Truckin’ with Jerry/”Driving Lessons”
The first time I saw Jerry Garcia after our Bluegrass days in Berkeley was one nite in his sound truck, parked somewhere in LA, I cannot remember where. My friend, Lonnie Feiner, who had introduced us a couple yrs before that, thinks it was in a scary part of town, which would mean either East LA or Watts (now called South Central). For some reason I think it was in Hollywood. Which, now that I think about, was a scary part of town in ways of its own.
What I do remember is the tour of the truck he gave Lonnie and me. This had to be in 1965. I’d just started hearing that this guy I used to play Bluegrass with, Jerry Garcia, had formed a band that played incredibly loud rock music and was called the Grateful Dead. I asked Jerry what the name meant; bands had not yet started using psychedelia as a fount for names. He told me it didn’t mean anything. I believed him. I think we were both high at the time.
There were also two quiet, sort of nerdy guys tinkering with the sound gear neatly stacked and, it looked like, permanently installed in the back of this huge truck. And I do mean huge. I remember it as an eighteen-wheeler, but it couldn’t have been, not if it was parked someplace in the city and being used as a rehearsal studio.
But it was big. Big enough to hold several gleaming Macs, i.e., MacKintosh amplifiers, the ones considered, in those days, to be the gold standard of big-speaker drivers. It was absolutely necessary to have these amps to power the several Voice of the Theatre speakers (yes, the kind you used to see in movie theatres) they used. And to drive them mightily enough for the sound to be clean and clear.
And the Dead’s sound was nothing if not clean. That, along with their endlessseemingly telepathic instrumental improvs plus a rep for doing lots of drugs would come to be the band’s identity. Tho’ at that moment in 1965 that identity was still almost a secret. The band was, in fact, still struggling to reach the all-important a,goal of staying together.
So the fancy–and expensive–equipment on the truck puzzled me. Furthermore, I was told it needed sound engineers to operate and maintain. These were vacuum tube days, and amps blew out all the time for so many reasons I can’t even start to explain, so I won’t. But that’s what the two guys fooling around with the glowing glass towers and stacked black slabs of steel were doing. I couldn’t then and can’t now think of any other band that paid that much attention to, and spent that kind of money on, sound. But then, as I said, the Dead seemed to be striving for a sound that would set them apart from others in the world of painfully loud sound.
I told Jerry how impressed I was with his traveling tent show, but I really didn’t understand how he could afford it. “I mean, you’re not really household names,” I said. “I hate to say it, but I hadn’t even heard of you guys before Lonnie took me here tonite.” He laughed, took another pull on the very strong joint he, Lonnie and I were passing around and handed it off.
I remember Jerry kind of shrugging when I asked him this. I also remember how he suddenly seemed to reading from a script to answer me. A loose script, but a script. He didn’t have a pat answer for my question and instead deflected it by saying he just wasn’t sure. For some reason, I felt he was intimating that other forces were in play, and there were damn good reasons for their nifty set-up that he wasn’t at liberty to talk about. For a moment I thought he was trying to tell me he wasn’t the real engine of the band’s increasing momentum, that someone else was taking care of things like booking, publicity, travel arrangements, financial survival, scoring drugs–you know, the usual. This was not the modus vivendi for most unestablished bands struggling to stay alive and together.
And he was vague, as if someone might have been listening who didn’t want him to explain the band’s success in too much detail and would censor him later for going too far into the matter. But there was no one else around except Lonnie, me and the sound guys fussing with the equipment.
Well, I wasn’t off base at all in being unable to couple the Dead’s modest success at that time with the quality of that sound equipment, the truck to shlep it around in and two sound engineers to run it.
Because, as it happened, one of those two nerds was Stanley Owsley, the maker and marketer of the most famous LSD products of all time, including Sunshine and some others I can no longer remember the names of. He was also the initial financial underwriter of the Dead’s early survival-turned-success story.
Owsley was also the guy most responsible for the sound the Dead became famous for: very loud but so clean and pure it didn’t hurt your ears. No kidding. Because as it turns out it’s the “noise”–static, hum, distortion, etc–that causes the pain from having, or choosing, to listen to a really loud signal, for example, that put out by Blue Cheer, the band that was most closely associated with “a wall of Marshall amps.” My band, Evergreen Blueshoes, v.z. in these pages, once opened for them. It was good that we played before they did, because we were unable to hear each other for hours after their set. It didn’t help that Blue Cheer really sucked; no musicianship at all).
So, much of why the Grateful Dead was able to hang in there in their pre-celebrity days has to be explained, at least partially, by Owsley’s financial support as well as his audio expertise, what with him being obsessed by getting a sound no one else was getting and having the know-how to do it. This went a long way in explaining Jerry’s elliptical and unsatisfying answer to my question about how they were paying for everything.
Of course, I didn’t learn about any of this until quite a bit later. At the time, I just kept wondering in wonderment.
No matter. That little chill-session with Jerry was a wake-up call for me to notice there was a music revolution going on, with Woodstock as its eventual mecca, psychedelia as its engine and huge amplification as its mode de communication. Which is to say, continuing to play acoustic guitar and being fanatically devoted to preserving “roots” music that was very far from my own roots may not have been the best choice for someone who really did want to make a name for himself as a musician. Stay tuned.
And now, children…
The following is a story based on some real events, but embroidered and enlarged upon for entertainment value and outrage. Btw, I haven’t read this unfinished piece since I wrote it, about ten years ago, like a lot of the other stuff I’ve throwing at you.