Psychedelic Nights: The Story of The Grateful Dead

Staff Writer Hannah Johnson  

The Grateful Dead was an American rock band formed in 1965 in Palo Alto, California. Ranging from quintet to septet, the band is known for its unique and eclectic style, which fused elements of rock, psychedelia, experimental music, modal jazz, country, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, and space rock. They have a very dedicated fan base that still keeps the band’s legacy alive, called “dead heads”. 


This here, is one of Grateful Dead’s most famous imagery, the mix of something very beautiful (roses) and something scary (skeletons) really pulls people in and makes them want more!


The band was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area amid the rise of the counterculture of the 1960s. The founding members were Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (keyboards, harmonica, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), and Bill Kreutzmann (drums).  Members of the Grateful Dead had played together in various San Francisco bands, including Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and the Warlocks. Lesh was the last member to join the Warlocks before they became the Grateful Dead; he replaced Dana Morgan Jr., who had played bass for a few gigs. Drummer Mickey Hart and nonperforming lyricist Robert Hunter joined in 1967. With the exception of McKernan, who died in 1973, and Hart, who took time off from 1971 to 1974, the core of the band stayed together for its entire 30-year history. “If I’m being honest here, I have never even listened to any of their music, but their aesthetic with the colorful bears looks cool”- Cameron Stone, Woodstock High school junior. 


The Grateful Dead were masters at putting on amazing shows, they reel in  the crowd with their 20 minute jams, mixed with the psychedelic scream of the guitar.


  Their first show was at Magoo’s Pizza located at 639 Santa Cruz Avenue in suburban Menlo Park, California, on May 5, 1965. They were initially known as the Warlocks; coincidentally, the Velvet Underground (similarly influenced by avant-garde music) was also using that name on the East Coast. The show was not recorded but the set list has been preserved. Gigging as a bar band, the group quickly changed its name after finding out that another band of the same name (not the Velvet Underground, who by then had also changed their name) had signed a recording contract. The first show under the new name Grateful Dead was in San Jose, California on December 4, 1965, at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Earlier demo tapes have survived, but the first of over 2,000 concerts known to have been recorded by the band’s fans was a show at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on January 8, 1966. Later that month, the Grateful Dead played at the Trips Festival, an early psychedelic rock concert. “Back in the day, me and my buddies would always jam out to The Grateful Dead in my car driving through the city…man those were some of the best nights.”- Mr. Wright, owner of “The Wright Stuff” collectables store in downtown Woodstock. 

The name “Grateful Dead” was chosen from a dictionary. According to Phil Lesh, in his autobiography, “… Jerry Garcia picked up an old Britannica Dictionary … and … In that silvery elf-voice he said to me, ‘Hey, man, how about the Grateful Dead?'” The definition there was “the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial.” According to Alan Trist, director of the Grateful Dead’s music publisher company Ice Nine, Garcia found the name in the Funk & Wagnalls Folklore Dictionary, when his finger landed on that phrase while playing a game of Fictionary. In the Garcia biography, Captain Trips, author Sandy Troy states that the band was smoking the psychedelic DMT at the time. The termgrateful dead” appears in folktales of a variety of cultures. In mid-1969, Phil Lesh told another version of the story to Carol Maw, a young Texan visiting with the band in Marin County who also ended up going on the road with them to the Fillmore East and Woodstock. In this version, Phil said, “Jerry found the name spontaneously when he picked up a dictionary and the pages fell open. The words ‘grateful’ and ‘dead’ appeared straight opposite each other across the crack between the pages in unrelated text.” “These dudes were the epitome of psychedelic rock, although they were more famous for their little parties than their actual music.”- Leonard Henderson, fellow rock enthusiast. 


Even our own local shops here in Woodstock enjoy the band! This is a hand painted Grateful Dead suitcase with the iconic dancing bears on the front. Courtesy of  our favorite quirky hippies at Blue Frog Imports downtown,


 One of the group’s earliest major performances in 1967 was the Mantra-Rock Dance—a musical event held on January 29, 1967, at the Avalon Ballroom by the San Francisco Hare Krishna temple. The Grateful Dead performed at the event along with the Hare Krishna founder Bhakti Vedanta Swami, poet Allen Ginsberg, bands Moby Grape and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, donating proceeds to the Krishna temple. The band’s first LP, The Grateful Dead, was released on Warner Brothers in 1967.1970 included tour dates in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the band performed at The Warehouse for two nights. On January 31, 1970, the local police raided their hotel on Bourbon Street, and arrested and charged a total of 19 people with possession of various drugs. The second night’s concert was performed as scheduled after bail was posted. Eventually the charges were dismissed, with the exception of those against sound engineer Owsley Stanley, who was already facing charges in California for manufacturing LSD. This event was later memorialized in the lyrics of the song “Truckin'”, a single from American Beauty which reached number 64 on the charts. 


Blue Frog ceases to amaze us with all of their hand painted “dead head” treasures!



Unfortunately for all “dead heads” out there, Jerry Garcia died in August 1995 and the remaining band members decided to disband. Since that time, there have been a number of reunions by the surviving members involving various combinations of musicians. Additionally, the former members have also begun or continued their individual projects. ” It was a sad day when Jerry died, The Grateful Dead was one of my al-l time favorites. I used to just lay back in my bed all day and jam out to their tunes.”- Joseph Tobin, fellow “dead head”.  

-Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
-Photo courtesy of Carleigh Ellison.


  1. I think I’ll go check this band out now, they seem pretty neat.

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