“FUCK NO, WE’RE JUST MUSICIANS.”
AN INTERVIEW WITH JERRY GARCIA
“In the land of the night the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead…”
Jerry Garcia, formerly of Mother McCree’s Jug Champions, is now the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead. The Jug Champions were Garcia, Pigpen, and Bob Weir, trying to hold it together and get a few gigs. There wasn’t much demand for jug bands and when they were offered equipment to start a rock band, they agreed. The equipment belonged to a music store owner who became their bass player. Bill Kreutzman was picked up as their drummer and at the time he was the only one in the group with rock experience. Eventually they found a new bass player who had gone from classical music through jazz and into electronic compositions, reaching a point where he felt he had gone just about as far as he wanted to go. Phil Lesh had never played bass but with his background and his musical mind, he learned quickly.
Garcia’s first guitar was electric and he was playing in rock and roll bands until the folk music scene started happening. At that point, he became involved in white country and folk music. For three years he travelled through the South recording blue-grass bands and playing blue-grass banjo. The jug band revived his interest in guitar and he feels he is still learning.
Pigpen is the son of an early rhythm and blues D.J. who got heavily into blues early in his teens, playing harp and piano. He also has an amazing talent for low-down raunchy blues raps and getting across the joy and pain of blues to the audience.
Bob Weir’s background is primarily folk music. He went the whole coffee house route and now plays rhythm guitar.
And so the Warlocks had their first gig, and for about six months they were a straight rock and roll band playing in bars and doing rock standards. Somewhere along the line they started playing long weird numbers, trips only acid-heads could dig.
With the publication of Kesey’s first book a scene evolved at La Honda. Mutual friends got Kesey and the Warlocks together for the first of what became a series of parties. The Warlocks brought the instruments and the Pranksters had their tape recorders, tape loops and whatever, and the first Acid Test was under way.
And they were off – extending the limits, finding new places to go, doing away with old forms, trying to find something new, becoming aware of different relationships both musically and personally. The awareness of everyone being part of the same being, at different levels, and the knowledge that change is growth brought about a new rock band known as the Grateful Dead.
The Dead have combined diverse musical styles and backgrounds and come up with something unique, going past all forms except the ones they create. Their music, at one time electronically focused, is now more country-oriented. AMERICAN BEAUTY, their latest album, gives some idea of their various stylistic approaches to their music.
For a long time they had financial difficulties caused, in part, by management or mis-management, that resulted in their being incredibly debt-ridden. At first their friends tried to help, but bills kept piling up and they finally decided on a take-care-of-business manager whose attitude caused some of the family members to dislike and mistrust him. After a number of confrontations, he was let go. At that point, they found again that they had been ripped off.
Other hassles such as a bust in New Orleans caused more energy drain. Now things are much clearer and they have the time and money to go ahead with new ideas and new directions.
This interview took place at a house in San Rafael, partly hidden from the street by two large palm trees. We talked in a small room containing a bare wooden table, chairs and a couch, faded flower print wallpaper on the walls.
Garcia is warm and open, interested in making you feel comfortable and relaxed. He sees the essential humor of life and doesn’t try to keep a straight face. He is not only a rock superstar but also a human being trying to relate to what he sees and feels.
ORGAN: What did you do before the Grateful Dead formed?
GARCIA: Nothing. We all started nowhere, bums. I was doing coffee houses. We had a jug band together, me and Bob Weir and Pigpen, and we worked once or twice a year. I mean nobody fucking hires jug bands. And I gave guitar lessons at a music store. You know, just sort of holding things together. Music is my whole scene and that’s what I’ve been doing all along. I never had a regular job or anything like that.
ORGAN: What do you mean when you say that the Grateful Dead is a life experiment?
GARCIA: Well, I just see us as a lot of good-time pirates. I’d like to apologize in advance to anybody who believes we’re something really serious. The seriousness of it is not really part of what we live. The seriousness comes up as lightness and I think that’s the way it should be. The important thing is that everybody be comfortable. Live [line missing] able.
ORGAN: Do you see the group as any sort of guiding light?
GARCIA: Fuck no. We’re just musicians. On a good night our music will be clear and won’t scare anybody and won’t hurt anybody. But other times, we’re just subject to the same trips; we’re all human beings and we’re not 100% perfectly clear. Let’s put it that way.
ORGAN: Are you doing as many big concerts?
GARCIA: That’s part of a whole new thing that’s happening. The Grateful Dead has become incredibly popular and we can’t play a small hall anymore without having 3,000 people outside wanting to get in. Our classic situation for the last six months has been people breaking down the doors and just coming in. And, we haven’t been able to play small places because our expenses are high and then the prices at the door have to be high. It’s a whole upward adjustment that we have to go through. We have to play to 7,000 to 10,000 seats to be able to get people in at a reasonable price. Just to do it. It’s weird. Here’s what we’re wondering: do we really fucking want to do that? When it comes down to it, we’re just heads. We’re not interested in creating a lot of fucking trouble and being superstars and all that shit. We’re just playing, getting off, out to have a good time and giving it all a chance to happen. And all of a sudden there are all these problems making it more difficult to do, and it’s getting to be where it’s not fun. We have to play shows like military campaigns just to make sure that the equipment guys don’t have to be fighting thousands of people to save the shit. People do unnecessary and extreme things and that’s what kills rock and roll people, doing extreme things all the time. But we’re not into doing that so what we have to do is cut way back, cut way down and do it at reasonable prices in groovy situations where those that can see it can see it.
ORGAN: American Beauty seems to be a new direction for the Dead.
GARCIA: American Beauty is a whole bunch of different stylistic trips in terms of what the style is. Each song sort of suggests a different treatment stylistically, different instrumentation, different quality of voices. It was something to do on record and we didn’t need to be too cautious about it – we just did it. And, actually, I would like to have done that record again. We could have done a lot better but that’s the way it is each time.
ORGAN: How did you feel about Workingman’s Dead?
GARCIA: It could have been better. That’s my feeling about our music, that it could be better always. They were both done very quickly, about 10 days in the studio. That was our decision about those records: try to do them quickly and not to hang ourselves up, not to get too far into it. That approach has its good points, it has its bad points. I see doing anything in the recording world as being a degree between trying for perfection and just going ahead and doing it with the [lines missing]
their ears when the record comes out so it becomes a moot point, really.
ORGAN: Do you think you’ll continue to do story songs and country music for a while?
GARCIA: No, I don’t think we’ll stay with anything for a while. I think that the next record that we do will be the last of that and starting to go someplace else. I don’t know what we’ll do. Lately, in playing we’ve been trying to go back to good old rock and roll. We don’t predict it, it just happens.
ORGAN: What is the relationship between you and Bob Hunter?
GARCIA: We’ve been friends for years and we work well together. We work every variety of way. Sometimes he has things written out that I set to music. Sometimes I write music which he sets words to. Sometimes we work together. We work well because we have no difficulty in communication. We’re not on any kind of trip. It’s mostly getting it down and getting it good. The songs we do are only songs in so far as they have words, they have vocal parts and they have chord changes. But in terms of the selection of ideas and people playing, everybody does what they want to do each time. So each time the song sounds a little different, and in the space of say six months the material evolves into a whole different thing from what it originally was. With us a piece of material can have a long life. Some of the things we’ve been doing for like five or six years and they’re still going through changes. I’m not ambitious in so far as I don’t feel that there are great areas of unexplored music that I am not experiencing because of one thing or another. That’s not the way it is when you’re working in a group. In the Grateful Dead, you see, my idea of what music is is going to bump into what Phil’s idea of music is, Billy’s ideas and Bobby’s ideas, and what we are going to come up with is something that is none of our ideas but OUR idea. It’s another level entirely.
ORGAN: What’s your relationship to Owsley?
GARCIA: Well, Owsley is in jail and Owsley is our friend and that’s all he’s ever been really. And because he’s a difficult cat, we’re probably the only friends he has or among the few friends he has.
ORGAN: You did a benefit for him?
GARCIA: Yes, and we’ll probably do some more too because he can sure use the money now that he has a possibility of getting out. And he really doesn’t deserve to be in jail.
ORGAN: You recently did a Panther benefit?
ORGAN: I had the impression that the Dead didn’t do politically oriented benefits.
GARCIA: We don’t.
ORGAN: Do you feel strongly about the Panthers?
GARCIA: We like some of the things they do such as their Free Breakfast Program and things like that. But this benefit came about because we’re sort of friends with Huey Newton. We met him once in an airplane. He was flying to New York and we were flying to New York. We had a nice long rap. We liked the cat and were pretty impressed. We thought at the time that if there was ever anything we could do for him we’d try to do it. It was unfortunate that it had to come out at a Black Panther benefit and all that, but if that’s the format and you agree to do a favor, you do it. No matter what you think is righteous. And that’s what we did. And it did what it was supposed to do – it made them some bread. But it’s not our concern what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. It’s not what we’re doing.
I’m convinced more than ever that politics is bullshit, always was bullshit and will be bullshit. It’ll continue to be an empty, futile bullshit trip as long as people are willing to go for it. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t get things done. It has no real relationship to the world in which we exist. It’s bullshit. If I were to say anything else I would be misleading somebody drastically.
ORGAN: Are you clear of the New Orleans bust?
GARCIA: No, there’s still a few loose threads insofar as various of us have to go back there at some time or another and say something to someone [lines missing]
GARCIA: Well, it was heavy enough in itself.
ORGAN: How did it happen?
GARCIA: After the show, I went to somebody’s house and hung around there for a long time and rapped and finally went back to the hotel, and when I got there they were already pretty much cleaning out everybody’s room. Everybody was gone, nobody was there and I just happened to be walking down the hall with my guitar. I saw a couple of guys in the room and they said, Hey you, come here, and shook me down. But apparently they walked in on everybody. Bob, how did they get us in New Orleans?
BOB WEIR: How did they get us in New Orleans? Well, they busted through the door and said everybody stay where you are, this is a bust. No, they didn’t say bust. They said this is an arrest. And everybody laughed and said sure. And they said to put your hands up on the wall and everybody thought it was a piece of shit.
ORGAN: How do you feel about drugs, particularly cocaine?
GARCIA: We talk about that a lot. And is cocaine a good thing or a bad thing in the sense of classically bad or evil? And that’s pretty true, but the thing is this. The thing about cocaine and what practically everybody I know does is that if there’s any around, you sniff it. That’s all. And if it isn’t, you don’t. When it comes down to what your will power is, in relation to the drug, that’s where it’s dangerous. Because if it’s there, you take it. I think it’s preferable to speed but way more expensive. I think it’s better than cups of coffee probably, but I don’t really know. I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody for sure. I can’t say it doesn’t have some subtle effect on your spiritual life. It might cost you several lifetimes.
My feeling about drugs is that everybody is free to do whatever they would do to themselves, no matter what they would do, and that anybody with a clear head who knows what can happen and what can’t happen and doesn’t expect too much can deal with drugs in a sane way. Anything you can do to enhance your survival, it’s O.K. with me.
ORGAN: What do you think of Cleaver putting down drugs?
GARCIA: Those guys have their reasons. I don’t feel myself to be in opposition to anybody. I’m not asking people to be a way. I would never say, Be this way; I can’t tolerate life without you being this way. It’s O.K. with me if people have contradictions and if there are huge schisms and subcultures. It’s like all games people play and they do these things to keep themselves amused whether they know it or not. And to have dope or not have dope is as ridiculous a question as to have long hair or not have long hair. It’s meaningless in the face of what’s really true. It’s not only meaningless but worthless because who the fuck am I. I’m only a dumb fucking musician.
ORGAN: But you were with Kesey, and at the acid tests.
GARCIA: Yeah, but that’s only me. That’s a certain amount of experience. That’s just something that I decided to do with my life. Nothing forced me to do it. It’s been a matter of choice and I would never suggest that anyone spend their life the way I spend mine, because I think everyone [line missing] capable of finding out how to do it for themselves, given the opportunity and the information. But I don’t have any judgments on any level.
ORGAN: Even when people put down dope as something that impairs you?
GARCIA: Well, it definitely does for certain things, I would imagine. You have to keep your concentration at a certain level. But it’s a question of how much popcorn at the movies in the sense of – if in order for you to believe what you’re doing, you must stay away from drugs, then do that. But if you consider yourself free to believe whatever you want, then I don’t think any amount of drugs is going to make you any different. All drugs do is show you more of yourself, and either you can dig it or you can’t. I don’t think you have to take drugs to be aware or know what’s going on, and I don’t think you have to not take them.
ORGAN: Do you think that Altamont had a very important effect on you?
GARCIA: Well, yeah, because that definitely indicated to us a change in direction. We behaved in accordance with how we behaved in a situation all along. One thing that never occurred to anybody is that there are a lot of people in the world who have never had any experience with violent people. They don’t know what it is to stay out of the way of violence; they don’t know what it is to survive in that difficult scene. It’s easy. It’s just a matter of removing yourself from the scene of violence. It’s not any heroism trip. Nothing like that.
The Altamont thing is something we were kind of pulled into because of an association we had with the way the whole rock and roll thing was going. There were whole worlds of karmic trips. Steve Gaskin said something to me which raps it better than I’ve ever heard, that Altamont was the price that the Rolling Stones paid for that little bit of sadism in your sex life they had been selling with rock and roll, that Paint It Black trip. Like that’s what they got for it. They got the Hells Angels and murder.
Altamont taught me a lot about what the word free means. That was the whole big trip, it was free, the Rolling Stones for free. And free doesn’t mean free, giveaway. It means that people are free to murder. And that was freedom. Everybody got a look at what freedom really is. In a situation like that certain people are free to kill others.
In my mind freedom is like a bullshit trip that we’ve all been sold that somehow makes it possible for you to conceptualize a life without responsibility. That kind of thing is not available on this planet. I believe that life is a complex network of interworking responsibilities. It all has to do with awareness and presence, in the sense of nowness, and everything works from that organic center. I don’t think it’s a question of rules or free or not free. Those are just situations and I don’t think they’re at the core of what life is. I haven’t found that to be so. Altamont was my big lesson. It couldn’t have been more graphic.
ORGAN: What is your relationship with the Angels?
GARCIA: Well, we get along with them and know them as individuals. That’s the way we’ve always dealt with them. The Angels don’t come out and say we, the Hells Angels, are sending an emissary to you, the Grateful Dead. It’s not like that. The Angels are pretty much into good times – parties and stuff like that. And really at Altamont the Angels were not the bad guys. They were the guys who were [line missing] order together. You can consider the Angels as being kind of the bizarro police in that drama. It was the guys who wanted to become like Angels that were doing the real violence.
On one hand there were the proto-Angels who wanted to become the Angels, and the way they showed this was by beating people over the head. And you can see the Angels as being sort of proto-cops. I see the whole thing as being an orderly happening in the universe, but incidentally, for my part and because the Grateful Dead was responsible for a lot of that shit…
Free – we were the ones that started playing free in the park. And that thing was an offshoot of our idea. It was one of our guys that went and talked to the Rolling Stones about doing a free thing and it was our energy in there somewhere and we saw where it could go. We saw that it could go someplace really bad if we didn’t cool it and we decided to cool it. We’ve definitely cooled it.
ORGAN: What do you think of televised concerts?
GARCIA: Well, that’s a thing that we would definitely like to get into more. It’s about the closest we can come to safely doing something free in this day and age – the post-Altamont era. Before that it was like cool to do something free because it wasn’t going to be any big thing. But now it’s been institutionalized and made into a product and sold and everything else. I’m not interested in leading people to danger. I’ve already done that and I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to find myself in that position again, ever. It’s not so much self-righteousness but I don’t want to be responsible for how people come out. So I would like to do things on television – as long as we can do things the way we want to, do spontaneous things with as little framework as possible. If we can continue to do things like that, then that’s the direction I’d like to go in.
ORGAN: Are you interested in other forms besides music?
GARCIA: I’m interested in a lot of different things. I’m interested in the arts, in what they call “the arts,” and all those things are changing, and I don’t like the word, but – yeah. All my friends are people who do things and I’m interested in people who do things and I’m interested in doing things. It’s like Dharma yoga, doing works in your lifetime, and everybody I know is in that bag. My whole universe kind of relates to that world, although I have friends who are into meditative trips, more laid back, less action trips. Our scene is definitely a go-ahead, get-it-on scene, and we have relationships with all the other groups similar in viewpoint.
ORGAN: Are you into the occult, particularly the I Ching?
GARCIA: It’s a kind of magic and it’s also a very wise book. It has something to do with time. We throw the Ching every time something heavy is happening. We respect all the famous forms of magic, and when a representative of one of those forms says something to us, we take it into account. We take into account all forms of magic. We take into account everything weird that’s happening just because we have found it to be so. Everything. If it’s in the form of wisdom, it’s usually saying something right at you. It’s a matter of being open and you have to dig why it’s appropriate.
ORGAN: What do you think of the current music scene?
GARCIA: Well, my basic feeling about music is that if it turns me on, I like it, it’s good. I like all kinds of different music. It depends on where my head is. There are some young musicians that I played with around here who I really thought a lot of. They aren’t really established – starting out, really. And there is going to continue to be better and better music and better and better musicians. There were some sessions that me and Phil and Billy did with young cats, 18 to 22, and they were just good, super-good singers and players. I feel really good about the music scene. Yeah, it keeps getting better and I’ve met guys that have impressed me a lot. Like The Band, just incredible.
ORGAN: What do you think of Dylan?
GARCIA: Well, at one time he was talking right to me. He was putting names to changes that I was going through, but he isn’t doing that for me now. I like him and I respect him and I think he really writes a great song, but I don’t feel any earth-shaking trip. I like Lennon’s new album, the solo album. But you see, I’ve never met any of these guys, I don’t know them. I can only talk about their music, and I think Lennon’s music is really beautiful. I really like listening to it in spite of its hard thing. There’s a lot of beauty – incredible delicate music. I can dig it. I just think of those guys as just being other guys. Lennon I feel sorry for. I’m sure he’s had some terrible trips laid on him just through the years as a Beatle. Just think of what it must be like to be John Lennon. There must be a million people hitting on you with weird shit. He’s probably had so little time to get into his own head. Now he’s got to do some violence, breaking away. I can dig it. I can certainly dig it.
(by Frank Fedele, from Organ, vol. 1 no. 8, June 1971)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com