“That’s Otis…” says Jerry Garcia with a wry smile that’s clearly audible in the grooves, analogue or digital. The crowd, already deliriously happy, erupts again.
It’s San Francisco, September 26th of 1980. On Market Street, not too far from the Ferry Building, but actually closer to the Tenderloin, the “Good Ol’ Grateful Dead” are having a homecoming hoedown. Every last one of the Warfield Theatre’s 2,000 seats has been sold for the evening. It’s a feat of which any performer could be proud. And one that the Dead will have repeated fourteen more times by the end of their September-October residency at the old vaudeville palace. That’s before they head to Manhattan for an additional eight sellouts at Radio City Music Hall.
By 1980, the Dead don’t need any particular occasion to draw this way, but they do have one: the band is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary and reviving its folk and blues roots during show-opening acoustic sets.
And so, as the band slides gently into one of the most beloved of its American beauties, 1970’s “Ripple,” they’re joined by a very special guest. Guitarist Bob Weir’s loyal pooch Otis wanders out from stage left to check in with the boys in the band and get a look at the audience out in the hall. After an inspection of the scene from center stage, an introduction from dear Uncle Jerry, and a roar of greeting from the crowd, he ambles back to the wings, unfazed. What could be better for a campfire singalong than a cameo from a handsome, affable mutt? What could possibly be more “Grateful Dead?”
Fittingly, the moment is preserved on the double-LP concert set Reckoning, released the following spring. Otis, who had come to Weir from Garcia’s troubled and ultimately doomed friend John Kahn, has by 1981 made an effortless leap from “band entourage” to “Deadhead legend.” And that’s where pioneering Grateful Dead scholar, critic, biographer, photographer, and all-around champion David Gans found Bobby and Otis: taking a few minutes of sun outside the Dead’s Marin County clubhouse. Life was looking like easy street, but danger was at the door.
Weir had carved out a niche as the band’s free-roamin’ soul, the ladies’ man singer of cowboy songs, Chuck Berry-esque rockers, and blues standards who kept the Dead both grounded and buoyant. It was a role that had steadily grown through the easygoing 1970s and would expand even further in the often-harsh 1980s. Garcia’s mystical swirl of idiosyncratic nonconformity and fatalism would always be the gravitational center of the Dead, but they threatened to drag the man and the enterprise right off the face of the Earth. Weir provided a crucial American innocence to leaven Garcia’s cosmic experience.
That job and its importance only intensified as the Dead continued to explode in popularity in the new decade, while Garcia struggled more and more with all manner of health and substance abuse problems. Otis would keep company with Bob through most of the decade. In late January of ’87, on the night Bobby had to let Otis go, the Dead turned in one of their most infamously lame performances, at the San Francisco Civic Center, a few blocks from the dear old Warfield.
And so it’s good that David Gans caught Bobby with dear Otis on that fine fall day in 1981, just as the long strange trip was starting to get stranger still. Like a singalong on acoustic guitars, Otis and his pal Bob kept the Big Time Rock ‘n Roll Grateful Dead tapped into their Huckleberry Finn spirit when they needed it most.
To view David Gans’ online store, go here.