Wednesday, September 20, 2017

710 Ashbury Street

In the early 1960s, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter were playing in a number of folk, rock and country bands. One of them, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions" also included Pigpen McKernan. In 1965, Mother McCree's changed its name to The Warlocks. As fate would have it, there was another band in the Bay Area with the same name, not to mention a little band back east that would become The Velvet Underground (having used the Warlocks name before becoming The Falling Spikes). At the end of '65, The Warlocks rechristened themselves The Grateful Dead. Garcia, sitting in the front room with Phil Lesh at 710 Asbury, the band’s home base, randomly opened a dictionary (precisely, Funk and Wagnall's New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition) and put his finger on the entry "Grateful Dead": "a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial." 

Garcia said, "I opened it up and the first thing I saw was 'The Grateful Dead.' It said that on the page and it was so astonishing. It was truly weird, a truly weird moment. I didn't like it really, I just found it to be really powerful." Everyone recognized that power. As band associates Bobby Petersen and Alan Trist later wrote, the name "struck a chord of mythic resonance, with a contemporary ring, echoes in the past and ripples in the future." Phil Lesh remembered that "it hit me like a hammer – it seemed to describe us so perfectly. I started jumping up and down, shouting, 'That's it! That's it!" Kreutzmann and Weir were more skeptical, but Garcia and Lesh's relentless enthusiasm banished any qualms, and in December, the Grateful Dead made their formal debut at a house on South 5th Street in San Jose. It was a quick walk from the San Jose Civic Auditorium, where the Rolling Stones were playing, and flyers were passed out afterward inviting attendees to an Acid Test where the Grateful Dead would play. Specific accounts of the raucous shindig are, not surprisingly, blurry, but some versions have several of The Stones attending.

Earlier that Fall, bankrolled by LSD kingpin Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead and their extended families moved into their communal house at 710a Ashbury Street, becoming a fixture on the local music scene and building a large fan base on the strength of their many free concerts. Across the street at 715 was the headquarters of the San Francisco Hell's Angels chapter. Like nearly every San Francisco street, Ashbury is on a hill. Garcia said, "I heard that Ken Kesey was driving down it one day and his brakes gave out and he had to make a quick decision: he could crash into the Grateful Dead house, or he could crash into the Hell's Angels house. He chose the Hell's Angels. Wise choice from our perspective, but perhaps questionable from any other." Interestingly, before it became the Hell's Angel’s house, Sue Swanson and Ron Rakow, both Grateful Dead employees, lived there. So did Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, the famous psychedelic poster artists.

On October 2, 1967, narcotics agents raided 710 Ashbury Street with a dozen reporters and television crews tagging along. Pigpen, Bob Weir and nine others were arrested for possession of marijuana. Charges were later dropped, but the case got national attention when it was covered in the first issue of Rolling Stone. With the increasing commercialization of the Haight during 1967 (In October ’67 the “Diggers” declared the death of the hippie with a mock funeral), the Grateful Dead decided to leave 710, vacating the house in March 1968.