The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and his reaction to hearing The Beatles for the first time
The Grateful Dead and The Beatles are a pair of classic acts who tread down two completely different paths, picking up different stories and different aspects of music as they each gathered fans by the boatload. The Fab Four is a group of such mainstream fanfare, a band who lived their lives fiercely in the public sphere, bathing endlessly in the mainstream almost straight from their very inception—a life which was a stark contrast to the mystique that surrounded The Grateful Dead.
The differences, sonically, between the two acts were night and day. The Grateful Dead, never adapting their sound to suit the mainstream’s taste—one dictated by whatever music The Beatles decided they wanted to create—was a band which was far removed from climbing the charts or pleasing record execs. The Grateful Dead had their own ‘build it and they will come’ ethos that paid off in glorious style as they garnered an adoring fanbase who would literally hitchhike thousands of miles across the land to watch Jerry Garcia’s band of merry men perform concerts of the most epic proportions.
Despite what you may presume due to the differences in the two acts, The Beatles were an outfit that Jerry Garcia respected due to their desire to never compromise on their principles despite making music that resonated with the masses. After all, when The Beatles arrived on American shores, they changed the history of music overnight. Not from their own output, but the bands and artists they would inspire in an instant.
New Riders of the Purple Sage guitarist, David Nelson, the long-time friend of the late Garcia, later recalled a moment when the pair first sat down to listen to The Beatles: “Garcia called me up and said, ‘We’ve got to go down to St. Mike’s Alley now,” he said.
“They’re playing this group, the Beatles. They’ve got the album, and I want you to check it out.’ So we went and got coffee and sat there looking at each other, listening on the sound system to the Beatles’ first album; the ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ album. After every song, we’d look at each other. I was going, ‘This is going to make me puke, man.’ He said, ‘Oh no, give it a chance. Let’s listen with an open mind.’
“After each song, it was like, ‘Pretty good. Good harmony; like in the bluegrass band. Yeah, they do sing good harmony.’ We finished the album, and we both looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, what’s the verdict? What do you think?’ And we both gave it the iffy sign. Not the okay sign – it was iffy.”
Nelson revealed that it was the Hard Day’s Night film that had turned Garcia onto The Fab Four: “Seeing it, he realised, ‘Hey great, that really looks like fun’… They were a little model of good times… The Beatles were light and having a good time, and they were very good too, so it was a combination that was very satisfying on the artistic level… It was like saying, ‘You can be young, you can be far-out, and you can still make it.’ They were making people happy.”
The guitarist also recollected how The Rolling Stones never appeased Garcia’s appetite in the same way that their compatriot’s The Beatles did: “Garcia thought The Rolling Stones’ music was not that much of a surprise, because I’d listened to a lot of rhythm and blues, and early Rolling Stones was similar to that music, although not as well done. But the Beatles were doing something new, and they had great musical ideas and a great thing going. Plus, seeing the movie Hard Day’s Night was a turn-on.”
While it may be strange to put together The Grateful Dead and The Beatles in any package — operating in such different spheres as they do — one cannot deny the huge impact The Beatles had on American music. If you needed any proof, then Garcia’s reaction to the band is there for all to see.