The Grateful Dead – The Grateful Dead
Released March 17th, 1967 on Warner Bros. Records
Originally, the blitzed-out script at the top of the album cover read “In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is drawn by the Grateful Dead.” It’s a piece of a much longer quote from the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, and it’s not where the band got their name from. Jerry Garcia was playing a game involving a dictionary; it fell open to a certain place and the word divide across the crack read “grateful dead”. It’s a much less mystical origin story but the band was always a lot less mystical than anyone seems to want to mythologize. The old acidheads can argue on about the magic power of togetherness and the importance of drug culture; the Dead wanted to have a good time, and that was their great power. They wanted to have a good time and therefore so did you. As such, their debut reflects this desire. “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” sounds really mystical and sublime, but the song is a party song through and through, right down to the directives in the second verse and the “hey heys” that mark out the chorus. “Beat It On Down The Line” is definitive proof that the Dead are at their heart a dance band, and the inclusion of strutting blues standard “Good Morning Little School Girl” doesn’t do anything to dispel this notion. The entire album is a hint to the sort of chooglin boogie the Dead would trade in throughout their career, underneath all of the tie-dye, patchouli-scented, patchwork panted, VW bus-driving, crunchy, groovy, granular, granola-munching fan mythology. This being the early days, the band is still finding it’s footing on their debut; everything is a bit too “psychedelicized”, if that makes sense. It’s a pure product of San Francisco, 1967, Summer of Love and the flow of LSD – bluesy, but more freewheeling, like Janis Joplin’s Big Brother if they were actually really good musicians. At the same time, there are better blues albums from the time – pick any Cream album – and as such it was much bigger in San Francisco proper, among people who’d actually seen them live, than on any national scale.
To be honest, it’s impressive that the recordings are as down-to-earth as they are. The band named themselves while smoking DMT and played their first gig at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Their initial recording spaces, rehearsal house, and equipment were bankrolled by Owsley Stanley, the man who made all of Ken Kesey’s LSD. It was also the West Coast in 1967 and as such the sheer amount of marijuana being consumed at the time in addition to all of the other drugs could have driven the band completely off the rails into art-drone trash. As such, it’s a testament to just how utterly great the Dead are that they managed to turn in such a tight record, even if it didn’t adequately capture the band’s captivating live performances. The real classics here are “Morning Dew”, which features a high, keening squiggle and some stately chords that probably sound thrilling at twilight (the recent National cover on their broad-minded tribute album was also stellar, incidentally) and “Viola Lee Blues”, which shows off the lengthy jamming that the Dead were even then known for.
By the way, does anyone else catch a sort of Star-Burns vibe from Jerry on the album cover?