DEAD FIRST

Here’s a poser for you.

Link Nirvana with The Grateful Dead in three steps.

Time’s up.

1. Kurt Cobain’s partner was Courtney Love. (Some implicate her in his death)

2. Courtney Love is the daughter of Hank Harrison. (Estranged daughter. Dad is one of those who blamed her for Cobain’s suicide)

3. Harrison has written several books on the Grateful Dead.

Hank Harrison was a college room-mate of Phil Lesh (Dead bass player), very briefly managed The Warlocks (the band’s previous name) and was an active member of the San Francisco scene of the mid-60s. Through entangled share houses, oceans of drugs, be-ins, happenings and countless concerts, Harrison observed, noted and collected the memories and memorabilia he would convert into books.

In his 1973* stream-of-consciousness mental screenplay/book Harrison tells the story of the band’s name. As it is a moniker encapsulating the mystery and ambiguity of the band, it’s worth retelling before we move onto the first, eponymous, album. It’s a long quote, but entertaining.

Everyone felt a new name was needed for the band. Bob Weir suggested the Hobbits, which was what he was reading at the time. (Bill) Kreutzmann suggested Vanilla Plumbego and there were thousands of other suggestions from friends and relations.

One afternoon Jerry and Phil were getting high at Phil’s house in Palo Alto and they were hard at work on this new identity idea. Jerry and Phil felt the frustration more than the others and were more eager to focus and find a direction. Ruth Pahkala had an old 1912 dictionary that Garcia was looking through while Phil started pondering Bartlett’s Quotations. There was a jolly sort of tension in the house that day almost as if finding a name was a do-or-die proposition.

Phil sprouted a few obscurities from Bartlett’s as Garcia turned through the dictionary I-Ching style. His eyes fell upon the words Grateful Dead, The. There was a long silence… ‘What do you think of this one Phil… THE GRATEFUL DEAD!’ Phil fell off his seat in giddy rails of laughter; it had the right ring, something for everybody, an infinite array of associations Egyptian, Gothic, Mystic.

Garcia had stumbled upon a reference to the collected folk ballads of Francis Child^… Child’s Ballads. Child was an American scholar and collector of English and Scottish folk songs which he grouped into ten categories, such as The Unquiet Grave, The Lost Lover, and of course the one that caught Jerry’s eye… The Grateful Dead. The ballads of the Grateful Dead are songs about ghosts who return from the grave to conduct unfinished business. If they are allowed to complete their duties they are grateful.

Ruth and Jerry and Phil ran over to the other house on Litton street. A toke of DMT first, before the presentation of the new name. There it was in black and gold letters scintillating in the Palo Alto Spanish sunlight:

GRATEFUL DEAD

 

So The Warlocks—now The Grateful Dead—had been playing around the Bay area for quite some time. Just as Pink Floyd were the ‘house band’ of the London underground scene, so the Dead soundtracked acid test concerts and the general freak-scene of San Francisco circa 1966-67.

Coming from a folk-blues background, there is no doubt the acid-infused concerts impacted on the electric explorations of the band. This can be heard abundantly on the Birth of the Dead (2CD) set where some moments sound like amplified folk and others like cosmic excursions. Often such moments are in the same song.

The first album, The Grateful Dead, is much the same. Allmusic calls it “hydra-headed psychedelic jug-band music” which is a good start, though it overlooks the strong blues presence.

Like many debut albums, the Dead’s first outing draws from their established live set. In his day-glow memoir Living with the Dead, “manager confidant and co-conspirator” Rock Scully describes the 1966 setlist. (Songs from the first album are highlighted)

A typical set might include ‘Viola Lee Blues’, ‘Stealin’’, ‘I know you rider’, (and) ‘Sittin’ on top of the world’. Mostly traditional and blues and folk songs with an occasional contemporary hit like ‘In the midnight hour’, or an original like ‘Cream Puff war’. [p.59**]

There’s a marvellously ragged cross-section of music styles etched into the grooves of the Dead’s 1967 debut. Rascals-style 60s pop (“The golden road”), R&B (“Beat it on down the line”), country rock (“Cold rain and snow”), a Jefferson Airplane inspired psychedelic single (“Cream puff war”) and electric blues (“Good morning little school girl”). It is this last category where we get, in the long final track on the album, something of the live Dead experience. “Viola Lee Blues” is a ten minute exploration of cosmic-injected blues that may not entirely capture the band as experienced in those all-night gigs, but it certainly hints at what was to come#.

Indeed, that’s a fair description of The Grateful Dead as a whole. An album showing a band honed by live performance yet unsure how to get that across on vinyl. The second LP, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, is much more psychedelic but somehow less grounded. Fortunately for those not in San Francisco at the time, the band found the answer with their two 1969 releases. Aoxomoxoa is a studio album containing a couple of the Dead’s most enduring songs while Live/Dead captures the transporting experience of the band in concert.

But in March ’67 all that was still two years away.

The Grateful Dead is not an essential album. But it is an entertaining and varied debut that marks the beginning of a long strange trip.

2017 re-issue of the first Grateful Dead album, B-side. The A-side is the feature image. Looks great, sounds shit.

Bob Weir: guitar, vocals

Pigpen (Ron McKernan): keyboards, harmonica, vocals

Jerry Garcia: guitar, vocals

Phil Lesh: bass, vocals

Bill Kreutzmann: drums

 

The Grateful Dead - The Grateful Dead 

Label: Warner Brothers 

Released: March 17, 1967 

Duration: 34:53

 

 *

* Hank Harrison (1973) The Grateful Dead. Star Books (1975). Main quote pp.134-135

** Rock Scully with David Dalton (1996) Living With The Dead. Little, Brown and Company, London.

^ Francis James Child was a Harvard Professor in the second half of the 19th century. Five volumes of his Child Ballads were published between 1882 and 1898. Child was primarily a literary scholar and not especially interested in the music of the folk songs he collected.

# Listen to “Viola Lee Blues” live from 1966 here

*

 

40 comments

  1. Well done! A nice package for the deadheads.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I bought this recently on 2cd as the second cd is a live performance from Vancouver in 1966.

    Nice write up. The quiz at the start threw me for a loop.
    I will now look for some writings by Hank Harrison.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have the CD box set ‘The Golden Road 1967 – 1973’ where the capacity of each CD is filled out with contemporaneous live recordings and a few rarities. Having said that, a whole extra disc sounds pretty tasty.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It seems my inbox is flooded lately with what seems like an almost daily barrage of “new” Dead live recordings.
        I wonder if there are completists out there that have to have everything by the band. Someone out there knows this.
        I would have to take on another job just to be a Dead completist. Also to afford the Cadillac to put my Deadhead sticker on.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. So true. It is a frightening discography. This from Wiki:

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Now I want to also watch the new 4 hour documentary Long Strange Trip:the untold story of the Grateful Dead.
    This movie was 14 years in the making.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a long lead time. But it’s a long trip.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thats the same link to Julian Cope and the Teardrop Explodes. I really enjoyed this it’s been a long time since I heard that 1st album, it really is a hodgepodge.

    The Dead are a complex band to like, sometimes I dislike them intensely. I watched the 1st episode of the Long Strange Trip documentary last night with my son and we came away with the same thought, how self-important the remaining living members really are. It will be awhile until I watch the second or maybe not it may rain today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I sure get ambivalence towards the Dead (though not the connection to Julian Cope, sorry for being a thicky). Especially with the avalanche of live material from the endless archive.

      Will watch out for the doco on local screens, but will approach armed with your warning. It would be nice if some major players became humble with age, rather than full of hubris.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. From Head Heritage Q&A :

        What do you think of Courtney Love now? What did you think of her when you knew her? Were you a fan of Nirvana? Can you name some female musicians that you admire? (Katya)
        Courtney was beaten by getting what she wanted. I loved her when I knew her because she was so full of energy that it looked like she’d make a wonderful icon for ugly girls everywhere. Then magazines like Q were saying I’d fucked her. Believe me, that’s such a funny thing to contemplate if you’d seen her then. But inheriting all of Kurt’s money has meant that she could do a Berlin Airlift on her face and Michael Jackson her way out. I loved Nirvana and Kurt was a total genius – and trust me, Courtney didn’t kill him – he’d have died a lot sooner without her, I’m sure.

        They had something of a fling when she lived in Liverpool in the 80’s

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, so now we know. Fascinating. Thanks.

          Like

      2. So now in a fit of nothing left to do late at night I am three episodes in and I am maxed at how anti-social and terrifying then Dead lifestyle was. I am however enjoying the series and coming to terms with enjoying a band does not necessarily equate to admiring the members.

        Like

  5. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Reblogged this on William Pearse | pinklightsabre and commented:
    Splendid story of The Grateful Dead, and website, Vinyl Connection. Enjoy, music fans.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Marvelous Bruce. Hope you don’t mind, I had to share. — Bill

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m delighted. Thanks Bill.

      Like

  7. Does it not seem strange to see Jerry Garcia without bushy hair and specs.

    On a side note, his Wolf guitar recently sold and raised over $3 million for charity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, that’s a fine factoid. Thanks for sharing it Brian.

      Like

  8. Arterrorist · · Reply

    If You want to link Nirvana with the Dead You may jump right to Aoxomoxoa back cover – the little girl sitting on the right sporting poncho-like clothing is Courtney Love 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wondered whether someone would mention that! It’s a myth (perpetuated by Ms Love herself, in part). The child is actually Bill Kreutzmann’s daughter who was about the same age. Sorry to burst that bubble!
      But delighted to welcome you to my world here, Arterrorist. (Arterrorist posts regularly on Tumblr)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Even with more time, I think I would have needed closer to 6 degrees to link the pair – and I would have likely ended up going through the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour “Cherry Garcia” somehow!
    Interesting to read about these albums that aren’t absolutely essential to own but make for an interesting stop along a journey.
    Live/dead and american beauty are on the 1001, may have to check out this one to compare when I get to them!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. American Beauty is very much the country influenced ‘Americana’ style. Many people (including, obviously, the editors of your edition of 1001 Albums) rate it very highly. Me, I prefer the psychedelic stuff. Look forward to you take in the fullness of time.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Brilliant – I wondered if you were being tricky and meaning the British crew (The Story of Simon Simopath, is another ’67 LP).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bonus points, Joe! The original draft specified which Nirvana, but then I thought I’d look all pretentious and show-offy for referencing such an obscure 60s UK psych band when everyone else thought immediately of the grunge monster. Everyone minus one, I mean. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I really need to get out more, I think.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Only to buy more records and books about records, of course.

          Your arcane knowledge is always welcome here.

          Liked by 2 people

  11. so much story in this one, i loved it

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much.

      Like

  12. Great post, Bruce. I enjoy The Dead sporadically, but there’s no denying that their vision of cosmic American music is one of the most enduring.

    As well as a couple of albums, I had collected a few years worth of their 30 Days of Dead live stuff. Some of it remarkable, some unremarkable and, dare I say, some fairly self-indulgent. Still, a pretty stellar band and their reach of influence is really quite something.

    Anyhoo, you’ve put me in the mood for some Dead, though I am without any of their sounds on my commute. However, I do have some Nirvana (the Cobain kind) and, well, I reckon that’s a good replacement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Should gee you up for the day, J!

      Thanks for your thoughtful sharing. Most people seem to share some level of ambivalence towards the Dead. But that doesn’t prevent some from shelling out for ridiculous box vinyl sets regularly. Deadheads indeed. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the fact there’s bound to be something remarkable amongst the Dead sets make them very tempting.

        Like

  13. Between you and Music Enthusiast I’m going to become a DH instead of a CB. Way back when I met the woman I’ve been hanging with for the last 100 years she had the Dead’s first album (and others) so that was my intro. It was a bonus that she liked cool music. Truth be known Bruce I would have stuck around even if she was a Perry Como fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. That’s lurve.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s something.

        Like

  14. From every account most likely one of best live band I the history of rock, sadly I have never had the honour. May not technically be an essential album, but in “music history” it’s definitely essential.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Plenty of recordings to satisfy even the most hungry of Deadheads! Good point about the historical significance; the debut of an iconic band is always worth checking out.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I can link the Dead and Nirvana in one step – two bands I never saw in concert! Ha. I have a 2CD collection of Dead stuff here, but no proper albums (I think)… No, wait, I have In The Dark on cassette. Does that even count?

    Anyway, I’m not conversant enough on the band’s work to be able to intelligently comment here, so I will instead thank you for this informative, superbly-written piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘In the dark’ was one of the later albums, and quite successful (in a way). Anyhoo (is that correct usage?) thanks for reading anyway, Aaron.

      In the right mood, I could imagine you drifting through space with the Live/Dead album from 1968, by the way.

      Like

      1. Then that shall be the first for which I will keep my eyes peeled! It’s been a while since I drifted through space…

        Like

  16. Thanks for sharing tit-bit on the name and the anecdotes behind it. I love such kind of posts about the background behind the group.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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