Caution (Do Not Anger Guitarist): When Jerry Garcia Pushed Phil Lesh Down A Flight Of Stairs At A Grateful Dead Concert

“He grabbed me by the collar, and snarled, ‘You play, motherfucker!’ and shoved me aside.”

By Andy Kahn Mar 15, 2024 1:16 pm PDT

In his memoir, Searching For The Sound, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who today celebrates his 84th birthday, wrote about his musical relationship with guitarist Jerry Garcia. Lesh met Garcia in the fall of 1959 when both were budding musicians in Palo Alto, California scene.

Lesh was into jazz and classical music, first learning to play violin and later switching to trumpet as teenager. Lesh’s path toward becoming an influential and inspirational bassist was due to Garcia’s request that Lesh learn the instrument. Lesh agreed and in 1965 played his first gig with Garcia as a member of The Warlocks (who shortly after changed their name to the Grateful Dead).

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Lesh and Garcia remained bandmates in the Grateful Dead for 30 years, playing over 2,300 concerts together. Calling Garcia both a “kindred spirit” and “brother,” Lesh further wrote about his musical and personal connection to the guitarist who died in 1995 at age 53.

“Someone once characterized my musical relationship with Jerry as ‘like a sandworm in heat,’ describing the way the bass lines twined around those of the guitar,” Lesh wrote in Searching For The Sound, “a perfect metaphor for the way I loved that man. ”

Lesh wrote throughout his memoir about many wonderful and joyous experiences with Garcia and various other members of the Grateful Dead during their legendary three-decades-long career together. Like most families, the brotherhood within the Dead was not without its bouts of tension between bandmates. A notorious and out-of-character instance of inner-band conflict happened at one of the Dead early shows in their hometown of San Francisco.

The altercation occurred 56 years ago, on the weekend of Lesh’s 28th birthday. A three-show run was held on March 15 – 17, 1968 at the Carousel Ballroom. The first Carousel show was both Lesh’s birthday and the first concert held at the venue after it briefly came under ownership of the Grateful Dead and other Bay Area-based musicians.

After one of the Carousel shows, Garcia took exception to Lesh’s playing – or lack thereof – during one of the band’s jams. Lesh was still reeling from the recent death of friend of the band and influential figure Neal Cassady. Recalling the incident with Garcia, Lesh wrote:

“Neal’s death had hit me harder than I knew; I’d been obsessing on the loss of one of the most inspiring people I’d ever known personally. At one point in the show, I entered a state of total brain-sag — frighteningly, nothing that was being played made any sense to me. I was so panicked that I stopped playing to try to figure it out.

“Even worse, I suddenly noticed that Jerry was glaring at me from across the stage — something that had never happened before. I was so distressed that I stared blankly back at him.

“After the show, as I was trying to slink out without anyone noticing, I encountered Jerry at the top of the stairs leading to the dressing room. He grabbed me by the collar, and snarled, ‘You play, motherfucker!’ and shoved me aside. I tripped over my own feet and fell down the stairs right on my ass. Jerry was normally such a sweetheart that I was shocked beyond belief at being physically manhandled by him. I must have provoked him beyond reason, something I promised myself I would avoid assiduously in the future.”

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Lesh left the gig that night and was promptly splashed and drenched by passing police car driving through a large puddle. According to Lesh, Garcia apologized for the altercation when the band gathered at the Carousel for the following evening’s show.

Setlists are only available for nights two and three at the Carousel Ballroom (which became the Fillmore West), and parts of those shows have been included in official archival releases. The shows were recorded for inclusion on the Grateful Dead’s sophomore album, 1968’s Anthem Of The Sun. Some Deadheads point to a March 16 performance of “Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)” as the culprit for Lesh’s lack of playing and Garcia’s subsequent angst.

Garcia brought up the post-show encounter with Lesh in an interview conducted in October 1974 for the later-released Grateful Dead Movie. Garcia was asked about the correlation between his feelings about the band’s performance compared to that of the audience.

“There’s no relationship that I’ve ever been able to hear on tapes between the way I feel and the way it went down. It doesn’t matter how I feel. No, I haven’t been able to hear it matter. It matters how it feels to me, of course, because I feel that way.

“I come off the stage sometimes really, really upset, you know. When I was younger I would get even more upset. I’d get more crazy. I would want it to be really good and I’d think, ‘wow, it’s not where it should be. It’s almost there, but it’s not there.’ And then I’d get really angry.

“I remember one time we did the Carousel, and we recorded [and] I got really upset at the end of it set. Because I thought it was just horrible for some reason. It seemed like everything was a struggle and I got real pissed off at Phil and grabbed him and threw him down this little flight of stairs.

“And I’d never done that to him. I’ve been really tight with him for years. I was that freaked out, you know, and high too. [I] flipped out, [the] music was fucked, you know? Then we listened to these tapes months later and ended up using them on our album and they were crackling with energy. They were amazing.

“That’s when I knew that. Wow. Fuck. I just got to learn to keep my mouth shut and just not even think about whether it seemed like it was happening to me or not.”

Lesh accepted Garcia’s apology, and apparent from his 1974 interview, Garcia learned to better control his feelings with regard to the band’s performances. In his memoir, Lesh described his affection for Garcia, writing:

“[Garcia’s] many gifts, his delight in life, and his gusto for experience were balanced by an endearing humility of spirit and an almost obsessive refusal to take himself seriously. His conversation could range from the deeper meaning of the I Ching to the latest science fiction, and he never failed to deftly skewer ballooning egos. It was the warmth of his heart, though, that just pulled everybody in. Even though, like most of us, he didn’t suffer fools gladly, there was room there for just about every-damn-body. Then, too, his insatiable curiosity and range of interests were like a breath of fresh air …”

Fifty-six years after the birthday run at the Carousel, Lesh will celebrate his 84th birthday tonight with a Phil Lesh & Friends concert at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. Lesh’s “Friends” for this evening and tomorrow’s night’s concerts at The Cap have not yet been revealed.

Hear Jerry recount the incident with Phil and listen to the March 16 and March 17, 1968 Grateful Dead concerts at the Carousel Ballroom below:

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