A MESSAGE FROM GARCIA: NOTHING EXCEEDS LIKE SUCCESS
"Basically, success sucks. And all the other crap that goes along with it. We've unconsciously come to the end of what you can do in America, how far you can succeed. And it's nothing, it's nowhere. It means billions of cops and people busted at your gigs. It means high prices and hassling over extra-musical stuff. It's unnecessary, so we're into busting it. That's all. That's it."
It's not as simple as you might think. Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, sitting beside his beautifully inlaid custom guitar in a hotel room across from Paul's Mall (where he will play three nights with organist Merl Saunders) is not at all announcing the death of the Dead. Someone who's been through the entire gamut of late '50s and '60s changes is not about to throw out the baby with the bath water simply because of the hassles that have accompanied mass success.
"We haven't broken up, we've just stopped performing. We're going to keep on recording, and we probably will get back into performing, but we'll wait until we've had a chance to define how we want to do it. Our whole development has been 'going along with the changes.' It's not as though we've plotted to get to a certain level. By just not thinking about it, or not making conscious decisions about what we were doing, we ended up in that place of stadiums, coliseums, large civic-owned and civic-controlled buildings, high ticket prices, enormous overhead, in an effort to fulfill the requirement of whatever the level change was. For example, we changed from playing theaters to large places. The reason we were doing it was because there were more people who wanted to see us than we had time. So the obvious thing was to go to bigger rooms. Okay, so that meant we can only go to bigger rooms if we sound good in them, and that led to our whole p.a. thing, which is expensive. Our rationale was, 'We'll divert the income into developing the resource' because, really, we have a relationship with our audience, and we're only interested in keeping that straight - independent of what the rest of the rock 'n' roll world is doing. But the truth is we've been stuck in this total control situation; our whole lives are controlled by economic circumstances. We're sort of up against the back end of success."
To the uninitiated, it might have seemed that the Grateful Dead became a mass success rather suddenly, about three years ago. According to Garcia, this was not really the case. In fact, instant success might have been easier to deal with. "It's been gradual. We've been really successful ever since the very beginning in terms of not really having to sweat surviving. We haven't done really brilliantly, we haven't scored big. We've only been able to raise the level of survival and also include more and more people in our trip. It's been gradual, but that's the really insidious thing about it. We were prepared mentally for any quick jump, but going slowly into this scene, it becomes almost habitual. Finally we all realized: 'it's gotten to the point where we can no longer really make enough money to keep it working at the present rate. And also there isn't anything for us to get off on. We're removed from the audience, we're removed from what we're doing and it just is a drag."
Did the Dead reach a point of musical stagnation?
"I feel that we have to spend more time developing ourselves musically, which is one of the reasons for taking a break, in addition to trying to solve all these other problems."
Does that mean allowing some of the other band members to catch up with him and Phil Lesh?
"Well, basically that's it, but it's not a reflection on various levels of capacity, because everyone's developing his own musical interests at whatever rate they're capable of. It's not a competitive trip. Everybody in the band is, in my opinion, a pretty good musician. It's not like there are guys who are totally fucked up. To me, just because of default, I've fallen into the role of being the main writer in the band. And I'm not really a writer, I'm not really a composer. I'm not even really a singer, you know? But these are roles, and since the band has needed them I've fallen into them, just like we all have. But it's been on me to be the guy who's developing the material. And frankly, I'm tired of my own writing, I'm bored with it. Since it's sort of an artificial situation, I'm not an inspired writer. It represents work. I would rather let it happen, in terms of my own creativity, without the pressure of having to deliver a certain amount of material."
The band's lack of musical growth and Garcia's forced writing would seem to explain the flaws in the last two Dead albums, but Jerry feels it runs much deeper than that. "I never have been happy with an album. I never have thought, 'Well, this album is really neat.' Making albums is our attempt to reconcile our musical identity with the rest of the world and the musical business. That's been our dovetail. I don't think we've pulled it off too good, mainly because the format is just fucked up. Eighteen minutes to a side is not an accurate representation of what we do."
But do the Dead really have the musical ability to sustain all those long jams?
"That partly has to do with the kind of situation we've had to play in. When we go out on tour we go out for maybe 14 to 21 days, and we're playing every other night in a different room. For every gig there's the same series of adjustments, and it doesn't give us a chance to get past a certain point. The first half we're trying to psych out the room, we're trying to understand what's happening acoustically, which is purely mechanics. By the second half we're starting to develop a sound in the room, and that's the first step towards getting off into decent improvisation, which is where you can hear everybody clearly and any new idea has potential weight.
"My fantasy is eventually for us to build a permanent place to perform in that would be like a whole theater. It would be small and tasty and it would have a permanent set-up."
Since the band has always been headquartered in the Bay Area, I wondered whether such a set-up would not make it difficult for the Dead's East Coast fans to hear them.
"Well, we're working on how to deal with that. The video thing is a possibility, and there's also the possibility of having another house on this coast. We would play a run of about a month and really develop an advantage acoustically in a room. The thing that happens when we play in a place more than one night is that it gets subtler and more articulate, and that's the kind of thing that lets you go into new realms. When we went to Europe this last time we got into some new directions in improvisation which have been the opening of new, fertile ground. But even so, it would be too easy for us to keep on doing what we've been doing. We've got this large scene, and everybody's developed this neurotic attachment to the Grateful Dead, just because that's our baby. On the other hand, it's only an invention."
The Grateful Dead are the only rock group that own their own record companies. They are involved in every aspect of the business - producing, pressing, distribution and publicity - and a host of peripheral businesses have sprung up around that one initial idea. But various figures in the music industry have predicted the venture will cause nothing but headaches for the Dead, and will eventually fail. Garcia claims he doesn't see it in those terms.
"We've never really tried to be successful, but we have in spite of that. It's just been able to support itself, keep its own scene going. And we've been able to pool our energy so we're getting more of it. Our record companies are doing okay, but we don't have a huge amount of output. It's all smaller now, because we've cut everything back to get tight focus. We sell as many copies, and the amount of improvement over how much we actually make from the records is amazing, compared to what we were making with Warner Brothers. And we own the company, so we can do it however we want.
"These are all things that are weird for other reasons. The making of records is an amazing bummer. It's a sweatshop situation, one of the worst. It turns out to be this horrible scene - you wouldn't want to support it if you understood how it works. In a pressing plant there will be a dozen people in a poorly ventilated, miserable place with hot vinyl fumes - the most monotonous, mindless kind of work and it's an awful situation in which to work. I really object to it. Vinyl chloride is poisonous, it's a carcinogen."
Shouldn't he stop making records, then?
"We're trying to finance the development of holographically storing audio information and avoiding discs and all the waste of petroleum-based products. And storing all of the Grateful Dead's recorded past with none of the kind of things that you have with grooves - no wear, no surface noise, because it would be a light-scanning thing. Consequently it would be pretty hip ecologically. One of the things that's really disgusting about the whole music business, and it's disappointing for someone like me, is that there isn't any effort on the part of the music business as a whole to develop this thing. They don't care. They want to make the profit and thats it. I mean, that's America, that's just the way America is. You can't really do anything about it. You can't change people's heads. We used to try to do that, but it's turned out to be easier for us to get together as much stuff as we can do and focus it in new directions."
So Jerry Garcia has begun a period of experimentation, "woodshedding" and playing with small groups in small venues. However, this isn't the first tour he's made independent of the Grateful Dead. In the last three years he's performed with a bluegrass group, Old And In The Way, and with organist Howard Wales, whose place in the Matrix (a Marin County, California club) jam sessions Merl Saunders now occupies. Both tours encountered the same two problems: the bands, quasi-bluegrass and quasi-jazz, were not in the same league with aggregations who devoted their full-time musical energies to those particular genres; and there was a major discrepancy between the expectations of the audience (who came to see Garcia) and Jerry himself, who intended to remain in the background.
When Garcia and Wales played at Symphony Hall almost three years ago, they were, at least to my ears, blown off the stage by the warmup act, the fledgling Mahavishnu Orchestra. Garcia didn't quite hear it that way.
"I don't really like Mahavishnu. I don't like John McLaughlin's playing. It's too stiff. Technically, I admire it - he can do things that are difficult to do, his execution is remarkable. But the way it ends up sounding is nervous and agitated rather than energetic. And also I like music that has more beauty to it and more soulfulness. You know, I'm not a really competitive dude, and I dug it for what it was. But listening to it at home, it's just not the kind of thing that moves me that much. I do think that it's possible to suggest emotion without using devices that are traditionally harmonic. I don't think you have to be restricted to particular tonal things to have that. In other words, it's not a question of cliche, it's whether the attitude of the playing is soulful. There's no other word to describe it. It's possible for a player to play modern and to also move you.
"Also, I didn't really go on the road that time to play. The thing was really misrepresented. I just wanted to get Howard out playing, and his band had a nice thing going on which really didn't have much to do with me. I was just there fucking around."
What is he doing on this latest tour to prevent such false expectations?
"I don't even try to prevent it. This time I'm prepared to accept that role, if that's what it is. It could be a limitation if I wanted to accept it that way, but I just try to live out my life as a normal musician in spite of all that stuff. And I'm pretty lucky, because I have a lot of friends who are players. The fact of being a celebrity is sometimes groovy and sometimes it's a bummer, but it hasn't gotten in the way so far, and I'm just not into it. I don't want to be that way. I just want to play."
For those who wonder what the future holds in the way of Grateful Dead recordings, let me mention just a few of the upcoming projects. Garcia himself is scheduled to go into the studio for a solo album in January (when apprised of this by manager Ron Rakow, Garcia emitted a disbelieving moan). Also on the agenda are albums by Bob Weir, Robert Hunter, Keith and Donna Godcheaux, Old And In The Way, and a four-disc recording of the Grateful Dead live. Breaking up is hard to do.
(by Peter Herbst, from the "Boston After Dark" section, Boston Phoenix, November 19 1974)