Hard to believe, but this year it will be half a century since Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann agreed that the Grateful Dead would be a cool name for the band in which they had been playing together for several months.
For a man in his sixties, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to the Dead this past month -all because I laid out some bread in order to own Sunshine Daydream, the glorious box set that documents – across three CDs and one DVD – a show from the summer of 1972 that has long been regarded by aficionados as the greatest Grateful Dead live performance of all time.
As the psychedelic revolution began to sweep the San Francisco scene in 1964, guitarist Jerry Garcia met drummer Bill Kreutzman while buying a banjo at a local music store. The two got along, and Garcia began working at the store selling instruments and teaching guitar lessons. One of Garcia’s students was a 16 year old named Bob Weir. They got along, and early in 1965 Garcia, Weir and Kreutzman formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.
The band soon added Ron McKernan, better known as Pigpen, to sing blues songs. Son of an r&b dee-jay, McKernan was a fifteen year old harmonica player who skipped school and enjoyed the odd bottle of wine. Pigpen convinced the other band members to go electric, and so they became the Warlocks.
The Warlocks needed a bass player and music student Phil Lesh who had a leaning toward jazz and avant-garde electronic music was chosen for the part. By the autumn of 1965 the Warlocks were performing as the house band for LSD-fuelled multimedia shows hosted by Ken Kesey that came to be known as the Acid Tests.
There was another piece of the jigsaw, without which the Dead would not have been what they became. Another firm friend of Garcia’s was Robert Hunter. In their mid-teens they had started a folk duo, imaginatively calling themselves Bob and Jerry, before a brief intermission during which Hunter left the planet while being covertly paid (along with Ken Kesey) by the CIA to ingest sizeable quantities of LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline and report on his experiences in a research project at Stanford University.
Returning to planet earth, Hunter became the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead, writing the majority of the band’s original songs in collaboration with Garcia who composed the music. So important was Hunter that Garcia once described him as ‘the band member who doesn’t come out on stage with us’.
The first lyric Hunter wrote for the Grateful Dead was composed while on LSD – a song that would later become a staple of their live shows, ‘China Cat Sunflower’. (Hunter later swore that ‘A cat dictated ‘China Cat Sunflower’ to me. It was just sittin’ on my stomach, purring away, and sayin’ this stuff. I just wrote it down. I guess it’s plagiarism’.) ‘Dark Star’ was was the first lyric he wrote with the band as they improvised an early version of that long strange trip in the studio. Under the influence of its Phil Lesh-directed psychedelic improvisation, Hunter produced one of the archetypal lyrics of the psychedelic era:
Dark star crashes
pouring its light
the forces tear loose
from the axis …
Shall we go,
you and I
While we can?
the transitive nightfall
By 1966 the band members lived in a communal house situated on Ashbury Street in San Francisco, and were a fixture on the local music scene, renowned for their free concerts. By 1967 and the Summer of Love, the Dead had emerged as one of the top bands on the West Coast music scene, and had released their first album, a disappointing effort which failed to recapture the cosmic sprawl of their live appearances.
The Grateful Dead: The Golden Road live (Whicker’s World 1967)
The follow-up, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, captured something of the free-form jam aesthetic of their concerts, but after completing 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the band were over 100,000 dollars in debt to the record company. Their response was to release their first live album, Live/Dead, whose highlight was a 23 minute version of ‘Dark Star’ that occupied the whole side of one LP. This was the Dead in all of their improvisational psychedelic glory, the first Grateful Dead LP I heard. For me, though, it had nothing like the impact of what was to come.
What followed in 1970 was a pair of classic studio LPs, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, albums that I have never stopped listening to. Followed by two incomparable live albums – the 1971 eponymous double known from its cover art as Skulls and Roses, and the triple-LP Europe ’72, a record of what are generally considered to be among their career-best live performances on their European tour that year.
‘A box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through ..’ These four LPs revealed the Dead returning to their country, blues, bluegrass and folk roots, plus their jazz-like improvisational skill when playing live, an intuitive skill honed during those long psychedelic jams of the sixties. This was the moment when I fell in love with their playing – and with the songs of Robert Hunter. Gorgeous songs, such as ‘Uncle John’s Band’, ‘Ripple’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Casey Jones’, ‘Box of Rain’, ‘Bertha’, ‘Playing in the Band’, and ‘Truckin’, with its iconic line, ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been’.
But the meaning of the Grateful Dead is about more than music. More than any other band that emerged from the hippie era, they represented the counter-culture ideals of that period – the laid-back dream of drugs, free love and communal living that rejected consumerism and materialism, and instead favoured an alternative lifestyle of self-determination and self-sufficiency. A clear example is the way that the Grateful Dead have always allowed their fans to record and share tapes of their shows, as long as no profits were made on the sale. Sometimes the sound crew would allow tapers to connect directly to the soundboard, resulting in some exceptional concert recordings. Astonishingly, of around 2,350 shows the Grateful Dead played, almost 2,200 were taped, and most of these are freely available online at archive.org.
Which brings me to Sunshine Daydream. Released by Rhino Records in September 2013, it’s an audio and video documentation of a concert long regarded by fans as a near-perfect Grateful Dead concert which took place on 27 August 1972 at Veneta in Oregon, a benefit for their old friend Ken Kesey. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, founder of the Merry Pranksters and instigator of the Acid Tests at which the Dead had played their first psychedelic epics in San Francisco, had served time for drug offences before retreating to the family farm in Oregon, where the Kesey family operated a creamery.
In 1972, the company was struggling, despite being the first American company to make yoghurt (their brand of Nancy’s Yoghurt was trucked to the San Francisco Bay Area by musician Huey Lewis). Kesey asked his friends in the Grateful Dead if they would play a benefit concert. Hand-drawn posters advertised the event for $3 in advance or $3.50 at the gate. The creamery turned Nancy’s Honey Yogurt labels into concert tickets. On 27 August, more than 20,000 came to hear the Dead on a sweltering afternoon when the temperature soared to 100 degrees. The creamery made around $13,000, enough to stay in business.
Bootlegs of the audio have circulated for years, but the concert was never officially released because the band’s intention was that the film shot that day should be included in the package. Copyright issues – finally resolved in 2013 – held things up. But what we have now is a delicious treasure – perhaps the finest evocation of a counter-cultural gathering of the hippie era (even including a guy who spends the entire concert head-banging naked atop a pole). As Prankster Ken Babbs memorably expresses it in the sleeve notes:
It’s a time capsule, a vessel full of exuberant free spirit as exhibited by the enraptured, edified, and satisfied concert-goers, a spirit that can still resound, that can still fill our hearts with joy, with compassion, with that sense and knowledge of our oneness, our open sharing and caring and the belief that the goodness inherent in all of us will continue to shine just as it did in Veneta, Oregon, in 1972. And will prevail.
The complete concert is presented on three CDs, while the film made by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field has been digitally remastered and re-edited on the accompanying DVD.
‘China Cat Sunflower’ from Sunshine Daydream
The film weaves into the concert footage brief glimpses from the days of the Merry Pranksters, including a shot from the famous cross-country bus trip in 1964 with Neal Cassady at the wheel. Also on the bus was Ken Babbs, Ken Kesey’s long-time friend since their meeting in a Stanford writing class in 1958. Over the years, Babbs was Kesey’s closest associate until Kesey’s death in 2001. Babbs was the compère at Veneta – heard memorably at the microphone, on CD and DVD, announcing measures to bring cooling water to the dehydrating masses, and issuing alerts of kids who have wandered into the lost children compound.
In a recent interview here, Ken Babbs expressed the opinion that:
We’re finding a resurgence of that spirit now; more and more people are realizing – as they did in those days – that the search for the ‘American Dream’ does not go through the materialistic, acquire-as-much-as-you-can world, but through returning to the natural world through health and spirit and body and community. More and more people are finding that out; more and more people are being forced to as they’re losing their jobs and their homes – and they’re seeking another way … and when they do, they’re finding a better way.
Few things have given me more pleasure recently than listening to this concert and watching the DVD. As Nigel Williamson writing in the Guardian in September 2013 observed:
What is most striking about the recording from that sun-kissed day is the fluidity with which the Dead absorbed and transmuted every genre of vernacular American music, from blues, folk and gospel to country, R&B and rockabilly, and fed them into some of the most audacious, free-wheeling rock’n’roll ever made – past and future, outlaw spirit and hippy idealism fused into a soundtrack for a brave new frontier that birthed an alternative sub-culture which survives to this day.
An epic psychedelic jam around ‘Dark Star’ full of vaulting, free-form improvisation mutates alchemically into a loping take on Marty Robbins’ cowboy ballad ‘El Paso’. Merle Haggard’s country weepie Sing Me Back Home, delivered hauntingly in Garcia’s reedy but expressive voice, gives way to the Dead’s surging, feelgood acid anthem ‘Sugar Magnolia’, with its irresistible sunshine daydream refrain. Throw in the loose-limbed rhapsody of Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’, the psyched-up folk-blues racination of ‘I Know You Rider’ and the group’s own storied, myth-making compositions such as ‘Truckin”, ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Playing in the Band’ and you have cosmic American music at its most potent and joyous.
As for me, I won’t forget the shot of the little kid sitting there eating an ice cream: a dog appears and starts licking his ice cream while the band play ‘Jack Straw’: ‘We can share what we got of yours ‘cause we done shared all of mine’ – perfect.
‘Jack Straw’ from Sunshine Daydream
Walk you in the tall trees
Going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose
Breathing more freely
Ride out singing
I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine
Walk you in the sunshine