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The Early Days of the New Riders


by John "Marmaduke" Dawson (McDuke)

Reprinted from Instant Armadillo News (IAN) #10 courtesy of Richard Harvey

Jerry Garcia, LSD, Ken Kesey, Acapulco Gold, "Marmaduke", Bob Weir, enlightenment, Dave Torbert, mescaline, the Golden Rule, "Henry", pedal steel, David Nelson, the Underground and on the road with the Grateful Dead...

Jerry Garcia
Jerry Garcia 1970 Photo by Herb Greene

Any story about the early days of the New Riders would also have to be a story about my relationship with Garcia, since that's how the whole thing got started. I first met Jerry Garcia at the house of my guitar teacher, who was my best friend's mother. It was during the folk music days in Palo Alto, sometime, I guess, before I left for my first semester at Millbrook School in New York, in September of 1959. Several of us students as well as members of the local picking scene were invited. Jerry was too but I didn't get to hear him play that night 'cause he had to leave 'cause he and his then old lady, Sarah, were off somewhere to do a gig with their little mandolin/guitar duet. Jerry was the mandolin.

After that, I would run into him often when I went into Dana Morgan's shop in Palo Alto. He rented a space there to give guitar lessons and whenever he wasn't teaching, he'd be in the front of the place, picking his guitar (or banjo or mandolin), and holding forth. Actually, you usually had to interrupt him whenever he was playing to get him to say anything, but when you did, it was definitely interesting. In the early sixties in Palo Alto there was a folk music thing happening, centered around a club called the Tangent.

Marmaduke 1970 Photo by Robert Altman

There was also a place where Garcia, Hunter, David Nelson and several other area heads were hanging out, and I think it was called the Chateau, but that was another scene that you'd have to ask Hunter about, I only went to the Tangent for Hootenanny Nights on Wednesday. There were lots of pickers and impromptu groups would form in the back room, to take the mic several minutes later with something that they'd just worked out. I think I first met David Nelson on one of those evenings. He was a year older than I was and he had a bushy moustache that made him look like a guy from the Californian gold fields of 1849. He was also in a little bluegrass band that Garcia had at the time, but they never invited me to play in that club. I had to ask them to play with me later on, but that was fine, 'cause I wasn't ready yet, really.

LSD came in 1965. In retrospect, it seems now as though all of the elements that made it possible for acid to do what it did were assembled there in the Bay Area. Ken Kesey had recently brought his well-we-started-in-Oregon-sort-of band of hippies, beatniks, ne'er-do-wells, always-so-wells, insane people, sane people, a few freaks and some hangers-on to La Honda, just over a few miles from Palo Alto. Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions had started evolving into the Warlocks, who would soon become the Grateful Dead. There was an emerging political, intellectual, revolutionary, coffee-shop type of scene, primarily in Berkeley. So it was like, "Well, we got the wiring in and the lamps in, let's throw this switch and see if the thing lights up". It did. I had been smoking grass for two years, but acid was like that times ten, with a bunch of interesting weirdness thrown in. Acid was different, it was very special, and you probably didn't want to do it every day. I was living at my parents' house that summer, having just returned from three months in Europe. (I was supposed to go to the University of Grenoble in France, but I and this guy I met in Paris ended up in Copenhagen, trying to start a rock and roll band.)

There was a house on Gilman Street, behind the post office in Palo Alto, where David Nelson, Eric Thompson, Herb Pedersen, and Rick Shubb lived. I would go there in the evenings to smoke pot. One night Denny Smith brought the only kilo of Genuine Acapulco Gold that I've ever seen. Delicious. The next morning when I walked into the place, Rick Shubb decided that I looked more like a Marmaduke than a John Collins Dawson. He took me around to everybody's room, saying, "Doesn't this look more like a Marmaduke to you?" I don't know from what reccesses of his cannabis-enhanced brain he came up with Marmaduke, (I looked it up: it means Sea Leader!?!), but the name has stuck, although Garcia later shortened it to McDuke, because I can talk like Donald Duck. As I said, when the LSD got there, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions started evolving into the Grateful Dead. David Nelson might have been the rhythm guitar player in the Dead if he had not been in L.A. at the time, trying out Scientology. Bobby Weir had some catching up to do on the guitar, but he was there, and he really wanted the gig. I think Garcia might have said something like, "Okay, kid, come on. Can you play this?" He eventually could.

The Grateful Dead got up and rolling that summer, but to all of us who were there at the time it was just some friends who had started this rock and roll band and they needed all the help they could get and they weren't really tight yet and they seemed to spend a lot of time just looking for a groove but when they did find one it really sounded good so you wanted to be there when that happened and you could just say, "I'm with the band", at the door so you could go to all the gigs and well, why not? But I wasn't actually in the band and I wasn't a secretary or an accountant or an organizer or a quippie or any of that stuff, so that fall I went back to Occidental College in Los Angeles to try and finish my sophomore year. I made it to about December, when I dropped out of school and continued hanging out with musicians and weirdos in L.A.

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