Feb 8, 2019

May 24, 1970: Pigpen Interview and Hollywood Festival, England


That the Dead's records never really took off here was probably a combination of Pye's inability to realise that there were other markets besides 'family listening,' the usual failure of disc jockeys (apart from the obvious few) to recognise good music, the general lack of publicity and media exposure, and the incompetence of various promoters who were just too inefficient to bring the band over. You see, no-one in England really knew much about the Dead...the pop press weren't pushed to write about them, and probably knew nothing about their music, lifestyle, attitude, or anything anyway. And a lot of what filtered across the Atlantic; ie the only bits and pieces that one could base any knowledge on, was either wildly inaccurate, wildly exaggerated, or else merely opinion...and more often than not, the opinion of someone more qualified to discuss Bing Crosby, or at least the music of a different generation.
For example, one of the first references to the group that I can remember was a mention on the Third Programme. Kenneth Rexroth, one of the speakers in a series about "America Today," in a programme about dissent, bracketed the Dead with the Sopwith Camel (certainly one of the weakest of the SF groups) and dismissed their music with a few sweeping generalisations about the ineffectuality of revolution in rock lyrics.
Then, in his review of the '67 Monterey Festival, Downbeat's Barret Hansen talked about "uncontrolled cascades of notes building up to the threshold of pain." "Certainly it mesmerizes the freaks, which is what the Dead get paid for doing," he said, "but it's kind of a slipshod, lazy way to play music." Quite amazing. He completely misconstrued the attitude and entire approach of the band.
All in all, then, we had to rely on their music to tell us about them.
So, what about the Dead?
I got chatting with PigPen, organist, percussionist, and vocalist extraordinaire, at the reception Warner Brothers held for them when they came over for the Hollywood Festival, and he was delighted to sit and talk rather than do the tiresome rounds of introductions which the others were going through. "We never get involved in anything like this at home...all these people look like they've been put in here and told how they've got to act."
I've got to admit I was taken aback. I was expecting to see a massive, hairy, bear-like hulk...aggressive and rowdy, as depicted in the legends and stories about them. Nothing of the sort. It looks as thought he's lost about half his bodily bulk, half his facial hair, and altogether I reckon he's one of the most charming, polite, and quiet people I have ever met.
"You're blowing your image," I told him. "Everyone's expecting you to leap around like a brawling wild man."
"Oh I can get wild sure enough," he said, "but usually it's with the rest of the band." I'd read about these internal arguments that threatened to break the group up every so often. "Oh we've got past the stage of thoughts of breaking up. What usually happens is that we go into town, to a saloon, shoot some pool or play cards. Then we accuse one another of cheating and start fighting."
All this sounds a bit like a Virginian TV addict's fantasy, but the Dead are like a bunch of cowboys. 3 of them have ranches and all ride horses a lot. They all wear these excessively pointed, stout leather boots. PigPen took pains to explain how they were pointed to enter a stirrup with minimum difficulty, and the high cut-back heels were to prevent the foot slipping through. "I wear them all the time - you can't beat a good, solid pair of boots; I've had these for 2 years and the soles are hardly worn at all. I like them to be functional. I mean, look at those snakeskin boots that guy's got on; you might just as well wrap your feet in paper. Like, if I was on the run from the police who were chasing me through the forest," (a very bizarre piece of fantasy, I thought) "I'd be OK because I'd be dressed in the right clothes. That's why I wear the same stuff all the time." The back of his denim Levi jacket was ornately decorated, he had a little stash bag hanging from his belt, this battered corduroy Rambling Jack cowboy hat, and his hair was pulled into an elastic banded pigtail. (Compare the appearance of today's rock star with those of the fifties; there's Jerry Garcia looking like something out of the Bowery, with his dark stubbled face and paunch. Then remember Frankie Avalon.)
PigPen was tired. They'd flown direct from San Francisco to London, over the North Pole ("just an ordinary TWA flight") and he hadn't had much sleep. He hadn't seen much of London either, but he'd got the hang of our monetary system - to a degree. "Well the first thing you've got to do, is the Sonny and Cher trip," I told him. "All the Americans do that so that they can tell the papers about it...that means seeing Buckingham Palace (bonus points if you see the Queen), a London policeman with his funny hat, a double decker bus, Carnaby Street..." "I don't want to see any of that stuff," he replied, "but I do want to find a good cutler; I want to get a nice long, open-out razor...and a shaving mug."

How did it all begin? Well, towards the end of the 'folk era' of 62-65, a lot of folkies started forming groups - John Sebastian, the Mamas and Papas, Country Joe and the Fish, Jim McGuinn; and in Palo Alto, a community of about 30,000 on the road between San Francisco and San Jose, 3 such musicians, Ron McKernan (PigPen), Bob Weir, and Jerry Garcia did likewise, starting a band called The Warlocks. Previously they had been Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions (a similar set up to Country Joe's jug-style band style before they plugged in to become the Fish), but gigs were falling off, until a music store owner volunteered to sponsor their electrification. But the Warlocks, when they started in mid 1965 didn't exactly fit into, or dig the available work, which was the Byrds type Hollywood club circuit, so it was fortunate, just when they found the limitations of conventional venues becoming an unbearable drag, that they met up with, and got mixed up with Ken Kesey's bunch of LSD disciples, the Merry Pranksters, and Owsley Stanley III.
In his book "The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test" (an essential book to anyone who is interested in San Franciscan music, but still only available here in hardback), Tom Wolfe describes how the Warlocks, or the Grateful Dead as they became a few months later, became the Pranksters' travelling band, playing at the Acid Tests where they invited the world (or the people of Southern California anyway) to sample the esoteric delights of LSD.
Kesey had first run into Jerry Garcia in 1962, soon after he had discovered the beneficial effects of acid. Garcia was one of the local beatniks who used to crash the parties where LSD laced venison stew was the main dish, followed by a summer night on a mattress, stuffed into the fork of an oak tree, watching the stars and the sky. But because of his youth and his inability to contribute to the parties, he was an unwelcome guest.
It was another story towards the end of 1965 when Garcia's group supplied all the music for Kesey's Acid Tests, and instigated the music which was aptly termed "acid rock." Everyone was happy - the heads really dug the music and the Dead really dug the freedom of playing what they wanted for as long as they wanted.
The series of Acid Tests culminated in the Trips Festival of January 1966, which was the start of the Haight Ashbury era. The festival was a 'huge wild carnival' which inspired Bill Graham to open the Fillmore a fortnight later, and a new multi media, weekly psychedelic dance hall genre was initiated. "The heads," says Wolfe, "were amazed at how big their own ranks had become - and euphoric at the fact that they could come out in the open, high as baboons, and neither the sky nor the law would fall down on them."
Acid remained legal in California until October 1966, and Augustus Owsley Stanley III, or Owsley as he was notoriously known throughout America, manufactured millions of dollars worth; several million capsules and tablets. His tabs were the perfection by which others were judged, and as well as becoming the legendary 'White Rabbit,' he became very rich. A lot of his bread, he channeled into the Grateful Dead - as well as being a chemical genius, his hands had a way with electricity - and bought them more equipment than they knew how to handle...every device on the market became part of their sound. Says Wolfe, "The sound went down so many microphones and hooked through so many mixers and variable lags and blew up in so many amplifiers and rolled around in so many speakers and fed back down so many microphones, it came on like a chemical refinery. There was something wholly new and deliriously weird in the Dead's sound."
When Kesey split for Mexico, to evade American 'justice,' the Dead went off to LA to live with Owsley, but discovered that his way was too erratic for the partnership to succeed. Owsley had a strange past: he had been expelled from school for consuming alcohol, been busted for issuing rubber cheques, arrested for disorderly conduct, and subsisted on unemployment money for some time before insinuating himself into the nascent hippie scene with his project to benefit the community by manufacturing as much acid as possible.
To the Dead, Owsley was a financial angel as well as supervising their sound at gigs, but things didn't go too well and they split back to Marin County near San Francisco in mid 1966, reverting to standard Fender amps and allowing Owsley to cart away all his speakers, amps, tapes, and mikes. I asked PigPen about the split, and the equipment, because I'd heard that the Owsley stuff produced a very loud but very muddy sound anyway.
"Well, when it was working properly, it was really good...the best in the world, literally. But that wasn't too often. You see, Owsley had this time lag - it took him so long to get things sorted out, and we couldn't put up with that if we were to function as a band. Even now our equipment is standard stuff, but we've had it altered around a bit to make it more reliable."
As well as that, the Californian authorities were passing legislation to make LSD illegal and the Dead didn't want Owsley's business to be too closely connected with the band's work. But there's no rancour separating them; he still hangs around with the Dead periodically and gets credited on their albums, but PigPen hadn't seen him for some time, he said.
In the last half of 1966, the Dead moved into a big house at 710 Ashbury, right in the middle of San Francisco's growing head centre, by which time Garcia (then popularly known as Captain Trips) was practically the local patron saint, and they'd become one of the city's three most popular bands, but one still without a recording contract. Their attitude to this side of the business was shared by Quicksilver, whose manager Ron Polte, when questioned, said, "We're all waiting for an honest record company that we can talk with," and they resisted all the offers of the slick-suited LA record company executives who came up snooping for lucrative contracts. Another thing: "If the industry wants us, they're gonna take us the way we are"...Bob Weir, 1966.
Their first album eventually appeared on Warner Brothers in early 1967, and though one could assume that they had found their honest company, all but a few critics either attacked it, or wondered where the excitement of their live performances had gone. Typical comments read: "For some reason it succeeded in capturing only a small fraction of the excitement they shower on the listener in a concert performance." Loyal Crawdaddy Magazine loved it of course: "pure energy flow...West Coast kineticism developed to a fine art."
Their second album "Anthem of the Sun" was very long in appearing (Summer 68) and it leaked out that the Dead and Warner Brothers were at loggerheads, with much dissatisfaction and animosity on both sides. In the course of recording, the Dead sacked their producer Dave Hassinger and finished the production themselves, using over 20 taped performances to achieve what they wanted.
Aoxomoxoa, their third album (readers of Zap Comix will know that Rick Griffin is a palindrome freak - hence the nonsense title), was presented to Warners as a completed entity, sleeve and all; but their last to be released here, Live Dead, is probably the most successful in terms of capturing their live excitement. "It completely eclipses the faults of their previous albums...well mixed, completely non commercial in approach, and completely free flowing," said the LA Free Press.
What was the cause of the mutual displeasure between them and Warners? PigPen: "Well they wanted us to give them a hit and we didn't, and we wanted them to stop advising us and promote us more than they did. Let's say that was basically it; but I try to keep clear of those kind of hassles."

"We're not singing psychedelic drugs, we're singing music. We're musicians, not dope fiends," said Bob Weir back in the past. But what about their supposed overt use of euphoriants? The Dead have been endlessly described as drug freaks (or experimenters, let's say) of the first order. The Rolling Stone article gave detailed descriptions of cocaine snorting and nitrous oxide inducing, and they were involved in mass dope busts in late 67 and just recently in New Orleans.
"Were you arrested in New Orleans?" I asked Pig.
"No, I wasn't," he replied.
"How was that?"
"Because they didn't find anything in my room. They came in and went over the place, then searched me, then the room again, but they didn't find anything. I told them that I didn't use drugs, and eventually they went away saying that I was either telling the truth, or else I was mighty sneaky."
"Were you telling the truth?"
"Yes, I just don't use drugs anymore, because it just doesn't help me at all. Marijuana makes me act stupid, and the few times I've taken LSD weren't too good. So now I stick to drinking and cigarettes...they're my only vices."
PigPen, amazing character who almost left the Dead a couple of years ago, but got persuaded to stay.
PigPen, asking me how far the Festival site is, and how near it is to Manchester. His grandmother was born there, he tells me...used to make military uniforms in the First World War. And how can he get to Dublin...because a lot of his ancestors came from there.
"There's a lot of Irishman in me," he says.

Articles you read about Dead performances are invariably based on comparison with previous appearances - like "they were sloppy and didn't get it on like they did last time they played the park" and "as usual, they took about half of their marathon set to warm up." Well at the Hollywood Music Festival, most of us in the audience were witnessing the spectacle of a Dead set for the first time in our lives, and only the records, played till the grooves had worn out, served as a foretaste or comparison.
Of course, the music they played was for the most part completely different. "Wait till you hear our new things," PigPen had told me, "we've gone right back to simpler, more straight forward type of stuff." And so they had. The traditional Americana that has always been peeping through their music has suddenly become prominent; traditional blues ('I know you Rider' - variously known as Woman Blues and Circle Round the Sun), traditional folk (a 900 Miles derivative), traditional type country ('Riding that train, high on cocaine' - well I said traditional type), neo-traditional cowboy epics (Me and My Uncle, the John Phillips/Dino Valente classic), traditional pop (Good Lovin', Too hot to handle). Most of this material represents the new style Dead music and will presumably comprise the new album "Working Mans Dead." The pop stuff, they've always been doing - I remember them saying in an interview, "We'll play our half hour version of 'In the Midnight Hour' for anyone who'll listen."
Then they played a superb "medley" consisting of most of the Live Dead album. Incredible. And I don't use that word lightly. It was incredible...the awe, the music, the excitement, the whole scene.
Sure, vocally they are weak; Garcia, who does most of the singing, has a reedy, most unforceful, undistinguished voice, and neither Lesh nor Weir are too hot either. On the other hand, Pig Pen, almost totally obscured by his giant organ (that sounds suspicious), swings into his vocals with tremendous gusto and turns cruddy ancient pop songs into driving, classic performances. But musically they cut other rock bands to ribbons.
The solid red Gibson looked so small and flimsy in Jerry Garcia's hands - like it would just break like balsa if he squeezed it - but it seemed that every time he touched it, beautiful, clear, ringing notes poured out; and on 'Me & My Uncle' he was just fucking fabulous. Phil Lesh's bass playing was superbly inventive, and Bob Weir was nice as a complementary lead guitarist. As they began each piece, the three of them zigzagged from the back to the mikes at the front of the stage, squeezing past the two drummers, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, who hammered phrases at each other and occasionally attacked us with other percussive devices like gongs and pistol shots.
I can't really agree with one appraisal of the Dead - that their music is "a synaesthetic assemblage of disparate ingredients and tonal colours whose progression from start to finish is non-focused but dynamic" - because I don't really know what all that means, but I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon.
Before the festival, I'd spoken to this San Franciscan cat who had told me he was dubious about attending. There had been a full moon a couple of days before, and now, with the moon in Capricorn, things were bound to go wrong; at least, he reckoned, it would be freaky if not disastrous. "The last time the signs were like this," he said, "Quicksilver's roadie nearly hanged himself with an amp cord." Well, Wall Street had its worst day for seven years, but the Dead were totally magnificent.

Further reading:
Rolling Stone No 40 (the best ever article on the Dead)
The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.

Who is Robert Hunter?
Where is Tom Constanten?
Who was Reddy Killowatt?
Why did Bill Sommers become Bill Kreutzmann?
Who are Mcgannahan Skjellyfetti?
The best answer wins prizes!

(by Mac Garry, from Zigzag no. 13, June/July 1970) 

Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com

See also:

1 comment:

  1. An informed look at the Dead from England, just before the release of Workingman's Dead. The Dead were on the cover of this issue of Zigzag, which ran a lavishly illustrated article. It seems to start abruptly, but I think it's complete.

    Though Garry complains about the lack of information and misguided opinions about the Dead in the media, he seems pretty well-informed about them (and American readers would have had the same problem). Writing for a music publication, he had access to quite a few American magazines, since he quotes from a variety of sources and pulls together a fairly detailed and accurate history of the band. (He still has a few unanswered questions though, as listed at the end.)

    More interesting to me was his interview with Pigpen, which must be one of Pigpen's longest appearances in print. (It's possible you can see this interview taking place in the background during the hotel-reception footage on the Long Strange Trip bonus disc.) Pigpen turns out to be "one of the most charming, polite, and quiet people I have ever met," and discusses appropriate footwear. He sounds quite sensible and down to earth.

    Garry was enthralled with the Dead's festival show - even Me & My Uncle was fabulous! Not knowing what will be on Workingman's Dead, he thinks the covers the Dead are playing will be on the album. Actually, the Dead played a covers-heavy set for the English crowd, playing only one song from the album. (The only other new song in the set, Attics, Garry thinks is a '900 Miles'-style traditional folk song.) But he's right that since the Live Dead days, the Dead had slanted much more towards "traditional Americana" and pop.
    Pigpen sounds pleased that "we've gone right back to simpler, more straight forward type of stuff." Garcia sighed years later that up til then, "We were doing something that was forced, it wasn't really natural. We were doing music that was self-consciously weird. If we had paid more attention to Pigpen, it probably would have saved us a couple years of fucking around."