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The Time the Grateful Dead Dosed Bill Graham

Legendary rock promoter Bill Graham was known for his long-standing friendship with the Grateful Dead, dating back to their earliest days in the 1960s.

It is also well-known that the Grateful Dead were connoisseurs of LSD, the psychedelic drug that was perpetuated en masse by their sound guy Owsley Stanley.

Bill Graham himself, as a businessperson known for his organizational skills and savvy in running the behind the scenes aspects of the production, not surprisingly, was not all that interested in taking LSD.

However he didn’t mind when other people did it, and being friends of the Dead, he was around the substance a fair amount.

Of course, thanks to the prankster spirit of the Grateful Dead and their reputation for spiking everything with LSD, beginning in 1967, they made it their mission to dose Bill Graham.

Bill Graham Gets Dosed at the Fillmore West

According to Bill Graham’s memoir, My Life Inside Rock and Out (2004), the Dead finally succeeded at this at Bill Graham’s very own Fillmore West in San Francisco.

Bill Thompson, manager of the Jefferson Airplane, places this story at the Fillmore West, not long after it opened at the former site of the Carousel Ballroom.

Let’s hear the acid story in Bill’s own words, plus some other firsthand accounts taken from the (excellent) memoir.

Bill Graham’s side of the story

Starting in 1967, it got to be a thing with the Dead to get me high on acid. I’d never touch anything they gave me. I’d never hug them. Their ladies used to want to kiss me because they had first put a blotter of acid in their mouths. I used to say, “Kiss the back of my hair if you want.” It became a big running thing….

By this time with the Dead, it had gotten serious. In that era, I was going through my 7-Up and Coca-Cola phase, where I would be drinking from a can of soda all day long. Just hyper, I guess. What I would do in the dressing room at Fillmore West was take garbage cans full of ice and fill them up with cans of 7-Up and Coke.

One night, they decided to go for it. What they did, unbeknownst to me, was warn all their people, “Don’t touch any of the soda cans in our dressing room.” Then they took hypodermic needles and shot acid through the top of every soda can.

Bill Graham recalls how the Dead dosed him.

Owsley, the “Acid King” Clarifies

Nobody injected anything. We knew he liked the soft drinks and the soft drinks were kept in a cooler. When you picked up a soft drink out of a cooler, it is always covered with beads of condensation. So a drop or two was put on the lip of every can in the room…

We had been trying for years to hit him and we knew he wouldn’t touch anything that was opened or anything in a cup. He had to open his own. We saw what kind of soda he liked and made sure that every can he was likely to find was already fixed. But it wasn’t me who did it. It was another guy…

Owsley tells how the Dead dosed Bill Graham.

Mickey Was The One

Graham explains how he went into the dressing room early in the night and slugged back a 7-Up, and twenty minutes later he “started feeling weird.” He recalls how Mickey gave him the can of soda.

Mickey Hart tells his side:

I had the can. But he did it himself. He drank that soda down. He just like kicked it back. Three or four great wallops. Then he went off to just keep doing what he had been doing. I said, “I’ll see you later, Bill. And the road you’ll travel now will not be a familiar one.

Mickey Hart on dosing Bill Graham.

Bill Plays the Gong

At first, Bill was upset, but he decided to roll with it when Mickey invited him to join the band on stage.

He was thrilled, and I could have killed him. “You sonofabitch,” I said. And he said, “We’re going on, Bill. You want to play? Come with us.” I said, “Sure.” They gave me a drumstick and they said, “You just call off the songs and we’ll play them.”

Bill explains how he got on stage with the Dead on LSD.

Bill explains how he wanted the band to open with “Sugar Magnolia,” because that was his favorite, but they wouldn’t do it because they didn’t like to play it first when they were high.

Bill continues:

I was on stage for four hours. Playing the gong…. That night, I was fully aware that I was on stage and that I didn’t belong but I didn’t give a fuck. I was up there and I was going to do it. Because it was fun. It was a gas. I took the kettledrum and I took the gong and I had a ball.

Bill Graham on being on stage with the Dead.

According to Mickey, Bill was an unstoppable force that night, and afterwards (on 2/11/69 at the Fillmore East) he gave Bill a gold-plated cowbell to commemorate the occasion.

This was documented on the official release, Bill Graham’s Fillmore East.

Mickey Gives Bill Graham a Cowbell (2/11/69)

So, When and Where Did Bill Get Dosed?

I won’t claim to have a concrete answer for this, but I did spend the past few hours scouring setlists, and searching archives for old photos that might capture this from another angle, to more clearly reveal the date.

The “facts”

  1. Bill Graham was dosed at the Fillmore West.
  2. It happened before 2/11/69
  3. The Grateful Dead played “Sugar Magnolia” that night, according to Bill

Some details that get a bit hazy when trying to detect which show this actually happened at, for two main reasons.

First, the Grateful Dead didn’t play “Sugar Magnolia” for the first time until for the first time until June of 1970 (6/07/70 at Fillmore West, to be exact). So they could not have played “Sugar Magnolia” that night, if it happened in 1969, as the cited date of the photo suggests.

Second, the photographer who took that photo, Amelie Rothschild, was based in New York City, and primarily shot photos at the Fillmore East between 1969 and 1971. The licensing site, Global Image Works, which hosts this photo, claims that the copyright date was 1969, and the location was the Fillmore East.

Thus we can conclude, most likely, that Amalie took the photo of Bill with the cowbell at the Fillmore East on 2/11/69, just after he was given the cowbell by the band, and that she was not present at the show where he was actually dosed.

OR – she was also at the Fillmore West in late 1968 or early 1969, when Bill Graham was actually dosed, but that has not been made clear at this time and her website suggests otherwise.

Fillmore West, Between August 1968 and January 1969

The Dead’s shows in late 1968 are sparsely documented, due to the band being in its earliest stages and having yet to fully embrace the recording of every show in the way that they eventually came to do. Thus, it is hard to pinpoint the exact date of the performance.

However, I can say with about 98% confidence that it took place between 8/20/68, the Dead’s first show at Fillmore West, and 1/05/69, the Dead’s final show there before 2/11/69, when Mickey gave Bill the cowbell at Fillmore East.

It was not 7/02/71 at the Fillmore West as some folks claim around the web. That show features some video recording released via Fillmore: The Last Days. In the footage, taken from the second set, Bobby is playing a different guitar from the photo with Bill on stage, and Pigpen is wearing a different outfit.

See the video from the Fillmore West in July of 71 below, and confirm for yourself that it was not this night.

Grateful Dead – Final Night at Fillmore West (July 1971)

This may be one of those mysteries that goes unsolved until the end of time, considering it took place over 50 years ago now. If anybody has any additional information, please do chime in!