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The trip that inspired the Grateful Dead song

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As late as 1972, hardcore Deadheads were still calling out for ‘Alligator’. The Grateful Dead had evolved rapidly since the song’s original conception in 1967, but half a decade later, some fans still wanted the highly psychedelic sounds of the Primal Dead. As with most requests from the audience, the Dead weren’t too keen on entertaining hecklers or being told what to do. As was their usual way of handling things, the band heckled back.

“Hey, for all you ‘Alligator’ fans out there…we understand there’s a lot of ‘Alligator’ fans out there, but we done forgot it, see,” Phil Lesh told the audience at the Academy of Music on March 28th, 1972, right before the band embarked on their Europe 72 tour. “And so we’re gonna have to remember it sometime later, you know.” 

When the band returned to their American gigs later that year, it was without keyboardist/vocalist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, who sang lead on ‘Alligator’. “’Alligator’? Did you say ‘Alligator’?” Bob Weir asked after hearing a request for the track at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 18th, 1972. Lesh then came in to put the hammer down. “We don’t do that tune no more, man. It done faded away in the mists of time,” Lesh told the crowd. “As you all might have figured out by now, we can’t do any Pigpen songs because Pigpen ain’t here.”

‘Alligator’ was a somewhat-unlikely Pigpen classic. Originally featured on the band’s heady 1968 studio/live collage Anthem of the Sun, the track was a step outside of Pigpen’s usual comfort zone of traditional blues classics and rave-up rockers. ‘Alligator’ had hippie-dippie lyrics, dense jam excursions, and lots of purposeful weirdness around its structure. That might have been unusual for Pigpen, but he and the rest of the Dead crafted the song in a burst of creative unity.

In May of 1967, the Dead accepted an offer by band friend John Warnecke, whose father owned a vacation home alongside the Russian River north of San Francisco. The house had a number of cabins where the band members stayed. After setting up a stage and sound system near the riverside, the Dead spent most of the trip trying to freak out normal folks on vacation by making animal sounds through their PA.

“I don’t know if any kayaker actually fell over from the shock of what sounded like a giant 80-foot bullfrog or anything,” drummer Bill Kreutzmann recalls in Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, “but we sure tried.”

When the Dead weren’t flying on acid and messing with their fellow river patrons, they got down to the business of composing. The first group-minded jams around ‘Dark Star’ were said to have started alongside the banks of the Russian River. But the aquatic atmosphere also inspired Lesh and Pigpen to finish what would become ‘Alligator’. The band had already jammed on the song’s basic structure as early as January of 1967, but Lesh and Pipgen honed in on the titular animal while exploring the waters of the Russian River.

When they returned to San Francisco, the Dead had a new collaborator among their tribe. Robert Hunter had been a close friend of Jerry Garcia’s since the early 1960s, with the pair both trying to make their way in the Palo Alto folk scene. After a trip to New Mexico, Hunter began writing poems that would form the lyrical basis for songs like ‘China Cat Sunflower’ and ‘St. Stephen’. Some lines of poetry would eventually be adapted into the lyrics of ‘Alligator’ (Pigpen was also responsible for parts of the lyrics, with Lesh likely also adding some of his own contributions). After the Dead and Hunter solidified their relationship, ‘Alligator’ would be fully formed.

Check out the version of ‘Alligator’ from Anthem of the Sun down below.

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