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Dead Ahead

Phil Lesh goes truckin' through the past

By Greg Cahill

At their first gig, the Grateful Dead played for an audience of three. Of course, the group became one of rock's most adored bands, leading a horde of fans on what has been memorialized--and chronicled in stacks of books--as a long, strange trip. Now the band's 65-year-old bass player, Phil Lesh, has become the first band member to lift the veil for a candid behind-the-scenes look at the rise of the Dead.

Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead (Little, Brown and Company; $25.95), replete with 32 pages of photos, strolls through not only the band's growth from house band at the legendary Acid Tests, the series of LSD-soaked parties thrown by novelist Ken Kesey in and around San Francisco, to the worldwide stadium tours, but also investigates the evolution of the band's signature sound.

Lesh doesn't skirt around the dark side, especially the excesses that eventually killed or contributed to the deaths of guitarist Jerry Garcia, organist and harmonica player Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and pianist Keith Godchaux, and which nearly killed Lesh, who had a liver transplant in 1999 as a result of his chronic hepatitis C infection.

While substance abuse crops up over and again, it is the band's personal mix, on and off stage, that is the heart of his story. "From the beginning, the chemistry was more intense than anything I'd ever experienced," Lesh notes in a statement appearing on the band's website. "We knew we were on to something, but didn't quite know what. Here it is, then, the Grateful Dead, from the inside, as I saw it and as I lived it. It's neither a work of historical scholarship, nor a work of fiction--just my story of a unique phenomenon."

In many ways, Lesh is particularly well-suited to tell the band's story. He is probably the most educated musician to emerge from the San Francisco scene in the 1960s. He studied avant-garde composition at Mills College in Oakland, and continues to study and compose under the influence of such modern classical composers as Arnold Schoenberg.

Lesh was there at the beginning and is an engaging guide, providing plenty of details about the band's inner workings, philosophical leanings and musicological influences. Some of his tales are lighthearted, like the time he met his doppelganger (a classical cellist) at the Hamburg Musikhalle in Germany.

He also displays a knack for bringing the reader right into a particular place and time. For instance, on the band's 1972 tour of Europe, Lesh was overcome by the radical spirit of the students and workers during a free outdoor concert in Lille that followed the cancellation of an earlier concert there.

"The landscape, the flowers and the people seemed to radiate a simple joy in just being," Lesh writes. "Afterward, the student promoters embraced us tearfully--they hadn't believed up until the moment we pulled into town that we would actually make good our promise [to return].

"It was one of the finest 'music for the people' moments, if I do say so myself."

The band's official website offers a companion CD that includes the long-lost studio take of the seminal 1966 Grateful Dead recording "Cardboard Cowboy" and the July 9, 1995, live version of "Box of Rain," recorded at Soldier Field in Chicago, the last song the band ever played together before Garcia's death.

Meanwhile, the band's San Rafael-based record label, Grateful Dead Records, has launched a 40th anniversary series with the release of Rare Cuts and Oddities, 1966, which spotlights the band a year before their major label debut, before their music became psychedelicized. The rarities disc finds the band heavily influenced by blues DJ and band member Pigpen, covering the Rolling Stones' "Empty Heart," Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee" (the latter two songs already having been covered by the Stones) and sounding very much like a U.S. bar-band version of the Stones.

What a difference a few micrograms of hallucinogens can make.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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