Thursday, July 30, 2009
A Tribute to The Warlocks
Long time no see faithful viewers. We come to you now with an early infatuation of ours here at Nitro-Retro. The first incarnation of The Grateful Dead. The Warlocks were true punks in their own time, scaring the hell out of people when they walked down the street together. Proudly sporting long-as-hell hair, chicken bone necklaces, iron cross pendants, black leather boots, and probably stinking like they hadn't bathed in days. These early recordings represent the first sounds they layed down. My favorites being "Can't Come Down" and "Mindbender". It's always amazed me that the 'Garage/Psych' community has never really acknowledged these recordings, fully represented on the highly recommended "Birth of The Dead" CD. Their first 1965 Autumn Records sessions, made when they were known as "The Emergency Crew", were not released at the time, but give a clue as to what was going on in the great pre-Summer of Love Haight-Ashbury scene.
They would play to more people than any performing act in history, but at their first concert the musicians who two weeks earlier had been called The Warlocks had trouble persuading the promoter even to put their new name on the bill. Bill Graham had invited them to play December 10, 1965, at the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco, but their new name “gave him the creeps.” The group begged and placated, and finally Graham relented. The new name went on the posters, with “formerly The Warlocks” in place of a group photo. So it was that, exactly 40 years ago today, the newly dubbed Grateful Dead played the first of more than 3,000 concerts.
Their original incarnation was as "Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions", formed in San Francisco in 1963 by the banjoist Jerry Garcia, guitarist Bob Weir, and keyboardist and harmonica player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. They “played anyplace that would hire a jug band,” Garcia said, “which was almost no place, and that’s the whole reason we finally got into electric stuff.” Adding a bassist, Phil Lesh, and a drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, they became the Warlocks. A new sound came with the new name, as Garcia recalled: “The minute we get electric instruments it’s a rock & roll band.”
On November 27, 1965, author Ken Kesey & his 'Merry Pranksters' threw the first acid test, an all-night house party with light shows, tape-loop sound effects, and plenty of LSD, which had not yet been outlawed. The Warlocks, who first met Ken Kesey through a friend of Lesh’s, attended, and as Lesh later wrote, ”It ended up being just like every other acid party—people getting high and doing pretty much what they wanted. . . . The energy was too spread out. It seemed as though some kind of focus was needed to transform diffuse individual energies into coherent collectives. Clearly, music was the answer.”
So when partygoers conducted their experiments at the next acid test, on December 4, the group provided the soundtrack. They became Kesey’s house band, and the Pranksters, the original hippies, now became the original Deadheads. The acid tests formed the blueprint for all future Dead shows. The line between performer and audience, star and event, swirled like everything seemed to at Kesey’s parties and remained indistinct even as the band morphed into a professional touring act. Free-form improvisation, through which the band glorified the experience of the present moment that was so vivid at the tests, became the Dead’s signature.
A few weeks earlier, Lesh, browsing the racks at a local record store, had found a single by another group called the Warlocks. Never quite satisfied with the name anyway, the group brainstormed for days in search of a new one. Kreutzmann suggested “the Vikings,” Weir “His Own Sweet Advocates,” Garcia “Mythical Ethical Icicle Tricycle.” None stuck until the band pored over Lesh’s reference books one afternoon. While Lesh paged through Bartlett’s, Garcia opened the Funk & Wagnall’s dictionary and poked his finger at a random spot. “Everything else on the page went blank,” he recalled, “diffuse, just sorta oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD, big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination.” Lesh remembers “jumping up and down, shouting, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’” Others were not so pleased. Weir found it morbid, and of course Bill Graham thought it creepy enough to put off his Fillmore audience.
Bill Graham was wrong. By 9:30 p.m. on December 10, the ticket line circled the block two abreast. The show, which also featured the Jefferson Airplane (as well as acts destined for less eminence, like the Great Society and the Mystery Trend), was a benefit to raise money for the leftist, avant-garde San Francisco Mime Troupe. The Dead played in a hall decorated at either end with signs bearing the word “Love” in three-foot letters. Owsley Stanley, the chemist who almost single-handedly supplied San Francisco with acid in the mid-1960s, sat in the audience. The Dead “scared me to death,” he said. “Garcia’s guitar terrified me. I had never before heard that much power. That much thought. That much emotion. I thought to myself, ‘These guys could be bigger than the Beatles.’” Rock Scully, the band’s future manager, concurred: “We’d never seen anybody play like that before. Jerry was lifting the roof. Of course, we were slightly stoned.” Scully and his friends weren’t alone. “I’m absolutely sure Jerry was tripping, too,” Scully said. “Every now and then, he’d look down at his guitar and I though he was seeing some kind of monster. He was all surprised. Looking over at his hand down the neck of his guitar like ‘Wait a minute. Where is the end of this thing?’”