There’s never been a band like the Grateful Dead, who called themselves the Warlocks when they began in the mid-’60s as the soundtrack to novelist Ken Kesey’s acid tests, hallucinogenic parties immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Always touring, always jamming through the decades, the Dead amassed a following unmatched in the history of rock music; fans who toured with the band, trading band-sanctioned bootleg tapes and making the Dead a way of life.
“It never gets old, man. It’s a privilege to be able to play music, to be a working musician and making a living at it and having the best time of your life and bringing all the good things that come with music to the people,” drummer Mickey Hart tells L.A. Weekly ahead of their L.A. date. “The band sounds terrific. We're at the height of our powers.”
After band leader Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995, subsequent lineups were anchored by core members, augmented with various other musicians, under names like The Other Ones, RatDog and Further.
The current iteration, Dead & Company, boasts original members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Hart, with John Mayer stepping into Jerry’s shoes, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and Oteil Burbridge taking over for original bassist, Phil Lesh.
Here, Mickey Hart recalls his first time meeting the Grateful Dead, their inauspicious Woodstock performance, chaos at the infamous Altamont Speedway concert and saying goodbye to Jerry Garcia.
L.A. Weekly: The Dead had been around for about a year when you first met them. How did you join the band?
Mickey Hart: I was a friend of Sonny Payne, who was drummer for Count Basie. I went down to see him at Basin Street West, and Bill (Kreutzmann) went down there as well. And there was this anonymous guy who came up and said, "Would you like to meet the drummer of the Grateful Dead?" I'd heard the name, I’d never heard the band. So I said, "Sure, why not?" So he introduced me to him and we were watching Sonny and we started talking and the next thing I knew we were walking through the city playing the city with drumsticks. We played on garbage cans, on bumpers, on street signs. We just played the city. It was really great.
And they invited you to join based on that?
We wound up at a little club called the Matrix where Janis Joplin was, and the Holding Company. And Sonny Payne came over and said, "I can’t listen to this." I said, "It's incredible, goodbye. This is where our friendship ends." The next thing I know he (Kreutzmann) asked me to come see them play and he asked me to sit in, and I did. The next day I woke up in his closet, where I spent a year.
You guys played Woodstock, but you’re not in the movie and you’re not on the record.
On the stage it was horrifying, it was panic. We just weren't ready for that. It was just so overwhelming. But also the bad drugs, people were taking who knows what and the stage was collapsing, too many people on the stage, and the singers were getting shocked. I remember coming off the stage and I said to Jerry (Garcia), "Wow! That was really bad!" He said, "Yeah, but you know, it won't affect our career." And I’m going, "Yeah, right on." We saw the footage years later. It wasn’t so bad. But we weren't in the moment there. Carlos (Santana) was in the moment, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, they were in the moment. It wasn't our day. We're famous for blowing the big ones, they say.
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And you were scheduled to play at Altamont four months later but never even took the stage.
That was another one of those, "It wasn’t our day." During the band who's supposed to go before you has somebody die and get killed and stabbed and murdered on that stage in front of you, that’s really a hard act to follow. Once that all went crazy, we were out of there. That was hell on Earth. That’s when free music in the park died, right there, just turned into chaos. It was a horrible scene.
And yet the band has thrived through the decades like no band before it.
You couldn’t have planned this. If you look at the arc of it all, we’ve been a part of a lot of the fabric of the last 50 years. You can’t predict that stuff, nor do you want to. And that’s some of the reason I love the Grateful Dead. It's a wonderful miracle that it happened.
Do you recall the last time you saw Jerry before his death in 1995?
There were a lot of last times and thoughts. It lasted for a long time because Jerry was sick for quite a while, so it wasn’t just like the last day. It was a gradual decline and the light just went out. In a sentence, that's kind of what happened.
Dead & Company play on Saturday, July 7, at Dodger Stadium.