Rock Scully and David Dalton on “The Band That Changed History”
Last night, longtime Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully lost his battle with lung cancer. He was 73. In August of 2005, Relix documented the ten year anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death. In that issue, Scully and David Dalton penned this piece about the early days of the Dead.
It was 1965 and Zeit Gus, the Time Troll, was very pleased with his accomplishments so far: the Pill, The Beatles, mini-skirts, hair, pot, transistors, LSD, FM radio, the Twist, and leopard-skin pill-box hats. But… his scaly project needed… something. Something that would push the stinking carcass of Western Civilization right over the edge. At that very moment he happened to be flapping his leathery wings over 710 Ashbury—and, YES!—he gloated, this might be the very thing to derail the great mindless freight train of the air-conditioned Amerikan nightmare. I mean, who would suspect that a bunch of bumbling, hairy, dope-smoking hippies could change the course of history?
I know, you probably think this is another hair-brained theory, cooked up by a couple of acid casualties (well, not hair-brained, anyway), but not so! Using the scientific method, we will provide irrefutable evidence for our hypothesis.
I first met the Dead at the Big Beat Club in Palo Alto. The occasion was one of Kesey’s famous Acid Tests. After drinking a Dixie cup of glowing Kool Aid, I tried making a cold, professional assessment of the group—while I still could.
Okay, there’s the lead singer, a paunchy Hell’s Angel type with dirty hair down to his tits and greasy leather vest covered with mojo pins (Pig Pen); there’s a Mexican guitar player with pyramid hair, a receding chin and a missing finger (Jerry Garcia); the bass player has a full Prince Valiant page boy do and glasses (Phil Lesh); there’s the startled long-haired child who could be a girl (Bob Weir); and then there’s a surly, juvenile delinquent on drums (Bill Kreutzmann).
A sorrier-looking bunch you never saw. Just frightening, actually. You know they’re never going to amount to anything. Just another local band getting gigs on Friday and Saturday night, playing dances in high school gymnasiums. They just don’t fit into any known concept of a rock ‘n’ roll band. And even putting the thorny dilemma of their look aside (what look?), what is the connection between these guys? They seem to be from entirely different movies. It is such a freaky mix. The kind of random sample of unregenerate human types you’d find in a police lineup, say, or a Greyhound terminal waiting room. I actually feel sorry for them. Plus the Dead are not hip and they’re never going to be; they are just too goofy—there is no way they are ever going to radiate that razor-blade cool of, say, the early Stones. Eventually, of course, these guys would become enlightened cosmonauts, the tribal elders of the Haight, but this was still the early days.
Before 1965, change arrived with glacial slowness. This is a time when people still have black and white TVs, AC is hard to get—and so are the girls! Your toaster looks like a space ship and your oven is an Oldsmobile. This is the slow time. In comparison, the late ‘60s happened at the speed of light.
We are all young and ready to go crazy, and there never was a better time for it than in mid-‘60s San Francisco. Everything erupting all at once. In a matter of six months— with the coming of acid and electric music—our lives are transformed utterly. And that’s the weird thing about metamorphosis—not many people had tried it, but soon everybody in the world wanted to try it, and the Dead were the shaggy shamans of the Lysergic Church of the Intergalactic Space Dogs. Leary was telling the multitudes, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” the Dead’s mantra was, “Plug in, freak out, fall down.”
We are running on pure high-octane optimism and Owsley acid. The band (except for Pig Pen—booze) [most people know this but maybe we just want to spell it out?] usually plays on acid, too. What would be the point of being straight at an Acid Test? Like everybody else involved with the Acid Tests we believe LSD is a cosmic truth serum, but after a couple of dozen trips we soon learn that acid is not infallible (especially about stuff like gravity), and, as interesting as playing music on acid is, there are some serious drawbacks. Sets can go on interminably or end abruptly after a few minutes. It doesn’t take me long to spot the signs. In Garcia’s face I see a sudden, silent intercortical scream building at the back of the eyes and through the telekenetic mind-link I can hear it’s alien cry: Aaaaaaaaaagh!!! I know it’s happened. They’ve arrived. Things. Tiny monkies, gibbering guitar picks, Barbies with the faces of Mexican santos, bats flying up through the floor and getting tangled in their hair.
The music takes a sudden lurch. It gets all loose and wobbly. Billy may be banging away furiously, sweating, trying to keep on time, Pig may be hitting those chords—but it’s hopeless. They’ve become a phantom band. The beats are there, but Jerry isn’t. You can see his hands melting before his eyes, his fingers dribbling down his guitar into waxy puddles. At a certain point Jerry stops playing altogether. He holds his hands out in front of him as if folding an invisible newspaper, awestruck by the fact that he has fingers.
Right then I call for a break. Scully lecture #1.
“This is not a rehearsal, guys. You cannot wander off stage in search of a plumed serpent. You cannot just quit after five minutes and lie down on the godforsaken stage.”
“Fuck, Rock, lighten up. It’s only an Acid Test, man.”
“It’s not just an Acid Test, it’s a gig. We’re selling tickets, you guys! People paying. Must play.”
“We’re at a gig?” Smartass Weir.
Oh, yeah, I was going to tell you how the Dead changed history, wasn’t I? Well, first we needed some help, serious help, extraterrestrial help, as a matter of fact. One day we were all in Griffith Park in L.A. and all of us—as a single multiphrenic organism—began to feel something strange. It couldn’t be the drugs because as we know acid cleanses the mind, makes you see things more clearly. At first we suspect it’s the power lines, but… Owsley has a better theory.
“Listen, he says. “Our solar system and all the surrounding galaxies are undergoing stress on a grand scale as the universe itself has to pass through the eye of a needle. That squeeze you feel is real. But it’s not from power lines, it’s from space! We’re approaching total compaction. We’re in the intergalactic grip of the Cosmic Squeeze!”
Well, yeah, Bear, maybe… But it is something. Something galactic and… imminent. But right now the solar wind is blowing, our hands are turning kirillian blue and an aureole of orange mist is forming around the dome of the observatory.
We are—could it be any clearer—in an alien presence. We can feel it. It’s the force field of a spacecraft, drawing us in, extracting our thoughts. Good luck…
“Fuck, you know I saw a flying saucer this morning,” Rosie says, as if reading our minds.
“Yeah, hovering over Griffith Observatory.”
Seems the mother ship has telepathically communicated that the extraterrestrials are here because of the powerlines. A sort of reverse cause-and-effect thing, but with aliens who can figure? We are all so high it’s an easy head to get into. We spend the whole afternoon on the lookout for alien spacecraft. We have now convinced ourselves that they have landed in our vicinity. Our combined energy has called them in. Definitely. They have come to see us.
At one point we’re all sitting, huddled under a scraggly tree trying to get out of the sun and suddenly here comes Rosie running down the hill screaming hysterically.
“It’s about time,” says Jerry. “Are they holding?”
“They’re on that ridge up there and—God, it’s so horrible. . . .”
“What, Rosie?” Phil asks, hugging her. “What is it?”
“You’ll see,” she says ominously.
We scramble up to the top of the hill and peer over. There they are—a bemused middle-aged couple walking their dog. He in madras bermudas and baseball cap, she in a print dress and cardigan sweater, a pair of fiendish world-demolishing aliens taking their habitual late-afternoon stroll in the park.
Rosie bursts into tears. “They look just like our parents!”
Perhaps it’s just co-incidence—as if there is such a thing—or was it that Close Encounter of the Weird Kind that led to the next development in the neocortical evolution of mankind? You tell me.