Thunderstorms are rare in San Francisco, thanks to the cool temperatures of the Pacific Ocean. When the weather unexpectedly changed one evening in the 70s, Jerry Garcia was there to see it.
“Jerry lived in Marin, which is to the west,” Dennis McNally, Grateful Dead‘s former publicist and biographer, later told Song facts. “He had been in the East Bay and he’s driving home on the Richmond San Rafael Bridge and there’s a wild storm out to his right at the north end of the bay — lightning and just a wonderful, wonderful storm and all of a sudden he hears a melody in his head, and that’s the basic riff in ‘Terrapin.’ He hears the whole melody in his head.”
For Garcia, it was immediately clear that the melody would need space to breathe. “‘Terrapin,’ even from the beginning, was clearly one sided and orchestrated,” Garcia said BAM magazine in 1977. Prepared in seven sections, the song reached 16 minutes in length. “We had a lot of material,” Garcia added. “There were two or three tunes that didn’t make the album.”
This abundance of material could probably be attributed to the fact that the Grateful Dead suddenly had a lot of time on their hands – something they weren’t necessarily used to. They had played a series of shows in October 1974 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, which were filmed and released as The Grateful Dead movieand then began a two-year hiatus from touring.
When they reconvened in 1976, the Grateful Dead signed a new label deal: their in-house label, Grateful Dead Records, had finally folded. They had released three studio albums (1973s The wake of the floodThe 1974s From Mars Hotel and the 1975s Blues for Allah), plus a live double album (1976s Steal your face), and the pressure to maintain both a functional tour group and a coherent business enterprise was too great.
The Grateful Dead signed a deal in 1976 with Arista Records’ Clive Davis, which had one condition: They had to bring in an outside producer. Except for Stephen Barncard, who co-produced the 1970s American beautythe band had not worked with an outside producer since the 1968s Anthem of the Sun.
Listen to Grateful Dead’s ‘Terrapin Part 1’
Davis, Garcia recalled, did not try to overstep. “He is very delicate. He would never insist on handling us in any way,” Garcia shared BAM. “When we started working with Arista, we did it and thought, ‘What the hell, it’ll be nice to be involved with a record label and not have to do the marketing ourselves, not have to distribute’ — just to have It stick. So fundamentally, we were in the space of, ‘Let’s just make music and let’s go into it as far as we can.’ So the idea of having a producer was tied to that same idea.”
One of the producers Davis suggested for the album that would be Terrapin Station was Keith Olsen, who had recently helped Fleetwood Macis hugely successful Self-titled album from 1975. It seemed to provide clear evidence that Olsen knew how to navigate complex group dynamics.
“If a producer works with a solo artist, he’s designing the album from top to bottom; he’s in control of the musicians playing. That’s a level of production that you can do really well,” Garcia added. “When you produce a group, you deal with the internal dynamics of the group. There’s a lot to it. You have to be psychologically involved; you have to be emotionally involved. You have to know what’s going on, and you have to be involved. Olsen is a really good producer, in my opinion.”
It was still a completely new situation for Olsen. “Not like any other artist ever,” he said Brian Sword in 2014. “I mean, the stories would go on for hours. It was quite a time. They had a nutritionist in the studio. They had a meeting that said, ‘When we’re in the studio, sometimes we do too many drugs, and we don’t take good care of ourselves. She can cook and present at least one healthy meal a day – so we don’t get sick and can survive the ordeal.’ It will give you a hint of what it was like in the studio.”
Olsen’s willingness to let the Grateful Dead lead – instead of the other way around – was crucial to their collaboration on Terrapin Station. “What Keith Olsen did, and the only way he could have worked with the Grateful Dead was this: he spent some time with us while we were rehearsing,” Garcia shared. BAM. “He didn’t call drills we practiced. He’d come up and hang out and get high with us [then] listened to the music. He carefully noted what was going on, was aware of what was going on, learned the changes – learned our music.
Listen to Grateful Dead’s ‘Passenger’
“Then we’d go through the tunes and if there were things that he felt were conflicting or conflicting, he’d make suggestions,” Garcia added. “His suggestions weren’t usually along the lines of, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ They were like, ‘What’s going on in there?’ Then we played the section again and I’d be like, ‘Okay, I don’t need to play this’ or [Bob] Weir would say, ‘I’m just going to play this second inversion here.’ It was like that. He provided an outside, uninvolved ear to help hear what the music was supposed to do—what the meaning of the song was, how it was supposed to work.”
Released on July 27, 1977, Terrapin Station opened with a selection of both reimagined songs and completely original material. Weir’s “Estimated Prophet,” written seven times, led the LP. An eclectic cover of “Dancin’ in the Streets” was followed by Phil Lesh‘Passenger’, which the bassist co-wrote with Peter Monk, an actual Buddhist monk who wrote the song’s lyrics.
“The weird thing about that song is that I did it as a joke,” Lesh later told me Dupree’s Diamond News, a well-regarded Grateful Dead fanzine. “It’s a version of a Fleetwood Mac tune called ‘Station man.’ I kind of sped it up and put some different chord changes in there.”
Next was Weir’s arrangement of “Samson & Delilah.” He learned this traditional song from Rev. Gary Davis, a blues musician who had given him a handful of guitar lessons. “I only got three or four sessions with him before he went off this deadly spiral,” Weir said Alan Paul in 2001. “He was really my main guitar influence, and if you listen to his stuff, you’ll see that he also took it all from the piano—all his parts are piano pieces adapted for guitar. It’s amazing stuff. He had a Bach -ian sense of music that exceeded any common notion of a bluesman.”
Closing out the first side was Donna Godchaux’s first singing and songwriting contribution to the Grateful Dead. “Sunrise” was inspired by the early morning services she had attended led by Rolling Thunder, a Native American medicine man and spiritual leader. “When I got into the Grateful Dead, Jerry actually encouraged me,” Godchaux shared Grateful web in 2008. “He said, ‘You have to write [songs] to put on a record’ – which I did. I was greatly encouraged by his encouragement.”
Listen to Grateful Dead’s ‘Sunrise’
“Terrapin Part 1” would serve as the entirety of Side Two. Long time Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter saw the same thunderstorm that Garcia had, and it inspired him to put pen to paper. He drew from various traditional songs and folk music.
“I was just sitting at [the] typewriter and I put a piece of paper in and wrote ‘Terrapin Station,'” Hunter said Alan Paul in a separate interview. “Then I thought, ‘Okay, what’s this about? Oh, appeal to the mouse.’ Also:Let my inspiration flow in symbolic lines that suggest a rhythm that will not leave me until my story is told and finished.’ It is an invitation to the mouse. … It’s one of those pretty mythological things that happens every once in a while. There it was. Yes, ‘Terrapin Station’ was magic.”
The Grateful Dead quickly worked together in the studio despite the complications involved in “Terrapin Part 1”. “We sat down and mapped it out,” drummer Bill Kreutzmann wrote in his 2015 book Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead. “I said, ‘This is how the song goes.’ I showed [Mickey Hart] all the parts that I felt worked really well, he added a few and that’s what the song is today. We went back into the studio the next night and got it right. Once the drum parts were done, everything else snapped together like puzzle pieces.”
Olsen took the tracks to England to add particularly lush horn and string arrangements, resulting in a more commercial – even prog rock-like – sounding record that surprised some fans and critics. That hardly mattered to the Grateful Dead: “I think anything goes,” Garcia told me BAM. “We’ve never spared the crowd. We’ve played a lot weirder shit than is on this album.”
Terrapin Station reached No. 28 on Billboard chart, a bit of a drop from recent releases. The album only achieved gold album status in 1987. Still, the dancing terrapins on the cover came to occupy a special place in Grateful Dead history as one of their most recognizable symbols. (They were designed by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, artists who had once lived across the street from the Dead on Ashbury Street in San Francisco. The duo also designed Bertha the Skeleton, Europe ’72 ice cream kid and other album covers.)
Garcia continued to sing Terrapin Stationalso roses. “I’m happier with this album than with any other album we’ve done,” he said BAM. “This album I can listen to – now it’s the first time. None of the things are foreign or distant from us.”
Top 25 Psychedelic Rock Albums
Blues, folk, world music – no genre escaped the kaleidoscopic pull of the 60’s trippy sound.
A Grateful Dead Member Is Part of Rock’s Tragic ’27 Club’