Dead Bassist Recounts the Surreal Musicality of a Long, Strange Trip


Their stochastic epiphanies and sepia-toned country comforts made the Grateful Dead one of the 20th century’s more powerful transference machines. Reluctant bandleader Jerry Garcia, who buffered the demands of fans and staff with heroin and junk food, paid a Dionysian price for the combo’s success; everyone wanted a piece of the Dead and love would tear him apart, at least according to insider accounts by the group’s roadie, manager, and publicist-historian that have appeared since his 1995 demise.

None of these memoirists, though, was as quintessentially there as bassist Phil Lesh, who met Garcia during the latter’s 1959 folkie incarnation. Searching for the Sound provides an emotionally forthright reckoning of the Dead’s lush life, from its beatnik 1965 origins through its acid-test epiphanies, mid-’70s apex, and subsequent decline into the usual rock star nonsense, including the author’s unglamorized alcoholism. A student of composer Luciano Berio, Lesh was among the headiest of heads forged in the psychedelic crucible alongside equally shamanized musical brethren. “Oh Mighty Electron, hear our vow,” he recalls thinking during a particularly overdetermined Trips Festival show; “we will entrain our Metatronic essences in purest eleven-tenths harmony.”

Lesh lent the band its most consistently outside musical impetus, and he offers the best descriptions yet of the Dead’s approach to recording. The sessions that delivered the ecstatic Anthem of the Sun, he says, comprised “an attempt to convey the experience of consciousness itself.” Lesh hits familiar peaks and valleys of the band’s career—their three dead keyboardists, Woodstock, Altamont, the Great Pyramid gig, and some famously sketchy business decisions—but always snaps back to the primal artistic experience of performing onstage. Lesh ultimately found salvation in the love of the good woman and a fresh new liver. Nearing 70, he continues to keep it surreal onstage in a noble ongoing quest to “wrest meaning from the jaws of entropy and decay.”

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