45 Years Ago: The Grateful Dead’s Infamous ‘Truckin’’ Drug Bust
Apparently not every kind of decadent behavior is accepted in New Orleans. In the early morning of Jan. 31, 1970, the Grateful Dead was involved in a drug raid, an incident that they referenced in their classic song, ‘Truckin.’’
The Dead, with Fleetwod Mac as openers, had just played the first of two nights at the Warehouse, a brand-new ballroom, when they returned to their Bourbon Street hotel to find the police waiting for them, having already searched their rooms.
"The cops made it extra heavy for us, too," manager Lenny Hart, the father of drummer Mickey Hart, told Rolling Stone. "They detained the band, handcuffed them all together and lined them up in front of the building for press photos. The cops were enjoying it, just getting their own thing on.”
The bust was expected. A few weeks earlier, the band's friends in the Jefferson Airplane had suffered the same fate. And when the Dead arrived in the Crescent City earlier that day, they were told there could be problems — first at the airport, when they were given the name of an attorney in case something happened. Later, at the hotel, Jerry Garcia was tipped off that it was coming.
For all of New Orleans’ well-earned reputation as an anything-goes city, at the time it was a bit suspicious of the hippie movement. “New Orleans police seem to fear that their good town will become the next Haight-Ashbury, and maybe they feel that way with some reason,” the article said. “The fact is, New Orleans is starting to burst out. Head shops and boutiques are springing up all over, and there's a lot of long hair walking the streets.”
Nineteen members of the group’s touring party were arrested. This included their famous chemist, Owsley Stanley, who was described as a “technician,” their roadie Laurence “Ram Rod” Shurtliff, their “spiritual advisor,” a 26-year old woman going by the name of “Summer Wind” and a handful of locals who returned to the hotel with them. Only keyboardists Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Tom Constanten -- both of whom abstained from illegal drugs — remained free.
Hart negotiated a bail of $37,500 — the band’s take at the gig — for the entire crew, who spent eight hours in jail. However, the Dead didn’t split town upon their release. They not only played the second night at the Warehouse, but added a third show, which raised money for both their legal defense and others bands who found themselves in a similar situation.
However, this turned out to be the last straw for Constanten, who had felt increasingly shut out of the band. He and the band mutually parted ways immediately after the bust.
While most of the charges were eventually dropped, the incident has lived on in their music. Nine months later, the group released ‘Truckin,’’ whose lyrics famously reference the arrest: ‘Busted, down on Bourbon Street / Set up, like a bowlin' pin / Knocked down, it gets to wearin' thin / They just won't let you be, no.”
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