Sep 10, 2014

April 1972: Weir & Pigpen Interview


Members of Grateful Dead describe themselves as "The Grateful Dead Ensemble," probably the most accurate way of explaining their vast entourage of people and equipment.
They have arrived, finally, in Britain with seven and a half tons of equipment, 42 people and 65 suitcases.
Previous hopes of their coming were disappointed as the Dead felt they couldn't travel without the accompanying friends to make their visit a spiritual as well as a commercial success.
This time, they've made it. Mind you, the trip wasn't free of its hassles. The planning has only come to fruition after a year, and then in the autumn, Ron McKernan - universally known as "Pigpen" - was seriously ill in the hospital and it was thought that he wouldn't make it.
"I was in the hospital for three weeks, and out of the band for two and a half months. I had ulcers caused by drinking too much booze. I'm better now though, and passed the milk-only stage. I just don't drink at all now, though I can eat what I like."
The Dead worked on without Pigpen, and when he returned they did a short tour in the States over December. They seem unaware of their popularity in Britain, as they don't consider themselves to be that big at home.
"It baffles me, the superhero reputation. We keep hearing reports of this, but we've only been here once before and I don't think we sold so many records. We ain't Superstars over in the States. We're just another medium-to-well-known band. We're no Three Dog Night or Creedence. We just consider ourselves general folks."
This is also the first time that the Dead have made a trip away from home without their brainchild group, the New Riders of the Purple Sage. It was formed by the Dead's Jerry Garcia, David Nelson and John Dawson late of the New Dehli River Band, and put together by the Dead's lyricist Bob Hunter. 
Since then, their fates and fortunes have been inextricably bound - mainly because Garcia was working as their pedal steel guitarist, so the Dead and the New Riders had to go everywhere together.
However, they have now found a steel player of their own, Buddy Cage, who was playing with Ian and Sylvia. The Dead's Phil Lesh was also playing bass for a while, but is now totally back to the Dead.
The New Riders will be coming to join the Dead for the festival at Bickershaw, outside Manchester in May. To sort out what will probably be chaos and confusion, the personnel of the Dead is Jerry Garcia, lead guitar and vocals; Bob Hunter, songwriter; Keith Godchaux, new drummer who has been with the Dead since November; Bob Weir, rhythm guitar and vocals; Bill Kreutzmann, drums (the Dead work with two drummers); Phil Lesh, bass and vocals; and Pigpen, organ and vocals.
The New Riders comprise John Dawson, David Nelson, Dave Torbert (bass), Buddy Cage and Spencer Dryden (former Jefferson Airplane drummer).
"It feels funny not having the New Riders with us," said Dead/Riders' secretary Dale Franklin, "sorta like the kids growing up and going out on their own."
The Dead were one of the first big groups to rise on the wave of the San Francisco sound, and despite their modest claims to the contrary, they have remained one of the most influential.
They began in 1964 as Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions in Palo Alto, with Garcia, Weir and Pigpen.
"Jerry and I both grew up with rhythm and blues really. We've been brothers for about 10 years now. We were hoodlum lads, greaser types. We used to run around in gangs. We liked good-time music, country/rhythm and straight blues."
Pigpen is the son of an early white rhythm and blues DJ, so the music came easy to him. It was Pigpen who encouraged the Jug Champions to turn to electric music in the mid-sixties. The Dead found their name at the end of '65, and their first album under that name was released in '66.
Since then they have made more albums, a big reputation and probably a fair bit of bread. However insidious the thoughts might be of the Dead being bread-orientated, they all deny having mercenary interests.
"Coming to Britain is just an opportunity for us to see Europe," said Pigpen. "I don't personally care if I come home with no money, as long as we cover what we put out. We've been trying to have the ticket prices put down for the concerts here because we don't like to burn people. I don't mind having more dollars in my pocket but that's not primarily our reason for being here."
On the floor in front of us, a young lady was counting out fat bundles of fivers and travellers' cheques. Other cheques were left lying around the hotel room as people trotted in and out by the dozen.
Co-manager Rock Scully mingled through the multitude spreading goodwill and information as he went. Garcia held court in the star chamber next door, surrounded by young ladies. Astounding-but-true department, apart from Garcia, the rest of the Dead have little or no experience at being interviewed.
"Garcia generally speaks for all of us because he's the most articulate guy in the group, so what he says goes."
It would seem to the outsider that Garcia is spokesman/leader of the Dead, but although he generally speaks to the Press, it's not to say that he has any more control over the band than anyone else. He was, however, credited as "spiritual adviser" to the Jefferson Airplane on a recent album, and supplies much of the colour and enthusiasm for the Dead.
Bob Weir was distinctly uneasy, talking about a single and an album which he is bringing out "independently." That's in the sense that Sandy Denny works solo. For the album is aided and abetted by the Dead and the New Riders.
"I had written a bunch of songs that could be used on the Dead albums, then I figured I could do an album of my own. The single "One More Saturday Night" was made about a month ago."
The B side for this country is a Dead song "Bertha" from the double live album, but in the States, both sides are by Bob.
"I've used the Grateful Dead ensemble for the single, plus brass and strings which the Dead don't feature most. It is under my own direction though. I don't know if it is that different from the Dead, but I would say that I've matured now.
"I hope it sells well and exposes us to those who might not have heard the albums. It's a classic rock-n-roll song. The Dead are not altogether famous for rock-n-roll, although I originally wrote it for the Dead. The album won't be released in the States until we get back and I hope it is simultaneously released here - that should be around June. I wrote the music for all my songs and a friend called John Barlow wrote the words. The single should be out here this week."
The Dead will be recording while they are here. Despite the fact that most people think that the recording facilities are better in the States, the Dead's permanent engineer Bob Matthews has done recording here before and he rates it pretty highly. The concerts at the Wembley Pool are being recorded. Their equipment has been specially balanced, so they are sure that they will sound the way they are supposed to.
"We won't be using all of the equipment we've brought as some of the places will be too small," explained Weir. "We won't need to be that loud. We stand in front of the PA so we know how loud it sounds, but I have been tested for hearing, and it's almost perfect for someone of my age, so I've sustained little or no hearing loss.
"Anyway we are concerned with presenting our music in the best possible light, so that it won't suffer and will expose us best - we'll make sure our PA works properly. That's why we brought all our own with us."

(by Rosalind Russell, from Disc magazine, April 15, 1972)

Thanks to Uli Teute.


  1. "We're no Three Dog Night!"

    McNally: "The tour's first days in London involved a great deal of talking with the press, and much of it was tedious... In London they stayed at the Kensington Hotel...and the reporters who descended on them had to cope with the cross-fire raps of band members, managers, equipment crew, and whoever else was around."

    This reporter made a few mistakes in recounting the band's history - for instance that Robert Hunter put together the NRPS, or that Keith was the new drummer (!), and a couple other little errors - but this is a pretty straightforward article. I get the impression this reporter had no knowledge of the Dead, this was just another assignment - he makes no personal observations of the band or their music, and doesn't say anything really positive about them except for vague generalities like they're "influential" and "popular."

    The Dead seem surprised to find that they're popular in Britain - "it baffles me, the superhero reputation." (I think that's Pigpen's quote.) They were still adjusting to their success in the US as well (I think the '71 live album had already gone gold), though as pointed out, they certainly weren't on the superstar level of other bands - just more successful than they were prepared for.

    It's acknowledged that Garcia is generally the spokesman & the only one who gets interviewed ("he's the most articulate guy in the group"). Now the others are getting their turn to speak to the crush of reporters, but it's clear who's the most popular guy: "Garcia held court in the star chamber next door, surrounded by young ladies."

    Pigpen calls Garcia his "brother" and says they "were hoodlum lads, greaser types [who] used to run around in gangs." Not a connection we might think to make between Garcia & Pigpen! Garcia did sometimes refer to being in gangs & getting in fights in his teenage years, though those were well behind him by the time he met the younger Pigpen. At any rate, it does give a little clue as to Garcia's affinity for "greaser types" and gangs like the Hell's Angels.

    Weir "uneasily" promotes his new solo album - it's odd that the UK B-side for Saturday Night was the Dead's Bertha, while in the US it was Cassidy - going for the rock-n-roll crowd, I guess. He mentions using brass & strings on the album for some songs - the Dead wouldn't use brass until Wake of the Flood, but Weir was aiming for a more sophisticated pop sound on his album.

    The Dead were supposed to record in a London studio after the end of the tour (where Bob Matthews had recorded before), but that idea got canceled in their haste to return home. Weir makes sure to mention that they've brought their own "specially balanced" PA system to make sure they sound right.

  2. "We're no Three Dog Night or Creedence.We just consider ourselves general folks".

    How cool would hit have been to hear One -> Lodi or Never Been to Spain -> Put a Candle in the Window at a '72 show.