In the early days of tape trading, one of the first and finest pieces of listenable early Grateful Dead was a scalding performance from the Avalon Ballroom. It initially circulated as October 13, 1968, the third night of a three night run, but subsequent research revealed it to be from Saturday, October 12, 1968. No matter. It was a classic performance of the Dead's finest early material, with the band burning rubber and Jerry Garcia playing like he was possessed.
Stories subsequently circulated over the years that Jimi Hendrix was supposed to jam with the Dead that night. Jimi Hendrix was headlining at Winterland for three nights (Thursday thru Saturday, October 10-12), so he was unquestionably in San Francisco. The most common version of the story, and the one I find most plausible, was that Hendrix was supposed to jam with the Dead in their Novato rehearsal hall on Saturday afternoon. Hendrix blew the Dead off, but then showed up at the end of the Avalon show, guitar in hand. The story says that he stood at the side of the stage, waiting to be waved on, but a dismissive Garcia refused to look at him. I find the Avalon tape all the more thrilling to imagine a disrespected Jerry blazing away in front of Hendrix, trying to show him how little need he had for him.
For various reasons, I find this story quite plausible, and this post will explore some of the interesting crosscurrents that underlie both Hendrix's presumed actions as well as Garcia's.
Ships In The Night
As time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix have become increasingly iconic figures. Invoking either of their names conjures up a host of signs and signifiers that stand for much of the 60s: Jimi or Jerry are metonymies for the music, guitars, drugs, freedom, excesses and even hairstyles of the 1960s. Yet given the penchant of both musicians to jam with any and all players, it seems remarkable that they never played together, and possibly never spoke. Thus the apparent missed opportunity of October 12, 1968 looms as a particularly poignant event. It wasn't the first time that Hendrix and Garcia were in the same place, by any means.
June 15, 1967 Opening Night Party, Straight Theater, San Francisco, CA
The newly-renovated Straight Theater (at 1702 Haight) had a private party to celebrate its forthcoming Grand Opening (which did not in fact occur for several more months). The Grateful Dead were reputed to have played at the party, and Hendrix was reputed to have dropped by. Hendrix was in town in anticipation of attending the Monterey Pop Festival on the coming weekend (Friday-Sunday June 16-18).
I have been unable to confirm the Dead's presence, although it seems likely; Hendrix's presence seems decidedly more wishful. Keep in mind that prior to Monterey Pop, almost no one would have known what he looked like or even heard him. Given his then-obscurity in the United States, its unlikely that Garcia and Hendrix met, if Jimi was even there.
June 16-18, 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Monterey County Fairgrounds, Monterey, CA
Jimi Hendrix was definitely around the Fairgrounds all weekend, and the Grateful Dead arrived Saturday morning from Los Angeles (June 17). Hendrix hung out and jammed in various places, while the Dead played for free at the Football field of the Junior College across the way. Ironically enough, Bob Weir found himself jamming with Hendrix in a tent sponsored by an equipment company, although Weir was playing acoustic guitar at the time. However, for all the jamming going on, Hendrix seems never to have gotten over to Football field, at least when Garcia and the Dead were there.
The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix Experience both performed on Sunday night, June 18, but the 30-minute sets at the Festival and the strict running order made no provision for sitting in. However, after Hendrix's set, everyone present--certainly including Garcia--knew who Hendrix was.
June 20-25, 1967 Fillmore Auditorium and Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA
The Jimi Hendrix Experience followed the Monterey Pop Festival with a six night booking at the Fillmore Auditorium, opening for the Jefferson Airplane. The Dead and every other San Francisco band were playing a variety of free concerts around Golden Gate Park and the Bay Area. The Jimi Hendrix Experience even played a free concert in the park, on June 25, 1967, but Hendrix and Garcia never played together during this week.
August 16 & 18 Max Yasgur's Farm, Bethel, NY
The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix both played Woodstock, but I doubt they crossed paths. Leaving aside the enormous size of the backstage area, the Dead were scheduled for Saturday (August 16), although they did not play until very late that night. They were probably helicoptered out on Sunday (August 17). Hendrix was the last act of the concert, originally scheduled for Sunday night, but in fact he did not play until Monday morning, August 18.
May 16, 1970 Temple University Stadium, Philadelphia, PA
The Grateful Dead were second-billed to Jimi Hendrix for this outdoor show in the relatively modest Temple University football stadium (Steve Miller Band and Cactus filled out the bill). While Hendrix was recording in New York City and would have had a relatively easy journey to Philadelphia, the Dead were on a frantic leg where they played Kirkwood, MO Thursday night (May 14), then flew to New York for two shows at the Fillmore East on Friday night (May 15) for two shows using the Fillmore East sound system and then presumably met their equipment in Philadelphia on Saturday. Given that the Dead had a concert on the beach in Fairfield, CT on Sunday night (May 17), there wouldn't have been time for any jamming, and maybe not much for hanging out.
Nonetheless, if Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix ever exchanged more than pleasantries it would have been here in Philadelphia. By 1970, however, Jimi Hendrix was perhaps the biggest rock star in the world, and Jerry Garcia was an important guy in his own right, and the backstage scene would not have been the low-key musician's hangout that it had been in Monterey. Thus I find it pretty unlikely Jimi and Jerry did more than acknowledge each other amongst a crush of people, even if their schedules converged.
Jerry Garcia, Gunslinger
Among Jerry Garcia's most admirable non-musical qualities were both his continual willingness to choose Art over Commerce and his good natured graciousness to fans and others who were babbling and tongue tied in his presence. While the Dead were an avowedly commercial enterprise, Garcia made sure that Music came first, so the Dead continued to travel a challenging musical road long after their contemporaries had cheerily lapsed into easy listening music. There were plenty of compromises of course, but at a variety of critical junctures Garcia and the Dead always chose Music: not repeating songs every night, jamming with side groups, letting people tape shows, releasing their old performances. Garcia ranks very highly amongst sixties artists for succeeding on his terms more than those of others, and Deadheads are rightly proud of him for that.
On a more immediate level, Garcia had rock star status very early, and yet he was continually generous and witty with all sorts of journalists, fans and rubes, long after he had any reason to be. While Garcia tried to keep a low profile after 1969 and was rarely seen in public, we have all heard him give interesting answers to an unprepared doofus interviewer, and everyone knows a few stories of friends who somehow got backstage (or somewhere) and met Garcia, who indulged them, however briefly, by treating them like a human being. Really, who could be a better rock star than Jerry Garcia? A fantastic musician, performing endlessly, always taking the artistic High Road while friendly to his loyal fans. Brilliant, serious and decent: what more do you need?
About 1971, Keith Richard said in a Rolling Stone interview "nobody gets to be John Lennon by accident." He meant that for all of John's gifts as a musician, thinker and talker, his formidable status as the focal point of the world's most famous rock band was not just serendipity. One thing that gets lost in inevitable (and rightful) praise of Jerry Garcia was his burning ambition and ferocious competitiveness. Personally, I see those as virtues, but they are usually left out of the Garcia picture.
Garcia practiced nonstop, played live constantly and worked with a huge variety of musicians, always playing to the best of his abilities at any given moment. Most successful musicians learn a set of hits by rote to get them through shows night after night--Garcia's whole method involved constant improvisation. Garcia was diving off the 10-meter board every night instead of just jumping off the side of the pool. Jerry not only wanted to be a great musician, he wanted to be known as a great musician and succeed as one, and he devoted his whole life to that in a profoundly single-minded way.
From 1967 to 1970, San Francisco was one of the focal points of the rock music world. The Fillmore, Fillmore West and the Avalon were the coolest places to play, San Francisco bands were hugely successful on their own terms, and the whole scene more or less created the modern rock concert as we know it today. San Francisco also stood for Art over Commerce, supposedly a place where Music reigned, in direct opposition to "Plastic LA" and business-like New York City. While that characterization of all three cities is absurdly simplistic, such notions were in the air.
One of the rituals for touring bands playing San Francisco for the first time, particularly from England, was an invitation to spend an afternoon jamming with the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane, depending on who was in town. Part of the ritual involved getting high--really high--to prove you were cool, but another part of the ritual involved jamming. Real musicians will jam at the drop of a hat, and they like nothing better than playing something difficult and proving that they can lay it down with anybody. In jazz it was called a "cutting contest," usually a couple of saxophonists trading chorus after chorus to show who was better, but the essence was that true musicians relished the challenge. Bluegrass musicians enjoyed flaunting their chops as much as their jazz compatriots, so Garcia was no stranger to implicitly competitive music making.
Paul McCartney attended an Airplane rehearsal (probably at the Geary Temple) in 1967. Eric Burdon and The Animals hung out with the Dead soon after the Monterey Pop Festival. When Jimi Hendrix played Fillmore West in February 1968, and Hendrix and Mick Taylor (from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, who were opening the show) went off to jam with the Airplane. When Traffic came to San Francisco in March of 1968, they were met and dosed by representatives of the Dead at SFO Airport and spent the weekend jamming with the Dead. In January 1969, Fleetwood Mac spent an afternoon trading licks with the Dead.
Although these meetings took place offstage, they loomed large to musicians, and those initial contacts were made manifest in later years. Jack Casady was invited onstage to jam with Jimi Hendrix on occasion, and was even apparently offered a role in the Experience (presumably Noel Redding would have switched to guitar); Fleetwood Mac spent a memorable off-night in New York City at the Fillmore East jamming with the Dead (on February 11, 1970); Jerry Garcia sat in with Traffic at Giants Stadium in 1994. Garcia was a largely friendly guy, but he was as much of a gunslinger as any New York jazz saxophonist. If he invited you to jam, you were supposed to bring your guitar and your best licks if you were a Serious Guy and not just a Pop Star.
What's The Story?
I had heard the Hendrix/Avalon story in the past, but I had been unable to discover the source. No matter. Numerous people on the message boards of the Archive for October 12 recall different variations of the story, so it wasn't just me. The most dramatic version has it that Chet Helms had chartered a ferry to bring Hendrix to Marin, but Hendrix had been carrying on with some groupie and lost track of time. When he showed up at the Avalon, after his Winterland show ended, he was apologetic but Garcia was unmoved.
Tracking the personal life of Jimi Hendrix is even more difficult than most rock stars, since so many people had vested interests in his actions, and his death and subsequent litigation made everything more contentious. Still, a number of general observations can be made about Hendrix's life on the road. First of all, Hendrix, like all rock stars in the pre-cell phone era, wouldn't have gone to a town for concerts without his own crew and some local "handlers" who would get him to and from the hotel and the venue, and wherever else he wanted to go to. Although Jimi could be reckless with certain substances, and did not lack for female company, all sources without exception seem to suggest that his number one priority was always music, and with fellow musicians he was always a friendly, cooperative guy.
Based on what is known about Hendrix on the road (hardly exhaustive, I concede), it seems out of character for him to blow off a jam session with the Grateful Dead. Hendrix rarely or never missed shows, and he jammed with numerous artists all over the country, so he was certainly responsible enough and motivated enough to make sure he made his dates. The road has long periods of boredom, so for a guy like Hendrix, a chance to jam in the afternoon would be welcome. The week before October 12, Hendrix jammed with Buddy Miles at The Whisky in West Hollywood, and the week after he jammed with Lee Michaels (probably in a non-concert setting). Do we believe Jimi had time for Buddy Miles and Lee Michaels, but was so carried away with some groupie he "forgot" a jam with the Dead?
My hypothesis--completely unsupported by any additional facts or evidence, I should emphasize--is that some people weren't anxious for the Hendrix/Dead jam to take place. I'm not suggesting anything ultra sinister here; just that perhaps someone made sure that Hendrix's crew got the wrong departure time for the Ferry, or no one made a wake up call to the Hotel. Whether a groupie was involved or not that night, Hendrix was always popular with the ladies, and that hadn't prevented him from jamming with numerous musicians before or after. I am confident that Hendrix recognized Garcia's gunslinger challenge, and was anxious to answer it--it might really have been something, but it wasn't to be.
Who might be among the culprits? Well, Bill Graham might not have made it easy for Chet Helms to get access to his headline attraction. And Hendrix's notorious management (led by the late Mike Jeffery) may have found the Dead to be a subversive force that he didn't want to encourage. Jeffery couldn't have been worried about the Dead's penchant for drugs and outlaw behavior, since Jeffery favored both. However, the Dead had a tendency to think music should be free and that was a potentially dangerous proposition indeed.
An Eyewitness Account
If you read the reviews on the Archive board, some old memories are a lot more precise than others, because some people's memories are quite a bit sharper. Among the most consistently accurate memories are from Evan S Hunt. Consider his own comments on the Archive for October 12, 1968, and consider them in light of the history of rumors and what I have proposed
Some of my Diablo Valley College football team buddies went along to see Linn County, a popular underground blues band at the time. We were celebrating our earlier in the day victory over San Mateo Junior College.To my knowledge, Jerry Garcia never said a bad word about Hendrix after he died, but did he ever say a good word? Part of Garcia's peculiar magic for interviews was that he told such great, quotable stories that no one usually asked anything resembling a difficult question.
That the Grateful Dead was the headliner was totally an afterthought, but most of us stayed to gather in their entire set which lasted until well past the 2 a.m. curfew.
There is a note attached to this show that there was no performance emanated from Blue Ron, but of little note there should be amended that towards the end of the Dead's venture into their nightly featured mania called Feedback, Jimi Hendrix came up on stage and added his howl to the ongoing din.
This is no lie. I saw it with my own eyes. Jimi came up on stage and played with the Dead. Nobody noticed and nobody said anything. There was no announcement.
After countless years of research consisting of reading every record ever written about the Grateful Dead, asking people in the know like Rock Scully, Danny Riskin, Chet Helms, David Gans and David Lemieux, and asking hundreds of various Dead Heads, past and present, apparently, I am the only one who ever saw Jimi actually get up there and play.
I'm not asking you to take my word for it and I surely would like it if someone could corroborate my claim, but it doesn't really matter in the long run. I saw what I saw and I was not stoned or altered, mentally or physically, in any way.
It happened just as I say it happened...on this night...forty unforgettable years ago.
If there were more evidence for this, it would probably have surfaced by now. Ultimately we are left with an imagined scene from Sergio Leone's psychedelic Spaghetti Western, The Good, The Bad and The Avalon, as Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix warily eye each other with weapons at the ready, yet the cataclysmic spark is never struck. Jerry and Jimi, two of the icons of 60s rock guitar, armed and ready to jam, stymied by some breach of the gunslinger's code. They both probably thought it would come around next year or the year after, but it was not to be.