THE GRATEFUL DEAD FLEE BIG BUSINESS
The History of the Dead may well be a funeral dirge for some, but it heralds the birth of an empire for the Dead.
It's an unlikely place to find a rock and roll emporium. Located just north of San Francisco, overlooking the San Pablo Bay, sits the peaceful city of San Rafael. The tiny city is surrounded by northern California’s natural splendor, but nestled in its heart is an efficient, modernistic, business complex. In one of the largest suites of offices, the walls are decorated with gold records, posters, banners, photos and mementos of the eight year existence of America’s biggest cult supergroup. Scattered across these bulletin boards are countless hits of memorabilia, attesting to the band’s incredible endurance in a business where rock groups come and go as quickly as a summer shower.
Secretaries hustle about the offices, xeroxing documents while the phones ring on and off their hooks, inquiries are answered and interview requests are received for information concerning Grateful Dead Records, the newly formed record label owned and operated by its famous namesake. Sitting in a plush, wood-paneled office adjacent to the active front room, legendary lead guitarist and Grateful Dead mastermind Jerry Garcia leans back in a squeaky swivel chair and surveys the busy scene.
Flying from the nest
When the group’s long-run affiliation with Warner Brothers Records came to an end last July with the release of History of The Grateful Dead Volume One: Bear’s Choice, the band decided not to renew their contract, and not even to move to another record company. In one of the most historic events in the history of rock they began their own record company, allowing The Dead full and complete control over their records — from the second they begin recording to the instant someone buys an album in a record store.
The idea of a rock band’s personal label is not a new one. Elton John operates through his newly formed Rocket Records. Emerson, Lake and Palmer record on their personally owned Manticore label, while the Stones own Rolling Stones Records. However, each of these independently owned recording companies is distributed by a major company, like Warner Brothers. That means, for example, that Deep Purple Records are shipped to local record stores all over the world by Warner Brothers. Most independently owned labels seek a large company to distribute their albums so they can be assured their LP will be available everywhere. Astonishingly, the Dead have decided to take the entire job of recording, pressing, shipping, and advertising into their own hands, and they claim it will be no less easy to obtain future Dead releases than it was in the past. “It took a lot of work to get this thing together,” grins the personable Rock Scully, one of a trio of Dead band managers, “but it’s well worth the effort.”
Garcia counts the pennies
Jerry Garcia couldn’t agree more. “There are a lot of people on our payroll,” he says as he tugs at his well-worn dark green polo shirt in the Dead offices, “and we can’t really count that much on record royalties to take care of business. The live shows we do are the main source of income for the band, and we’ve been playing an awful lot to pay off our overhead.
“We’ve planned for over a year to form our own record manufacturing and distributing company so as to package and promote our stuff in a more human manner. A large benefit from that will be our capability of getting away from the retail list price inflation while still keeping more of the profits. We have nothing against the way Warner Brothers have treated us. They’ve never interfered with our music. But if the records cover a larger share of our overhead, then we can pick and choose on our live shows. We can experiment a little bit and play the really groovy shows.”
A season of supershows
An indication of the surprises in store and part of the concert experimentation has already begun with the recent Grateful Dead shows that have combined the Dead with another American supergroup, The Allman Brothers. In the case of the amazing Watkins Glen Festival in New York this past July, the Dead and the Allmans were joined by the Band. The original idea for these supershows started over a year ago when a full length, cross-country tour with the Allman Brothers was booked into some of America’s largest stadiums. The two bands have been long time friends, going back to the days the members of the groups first met each other backstage at the Fillmore East. Both bands were set to hop on planes to begin the tour last fall when Allman bassist Berry Oakley was killed in a motorcycle accident just a few days before their opening show in Houston, Texas. The joint tour was cancelled until this past summer, when the Allmans and the Dead made an appearance at the RFK Stadium in Washington. The RFK Stadium appearance made concert history. Ticketron, the computer network covering the eastern coast, reported that tickets to the Dead-Allmans concert were snapped up as far away as Montreal, Canada. More than 80,000 seats were sold for the two consecutive concerts.
Garcia waxed ecstatic about the experience, saying he couldn’t have been more at home with The Allmans.
“It’s kind of like playing with us the way we were five years ago,” Jerry laughs. “Musically and set-up wise, they’re kind of similar to the way we used to be. They especially sounded like us when they were the original Allman Brothers. They had two drummers, two guitars, organ and bass...exactly the instrumentation we had (when drummer Mickey Hart and organist-vocalist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan were in the band).
“In fact, Dickey and the guys had flashed on our music when we played at a festival in Florida about five or six years ago. We really inspired them and they’ve patterned a lot of their trip after us. They’re like a younger, Southern version of us in some ways musically. I really enjoy playing with those guys, they’re fun to play with. They’re good.”
‘Eyes’ to the future
Although there are definite plans afoot to release an album of a monumental Dead-Allmans jam-session early next year, the first release of the Grateful Dead Records label will be the long-awaited Grateful Dead studio album — their first since American Beauty hit the racks three years ago. Tentatively titled We Are The Eyes Of The World, Garcia insists the band went into the studios with the objective to “do it and do it right.” He is also quick to add that the “we” is everybody and not the group.
Recorded at the prestigious Record Plant tucked away next to a humble Sausalito boat dock on the bay, time was booked every evening from six until midnight beginning in early August and lasting into September.
“We’re recording close to two albums’ worth of material,” Garcia explains as he chain-smokes his umpteenth filterless Camel of the interview, “and distill it into one record, leaving the rest in the can. It’s funny, you know, but I can’t really pin down what kind of album it’s gonna be. I never have been able to tell with past albums either. When I get the final copy home and listen to it, then I’ll be able to look back and see what it is. Right now, all I know is that the tunes are all good. The tunes that me and Robert Hunter wrote are the best we’ve ever written. For sure.”
A crush brings a spurt
Jerry is the first to admit that he is a somewhat less than prolific songwriter, but it was last January that he underwent a creative “spasm” that left him with seven new songs. The band was about to begin rehearsals the next week in their deserted and dilapidated Point Reyes rehearsal hall and Jerry, who undoubtedly felt the crush for new material, came up with the goods. “Sometimes,” he says, “I can just crank ‘em out and other times...nothing. Like I could have a spurt in which I’d write four new songs in one week, and in the next six months I wouldn’t be able to put two words together. It’s that kind of thing.”
The Dead’s newest tunes, especially ‘We Are The Eyes Of The World’, are surprisingly complex and sometimes jazz-oriented compositions. At a recent performance at Universal Ampitheatre in Los Angeles, the song stood out from the regular standards with ease. “They’re a little more sophisticated in terms of structure than our other ones, the new tunes,” Jerry admits. “But they’re Grateful Dead all the way. I mean they sound like The Grateful Dead. I can’t really look at them objectively, but I feel that they’re better. It’s hard to tell what direction they’re moving in. They’re really sort of dispersed in that they are widely-patterned. All the tunes are very different from each other and the ones that preceded them as well.”
Pigpen’s last stand
We Are The Eyes Of The World will provide especially fascinating juxtaposition with their latest release, History of the Grateful Dead Volume One: Bear’s Choice. Rather than to choose the usual “greatest hits” packaging, for their final album commitment, The Dead dispatched production manager Owsley “The Bear” Stanley to rummage through his collection of live tapes to find a unique performance LP with which to bow out.
What The Bear chose (hence the title) was a very special recording of two nights the band performed at The Fillmore East on Friday the 13th and Valentine’s Day in February, 1970. “It’s a side of the group that never went on record,” says Jerry in retrospect.
“It shows a Dead you’ll never see or hear again,” Rock picks up the story. “The album is sixty percent Pigpen and the other forty percent is acoustic material. Needless to say, Pigpen is no longer with us and The Dead don’t do acoustic material onstage anymore. The record is very, very interesting if you know the history behind it. Pigpen went out on the stage and sat down in a chair...it was the only time he ever did it. He sat down and played the bottleneck guitar. He had never done that before or after. We’d been pushing him for years to do it and finally he just got loose enough and comfortable enough with the audience there at the Fillmore to go out and do it. He went out and sat down on the stage — it was Valentine’s Day and he had a honey out in the crowd. He went out and played ‘Katie Mae’ to her. Immediately following that, Bobby (Weir) and Garcia went out and did the same thing. They sat down and played acoustic guitars. They don’t do that anymore. With Pigpen’s death, Mickey Hart’s departure and Keith and Donna Godchaux’s addition on piano and vocals it’s a whole new band.”
History Of The Dead is an historic event for many reasons, including the last of Pigpen, the last Dead album ever to appear on a major label, and the beginning of a whole new era in small recording companies. And possibly, if Jerry Garcia can keep his eyes on “the retail list-price inflation spiral”, the benefits will be reaped in terms of dollars and concerts by grateful Grateful Dead fans everywhere.
(by Cameron Crowe, from Circus magazine, October 1973)