“Let’s go visit the Dead.”
It was that simple.
In the summer of 1971, having recently finished my freshman year of college, I drove across Canada from New York with my friend Richie in his blue Volkswagen Beetle. We turned left at Vancouver, then spent two weeks on beautiful Orcas Island, in Washington State, where we learned that Jim Morrison had died in Paris. We then continued south toward San Francisco. It would be the first time there for both of us, a place we had longed to visit because so many of our favorite bands came from there.
As we got closer to the Bay Area, we came up with a crazy idea: “Let’s visit the Grateful Dead. ” We had the address of their office in San Rafael, in Marin County, so we got out the map and found our way there. It didn’t even occur to us that they might not be there, or that they might have no use for two wide-eyed kids from New York.
As we pulled up to the house that served as their headquarters, there was Jerry Garcia standing in the driveway, leaning on a car, talking to some guy. What would we say to him? We didn’t want to go up to him with the tired old, “Hey man, we’re big fans.” Then Richie remembered that we had brought with us, for reasons I can’t remember, a vinyl bootleg LP of various Dead performances, possibly the first of its kind. We took it out of a suitcase, got out of the car and approached Jerry.
“Hey, Jerry, we just drove here all the way from New York with this bootleg. Wanna hear it? ”
“Sure,” he said. “Come on in.”
He took us to an upstairs room with a massive stereo system, put the record on and lit up a joint, which he passed to us. It was the best weed I’d ever smoked. He kept them coming the whole time we were there.
Listen to “Not Fade Away” / “Goin ‘Down the Road Feeling Bad” from the Grateful Dead’s self-titled 1971 live LP, also known as Skull & Roses. The shows on the album were recorded just a few months before the author’s day with Garcia.
At various times, band members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and other people popped into the room, listened for a few minutes and left again. Jerry hung with us for more than an hour as we got higher and higher, talking about music and whatever else might have come up. Then he said, “Hey, have you guys heard the New Riders’ album yet?”
Well, no, how could we have? We had seen the New Riders of the Purple Sage — which at the time included Garcia on pedal steel guitar — open for many Dead concerts by then, and we knew that they were making their first studio album, but how would we have heard it? It wasn’t due to be released for another month.
Jerry went over to a cabinet, pulled out a plain white vinyl album jacket, took the record out and put it on the turntable. The sound of “I Don’t Know You,” a song with which NRPS often opened their shows, came blasting from the speakers.
Related: Read a 1976 interview with Garcia
When the album finished, we knew it was time to go. Jerry took the record off the turntable, put it back in its sleeve and handed it to Richie. “You guys can keep this,” he said. “I have more.”
The last time I spoke to Richie, a few years ago, he still had that acetate in the plain white sleeve.
There would be other encounters with Garcia over the years; in those days, he was pretty accessible. A couple of years later, another friend and I — now living in the Bay Area — talked our way into a recording session in Berkeley featuring Jerry and his keyboardist of choice for his side projects, Merl Saunders. On other occasions I found myself backstage at a gig, usually at some club or other. The door was open and there were no bodyguards or aggressive roadies; we’d just walk in and make ourselves at home. No one was paranoid about those things at the time.
Then, in 1980, several years after that initial meeting, now working as a music journalist, I got a chance to hang out with Garcia again — this time as his interviewer. There’s the photo at your left, proof that I didn’t just dream it.
Related: Read the author’s 50-years-later Album Rewind of that NRPS album that Garcia played for him and his friend before it was released.
By the mid-’80s, the Dead had become so huge that it would have been next to impossible to simply show up at their office and think you could just hang out. But I’ve never forgotten that afternoon when a musician I truly admired was not only open to having a couple of fans dropping by, but seemed to be enjoying it as much as we were.
Listen to “I Don’t Know You” from the New Riders’ debut