BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
December 30, 2015
DEAD & COMPANY | LOS ANGELES, DECEMBER 2015 | PRELUDE: FROM THE WATTS TOWERS TO THE FABULOUS FORUM
Of all the surprising things that happened in the world of the Grateful Dead this year, the fact that the version of the band trading as Dead & Co. would choose to ring in the new year with a pair of shows in Los Angeles might be right up there with the biggest ones. It’s been my home base now for over 13 years, and by now it’s definitely home, but for the most part it's never been a major stopping point for the Grateful Dead.
In many ways the Grateful Dead were the quintessential San Francisco band, the unintended-but-oops-it-happened-anyway musical standard-bearers for the rival Californian city from the north, and one of the only cities whose creative output over the last 50 years can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with L.A. However, nearly everything about the Grateful Dead as people and a creative entity was totally antithetical to Los Angeles. Every original member of the Dead was actually a Bay Area native as opposed to a transplant, and the band’s formation was completely organic, done without regard for careerist purposes, and with little to no knowledge of the music business or how it worked, or how one might make a living in it. Despite all that, the city of Los Angeles ended up playing a significant role in the band’s early development. At this point, I need to credit Dennis McNally’s “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History Of The Grateful Dead” as my source for the following L.A. (back) stories:
By late 1965 the band were playing the legendary “Acid Tests” in the Bay Area, which were essentially get-togethers where all attendees (including the band) took LSD and hung out all night, during a short time when it was actually legal to do this. It didn’t take long for word of this to reach Owsley Stanley, the maker of the world’s best LSD, a lover of music, and a crazed, doctrinaire pioneer in search of many of the same things as the band. Soon Owsley and the band decided their interests were mutual enough to try living together in Los Angeles, and a decision to move soon followed. Owsley bankrolled the entire project and rented a communal house in the Watts section of Los Angeles, with the band also thinking that they might be able to make some inroads into the music industry while there.
It didn’t go nearly as well as everyone hoped. The house was a more stressful environment than expected, not least for for the female partners of band members. Owsley also insisted that all residents eat only steak and drink only milk, and the band made no real inroads with the Los Angeles music industry, primarily because they never really tried. After a couple of acid tests and only a couple of paid gigs later, the band returned to San Francisco to stay.
However, there was one pivotal moment during this time that galvanized the Grateful Dead’s future. The Watts Acid Test, staged just after their arrival, was the most significant event during their time in L.A., mostly for the wrong reasons: the acid made for the event was so strong that most attendees tripped way too hard to enjoy it. It also didn’t help that the event was staged in a dusty warehouse in Compton, and it helped even less when the police found out what was going on and ringed the event with sawhorses and officers wielding billy clubs. It became an event to survive instead of enjoy - even legendary Prankster Neal Casady was so messed up he couldn’t drive for hours, but eventually he did slowly drive Grateful Dead lead guitarist and reluctant leader Jerry Garcia back to the house in Watts sometime in the early hours. During that drive something very important happened, and at this point I’ll leave the words to Mr. McNally, because he’s already said it best:
“When they passed the Watts Towers, a peculiar local artistic monument to junk sculpture, Garcia had an epiphany. The Towers was the work of one person, Simon Rodia, and it was concrete, which is to say material. Early on February 13, Sunday morning coming down, nerves shredded by a grueling night, he gazed at the Towers and came to several conclusions. One was that material artifacts me no sense to him; whatever art he could participate in would have to be intangible, something that left behind only memories. In other words, music. And it had to be a group effort. The individual artist, as epitomized in Rodia or even more extremely in Neal Casady, wasn’t going to work for Garcia. Neal was his own brilliant, if demented, artist, and his own product as well. But he was also isolated. Something “dynamic” had a chance, Garcia thought, something cooperative but leaderless, and operating in real time, in the present moment. “This isn’t strictly recreational,” he decided. “This is really important. And that’s when I started paying attention.”
And now almost 50 years later, Dead & Company, the current incarnation of the band Garcia co-founded have returned to play shows just 9 short miles from the site of that revelation, complete with a bona fide pop star standing in for the man who transitioned to the great beyond in 1995. It’s an oddly L.A. sort of twist to the saga, and a twist one that no one could reasonably have ever predicted. But I’ll take it, and so will many others. Let’s get on with the shows.