suddenly was Ronald Reagan, the actor turned politician who was now the governor of their state, the man who embodied everything the Dead despised about the straight world. Normally they’d shoot up concrete blocks or records, but now they took aim at Reagan’s image on the small screen and let loose. Cutler estimates they fi red off “about three hundred times,” obliterating the set once and for all. Other times the victims were sales plaques their label, Warner Brothers, had presented to the band.

For a time Weir was living in what he would later call a “self-imposed dustbowl of a ranch” in Nicasio in western Marin County. Named Rukka Rukka, it was home as well to Weir’s girlfriend, Frankie (soon to take his last name even though they weren’t married), and various members of the Dead’s crew, along with random wandering chickens and horses. Tales of the origins of the ranch’s name were appropriately bawdy: according to one account, someone they’d known at another hangout would chase after women, squeeze their breasts, and say, “Rukka, rukka!” The Dead thought the story was hilarious, and the name stuck.

Even more than their music, Hart’s ranch became a symbol of the way the Dead could build their own remote community outside the normal confines of society. Whoever had found it first — either manager Rock Scully or road manager Jonathan Riester — Hart was now the overseer of the rambling thirty-two-acre property tucked away beyond a wooden entry gate nearly hidden by trees. Dubbed Hart’s Delight by some, it became the go-to place for the band, friends, roadies, and their increasingly expanding family unit to congregate, get high, and record music. With its large barn (soon filled with recording gear), horses, working water pump, and occasional displays of excitable-boy gunfire, the ranch felt like something straight out of the previous century — though with a few contemporary twists. Mike (nicknamed Josh) Belardo, an afternoon-drive DJ for KMPX in San Francisco, ventured onto the ranch one day to interview the band and had his mind blown even without hallucinogens. “Everybody’s walking around stoned, and the chicks are naked,” he recalls. “Topless women. Horses. It was unbelievable.” Hart had a beloved Arabian white horse named Snorter, a name that took on additional meaning when Snorter would be dosed now and then — “Oh, there were many times with something or another,” Hart admits. The horse didn’t seem all that affected while under the influence, even dodging a herd of trampling cows once during a ride.

Unlawful activity wasn’t always tolerated at Hart’s Delight. They’d already been burned by the law at least once, not to mention driven out of the Haight by a tidal wave of tourism, drugs, and increasing police scrutiny. When Hart learned that certain people living on the ranch were expert pickpockets, he scolded them. “They would come home with things, wallets and stuff,” he recalls, “and I’d say, ‘First, if you’re gonna live here, that’s not the right thing to do, and second, it will bring the heat on the Dead.’” After all their busts, “under the radar” was the operative phrase.

Among those living at the ranch were Rhonda, Sherry, and Vicki Jensen, three sisters who moved onto the ranch after their previous home had burned down. The sisters cleaned, swept floors, prepared breakfast for anyone who crashed there, and fed horses: “It made the music work,” says Vicki, “and that was the inspiration to do it.” The only irksome part of the job involved the women the road crew would bring to the ranch. The Jensen girls had to pick out which horses the girls would ride — and, just as important, find ways to keep the women busy once the roadies left for somewhere or someone else. “They’d just sit there and think that looking pretty was enough,” Vicki says with a laugh. “I used to tell them, ‘You need to join in and help out here!’”

At Hart’s ranch the Dead and their extended family were able to live out their fantasies as cowboys and outliers who played by their own rules without worrying about societal norms. Even the local police were skittish about stopping by. The fantasy did have its learning curve, like the day Garcia went riding on a horse whose cinch hadn’t been tightened. As his girlfriend, Carolyn Adams, otherwise known as Mountain Girl, watched, Garcia fell off and broke a few ribs. “First and last time he was on a horse,” she recalls. “He didn’t like horses after that.” Sometimes even the fantasies had limits.

David Browne is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, and he is the author of Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970. He has also written biographies of Sonic Youth and Jeff and Tim Buckley as well as the ebook Spirit of ’76: From Politics to Technology, the Year America Went Rock & Roll. He first wrote about the Grateful Dead for Rolling Stone in 1987 and has contributed numerous articles about the band to the magazine since. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, The New Republic, and other outlets. He lives in Manhattan.