Interview by Joe Smith
Jerry Garcia was interviewed by phone on May 23, 1988. At the time, Joe was writing Off the Record–his oral history of rock and roll. Joe interviewed more than 240 music artists and executives from 1986-88.
In 2012, Joe donated a trove of 238 hours of interviews on cassette tapes to the Library of Congress. Listen to the Joe’s full interview catalog here.
The Animated Transcript
Joe Smith was a longtime record executive and one-time radio DJ.
So when the band finally fell into place as The Warlocks it was basically what was the Grateful Dead.
Absolutely. Kreutzmann. Me, Phil…
Pig and Bobby, huh?
And what did it sound like?
It sounded like hell. It sounded really awful for the first few gigs [LAUGHS].
Was it The Warlocks very long before you became the Dead?
About a year.
And what triggered the new identity?
Well we finally discovered that there was a band that was recording using the name Warlocks. We thought: “oh, shit, we can’t have that kind of confusion.” So we went on the band hunt, you know, looking for a name.
The name came from whom? Who dug it up?
Well I found it in an old dictionary at Phil’s house. I just opened it up and there I saw “the Grateful Dead.”
Jesus. You could have been… could you imagine what would have happened: the Warlockheads. The dictionary changed society.
It absolutely did. Yes, it did.
That was about the time we fell in with the acid tests with Kesey and those guys. We had starting taking acid ourselves while we were still The Warlocks. We didn’t do it at shows. At the time we were playing the divorcees’ bars up and down the peninsula. You know. Our booking agent was this guy who used to book strippers and dog acts and magicians and everybody else. It was the standard gig: six nights a week, five sets a night. Standard bar stuff. We were doing that for about a year. And, you know, after that you’re ready for anything.
We knew a lot of the people in Kesey’s scene, because it was all part of the Palo Alto scene, which we were a part of. And they knew of us. The one guy, named Paige, who was one of the Pranksters, came to one of our late night sets at one of the bar’s we were playing at.
He said: “Hey, you guys, we’re having these parties up at Kesey’s place in La Honda [California] every Saturday night, why don’t you guys come?” I said: “well, we’re working all the time.”
Luckily the following week we got fired. And we had nothing to do. So Saturday night came around. We went to the first one of those parties, which later became the Acid Tests.
What did you do there? It was just experimenting?
No. We just set up the equipment. Everybody got high. And stuff would happen. Now Kesey and his Pranksters have been doing this for a long time, so they had instruments and they played weird music. But mostly it was completely free. There was no real performance of any kind involved. Everybody there was as much performer as audience. You know.
These guys had never been confronted with a regular rock and roll band, you know. And we plugged our gear in which looked like space age, military nightmare stuff. Compared to all their stuff, which was all hand painted and real funky you know.
And WHAM, we played for about five minutes. Then we all freaked out. You know. We played for about five minutes, but it completely devastated everyone. So they begged us to come back to the next one. And that’s how it happened essentially.
When you guys now you’re doing some acid, you were playing around. What did you expect to be? Were you going to be a Beatles? Were you going to be a great rock n roll… what were you going to do?
We didn’t really care whether we went somewhere specifically. We mostly wanted to have fun. And when we fell in with the acid tests we a started having the most fun we’d ever had ever. More than than we could have ever….. I mean it was just incredible.
And how long did that go on?
For about six months. But that was probably the most important six months in terms of directionality. Because the neat thing about the acid tests was we could play if we wanted to. But if it was too weird, we could always not play. So that was the only time we ever had the option of not playing.
I think The Grateful Dead kind of represents the spirit of being able to go out and have an adventure in America at large. You know what I mean? You can go out and follow the Grateful Dead around. And you have your war stories. Something like hopping railroads. Something like that. Or being on the road like Cassidy and Kerouac.
But you can’t do those types of things anymore. But you can be a Deadhead. You can get in your van and go with the other Deadheads across the States and meet it on your own terms. Sort of a niche for it, in a way.
Discovering The Dead
Joe Smith signed the Dead in 1967 while at Warner Brothers. He recalled a conversation he had with the band about an upcoming album:
“[The band] came up with the artwork and brought it down to a big meeting with all of our people. And the title was ‘Skull Fuck. I said, ‘I think we’re going to have a little problem with that … You worked all this time. You’ll sell 20 records in head shops, and they won’t pay you.’ So they said, ‘OK, what do you want to call it?’ I said, ‘Live/Dead.’ And that one sold about 600,000 double albums.”
Smith worked with the band during their first six albums with Warner Bros. and even sent them to New York to record after they were barred from the LA studios.
“It was a trip for eight, nine years with the Grateful Dead … They did so much acid that it was very hard to separate reality from make-believe with them.”
Jerry Garcia was always trying to get Smith to join in.
“Jerry said, ‘You’ll never understand the music until you turn on with us.’ I wouldn’t breathe around them. Wouldn’t drink anything. Wouldn’t eat anything,” Smith remembers, laughing.
“Cream Puff War”
“Friend of the Devil”