Friday, June 24, 2011

Interstices of Grateful Dead Performance (July 19 & 21, 1974)

This is one of those hard-to-be-certain stories, but it's a good one, so I'm going to tell it here. Up until 1974, in California a least, only Jerry Garcia had iconic status, even among Deadheads. I heard this story just a year later, and even then I found it surprising.  Decide for yourself.

When I got to college in 1975, I discovered other, more advanced Deadheads than me, which was a very fine thing. My new compatriots were from Southern California, so in general we had different experiences, which he enjoyed sharing in copious detail. One of my friends (hi Mitch) had a weird, fascinating little story that stuck in my mind. He had seen the Grateful Dead at Selland Arena in Fresno on July 19, 1974, and then again two days later at the Hollywood Bowl (July 21).

My friend did not enjoy the Fresno Dead concert. The hall was unappealing, there wasn't much of a crowd, and my friend did not like their playing. Now, some years later, he admitted--after we had seen a stunning show at the very same Selland Arena on January 15, 1978--that the '74 Fresno show was probably pretty far out and he was simply too inexperienced to grasp that (tapes seem to bear him out--the show was waaay out there). The point was, in his own mind the Dead were tense and unhappy, although that may have been an illusion. The key issue in my friend's mind, however, was that Phil Lesh was not on stage for most of "US Blues." My friend was trying to fathom why Phil would leave the stage for that song. What could have been going on.?

Anyway, my friends went on to see the Grateful Dead at Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, July 21, just two days later. It was a daytime show, and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen opened for the Dead. During their set, my friend was wandering around the Hollywood Bowl, which was a large, sprawling place. In the back of the venue, who should he come upon but Phil Lesh, leaning against a wall watching Cody and the Airmen from near the back of the house. Nobody seemed to have noticed Phil, as he was completely unmolested, nursing his Heineken amidst the Deadheads.

My friend still couldn't believe it was Phil Lesh, so he went up to talk to him. "Hey, Phil" he said, "what happened in Fresno last night? You weren't even on stage for 'US Blues.'" Phil--for it did indeed appear to be him--rather grouchily said "f***in' Garcia--wouldn't even stop for a piss break." No other conversation seemed to be in the offing, so my friend left, contemplating this close encounter.

Did this really occur? Did Phil Lesh watch Commander Cody's set from the back of the Hollywood Bowl? Did Garcia refuse to allow a piss break prior to "US Blues"? Was this a common dispute? Was 'Phil' some sort of impostor? Did my friend simply have a dream, like Bobby Ewing, and repeat it to me the next year? Had there been an Internet, of course, this could have been Tweeted in real time, but instead we are left with this lowly blog post a scant 37 years later.


  1. Phil was a common figure checking out other bands during that era. He had headphones on listening to the New Riders Set at UCSB on 5/25/74, and actually sat on the side of the stage at the Keystone Berkeley in December 74 the first time that Kingfish played there, so this story is entirely plausible. Garcia did go straight into US Blues from a long jam after "He's Gone" and I believe that Phil (who definitely liked his Heinekens back then) may have been onstage straight through from when he and Ned began their mini-set. Great story!


    I don't hear Phil at the start of USB, but he comes in about a minute and a half in and is audible for the rest of it. I haven't checked out the end of He's Gone yet, but his absence at the start of US Blues certainly seems to me consistent with a piss-break.

  3. My friends and I got in early at Fresno on 7/19/74, and we watched Phil putting his new bass and quad speaker rig through its paces. Then we went backstage and watched everyone eating mountains of steaks, still on the Owsley Diet.

  4. I have just revisited this show, from the matrix tape:

    My ears are crummy, but Phil is audible through at least the end of the He's Gone -> all of US Blues. Others should check it out and confirm, but that's strange given your friend's memories.

  5. I had listened to 7/19 again the other day too, and I double-checked it just now: Phil is very definitely there for all of US Blues. The only time he's not playing is the 20 seconds between HG and USB when it's just Jerry, Keith, and Billy noodling, and that's not much of a piss break. It does sound like Phil hits a raw note at the very end of USB -- maybe he tore off his bass and immediately ran for the head? On the source you mentioned there's a cut after USB and then you hear Phil playing a short chord, possibly like one would do right after putting one's instrument back on?

    Ye gods. Am I really so far gone that I'm trying to speculate when band members may have been peeing in between songs?

    1. The length of many a set in the band's latter years could have been determined by this pressing issue... Closer study is needed!

  6. Ok, well, in the interests of insuring that this all-important discussion was not based on a phantom, I queried my friend about this. He took time out from his Real Life to assure us:

    "I am sure of the narrative. I think Phil was not on stage at beginning of US Blues. He comes in after one minute or so. The Hollywood Bowl interaction definitely happened. No question."