Last night, after a long day spent mostly outside, I settled in to watch The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir, a documentary about the Grateful Dead guitarist that’s now on Netflix. I’ve been, I guess, a casual Grateful Dead fan since I was in high school (you can read something about that here) and found the film to be equal parts entertaining and enlightening. Weir will never have the legacy and cult status of Jerry Garcia – the title of the film alludes to that – but he remains an incredibly talented and dedicated musician who had just as much to do with the development and ultimate success of the Grateful Dead as any other member. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been revisiting some old favorites today and thought about sharing something from History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One, an album that was very important to me as a teenager. Or perhaps “Sugar Magnolia,” which is probably the best-known Dead song penned by Weir. But then I remembered one thing that struck me while watching the documentary last night: images and footage from the Dead’s three-night stand near the pyramids in Giza, Egypt in 1978.
Basically, the idea for the trip evolved from the band’s – specifically bassist Phil Lesh’s – fascination with “playing at places of power,” i.e. locations that had more cosmic energy that the musicians and their audience could tap into. Lesh reported that he felt that there was “some kind of mojo about the pyramids.” In 1976, with the help of concert promoter Bill Graham, the band started to work on a plan to get into Egypt. They ended up using other contacts, well-connected Americans who had worked at the American University in Beirut, to help them present their proposal to play at the pyramids to the Egyptian government. Lesh spoke with a deputy culture minister, who as it turned out, completely understood his feeling that “music changes when you play in different places.” And so, that’s how the Dead ended up rocking the pyramids in April 1978, with all of the shows’ proceeds going to Egypt’s Department of Antiquities.
I think this event was a particularly cool moment in the history of the band, an example of how they used history and mysticism to further their own sound and image. I’m looking forward to researching it some more this week. (And listening to the live album covering the shows from April 15 and 16 – Rocking the Cradle, Egypt 1978 – which was released in 2008.)
Finally, here is a very good cover of the magazine Relix from February 1979 with an image of Bob Weir in front of a pyramid.
Haas, Charlie. “Still Grateful After All These Years: In Which the Grateful Dead of the Haight-Ashbury Become the House Band of the Certain Age of Doom.” The Grateful Dead Reader. Ed. Davide G. Dodd and Diana Spaulding. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 133-134.