ROCK 'N' ROLL MISFIT
Jerry Garcia, specifically, and the Grateful Dead, generally, are rock and roll misfits. The stuff of which anti heroes are made. Being on a stage, says Garcia, is an embarrassment, and it's "unfortunate" that the band is gaining in fame.
Raised on beatnik literature (Kerouac, Ginsberg and all), Garcia, slumped on the floor of promoter Tom Salter's home, looks anything but a rock and roll star, which is fine by him, because he never, never wanted to be one, anyhow.
"The most rewarding experience for me these days is to play in bars and not be Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. I enjoy playing to fifty people. The bigger the Dead get the harder it is to be light and spontaneous, and that's my biggest single dissatisfaction."
"Y'see, my personal code of...uh, ethics, is all based in 'fifties artists' evaluations, which were pretty much characterised by a disdain for success, and I've always carried that."
And while it's not economically feasible for a band to exist without income or prospects in London, for example, the prototype Grateful Dead didn't just survive, but in fact thrived on other folks' excess in sunny California, tenderloin of the Capitalist world.
"We never even had to hustle to get by, and certainly never worked hard; hardly ever worked at all, in fact. And being on the street, in the real sense of the term, gives you a unique viewpont."
And unlike virtually any other band begun with high-minded ideals, the Dead have mostly managed to retain that viewpoint throughout their chequered career. Despite the success that Garcia so abhors, the group still don't make any money as such.
"We turn it over," says Garcia. "Our expenses are immensely high, because we're into doing it as good as we can, and as the resources and the desire of people to see the group grows, our plan has been to improve aesthetically the quality of the trip itself. Which is the reason for the PA."
PA seems somehow too humble a description for the Dead's massive wall of sound, comprising 641 speakers and 48 amplifiers, dispensing 26,400 watts of rock and roll, controlled by 24 roadies, no less, the equipment weighing in at a conservative 40 tons.
The same desire, to improve the quality of the product, led the Dead to set up their own record label, Grateful Dead Records. To be more precise, it was that, plus "the fact that we'd had a long, unexciting, uninteresting relationship with a record company, and hadn't got off on it at all.
"We never related to the record company way of thinking and they never related to us. Consequently we figured that even fumbling around we could sell records better than they could."
Has that proved to be the case?
"Well, sales haven't dropped. And anyway, with the way the thing is structured, it's no longer necessary to sell huge quantities of albums, because there's no parent company taking huge chunks.
"And since we're not interested in breaking big, we can still be comfortable if we only sell a few of each album."
Garcia shrugs aside the opinion that, with their own distribution outlets, Grateful Dead Records and sister company Round Records are as independent as it's possible for a non-obscurantist rock label to get.
"For us to be really independent would mean that we'd have to manufacture the records, and above and beyond that we were actually creating the vinyl. And, I mean, who wants that? That's outrageous...
"Records are such an ecological disaster, anyhow. It's time somebody considered other ways of storing music that don't involve the use of polyvinyl chloride.
"Socially speaking, the actual process of record pressing is as close to slave labour as you're ever likely to get. Totally mindless. People stand at these presses, with hot steaming vinyl squeezing out of tubes - it's really uncomfortable. Pressing is depressing!
"I visited a plant recently, and I thought 'Do I really want to be putting these people through this?' And I really don't. There must be another way. It's hard to believe that we haven't progressed beyond the old Edison cylinder. Needle in a groove. It's pretty crude, really."
This marked lack of progress, Garcia decrees, is rooted merely in the "overwhelming greed" of the music industry, which would sooner make a fast buck than strive for improving the product, any day of the week.
"I've seen the way greed gets to people. Reality goes out of your life as you start to live in this comfortable dream, increasingly out of touch. Limousines and all, that kind of excess actually kills. What I have to do, what the Grateful Dead has to do, and what anybody who really cares about music right now has to do, is to try and invent alternative structures and forms which will allow music to fit in with life in a manner that doesn't devour the artist.
"Any moves that the Grateful Dead makes in this direction are of course really minimal - they're minute, and conservative too, but all the same they stem from a certain kind of purity."
What's "cool" about the Dead, to borrow Garcia's terminology, is that no project ever becomes real unless the entire band agrees. And as there's often disagreement within the band, not too many projects are realised. ("But things that we agree to, man...wow!...there's no stopping them. The dynamism is what makes it interesting.")
Garcia's value-judgements seem almost strangely old fashioned at times. Where, for example, Keith Richard and Mick Jagger would scoff at the concept of responsibility to the audience (and have done so from the dock, on occasion), Garcia is acutely conscious of that responsibility. "My only ambitions are to play music and to be civil," he says with obvious sincerity.
With the particular variety of socio-philosophising peculiar to Marin County veterans, Garcia is prepared to extend that line of conversation indefinitely.
He meets "So you don't want to be Governor Of California?" with a good natured "F--- it!" and continues "I can scarcely govern myself."
That statement sparks off a breathtaking stream of consciousness flow that works through such chestnuts as "everybody should police themselves," "people don't know about life or death" - that kind of thing.
All the same Garcia is sufficiently politically aware to want to disassociate himself with any of the usual causes-and-issues naivety.
Any kind of fanaticism, Garcia reckons, however apparently well-meaning, is ultimately corrupt. "I think we've seen more than enough of the I've-got-followers-therefore-I'm-powerful mentality this century."
This attitude towards over-enthusiastic disciples can extend as far as rock 'n' roll fans, and the Grateful Dead are very wary of being misrepresented, and certainly don't set out to mislead.
Well, take "Casey Jones," the "Workingman's Dead" favourite. Part of the chorus runs, you'll recall, "driving that train, high on cocaine."
"Suddenly everybody was snorting cocaine, as though that was the underlying message of the song, which it wasn't at all. I mean those lyrics are dire. At best, they're pessimistic."
Consequently, the Dead are now attempting to parallel Bob Dylan's move from unequivocal protest to street poet surrealism.
"If we're going to have misinterpretations, let's have more than one, let's have lots of them!"
Obviously, though, the Dead's reputation, however justifiably, is bound up with legendary tales of massive chemical intake. The band that orchestrated Ken Kesey's celebrated Acid Tests.
Garcia says that stories are "exaggerated."
"We wouldn't have survived," he says. "In everything you have to attain a balance. See, the Grateful Dead doesn't hold one particular philosophy about anything. Some people in the band don't take any drugs at all.
"Others take all drugs. We don't share the same perspective on that one. I think drugs are now just a part of life.
"It's not something that only musicians specifically get into... Obviously our reputation stems from the events with Kesey and Owsley, but LSD wasn't the reason for the Acid Tests, although it was one of the catalysts certainly - and it wasn't necessarily the thing that was good about the Tests.
"It was a combination of degrees. It always is, I think. Whether you love something or not, whether you enjoy something or not...
"Drugs aren't necessarily good or bad. They may or may not help you see what you want to see."
It seems, I observe, that with drug usage apparently on the decline among rock musicians, more and more bands now turn to religion rather than opium as a crutch. Santana, McLoughlin, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Chick Corea et cetera. (Oh, and incidentally, those stories about the Dead having signed themselves over to the Divine Light Mission are 100 per cent fictional. "I've never heard anybody in the band say anything about Guru Mahara Ji that wasn't derogatory," Bob Weir said earlier.)
"The band has investigated specific religions on occasion," says Garcia, without naming sects, although it's common knowledge that organist Tom Constanten left the band to devote more time to Scientology, "but I think we mostly feel that a large part of the reasons for the general obsolescence of so many things on this planet is down to the tendency of the vast majority of religious groups to exclude each other.
"Now it seems there is a new, more open-ended spiritualism springing out of the old traditions, mostly sparked off by heads and people that have gone in there and studied the things.
"That's encouraging, but I don't know... I guess music is my religion, in as much as it's my discipline. It's my yoga, it's the thing that I work at, and it's the thing that I measure my achievements against."
But has music, however good, actually got the power to affect social change?
"I don't think so. And yet in some ways I think it can do more than that. Music can give people a clean experience, that's free from all connotations.
"Music isn't propagandist, it isn't political. It's free of the confusion of language, for example - it just cuts through all of that.
"You can trust music, because it can't hurt you and it won't mislead you. If it's bad, you can just leave it alone. Walk out.
"If the medium is the message, then I think that music is one of the mediums that has been the most consistent. Music is functional, and it deserves a functional role in society.
"At its most trivial it helps you through the day, and that's important in itself, and at the heaviest and deepest level it can move you beautifully, awaken you to a recognition of the human spirit.
"Music assumes that role so readily, it should be given more chances to do so. It's distasteful, the way that music is bought and sold."
It goes without saying that the musician himself is the lowest rung of the showbiz hierarchical ladder, a situation that naturally distresses any thinking player.
"Personal fame and fortune is the bait that's always used, and that approach is just redundant, because all you ever get is music that's 'professional' which you can't get off on.
"And that's where the religious groups actually have an edge, because they're struggling to do something other than make a quick fortune. After a while it gets so you can recognise those aspirations."
Are you saying that you can determine which music is divinely inspired and which financially oriented just by listening?
"Aha...err...no, I guess maybe I couldn't, but when you're signed to a contract with say, Columbia Records that requires that you put out four albums a year or whatever, it means that you definitely have to do that.
"And that in turn means that at some point in your life you're sitting down making music because you're professionally obliged to do so. Okay, so that's one way to do it, but I don't think it's how we reach our higher moments."
Up until the formation of Grateful Dead Records, Garcia has always suffered that professional pressure, and, essentially, always will suffer it for as long as the group exists.
Any professional rock musician lives in a controlled environment, and the bigger the group becomes the less chance the individual musician has to step outside that environment.
If Jerry Garcia didn't feel like playing Alexandra Palace on Wednesday, September 12 [sic], it was still a virtual certainty that he'd do so, because it's another professional commitment, and just as demanding as the "three-albums-a-year" syndrome.
So where does that leave this unique guitar stylist and reluctant guru to the post Haight/Ashbury generation? Wilt there come a point where the hatred of "stardom" results in the total abandonment of major gigs in favor of boogying in bars?
"I'm forever at that point, merely because the alternative is so much easier. The Grateful Dead will always exist, regardless of the musicians involved in it, and it will just have to accept whatever changes come up."
But could it still be the Grateful Dead without the Lesh-Weir-Garcia nucleus to hold the group together?
"Hell, I don't think it's the Grateful Dead without Pigpen. It's different now. I don't have any special attachment to the Grateful Dead as a band, because it's something that we all invented. It's no big deal. It's just us. It's a useful vehicle and I've learnt a lot from it."
Isn't there any sentimental reason for wanting to keep the band together? After all, you nurtured it from complete obscurity into financial stability. Surely that must count for something.
"Yeah, it's been sorta like having a kid. Y'know you bring up a child, pour plenty of love and affection onto it, look after it, and ultimately the kid says 'well, thanks for everything. I'm leaving now. This is it.'
"I'm always looking for new forms, and if the Grateful Dead at some point would prefer to cling on to old forms, I'll go someplace else."
The question that has to be raised here, of course, is what exactly is the nature of the new forms we're discussing? The Dead's recent studio albums have revealed a singular lack of "new forms." In fact with the exception of "That's It For The Other One," a reworked theme from "Anthem Of The Sun" which cropped up on the live "Grateful Dead" double, and Weir's "Weather Report Suite" on "Wake Of The Flood," which was indirectly influenced by the Miles Davis/Gil Evans "Sketches Of Spain" collaboration of the late fifties, nothing even approximating a "new form" has passed this way.
Garcia raises his hands and shrugs in mock desperation.
"See, we're victims of the medium," he pleads, "a single album is really short, and our records, even our live records, have that song orientation that the stage act doesn't really have. And that's mostly because we'd feel strange about putting out albums that had just one track per side.
"We're not the band that makes our albums - that's just a guise we adopt to get by in the studio. As soon as they invent a means of putting out five hours of music at a time at some realistic kind of price, we'll release all of our shows.
"But for that reason I've always felt that the Grateful Dead is a pretty bad recording band. We don't put that much energy into developing as a recording unit.
"It's difficult, you see, because as a live band our dynamic range goes far beyond what can be accurately got down on vinyl. We can play down to the level of a whisper, and we can play as loud as twenty jet planes. So, the expressiveness of our music is limited by recording.
"Recording is always a compromise, and I don't enjoy it very much, and I think that the lack of enthusiasm is evident in the albums.
"Right now I'm trying to develop as a studio musician because I feel it's something that I ought to be able to handle. But, quite honestly, I've never recorded a solo that's worth a shit. Not on a Grateful Dead record, anyhow."
(by Steve Lake, from Melody Maker, 14 September 1974)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com