New Orleans, Louisiana

Truckin' by Grateful Dead

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What in the world
Ever became of sweet Jane?
She lost her sparkle
You know she isn't the same Read full Lyrics
There were no private jets or custom-built buses in the Grateful Dead's early years. There wasn't that "get out of jail free" card that is awarded to rock and roll acts today. In the beginning, there was just a handful of talented, heady young guys traveling in crowded passenger buses and airplane coach seats, sleeping in thin-walled motel rooms and making music. They also happened to be writing the songbook of a generation, of course, but they didn't really know that then. "In those days," bassist Phil Lesh explained, "there wasn't any rock and roll bubble that would isolate us from the world as we went through it." They were just a crew of shaggy guys on tour, and they were perfectly fine with that.

Bourbon Street at nightBourbon Street at night
"But we were never climbers in that sense," Jerry Garcia remembered. "For us, we were already having fun doing what we were doing. We already knew that it had almost no commercial potential apart from the community that we were in, and that was fine. We were having a good time and it was working out good and the music we were making had some value to us and to the world we lived in."

For the band in those early days, the road and the music were their own justification and their own end. The point wasn't to get anywhere with any of it, but just to exist inside that space and embrace it. "There was a romance about being a young man on the road in America," Bob Weir said. "You had to do it. It was a rite of passage, and at the same time it was the material that you drew from to write about."

That autobiographical material is very much on display in the song "Truckin'." Originally, in fact, the song itself was supposed to be a living chronicle of their adventures that grew and evolved as they did. Lyricist Robert Hunter explained, "I had lots of verses, you know. I thought - we all thought - that maybe we'd just keep adding to 'Truckin'' over the years. But the funny thing is, once you get it down, it is down, you don't go back to revisit it."

Perhaps it's a good thing that the song didn't quite maintain that intended state of perpetual evolution, because maintaining its original recorded form turned it into a musical snapshot of the band's early years, both in the abstractness of spirit and the concreteness of history.

Historic Pontalba Building in the French QuarterHistoric Pontalba Building in the French Quarter
Of all the specific and generalized stories included in the lyrics to "Truckin'," none were more infamous or emblematic of the times than the 1970 New Orleans drug bust mentioned in the lines, "Busted down on Bourbon Street / Set up, like a bowlin' pin / Knocked down, it gets to wearin' thin / They just won't let you be, oh no."

That arrest put 19 people in prison. It went down after the band got back from playing a gig sometime after 3 a.m. January 31, 1970. The police were waiting for them when they got back to their rooms, confiscated drugs already in hand. "It was very peculiar, and it seems like they set them up," drummer Mickey Hart recalled. "They were waiting when they got back from their concert.

They all had a warrant and had already searched the room when the band got back. So they called them into their own room, one by one, and busted them. Nothing was found on any of the people except stuff they had prescriptions for. Everything they claim to have found was in the room, they said. But nobody in the band knows where any of it came from. It wasn't their stuff. The Grateful Dead are normally very cool and cautious."

Perhaps the most significant arrest to come from the bust was Owsley Stanley, the "King of Acid," who, in addition to his duties as a sound technician for the Dead, also cooked up an estimated one million doses of LSD in his day.

The Dead were not yet a major multi-million-dollar act at the time. They couldn't afford their $50,000 in legal fees, and a benefit concert was held at Winterland on February 23rd by Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, and It's a Beautiful Day to raise the money.

Ultimately, things ended innocuously enough as nearly all charges against the band were dropped. Looking back at it from this vantage point in history, the most significant thing to come of the event was probably the line featured in "Truckin'," which was released nine months later on the American Beauty album. A shortened version of the song was released as a single and, with 520 performances, became the band's eighth most frequently played song.

It may seem surprising in this day and age to think of New Orleans as being so inhospitable to the Grateful Dead. It is, after all, known as an American mecca of both music and the consumption of mood altering substances. Bourbon Street is a popular tourist destination specifically because people yearn to go there to get rowdy and make bad decisions. The vibe is very different from the glitz and glam of Las Vegas or Los Angeles. It's more traditional and has more soul than those other places, but ultimately tourists largely go there for some form of hedonistic indulgence or another.

In the late sixties, however, the traditional mint-julep culture of the city was being threatened by hippies, head shops, and marijuana. Many at the time suspected the city of making a concerted effort to stop the long-hair problem before it got out of hand. Part of their strategy may have been driving out every musical act that came into their territory. Ludicrous as this sounds at first, it sounds less so when one considers that the Jefferson Airplane was also the victim of a bust in the French Quarter a couple weeks before the Grateful Dead were.

Bourbon Street signBourbon Street sign
Whether or not it was an act of preventative war by the New Orleans Police Department probably doesn't matter much now. It's been a long time and the Grateful Dead went on to have pretty decent careers and lives. Not too shabby, anyway. Besides, looking back now as the band draws its circle to a close, as we see the whole mythology played out and complete, doesn't a drug bust in a historic part of the American South just seem right in some deeply metaphysical way?

The lifestyle captured by "Truckin'" is gone now. Things have become too anesthetized and controlled for that kind of freedom and exploration. There aren't enough empty spaces for all that rambling. Mysteries can't grow under camera surveillance; it's just not the right kind of lighting and the plants will get sick if you try it. Only through the lens of time, now, can dream-things remain. For that reason, and many others, there will never be another Grateful Dead. It just won't happen. Thank God that it's all still there in the music, so we close our eyes and imagine: Six young men simultaneously chronicling a cultural revolution and fueling that revolution with their chronicles. The whole world was wide open in front of them and ready to be invented. They had no idea whatsoever what lay around the next bend, nor where any of that wandering would lead in the long term. They were naked of pretense in unmapped territory.

Lucky bastards.

Jeff Suwak
March 8, 2017

Photos by Shawna Ortega
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Comments: 1

  • David from Mobile, AlGood read. I do want to point out, though, that no one went to "prison", they were taken to a jail, awaiting bail, which is a lot different than "prison", where people are sent after a trial, and for a sentence of over 1 year. Owsley Stanley did go to a Federal Prison, but it was because his parole was revoked. CHeers,
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