“What a long strange trip it’s been,” Robert Hunter, “Truckin’”
Forty years ago this weekend, on July 3rd 1970, I spent a couple of hours talking with Jerry Garcia. I was 19, and he was as close to a hero as I had. How my own journey came to brush up again the Grateful Dead’s long strange trip now seems a tale ripe with mythology, like the songs they sang.
When I first saw him the previous fall playing with the Grateful Dead in Boston, Garcia wasn’t my hero yet, but an enigma. On the one hand he was Captain Trips from Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test, a bible to us college freaks. And he must have had something happening, because he’d succeeded in snaking Mountain Girl from Ken Kesey. On the other hand, I had heard nothing revelatory in the first Dead album. It sounded all hyped up and made me nervous. (And no wonder. They’d recorded it speeding their brains out.)
I sat on the floor, awaiting the Dead, staring at the dayglo patterns painted on the grills of all their Fender amps, blinking in the beams from the lightshow. They seemed an outrageous public display of the secret realms we freaks snuck into from time to time. Did they promise magic?
The band performed their medley from Live/Dead. It was a music I’d never heard before: controlled chaos with the focus always returning to Garcia’s guitar. He teased in Dark Star, tracing lackadaisical spiderwebs across the primordial ooze, but somewhere between “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven” he really got down to business, blazing out scalar passages whose direction was always up, higher. The Dead created an acid trip in sound, and more. I heard the musical realization of every incantatory adventure I’d ever dreamed of since I was a kid reading books like Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” And I’d found my guitar hero. I’d flirted with Mike Bloomfield, and of course Jimi Hendrix. But now I had my man, the guy every guitar boy needs to copy as a necessary stage in becoming his own guitar hero. By the time we drove back to Wesleyan, we were confirmed Deadheads (although they wouldn’t start calling us that until a few years later).
After the concert, my friend David got in touch with the Dead and arranged for them to play a free outdoor concert the following spring at Wesleyan. On May 3rd 1970, they played at the foot of Foss Hill to a crowd of thousands. Their concert became legendary: not so much for the music – it was cold and rainy, and they were having one of their notorious off nights – as for what happened the next day. We heard hints of it in between songs when guys grabbed the mike and yelled something about a strike. The next day, Wesleyan was among the first to join the strike that would soon hit colleges across the country. Though Nixon’s escalation into Cambodia was the ostensible reason for the strike, by noon there was one closer to home – 4 college kids murdered at Kent State in Ohio. I wasn’t alone in wondering if the Dead’s appearance at Wesleyan hadn’t somehow precipitated the strike.
Classes were canceled for the rest of the semester. The school year bled seamlessly into summer. I lounged around campus with nothing to do. One day I was ambling down Foss Hill, past the spot the Dead had recently played, when I saw a school bus, painted robin’s egg blue. I immediately flashed on Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, on Garcia and the Dead.
A fellow with a long beard and overalls, a dead ringer for R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, invited me on board. You’re either on the bus or off the bus… I got on. We were halfway to Canada before I asked where we were going. “They’re having a festival, man. Traveling by train from Toronto to Calgary, stopping in all the cities. Janis, the Band…the Grateful Dead.”
Things being loose the way they were in those days, we somehow got invited to park the bus in each outdoor venue , and attend the concerts – free. We acted as a kind of sideshow, festival goers boarding the bus to see us sprawled out on mattresses. Far out, real Hippies! Actually we were college students, though our hair was real long.
In Winnipeg we got invited on the train, which was stopped on a siding. I climbed on (You’re either on the train or off the train), wandering through cars where famous musicians lay on bunks recovering from the previous night’s party. I opened the door into the dining car, and there, sitting like a couple of normal everyday freaks, mortals, just eating their scrambled eggs and toast, were Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh. I stood thinking furiously for something to say. Phil got up, excused himself and fled down the car.
“Uh, I’m a reporter for the Wesleyan newspaper – remember playing there?”
“Could I, um, interview you?” Up to that moment I’d never had a thing to do with the paper, but never mind, now I was a reporter.
He grinned at me, that famous grin, and said, “Sure. How about now?”
Though I had plenty of questions, it was no interview, just us rapping about music. He told me about the Tibetan throat singers, I told him about the Javanese Gamelan and drummers from Ghana at Wesleyan, and suddenly had an idea – Hey you guys could come back and jam with them…”Yeah, arrange it, we’ll come.” (The music department later shot down the idea).
As the conversation lengthened to over an hour, and Garcia showed no signs of boredom, I felt this glow growing in my chest –a feeling of acceptance into the tribe of freaks, of validation for the lifestyle I’d embraced. For if ever there was a king of the hippies, he was Jerry Garcia. And smiling like that – and being able to play guitar like that – I knew surely that he must be a good and wise king.
Then he sealed the deal. On a whim, I asked, “Did you ever read Something Wicked This Way Comes?” It had been the most important book of my youth. “Oh yeah, man! That was my favorite book.” It was no longer him and me, but we. We freaks. We musicians…
I sought his advice, telling him of my frustration trying to get a band together. He laughed, “Oh just get your friends to play. That’s what I did.”
By now we’d really been talking for a long time. I wondered why he was wasting time with some kid like me. He offered a clue, “There was a birthday party last night for Delaney,” (of Delaney and Bonnie) “Somehow with the Dead, whenever there’s a birthday someone always manages to dose the cake…I had a piece.”
That hadn’t been breakfast they’d been eating, as in just woke up and had breakfast. That was breakfast after staying up all night and finally coming down from acid. Though I’m sure that was a common enough occurrence for him, it struck me as if I’d gone on a pilgrimage to see St. Francis, and seen the stigmata pop out on his hands.
The train started hissing and snorting, like it was going to leave. I had to get back to the blue bus. “Hey, great to meet you.” “You too, man!” At that moment the door at the other end of the car slammed open and a human whirlwind blew through the car and out the other door, trailing a slipstream of bright scarf. It wasn’t until I was back on the bus and inspected the image etched on my eyeballs that I realized that grinning storm was Janis Joplin.
In the fall I remembered Jerry’s words, “Get your friends to play.” My friends and I had been screwing around for years trying to get a band together. We could never find the right drummer. Within days of getting back to school we found him, and finally had our band.
And the memory of Jerry sitting, grinning across from me on the train, came to me when the going got tough in the music business, “That’s what I did…” After hearing that, I could do it too.
The movie “Festival Express” is available on DVD and includes great footage of both stage performances and Janis, Jerry and members of the Band partying on the train. Phil Lesh’s memoir Searching for the Sound recounts life on the train in some detail.