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(Credit: Warner Bros.)


When The Grateful Dead played 'Big Railroad Blues' with clown masks

The battle of the Bolos and Bozos is one of the aspects of Europe 1972 that gets passed down in long winding tales by Deadheads who heard the story from their forefathers in the Dead community. For a long time, before the Dead became a fairly respectable institution and a glut of Dead books began to come out, stories like these only existed in legend, part of the ever-mythical nature of the Grateful Dead. But now, they’re verified, catalogued, and canonised within the official history of the band. That said, even the genuine version has some different accounts.

Basically, the story starts with the enormous amount of people that the Dead would bring out on tour. Largely funded by their label Warner Bros, the Dead were able to bring their wives, girlfriends, kids, associates, managers, friends, and roadies along for the tour, with 43 people in total requiring passports, ID badges, and memo references in order to make the trip. With such a big entourage, the band had to rent out two full-size touring buses in order to trek around Europe. Jerilyn Lee Brandelius, author of the 1989 book Grateful Dead Family Album, puts it thusly:

“The 43 persons constituting the Grateful Dead’s European tour apportioned themselves for the most part between two busses which came to be known as the Bolo bus and the Bozo bus. The Bolo bus had a john in it and its seats faced forward. The Bozo bus had a refrigerator and some of its seats were installed facing back, to accommodate four tables. And to look back, the subtle difference in character and import and atmosphere between the two omnibuses was so profoundly hidden and enigmatic that you could never possibly understand it. The Bozos wore masks, and the Bolos showed their faces. At one time the Bozos staged a raid on the Bolo provisions; at one time the Bolos staged a raid on the Bozo provisions.”

The distinction between the Bozos and the Bolos weren’t set in stone, with occasional defections from both sides. The actual differences between the two were null: the important thing wasn’t what a Bozo and a Bolo were, but that you were one, and you stuck it to others whenever you could. As drummer Bill Kreutzmann explained in his book Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead: “Part of the whole Zen head trip was that it mattered tremendously which bus you were on but it also didn’t matter one bit because both buses were both things at all times. You were either on one or you were on the other.”

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Adding: “We had two tour busses and we quickly formed psuedo-alliances based on which bus we were on. You were either one of the Bozos or one of the Bolos. I was on the bus where most of the seats faced backwards. That meant I was a Bozo. Most of the band were Bozos. Just a bunch of clowns, really. Our crew clowned around too, but most of them were Bolos. Who knows what their deal was? Or I should say, who knows what their deal really was? Never ask a Bozo about a Bolo. General rule of thumb.”

This wonderfully bizarre quasi-turf war eventually made its way onto the stage when the Dead pulled into Copenhagen, Denmark, for a show at the Tivoli Concert Hall on April 17, 1972. The band were being filmed that night for a Danish television programme called TV from the Tivoli, and as the second set wound to a close, the Bozos came out in full force.

“The entire tour became a continual running joke as we would try to put each other down for either being a Bozo or a Bolo and, like everything, we took it as far as we could,” Kreutzmann remembers. “At one of the gigs, we went onstage wearing wigs and clown masks, perhaps to publicly declare ourselves a band of (mostly) Bozos. Or to spread the Bozo message to the world. It was outreach. It was also all just one big gag. For our own amusement, really.”

You can tell how amused they really are during the performance of ‘Big Railroad Blues’, which finds the band in various states of laughter. It starts with guitarist Bob Weir donning a Groucho Marx style glasses and moustached combo. From there, Jerry Garcia gets handed a clown mask and plays along as well. Soon Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh are given their own masks, and in the background, one of the band’s roadies is wearing an old man mask as well. Weir cheekily says: “This is for the TV cameras, you must understand”, but between the band and the audience, the sense of goofy fun isn’t just a front.

Garcia has some difficulty keeping his mask on while playing and singing, and as he kicks into his solo towards the end of the tune, his mask comes crashing to the stage as he dramatically begins his pulls and bends. None of the silliness got in the way of the band’s performance, which is potent and joyous as all of the Europe ’72 shows. 

The band were on a hot streak, and for their troubles, the Bozos and the Bolos all got credit in the Europe ’72 liner notes. In many ways, the Europe ’72 shows would be the swan song for the band’s first incarnation. As the band lost their blues-loving keyboardist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan and took on a number of large projects, including a feature film and their own record company, the loose and jolly good times would get harder to come by.

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