The Grateful Dead band of the sixties, up to Pigpen’s passing in 1973, was a most unpleasant musical experience. Joe Queenan, succinctly and with some great humor, locks in on the Dead’s early years. In my companion post I chronicle the Dead from start to what I view as the terminal Dead date, August 9,1995—the date Jerry Garcia “moved on.”
I paid zero attention to the Dead during their early years. After listening to the band’s dreadful first album with astonishment, I couldn’t believe the group had a musically oriented fan in the world. As I explain in my post, the Dead could not play, sing, even stay on key or keep a beat. In the early years, they were more of a garbage band than a garage band. Joe hits the nail on the head that this rag tag contingent was plainly and simply a drawing card for stoners.
Well, as I have chronicled, things changed rapidly for the Grateful Dead with the passing of Pigpen. While the band would never in their history become even a decent studio group, for many obvious reasons, their live performances and albums were another matter. Jerry, thin of voice and compromised until his sad demise, became a quiet force with both his guitar and singing. Phil just got better and better. The B3 chair turned into the electric chair. But the string of “passing” keyboardists were all solid contributors. Bobby, who I never liked, indeed developed a rhythm guitar style of his own style and a voice that worked. And the twin drumming of Mickey and Billy propelled the band with a unique style.
It is easy to really hate the Dead if you focus on the early years. There were so many awesome bands in the sixties and early seventies that the Grateful Dead may as well have been dead back then. Few listeners with any musical acuity would have shed a tear. The Dead of the latter seventies until the passing of Jerry Garcia in 1995 were another matter altogether. Over this timeframe, the Grateful Dead were as strong a musical aggregation as any group on the road.