Once upon a time there was a band named the Grateful Dead. They were unique in so many ways. From 1965 to 1995, (the year that Jerry Garcia died) the band performed more than 36,000 songs during approximately 2,300 concerts in 298 cities! I can not think of any other musical troupe that performed so prolifically for 30 years.
The manner in which the band chose its name is a interesting tale. The official story as related by Jerry Garcia in the book Playing in the Band, is as follows: “We were standing around in utter desperation at Phil [Lesh]’s house in Palo Alto, trying to think up a name for the band. There was a huge dictionary, big monolithic thing, and I just opened it up. There in huge black letters was `The Grateful Dead.’ It … just cancelled my mind out.”
Found in the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, is a page heading “GRATEFUL DEAD”. There is an entry to the effect that the “grateful dead” is a motif figuring in many folktales mainly of Germanic origin.
Among the many variations is this story of The Grateful Dead by G.H. Gerould (1908).
Graf Willekin von Montabour … learned that a beautiful and rich maiden had promised her hand to [whichever] knight should win a tourney she had established. Thereupon he set forth and came to the place announced for the combats. There he found lodging in the house of a man who would only receive him if he paid the debts of a dead man, whose body lay unburied in the dung of a horse-stall. Willekin was moved by this story and paid seventy marks, almost all his money, to ransom the corpse and give it suitable burial. He then had to borrow money from his host in order to indulge in his customary generosity. On the morning of the jousting he obtained from a stranger knight a fine horse on condition of dividing everything he won. He succeeded in [beating] all the other contestants, and so wedded the maiden. On the second night after the marriage the stranger entered his room and demanded a share in the marital rights. After offering instead to give all his possessions, the hero started from the room in tears, when the stranger called him back and explained that he was the ghost of the [presumably grateful] dead, then disappeared.”
Here is another variation on the theme of The Legend of the Grateful Dead.
The Grateful Dead grew out of the ground-breaking sounds of early 1960’s San Fransisco Bay area music scene. Over time they developed their own unique style and matured to a diverse company of musicians that touched on various genres of music, including, Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Jazz, Reggae, Psychedelia and the ever popular Space Jam. A trademark of the Grateful Dead was their live performance of extended play improvisation. Throughout their career the group played covers of many American standards. From Chuck Berry to Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan to Smokey Robinson, The Everly Brothers, Merl Haggard, Miles Davis, Bo Diddly and so many more! Members of the Grateful Dead also wrote and performed much of their own music too. They sang of outlaws and Saints, and were followed by mystics and aided by chemists! They were an extraordinary assembly of eclectic talent and they attracted an interesting (to say the least) kindred following of beats, drop-outs, bikers, liberty lovers, pagans and spiritualists alike. They were “a band beyond description”! Here is a link to band members telling about their popular tune, Truckin‘.
Jerry Garcia was a close friend of renowned author Ken Kesey,(One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion). The Grateful Dead were the party band for the raucous shin-digs hosted by Kesey. Another brilliant American author, Tom Wolf chronicled the fascinating episode of American counter-culture in his book titled, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The book, not for the faint of heart, was a hilarious documentation of the antics of Kesey and his band of Pranksters as they went around the country in a the bus named “Furthur“, piloted by beat-poet, Neal Cassady (aka Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s book, On The Road). “The bus came by and I got on. That’s when it all began. There was cowboy Neal at the wheel of a bus to never-never land”!
During their tenure, The Grateful Dead had a basic core of 6 members, though through the years they were faced with the difficult task of replacing keyboard players at a grimly curious rate. Their first tragedy was the death of Ron (Pig-Pen) McKernan at the age of 28. McKernan had a long standing relationship with Janis Joplin and he was a powerful influence on the band during their early days. His mark was still felt long after his untimely demise due to alcohol abuse. One of his most influential songs, “Turn on Your Love Light” continued to be a staple of the band until the very end. He was replaced by Kieth Godcheaux, who, along with his wife Donna Jean, joined the group in 1972, before Pig-Pen’s death in 1973. In 1979 Kieth and Donna left to pursue their own career goals. Sadly, Kieth died in a car wreck a year later. Brent Mydland was next to sign on and play the old 88. Mydland joined in 1979 and was with the band longer than any other keyboard player, until his death in1990 from a drug overdose. He contributed a number of very well received tunes. Perhaps his sweetest song was “I Will Take You Home”, a lullaby for his daughter. Vince Welnick came into the fold and was intermittently supplemented by Bruce Hornsby in about 100 live shows. Drummer-percussionists, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart added a lot of depth to the group and were well known for their tremendous drum solos, usually played while the other members would take an intermission. Bob Weir played rhythm guitar and contributed many of his own songs, some of them written in partnership with John Perry Barlow. Phil Lesh played bass. Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia was clearly the heart and soul of the band and along with Robert Hunter contributed a long list of musical and lyrical compositions.
Garcia had a long term problem with substance abuse and it ultimately took its toll ending his life due to complications associated with addiction. Sadly, he died just 8 days after his 53rd birthday.
Garcia’s music was deep and complex and he contributed much to the compendium of American music, not only through his efforts with the Grateful Dead but through collaborative efforts with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clemens, Merle Saunders, Bob Dylan and many others. His work with this wide array of talent advanced the preservation of traditional, American music.
Robert Hunter composed this elegy in less than a day to commemorate the passing of his long time friend and music collaborator:
Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter’s 1995 eulogy to Jerry Garcia as read at Jerry’s funeral:
Jerry, my friend,
you’ve done it again,
even in your silence
the familiar pressure
comes to bear, demanding
I pull words from the air
with only this morning
and part of the afternoon
to compose an ode worthy
of one so particular
about every turn of phrase,
demanding it hit home
in a thousand ways
before making it his own,
and this I can’t do alone.
Now that the singer is gone,
where shall I go for the song?
Without your melody and taste
to lend an attitude of grace
a lyric is an orphan thing,
a hive with neither honey’s taste
nor power to truly sting.
What choice have I but to dare and
call your muse who thought to rest
out of the thin blue air
that out of the field of shared time,
a line or two might chance to shine —
As ever when we called,
in hope if not in words,
the muse descends.
How should she desert us now?
Scars of battle on her brow,
bedraggled feathers on her wings,
and yet she sings, she sings!
May she bear thee to thy rest,
the ancient bower of flowers
beyond the solitude of days,
the tyranny of hours–
the wreath of shining laurel lie
upon your shaggy head
bestowing power to play the lyre
to legions of the dead
If some part of that music
is heard in deepest dream,
or on some breeze of Summer
a snatch of golden theme,
we’ll know you live inside us
with love that never parts
our good old Jack O’Diamonds
become the King of Hearts.
I feel your silent laughter
at sentiments so bold
that dare to step across the line
to tell what must be told,
so I’ll just say I love you,
which I never said before
and let it go at that old friend
the rest you may ignore.
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Bob Dylan’s eulogy of Jerry Garcia: “There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player. I don’t think eulogizing will do him justice. He was that great- much more than a superb musician with an uncanny ear and dexterity. He is the very spirit personified of whatever is muddy river country at it’s core and screams up into the spheres. He really has no equal.
To me he wasn’t only a musician and friend, he was more like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know. There are lots of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated, hypnotic and subtle. There’s no way to convey the loss. It just digs down really deep.”
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
I consider myself fortunate to have experienced many live performances of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia Band (in its many incarnations) and other efforts by related band members. It has been 18 years since Jerry left this mortal plane and he is still greatly missed by many. R.I.P. Jerry. We miss your wild and fluent virtuosity.