Jun 17, 2013

May 1970: Phil Lesh Interview


In Britain at any rate, the Grateful Dead almost became the victims of their own legend.
They were part of the paraphernalia of acidology, which included the Pranksters, the Family Dog, 1967, Owsley, Acid Tests, and Haight Street, and it was difficult to forget it.
Many thousands of miles away from their context, the first three Dead albums (Grateful Dead, Anthem Of The Sun and Aoxomoxoa) sounded lifeless. Was it all a myth? Were they really cardboard heroes, important only for their part in the extra-musical aspects of rock and roll history?
For me, the answer came with a track called 'Dark Star', which takes up the whole of a side of Live Dead, the fourth and most recently released of their albums in Britain.
This opened it all up, and explained every superlative ever heaped on the band's collective head. A masterpiece of electronic improvisational music, it was followed closely in quality by the rest of the album.
Phil Lesh, the Dead's bassist, arrived in London last week ahead of the rest of the band, for their gig at the Hollywood Festival. He agreed with my assessment of their recordings, and explained why it had happened.
"We simply haven't known how to make records," he told me, "and we figured the only way to make them was to learn ourselves, because we tried recording with a producer at the beginning and it was really hopeless. It all sounded completely flat.
"Anthem Of The Sun is the most satisfying of the first three to me, because we had the almost impossible task of making an album from very little material.
"The way it went very tight from the compositional standpoint was pleasing, and it's very coherent – I can still follow it all the way through. But still we all knew that it was 100 per cent noncommercial, and I certainly don't like the way it was mixed.
"I know we could have done it better, but we simply didn't know how. It was strange because we took stuff from three studio sessions and eight or nine gigs and put it all together without thinking of levels or equalising. We just did it from a musical standpoint, which is not enough.
"Anyway, it took us four albums and untold thousands of dollars to learn how to record ourselves. The music though was really good, and deserved a better fate.
"Even the live album, which I like, was put out six months after it was recorded, and even longer in Britain, and we do all the numbers completely differently now.
"The music is constantly evolving, progressing and regressing on many different levels.
"We have a new one out in the States, called Working Man's Dead, which I'm very pleased with... it has four pretty songs on one side which are most commercial. It's certainly the best of any of our studio work, and I hope it's a success because we want to stop touring.
"We've been on the road every weekend since October, and we really need a rest...if only to think up some new music."
Moving the Dead around the country is a massive operation, because they carry probably more equipment than any other band in the world. The fact that they use 17 microphones, and that their excess freight bill on the flight to London was 1,500 dollars, should demonstrate this slightly.
"When you're playing out of doors you really have to be super-loud, so I guess it came partly out of that. Nobody could do it at first, then as the bands got louder it became a question of actually hearing yourself on stage while you're playing.
"So monitors are our problem, and we've yet to solve the problem of monitoring the acoustic part of our performance, which is a fairly recent innovation. It's not set up to do that.
"But the sound is so much better out of doors. Everything is better...the air, the wind, the trees."
The acoustic music came about because most of the members of the band played acoustic instruments before the Dead began, and it's fun to play traditional acoustic numbers. On this part of the show they're joined by two people called Marmaduke and Dave Nelson, who are members of The New Riders of the Purple Sage, a band who have the same relationship to the Dead as Hot Tuna have to the Airplane. Guitarist Jerry Garcia and drummer Mickey Hart are in both bands, and The New Riders travel all over the States with the Dead, playing on their gigs.
They're old friends, and although they didn't come to Britain on this trip, Phil promises that they will accompany them next time round.
"We've really got a show now – all we need is Pigpen with three black chicks backing him up and we're there!" There has been a departure from the band recently. Organist Tom Constanten left, and no keyboards are now used, with the exception of Pigpen. Phil says: "He plays a little organ now and then, but we're trying to discourage him."
Such alterations in personnel are rare for the group, whose only other change since their inception five years ago has been the addition of a second drummer, Bill Kreutzmann. [sic]
"It really began for us in the summer of 1966, a year before the big Haight-Ashbury thing. It was like a home-town then...you could walk down the street and know everybody.
"Nobody believed it would ever go sour, because we gave it to the media everybody would go wild. I guess we didn't think far enough ahead – we thought it would just filter through and whoever wanted to know would come along.
"But in fact everybody who wanted to get themselves straight came to San Francisco, because the drugs were there, and the city government turned very uptight, whereas before the publicity they were pretty liberal.
"So everybody went back to their home towns until it got quiet again. Now it's happening everywhere...all the campuses are really beautiful, and they're turning on to the new life-style.
"The shootings at Kent State are what happens when the pigs get on the campuses, because the kids just aren't going to allow them in there.
"Rock and roll is what the kids think about absolute authority – get out of my life! Woodstock showed how people who think alike can live together, but it got ripped off. It was an expression of faith by everybody, those people were there to dig each other and themselves."

(by Richard Williams, from Melody Maker, May 30 1970)

1 comment:

  1. It is rare to see an early interview from Phil, who was never keen on doing them. Melody Maker seems to have caught him by himself, before the rest of the band arrived.

    Numerous interesting comments... Just like the last English reviewer I posted, this one also finds the Dead's studio albums "lifeless" and says that Live-Dead's Dark Star is the high-point of their work.
    We get some Lesh insights into how he feels about their albums, particularly Anthem - "I certainly don't like the way it was mixed." (He would remix it for a reissue in 1971.)

    He is surprisingly positive about Workingman's Dead, with its commercial, pretty songs. Partly it's the practical side of the album - the Dead had finally learned how to record themselves & the production doesn't let down the songs.
    Then: "I hope it's a success because we want to stop touring. We've been on the road every weekend since October, and we really need a rest."
    Garcia would say the same thing in 1971 - that the band had been playing too many shows and wanted to relax more, and be able to pick & choose their dates.
    Sam Cutler goes into detail about this issue in his recent book, particularly about convincing Phil that the band needed to play lots of gigs in order to climb out of debt (see p.226-27). By 1971 they were finally able to cut back on the constant touring.

    It's funny to see that in 1970 the Dead were already notorious for the amount of stage equipment they carried.
    Phil sounds very fond of playing outdoors, but mentions that their stage monitors aren't working very well for their acoustic sets. (You can often hear complaints from the band about this during shows.)
    He also sounds skeptical about Pigpen contributing more organ: "He plays a little organ now and then, but we're trying to discourage him."
    Nonetheless, Pigpen has an important part onstage: "We've really got a show now – all we need is Pigpen with three black chicks backing him up and we're there!"
    (Ironically, it would end up being Garcia, not Pigpen, who took that direction...)