Continuing our series of bonus material that didn't make it into our current issue's feature on Jerry Garcia, the following recollections come from director Leon Gast, who later won an Oscar for When We Were Kings, about his experience making the 1977 documentary The Grateful Dead.
I met [Garcia] through Sandy Alexander who was the president of the New York City Hells Angels. We were just starting to work on the movie Hells Angels Forever. Jerry had a relationship with the California Angels and was always a friend of the Angels. He’s in the movie. I was finishing working on a picture called Our Latin Thing and it was about the emergence of salsa, the Fania All-Stars, the influence of the Nuyoricans. Jerry was fascinated by it. We went to a couple of clubs together.
They were interested in doing a film about the Dead. It was 1974, they were at a point where they were ready to break up. What Jerry and [manager] Ron Rakow wanted to do was shoot a full Grateful Dead performance, from beginning to end. It was going to be five nights at the Winterland [in San Francisco] and they said, “Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. There will be one night when it will be magic.” I liked the Dead, but I wasn’t a Deadhead. I wasn’t sure I even knew what they were talking about. We did film all five days, there were times when over the headset someone would say, “It isn’t happening,” but we had like five cameras and six cameras going. And it did happen on the third night or the fourth night.
Everybody got dosed, all five nights of the shooting. Owsley [Stanley] with his elfish associates were able to come with their ingenuity and every night a different way to dose everybody, including [Bob] Weir, and the band didn’t want to get dosed. This girl came up and kissed him and he realized she probably had it all over her mouth and that’s how he got dosed. The first night it was in the coffee and the liquids. Each night it was a different way, like having people inject things like oranges and bananas. If you ate a piece fruit that you thought was safe you got dosed. The most ingenious was the water cooler. Those are sealed, there’s no way you’re getting into the bottle. They took the Dixie cups out and put a drop into each one and put them back in.
At one point we were going to call it The Grateful Dead: Warts and All, but that’s not what happened. It became a movie about a series of concerts and the crew and the Deadheads. We agreed that this should be about the Grateful Dead experience.