This post will retell the story of the early New Riders from the point of view of who may have played bass. In order not to get sidetracked, I will include links to posts that put them in context, and I am appending a list of early New Riders shows below, for those who have not memorized their early schedule. This is somewhat of an artificial exercise, but it will point up how little is actually known about the New Riders from 1969. At many points I will interpolate questions that remain to be answered and may never be. Anyone with answers or interesting speculation is encouraged to Comment.
John Dawson At The Underground, Menlo Park
John Dawson had been a folk singer for most of the sixties, and in early 1969, he started writing songs. On or about April 13, 1969, Jerry Garcia purchased a pedal steel guitar at a music store in Boulder, CO. Later in April, Dawson visited Garcia in Larkspur, and played him his new songs so that Garcia could noodle along on his new steel guitar. Garcia was taken with the songs, and when he found out that Dawson was playing Wednesday nights at a Hofbrau in Menlo Park called The Underground, he decided to sit in. David Nelson joined them on electric guitar, and the little trio played intermittently for several Wednesdays.
I know someone who attended one of the shows, and they were just a trio, without a bass player. Why was Dawson visiting Garcia? Did Garcia invite him, or did he offer to drop in? They had been friendly several years earlier in Palo Alto, but had they been in touch since? How quickly did Nelson get involved? Was that the immediate plan, or did it happen later?
Bobby Ace And The Cards Off The Bottom Of The Deck
In June of 1969, Garcia, Dawson and others play a few shows under various names. There was one at Peninsula School in Menlo Park, probably for Heather Katz (Garcia's) tuition, and another at California Hall. There seems to be some whiff from McNally that these were a tryout of the New Riders "concept," and old Palo Alto friend Peter Grant may have played banjo along with them. A setlist exists for the California Hall show. Per someone who took careful notes, the band appears to have been Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten, and there were contributions by Nelson, Dawson and Grant (on pedal steel). The setlist has a lot of Bakersfield-type material, but no Dawson-written songs. Was the California Hall show similar or different to the Peninsula show?
Jerry Garcia, Marmaduke and Friends
The first public "New Riders" appearance was opening for the Grateful Dead at Longshoreman's Hall on July 16, 1969. The show (per Blair Jackson) was apparently a shambles. The first publicized show by the band was at the Bear's Lair Coffeehouse at UC Berkeley, on August 1, 1969, where the band was billed as Jerry Garcia, Marmaduke and Friends with Mickey Hart. Who played bass?
There are two contradictory stories about the New Riders first bass player, both of them retailed by different band members over the years. The most common story is that Garcia decided to back Dawson as an excuse to play pedal steel and brought in Nelson, and Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh were brought in so that the New Riders could open for the Dead, so the band could get paid to be its own opening act with just two extra bodies. A great story, but not really true.
In 1969, the New Riders only opened for the Dead between 5 and 10 times, only 3 or 4 of which were booked shows where they had a chance of getting paid, and only 1 or 2 of those out of town. I have discussed at length elsewhere the Dead's strange foray to the Aqua Theater in Seattle on August 20, 1969, which included a rain out and a guest appearance at a biker bar, where the Riders may or may not have appeared. The Dead also played a rock festival in Oregon right afterward (August 23), and the Riders are rumored to have appeared. This journey was the New Riders only out of town trip, so while the band may have thought it was a good idea, they only went out of town once with the New Riders in 1969.
However, the New Riders played numerous shows in Bay Area nightclubs from August through November 1969. Jerry Garcia's name was always listed in the ads or press releases, and Mickey Hart's sometimes, but never Phil Lesh's. It does make me wonder why club owners wouldn't promote Phil's name, if he were going to play. The New Riders played very small places in 1969, and the Dead themselves were not really that big (though infamous), so given that, it is not surprising that I have never found a detailed account or review that identified Phil Lesh as a member of the band, nor has any reliable eyewitness asserted it. I'm not ruling it out--just pointing out that the various quotes from band members years later were eliding the real history of the New Riders, so some vagueness about the history of the bassist would be par for the course.
Alternative versions of the early history of the New Riders have Grateful Dead engineer Bob Matthews as the bassist. In a 2009 interview with Blair Jackson, Nelson recalled
I remember going up to Jerry’s house in Larkspur with John and we had [Grateful Dead sound engineer] Bob Matthews fill in on bass and we practiced John’s tunes, and then we thought, “Hey, let’s get a gig! We can get Mickey to play drums!” So we played two or three nights there at the Bear’s Lair student union [on the UC Berkeley campus]Nelson clearly places Matthews as the rehearsal bassist, but does that mean Matthews played the early shows as well? Granted, 40 years have passed, but just like old family stories, a standard story is treated as gospel without question, when in actuality the known facts do not support it. For example, the proto-New Riders played two shows on the same night, rather than two or three nights, and Nelson doesn't even mention the Longshoreman's show two weeks prior.
It's easy to leap to the conclusion that Bob Matthews was the initial bassist for the New Riders, and Phil Lesh replaced him. Since various band members recall Lesh in the group, he must have played with them at some point, but that begs another set of questions: did Phil replace Matthews outright, or did they alternate shows depending on unknown factors? Did Phil play a lot of New Riders shows, or just a few?
|SF Chronicle, August 6, 1969|
The Tapes (Aug 7 '69 Matrix and Sep 18 '69 Cotati)
We are fortunate to have tapes of two excellent early New Riders shows, one from The Matrix on August 7, 1969 (the group's fourth show) and another from the Inn Of The Beginning in Cotati on September 18, 1969. Both of these shows are excellent, and quite different, as Garcia's vocals are uniquely prominent in Cotati. Why only two tapes? Who made them? Keep in mind that we have no idea what the New Riders played, much less sounded like, between Cotati and the balance of the year, as there are neither tapes nor reviews. Did Garcia sing a bunch of Buck Owens songs, or play banjo? If I asserted that he did--I have no idea--how would anyone disprove it?
My theory is that Owsley recorded the tapes, but he only recorded shows that he was present at. Owsley's concept, as far as I understood it, was that his tapes were "sonic journals" of how any band he mixed sounded in the house, but he only taped when he mixed himself. Of course, we have no idea who mixed the sound for the New Riders on most nights, if anyone, nor if they had any crew to speak of in 1969. By mid-1970, the Dead and Riders crews had been merged somewhat, but back in 1969 who had been assigned to drive the van to obscure clubs in Berkeley or Sonoma?
I do know that when the New Riders played Mandrake's in Berkeley, a waitress recognized Owsley. Owsley lived in Oakland, and despite his reclusiveness he was well known around Berkeley folk clubs. Thus the Mandrake's waitress recognized him, but had no idea who the Riders were beyond Garcia. I think Owsley saw the New Riders at Mandrake's because it was near his house, leading me to hope that there might be another New Riders tape yet to surface, but I don't think he was a regular attendee at Riders shows. The waitress recalled that "When Owsley was sound man for the Jerry band at the club, he was traveling under the assumed name Durand as the FBI had an all points bulletin out for him and apparently wanted to talk with him about something." I remain hopeful that the Mandrake's shows are in Owsley's secret stash, but with the FBI on his tail I doubt Owsley wanted his appearances effectively advertised in the paper.
|SF Chronicle, September 17, 1969|
Other variations of the history of the New Riders have Robert Hunter as an early bassist, replacing or being replaced by Matthews. Hunter himself has sorted out the timeline clearly, but this is often ignored in order to tell a more folksy tale of the New Riders' genesis. In fact, whether Matthews or Lesh or both had been the bass player in 1969, neither were seemingly available for duty in 1970. Lesh, apparently, wasn't really interested, and Matthews must have had too many obligations producing Workingman's Dead, as well as other technical obligations. Nonetheless, Nelson, Dawson and Garcia were keeping the New Riders concept alive, even if the band played no shows (save one booking on January 19, 1970, possibly canceled).
Hunter seems to have been drafted in early 1970 to replace Matthews as the New Riders "rehearsal bassist." In recalling the composition of "Friend Of The Devil" in 2006, Hunter also recalled his peculiar status as stand-in bassist.
I was living in Madrone canyon with the Garcias. The NRPS had asked me if I wanted to play bass with them and it seemed like a good idea at the time. So I worked up that song on bass, added a few verses plus a chorus and went over to where David Nelson and John Dawson were living in Kentfield and taught them the tune...
We ran back upstairs to Nelson's room and recorded the tune. I took the tape home and left it on the kitchen table. Next morning I heard earlybird Garcia (who hadn't been at the rehearsal - had a gig, you know) wanging away something familiar sounding on the peddle steel. Danged if it wasn't "Friend of the Devil." With a dandy bridge on the "sweet Anne Marie" verse. He was not in the least apologetic about it. He'd played the tape, liked it, and faster than you can say dog my cats it was in the Grateful Dead repertoire.
Although I learned all the tunes, I never did play a gig with the NRPS, who were doing strictly club dates at the time. For one reason or another I never quite fathomed, though I have my suspicions, I got shut out. Either that or I misread the signs and wasn't inclined to push. Nothing was ever said. In any event, a fellow named Dave Torbert showed up about that time. Just as well. One dedicated songwriter in the band was enough.Hunter seems to have played a useful role for the group, but when Dave Torbert was invited to join the band any ideas Hunter may have had about being in the Riders were over. By 1970, Hunter had not been an active performing musician for several years, and would have been a very basic bass player, whereas Torbert was not only a solid, soulful bassist but an experienced performer as well. After getting his start in The Good News, Torbert had spent 18 months playing with Nelson in the New Delhi River Band. If Nelson had wanted Torbert all along, as Hunter seems to imply, why had Nelson even suggested to Hunter that he could become bassist? Whether Hunter was aware of it or not, the NRPS was playing few or no gigs at the time, and I have to presume that Lesh still covered the duties, although that too remains mysterious (note that Hunter says "I never did play a gig with the NRPS, who were doing strictly club dates at the time").
David Torbert joined the New Riders in April, 1970, in time for the Riders public debut as the Grateful Dead's opening act. The first Dead/NRPS tour commenced on May 1, 1970, so the New Riders played a flurry of gigs in April to get their sound and equipment together, and not least, to acclimate Torbert. Torbert was a fine bassist and singer, and cool and handsome to boot, so his arrival presaged the elevation of the New Riders from "Jerry Garcia nightclub experiment" to a real band. Yet the stories surrounding Torbert's arrival were shrouded in a vagueness that was never resolved.
After the New Delhi River Band broke up in early 1968, Torbert and Matt Kelly had gone on to play in a number of bands such as Shango and Horses, the latter even releasing an album. When Horses ground to a halt in early 1969, Torbert went to Hawaii to surf and Kelly went to England. In England, Kelly hooked up with a band called Gospel Oak, and he called Torbert to join him in London. On his way to England in early 1970, Torbert stopped at his parent's house in Redwood City, CA when Nelson "coincidentally" called him and asked him if he wanted to join a band with Jerry Garcia.
Coincidence? Really? Dave Torbert is in California for one day, and that's the day that Nelson called his parents? Torbert, to his credit, called Kelly and asked him if he could take Nelson's offer, and Kelly (also to his credit) encouraged his friend to catch the wave while it was breaking. Nonetheless, Torbert took the offer and joined the New Riders, leaving Hunter to wait several years for his performing reappearance.
Some Reflections On The History Of The New Riders Bassists
For rock historians, and indeed for all historians, often nothing is more useful than some lingering bitterness that airs hitherto unknown grievances. An unhappy bass player, an aggrieved ex-wife or a slighted road manager with a score to settle are often the best source for finding out what may lay beneath various decisions beyond the usual "creative differences." The Grateful Dead stuck together for 30 years, and the remaining members and crew stick together even to this day. While sharp eyes can discern various disputes and disagreements, solidarity takes presence over the airing of grievances. Even those who have long since left the fold only speak well of the past, particularly of anything to do with Jerry Garcia, lending a new interpretation to the old phrase "don't speak ill of The Dead."
Put another way, most people in the Grateful Dead's extended family are still friends, or still share mutual friends, so just like any family, stories are recalibrated in order to save every relative's feelings. Bob Matthews and later Robert Hunter were drafted as bassists to help with rehearsals, but the talents of both were elsewhere and I think that their bass playing was found wanting. For Nelson and Garcia, an unrehearsed Phil Lesh had to be superior to a full-time engineer who moonlighted, but no one wanted to say that in an interview, so the story has been glossed over.
By the same token, the story about Nelson coincidentally calling Dave Torbert's parents on the only day that he was in town sounds like a story designed to assuage his close friend Robert Hunter's feelings. It apparently worked, as Hunter and Nelson are still friends, but by 2006 even Hunter seems to have realized that Nelson was planning to hire Torbert, but needed Hunter for rehearsal and as a last resort. Not very flattering, but no friend wants to tell Rolling Stone magazine their real motives.
My own view is that once the New Riders project took on a real life, Nelson planned to bring Torbert on board. Dawson knew Torbert well from Palo Alto, so he would have been supportive. Garcia must have known as well, but Garcia was legendary for avoiding uncomfortableness of any kind, so it's no surprise that he never hinted to Matthews or Hunter what the plan was. I also think that Phil Lesh played most of the 1969 New Riders shows, but Matthews filled in occasionally, amidst his recording duties. It was in the interests of the whole band to have Lesh on call, yet with a substitute available as needed. As Matthews role as an engineer became more important, particularly after Owsley got busted in New Orleans, he must have realized that he was dispensable and focused on the studio.
In February of 1970, with Matthews focused on Workingman's Dead and Lesh uninterested in continuing the experiment, Nelson must have recruited Hunter as a stopgap, knowing that his real plan was to engage Torbert. Hunter had played a little bass with Nelson and Garcia in his bluegrass days, but he wasn't really a bassist. During the early 1970 period that Hunter rehearsed with the New Riders, they only booked one show that they may not have played, so Torbert aside, Hunter couldn't have impressed the rest of the band at the time. When Torbert became available, the band was set. All that remained was for Garcia, Nelson and Dawson to continually repeat a series of vague stories that spared the feelings of their friends, leaving the truth so vague that is has become nearly impossible to recover.
All of this is all but impossible to sort out. For all the rightful importance assigned to the New Riders of The Purple Sage in the arc of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, their early days are surprisingly bereft of actual information. Among those that were there at the time and are still around, and there aren't that many, have 40+ years in between to cloud their recollections. The charm of the early New Riders was that they could play a show at a tiny place in Berkeley or the Marina District for a few hundred beer drinkers, and those people could hardly be expected to recall who the bass player was by the time of the next century.
Appendix: New Riders Performances, 1969
May 7, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
May 14, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
May 21, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
June 4, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
June ?, 1969 Peninsula School, Menlo Park [billing unknown]
June 11, 1969 California Hall, San Francisco Bobby Ace And The Cards Off The Bottom Of The Duke
June 24, 1969 The Underground, Menlo Park John Dawson
July 16, 1969 Longshoreman's Hall, San Francisco Grateful Dead/Cleveland Wrecking Company/Ice
August 1, 1969 Bear's Lair, UC Berkeley Jerry Garcia, Marmaduke and Friends
August 6-9, 1969 The Matrix, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage
August ?, 1969 Lions Share, San Anselmo, New Riders Of The Purple Sage
August 13, 1969 Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco New Lost City Ramblers/New Riders of The Purple Sage "Hoe Down"
August 19, 1969 Family Dog At The Great Highway New Riders Of The Purple Sage
August 20, 1969 El Roach Tavern, Ballard, WA Grateful Dead/others (possibly NRPS)
August 21, 1969 Aqua Theatre, Seattle, WA Grateful Dead/New Riders of The Purple Sage/Sanpaku
August 23, 1969 Bullfrog 2 Festival, Pelletier Farm, St Helens, OR Grateful Dead/others (possibly NRPS)
August 28, 1969 Family Dog At The Great Highway Grateful Dead/Mickey And The Hartbeats/NRPS
August 29-30, 1969 Family Dog At The Great Highway Grateful Dead/Commander Cody/New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Rubber Duck Company
September 18, 1969 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati New Riders Of The Purple Sage
October 9, 1969 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati, CA New Riders Of The Purple Sage
October 14-16, 1969 Mandrake's, Berkeley New Riders of The Purple Sage
October 17, 1969 Loma Prieta Room, Student Union, San Jose State College, San Jose New Riders Of The Purple Sage/The Fourth Way
October 22, 1969 Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Lazarus
November 3-4, 1969 The Matrix, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage
November 6, 1969 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati New Riders Of The Purple Sage
November 13, 1969 The Poppycock, Palo Alto New Riders Of The Purple Sage
November 18, 1969 Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage/David LaFlamme "Square Dance"
November 19, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Big Brother and The Holding Company/Barry McGuire & The Doctor Naut Family
November 20, 1969 The Poppycock, Palo Alto New Riders Of The Purple Sage
November 22-23, 1969 Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Anonymous Artists Of America/Devil's Kitchen
November 27, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Lamb/Cleveland Wrecking Company/Deacon and The Suprelles/Rafael Garrett Circus
November 28, 1969 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati New Riders Of The Purple Sage
January 19, 1970 Pauley Ballroom, UC Berkeley, CA: New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band Benefit For Center For Educational Change