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San Francisco Musicians (Marty Balin, Peter Albin, David Freiberg and David Nelson) Recall Their First Encounters with Jerry Garcia

Written by: Frank Mastropolo

Photo: WikiMedia Commons (Carl Lender)

The free-form jams of the Grateful Dead provided the soundtrack for San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love. Led by singer, songwriter and guitarist Jerry Garcia, the band regularly performed at venues such as the Fillmore, Winterland and the Family Dog. The Dead’s original run lasted from 1965 until 1995, when Garcia died at 53.

Garcia came of musical age as a folk singer during the early ’60s in the Bay Area’s beat community. He would go on to perform in bands like the Black Mountain Boys, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and the Warlocks before co-founding the group that is still revered by Deadheads around the world.

Four pioneers of the San Francisco music scene recently talked with Rock Cellar about Garcia’s creativity and character. Peter Albin, bassist of Big Brother & the Holding Company, met Garcia before BBHC formed and recruited an unknown lead singer named Janis Joplin.

Albin and his brother Rodney, a guitarist, met Garcia in 1961 as they hoped to recruit musicians to perform at the Boar’s Head, a performance space they’d created inside a San Carlos bookstore.

Photo via WikiMedia Commons

Guitarist David Freiberg was half of the folk duo David & Michaela when he first saw Garcia perform. Freiberg would go on to form Quicksilver Messenger Service, a psychedelic rock band, and later join Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.

Marty Balin, founder and lead singer of Jefferson Airplane and lead singer of Jefferson Starship, met Garcia and the “Furthur Bus crew” – Ken Kesey’s Merry Band of Pranksters – at the Matrix nightclub. In 1965, Balin founded the Matrix and installed the Airplane as its house band. The Airplane would soon explode on the music scene with hits like “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”

Our story begins on a summer night in 1961 at Kepler’s, a bookstore that doubled as a coffeehouse and performance space for folkies. Joining the Albin brothers that night in search of musicians to play the Boar’s Head was their friend David Nelson.

The guitarist would go on to perform with many members of the Dead, including their lyricist, Robert Hunter. Nelson formed New Riders of the Purple Sage in 1969. The country-rock group often opened for the Dead on tour, with Garcia sitting in on pedal steel guitar.

David Nelson: Rodney says “bring your banjo, we’re going down to Kepler’s Book Store.” Now Kepler’s in Palo Alto was a famous place. It was the hub of activity for the whole beatnik community, the whole hip community.

Peter Albin: So we all went down together. In the back of Kepler’s was a couple of tables and chairs and a coffee urn and you could put a dime in a cup and get a cup of coffee and read a book. It was very liberal, if you want to come in, bring your guitar, sure. We heard that Garcia was holding court there every once in a while. And we made it down on a night he was there.

David Nelson: We get there, I put my banjo down. Pete Albin says “come here, come here.” We look between the books in the bookshelves into that little coffeehouse area and there’s this hairy guy. This is the summer. And there’s this guy whose hair is from his belly button all the way up top. He’s got his shirt open because it’s hot and he’s playing a Stella 12-string with a real surly look on his face. And I went, “Who’s that?” And Pete goes, “That’s Jerry Garcia.”

I just went, “Wow, look at that guy, man.” He was only a year older than me but he was so far older-looking. He had a beard, he had a goatee. That look, he always looked older.

Peter 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, the Smothers Brothers, and they had already made it up in San Francisco playing more commercial stuff, folk music, so a lot of the people including Garcia were looking into the music that these guys were playing but looking for the original versions.

David Nelson: He’s sittin’ there strumming this guitar and I was going “Wow.” I was happy to just watch him through the space in the books. Me and Peter were sitting there and all of a sudden Rodney grabs my shoulder: “Come on, get your banjo.” And I’m going, “No, no, wait, wait!” The next thing I know he puts my banjo in my hand, sits me down in front of Jerry and says, “Jerry, this is Dave Nelson. He just got a banjo.”

Jerry looked at me. “Well, can you play it?” And I had learned some little lick on frailing banjo and he said, “Hmm, that’s very pretty.”

Peter Albin: He was really good. He was extremely impressive. His style and technique – his singing was OK, he did sing. That was probably one of the weaker points about him. It was still in the feeling of the old style of folk music stuff that we heard on 78 records.

David Freiberg: Jerry and I first crossed paths around 1962. He was in the Black Mountain Boys, a bluegrass band. He was playing banjo. He was playing at the Top of the Tangent in Palo Alto. I believe he played down there once or twice and I saw him there one night. I played with this girl Michaela and we sang pretty corny folk music, with snappy patter between the tunes.

He was one of the better banjo pickers around. I only saw him play banjo at first but I’m sure he played guitar too. The fact was that we were both smokin’ dope and I was drawn to those people [laughs].

Peter Albin: Then he started playing the jug band music that was popular. Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions was the band that he formed.

David Nelson: And then the Beatles happened and we all went, “Hey we play that shit, that old rock and roll stuff. I know that song, that’s from – yeah, so-and-so did that song back in the ’50s. We know this shit.” So Garcia was right on it and said, “Let’s play that gig up there in San Mateo and we’ll call ourselves the Warlocks.”

He gets a loose gathering of people. I was in a bluegrass band at the time so I couldn’t do it but I went up to see him on one of those and he’s steppin’ up. He worked at Dana Morgan Music so he had access to electric guitars so he’s steppin’ out with Lonnie Mack guitar stuff. Garcia steps out and does “Memphis.” I went to one of those San Mateo Warlocks gigs and saw Jerry playing the Lonnie Mack stuff and I went, “Man, Jerry!”

I remember the night that we were all living at this one house and Jerry said, “We got an audition for the Fillmore. Wanna come along?” And I said, “Yeah!”

I stood over to the side of the stage and watched these guys. All these other bands were auditioning too. It was a long wait but I got to see my boys play and then drive home later. It was very auspicious. And the next thing you know Bill Graham says, “Yeah, you guys, I’m hiring you.” And so they started having regular gigs at the Fillmore and then Chet Helms comes and says, “I want you to play at the Beach too.” So they’re back and forth, Family Dog-Bill Graham-Family Dog-Bill Graham. And the rest is history.

Peter Albin: Ron McKernan was an important person in the changeover from folk rock and folk blues to R&B and rock and roll. When the Warlocks started playing, they were basically a cover band. But they would take these weird drugs [laughs] and their songs would go from 3 minutes to like 15. They started trippin’ out on the songs and the audiences liked it.

Marty Balin: The first time I saw him I was working at the Matrix nightclub and [Airplane guitarist] Paul Kantner 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.”

Photo via WikiMedia Commons (Carl Lender)

They were looking for a place to play, just like everybody else was. That was the first time I saw Jerry. And the first time I really heard him was at the Fillmore, when he went full-bore electric with the whole band behind him. That was great. At shows I’d stand right in front of him, right in the pit and watch him play. Man, it was like, ooof, just go ascending and lifting up and up and up. He’d take you so high.

David Nelson: Jerry’s the kind of guy that jumps in with both feet and just does something. And he does it and does it and does it. When he was playing banjo, you’d go over to talk with him and he’s playing banjo while he’s listening to you. I never knew him to not be practicing. He had to have that instrument with him all the time whether it be electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, whatever. He’s that type of player.

It’s a sound that’s actually more rudimentary than most guitar players. Most guitar players in that kind of music, electric guitar like Eric Clapton, are way more sophisticated in their sound with the licks and the real fancy stuff. Jerry never did that. He stuck to one note at a time. His way and by God it turned out to be more powerful to do it that way, way more powerful, I think. It’s more moving. It’s simple and you can hear it. It’s simple and straightforward. Not too fancy.

People said, “Banjo, you’re never gonna learn that. Jerry, you’re 23 years old, you’re not going to pick up [Earl] Scruggs’ banjo style.” And by God, years later, listen to him on Old and in the Way. He’s got his own style. It’s a gift. He’s simple, straightforward, it’s his own style and he had some real original accents and syncopations and stuff like that.

Peter Albin: He developed his own style, which was a combination of a whole bunch of different things. I think he was greatly influenced by jazz modes. But I wouldn’t consider him a jazz guitarist. At first he was a rock and roller, blues player, R&B – he knew all those licks. He just went from there and expanded his musical vocabulary.

David Freiberg: His phrasing was what was so cool. And that’s what was unique about his guitar playing, his phrasing was unique. You could tell Garcia by the unique way he phrased. It’s hard to describe but he sang the same way, he’d sing the song. I thought he was actually a much better singer than people gave him credit for.

Peter Albin: A lot of it had to do with just the scene itself. The fact that underground radio stations were playing all different kinds of music. KMPX and then KSAN were having these shows that mixed everything together. You’d hear a piece done by Cream and then you’d have a Sousa march and then an Indian raga and then you’d have a Bob Dylan song then a Butterfield Blues Band tune. It was so eclectic and that’s where Garcia came from as well as myself and Nelson too.

David Nelson: I used to watch the long jams. They pioneered it and they stuck to it. And that’s another thing that Jerry gets a medal for, being the bravest man in the world. When they were touring the country – now you’re starting to get big, there’s money invested in you and you better do well with all these promoters. Jerry would want to get into these long jams and they would jam longer and longer.

I’d look out in the audience and see people get up and head for the aisles and head back up to the lobby: “That’s it, I don’t even know what song this is, I’m sorry, that’s it, I can’t take any more of this.” And there were a couple of times people were just flooding out. I said “look, the doors can’t even contain that many people that want to get out because it’s a jam and they didn’t identify a song in over 15 minutes. For Christ’s sake, this is real music too, it doesn’t have to be an identifiable song.”

Marty Balin: Everybody was taking acid, that kind of makes you want to jam for hours. You’d get on this one thing and just go. And I remember being on acid and singing and finding all this space and realms, and making up words and lyrics. Wherever it went it just kept going. It was amazing.

David Nelson: A couple of times the management in the band’s office, people started saying, “Jerry, if you played songs more, if you concentrated on songs you might have more success with the band and bookings and stuff like that.” Jerry went, “Nah, who needs it?” [Laughs]

And sure enough it turned out that there was a fortune behind that. Go the other way, go the way you’re going and people will come around. They’ll flood out of the auditorium – have patience. Keep doing what you’re doing. And pretty soon people are flooding into the auditorium. Pretty soon they had to do four gigs because the capacity has been exceeded each night. If they played Denver, they had to do four shows in Denver, they can’t just do one show in Denver. There’d be a riot.

Robert Hunter was focused on writing the great American novel. He did have some stuff almost done. The Dead went down to Los Angeles. Joe Smith of Warner Bros. said, “I wanna hear you.” So they’re down there and Garcia said, “Jesus Christ, Hunter, get down here now, I need you. Listen, we’ve gotta have original songs.” ‘Cause Joe Smith heard the Dead and he said, “Yeah, we want you for this, here’s the record contract, so start making that record right now.” Garcia called Hunter and said, “Get down here, we need originals. OK, I wrote one song, ‘Cream Puff War,’ but I just don’t have it like you do. You’re prolific on the words thing.”

So Hunter said OK. So that’s where a bunch of those songs started out. Jerry and Hunter sitting in a room in a hotel, “let’s think of an idea” and Garcia would play something on the guitar and Hunter would think of words for it and then they’d toss around an idea for a theme of a song, the words and everything. Because when I heard those Hunter-Garcia songs I went, “Holy shit.” They’d raised rock and roll songs to a whole new level.

David Freiberg: “The Dead were living in Lagunitas for the summer, that’s in Marin County, at a one-time children’s camp, where all the furniture was child-size. But it had a swimming pool and they had a place to practice. It was kinda cool. 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. Dino Valenti was there at the time and we said, “OK, we gotta get these guys.” They raided us just as we were rolling up a pile of dope so we all smoked and then they left.

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 and take their guitars away and play “Elijah Was a Wooden Indian.” [Laughs]

Bill Graham was in on it, he thought that would be pretty funny. He was all for it. But we all got busted outside of the Fillmore before we could do it because there was a race riot in the Fillmore District a few blocks away. We were throwing these old antique guns in the back of our van and somebody saw it and called it in. The Airplane was going overtime and so we got there too early. We’re sittin’ in the back of the van and all of a sudden a gun comes in the front. We thought it was another one of Quicksilver but it wasn’t, it was the cops and they took us all off to jail so that never happened.

David Nelson: We came in around ’69. The New Riders started with the biggest advantage that any band could ever have, it made me feel like a spoiled brat silver spoon kid, ’cause we started out by opening with the Dead, with Jerry playing pedal steel. That’s another thing, he jumped into playing pedal steel: “Jerry, you’re 25, you can’t learn an instrument like pedal steel.” He goes, “I like it.” He got one, it’s at his house.

He calls me up: “C’mon up, I’m trying to learn this instrument. And bring [NRPS singer] John Dawson. You and Dawson come up here.” We’d sit around; Jerry said, “Don’t mind me, I’m being a sideman here.” Because that’s what he really liked about the New Riders, he gets to be a sideman. Because he didn’t sing lead songs. That was so fun. Just awesome.

On stage, I’d look at Jerry and sometimes he would just be horrible on pedal steel, you’d make one little “oops” miscalculation and it’d be a totally wrong note. I remember wonderful moments – to me I cherish these moments. He would look at me, he’d look behind Dawson at me on the other side of the stage and he was giving me this look, like “Help, Nelson, play something!” He’d look like a man being electrocuted. But most of it was just totally sweet.

Crosby, Stills and Nash heard him practicing with us and they called him up and said, “Why don’t you come down to the studio, we got a song.” And “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 show-offy or anything like that. Music’s not a competition, it’s music. So why bother with these showoff licks?

David Freiberg: This would be around 1970-71. Garcia was living right down the street from me in Novato and we’d go out to Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s house in Bolinas to rehearse. We had this inkling of an idea of there’d be a lot of guys from the Dead and me and Paul and Grace and maybe Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady and Phil Lesh and Garcia and David Crosby and Graham Nash. Everybody was recording at Wally Heider’s studio so we were all going down there and just jamming and letting the tape run.

We had this idea we were going to go out and rehearse some stuff at Paul’s house so we were driving out the back roads of Novato and we saw a light in the sky as we were coming back from Bolinas. It was real late at night, we were out in the middle of nowhere, out by a lake and we looked up and there was this UFO! And Garcia and I both saw it.

All of a sudden it just kind of got big and kind of disappeared. Woosh! And we both saw it so it really happened! [Laughs]

Marty Balin: He was very unique. He worked on Surrealistic Pillow with us and played some guitar. He was a well-respected guitar player and musician. But he was so likeable and lovable. He was just fun to be with and had lots of good ideas. He just blended in with anybody.

David Freiberg: In my mind, he never changed his real self. When he got really, really famous I didn’t see him very much. It was just too big a mess to go hang with him at a Grateful Dead thing. But every time I did and I saw him there it was just the same Jerry came out, the same guy. Nicest smile – I loved his smile. One of the most wonderful people I ever knew actually.

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