It’s been 50 years since the original band members of The Grateful Dead began playing together in clubs around Palo Alto and San Francisco. In that time they’ve sold 35 million records. But more importantly, they inspired an unprecedented culture of fandom –
Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Blair, and hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans who flocked to Grateful Dead performances throughout the United States.
The band’s front man, Jerry Garcia, was born in San Francisco, and grew up in the Excelsior Neighborhood, which is just a few blocks from KALW’s studios. In 1967, the Grateful Dead signed with Record Executive Joe Smith, and released their debut album on the Warner Brothers label.
During the mid-1980s, Smith interviewed dozens of legendary rock musicians that he previously worked with, and in 2012, the Library of Congress released Smith’s collection of interviews to the public.
The PBS series Blank on Blank recently sifted through these long form interviews to create shorter, radio stories. Here is an excerpt from Smith’s 1988 interview with the late Jerry Garcia in which we hear, in Garcia’s own words, what it was like to be in the band during its first few years.
JOE SMITH: Was it The Warlocks very long before you became the Dead?
JERRY GARCIA: About a year.
JOE SMITH: And what triggered the new identity?
JERRY GARCIA: Well we finally discovered that there was a band that was recording using the name Warlocks. We thought: “oh, we can’t have that kind of confusion.” So we went on the band hunt, you know, looking for a name.
JOE SMITH: The name came from whom? Who dug it up?
JERRY GARCIA: Well I found it in an old dictionary at Phil’s house. I just opened it up and there I saw “the Grateful Dead.”
JOE SMITH: Jesus. You could have been… could you imagine what would have happened: the Warlockheads. The dictionary changed society.
JERRY GARCIA: It absolutely did. Yes, it did. That was about the time we fell in with the acid tests withKesey and those guys. We had starting taking acid ourselves while we were still The Warlocks. We didn’t do it at shows. At the time we were playing the divorcees’ bars up and down the peninsula. You know. Our booking agent was this guy who used to book strippers and dog acts and magicians and everybody else. It was the standard gig: six nights a week, five sets a night. Standard bar stuff. We were doing that for about a year. And, you know, after that you’re ready for anything. We knew a lot of the people in Kesey’s scene, because it was all part of the Palo Alto scene, which we were a part of. And they knew of us. The one guy, named Paige, who was one of the Pranksters, came to one of our late night sets at one of the bar’s we were playing at. And said: “Hey, you guys, we’re having these parties up at Kesey’s place in La Honda [California] every Saturday night, why don’t you guys come?” I said: “Well, we’re working all the time.” Luckily the following week we got fired. And we had nothing to do. So Saturday night came around. We went to the first one of those parties, which later became the Acid Tests.
JOE SMITH: What did you do there? It was just experimenting?
JERRY GARCIA: No. We just set up the equipment. Everybody got high. And stuff would happen. Now Kesey and his Pranksters have been doing this for a long time, so they had instruments and they played weird music. But mostly it was completely free. There was no real performance of any kind involved. Everybody there was as much performer as audience. You know. These guys had never been confronted with a regular rock and roll band, you know. And we plugged our gear in which looked like space age, military nightmare stuff. Compared to all their stuff, which was all hand painted and real funky you know. And WHAM, we played for about five minutes. Then we all freaked out. You know. We played for about five minutes, but it completely devastated everyone. So they begged us to come back to the next one. And that’s how it happened essentially.
JOE SMITH: When you guys now you’re doing some acid, you were playing around. What did you expect to be? Were you going to be a Beatles? Were you going to be a great rock n roll… what were you going to do?
JERRY GARCIA: We didn’t really care whether we went somewhere specifically. We mostly wanted to have fun. And when we fell in with the acid tests we a started having the most fun we’d ever had ever. More than than we could have ever… I mean it was just incredible.
JOE SMITH: And how long did that go on?
JERRY GARCIA: For about six months. But that was probably the most important six months in terms of directionality. Because the neat thing about the acid tests was we could play if we wanted to. But if it was too weird, we could always not play. So that was the only time we ever had the option of not playing. I think The Grateful Dead kind of represents the spirit of being able to go out and have an adventure in America at large. You know what I mean? You can go out and follow the Grateful Dead around. And you have your war stories. Something like hopping railroads. Something like that. Or being on the road like Cassidy and Kerouac.
JOE SMITH: That’s interesting.
JERRY GARCIA: But you can’t do those types of things anymore. But you can be a Deadhead. You can get in your van and go with the other Deadheads across the States and meet it on your own terms. Sort of a niche for it, in a way.
This interview was produced by David Gerlach for the PBS series Blank on Blank. You can find an animated short of this interview, as well as plenty of other historical interviews, at their website. You can also subscribe to their podcast on iTunes.