THE GRATEFUL DEAD
The first set they play is high-energy, hard-rock routine. Good, solid, and listenable. No better than that. Next, a smaller group of them comes out for another set which lasts about an hour.
Then an intermission, an anticipatory cluster of minutes where people are reluctant to wander far from their seats. A sudden blackout on the stage. The rustle of feet returning down the aisles. A hush. And then the voice of an invisible announcer who says, simply, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Grateful Dead."
To say the Grateful Dead is a phenomena rarely matched in modern times is something of an understatement. They were among the first of the so-called "acid rock groups" to surface in San Francisco, and while dozens of groups later appeared and disappeared, the Dead only grow.
A writer friend of mine describes their concerts as "a religious experience, a eucharist," and I agree with her definition. The Dead (Jerry Garcia, guitar; Phil Lesh, bass; Bob Weir, guitar; Ron McKernan "Pigpen," organ and singer; Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, drums) play that final one-and-a-half hour with such incredible energy and passion that it is impossible to listen and not be very much involved. Fans, called naturally enough "Dead Freaks," are drawn to their feet to clap, dance, sway, and otherwise participate. When the Dead try to stop playing, they are inevitably called back to do two or three more songs by an audience so entranced with the magic that is happening that they don't want to leave the theatre.
The Dead's music and concerts are so powerful and so literally indescribable it is hard to separate the men who compose the group from the magic they create. In an effort to do so, I spent three hours one day recently with Jerry, Bob and Phil discussing their lives, personal philosophies and opinions of themselves and the group. The highlights of that interview follow:
CHARLIE - What did you all do before the Dead became the Dead?
PHIL - Before I was the Dead I was alive.
JERRY - I don't remember ever doing anything except what we're doing now. We were just doing it on different scales, different calibrations. When I first started on the guitar I played Chuck Berry stuff, then I went into the army and saw people playing with their fingers, so I wanted to play with my fingers. From there I got into a blues, ragtime, folksy trip. I was doing a lot at once. Out of that came Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Band - me, Weir and Pig - and out of that came the Warlocks, which was the Dead before the Dead (and minus Mickey Hart).
CHARLIE - In Tom Wolfe's Electric Cool Aid Acid Test, he mentions the Dead several times. Were you close to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters?
JERRY - Well, we were always close by, in the same community and stuff.
PHIL - We were the younger kids. We used to hang around at Kesey's. We used to bug the hell out of Kesey and those guys cause we weren't contributing whatever it was they wanted people to contribute. We were picking their brains and picking up on their chicks. Me and my friend Mike used to take our dates there to impress them.
JERRY - We were really worthless. They were all like college people and we were just freaks. This was before the acid days, like '64, when Stanford was just doing its first L.S.D. research. We were never really close to Kesey but we had molecules in common. It was a small town and if you were a head you knew all the other heads. We'd hear about all those goings on at LaHonda (where Kesey and the Pranksters were) since we knew some of the people. Eventually we decided to stick our heads in and see what was happening.
CHARLIE - How old are you?
PHIL - I'm 30, Bob is 23, Jer is 28, and the rest are between Bob and me.
CHARLIE - This past year your popularity really seems to have grown here in New York. Your concerts get sold out so fast. Is it the same outside of New York?
JERRY - It seems like we're pretty popular outside of New York. In the last three months it's been the same other places we've been.
BOB - We sold out in Cleveland.
PHIL - And in D.C.
CHARLIE - When did you start really catching on as performers?
BOB - We did a free concert with the (Jefferson) Airplane in Central Park two years ago that got a lot of people off. That's when we started having a regular scene here so we could always come here and have a good crowd. It's gotten far out in the last year here. I don't know how you would gauge success in New York. Til lately, we were always the second band on the bill that did good and everybody was surprised.
PHIL - That's always more fun. If you're the headliner you have to deliver all the time, and deliver a certain type of thing that isn't necessarily the most artistic thing you can do.
CHARLIE - Tonight you're doing a concert produced by the Hell's Angels here. People here seem to see some contradiction and wonder how it came about.
JERRY - Sam and John (members of their "family") fell into an evening of raving with Sandy, the president of the Angels in New York.
PHIL - It's more or less just a party. The Angels wanted to throw a party, which is the thing they do the best.
CHARLIE - I've heard that you had something to do with the Angels being at Altamont.
PHIL - If you want to talk about Altamont let's take two hours or five days and talk about nothing but Altamont. An isolated question we won't answer.
JERRY - Nobody is responsible for the Angels. They don't know about it here, but the Angels on the West Coast are kind of like tigers in the street. Nobody can do much about them. They're just there.
CHARLIE - Do you see a contradiction between your music and doing a concert with the Angels?
JERRY - I'm not into contradictions. I myself don't see one. The way I see it, everything is a contradiction if you want to look at it that way. A lot of things simultaneously exist. It doesn't mean they can't work together when they can. Sometimes they can't but sometimes they can.
CHARLIE - Want to talk about politics?
JERRY - We're not politicians so we can't give a coherent political rap.
PHIL - But what isn't political these days?
CHARLIE - What's your lifestyle like now? Are you still into a kind of Prankster hippie thing?
JERRY - Our lifestyle has changed from that. People now consider us neo-rednecks.
PHIL - Our scene is real straight ahead. Nothing at all strange about it. It's completely un-strange. Mr. and Mrs. America. That's us.
BOB - I have a ranch. We all live in the country now. We don't live together. There are too many of us. The family is about 50 people. It's a fluid community.
CHARLIE - Back to politics. I heard that you're going to do a benefit for the Panthers. That's pretty political.
JERRY - Well, we met Huey Newton on a plane and he's a great guy, really together.
BOB - Contrary to what people think, he's a humanitarian. He's not on any personality trips. He's really open, and we're relating to him on a friend to friend basis.
PHIL - We asked what we could do. We thought we were doing our part but it seems we're not doing enough. We tossed around a few ideas and this benefit is what came out of it.
JERRY - The information we got about the Panthers we got from Huey. And that's what we're responding to, that personal contact trip. Like we might respond to Nixon, for example, but we've never had an opportunity to sit down and rap with him. The way we deal with stuff is on those levels.
PHIL - We relate to the movement if it is something that seems righteous like the Indians losing their land or the People's Park benefit. We'll play for things like that.
CHARLIE - What do you think of the myths that have grown up around you?
PHIL - We only see the myth about us in the way other people present it to us, by the way people are affected by the music. They figure since they've got that head that's what we meant by it. The picture we get is mostly of the people not of the myth, so there's no way of our knowing what it looks like.
CHARLIE - But your music, some of it's so spiritual that it really invites myths.
JERRY - The time to construct a theory of music is after it's all over, so it's all cream, we can goof with it.
CHARLIE - You don't plan any deep meanings in the songs?
JERRY - No. Sometimes I set Hunter's (Bob Hunter, who writes most of the words for their numbers) words to music and sometimes he writes them to the music. We're just doing it. It ain't dogma.
CHARLIE - Are any of you into mysticism? So many people describe you, Jerry, as a guru.
JERRY - Phil is into it more than I am.
PHIL - On an intellectual level. Who among us knows someone who is really there?
JERRY - We're just musicians basically. We know lots of people into spiritualism and they tell us what's happening. That's one of the spheres we travel in, but that's not to say that we're part of it. We're just traveling in it like we're traveling in New York. But because we're in a position where a lot of energy happens around us, anybody who's interested in energy and power and all of its attendant trips is just naturally drawn to our trip. So people who are into magic or the occult spot in our music and its whole effect something that is extraordinary. Also, we're from California where everybody has an I Ching. It's just part of the way people live.
PHIL - When you're dealing with communication on such a massive level, there's no way of avoiding the fact that since music is on so many different levels, some people are only going to pick up on certain levels. There's no way of avoiding certain bummers if you're dealing with mass communication. Like the bummer of having somebody misinterpret you to the extent that he ruins his life behind it or something like that.
BOB - That's the kind of thing we have to look out for. Some people overdo themselves with drugs, but there's nothing in our music that says you have to be high to listen to it.
JERRY - But we wouldn't say not to do that either.
CHARLIE - There always seems to be a lot of acid floating around at your concerts.
PHIL - We've had some scenes you wouldn't believe because of the "generosity" of people who bring bad acid in.
BOB - And basically because we're musicians we're hip to some kind of temperance. You have to temper everything you do, and that basic thought carries over into our normal living style. You don't notice them carrying us out of the concerts. So if somebody is picking up on us and saying, "Those guys are saying take all of the drugs that you can take," there's a real misinterpretation there.
CHARLIE - Well, it's easy to understand why it happens. You and the Airplane are the biggest of the so-called acid rock bands.
JERRY - That whole acid rock trip is like some dumb label that some newspaperman hit on in '65 or '66. The idea that you can't understand the music without drugs is ridiculous. See, I always get more turned on when some completely straight person gets into it, because that means that what we're doing is a little bit more inclusive. I'm not really interested in eliminating anybody or excluding anybody.
CHARLIE - I've heard stories that you used to electrify the water backstage at the Fillmore.
JERRY - We've never been into dosing the stuff that gets into the audience. There's always somebody around but it's not us.
BOB - In fact, we don't condone it.
CHARLIE - Seems to be a lot of false stories about you. What kind of stories would you like to have circulating?
JERRY - We would like a myth that we're all incredibly thorny and difficult people and completely anti-social in every respect. It would make it a lot easier.
PHIL - Then only the people with the most interesting trips would bother to talk to us.
BOB - There are some guys who'll talk to anybody about anything. They have that "I've got to talk to Jagger but Garcia will do" syndrome.
JERRY - Yeah, there's a lot of classic syndromes in rock. The one Bob just ran down is a perfectly typical example. It's a groovy position to be in, but you have to learn to discern one thing from another. When somebody comes to hit on you, sometimes it's going to be good and sometimes it's going to be really terrible. You have to pick up on it fast.
CHARLIE - Do you have groupies?
JERRY - We don't have the groupies you see in the magazines. I think we scare them. But our equipment men have a lot of fans.
CHARLIE - Are you enjoying your popularity?
PHIL - In Boston, Garcia and Mickey got pinned against a truck and the equipment men had a wave of people over them. When that stuff goes down, what good is it for us to go and play music to people like that? On this tour and only in the East it's been like that - violent.
BOB - Lots of times it doesn't have anything to do with the music. It's one thing to have a lot of music lovers crashing the gate. It's another thing to have people who don't have anything better to do who are just into like - attack!
CHARLIE - What are you going to do about it?
JERRY - All we can do is not play and thus avoid presenting ourselves as an excuse for somebody having their little trip. We don't want to be background music for a riot.
BOB - Apparently it doesn't only happen to us. Now we and a few other groups will have to make concessions like playing at a bigger hall and having tickets cost less so more people can get in.
PHIL - Or hire cops.
JERRY - We can only make adjustments, endless adjustments.
BOB - And by that we'll lose something in the group.
JERRY - It's getting trickier and trickier. 'Cause it's hard to tell who to like anymore. In a lot of these scenes I find myself liking the cops who are able to restrain themselves so admirably while some idiot is trying to break through them over music - but music is just the excuse for it. Making generalizations about people and their roles today is just not the kind of thing you can do. Having a good concert has to do with everybody in the crowd knowing how to deal with everyone else. There used to be a real high level where nobody would get hurt and you could let your kids run around. It can only get that way again if people start doing it that way.
CHARLIE - Where do you want your music to go?
JERRY - There's an infinite number of possibilities with records. There are a lot of things I'd like to try that we haven't done yet. We're just slowly eliminating possibilities. We're doing a little bit in one idea, then a little in another. We don't feel limited in what we can put on an album. We'd like our music to go all over everywhere and just keep getting better.
BOB - As we get better our critique of ourselves gets harder, so we have to keep getting better to get off.
JERRY - You get bored playing the same way for a long time, so you change out of sheer boredom.
CHARLIE - A complete change of subject. Do you have any opinion on women's lib?
BOB - I've seen a couple of women's lib papers, and all I can say is their diatribe seems to me long, loud and negative.
CHARLIE - Well, male chauvinist pigs, did you ever consider having a woman in the group?
JERRY - Always did have designs on Janis (the late Janis Joplin), and she sang with us a couple of times. It would have to be someone of that stature.
CHARLIE - Where are your heads now? Are you where people think you are?
JERRY - I don't think we were ever where people thought we were, but I don't know. The world we live in doesn't have any Grateful Dead in it. We don't know what people think of the Grateful Dead. We've never even seen them!
CHARLIE - In advance, I regret feeling I should ask this but, are you religious?
BOB - Well, Pig is religious about booze.
JERRY - I get a lot of religious news. We know a lot of holy men. They all check in. We're a cause of some concern amongst them. They come to our scene and remark on the energy and all that, and we sometimes appear as part of a lecture. Our music is religious.
CHARLIE - Want to say more about your energy?
BOB - Yeah. Well, we jumps and the kids they jumps too.
JERRY - I'd like for that energy to get higher.
CHARLIE - How do you feel about being superstars?
JERRY - It just makes it harder to get better.
CHARLIE - Does your audience seem to be changing?
PHIL - It seems to be getting younger. It's mostly 16 to 20 now.
CHARLIE - I was at your concert in Brooklyn the other day standing behind some teenage girls. They were planning a way to rush Bob.
PHIL - Bobby cools it. But he can't help it if he is pretty.
CHARLIE - These girls weren't laughing. They were really sighing. One of them was really far out. Her two friends had to hold her back.
PHIL - That's the kind of level of energy we could easily use getting higher from. There's a lot of energy on that level, but there's another level above that, the more level. People get there and just want to stay there and get more of that.
CHARLIE - Anything else you'd like to say for your fans before this interview comes to an end?
JERRY - I would like to eliminate the rumor that we're all good guys.
BOB - Cause we're not.
JERRY - We're at least 50% bad guys at least 50% of the time.
PHIL - Buy our records and stay away from our gigs.
BOB - Don't fight kids, don't fight.
(by Marlise James, from Charlie, 1971)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com
A shorter edit of this interview, with only Garcia's answers, was published in Circus magazine: