As two of the biggest bands of the 1960s psychedelic boom in San Francisco, the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane had quite a connection. Whether it was sharing a bill for a performance at the Fillmore West or just hanging out in the Haight-Ashbury district of the city, the two rock bands were essential in turning San Francisco into a major music scene all its own.
In fact, Jefferson Airplane were so enamoured with Jerry Garcia that they asked him to contribute to their upcoming album, Surrealistic Pillow. This was before the Dead released their own self-titled debut studio album, which makes Surrealistic Pillow the first major album to feature Garcia’s guitar playing.
Credited as the album’s “musical and spiritual advisor”, it remains uncertain how much of the album Garcia actually played on. There is evidence to suggest that Garcia is featured on the songs ‘Comin’ Back to Me’, ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’, ‘In the Morning’, and ‘J. P. P. McStep B. Blues’, but Garcia’s most recognisable contribution comes in the form of the delicate lead guitar line that adds colour to the acoustic Marty Balin ballad ‘Today’.
“I used to think about him as co-producer, but now that I really know what a producer is, the producer of that record was Rick Jarrard,” Jorma Kaukonen recalled in his autobiography. “Jerry was a combination arranger, musician, and sage counsel.” Garcia was also responsible for the album’s title, telling the Airplane that their music was “as surrealistic as a pillow is soft.”
Just two months after helping the Airplane bring their album to life, Garcia got the opportunity to record with his own band. The Grateful Dead was a mix of garage rock, psychedelic rock, and old-school blues that leaned heavily on speed and was light on major improvisation, save for the final track ‘Viola Lee Blues’. While Surrealistic Pillow was a major commercial success, the Dead would have to wait another two decades to land one of their albums in the top ten of the US album charts.
Listen to Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar playing on ‘Today’ down below.