Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Tag: chuck berry

When A Blind Faith Takes Your Hand

This is either the 23rd or 24th of March, 1968. Traffic was playing at the Fillmore and Winterland that weekend, and they set up their gear for a free show in front of the local hippie-run FM station; Garcia dropped by to jam. (I DARE you to find a sentence more 1960’s than the one I just wrote. I dare you, motherfucker.) Garcia brought Mickey, and Mickey brought his stupid hat.

Anyway, you can go read the story on Hooterollin’ Around. I know it posted it yesterday, but fuck it: I was just that entertained by this well-researched and deeply strange post. Besides the free gigs in front of radio stations, and the famous flatbed truck show during the Haight Street Fair, and the Disneyland gig (!), there was this:

In a better, purer world, the Dead served as Chuck Berry’s backup band those nights. Well, they did for the first night.

A Partial and Loose Timeline of the Weekend the Grateful Dead was Chuck Berry’s Band:

  • A month before the show, Bill Graham hires the Dead for the gig, giving them a list of Chuck’s songs and a pep talk about rehearsing and show biz and then he and Phil started yelling at one another.
  • The Dead do not learn any of the songs.
  • The night of the show, Chuck Berry arrives alone in a rented Cadillac ten minutes before curtain time.
  • Bill Graham pays him in cash.
  • He exits the Cadillac.
  • With five minutes until lights up, half the Dead is almost ready; the rest are missing, too high to function, or wrist-deep in skank.
  • Bill Graham corrals the Grateful Dead, much like a border collie with sheep, but if the sheep were surly and sarcastic.
  • There is a crisis: Billy cannot get his hand out of the skank.
  • The crisis is averted: a sneeze is induced in the skank and everything opens right up.
  • The Dead take their places.
  • Chuck Berry enters.
  • “Why the fuck are there so many people up here?”
  • “Hi, Mr. Berry. I’m Bob.”
  • “Shut the fuck up.”
  • Chuck Berry says “Maybelline in E flat.”
  • The Dead play Johnny B. Goode in G.
  • Chuck Berry calls out “No Particular Place To Go” in A flat.
  • The Dead play Johnny B. Goode in G.
  • This is the point at which the fistfight broke out.
  • The Flaming Groovies were called into service for the second set, and the following two nights.

Anything You Want, We Got It Right Here In The U.S.A.

Some folks want real fucked-up shit, though.

And You Will Be The Leader Of A Big Old Band

“Get off the seat, schmuck! Yes, you. The schmuck I’m pointing at. Why would you stand on my seats? I don’t come to your house and stand on your mother. Get down or I’m gonna find out where you live and jump up and down on your mother’s chest like a gorilla, I swear to God. You stand on my seats? How DARE you! After all that Bill Graham does for the community, for the fans, for this rock and roll music that we all love so much, you stand on my seats?

“Better. Okay, we got some announcements before the J. Geils Band comes on. They’re just great, very high-energy, fantastic look, you’re gonna love ’em. Tee-shirts are available in the lobby. Next week we’ll be featuring Iron Butterfly, and maybe they’ll be better than last time. Nice guys, terrible band. Boom boom boom, who gives a shit? Music to take ‘ludes to. We put on the acts the kids want, so they’ll play here, but they’re just snooze time for me, y’know?

“Now, Chuck Berry? That’s the other end of the spectrum. Musically? The best, no peer, you can’t touch him. He’s Chuck Berry, y’know? Without him, you’re still playing jazz. In my opinion? The King. Forget Elvis, that pinky-dicked hillbilly. You got Little Richard, and you got Jerry Lee, but above all of them is Chuck. Top of the pyramid.

“And the biggest pain in the ass you’re ever gonna meet. We’ve presented him a number of times, starting back in ’67. I always asked the acts, ‘Who do you wanna see?’ and they always said the same thing. ‘Naked girls.’ And then I would say, ‘No, putz. Musically! Musically!’ And always the same answer: Chuck Berry. Fine, so I’m gonna book Chuck Berry.

“No manager. No agent, booking guy, whatever. You gotta call Chuck direct. I get his number.

“‘Chuck, this is Bill Graham. I’m a promoter in San Francisco blah blah blah.’ I give him the whole sales pitch and he says,

“‘How much?’

“I tell him $600. This is ’67. That’s good money for a show.


“I say ‘$700.’

“Nothing. Don’t even hear him breathing.

“I say ‘$800’ and Chuck says,

“‘What night?’

“I tell him the night, and he goes,

“‘I need a band, a Cadillac, and three white women.’ and hangs up the phone.

“Shit, I can do that. First, I need a band to back up the great Chuck Berry. I was gonna call the Dead, but they didn’t even know their own songs at that point, and I was pretty sure they would scare the shit out of Chuck. I booked them to open, anyway. Then, I called the Jefferson Airplane but I got in a screaming match with Paul Kantner and I told him to go fuck himself. I tried the Flaming Groovies, but they were booked that night.

“Finally, I called up Stevie Miller. He was always around, and he would work cheap. I gave him the whole shpiel, what an honor it was to back up Chuck, rock and roll legend, yadda yadda. Pretty little putz bought it hook, line, and sinker. Got a band for $20 and a couple cases of beer. They’re gonna learn all the songs, wonderful.

“Afternoon of the show, I send the white women to the airport in Chuck’s Cadillac. Couple hours go by. No Chuck. I call the airline. Plane landed, no problem. But no Chuck. I’m shvitzing here.

“‘Play longer,’ I tell the Dead. They were fine with that. Instead of playing the songs for twenty minutes, they played them for a half-hour. They’re real pros.

“Finally–finally!–here comes Chuck up Post Street in the Cadillac with the three white women, two of whom are dead.

“Chuck! Did you kill the white women?’ I yelled at him.

“Chuck gets out of the Cadillac, he’s carrying his guitar case. No luggage, nothing. Just him and his guitar and a Cadillac and three white women, two of whom are dead. Says nothing, just holds out his hand. I give him the check. Chuck looks at the check, back at me, at the check. Opens up his hand and the check drops to the ground. Gets back in the Cadillac, stares straight ahead. Says one word.


“It’s ten o’clock at night in a bad neighborhood in 1967. Where am I gonna get a thousand dollars from? I run back into Winterland. I gotta go by the stage, and Phil Lesh yells at me as I pass that they’re running out of material. I make a mental note to scream at him in Yiddish later, but first I gotta get a thousand bucks in cash.

“I got two hundred, something like that, so I shake down everyone who works for me. I give ’em IOU’s. Forty bucks from him, twelve dollars from her, whatever. It’s not enough! What am I gonna do? Fuck it: I go into the crowd and start looking for people I know.

“‘Hey, Bill.’

“‘Hey, yourself,’ I tell ’em. ‘Gimme all your cash; I’ll pay you back.’

“Bill Graham invented crowdfunding!”

“It takes an hour, but I get the money. At this point, the Dead are completely out of material, and have been playing a 12-bar blues for 25 minutes. I go outside and Chuck is still sitting there in the Cadillac staring straight ahead. All of the white women are now dead. I count out the money into Chuck’s hand, every dollar. When I get to a thousand, Chuck lights up. Biggest shit-eating grin you’ve ever seen.

“‘Let’s do this, Bill,’ he says.

“We go inside, he doesn’t even say hi to the Stevie Miller Band, just tells them the key of the first song and boom right into it. The kids went nuts, y’know? Chuck Berry. That’s rock and roll right there, no matter the hassle. We disposed of the three dead white women and cleaned out the Cadillac, and next time Chuck played our venue, we made sure that there was cash on hand.

“Interesting post-script: the Dead dosed Chuck around a dozen times, and the cops found him naked on Embarcadero at dawn.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the J. Geils Band.”

An Origin Story

STARDATE: 5011.23

LOCATION: A backyard on Felicidae V, Suburb-World of the Felis Empire.

“I’m just saying that it’s only been four blarnoks since they rebooted it the last time.”

“But that one sucked! This one’ll be better.”

“Oh, it’s gonna be the same thing. He gets bitten by a radioactive plarf and becomes Plarf-Man–”

“With the proportional speed and strength of a plarf.”

“–and then his Mingle Ben gets eaten by a romfle and he’s a super-hero. Same story every time.”


“Dude, a spaceship just landed in your pool.”

“I saw.”

“Just saying.”

“Yeah, okay, but I’m standing right here. Obviously I saw the spaceship land in my pool. It was like you were narrating the action.”

“Can we just go check out the alien ship?”

“I got all nine eyes on you.”


“V’ger? Holy shit, dude: this is from the humans!”

“The monkeys on teevee?”


“They’re morons. They don’t even know we’re monitoring them. They live in huts and die when it gets too cold.”

“Right, but they used to be more advanced. I thought you liked the show.”

“Dude, Humping, Hitting Humans is my jam. You know that.”

“All they do is hump and hit each other.”

“That’s why I like it. Life is complicated; I like my teevee to be stupid.”

“Okay, so you should know their history. Didn’t you even look up Earth on Space-Wikipedia?”

“Why would we call it that?”

“Stop changing the subject. Humans had rockets and computers and medicine a long time ago. They must have sent this doohickey up while they could.”

“Wow. What happened to their society?”

“No one knows. Something or someone started an inexorable decline towards savagery and backwards progress.”

“Huh. What’s that round thing?”

“Looks like a record.”

“What a lucky coincidence that our society, too, uses LP technology.”

“One-in-a-million shot.”

“I’m glad they sent vinyl. Such a warmer, more authentic sound.”


“Dude, if you’re not listening to an alien civilization on vinyl, then you don’t know what it really sounds like.”

“Just play the thing.”

“My Space Modulator is out of power.

“Should’ve bought the Imodium Q36.”

“All my other stuff is from Weyland-Yutani. I’m locked in.”


Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell

Go, go
Go Johnny go, go
Go Johnny go, go
Go Johnny go, go
Go Johnny go, go
Johnny B. Goode

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made
People passing by they would stop and say
Oh my that little country boy could play

Go, go
Go Johnny go, go
Go Johnny go, go
Go Johnny go, go
Go Johnny go, go
Johnny B. Goode

His mother told him “Someday you will be a man
And you will be the leader of a big old band
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying ‘Johnny B. Goode Tonight'”

Go, go
Go Johnny go
Go go go, Johnny go
Oh go go, Johnny go
Oh go go, Johnny go
Go, Johnny B. Goode.

Here’s The One It’s All About

Leave it to Garcia to say it so well.

But He Could Play That Guitar Just Like He’s Ringin’ A Bell

Chuck Berry invented rock n’ roll; what the fuck have you done with your life?

Chuck died today–he was 90–and he was not a good man: Chuck Berry was a prick, a pervert, a pinchpenny, a peeper, and pederast, and always on parole, probation, or in the penitentiary. He was bitter and cynical, and rude to paying audiences.

But he invented rock n’ roll. White boys got all the money, but a brown-eyed handsome man did the work (or at least took credit for the work of his piano player). Chuck Berry didn’t just write the most famous guitar riff in Rock n’ Roll music–and Chuck played Rock n’ Roll music, not Rock music; there’s a difference–he wrote a law: Rock ‘n Roll is guitar music. Sure, you need a good drummer and it’s always helpful to have a bass player, but this music here is guitar music. Plug a Gibson into a Fender, and make sure your hair looks good.

No British Invasion, no surf music, no punk, no rockabilly, no “roots” rock (whatever the fuck that is). No Keef or Angus or Eddie or any other of your Guitar Gods without Chuck. 95% of all Grateful Dead shows would be four or five minutes shorter without Chuck. Hell, no one would have any idea what to write songs about if it weren’t for Chuck; he set the thematic parameters: cars, girls, and The Man.

And he wrote a song called Memphis, Tennessee, which has the most heartbreaking twist ending in all of music:

Chuck Berry wasn’t the King of Rock n’ Roll. He was the first one to settle in the village, and he mapped the territory; those who moved in later paid him respect, but he would have rather had the money. He’s gone now, but we can still play Rock n’ Roll music too loud and take our best girls out motorvating. Maybe we’ll even get her seat belt off this time.

Chuck Berry is dead and there won’t be another one like him, which is exactly the way he’d want it.

What A Crazy Sound

Another piece of evidence to support the hypothesis that the entire Rock Industry distills down to white people playing Chuck Berry covers in hockey arenas, this is the only song (without research) that Bowie and the Dead both covered, although apparently Garcia and Bowie shared a drummer.

(At this point, I think most of the modern world–including non-musicians and the Irish–shared a drummer with Garcia.)

My Favorite Things

Have I been negative? Probably. Almost definitely. What about the positives? What is lovable about this band?

  • The black leather jacket Garcia used to wear.
  • Mississippi Half-Step. When it gets real quiet and they sing about the Rio Grand-ee-o.
  • The little songs they play during tuning–Funniculi, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, Stayin’ Alive.
  • Billy playing the drums all by himself.
  • Billy playing the drums with Mickey.
  • The proto-version of Brown-Eyed Women from 8/24/71 (Dick’s Picks 35). The beat is turned around and the melody sounds like a children’s playground taunt and IT’S AWESOME.
  • Bobby forgetting the words.
  • Garcia forgetting the words.
  • Phil never knowing the words in the first place and just making shit up as he went. (I’m looking at you, Tom Thumb’s Blues.)
  • The Celtic jacket Mickey wore in the Touch of Grey video.
  • Touch of Grey.
  • The AUD of Touch of Grey from the comeback show.
  • Garcia with his hair in pigtails.
  • Pig.
  • Branford.
  • Bobby’s Chuck Berry tunes.
  • Brent’s long, lustrous hair.
  • Terrapin Station.
  • Bobby’s wise-guy routines (“Turn around real slow, we gotcha covered.”)
  • April Fool’s Day 1980–opening up the show with Promised Land on each others’ instruments. (Garcia on drums!)

Johnny B. Mediocre A Good Deal Of The Time

Spurs ‘n’ Chaps Bobby had his cowboy songs, which the drummers hated; New Wave Bobby had his oeuevre of angular, weirdly melodied songs, which Jerry hated; and Blind Lemon Bobby had his clusterfuckingly tortuous first set Blooz-stravaganza, which ear-possessors hated.

Speak not to me of wang, nor dang, nor doodle, Bobert Weir! I will not look what you done done. And you put DOWN that slide guitar, Mister! Next time I see you with that slide guitar, you better be trying to flush a South American strongman out of hiding.

But there was one more Bobby, and he was my favorite Bobby: Sock Hop Bobby, who loved the old jukebox singles and 50’s rock and, most of all, Chuck Berry. (At both Woodstock and the Trans-Canada Festival, Bobby paid way too much attention to Sha Na Na. He shrieked like a girl when he clapped for them and after their set, Bobby followed the lead singer into the bathroom and just openly stared at the guy’s cock. Like not in a gay way? It was more like–I’m not explaining this right. It was Bobby just being all, “That is a thing. That is an honest-to-god thing right there. It is a cock that cock right there and I am LOOKING. I am LOOKING right AT IT. Hey, stop hitting me.” Even for Bobby, that was a behavioral outlier. It led to a stern talking to from Phil that touched upon many subjects, but mostly “expectations.”)

Except, Phil kinda ruined most of the Chuck Berry songs, didn’t he? The rest of them were pretty adroit with the rockers: Jerry always bit into them with vigor, Bobby could yelp just as good as Bob Seger or any other white guy in the Seventies, and Keith played the shit out of the boogie piano. (Strangely enough, he was absolutely amateurish at woogie piano.)

But, Phil? No, he was far too good of a musician to play those songs well. They were brutal, dumb hammers of music, but as we all know: Phil was a surgeon. He delicately flitted about both the root note and the downbeat like a savage butterfly, exposing the inner horrible grace of the mixed-ionian-calipygian modes and the sweet, sw–PHIL, STOP FUCKING AROUND AND PLAY THE GODDAMN SONG. IT’S JUST A FAST TWELVE-BAR BLUES TUNE. STOP WITH THE CHORD SUBSTITUTION.

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