When the Grateful Dead went home from the LA studios in February ’67, they probably thought they were finished recording – after all, they’d recorded more than enough songs for an album. But Warner Bros wanted a single, and asked for another song: as Garcia reported, “After we recorded the album they said, ‘We still haven’t got anything here that’d be a strong single,’ so we said, ‘Ah, a strong single, sure!’ So we went home and wrote a song.”
They decided to write a song about the Haight hippie scene. The title came to them from Sue Swanson – she was their first fan, having watched over them ever since the first Warlocks rehearsals at Dana Morgan’s store in ’65. (She’d been Weir’s friend, and immediately became so enthusiastic about them, she insisted on going to every Warlocks rehearsal and even playing the 45s they learned songs from. “My job was to change the 45s. ‘Play that part again!’ It was a crummy little phonograph that would sit on the counter. I’ll never forget the sound of them practicing in there, and all the cymbals and everything in the whole room would be…making all this noise.”)
She’d been their constant companion since then. With the Dead’s first album now finally being released, Sue decided it was time to organize a fan club, and called it The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion. She, Connie Bonner, and Bob Matthews put out the Dead’s first fan newsletter that April, the Olompali Sunday Times. (The first two issues can be seen here: http://www.dead.net/tags/fan-club - they’re short, and well worth the read.)
The Dead recorded the song at Coast Recorders in San Francisco later in February, rather than going back to LA. They were able to take more time with this song, recording lots of takes, so it’s more layered with overdubs than the other songs on the album.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45YoZCo8dvU - the alternate single mix, with more studio effects than the cleaner album mix.
Lyrically, it’s something of an attempt to capture the Haight scene in a bottle, inviting everyone to “come and join the party every day.” (Ironically, the second fan-club newsletter from May describes the Haight being swamped with tourists, staring at the hippies!)
Garcia said, “The Golden Road was our effort at nailing down some of that feeling, I guess. That was sort of our group writing experience before Hunter was with us. We kept it simple. But what can you say? ‘We took a bunch of acid and had a lot of fun?’”
The band credited Golden Road on the album to McGannahan Skjellyfetti – a mythical character, based on a name in Kenneth Patchen’s book Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer. (My guess is Pigpen was the Patchen fan, since he was into beat poetry.)
As it turned out, Skjellyfetti would have a brief writing career, getting credits for Golden Road, Cold Rain & Snow, New Minglewood Blues, and “Feedback” on Live/Dead, before fading away. (On more recent CD issues, he’s disappeared altogether under the stern frowns of music publishers.)
We only have two live Golden Roads.
3/18/67 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd1967-03-18.sbd.sacks.1594.shnf (the other, better Archive file is currently not streaming)
‘5/5/67’ - http://www.archive.org/details/gd67-05-05.sbs.yerys.1595.sbeok.shnf (segues into New Potato Caboose)
It’s unusual among the Dead’s live songs – they do it exactly like the studio version (even the guitar solo’s unchanged) - and clocking in at two minutes, it must be the shortest live song they ever did. (Which may be one reason they moved on and left it behind – in ’67, the Dead didn’t stand still for long. Ironically, this summer-of-love song was already history by the summer of love.)
Those who wonder why the Dead dropped it so quickly should also remember that all the Dead’s early pre-Hunter songs followed that pattern. Garcia was never too happy with his lyrics (“I felt my lyric writing was woefully inadequate”), and the band was eager to abandon their early compositions. (They were primarily a covers band at the time, and wrote very few of their own songs in any case.) Almost none of their 1966 songs made it into ’67 except for Cream Puff War (that we know of…for all we know, they may well have played Alice D Millionaire or Tastebud live in ’67). And by the time Hunter started writing lyrics for them, pretty much all their older original songs were dropped.
Though they likely played Golden Road quite often in early ’67, it probably didn't last in their sets past the summer/fall.
Some inaccurate setlist sites report more specific performances of Golden Road. Deadbase.com, for instance, shows the mysterious 6/15/67 Straight Theater show with the setlist borrowed from ‘5/5/67’. Setlists.net has at least finally omitted their hoax listing of 12/18/65 Big Beat Club (which also used the same setlist).
For the 4/12/67 Mime Troupe benefit at the Fillmore, Golden Road is the only song listed, and is said to have opened the set. The Dead may well have played it.
6/8/67 Cafe au Go Go has a very nice-looking setlist which includes Cream Puff, Cryptical, New Potato, Born Cross-Eyed, and Alligator>Caution. Clearly a fake! (The available setlist for 6/6/67, though probably also fake and suspiciously Pigpen-heavy, does at least show what a full mid-’67 set would have looked like, and is also partly confirmed by Phil Lesh’s description of a Café au Go Go set in his book: “Pig’s blues and R&B, arrangements of traditional songs, a Dylan song,” and Alligator…though ironically, he may have just looked up this setlist!)
Back in the real world, there is also a video of Golden Road from a '60s British TV show called Whicker's World. This was “a weekly UK news journal show that ventured to San Francisco to report on the hippie generation. The Grateful Dead were featured getting stoned in their Haight Ashbury pad, as well as performing The Golden Road.” (The filming took place in March ’67, and is actually mentioned with some excitement in the first fan-club newsletter.)
I can’t find a good link to this clip, so I’ll offer this description from deadlists: “The video portion is intense to watch. Strobe lights are flashing and the camera zooms in and out very fast on the band members… There is a lot of footage of people dancing (and the guy doing the oil-based light show).”
The British narrator announces the clip: “An assault on the senses, an LSD trip without drugs. Flashing strobe lights, spermatazoic color.”
Sad to say, the Golden Road is not live, but dubbed from the album.
The band did at least mention Golden Road onstage again, a few years later. On 6/7/70, the fourth night of a Fillmore West run, the Dead were taking a little break onstage after Sitting on Top of the World.
Garcia explained, “We’re waiting around until a good idea comes up.” Of course, the audience offered a few ideas of their own. (Earlier in the show, the band had jokingly aborted Louie Louie as Weir exclaimed, “Hey man, none of us knows that song!”)
Now Weir spoke up again: “Hey, there’s a guy over there, and he’s always over there, and he always yells out ‘Golden Road.’ And I want to know who he is, man, because you take the cake. I mean, actually, quite truthfully, we’ve forgotten that song, we’ve forgotten how to play it.”