It is 40 years since the Grateful Dead — the ultimate tribal hippie band — brought their psychedelic Americana to Europe for a first tour of the continent. Underground legend Mick Farren filed this heady report for International Times in April '72——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
"The trouble with a lot of kids who come to our concerts is that they can't see beyond the drugs. They get so ripped that the music doesn't really matter."
For six years the legend of the acid-test band has lingered. The Dead, the band to take drugs to. And, true to form, the British Dead freaks all but filled the great cavern of Wembley Pool, with the joints a-going and the whisky passing round, and, with the billboard for the National Country Music Festival still on the front of the building and associations of recent T.Rextasy strong in mind, the concert they saw was probably a unique event.
"Just folks, that's all we can relate to. The songs we play are our history. The American West." — Pigpen
"Until some new divine inspiration, some flash; comes that is all we can do, play our music and seek a oneness with the people who are listening." — Bob Weir
And that was exactly what they did: they played music for almost three hours, standing, nodding in time, without theatre or histrionics, almost waist-deep in monitor speakers. A group of men doing the job that they really enjoy, and ranging across a spectrum of music that anyone in the audience must have grown up with; with Pigpen standing quietly putting 'Big Boss Man' through' a version both loyal to — and at the same time a long way from — either Jimmy Reed or the gold-jacket boys who borrowed it from him.
"Three of us have given up drugs. It became worrying — we were burning out our brain cells and so were the people in the audience, strung-out thirteen year olds outside the Fillmore East " — Bob Weir
Despite that, the pipe went round in the hotel room and the big cigarettes were produced on stage, and the triumphal first half ending with 'Casey Jones' was treated as an anthem rather than a warning, repeating the chorus over and over with Joe's Lights projecting the lyrics on to the back stage screen, and lacking only a bouncing spot to give it the full seaside-concert party, pier pavilion atmosphere.
"The main thing is getting off behind the music." — Pigpen
It is hard to talk about a band that one moment is being led by Garcia to sounds that are a part of pink padded tunnels that spiral down through the back byways of consciousness, and, moments later, follows Bob Weir, breaking into the John Wayne jukebox reality of Marty Robbins' 'El Paso' — "One day a wild young cowboy came in, wild as wild Texas wind."
You suddenly get a flash on shared history: as Bob Weir leads on 'Down the Line', you know that at fifteen he stood in front of a mirror and tried to look like Elvis, the same as the rest of you did, or listening to Garcia you see a kid who practiced copying the Mid-West nasal whine of the young Bob Dylan. The shared flash a oneness through their music that is instantly earthy and spiritually high.
"California is at one time, paradise and a battleground." — Phil Lesh
The sadness of seeing the Dead for the first time is that the logistics of bringing them to England prevented the Wembley audience from sharing totally the seven-year evolution that produced the music they were hearing, as the band grinned happily as a pocket of freaks lit sparklers, or, between songs, asked anyone who couldn't hear well to shout "NO". The charisma is still there, so evident in the gang of freeloaders trying to get a piece of Grateful Dead energy at the after-show reception.
It would have been nice to have grown up with the acid-test band, particularly as there is the sneaking suspicion that if the first London acid had been dropped watching them rather than cerebrally isolating the Pink Floyd, we might be a stronger community.
© Mick Farren, 1972
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