Band names are strange things, more often than not they are nonsensical words that provide no insight into what the group represents. One band who have one foot into that category is The Grateful Dead. It’s a name which, on the face of it, suggests they operate in the sphere of heavy metal which, as we know, couldn’t be further from the truth. However, the name did help play a pivotal role in shaping the image of the band and the cultish family that followed the band round like they were a religion all over the world.
The band didn’t start out as The Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Co. originally beginning their career under the alias of The Warlocks when they formed in early 1965. The band came together from the remnants of a jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions based in Palo Alto with Garcia leading the breakaway. Little did they know when they played the first show as The Warlocks at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor located in the suburban town of Menlo Park, on May 5th, 1965, that it would be the first chapter in a book that would end up becoming a legend.
The Warlocks quickly started to make a name for themselves in the local area as they continued to play bar shows pretty much day-in-day-out. They landed a residency at Frenchy’s Bikini-A-Go-Go in Hayward before getting a break that saw them perform five sets a night, five nights a week, for six weeks, at the ‘In Room’ in Belmont.
Not long after this, the band had found out that a different band named Warlocks had beaten them to put out a record which meant they needed to come up with a new name and quickly. Remarkably, The Velvet Underground over in New York also had to change their name from The Warlocks which seems almost too much of a coincidence to be true.
The official line that Jerry Garcia detailed in the book Playing in the Band is as follows: “We were standing around in utter desperation at Phil [Lesh]’s house in Palo Alto [trying to think up a name for the band]. There was a huge dictionary, big monolithic thing, and I just opened it up. There in huge black letters was `The Grateful Dead.’ It just cancelled my mind out,” Garcia claimed.
This story is a tough one to completely buy as to why would ‘The Grateful Dead’ be in any dictionary, it wasn’t a common phrase before they made it the name of one of the most adored bands on the planet or was it the result of the various hallucinogenics which Garcia had consumed.
Wildly, Straight Dope all the way back in 1989 started going through as many dictionaries as they could possibly from the mid-’60s that could have possibly fallen into the grasp of Garcia and they stumbled upon gold.
“The motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero coming upon a group of people ill-treating or refusing to bury the corpse of a man who had died without paying his debts,” begins the definition in Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary.
“He gives his last penny, either to pay the man’s debts or to give him a decent burial. Within a few hours, he meets with a travelling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune or saves his life. The story ends with the companion disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the hero had befriended,” it continued.
The career of The Grateful Dead doesn’t bear a great deal of correlation to the dictionary definition that was set out by the guys over at Funk & Wagnall’. It’s hard to deny that the Grateful Dead, in their own weird and wonderful way, gave credence to this definition with their life-saving shows and soul-nourishing songs.