"Alligator" was Robert Hunter's first credit with the Grateful Dead. Hunter would go on to become the band's lyricist and a longtime collaborator with Jerry Garcia. The partnership may never have happened the way it did if not for an extended trip (the physical, not psychedelic, kind) the band took in May of 1967.
John Warnecke, friend of Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, had invited the crew out to the Russian River in northern California. The band accepted and stayed there for a couple of weeks.
Warnecke's father was a world-famous architect who'd built a vacation home surrounded by smaller cabins in the picaresque setting. The Dead stayed in the cabins and set up their equipment on a platform beside the river. For the duration of their stay, they ingested large amounts of acid and tried to freak out vacationers that were using the river. They turned the speakers towards the water and blasted out animal sounds and strange vocal noises. "I don't know if any kayaker actually fell over from the shock of what sounded like a giant 80-foot bullfrog or anything," Kreutzmann recalls in Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead
, "but we sure tried."
During the trip, the band started tinkering with "Dark Star
." Kreuztmann also believes that the idea for what would become "The Other One" started gestating there.
But this trip was also where Garcia remembered some lyrics that his friend Robert Hunter had sent him. The band decided to incorporate the words into their song "Alligator." It's a seemingly little thing, perhaps, until one considers the impact that Hunter had on the Dead. Many, including Dead members themselves, credit Hunter's lyrics with turning their catchy tunes into something deeper. For much of his time with the Dead, Hunter was on a Rimbaud-inspired "vision quest." However one feels about such metaphysics, there's no doubt that that quest pushed him to reach for something beyond mere entertainment. In that quest, he was trying to write songs for the ages, not just for the day's radio charts. It was largely this spiritual, artistic ambition that helped create songs that resonated meaningfully with people's lives and led to the creation of a fervent subculture that would become known as "Deadheads."
Maybe it all would have happened even without the Russian River trip. Maybe not. Either way, some of the Dead's most cherished songs stemmed from a collaborative relationship started by a chance memory that came to Garcia during an acid-fueled camping trip spent jamming and freaking out squares.
It couldn't have been a more fitting start, really, and it's hard to imagine destiny having it any other way.