I have some really fond memories of the Grateful Dead, and of going to shows during my college years, when I was indulging in many of the indulgences for which Deadheads are known. Only I can’t really remember the shows themselves. I just know I went there. That’s probably why Deadheads would bring pen and paper to the shows, and write down each song as it began, and compare set lists in the parking lot after the show. They also indulged, and had little hopes of remembering the little details, like which songs they heard ten minutes ago.
I jest, a little. I do know the first song I heard the Dead play live was “Jack Straw,” and that first show also included, “Touch of Gray.” And I remember that they played Drums and Space at every show I saw, but that’s a cop-out, because they played Drums and Space at every show, period.
I had some great times at the shows, even when I didn’t get in. The parking lot parties, with the drum circles, guitars, and wares being sold on Shakedown Street; the smell of incense and herbs; and the giant PSHHHT! sound of punching balloons being filled with laughing gas (Nitrous Oxide, of just Nitrus, or “Hippie Crack”). Good times.
My favorite period of the Grateful Dead ended before my first show, with the passing of Brent Mydland. Brent was their third keyboard player, and a great singer / songwriter. I’ll talk about him more in a few letters. Their first keyboard player, Pigpen, died in the early 70s from stomach complications brought on by excessive drinking. Pigpen was Janis Joplin’s main squeeze. She also died from alcoholism.
Their second keyboard player was Keith Godchaux, who preferred piano (Pigpena and Mydland played the Hammond Organ, primarily), and whose wife Donna sang backup. I really don’t like Donna’s backing vocals, so I rate her tenure during the latter 70s as my least favorite Dead era. Don't get me wrong, I still like the music from that time, I just like it less.
By the time I attended shows, they were rotating between Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick on keys. Both very suitable players, but neither had Mydland’s soulful voice.
And, in case you didn’t know but were curious, the name comes from a phrase in a folklore dictionary, and Grateful Dead means, "the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial."