“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…”
While New Orleans is generally known as a laid-back, easy-going city–with no open container laws and bars that never close–the city’s law enforcement has always been strict about certain things, including drugs. On January 31st, 1970, the Grateful Dead found this out the hard way when their hotel was raided and the entire band was arrested on drug charges. However, the experience would go on to influence the lyrics of “Truckin’“, one of the Dead’s most iconic songs.
Following their performance at The Warehouse with openers Fleetwood Mac, the band and crew returned to their hotel rooms to find the police waiting for them. As Lenny Hart (Mickey Hart‘s father and the band’s then-manager) explained to Rolling Stone shortly after the 1970 arrest, “It was very peculiar, and it seems like they set them up. [The cops] were waiting when they got back from their concert. They had a warrant and had already searched the room when the band got back. Nothing was found on any of the people except the stuff they had prescriptions for. Everything they claim to have found was in the room, they said. But nobody in the band knows where any of it came from. It wasn’t their stuff. The Grateful Dead are normally very cool and cautious.”
Continued Lenny, “The cops made it extra heavy for us, too. 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. They ended up having to spend eight hours in jail; even though the bail was ready right away, they hassled them that long.” All of the 19 people caught in the raid were booked for possession of some combination of marijuana, LSD, barbiturates, amphetamines, or other dangerous non-narcotic drugs. Mere possession in Louisiana then carried a penalty of 5 to 15 years in prison.
Every member of the Dead except Ronald “Pigpen” McKernan (who didn’t partake in drug use in favor of alcohol) and Tom Constanten (who left the band immediately after the New Orleans incident) was included in the bust, along with several members of their entourage and some local associates. An added bonus for the New Orleans police was the capture of psychedelic outlaw Owsley Stanley, then a tech for the band as well as a well-known LSD producer; “King of Acid Arrested,” boasted the local newspapers.
The bust did not come as too big of a surprise to the band. A few weeks earlier, their friends in the Jefferson Airplane had been raided while staying at the same New Orleans hotel following their own performance. Furthermore, when the Dead arrived in the Crescent City earlier that day, they were told they could face some issues, both at the airport (when they were given the name of an attorney in case something happened) and at the hotel before the show (when Jerry Garcia was warned by staff to stay clean as a raid was likely). This led many in the band to feel like they had been set up.
In the audio below, Garcia talks about the incident and the band’s treatment by the police, saying “They had great fun with us, the southern cops. They had just what they wanted: hippies. Oh, boy.” Listen to the full segment via YouTube user Scott Free:
As the 1970 Rolling Stone article explained, “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 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.”
After posting bail money, the Dead were almost out of funds. They added an extra show in New Orleans and persuaded Fleetwood Mac to stay for the additional performance as well. At the gig, a bucket was passed around the audience to collect some additional cash for legal expenses. Most of the charges from the New Orleans bust were eventually dropped, but the incident went on to make a lasting impact on Grateful Dead lore.
[via Rolling Stone, 1970]
[Originally published 1/31/17]