Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Press / Carl Lender)


The Grateful Dead show that inspired Elvis Costello to start a band

The power of stereotypes is often revealing when the mask comes off. It seems that people are often so self-involved in their lives that they forget to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. As music fans, we are sometimes too presumptuous in assumptions toward one specific artist. In fact, we are often confused by our strong feelings towards a musician’s work that we begin to think that we know the artist behind the song. 

It might come as a surprise to you then to hear that the new-wave singer-songwriter, Elvis Costello, was very good friends with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. In fact, Costello was so blown away by Garcia’s music when he first saw the Dead perform that it inspired him to want to pick up the guitar. Anyone who knows both musicians’ work will know that both their styles of music couldn’t be more different from one another. 

Behind all the superficial stereotypes of ‘jam bands’ vs. ‘new-wave’, Costello and Garcia have a lot in common. On a cover of Musician magazine in 1991, one will find a picture of both the starkly different musicians. In appearance, however, they both share similar characteristics: scraggly long beards, the same grin, and a melancholic smile. They both share a strong love for Irish wit and turn of phrases, and they both are incomparable songwriters. 

In the interview with Musician, Garcia commented on stereotypes, stating: “I don’t have much reality on my stereotype, because I’m surrounded by it, you know what I mean? So I don’t know what it includes. For example, is my stereotype famous for being musically very accepting or…?”

Elvis Costello, who was sitting in the conversation with Garcia and Musician, commented on why he started listening to the Dead and other bands from the West Coast, revealing: “The real esoteric people were into West Coast bands. ‘Cause it was mysterious, it was like collecting stamps or something. You have this message from the other side of the world and you have no way of verifying it. And I made almost this willful decision, maybe ’cause I’d had the record through the years: I went, ‘Right, I’ll go further out now. Nobody will follow me to this one: the Grateful Dead’. [laughter] You know, this music almost nobody can dig.”

Garcia commented from his perspective as being involved in the American West Coast scene, which culturally speaking, was so distant from the new-wave movement that happened in the late ’70s that Costello was a part of. “The West Coast perception of English bands during the early Rolling Stones was also very cloudy,” he said. “There was no real understanding of the complexities of English life, the nuances. For me, the most resonant thing was hearing the Rolling Stones play music that I’d grown up with, the Chess stuff.” 

Garcia and the dead took rock ‘n’ roll to a place it had never been before they came around. Garcia adds that, when he was growing up with the Rolling Stones, he wanted to fuse this idea of ‘dirty rock ‘n’ roll’ with the nuances of jazz. “When I was a kid, rock ‘n’ roll was totally disreputable. I wanted to play rock n’ roll but I wanted it to be respectable,” he explained. “I thought, gee, it’d be nice if rock n’ roll had the acceptability that jazz has, that kind of cerebral appreciation. I loved the music, but not the stigma attached to it; nobody took it seriously until Ray Charles played the Newport Jazz Festival and rock ‘n’ roll started making these little appearances in the jazz world.”

Before he achieved television fame, Jeremy Beadle organised the Bickershaw Music festival in Wigan in 1972. The festival wasn’t a huge success and lost the opportunity on making money, however, a cast of great bands were booked to play. Beadle booked the American West Coast bands headliners The Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart, and other acts which included the likes of Wishbone Ash, The Incredible String Band, Donovan, Hawkwind, among others. 

Among those in the crowd that day were Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer. While it may seem hard to believe, the Dead’s more than four-hour set influenced Costello to want to start his own touring band. Despite everything, it seems that the leap from the Dead’s music to Costello’s early Attractions material is a big one. Costello commented on this, later explaining: “From about ’70 to about ’76, the bar scene, which preceded punk in London, was very influenced by bands like Little Feat, who worked using New Orleans riffs and then grafting the blues thing with a country sort of melody.”

As Costello points out, the live rock ‘n’ roll circuit in Britain at the time had more connection to New Orleans based music. Some of the Dead’s music from that period had that same flavour: “I don’t know exactly where that comes from. Actually, I think it comes partly from my misperception of how English rock ‘n’ roll works. If you made a big loop starting in New Orleans, and took in the Caribbean and came out somewhere north of North Carolina,” Garcia added.

For now, listen to Elvis Costello do a tribute to the late Jerry Garcia, below.