Half a century ago, San Francisco musicians provided the soundtrack to 1967’s Summer of Love. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), Quicksilver Messenger Service, New Riders of the Purple Sage (NRPS) and Moby Grape helped introduce psychedelic rock to thousands of buzzed flower children at free concerts throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
But no band exemplifies the music and the era like the Grateful Dead. The band’s leader was singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995. Garcia, with lyricist Robert Hunter, wrote many of the Dead’s best-loved songs. Garcia’s inspired, improvisational guitar work and fun-loving spirit are remembered by four pioneers of the San Francisco Sound: singer Marty Balin of the Airplane and guitarists Peter Albin of Big Brother, David Freiberg of Quicksilver and David Nelson of NRPS.
In 1961, Nelson and Albin learned that Garcia sometimes performed at Kepler’s Book Store in Palo Alto. “We heard that Garcia was holding court there every once in a while,” says Albin. “He was playing folk music, picking his guitar, no banjo, mandolin or fiddle, nothing like that, just guitar. He was a pretty good finger-picker.
“He was playing songs like ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World,’ all the folk stuff. The Kingston Trio had come out of that area and they had already made it playing more commercial stuff, folk music, so a lot of the people including Garcia were looking into the music but looking for the original versions.”
Garcia honed his skill as a pedal steel guitarist with Nelson’s NRPS, who often opened for the Dead in concert. “Crosby, Stills and Nash heard Jerry playing with us,” recalls Nelson. “And they called him up and said, ‘Why don’t you come down to the studio, we got a song – ‘Teach Your Children.'” Every pedal steel player in the world looks up to that tune. That’s steel guitar playing. And here’s Jerry, this rank beginner [laughs], ends up coming up with that. Because he’s pulling it from inside. He’s pulling from his feelings, not trying to do something too fancy, nothing showoff-y or anything like that. Music’s not a competition – it’s music. So why bother with these showoff licks?”
Balin was with Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner when he met Garcia and the Merry Pranksters, a group who crossed the U.S. in an old bus – really an acid lab on wheels – nicknamed ‘Furthur.’
“The first time I saw Jerry I was working at the Matrix nightclub and Paul and I were building a stage and this guy peeked through the curtains over the doorway and said, ‘Hey, can I come in?’ It was Jerry Garcia.
“Paul and I said, ‘Come on in’ and he said, ‘I’ve got some friends with me. Can they come too?’ We said, ‘Sure.’ So in came all the rest of the Grateful Dead and the whole Furthur Bus crew and Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady and all these girls and they all sat down and started rolling joints and everybody was having a great time and started talking and playing guitars. It was pretty exciting. I thought, ‘This is cool.'”
“The Dead were living in Lagunitas for the summer, that’s in Marin County, at a one-time children’s camp,” recalls Freiberg. “I was in Quicksilver at the time and we had a place out near Point Reyes Station.
“One night the Dead were all dressed up as Indians and came out and raided us. They raided us just as we were rolling up a pile of dope so we all smoked and then they left. We said, ‘OK, we gotta get these guys.’
“The Dead were playing with Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore in a few weeks so we decided we were gonna dress up like cowboys and wear bandanas over our faces and stick them up in the middle of their set and tie them up to their amps.”
So how did that plan work out? Check back soon for the full interviews, along with Freiberg’s tale of the night he and Garcia spotted a huge UFO in the Bay Area sky.