The Grateful Dead and the Saturday Night Live crew had a deep connection at least since the band’s first appearance on the show in 1978. As Steve Parish said, “It was a brotherhood of madmen.” While Tom Davis and Al Franken were dire-hard Deadheads, it was the band’s – particularly Billy’s and Jerry’s – connection with John Belushi that really cemented the relationship.
A mutual, abiding love of drugs certainly helped the connection between Belushi and the Dead. From doing lines of cokes with Billy off Lorne Michaels desk at 30 Rock to Belushi attempting to consume the Dead’s entire stash in between cartwheels at the band’s Terrapin Station studio sessions, the stories of Belushi and the Dead’s drug use are ubiquitous and legendary.
Of course, Belushi was also a music aficionado; it was part of what brought about the formation, with Dan Akroyd, of the Blues Brothers. And no doubt, the shared love of music also brought the Dead and Belushi together. Whenever the Dead were in New York City during the late 70s and early 80s, at least some of the band could be found at the Blues Bar, a private hangout that Belushi and Akroyd owned, jamming with all comers and partying into the morning hours. The Blues Brothers even opened for the Dead at Winterland on New Year’s Eve 1978.
The most well-known collaboration between Belushi and the Dead, though, happened on March 30, 1980, at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. It was the first night of a stand-alone three-show run before the Dead’s second appearance on Saturday Night Live on April 5, 1980. As Billy details in his autobiography, Belushi and him had been partying non-stop for days before the show. And Belushi had made it clear he wanted to come on for the encore. However, when Billy broached the subject with the rest of the boys, Phil balked.
Belushi, being Belushi, was not to be denied. And, as Billy explained, immediately before the chorus of US Blues,
Belushi took everyone by surprise by cartwheeling onto the stage. It was a comedic ambush. He had on a sport coat with small American flags stuffed into both of his breast pockets and he landed his last cartwheel just in time to grab a microphone and join in on the chorus. The audience and everyone in the band—except for Phil—ate it up. It couldn’t have been rehearsed better. Belushi had impeccable comedic timing, musicality, balls, the works.
Unfortunately, Belushi’s appetite for drugs, as everyone knows was insatiable. And by early 1982, most of his friends were deeply concerned about his well-being. Even a number of the members of the Dead, no strangers to the behavior of junkies, were appalled by Belushi’s drug-addled condition the last time they saw him, when he stopped by at their February 21, 1982, show at Pauly Pavilion. Sadly, Belushi passed from an overdose just two weeks later, on March 5, 1982, at the Chateau Marmont in LA.
Even in death, Belushi continued his connection with the Grateful Dead. Bobby regularly sang Belushi’s alternative lyric in Jack Straw, which Jerry and the rest of the band found hysterical, “We used to play for silver, now we play for Clive,” referring to Columbia record executive Clive Davis. And West LA Fadeaway surely references Belushi’s drug use and untimely passing in Hunter’s typical cryptic, mesmerizing fashion.
As Billy said about Belushi, watching him “perform was like going to a little Burning Man of the mind; it was wild, free, full of abandon, reckless, daring, artistic and it spun reality into all sorts of twisted and contorted dimensions. He didn’t tell jokes with punch lines; he was both the joke and the punch line. He was an artist and his canvas was humor. And humor saves the day, every time.”
The man truly was, as Tom Davis relates Belushi himself once told him, “the Jerry Garcia of comedy!”