I met Bob Weir when we were freshmen in high school in the fall of 1961. Each school day began with an assembly in which we were seated, by class, in alphabetical order, so I was placed next to Bob. We soon discovered a mutual interest in guitar playing and folk music, and our time together centered around making music. Bob was the first person I'd ever seen wrap his thumb around the top of the guitar neck to fret the sixth string.
Bob bounced around to a few other schools, but we continued to play together whenever possible. For a while, he went to a "free school" where attending class was an option. He met a beautiful blonde there named Debby Peckham, who was a dynamite guitar player, and Bob spent most of his school hours improving his guitar skills by playing with Debby. He got really good during that time.
Almost every weekend I would go to the Tangent, sit close to the stage, watch the musicians' fretting hand, and then go home and play until I'd learned as much as I could remember. After school, I would get together with Bob and other friends to play music and exchange guitar licks that we had learned or figured out. Over time, our musical interests progressed from Kingston Trio style folk to more sophisticated forms such as the topical poetry of Bob Dylan and the complex musicianship of bluegrass.
After being away on vacation for several weeks during the summer of '62, I got together with a good friend who played banjo. I had been playing with him for over a year and was very familiar with his style and abilities. He suggested a particular song, and when it came time for his instrumental break, he surprised me by cutting loose with an amazing, full-blown, Scruggs-style torrent of notes. When we finished the song, he acted cool, forcing me to ask the obvious question, "How did you learn to play that?" "I've been taking lessons from a banjo teacher in Palo Alto," he said. "He looks like Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary). Part of one of his fingers is missing, and when he picks, his finger stump moves back and forth. His name is Jerry Garcia."
Jerry was definitely the best bluegrass banjo player in the Palo Alto area at that time. He played with various bands, one of the best being the Black Mountain Boys, with Eric Thompson on guitar and David Nelson on mandolin. They were incredible. Sometimes during the last song of a set, David would stop playing and step up to the microphone while Eric and Jerry continued to play in the background. He'd introduce the band members, ask us to stick around for the next set, and then finish up the tune. It was such a classy touch -- kind of like an old radio program.
The Uncalled Four
In the fall of '63, Bob Weir asked me to join a band he was forming with Debby Peckham and Rachel Garbett. He and Debby played guitar, Rachel played autoharp, and, since we were all into bluegrass music, they needed someone who could play Scruggs-style banjo. I barely knew the rudiments, but it was better than no banjo at all. We had a great time working up arrangements to old-timey stuff that we found on a popular album, "Dián and the Greenbriar Boys." We performed only once at Top of the Tangent. It was Open Mic, or Hoot Night, and, as I recall, we played "Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down," "Alabama Bound," "Green Corn," and "Brown's Ferry Blues."
The Banjo Contest
At the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963, there was a New Talent showcase. The last performer to appear in the program was Michael Cooney, who had completely charmed the audience with his talent and boyish charisma. Immediately afterward, we scrambled over to the banjo contest, the prize for which was an Ode 5 string, long neck banjo. When Cooney showed up to enter the contest, the reaction from the crowd clearly indicated that he still had us under his spell. Another entrant in the banjo contest was an incredibly talented and wonderfully jovial musician named Jerry Garcia. Once the contest began, the field was quickly narrowed to Cooney and Garcia. The challenge faced by the judges was that Cooney played frailing style and Garcia played an entirely different Scruggs style. Time and time again, Cooney and Garcia were called up to the stage, alternating in their demonstrations of fine musicianship. Cooney frailed away with tunes from Appalachia while Garcia, backed by David Nelson on guitar, offered up a string of blistering bluegrass breakdowns. The judges struggled with an "apples or oranges" kind of decision, and may have chosen popularity over prowess. Or maybe they took note of the fact that Cooney played a long neck 5 string and Garcia didn't. In any case, the next time I saw Michael Cooney perform, he announced that he had an Ode 5 string, long neck banjo for sale.