Updated: Jun 3, 2022
The Grateful Dead was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area amid the rise of the counterculture of the 1960s. The founding members were Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (keyboards, harmonica, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), and Bill Kreutzmann (drums). The discography of the rock band the Grateful Dead includes more than 200 albums, the majority of them recorded live.
Before and after that iconic year of the Summer of Love in 1967, the Dead were a Marin County band. After a comically ill-conceived plan to conquer the music business in Los Angeles, they came to their senses and found hippie heaven in the golden hills of Marin County in the summer of 1966, living first at Olompali in Novato for six idyllic weeks of flower child freedom and naked country living.
Along with half the young people in the country, the Dead migrated to San Francisco for the Summer of Love, then fled back to Marin after they got snared in a San Francisco Police Department pot raid. They were also escaping the busloads of gawking tourists that brought the Summer of Love to a screeching halt.
“Grayline buses were literally driving down Ashbury Street, announcing, ‘On your right is the way out pad of the beatnik-hippie Grateful Dead. Look, you may see one of them,’” McNally says, doing a credible imitation of a tour bus driver. “Essentially, they got run out of town.”
Garcias Led Way
Garcia and Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia led the exodus back to Marin. The rest of the band followed ~ living in Stinson Beach, a Novato Ranch, Mill Valley and other groovy Marin enclaves. When they weren’t at home, they were on the road, eventually becoming the highest grossing touring band in the world, playing multiple nights at stadiums and coliseums across the country.
As the band’s publicist, McNally went on tour with the Dead and its crew for a decade, until Garcia’s death ended their phenomenal run. Interviewer, Paul Liberatore, asked McNally to tell me one of his favorite stories about life on the road. He started right in on what the band called its “High Altitude Summer Tour” of the Rocky Mountain states.
Normally, the Dead traveled in rock star luxury in private chartered Gulfstream G-3 jets, but because of the high altitudes on this tour, they had to take a smaller prop job when they flew out of Telluride, Colorado, after a daytime show there. On this plane, everyone had a window seat that looked out on the dramatic landscape as the sun began to set.
“We get up in the air, and the pilot asks over the intercom if the band wanted to fly straight to Phoenix or go sightseeing,” McNally recalls.
The Dead being the Dead naturally chose sightseeing, picking Monument Valley, a breathtaking array of sandstone buttes that rise 1,000 feet above the valley floor. McNally remembers the pilot flying through the valley so low that it afforded a view that only a mountain goat would normally enjoy.
“There’s half the butte above us and half below us,” he recalled. “It was getting near sunset and the sandstone is bleeding colors: purples and yellows and reds and oranges. It’s phenomenally beautiful. And I’m overwhelmed.”
McNally threw into his story to Paul Liberatore, Interviewer, what he calls “the human element.” Earlier on the tour, drummer Mickey Hart had bought a boa constrictor he dubbed Cosmic Charlie. Naturally, he took his boa on the plane with him.
“The snake is slithering up and down the aisle scaring the snot out of people and pooping on the floor,” McNally remembers. “Mickey’s son, Taro Hart, who was about 8 years old then, is sitting on the pilot’s lap, and the pilot insists he’s flying the plane. In the back of the plane, across the aisle and to my left, Garcia is giving a full bore film history lecture about the discovery of Monument Valley by director John Ford, who shot his movie ‘Stagecoach’ there. I was sitting there just thinking that this is the weirdest, coolest and among the funniest moments of my life. And it could never, ever have happened except with the Grateful Dead.”
“It was truly magical,” McNally recalls, sitting at his desk in his home-office in San Francisco’s Mission District. “It was summer and they threw parties and everybody came. There was a swimming pool and people were all running around naked. The band was starting to work at the Avalon and Fillmore (ballrooms) and making some money, at least enough to eat. Life was good.”
When that glorious sojourn ended, the band found a second communal retreat in a former Girl Scout camp in woodsy San Geronimo Valley. McNally isn’t sure where that camp was exactly. Some people say it would later become Serenity Knolls, the treatment center where Garcia died in 1995, but that’s unclear.
“I’ve heard more people tell me more different stories about where it was,” he says. “I’d really love for that to be sorted out. Wherever it was, it also had a pool where Pigpen (the Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan) and Janis (Joplin) noisily consorted in the middle of the night.”
“What a long strange trip it's been.” ― Jerry Garcia