Here’s a poser for you.
Link Nirvana with The Grateful Dead in three steps.
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:
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.
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