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.
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.