Grateful Dead Biography

The enigmatic, erratic and mercurial (cliché, but absolutely true) Grateful Dead evolved from Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions to become the Warlocks in 1965. A number of conflicting reasons for the choice of name have arisen over the years. The most popular one is that the name was chosen from a randomly opened copy of theOxford Companion To Classical Music (others say a Funk & Wagnells dictionary and group member Phil Lesh cites the Britannica World Language Dictionary), the juxtaposition of words evidently immediately appealing to the group, who at the time were somewhat chemically stimulated on DMT. The theory that it came from the Egyptian Book Of The Dead has been denied by each member of the band.

The original line-up comprised Jerry Garcia (Jerome John Garcia, 1 August 1942, San Francisco, California, USA, d. 9 August 1995, Forest Knolls, California, USA; lead guitar), Bob Weir (b. Robert Hall, 16 October 1947, San Francisco, California, USA; rhythm guitar), Phil Lesh (b. Philip Chapman Lesh, 15 March 1940, Berkeley, California, USA; bass), Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (b. 8 September 1945, San Bruno, California, USA. d. 8 March 1973; keyboards) and Bill Kreutzmann (b. 7 April 1946, Palo Alto, California, USA; drums). The Grateful Dead have been synonymous with the San Francisco/Acid Rock scene since its inception in 1965 when they took part in Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Stanley Owsley manufactured the then legal LSD and plied the band and their friends with copious amounts. This hallucinogenic opus was duly recorded onto tape over a six-month period, and documented in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe stated that ‘They were not to be psychedelic dabblers, painting pretty pictures, but true explorers.’

Their music, which started out as straightforward rock, blues and R&B, germinated into a hybrid of styles, but has the distinction of being long, wandering and improvisational. By the time their first album was released in 1967 they were already a huge local cult band. Grateful Dead sounds raw in the light of 90s record production, but it was a brave, early attempt to capture a live concert sound on a studio album. ‘Cold Rain And Snow’ and ‘The Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion’ are short compositions that could have been successful pop singles, had Warner Brothers known how to market the band. The follow-up Anthem Of The Sun was much more satisfying. On this alleged ‘live’ record, 17 different concerts and four different live studios were used. The non-stop suite of ambitious segments with tantalizing titles such as ‘The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get’ and ‘Quadlibet For Tenderfeet’ was an artistic success. Their innovative and colourful album covers were among the finest examples of San Franciscan art, utilizing the talents of Kelley Mouse Studios (Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse). The third album contained structured songs and was not as inaccessible as the palindrome title Aoxomoxoa suggested. Hints of a mellowing Grateful Dead surfaced on ‘China Cat Sunflower’ and the sublime ‘Mountains Of The Moon’, complete with medieval-sounding harpsichord. It was with this album that their lyrics came under close scrutiny as being something special. In particular those by additional member Robert Hunter (b. 23 June 1941, Arroyo Grande, California, USA), who wrote mysterious tales of intrigue.

In concert, the band was playing longer and longer sets, sometimes lasting six hours with only as many songs. Their legion of fans, now known as ‘Deadheads’ relished the possibility of a marathon concert. It was never ascertained who imbibed more psychedelic chemicals, the audience or the band. Nevertheless, the sounds produced sometimes took them to breathtaking heights of musical achievement. The interplay between Garcia’s shrill, flowing solos and Lesh’s meandering bass lines complemented the adventurous jazzy chords of Weir’s rhythm guitar. The band had now added a second drummer, Mickey Hart (b. 11 September 1943, New York, USA), and a second keyboard player, Tom Constanten, to accompany the unstable McKernan, who had, by now, a severe drinking problem. It was this line-up that produced the seminal double album Live/Dead in 1970. Their peak of improvisation is best demonstrated on the track ‘Dark Star’. During its 23 minutes of recorded life, the music simmers, builds and explodes four times, each with a crescendo of superb playing from Garcia and his colleagues. For many, this one song was the epitome of what the band was all about.

On the two following records Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, a strong Crosby, Stills And Nash harmony influence prevailed. The short, country-feel songs brought Garcia’s pedal steel guitar to the fore (he had recently guested on Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young’s Déjà Vu). Uplifting songs such as ‘Uncle John’s Band’, ‘Ripple’ and ‘Till The Morning Come’ were shared with powerful yet sentimental ballads such as ‘Attics Of My Life’, ‘Brokendown Palace’ and ‘High Time’. These two outstanding albums were like sister and brother, and broke the band to a much wider audience. Paradoxically, the ‘Dead’ reverted to releasing live sets by issuing a second, self-titled double album (originally to be named Skullfuck), closely followed by the triple, Europe ’72. After years of ill health through alcohol abuse, McKernan died in 1973. He was replaced by Keith Godchaux from Dave Mason’s band, who, together with his wife Donna on vocals, compensated for the tragic loss of Pigpen. Wake Of The Flood in 1973 showed a delicate jazz influence and proved to be their most commercially successful album to date. With this and subsequent studio albums the band produced a more mellow sound. It was not until Terrapin Station in 1977 that their gradual move towards beautiful lethargy was averted. Producer Keith Olsen expertly introduced a fuller, more orchestrated sound, and forced them to be more musically disciplined in the studio.

As a touring band the Grateful Dead continued to prosper, but their studio albums began to lose direction. For the funky but disappointing Shakedown Street they enlisted Little Feat’s Lowell George as producer. Although they had been with the band for some years, Keith and Donna Godchaux had never truly fitted in. Donna often had trouble with her vocal pitch, resulting in some excruciating performances, while Keith began to use hard drugs. They were asked to leave at the end of 1979 and on 21 July 1980, Keith was killed in a car crash. Go To Heaven (1980) with new keyboard player Brent Mydland betrayed a hint of disco pop. The album sleeve showed the band posing in white suits which prompted ‘Deadheads’ to demand: ‘Have they gone soft?’ Ironically, it was this disappointing record that spawned their first, albeit minor, success in the US singles chart with ‘Alabama Getaway’. All of the band had seriously experimented with drugs for many years and, unlike many of their contemporaries, had survived. Garcia, however, succumbed to heroin addiction in 1982. This retrospectively explained his somnolent playing and gradual decline as a guitarist over recent years, together with his often weak and shaky vocals. By the mid-80s, the band had become amorphous but still commanded a massive following. Garcia eventually collapsed and came close to death when he went into a diabetic coma in 1986.

The joy and relief of his survival showed in their first studio album in seven years, In The Dark. It was a stunning return to form, resulting in a worldwide hit single ‘Touch Of Grey’, with Garcia singing his long-time co-songwriter Robert Hunter’s simplistic yet honest lyric: ‘Oh well a touch of grey, kinda suits you anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say, it’s alright’. The band joined in for a joyous repeated chorus of ‘I will survive’ followed by ‘We will survive’. They were even persuaded to make a video and the resulting exposure on MTV introduced them to a whole new generation of younger fans. The laconic Garcia humorously stated that he was ‘appalled’ to find they had a smash hit on their hands. Garcia attempted to get fit and to shake off years of drug abuse. While Built To Last (1989) was a dull affair, they continued to play to vast audiences. They have since received the accolade of being the largest grossing band in musical history. In August 1990 Mydland died from a lethal combination of cocaine and morphine. Mydland’s temporary replacement was Bruce Hornsby until Vince Welnick (b. 21 February 1951, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, d. 2 June 2006, USA; ex-Tubes) was recruited full-time. In 1990, the band’s live album catalogue was increased with the release of the erratic Without A Net and the poor Dylan And The Dead.

The transcendental Grateful Dead have endured, throughout the many difficult stages in their long career. Their progress was again halted when Garcia became seriously ill with a lung infection. After a long spell in hospital Garcia returned, this time promising to listen to doctors’ advice. They continued to tour throughout 1993 and 1994, after which they began to record a new studio album. However, on 9 August 1995, Garcia suffered a fatal heart attack, ironically while staying in Serenity Knolls, a drug treatment centre in Marin County. It was alleged he was found curled on his bed clutching an apple with a smile on his face. The reaction from the world press was surprisingly significant: Garcia would have had a wry grin at having finally achieved this kind of respectability all over the planet. The press were largely in agreement, concurring that a major talent in the world of music had passed on (either that or all the news editors on daily newspapers were all 40-something ex-hippies). In the USA the reaction was comparable to the death of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Within hours over 10, 000 postings were made on the Internet, an all night vigil took place in San Francisco and the president of the USA Bill Clinton gave him high praise and called him a genius. The mayor of San Francisco called for flags to be flown at half-mast and, appropriately, flew a tie dyed flag from city hall. Bob Dylan said that there was no way to measure his greatness or magnitude.

Garcia’s high standing in the USA is undisputed, but it is hoped that he will be remembered elsewhere in the world not just as the man who played the familiar opening pedal steel guitar solo on Crosby, Stills And Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’. Garcia was a giant who remained hip, humorous, philosophical, humble and credible right up to his untimely death. At a press conference in December 1995 the remaining band members announced that they would bury the band name along with Garcia. With no financial worries, the remaining members embarked on a number of solo projects to see them into the 21st century, which is precisely where many of their fans believed that they always belonged. In 1998, Lesh was hospitalized with hepatitis which briefly curtailed his activity with Bob Weir in their new project, the Other Ones. In February 2003, Weir, Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann announced they would be touring once again, this time as the Dead, in respect of Garcia. Guest musicians joining them have included Joan Osborne (vocals), Rob Barraco (keyboards/vocals), and Warren Haynes (guitar/vocals).

The Grateful Dead felt all the emotions of rock, folk, soul, R&B, blues and country music, and they played it always from the heart. The resulting sound was a hybrid that was unique to them. Sometimes they were ragged and occasionally they were lacklustre, but mostly they were outstanding in their ability to interact and improvise. Love or hate, black or white, it is impossible to be indifferent about the Grateful Dead’s music. Quite simply, you either get it or you don’t.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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