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The Grateful Dead classic that Jerry Garcia says "wasn't written"


The 1972 solo debut from Jerry Garcia wound up being a treasure trove that was judiciously plundered by the Grateful Dead. Future classics like ‘Sugaree’, ‘Deal’, ‘Bird Song’, and ‘Loser’ all originated on the first side of that particular record, setting the stage for hundreds of live performances over the next 23 years. Even the more experimental side two found use with the Dead, as the ‘Late for Supper’/’Spidergawd’/’Eep Hour’ medley was included as the background music for the opening sequence of The Grateful Dead Movie.

Garcia ends with another song that would go on to be a certified Dead anthem, the psychedelic and ethereal ‘The Wheel’. The track took a few years to get integrated into the Dead’s live show, making its first appearance in 1976. But from that point on, ‘The Wheel’ stuck around all the way until the band’s final year of 1995, with just over 250 total performances from the Dead. That doesn’t include the times when Garcia busted out the tune with The Jerry Garcia Band.

‘The Wheel’ was so popular, in fact, that virtually every variation and spin-off of the Dead that formed after Garcia’s death has played the song. That includes Bob Weir’s RatDog, Phil Lesh’s solo performances, and the current John Mayer-led Dead and Company that continues to tour. For a track that wasn’t actually technically a Grateful Dead song, ‘The Wheel’ has had quite a bit of staying power.

The effortless flow of ‘The Wheel’ is what gives the song some of its massive appeal. Finding Garcia at his most effortlessly engrossing, the track benefits from some hypnotic grooves courtesy of drummer Bill Kreutzmann and a series of mind-expanding lyrics from Robert Hunter. According to Garcia, nothing about ‘The Wheel’ was contrived or forced.

“That side [side two of Garcia] was really almost one continuous performance, pretty much,” Garcia explained. “When a song would come up in there, or just a progression, we’d play with it and work it through a few more times. And ‘The Wheel’ came out of that. It wasn’t written, I didn’t have anything in mind, I hadn’t sketched it out.”

Bob Matthews, the engineer who worked with Garcia on the album, concurred with the free-flowing atmosphere of the recording. “As we were playing it back and doing some of the overdubs, Hunter was there and he had a big piece of paper and he was writing on it up on the wall,” Matthews remembers. “He was writing words while we were listening to one of the playbacks and it turned out to be perfect. It was ‘The Wheel’. That song came from nowhere and just happened like that.”

Listen to the studio version of ‘The Wheel’ down below.