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The Grateful Dead Biography, 1993

This article was copied from the CompuServe’s Music newsgroups in the early days of the internet. I don’t know the author(s). No Copyright infringment…. Please contact me if you have more info. Thanks.


When the Grateful Dead visited Egypt to play at the base of the Great Pyramid, the streets of Cairo rang with the dance tune of “Stayin’ Alive,” as though the evanescent form of rock ‘n’ roll, a source of delight if not depth, had taken over the world. So it important to remember that while the members of the Grateful Dead play (some) rock songs on electric guitars, it is not entirely a rock and roll band. Forsaking conventional rock ‘n’ roll theatrics, they are part of a much older American musical tradition. For over 27 years they have pursued an eccentric course based on improvisation in performance and a self-contained, communal approach to life and business that has resulted in an odd and extraordinary success. Along the way, they have also advanced the technological side of performing electronically amplified music to new levels of quality — in fact, to the state of the art.


Their journey began in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a tolerant, sophisticated atmosphere that looks out through the Golden Gate to the Pacific gave them the room to work out their very special path. Grateful Dead music is an electronic fusion of most American (and some other) music forms, with each member contributing experience in a different form. In 1964, a bluegrass banjo player named Jerry Garcia joined with a folk guitarist named Bob Weir and a blues harmonica player named Ron “Pigpen” McKernan to form “Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions,” working in local coffee houses and bars.

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They were joined in 1965 by a rock/rhythm and blues drummer named Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh, who would play bass although his background lay in jazz trumpet and modern experimental composition a la Stockhausen. With these additions the jug band became the electric (Afro-American) blues band “The Warlocks”. In 1967 they gathered in percussionist Mickey Hart, who would bring to the mix a consuming interest in African and Asian drumming and music.

Late in 1965 they decided to change their name, and found a dictionary the phrase “Grateful Dead,” a type of folk song identified at the turn of the century by British ethnomusicologist Francis Childe. Using the phrase in the sense of cyclical change rather than some sort of morbidity, they fell into the radical cultural transformations of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1966-67 period, and played the Trips Festival and similar events with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

In the fall of 1966 they moved in together at 710 Ashbury Street in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district, where they quickly became central figures in the flourishing local music scene, appearing regularly at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium and the Family Dog’s Avalon Ballroom. In an effort to avoid the conventional business attitude toward music, they made a specialty of playing free shows in Golden Gate Park.

Early in 1968 they moved just north of the city to Marin County and embarked on a period of extensive recording. After their first two albums, THE GRATEFUL DEAD (1967) and ANTHEM OF THE SUN (1968), they became the first musicians in the world to use 16-track recording equipment, producing AOXOMOXA (1969) in the studio and LIVE DEAD (1970) from concerts. To this point their focus had been on instrumental improvisation, adding the experimental pianist Tom Constanten to the group from 1968 to 1970. But in 1970 they recorded WORKINGMAN’S DEAD and AMERICAN BEAUTY, two classic studio albums which emphasized Garcia’s tues and vocals, Weir’s harmonies, and the lyrics of their long-time collaborator, Robert Hunter.

Garcia’s work with pedal steel guitar broadened their range of music so dramatically that they recruited old friends from their earlier folk music days to create a second, country-oriented band, “The New Riders”. In 1970 they began a series of nationwide tours built around the concept of a family show: “An Evening with the Grateful Dead, Featuring the New Riders of the Purple Sage.”

New Riders of the Purple Sage

By 1971 their popularity had enlarged ticket demand far beyond the capacity of the intimate halls they preferred, and they responded to the problem by giving their music away via live stereo broadcasts. Their second live double album (and first gold disc) GRATEFUL DEAD was recorded about this time. Pigpen’s increasingly bad health lead to the addition of pianist Keith Godchaux in 1971 and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux in 1972. They remained with the band until 1979. Early in 1973, Pigpen died after a series of hospitalizations for stomach and liver problems.

in 1972 the Dead traveled through Europe by bus for two months, playing and recording in seven countries, which yielded a live three record set, EUROPE ’72. The tour took them from a Nazi-built plastic concert hall in Germany to an outdoor show in Lille, France, where an Impressionist landscape proved a much better platform for creation and began the Dead tradition of searching out unusual performance sites.

In 1973 and 1974 the Dead and its technical staff confronted the essential problem in arena and stadium-scale music — delivering quality sound. The result was the most extraordinary public address system ever built, 26,000 watts of power pouring through 641 speakers: “The Wall”. And the audience simply got bigger, peaking with the largest rock ‘n’ roll concert ever held, the 600,000-plus who came to see the G.D., the Band, and the Allman Brothers at Watkins Glen, New York, in July, 1973. The cost of such a system, in both financial and human terms, was of course enormous, and finally too much. After a five night stand at San Francisco’s Winterland in October 1974, they put “The Wall” in mothballs and ceased touring.

They managed to stay busy. Their recording contract with Warner Brothers had expired in 1973, and as always they used the opportunity creatively by establishing their own, truly independent Grateful Dead Record Company (G.D.R.C.) to market their records through independent distributors. Over the next three years, G.D.R.C. and its associate Round Records released three Grateful Dead albums — WAKE OF THE FLOOD (1973), FROM THE MARS HOTEL (1974), and BLUES FOR ALLAH (1975) — as well as nine works by various individual members of the band and its larger musical circle, including two from lyricist Robert Hunter, TALES OF THE GREAT RUM RUNNERS (1974) and TIGER ROSE (1975), and an album of electronic music by Phil Lesh and his friend Ned Lagin, SEASTONES (1975). At the same time, Garcia edited together film shot at the 1974 Winterland run into The Grateful Dead Movie, released in 1977.

The “vacation” over, the band returned to the road in June 1976. At the same time they folded the G.D.R.C. and (after a short hitch with United Artists) signed with Arista Records, producing TERRAPIN STATION (1977), their first album since 1967 with an outside producer, Keith Olsen. Their next album, SHAKEDOWN STREET (1978), was produced by the late Lowell George, and was the first Dead album recorded at the band’s own studio and rehearsal hall, “Le Club Front”. “Le Club” was also the recording site for Garcia’s solo album CATS UNDER THE STARS (1977). Around this time Bob Weir recorded HEAVEN HELP THE FOOL (1978) with Keith Olsen.

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In 1978 the Dead fulfilled an old and truly preposterous dream by playing three nights at the Gizeh Sound and Light Theatre in front of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid in Cairo, Egypt. The show was co-produced by the band and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture as a benefit for the Department of Antiquities and the Waf Wam Amal, Madame Sadat’s charity for handicapped children, and came to a focus on the last night with a total eclipse of the moon and …12 hours later…the signing of the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel.

Later in the year the band performed on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”, forming a relationship with the show’s “Blues Brothers,” Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, which resulted in the Brothers joining the Dead to close Winterland Auditorium at the New Year’s Eve Concert of 1978.

In 1979, the “Rhythm Devils” ( Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phill Lesh, many other friends ) undertook a very special project, creating the percussion soundtrack to Francis Coppola’s antiwar masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. The year was also marked by a special benefit concert for the California Campaign for Economic Democracy and shows ranging from favorite open-air venues like the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado to New York City’s Madison Square Garden, where they received the Gold Ticket award for the sale of 100,000 tickets. In April they were joined by keyboard player/vocalist Brent Mydland, who contributed mightily to their next studio album, GO TO HEAVEN (1980), produced by Gary Lyons.

Still averaging 75 concerts a year, the band marked its 15th anniversary in 1980 with a special series of 23 concerts — 15 at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, eight at New York’s Radio City Music Hall — that reviewed their history by adding an opening acoustic set to the normal two electric ones. Using specially developed recording techniques, they produced two double albums in 1981, the electric DEAD SET and the acoustic DEAD RECKONING, along with Weir’s solo BOBBY AND THE MIDNITES and Garcia’s RUN FOR THE ROSES.

And their odyssey continues, regular show sites punctuated by the unusual–the Aladdin Theater in Las Vegas, the “Oregon Field Trip” in Veneta, the US Festival near San Bernardino ( 1982, where they joined Santana as the “Woodstock” representatives to the outdoor event of the 80’s), and the World Music Festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica (1982). By 1984, they had decided that their usual winter pause was too long– so in addition to their traditional (now 19 years) New Year’s Eve concerts, they added a series to honor the late January Chinese New Year, with the San Francisco Chinese Orchestra, dragon dancers and so forth adding to the moment. In addition to its touring success, irony of ironies, the band that no record company could understand stepped straight into the heart of American mass culture, network television, and in 1985 recorded music for the CBS television series The Twilight Zone.

Perhaps most interestingly, the band has continues in a path unique in American entertainment history. At Halloween 1983 the band produced and promoted its own series of shows at the Marin Civic Center. In general, the 80’s have seen the band’s structure mature; it is the only band in America which largely controls its own tickets, negotiating directly with the business infrastructure.

It is not merely that this band violates normal American commercial artistic doctrine by relying on playing rather than selling records, by playing improvisationally rather than regurgitating “hits”. The band, its crew, staff and friends make up a family, a family that looks forward to a long haul of creativity rather than some ephemeral “success”. The President of the band’s legal structure is a crew member of 25 years standing. American performers normally hire their crew for the duration of a tour; the relationship between the Grateful Dead and its support staff is absolutely unique.

Despite the fact that through early 1987 they had not put out a studio album in seven years, the band remained one of the top two or three concert attractions in the country, to the point that in the summers of 1986 and 1987 they returned to stadiums in the company of Bob Dylan.

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In The Dark

When that new album, IN THE DARK, was finally released in July 1987, the audience that had waited so long responded; after 22 years, the Grateful Dead entered the Top Ten, with the album peaking at #6 and the single, “Touch of Grey”, at #9. In the fall they released an hour- long videocassette, “So Far”, which through January of 1988 remained #1 on the music cassette charts, and in the To 20 of all videocassette sales.

1988 saw a return to non-profit concerns, specifically in the band’s close participation in the campaign to preserve the world’s rainforests, eventually leading them to speak on behalf of the planet at sites as unlikely as the United Nations and the U.S. Capitol. A September Madison Square Garden concert saw them joined by Mick Taylor, Suzanne Vega, Bruce Hornsby, and Hall & Oates in raising nearly half a million dollars for Greenpeace, Cultural Survival, and the Rainforest Action Network (301 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133).

In 1989, as they approached their 25th anniversary, they had become the title of that year’s album BUILT TO LAST. An eclectic review that most strongly featured the emergence of Brent Mydland as a full participant in song-writing, the album ranged form the music-box purity of Mydland’s lullaby (“I Will Take You Home”) to the outrageous sampled sounds (breaking glass, jackhammers) of Bob Weir’s “Victim or the Crime” to the pensive meditation on the state of the planet that is Hunter/Garcia’s “Standing On the Moon”. Unfortunately, not everything can endure. On July 26, 1990, Brent Mydland was found dead.

Even in the midst of despair, the music remains. Old pal Bruce Hornsby volunteered to sit in on some of the fall’s shows, new friend ( and former member of the Tubes ) Vince Welnick took over the regular keyboard duties, and the circus trundled on–still Without A Net, to quote the title of their latest album, a live effort recorded in the fall of 1989 and spring of ’90.

By the summer of 1992, Vince had settled in solidly as the regular keyboardist, and Hornsby had returned to the Range and his newborn twin sons. The band had also initiated a long-dreamed-of project for Dead Heads, namely the release of entire shows form its own archives — “The Vault Project” — (#1 in June ’91, #2 in 2/92). Due to a superb digital mix (courtesy of project director Dan Healy and Don Pearson), even an evening represented in every respectable tape collection sold like proverbial hotcakes. ’92 also had it share of drama when Garcia fell sick in the summer and the fall tour was canceled but his full recovery and the December return to touring suggested a very bright future.

And after more than 27 years, 2,100+ documented concerts in which they played at least 400 different songs, even the “legendary” tuning breaks are down to mere moments.
To quote that hit tune, “We will survive–we will get by”.

Taken from CompuServe’s Music Vender’s Forum, section ARISTA RECORDS

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Back in the old days…

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