Jun 29, 2018

November 1970: Band Interview


SAN FRANCISCO - The Grateful Dead say they need money.
Although one of the best known of the bands that exploded out of San Francisco's "Summer of Love" in 1967, they're still working to make ends meet.
Of all the San Francisco bands - Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company - the Dead have attracted more fanatic cultists and less money than any of the others.
Financially, though, they're on the rebound. And artistically, fans are starting to use words like "superstar" when they discuss the bands' personnel: Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Rod "Pigpen" McKernan, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart.
Superstars? "What do we know about that?" said Phil Lesh with a laugh, the intense and intellectual bass player for the group.
But there are long lines at every Grateful Dead concert, tickets are sold out within hours of being put on sale, and their albums are finally beginning to sell.
"It's weird," said Jerry Garcia. "I don't know what to make of it. Actually we're well known only in San Francisco and New York, and in San Francisco we're just more musicians. But it's unreal to me what happens in New York."
Since it has always been in the Midwest where rock groups make their money, the economic life of this band is not what you might expect. One hears about thousands of dollars received for playing concerts, and there are record royalties, and publishing returns, but the Grateful Dead are in debt.
They have been playing on the road for about four years starting with bars and nightclubs where, as Garcia said, "We learned how to play."
Four record albums followed, none of which sold enough to support the band.
"We've been making our own records all along," said Garcia, "and it's just lately that we've learned how. I mean the first four albums ("The Grateful Dead," "Anthem of the Sun," "Aoxomoxoa," "Live Dead") were us trying to make records, trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn't work, and learning how to do it.
"The last couple of records ("Workingman's Dead," "American Beauty") were us doing it, and they're simple records really." The last couple of records have started to sell.
But in the meantime, during those four years of working, recording, living together and developing a band, the Grateful Dead managed to get deeply into debt.
"We are in debt, and we're working so much now so that we can get out of it," remarked John McIntire, the manager. "There are 13 people who travel with us," said Phil Lesh, "so our air fare alone from San Francisco to New York is $4,000." And there are 50 people in the Grateful Dead family, a family made up of wives, lovers, children, sound and equipment people.
"We support the hippie scene around us, too," explained Weir. "Not just our family but the hippie craftsmen and artists and stuff like that. We have electronics crews who are experimenting with new horizons in sound-video too. They all need support and depend on us for that, we're just about the only people who can give it to them, us and the Airplane. So it really takes a lot of money to keep everything on a subsistence level, we spread ourselves really thin."
One of the band's unusual practices is that all the members receive salaries. "Some weeks we miss our salary, and then some weeks we get a bonus," said Bob Weir,. "But it is very definitely a working class salary, nothing spectacular." Phil added, "We're not even making what musicians would call top scale."
Among the 13 people who travel with the Grateful Dead are the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a country-oriented rock group that has evolved from the Grateful Dead itself.
Like the Airplane, the Dead have given birth to new musical entities. When you buy a ticket for "An Evening with the Grateful Dead," you will first hear an acoustic set: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh on guitars, and Bill Kreutzmann on drums.
Then the New Riders follow, with Marmaduke playing guitar and singing, some other friends on guitars and banjos, and Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel guitar. The third segment of the show features the Electric Grateful Dead: Jerry Garcia on lead guitar, Bob Weir on rhythm, Phil Lesh playing bass, Rod KcKernan on keyboard and vocals, and two drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.
"The three sets together is very magical," said Weir. "Even if you don't like one of the three, the combination of all of them makes for a mystical marriage."
The Dead build up their set very carefully and you progress with them from the acoustic segment to the electric.
The Dead are also serious and articulate musicians who worry about the problems that bands face. They would much rather do less touring. "It's a drag sitting around in a hotel room," remarked Phil.
"I'd much rather be home in California, and play whenever I felt like it. I really like to play, but I don't like to have to play."
Jerry Garcia agreed. "It would be groovy not to have to play, but I play so much anyway at home, in the recording studio, in many different contexts I know I'm always going to play. It's just whether or not it's going to be in huge crowded public scenes or not."
One of the hassles of huge public scenes recently has been kids breaking into concerts. "It's been happening so much; practically at every college we've played at; and it's a drag," said Garcia. "That may be the thing that will put us in a position where we can't play in public anymore. The promoters aren't going to go for it. They'll stop putting on gigs, the cops won't go for it, and we won't go for it, because it puts up uptight."
The political problems of "free concerts" have troubled the band too.
"At a free concert," says Weir, "the kids all want to use the microphones for their own political purposes. And those microphones are for music. I feel that we are musicians, and whatever we have to say can be done through our music."
What about those who feel that rock 'n' roll musicians have a responsibility to give free music to their people? "I think a musician's first responsibility is to play music as well as he can," Jerry Garcia said emphatically. "That's the most important thing. Any responsibility to anyone else is just journalistic or political fiction.
"We hear all that stuff about the 'people's music' and, man, there weren't any people who sat with me when I learned to play the guitar. If the people think that way, they can make their own music! Besides, when I think of 'the people,' that means everyone to me: the cops, the men who run the elevators, everyone."
"There are a lot of problems for concerned musicians to give serious thought to," said Bob Weir. "All the money hassles, and whether the kids are going to be able to get tickets for your concerts, the promoters' responsibility to the people, the artists' responsibility to the people, the artists' responsibility to get together and work these things out, they all have to be given a lot of thought."
"That's right," agreed Phil Lesh, "but in the end, with all the hassles, the only thing that makes it all worthwhile is playing well."
And getting out of debt.

(by Lisa Robinson, Pop Scene Service, from the Rockland County Journal-News (NY), 26 December 1970)

The full version of this interview:

1 comment:

  1. This is an edited & condensed version of the Creem interview by Lisa Robinson, but this article has several quotes that weren't printed in that, so it's not entirely duplicated.
    Here Robinson gives some commentary and context to the band's remarks, though not very in-depth - basically, they're becoming stars, but are still in debt and getting hassled a lot. (I like the description of their fans as "fanatic cultists.") In this edit, the band comes across as whining a lot about their troubles!
    She'd seen them at least a couple times in 1970, and outlines the three-set structure they'd been doing, which Weir calls "magical" - but by the time this was printed, they no longer arranged shows that way or played acoustic sets.