On September 17, 1971, Pigpen went into the hospital, seriously ill and near death. The Dead were faced with a dilemma - just a month later, a midwest tour was to start in Minneapolis. Would they go on without a keyboard player? The decision was made quickly. From September 28, we have our first tape of their rehearsals with Keith Godchaux.
What happened in between?
From the Dead's perspective, Godchaux came out of nowhere. They had several other keyboard players they had been working with, who could have joined:
Ned Lagin had played on American Beauty, and guested with them at the Berkeley shows in August '71, along with several other '71 shows and backstage experiments. But as far as we know, he wasn't considered, or turned them down.
He mentions in his interview with Gans, "That fall I went back to Boston for graduate school. Brandeis gave me a fellowship that included all expenses, plus recording tape and all sorts of stuff to work with in their electronic music studio." Many college students wouldn't think twice between the option of another year at school or joining the Grateful Dead; but Lagin was on his own path. (Ironically, he became unhappy with Brandeis and soon dropped out, to resurface on a later Dead tour...)
Merl Saunders, of course, was playing with Garcia all the time, plus he had done studio overdubs on several songs for the Dead's 1971 live album that summer. But if they asked him, he was not interested. In later interviews, he sounds like he preferred the independence & freedom to work on his own projects.
When he was asked why he hadn't joined the band in 1990, he said, "I've always done my own thing. Before the Dead, I was working with Lionel Hampton, Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis. Why would I want to work in the Dead and just be the way they worked?" He was proud of doing music theater: "During the late '60s, I was doing a Broadway play in New York at the George Abbott Theatre. I was musical director for...Muhammad Ali. So those are the things that if I was with the Grateful Dead, I couldn't do. I played with Miles Davis for about a year. The Lionel Hampton Band. Did a lot of recording with Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. I wanted to be myself and go the direction I wanted. Although I did record with the Dead. But when they asked me to come in and do their thing — to join them — I didn't really want to join the band. When it's Grateful Dead time you have to do a Grateful Dead thing."
His associations with these other people may have been very brief in real life, but it should be noted he was much prouder of his work with them than any work he could have done with the Dead.
Howard Wales had also played on several songs on American Beauty, and had jammed with the band back in '69, and had a close personal connection with Garcia - although he hadn't played the Matrix club dates with Garcia for a year. The Dead even planned to play a benefit with him at the Harding Theater on September 3-4, 1971:
It's not known whether this benefit actually happened (probably not). But McNally tells the story of Wales auditioning with the Dead around this time. Weir (no doubt rolling his eyes) recalled: "We spurred him towards new heights of weirdness and he spurred us towards new heights of weirdness...much too weird much too quick...everybody backed off, scratched their head and said, 'Well, maybe, uh, next incarnation.'"
Apparently Wales's free-flowing weirdness, which Garcia enjoyed fitting into, was a bit too strong for a band that was now more focused on shorter 'normal' songs. Garcia would soon get the chance to play some more with Wales in the January '72 east-coast tour supporting the Hooteroll release. (I would imagine Lesh might also have liked to play with Wales more - back in '69 he had complained to Constanten: "Phil pointedly remarked how much he preferred Howard Wales's playing when he sat in with the band.")
On the other hand, from Wales' perspective, the Dead might have been a little too big for him. He had apparently stopped playing at the Matrix when too many people started coming to see Garcia! John Kahn remembered, "One night there were a lot of people out there, and Howard realized that that's not what he wanted to do, and he stopped doing it." Garcia also said, "Howard went off...periodically he gets this thing of where he just can't deal with the music world any more, and he just disappears."
Of course there were plenty of other keyboard players around San Francisco who might have auditioned. It was Godchaux, though, who showed up at just the right moment and grabbed the baton.
Keith & Donna Godchaux, who'd married in November 1970 shortly after her first Dead show, were both already Dead fans. Donna had gone to the 10/4/70 Winterland show (drug-free), taken by some deadhead friends, and had quite an experience. As she said in a Relix interview, "The Grateful Dead came on, and it was more than music...I just could not even believe it. I had not taken anything, and I was just blown away." She told Blair Jackson, "I couldn't sleep that night because I was so excited. I kept thinking, 'What did they do? How did they do that?' They weave a spell. There's this whole mystical energy that happens when you see the Grateful Dead and you're ready to receive it. I was ready to receive it, and I got it. So every opportunity, every rumor that we heard that they might be playing, there we were... We'd all go see the Dead together, or at the very least get together and listen to Dead records."
One of these friends of friends turned out to be Keith, who was also in these Dead listening parties. As he said in the Book of the Dead in '72, "I first saw them play with a bunch of my old lady's friends who were real Grateful Dead freaks. I went to a concert with them and saw something I didn't know could be really happening... It was not like a mind-blowing far out, just beautiful far out. Not exactly a choir of angels, but some incredibly holy, pure and beautiful spiritual light. From then on I was super turned-on that such a thing existed. This was about a year and a half ago, when I first met Donna... I knew I was related to them."
As it happened, they were introduced almost simultaneously to the Dead and to each other, and soon married. Getting connected with the Dead took a little longer, but surprisingly, in hindsight neither of them had any doubt it would happen.
Donna: "I had a dream that it was supposed to happen. It was the direction our lives had to go in. The only direction."
Keith: "It had to happen. I knew it had to happen because I had a vision... Flash: go talk to Garcia... I wasn't thinking about playing with them before the flash. I didn't even try to figure out what the flash was...I just followed it, not knowing what was going to happen. I wasn't playing with anyone else before that. Just playing cocktail lounges and clubs."
He played jazz piano & cocktail music in a Walnut Creek club, but was just starting to get into rock & roll. As Donna said, "Keith would practice his rock & roll piano at home, and I was basically supporting the two of us." He'd had no rock experience at all, and apparently listened to little rock music. Though he'd played with small jazz bands before, he was tired of bar gigs: "When other kids my age were going to dances and stuff, I was going to bars and playing... I was completely burned out on that. Then I floated for about six months, and then ended up playing with the Grateful Dead."
He'd played piano in club bands since he was 14: "I spent two years wearing dinner jackets and playing acoustic piano in country club bands and Dixieland groups... I also did piano bar gigs and put trios together to back singers in various places around the Bay Area...[playing] cocktail standards like Misty the way jazz musicians resentfully play a song that's popular - that frustrated space... I just wasn't into it... I was looking for something real to get involved with - which wouldn't necessarily be music." (Getting a job was out of the question: "I could never see working during the day, and nobody would hire me for anything, anyway.")
Considering what he would play later, it's surprising that when his jazz trio went "in the Chick Corea direction," Keith decided "I didn't really have any feeling for that type of music," and instead listened to big-band jazz, Bill Evans, and bebop: "the musicians the guys I was playing with were emulating... After gigs we'd go to somebody's house and listen to jazz until the sun came up. They dug turning me on to bebop and where it came from. So I understood those roots, but I never got taken on that kind of trip with rock and roll - and I never had the sense to take myself on it."
Until he met Donna, who turned him on to rock & roll. He sighed in '76, "I'm just now starting to learn about the type of music I'm playing now... I never played rock and roll before I started playing with the Grateful Dead." (Shades of Constanten!)
The interesting thing is that when he saw the Dead, he thought they needed more energy: "When I'd heard them play a couple of times, they really got me off; I was really high. But there were still a lot of ups and downs. Like [they] didn't quite have the strength to pull the load..."
As far as I know, all the accounts of Keith's joining the Dead come from Donna's story - as told to Blair Jackson for the Golden Road magazine in 1985. The turning point came during a visit to their friends Pete & Carol (who had introduced them and turned them on to the Dead, and so played a hidden part in Dead history).
"One day I came home from work and we went over to Pete's and he said, 'Let's listen to some Grateful Dead.' And Keith said, 'I don't want to listen to it. I want to play it.' And it was like, 'Yeahhh! That's it!' We were just so high and in love! We said to Pete & Carol, 'Hey guys, we're going to play with the Grateful Dead!' And we really believed it. We had no doubt.
We went home, looked in the paper and saw that Garcia's band was playing at the Keystone, so we went down, of course. At the break, Garcia walked by going backstage, so I grabbed him and said, 'Jerry, my husband and I have something very important to talk to you about.' And he said, 'Sure.'
...I didn't realize that everyone does that to him. So Garcia told us to come backstage, but we were both too scared, so we didn't. A few minutes later, Garcia came up and sat next to Keith, and I said, 'Honey, I think Garcia's hinting that he wants to talk to you. He's sitting right next to you.' He looked over at Jerry and looked back at me and dropped his head on the table and said, 'You're going to have to talk to my wife. I can't talk to you right now.' He was just too shy. He was very strong but he couldn't handle that sort of thing. So I said to Jerry, 'Well, Keith's your piano player, so I want your home telephone number so I can call you up and come to the next Grateful Dead practice.' And he believed me! He gave me his number.
The following Sunday the Dead were having a rehearsal and Jerry told us to come on down, so we did. But the band had forgotten to tell Jerry that the rehearsal had been called off, so Jerry was down there by himself. So Keith and Jerry played, and we played him some tapes of songs that I had written and was singing on. Then Jerry called Kreutzmann and got him to come down, and the three of them played some. Then the next day the Dead practiced, and by the end of that day Keith was on the payroll.
They asked me to sing right away, but somewhere in my ignorant wisdom I said I wanted to Keith to do it first, so he did two tours and I stayed home... So Keith and I went into it as green and innocent as we could be. I'd never sung before an audience before, really, and Keith had done only very small gigs."
She also pointed out to Relix that "Keith and I didn't know that Pigpen was sick or anything."
McNally has but a few details to add:
He notes (from a different Donna interview) that after meeting Jerry, she tried calling the Dead's office a few times with no luck - "she called the office and left several messages, but was ignored. Finally she got him at home." So it may have been a more circuitous path between the first meeting and the rehearsal, but in Donna's memory it was about a week.
He identifies the Dead's rehearsal space as "a warehouse off Francisco Boulevard in San Rafael." (The tapes of Keith's rehearsals are labeled as being from an unknown location in Santa Venetia - but Santa Venetia is basically a neighborhood of San Rafael, so it is likely the same place. Possibly they could have moved to a studio to tape some of the sessions, though.)
And he says that "Keith and Donna played Garcia a song they'd written, Every Song I Sing."
Donna told Blair Jackson, "When Keith and I first got together, we wrote some music that we wanted to be meaningful and spiritual. We wanted to write music to the Lord, because it didn't seem like there was much out there that was spiritual. But when we heard the Grateful Dead...it seemed to have such spiritual ties. It had a quality that was magical, ethereal, spiritual, and that's part of what was so attractive about it."
What's interesting here is that they're playing Garcia THEIR music, in order to convince him of their rightness for the band. And there does seem to have been a spiritual tie - this moment prefigures not just Keith's time with the Dead, but the later Keith & Donna band with Garcia sitting in, and the Garcia Band circa '76 with Keith & Donna, bringing gospel music into the shows. (I think she has mentioned how she, Keith & Jerry would listen to lots of gospel music at home circa '76.) So they hit Garcia with just the right note.
Blair Jackson observes that Keith had also played on a James & the Good Brothers record (a band the Dead were friends with) - Kreutzmann played drums on one track, and the album was recorded by Betty Cantor, so Keith may not have been a complete unknown to Garcia. (On the other hand, Keith is not mentioned in the album credits, so it's a mystery where Jackson got this info.)
In early 1972, the Dead had a little promotional flurry, releasing a few band biographies for the press & fans. These offer a less detailed, but slightly different course of events. The Dead's spring '72 newsletter recounted:
"Pigpen was extremely ill, and unable to travel. Jerry had about this same time met Keith Godchaux, a piano player he and Billy had jammed with at Keystone Korner, a small club in San Francisco. With Pigpen sick, three major United States tours facing them, and the desire to have another good musician to add to their music, Keith was asked to join."
Promo bios of each of the bandmembers released at the same time include this about Keith:
"After jamming with Jerry and Billy at a small club, and getting together with the Dead to work out some tunes, he joined the band in September of 1971."
Keith was also quoted in the Book of the Dead: "We went into this club in San Francisco where Garcia was playing, and just talked to him. A couple of days later I was playing with him and Bill, and it just sort of came together."
While these bios are brief and lacking in detail (Donna's role is not mentioned at all), they were written only a few months later, so they should be taken into account.
The first surprise is to read that Keith had jammed with Jerry & Bill at the Keystone. This seems to have entirely slipped Donna's memory! Is it possible there was a "lost" Jerry & Keith jam at the Keystone sometime in September '71?
(Perhaps someone mixed up the Keystone and the rehearsal space - either way, Jerry & Bill jammed with Keith before the rest of the band did.)
It's also a curious detail that Keith initially got with the Dead "to work out some tunes." This is frustratingly vague - it may mean nothing; or it may mean that the initial intention was not to actually join the Dead.
Keith confirms that no time passed between meeting and playing: "a couple of days later..." This is even briefer than in Donna's account!
This brings up the question of just which was the Keystone show where Keith & Donna met Garcia. He had a couple shows with Saunders in this month:
Tuesday, Aug 31
Thursday, Sept 16
The 16th has been considered the most likely date, since it's closest to Keith's first rehearsals. Note that Pigpen went into the hospital the next day. Donna remembered the Dead rehearsal being scheduled for "the following Sunday," but the Dead canceled and only Jerry came. I have to think that, if it was Sunday the 19th, due to the sudden turmoil of Pigpen's illness, it seems unlikely Jerry & Bill would have jammed with anyone that day. (It also may explain why Donna had a hard time reaching Jerry on the phone that week, though there doesn't seem enough time for multiple phone calls.)
But note: the jerrysite lists the New Riders playing the Friends & Relations Hall in San Francisco on Sept 17-19, which wouldn't preclude daytime rehearsals. And Keith did say he played with Garcia just a couple days after meeting him.
Or, if Donna's memory is right, possibly Sunday the 26th was the first day Keith played with Jerry. This seems superhuman, though - it means his first day with the full Dead would have been the 27th. Our first rehearsal tape comes from the 28th, and it by no means sounds like Keith's second day with the band. In fact, it sounds like he's already settled in. (Not only that, it would mean they lost no time in taping rehearsals with the new guy, in fact starting immediately. Pretty speedy, for the Dead!)
So while it's possible that Keith only started playing with the Dead near the end of the month, I think it's also possible that he'd met Garcia on 8/31, and perhaps even jammed with him & Kreutzmann a time or two at Keystone Korner; and rehearsals may have started earlier than we think. The Dead may have been considering a new keyboard player even before Pigpen succumbed, and if Keith had already been playing with Garcia informally, their next candidate was right in front of them. (We don't know how poor Pigpen's health was in early September, but the Dead may have been aware before 9/17 that he was in decline.)
Or perhaps the Dead initially saw Keith as a temporary stand-in, a Hornsby-like figure until Pigpen could be eased back in. It would've become obvious pretty soon, though, that Keith was born to play with the Dead.
Or, the traditional story could be true: the Dead suddenly discovered after the 17th that they needed a new player; Garcia met one that very week, and they snatched him up immediately; and he learned all their songs in a week or less. Serendipity in action...
A closer listen may reveal more, but for now it sounds to me like there is not one attempt to teach Keith a single new song in these rehearsal tapes, only practiced run-throughs of already-learned songs. Very few songs even stumble or break down. At least when they rolled the tapes, Keith was ready to go on every song. This suggests that at the least, there were more than one or two days of rehearsal before these tapes were made.
Admittedly, Keith was quite familiar with the Dead's music before playing with them; also, some of these songs were as new to the Dead as they were to Keith!
Lesh was quite impressed with Keith: "He was so brilliant at the beginning. That guy had it all, he could play anything... It's like he came forth fully grown. He didn't have to work his way into it."
Lesh wrote in his book that in the first rehearsal, "all through the afternoon we played a whole raft of Grateful Dead tunes, old and new. That whole day, Keith never put a foot (or a finger) wrong. Even though he'd never played any Grateful Dead tunes before...[he] picked up the songs practically the first time through...everything he played fit perfectly in the spaces between [our] parts."
Kreutzmann later told Blair Jackson, "I loved his playing. I remember when we auditioned him. Jerry asked him to come down to our old studio and the two of us threw every curveball we could, but he was right on top of every improvised change. We just danced right along on top. That's when I knew he'd be great for the band. He was so inventive - he played some jazz stuff and free music that was just incredible. He had a heart of music."
Manager Jon McIntire remembered when he first heard about Keith: "I saw Garcia and asked him what it was about, and he shook his head, very amazed, and said, 'Well, this guy came along and said he was our piano player. And he was.'"
Surprisingly to anyone who ever saw him, Keith said in '72 that "what I've contributed to the band as a whole is an added amount of energy which they needed, for my taste... I have a super amount of energy. I'm just a wired-up person and I relate to music super-energetically... The part of their music which I played fit in perfectly, like a part of a puzzle."
It's notable that Keith plays both piano and organ equally during the rehearsals. (Possibly the first instrument he played with Garcia was the organ, though I don't think Keith had any experience with it; at any rate, organ was the Dead's first choice for many of the new songs.) Over the course of the tour, though, he gradually dropped the organ altogether, and played it only rarely thereafter. When he is on piano during these rehearsals, the honky-tonk sound from many fall '71 shows is very clear.
Our tapes come from several days - they're cassette copies with variable mixes and shifty sound quality. (Note that on some tracks Keith can hardly be heard, being too low in the mix.)
http://archive.org/details/gd71-09-29.sbd.cousinit.16891.sbeok.shnf - Keith mostly on organ
http://archive.org/details/gd71-09-30.sbd.cousinit.18109.sbeok.shnf - Keith mostly on piano
http://archive.org/details/gd71-10-01.sbd.rehearsal.cousinit.16896.sbefail.shnf - very little Keith can be heard
http://archive.org/details/gd71-09-xx.sbd.unknown.16897.sbeok.shnf - compilation; Keith mixed up on some tracks
http://archive.org/details/gd1971-09-29.unsurpassed-masters-vol4-vol6.116951.flac16 - bootleg comp; different mixes, sometimes very trebley, but Keith comes out more (for instance Brokedown #2, where he takes over)
The Keith highlight is the first few tracks of 9/30, with Keith in full barrelhouse mode. It's also interesting to hear him on organ on songs like Jack Straw, Tennessee Jed & Truckin' on 9/29. (There's also an oddly assertive moment before Cold Rain & Snow on the compilation, where Keith channels Keith Jarrett for a little solo riffing.)
There are almost no jams here, just straight songs (there is a short, interesting band jam on 10/1, and a rehearsal of the Uncle John's jam on 9/29). I would guess there must have been more rehearsals over the next couple weeks (they had to have tried out some of the 'deep' jams), but no more tapes have come forth. Perhaps the Dead did not bother recording more improvisational jams.
We know Garcia gave Keith a batch of live tapes that had been recorded at the August shows, so Keith would also have been able to listen & practice the songs at home before his 10/19/71 live debut. Not that he did!
From a note on the Dick's Picks 35 "Houseboat Tapes": "In the late summer of 1971, just before Keith Godchaux began rehearsals with the Dead, Garcia handed him a big box of tapes and said, "Here, this is our most recent tour. Learn our music." The irony was that Donna Jean doubts mightily Keith ever bothered to listen to them - he'd never listened to the Dead all that much before he auditioned... In any case, he left the tapes on his parents' houseboat in Alameda, and there they stayed."
In fact, in one interview with Lemieux it was speculated that Keith never even took the reels out of their box. But it makes sense - when you can rehearse with the band each day, there's little need to check out their tapes.
So Pigpen stayed at home until December, while Keith went out and surprised Dead audiences. (Some were thrilled, others dismayed.) This was the second time Pigpen had been replaced by another player; but he probably took it in stride, as he had more serious things to worry about. He was still eager to rejoin the Dead, though, and went back on tour perhaps sooner than was wise. Lesh later felt guilty about this: "It would have been better for him if we'd just canceled the tour and let him recover all his strength at his own pace... It was agreed that Pig would rejoin the band when he felt up to it. Without realizing it, we put a lot of pressure on him to hurry up and get better."
That was the band's pattern, though, as the future would reveal - they wouldn't cancel a tour no matter who was dead or dying. (And though no one knew it, Pigpen was likely beyond recovery by that point anyway.) Though he didn't necessarily live for the road, Pigpen's identity was bound up with the band, and he lashed himself to their mast as long as he could, whatever the cost to himself.
He would not be alone. The years on tour wouldn't be kind to Keith either - indeed, the damage Dead keyboardists inflicted on themselves would become well-known - but Keith started out feeling cosmically optimistic. "The Dead's music is absolutely 100% positive influence. When I met them, I knew these were people I could trust with my head. They would never do anything which would affect me negatively... They are righteous people."