Mar 21, 2014

September 1969: Backstage with the Dead, NYC


I overheard someone who was Serious About Music ask Jerry Garcia about “…directions in music, I mean, where do you think music is going?” There are usually two kinds of Serious Music critics, as a rule, those without brains and those without ears. If this intense young man, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the dressing room had asked himself the same question, for example, while he was listening to the Grateful Dead, he would have been considerably more enlightened, because the Dead are already there. For example there are good blues groups, good blues-rock groups, good rock groups, good C&W groups, etc. Then, apart and above the rest, there is the Dead. It is at least twenty years ahead of the others, and for many reasons.
The most basic has to do with the unity of the group. That’s a weak word; I could say they were “together,” but that would merely mean they were well coordinated, with a good sense of harmonies, etc. That, however, is only the first level; many groups are together. The Dead, though, are into, if you permit me, the Aquarian Age head; that is, they have, or can create, a totally separate consciousness when they play which each member of the band tunes into; like a musical radio-receiving set; there is, I mean, literally something in the air, carried in the sound waves, that each one individually picks up. It’s the damnedest thing; but I’m sure it’s a physical phenomenon, ionization of the air molecules or some shit, that they are all sensitive to – I can’t say. Maybe it’s just that they’re so much aware of what’s going on in each other’s heads, but I suspect that even that could not explain the fact that the audience picks up on it, too. No; it has to be electrical energy, because when they see the audience turned on, it’s like watching a battery get recharged. Assume, for hypothesis’ sake, that each person in the audience and in the band is emitting “X” amount of energy. What the Dead do is to take the total atmosphere of energy and color it with joy, thereby increasing the energy, and creating more joy, and so it goes.
Watch Mickey and Bill on the drums; they are clearly two men on two sets of drums. Yet it sounds like one. I said to Jerry: “It sounds like one drum, they’re so coordinated.” Jerry smiled: “We have one drum…”
The whole thing, this unity of vibrations, is very close to what I know will be the normal state of things in a couple of generations; what astrologers call “The Aquarian Age.” I spoke to Jerry Garcia about this, about getting to the source, the unity.
“That’s it,” he said, “we’re getting closer and closer to the source; everything is totalling up, fast as hell. It’s like a synthesis of everything – physics is getting closer to the occult, the art forms are merging. When we play, that’s what we try to do. That’s why we hate the “stage” scene. When you’re on the stage, you’re a “performer,” and that’s bullshit. We need the audience to turn on to us, so that we can turn on to them, and turn them on in turn. It’s like an exchange.”
“So the stage atmosphere is an obstacle to the unity of audience and musician?”
“Precisely. We need the flow that goes on between us.”
I mentioned the fact that the audience’s response to the Dead at the Fillmore was so strong that I hallucinated myself at a Beatle concert. (This discussion took place before their Au GoGo gig, where the listeners responded even stronger.)
“Right,” he said. “And the trouble with the Beatles is that they haven’t performed live in so long. I guess they would if America wouldn’t put them on such a horror trip.”
Jerry, let me inject, is a rapid rapper, like most Scorpio rising people (“I must have [been] a Scorpio rising – look how many cigarettes I smoke. You know, the whole self-destructive thing.”) He’s absolutely right; between our Scorpio risings, we chain smoked so much that the ashtrays got lung cancer. But the point about his being enthusiastic about everything, aside from his super-sunny character, is the importance he places on the viability of things, their own vital essence. To illustrate, I am an air-sign. The written word is to me of great importance. As usual. I sat crying into my hamburger and tea about the fact that nobody is doing anything good with language anymore:
“It’s a fact,” I whined, “there are more and more people who think they can use words as a vehicle of making other people happy or blowing their minds; yet there’s nothing around really worth reading. As much as I hate him, McLuhan was right.”
“Precisely,” said Jerry, his dark eyes sparkling with intelligence. “James Joyce was really the last. But the thing that gets you uptight is that you see this system you’re involved in, words, dying out. Nobody can really do anything with them anymore because words as a system have become too refined, too worked; everything that can be exploited in language is used-up; lame, overworked. All you have left is a heap of cliches. What you’re sorry about is the fact that there has been so much beauty along the way. While it was being refined, beauty was being created in the process, and that beauty is what you associate with words. But now the system is used up. It’s the same with music. What do you see replacing music as you know it?”
“Electronic music,” I shuddered.
“Yes, you’re shuddering. It kind of makes me shudder, too. But let me tell you something. In twenty years or so, maybe that’s the only kind of music that almost everyone will listen to. And it will be righteous music. Because there will be cats who have the right kind of heads to know how to use it. Right now, it’s still too crude.”
“Well, was it Gertrude Stein who said anything new, truly original, is unformed and unlovely, and unappealing, except to the originator, and that it takes gradual refinement by successive people along the years to make this crude original thing beautiful?”
“Exactly. We’re going through a transition period,” Jerry said, nibbling a French fry, “what you see around you is a system that for years has been yielding beauty but is drained and on the way out, as well as the beginnings of new, crude systems, not worked upon, unrefined, and still unattractive. But they’re just waiting for the right heads to get ahold of them. Like electronic music; people are going to come along who will know how to work with it, have the right heads.”
“Well,” I maintained, “nobody now. Look at the Moog synthesizer. People are not making music with it. It’s a copy.”
“Listen,” Jerry said, “there’s a cat on the coast who sits down and gives concerts on the Moog synthesizer. And they’re righteous, because he’s playing it on its own terms. Not only that, but there will always be people who groove on Shakespeare, Keats, and those cats who did such beautiful things with words, just like there’ll always be people who’ll dig Stravinsky and Mussourgsky. Because it’s the heads, not the system.”
“I can dig that. But working with words is hard, especially in dealing with music, music is ahead of everything, and many people are very sophisticated about it. Except the critics. They’re either apologizing because they are musically incompetent, or else they go into these bullshit details to show you how much they know, missing the point that the only way to get into music is by hearing it. How can you describe the way something sounds? It’s cerebral bullshit.”
“That’s right,” said Jerry, sparkling again, “and that’s why the people on the intellectual scene are totally screwed and intellectually boggled.” (“Oooh, that’s a beautiful statement – that’s great!” I jumped up and down. “Can I use that, can I use that?”)
After a long conversation where we spoke for hours about the Aquarian Age, we found our ideas corresponded almost perfectly. The question of whether or not we’ll make it to the Aquarian Age does not worry Jerry: “Of course we will. We’ve just got to, that’s all.”

Only the Dead could have a road/personal manager such as Jon MacIntire. Immediately upon being introduced to him I asked about setting up an interview. With him. The queer thing about this was that while that in itself is not so strange, it was strange that I had never seen or heard of him before, or who he was with. There’s something about Jon that makes you feel you should know him, and if you don’t, you have only your own ignorance to blame. Partly, it’s the way he looks. About six-two or three, slender, blonde-on-blonde, aquiline, regal featured (“I’m a direct descendant of King John”), with a casual, self-assured bearing; too handsome to be real, too real to be artificial, sunny, clever.
Initially, the conversation I had with him was difficult for me, because I was too damn proud to admit that I couldn’t remember where I knew him from (his name sounded familiar somehow). While he spoke, I kept saying to myself, “He must be a folk musician, a John Hartford type. He doesn’t look like a rock musician.” Finally, when he mentioned the Grateful Dead, I realized he was in some way associated with them. I was stunned. He didn’t look like anyone in the Dead I had ever seen. Frantic to find out what he did, I said something completely out of context like: “You have very musical hands.” He was quite kind about it: “Yes, I played piano as a child, but I’m not a musician now. I’m the road and personal manager for the Grateful Dead.”
He then introduced me to some of the other Dead: Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman. I came along, a-gathering roses for my notes, watching the Dead watch TV, and getting more and more excited about hearing them play at the Fillmore the next night.
This Fillmore thing was eventful for me. Backstage, I permitted myself to engage in some journalistic voyeurism. Bob was discussing his horses, notably his Appaloosa, with a friend of his, Joe (the Dead have an extraordinary amount of friends), who offered to break his horses. “No, man,” said Bob, “I have to do it myself; that’s like the best part.” Joe was meanwhile blowing phenomenal bubbles, some over a foot in diameter, with smoke and smaller bubbles inside of them. Jason was there, a twelve-year-old boy involved with drums who had, he told me, been drumming for five years. He certainly looked like he had the use of the sticks, flexibility and precision, pretty well down. He has known the Dead for a long time, he said.
Bob was thumb wrestling, a sport chiefly dangerous for its addictiveness, I found. He beat all takers, and though my thumb wrestling is aggressively weak, I do play a good defensive thumb, by tiring out my opponents. It goes like this: you and your partner each crook the fingers of whatever hand you’re using (i.e. your right to his or left to his) similar to the way you hold a guitar neck, lock them, and then try to trap each other’s thumb and hold it for the count of three. Bobby claims that banjo players make the hardest opponents.
The rap was sporadic, but the dressing room was full and smokey. At one point there came what sounded like a scream from downstairs in the street. Immediately, Bobby and Joe left the room and tried to find out what it was. I came out of the room and asked Bob what was happening. He told me: “I think it’s okay, but Joe went down to see.”
Back inside, they were discussing music:
“I caught both Beatle concerts when they played here. They were outasite,” said Bobby.
“Surprise, surprise,” interjected Jerry, looking up from his coffee.
“No really; in one song they did this four-part harmony thing…”
“They don’t do four-part harmony; Ringo doesn’t sing,” Jerry stated.
“He did this time. It was great.” Bobby turned to Joe. “In the early days, when we were first starting out, it was so good. We had to play in these bars, really raunchy places, down by the river.”
“That’s right,” Jerry smiled, remembering. “They were really evil places too. Sailors all juiced up and fights, all kinds of tough shit.”
Bobby’s eyes grew big, as they often do in conversations: “We had to work, play for hours. Those cats were hard to play to. That’s when we developed a style known as ‘Nail-‘em-against-the-wall-rock.’”
Tom Constanten, or T.C., who plays organ, was talking to Pigpen (vocals) about chess.
“I was looking at that book, you know the one I have back at the Hotel – Learn Chess From the Masters. They have some far-out openings in it. Do you know the English opening?”
At this point, the conversation became too technical for me to follow. I mentioned, however, that I knew a fellow who was a Senior Master. T.C. looked interested, yet far away. “Far-out.” His manner is almost impossible to describe. He listens to people with what appears polite respect, yet seems to hear more than one level of what is being said, all the while looking vaguely distracted. It’s as if he is taking everything you say away with him, on his own mental trip. He will respond with a “far-out” in his soft-mannered, gentle voice, add a little to the talk and then make a pun. As far as making puns, he has no competition. I think he has studied a great deal as far as formal education goes, and probably equally on his own. He has an air of a different time about him; he evokes images of a young seminarian with the soul of a Renaissance man. I don’t know. If you can’t meet him, read Chekhov.
Jerry, on the other hand, is very easy to describe (at least physically). I told him: “Jerry, you look like a bomb-throwing anarchist. A freaked out Trotskyite.” Two days later, Pigpen turned to me and said, “You know what he looks like, Garcia? A bomb-throwing anarchist.” Word for word. But he really does. It’s extraordinary.
Pigpen asked me one evening, “What sign was W.C. Fields?” When I replied Virgo, Pigpen shouted, “Yahoo! I knew it. I fucking knew it.” He then proceeded to tell me some choice W.C. Field stories: Did you ever hear about the time Fields built a genuine Bengal-tiger trap on his lawn? You see, he had this lawn, and the grass was kept all nice and gardened, and stuff, but people kept walking across it, and spoiling it. So Fields got together with this cat, see, and he had a real Bengal-Tiger-Trap put on his lawn. He camouflaged it and put up signs: DANGER! BENGAL TIGER TRAP. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK, all over the lawn.
“Did he trap anyone?” I asked. “No,” said Pigpen. I thought about it. “It seems such a waste,” I finally decided.
“Oh, no,” the Pig said, “I think it’s even bosser that he didn’t, because it showed people realized that since he went to such trouble and had ads run in the newspapers like:
‘Mr. W.C. Fields relinquishes all responsibility for any injury incurred to anyone falling into the Bengal-tiger trap on his lawn.’
that he really would be enough of a freak to go through with the project. Say, T.C., do you know about the pineapple juice story?”
“That was Baby What’s-His-Name,” I added.
“Baby LeRoy. No, had nothing to do with Baby LeRoy. There were other things with Baby LeRoy, but not the pineapple juice thing,” Pigpen corrected.
Pig went on to tell some of the finer moments in Fields’ comic career, both off and on the stage. But my preference is still the Bengal-tiger trap story.
Then there was the night my wallet with all my addresses and I.D. and photographs was stolen. T.C. and Pig taught me, almost successfully, too, how to play chess. The next evening T.C. came up to me backstage in the midst of floating musicians, busy equipment managers, waitresses jostling you with trays, visiting friends, and chickies dolled up for fly-catching. “Hello,” he said. “Care for a game?”
“Right,” I said, waiting for the board to appear.
“Pawn to King-four,” he responded immediately, “your move.”
“I can’t without the board; I can’t visualize the moves. Listen, haven’t you got the chess set?”
“No, but you can make one of four possible moves without endangering any of your pieces. Considering my opening, of course.”
I swore, this cat is cleverer than Charlie Chan. I said:
“Listen, T.C., I finally figured out where it’s at with you.”
“Really,” he said politely.
“Yeah. You’re a genius.”
He continued with that dreamy half-listening but unaltered expression: “Really? Far-out…”
Pig once wrote a song called “Roaches in My Frying Pan,” about a motel (“it wasn’t really a motel, though; it was more of a shack”) he once stayed in: “There were so many roaches they looked like flyspecks on the wall. We’d go crazy with killing them. But the really boss roaches, the ones that were really into being roaches, we’d leave them alone.”
We talked about food; he gave me a wonderful recipe for applewine, and told me about Bobby’s Miso soup:
“We were both in Houston once. For some reason I woke up sick and feeling feverish, and we had to play that night. So Bobby went down to the kitchen – Bobby’s macrobiotic – and had the cook at the Hotel we were at make me some Miso soup. I could feel better even while I was taking it. I even managed to play one set. It’s very earthy, and you can just feel the minerals going into your system. It’s good, I mean good for you. The soup I had in the motel was awful-tasting, but that’s because the cook had never made it before. Bobby knows how to make it really boss, though.”

If you happen to be into drumming, and you tell me you haven’t heard Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman play, I say your ideas are due for a complete reconsideration when you do. Without clouding the issue too much with intellectualisms – for they must be seen playing – the whole concept of drumming is different. Mickey is almost beyond drumming; his playing is musical in concept more than rhythmical; his rhythms are the reflections of the moody moon on the dark sea of the Dead’s music; always in motion, like the gorgeous rhythms of a lifetime; they flow, they stretch, they flicker, they glitter; they hit hard. But they are never static or steady, and change is one of the things life is about.
But Mickey is more than just a natural genius. His whole body, every muscle, is somehow summoned into action when he drums. His body is physically fit; he is aware of the value of keeping so for his work. When he plays, his body moves, not with the franticness that most drummers have, but with the subtle muscular movements of a superb animal; always poised, ready for a thrust or a lunge, because he picks up instantaneously on what must carry it out just as quickly. Even his face mirrors this; his eyes flash, his sly alley-cat smile has kind dimples rippling along the side of his face. He’ll get up, play the gong with the cowbells, or the vibes, or any number of instruments I can’t identify, to provide his own kind of rhythm. He does this all at a moment; he is supremely graceful, a quality most drummers lack, and he is always ready to do just what is needed. “The readiness is all…”
I finally set aside my awe and spoke to him. We talked about his playing, about his and Bill’s total coordination, and the total union of the Dead’s music:
“I see it as kind of a landscape,” he said, diagramming on a table with his finger, “we start here (Mick indicated a fixed point) and then proceed out in different directions: here-there, here, each one of us is on a different trip, yet we make a totally unified picture.”
“The audience feels the unity,” I said excitedly. “The more you turn them on, the more they turn you on, and it keeps growing – the joy is geometrically increased.”
Mickey smiled, “Yes, but I think they also like the struggle, like to watch us work it out.”
I told him about my drums, how afraid I was of them, how long before I would touch them. Mickey, who is enchanted by Eastern (Indian) music, replied: “I know. Bill and I spend a lot of time with Ali Akhbar’s tabla-player. And though we don’t play Indian music, some of his patterns, his influence has sort of osmosed into our work. But the first time I heard the tabla, I laid down my sticks for three weeks.”
I told him he reminded me of an [alley]-cat when he played (“That’s why Jerry calls me ‘Mick the Stick,’” he grinned) and asked him if he worked for such great muscular control (He’s been drumming fifteen years): “Yes, I do work for it. I ride horses every day – we have a horse ranch – and I did a lot of martial [arts] shit; I was a judo instructor, and I was into dancing when I was younger.” The judo bit particularly impressed me, as the lunge movement, so typical of the defensive arts such as judo and fencing, are so manifest in his playing. Every time Mickey and Bill do [a] solo together (you can’t call it a duet), it’s sort of magical. Bill, his eyes fixed on Mick, goes off into his own more fixed riffs, while Mickey constantly makes use of every piece of percussion about, seldom sitting at the drum for a long period. After one set where Mick did some precision drumming with the back of his hand, I commented upon it. “Did I? Well, I do whatever I have to; whatever works…” That is, hopefully, some idea of where he is.
Going on discussing technique is inadequate, since in order to be halfway fair to the Grateful Dead, I would have to match with words their ability with music, and I’m just not up to it. Besides, it still would not be the same as hearing and seeing them play, the total viability of it, and its joy. It is just one of the most fortunate coincidences in music that they have the great musical competence to match their phenomenal heads. (“We don’t talk that well,” Jerry had explained, patting his guitar. “That’s why we play.”) Taking their heads into consideration (and they are, remember, totally different people, but commingled in spirit) and their musical comprehension and their talent, maybe it is not so strange that they effected a kind of musical renaissance.
I remember one night, when all fagged out, Phil and Pig were catching a taxi. Or rather, the cab backed up and caught us, recognizing the band members. He was one of those phenomena on the music scene I have lately joined, namely a Dead fan. His name was Patrick, and he was obliging, enthusiastic and friendly. “Why can’t all taxi-cab drivers be like you?” I asked. He grinned at me: “Why can’t all bands be like the Dead?”

Reprint from CHANGES Vol. 1, No. 9

(by Alice Polesky, from Go Magazine, March 1970) 

Thanks to 


  1. I don't know when the original article ran in Changes, but Polesky apparently hung out with the Dead during the Fillmore East shows in September 1969. She says almost nothing about the shows, alas, but attempts an interesting description of how the band pulls music seemingly out of the air ("they create a totally separate consciousness when they play which each member of the band tunes into"), and the energy flow of increasing joy between band and audience.
    Keep in mind that the band's most recent album was Aoxomoxoa, and this may have been written before Live/Dead came out; but she's already enough of a fan to say that the Dead are "at least twenty years ahead" of other bands. (Similar to what Lenny Kaye said in his Live/Dead review.) It's hinted that she's a recent convert.
    The title itself is notable - "The Dead Head." That wasn't yet a common term.

    One unique thing about this article is that she talks to most of the band (excepting Lesh & Kreutzmann, who perhaps made themselves scarce), as well as McIntire.
    She talks to Garcia about the Aquarian Age, and finds him very agreeable - they're both sure it's on the way. He mentions electronic & synthesizer music as the wave of the future - "there will be cats who...know how to use it. Right now, it's still too crude." He was still months away from meeting Ned Lagin.
    Garcia has his usual self-deprecating anti-language stance: "We don't talk that well; that's why we play." (He also casually mentions his "self-destructive" nature.)

    TC was out of her level; but the portrait of Pigpen shows that (as many who knew him said) offstage he was nothing like his onstage image - here he is playing chess with TC, telling stories about WC Fields, recommending miso soup and applewine recipes.
    (The Houston date he talks about was most likely the 12/28/68 show there. One audience member on deadlists recalled that at the show, "Pigpen definitely had a couple of songs, but mostly stood around looking uncomfortable.")
    I wonder if Pigpen's supposed song 'Roaches in My Frying Pan' was based on Sleepy John Estes' 'Rats in My Kitchen' (about how rats were eating all his groceries - Pigpen would definitely have known the song).

    I wonder which places Weir is remembering when he talks about the raunchy bars "down by the river" they played back in '65. (What river?) He and Garcia sound rather nostalgic for those hard times playing to drunk, brawling sailors! It was kind of their own parallel to the Beatles' Hamburg days.
    Weir saw the Beatles play at the Cow Palace 8/31/65, and at Candlestick Park 8/29/66. (Sounds like he remembers Ringo singing 'I Wanna Be Your Man.') Garcia says, "The trouble with the Beatles is that they haven’t performed live in so long," a curious comment.

    Polesky was a drummer herself (or wanted to be), and you can tell that Mickey in particular lit her fire, with her loving descriptions of him. He has a couple interesting comments on the music - that "each one of us is on a different trip, yet we make a totally unified picture," and that the audience "likes the struggle, likes to watch us work it out."

    I was amused by her scorn for Serious Music Critics - their attempts to describe how music sounds are simply "cerebral bullshit" - and Garcia agrees with her that they're "totally screwed and intellectually boggled." (So much for me!)

    As an editorial aside, this article was rather badly printed, with various typos, omitted words & mangled punctuation, so the original piece in Changes is likely to be more accurate in places.

  2. TC wrote in Between Rock And Hard Places, "Pigpen and I usually shared a hotel room on the road, and among the various pastimes we got into was chess. The 'Pig Bag' packed one of those peg-board portable chess sets. We brought our chess mania home with us..."

  3. Jerry was correct in his assessment that musicians would master the moog synthesizer as the great Sun Ra received a prototype minimoog in late '69 and used it brilliantly throughout his career.

  4. Alice Polesky plus one was on the guest list at Winterland, 12/31/71.

    1. Looks like she kept her backstage access!

      Quite a few interesting names on that Winterland guest-list. Someone could use it to anatomize the Dead's social scene circa '71....