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Dr. R. Keith Sawyer Headshot

How the Grateful Dead Got Started

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Last week I was flying back from a speaking engagement, hanging out in the airport bookstore, when I saw a special issue of Rolling Stone magazine about the legendary 1960s psychedelic band, the Grateful Dead. In a 1972 interview, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia tells how the band began. The Grateful Dead emerged, like all creativity, from connections -- links between people, late-night conversations, and unexpected encounters -- unpredictable and improvisational.

It started in East Palo Alto, which Garcia described as a "ghetto" near the more famous city of Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. Garcia moved there after being released from the Army, simply because he knew some high school friends there and it was cheap. He'd taught himself guitar in high school, and he was interested in playing music, but he'd never performed or played in a band. Hanging out in a nearby coffee house, in 1961 he met Robert Hunter, another guitarist (who would later become the lyricist for the Grateful Dead). They started playing folk music at coffeehouses around the Bay Area, meeting other musicians who would later become famous: Jorma Kaukonen (of the Jefferson Airplane) and Janis Joplin.

Garcia eventually got a job working at a music store, where he met 15-year-old Bob Weir, who was just learning to play guitar, and Bill Kruetzmann -- at that time a bass player -- who later became the drummer for the Grateful Dead. He connected with other musicians while hanging out at the Peace Center in Palo Alto.

Garcia's first band was a jug band (Bob Weir blew on the jug). They quickly discovered that no one wanted to hire a jug band, so they reinvented themselves as an electric blues band. Several of their first songs were electric versions of the old jug band repertory.

Although none of them had gone to college, they benefited from being close to the Stanford University scene. Here's Garcia describing how it all came together:

There was this interaction going on. Just like there was interaction between our scene down on the Peninsula and the San Francisco scene...the San Francisco scene, all these little networks of one or two guys that go back and forth, sometimes it's dealers, sometimes it's musicians, you know, that was like the old line of communication.

Ken Kesey lived in a house about three blocks away; he was famous as the author of the best-seller One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Eventually the Grateful Dead and Kesey ended up at the same house party, and decided to keep getting together once a week to host a series of parties that became known as the Acid Test. The rest, as they say, is history.

This story seems to suggest that creativity is all about location, location, location. In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida argued that creativity emerges from localities where interesting people bump into each other unpredictably. In The Medici Effect, Franz Johansson emphasized the importance of "the intersection" -- places like the music store or the coffee shop or the Peace Center, where people come together. In my 2007 book, I call it Group Genius, the creative power of collaboration -- networks and conversations, improvisational and flowing encounters, where surprising new creativity emerges.

And in my new book, Zig Zag, I show that all new innovations emerge from this kind of unpredictable path. Garcia's story is filled with zigs and zags: he moved to East Palo Alto because it was cheap, not because he was trying to form a band. He started a jug band because there weren't many good bluegrass players around, and to play in a jug band you didn't have to be that talented. They shifted to electric because they weren't getting any gigs. They bumped into Ken Kesey because they were playing a house party that he attended.

This is how all great creativity happens -- a wandering path, surprising and unpredictable. As a Grateful Dead song puts it, "What a long, strange trip it's been." You can't tell where it's going to end, but you have to trust in the process, and stay open to the surprising ideas and opportunities that emerge along the way.