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.
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.