It would have been almost impossible to look at the rag-tag group of hippies that were gathered together by Jerry Garcia in 1965 and imagine that they would eventually become one of the most successful and influential bands of all time.
They had a mish-mash of influences, including a bluegrass lead guitarist, a folky rhythm guitarist, a pure blues harmonica player and frontman and R&B drummer, and an avant-garde bassist who had barely played his designated instrument for more than a year. They were nebulous and loose with money, often playing impromptu and for free in public spaces or pizza parlours. They initially had a jug-band aesthetic complete with an unwieldy name: Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.
As the band members began to synthesize their influences into a more cohesive sound, a sound which, at first, combined garage rock with the nascent sounds of the psychedelic experience, eventually, their initial moniker no longer fit their image or music. They weren’t a jug band anymore, so a new name was in order. The band’s new name would set a precedent for choosing somewhat ugly and unsettling images to brand themselves with: The Warlocks.
The Warlocks name lasted a few months between May and December of 1965, but as 1966 approached, the group realized that another band called The Warlocks had already put out a record under that name. A similar problem had afflicted another group using The Warlocks name up in New York, and they decided to go with something a bit more hip and kitschy: The Velvet Underground.
Lesh would later claim in the definitive Dead documentary Long Strange Trip that it was the Velvet’s version of The Warlocks that they had heard, but this seems unlikely considering the timeline of releases from Lou Reed and company. It was most likely just another garage rock band who managed to change the names of two of the most important bands of all time.
That was where Garcia and Phil Lesh, the group’s two leaders and loudest voices at the time, found themselves as they were listlessly flipping through a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary. At Lesh’s house, Garcia impulsively flipped to a page and put his finger on a term. Call it fate, call it luck, but the phrase that Garcia’s finger landed on was ‘The Grateful Dead’.
Immediately, the two felt a specific macabre power in the dichotomy of such a positive adjective paired with such a morbid noun. But as they read the definition, an additional feeling of certainty began to wash over them. The term “Grateful Dead” refers to a folk tale concerning a hero coming upon a corpse that is refused burial due to having unpaid debts. The hero gives the last of his money for a proper burial, and at the crossroads of his journey, is aided by a helpful stranger in achieving his goal. The stranger, it turns out, was the corpse that he had helped bury.
Around this time, the members of the newly-christened Dead were experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, and the concept of ego death was a notion that greatly appealed to the philosophical minds of Garcia and Lesh. They sensed the themes of karma and freedom in the term and believed it would be the perfect companion to continue their own artistic journey.
Strangely enough, by picking the name The Grateful Dead, the band had set in motion their own “grateful dead” folk tale. The band reanimated an arcane term, and its usage would give the group a uniquely lurid name that would allow them to stand out among the San Francisco scene. They would achieve the kind of success and notoriety they longed for, and part of getting their foot in the door was by having such a thoroughly engrossing, or thoroughly repulsive, band name.
Whether it appealed to your sensibilities or not, The Grateful Dead was an impossible name to forget.