The Grateful Dead

The First Step in a Long Strange Trip: ‘The Grateful Dead’ at 55

More than 50 years since the Grateful Dead’s debut, how is it imaginable that they are still touring and the “jam band” scene has mushroomed? This is where it started.

The Grateful Dead
Grateful Dead
Warner Bros.
17 March 1967

The Grateful Dead: love them or be mystified by them. Has a band—or a cultural phenomenon—ever been more mindlessly loved? Or misunderstood?

One take on the band is that they had a short moment of relevance as part of San Francisco’s “psychedelic” scene, peers of Jefferson Airplane in pioneering the kind of trippy, era-locked rock that has had a limited modern tail. But listening back to the band’s debut, 1967’s The Grateful Dead, makes clear that their greater identity and legacy is that of a scene enraptured with blues and what would come to be called “Americana” (folk, country, blues, Greil Marcus’s “Old Weird America” in various blends). As their debut makes clear, Jerry Garcia and his cohorts were less pure originals than huge music nerds, a band that compiled cool old styles into something personal. The “jam band” scene stretching across a wide swath of American music from New Orleans groove (Galactic) to new bluegrass (Billy Strings) to eclectic groove-blues (Tedeschi Trucks Band) was simmering in the Dead from day one.

It was a pretty good year for rock music 1967: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold as Love, The Who Sell Out, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Mr. Fantasy from Traffic, not to mention albums from the Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, the Moody Blues, the Yardbirds. The Grateful Dead was probably not as good as any of these records as a pure recording of songs.

But as a template for what a band could mean, what a band would be, arcing over at least a half-century, it stands tall, even amidst the competition.

At this moment, the Dead were a quintet, with the rhythm team of bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann and the familiar guitarist/singers Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir sharing the vocal spotlight with Ron McKernan, better known as “Pigpen”. The Grateful Dead stands alone in the band’s massive catalog of studio and live recordings as the Pig album. Seven of the nine tracks are either blues/country songs from a half-century earlier or folk/roots songs from the revival of the early 1960s. Only two were written by Garcia and sound like psychedelia.

Pig was the band’s resident blues maven, a rough-voiced California kid born in 1945 whose dad was the first white DJ for a KDIA, a black radio station that played rhythm-and-blues. He and Garcia came up with the idea for the band, an electric version of the folk and “jug band” music they had been playing on the San Francisco scene. Pig was the crucial influence on the band’s early shows and initial identity, reflected in this debut recording. In short order, he would prove to be the odd man out. Pig avoided psychedelic drugs in favor of alcohol, which was symbolic musically and detrimental to his health. In short order, the band brought in a new keyboard player who was more in tune with the psychedelia that interested Garcia and Lesh. Pig’s alcoholism caused him to leave the Dead for health reasons, just as they were getting good and killed him at 27 in 1973. Pig fronted fewer songs in concert and played mainly harmonica and percussion after Tom Constantin arrived as a keyboard player. But The Grateful Dead was, in so many ways, his recording.

Even the opening track, “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)”, is a rootsy garage-rock party song despite its transcendental-sounding title. Though Garcia takes the lead vocal, the track is sonically dominated by Pigpen’s Vox “Continental” electric organ, with its signature metallic buzz easily competing with the electric guitars. That sound, as opposed to the Hammond B3 that later Dead keyboardists would use, shrieks 1967 even when used on an old folk song or murder ballad. On “Cold Rain and Snow”, which would be a Dead staple for years to come, Pigpen played a crazy winding hurdy-gurdy organ pattern that was all his own. He and Garcia lock in on a written melody in between verses, and the whole thing is over almost before starting.

The short length of most of these tracks (six are under three minutes) belies the fact that this was the debut of the quintessential jam band. That was apparently not the choice of the band, as they were already stretching out in concert, though not to the degree of later years. Warner Bros. Records and producer David Hassinger—who had worked the Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—surely were looking for hit songs here. But Pig was part of even this aberrant part of Grateful Dead—he didn’t have the chops or the inclination to jam with harmonic adventure for 20 minutes as later incarnations of the band would. Plenty of these tracks end in a sudden studio fade. Just as Garcia gets going on “Sitting on Top of the World”, the track just pans down. “New, New Minglewood Blues”, a tune that would seem to invite a longer treatment, gets the same fate.

However, the one exception demonstrates the extent to which Pigpen was critical to the Dead’s future as an improvisational ensemble known for jamming at great length. “Viola Lee Blues” is the final track on the original release and lands at over ten minutes. It’s not a wide open psychedelic trip but a lurching little blues about going to prison, something that the folk people had pulled out of the past in the early 1960s. And here you get the whole Dead approach in embryo.

First, these guys want to groove, but the album was mixed with Kreutzmann very low, so all the interlocking parts come through. It’s early, but bassist Phil Lesh—who started as a classical trumpet student—mainly plays melodic lines rather than a bottom-heavy “bass” groove. He comes off quite a bit like another guitar. Garcia plays all sorts of meandering lines, and Weir may have been a bit of a primitive on his instrument at the time, but as a result, his parts are weirdly different. So what we hear on “Viola” is an old-school 12-bar blues with all of those tropes present, yes, but also slightly baroque arrangement of little bits and figures: jagged three-note shakes and gospel bits from the organ, folky strumming, sudden unison licks that the guys clearly worked on in rehearsal.

And then, finally, a big long jam. The boys stop playing the blues changes but stay on the root chord and get dirty. We hear call-and-response playing between Pig and Garcia for a bit, and then rhythmic suspension that becomes a harried double-time. It is amateurish and exciting at once, like a bunch of still-figuring-it-out folk-rockers decided to become Santana or, better yet, Coltrane. Pigpen’s lines aren’t all that inventive—he plays either pentatonic licks or the major scale—but the friction between his energy and Garcia’s excellent ear create good energy. So, it’s not jazz, it’s Jug band Coltrane, but still—they let go of the guide ropes and take off.

The other track here that predicts the future is the set’s one ballad, “Morning Dew”. Written by Canadian folksinger Bonnie Dobson about a post-apocalyptic future, the song gets an intriguing electric arrangement by the Dead. Pigpen’s Vox isn’t as pretty as the song wants it to be, but it weirdly suits a dystopian future. More notable, however, are all the little composed elements of the arrangement that show how meticulous the band could be. The organ plays a small wavering motif around the words, supplemented by a repeated arpeggio that Garcia repeats. A dramatic, slow walk-up part sets up Garcia’s solo. Critics who call the band a bunch of noodlers, it has always been clear, just aren’t listening with care. Here, however, with the drums barely there in the mix, all the little touches can be heard. The repeated “I guess it just doesn’t matter, anyway” at the end seems like it wants to take off into the stratosphere, but it gets a fade.

Perhaps because live recordings became more valued than studio sessions for the band over time, the Dead’s singing isn’t often discussed. But it has more character and passion than plenty of other bands of the era. Weir excels on “Minglewood”, bending his notes and crying out with a bit of a sneer. Pigpen is blowsy and authentic on the swinging “Good Morning, Little School Girl”, a tune by Sonny Boy Williamson that also allows Pig to play some mean harmonica. Garcia is a sneaky-good singer. On the one hand, he sometimes sounds like a slicker Dylan, faint praise, I suppose, for some people. But when hearing him on “Dew” and “Cream Puff War”, his voice cuts through without being fussy. Not bad for a rock band, and when he harmonizes with Weir on “Viola”, he’s better still.

Despite the promising blueprint that The Grateful Dead presents, at least in retrospect, for a vein of rootsy, improvisational rock music (a blueprint that, admittedly, not many bands followed during the 1970s and early 1980s), the album itself is strangely hollow. The Dead are clever in their arrangements, punchy in delivering some Vox-driven ’60s pop, and utterly sincere in embracing of old country/blues material. But the album does not rock. It intrigues.

Where did things go from here? The Dead’s second and third studio recordings, Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa, had just one big Pigpen moment in “Alligator”, but it is mostly they were wild studio confections of tape splicing, much better recording, and much much longer forms. They are, Dead-ier, kind of. But when you listen to, say, “New Potato Caboose”, you hear a much better band that is playing music that really isn’t going anywhere.

Grateful Dead would really take off as a successful group in the studio and with the public in 1970, when they recorded Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, both of which are the true successors to the 1967 debut. Pigpen was still there, in small doses, but his clanging electric organ was gone—but now the band’s embrace of old blues, folk, and country music sounded a bit more mellow, with some of the Crosby, Still, Nash & Young sound rubbing off on them. They are better albums than all the earlier ones, no doubt. But they are refinements of Grateful Dead in many ways, not entirely new.

With more than a half-century of perspective, the debut of the Grateful Dead is a reminder that first impulses can be powerful and lasting. “Viola Lee Blues” and “Minglewood Blues” would likely be forgotten were it not for Garcia, McKernan, Weir, and the thousands of kids (and, now, kids and old folks) who were inspired to pick up guitars just like these crazy Californians.

May the music, which is as American as anything you name, keep ringing.

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