DARK STAR RISING
THE DEAD INTERVIEW
Maybe one day some writer will get down and write a piece which will capture exactly what the Grateful Dead are all about. God only knows what the results would be - possibly a weird blending of the 'I Ching' and a Zane Grey novelette. It would have to be someone who was both observer and participator in what is in effect a 24-hour-a-day movie; someone who could invest jive terms like 'spiritual outlaws' and 'positive flow' with some real meaning, while at the same time pointing out that this here is one no-bullshit, straight-down-the-line-joyful-noise rock n' roll band and don't you ever forget it. Mark Twain I'm sure could have done it. I've always thought of the Dead as in some ways the musical equivalent of the freewheeling all-American spirit of Twain's finest writing. Hunter's lyrics seem to be obsessed with gamblers ('Doin that Rag'/'Deal'), outlaws ('Sugaree'/'Friend of the Devil'), losers and misfits ('Loser' 'Wharfrat' and 'St. Stephen' who reminds me of an acid-head Huckleberry Finn) - all steeped in American myths and legends. The Grateful Dead's stance has always been firmly constructed in the roots of American mythology and the realisation that the mythology itself is built on the rootlessness of its culture. The Dead were always the pioneers, whether it was back in '66 on the bus with Kesey and Cassidy, opening the doors of perception, or riding that train, high on cocaine, or playing those long wild sets which spiral up and out in the cosmos, or writing numbers like 'Box of Rain' and 'Uncle John's Band' which are simply two of the most beautiful songs ever written. 'You may find direction around some corner where it's been waiting to meet you' they advise in 'Box of Rain' but the Dead have always been sure of this direction; they just keep on keeping on because when it all comes down to basics, there isn't really anywhere else to go. Like when, in the middle of a particularly heady piece of cerebral improvisation based around a Coltrane-like riff, they suddenly flow into a Marty Robbins cowboy tune. Not only did it work, it seemed the most natural thing to do at the time. With the Dead working out, the difference between the cosmic doodlings of, say, 'Dark Star' and their version of the Merle Haggard Seeds-and-stems pastoral 'Sing me back home' are negligible. After all, it's all music and if nothing else, the Dead are a music band, right there at the source point where it all flows free and easy. When the band play their own unique style of country music, they avoid the cracker-barrel philosophizing of, say, Kris Kristofferson and even rise above the hard-arsed stoicism of the Band, and when they get into free-form improvisation, they work on levels which most other bands don't know exist. The Dead have never got caught up in self-indulgent eclecticism - whatever they tackled has worked its way into the pattern a lot of different rhythms and textures but one sure pulse.
'At the moment, I can't really foretell what's going to happen when we actually play here. It's very strange y'know, I feel like a man from Mars or something.'
Jerry Garcia gave a self-conscious grin. The Dead had finally made it to England for a spread-out period of time. After one hit-and-run visit to the Hollywood Festival ('a bad gig' Garcia feels now), the band were back and casually holding court at the Kensington Palace Hotel, a thoroughly English establishment comfortably bridging the distance between modest good taste and luxuriousness. 'Casual' seems to be the word to describe the Dead's image now. Remember the first photo of the band to appear on our shores, depicting them as the 1967 epitome of the acid and downers-degenerate rock-a-boogie combo - all matted hair and sweat-stained denims. Well, things have changed. Only the roadies retain any of that image - a jovial bunch of roughhousers led by Ramrod who all look like ex-Hells Angels now into rodeo-riding. Phil Lesh looks almost dapper in suede jerkin and loafers; now with short hair he looks like the spitting image of the actor Donald Sutherland. Bob Weir, fresh-faced and earnest-looking, resembles an all-American boy until you notice that long, long pony-tail of hair running down his back. Keith Godcheaux, small and slightly bewildered by it all, talks with his wife Donna who is now singing with the band, and Pigpen sits by himself, brooding. His face has thinned out to such an extent that he has two enormous hollows in his cheeks.
Most of the Grateful Dead entourage are lurking around somewhere in the suite. All those names that appear on the back of Dead albums - like Bob Matthews and his old lady, Betty, the band's recording engineers, and Dan Healy, he's somewhere around, and manager John McCintre who looks like he's walked straight off the set of 'Song of Norway'. His feminine features and constant enthusiasm for everything going on around him make him a perfect Yin counterpart for Rock Scully's earth-bound (or as close to the earth as any member of [the] Dead family can get) wild-eyed hustler Yang characteristics. Scully is a pretty amazing cat, having stuck with the band through all the busts and bummers making sure that the whole show reached some measure of togetherness. And, lo and behold, who should be doing all the co-ordinating but Sam Cutler the voice of Altamont. He seems pretty cool about it all and everyone likes him, so God bless him.
Garcia is stretched out on the sofa eating and rapping to anyone around. The first thing you ought to know about Jerry is that he is an A-1 nice guy. All that 'Garcia the Garce' stuff is nonsense to him. Did he get bothered by people constantly expecting him to produce the answers to the problems of the Universe? 'That only comes from people like Charlie Reich' he grins. 'The thing is that I talk a lot, too much in fact. I just tend to answer questions, that doesn't mean I know what I'm talking about.' But Garcia does know what he's talking about usually. He'll rap about rock n' roll, science fiction, Woodstock and Altamont, Janis, the Manson-Lyman cult thing, in fact almost any topic you'd care to mention. And if his statements on anything tend to appear glib when seen in print, it shouldn't be like that. Jerry Garcia may not be a wise old sage, but when talking to him, one gets the distinct impression that he knows something that you don't. It's all to do with the positivity of the music the Dead play.
'I believe in taking a positive approach to any situation and that the only way to handle the bummers is to learn from them and leave it at that. We had to go through an Altamont in order to get the importance of something like Woodstock into perspective - it was like two sides of a coin, y'know. I think we learnt far more from Altamont about the new culture, or whatever you want to call it. The Dead work as a unit, as a collective ego. We reached the realisation a long time ago that 'The Grateful Dead' was far greater than the sum of parts - the egos. The band has never really been into playing ego games. I think if you realise that you've got to gain a kind of balance and work with that, then you'll get through.'
What was the scene like in San Francisco nowadays?
'There is no 'scene' as such in San Francisco. It's just a case that what was always there - the real creative elements, if you like - has matured. There are a lot of fine movie-makers and cartoonists and musicians.'
Garcia is still as eager to play with as many different musicians as possible. He feels equally at home involving himself in Kantner's musical sci-fi fantasies or adding pedal steel licks to one of Crosby and Nash's precious little ditties or working the Bay Area bars with his friend Merle Saunders playing to maybe 60 people. The whole co-operative is based on mutual respect amongst musicians.
About the Grateful Dead as they are now, he had this to say:
'We've all had a rest and we're just waiting to get up and do it, y'know. Pigpen's well again and with Keith playing with us, we're really tight. We added Donna who originally introduced us to her old man, because she's a fine singer. She used to work down at Muscle Shoals. We're not going to consciously play a set designed for an English audience. We're just going to play what we feel capable of - what our collective mood and the environment dictates.'
Would it be good old rock 'n roll?
'Well sure, there'll be some rock 'n roll, but I've never thought of the Dead as just a rock 'n roll band. I think we're something more. Wait and see.'
The band don't like playing dates in huge auditoriums. Their policy in the States is to find a hall which holds 2-3,00 capacity and book it for 4 or 5 days. The Empire Pool booking was in fact a last resort. 'A bad gig is a bad economic proposition' stated Bob Weir. (Weir used to be called 'the Kid', but now he's 'Bobby Ace' from the off-shoot band he formed back in 1970 called Bobby Ace and the Cards from the Bottom.) If anyone has the wild card up his sleeve in the band at the moment, it's him. It's Weir, not Garcia who is now fronting the Grateful Dead, singing most of the songs and writing most of the material. 'I'm just doing the same old stuff, only I'm more in control now and I can do it better' he shrugs. His solo album 'Ace' should be out soon and promises to be a real hot biscuit. 'One more Saturday Night' the new Grateful Dead single comes from the record as does 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' which has taken over from 'Bertha' as the opening number at a Dead concert. There are four or five Hunter-Weir numbers, a few written with an old friend of Weir's, John Barlow, and even some classical music.
'I listen to an awful lot of classical music. Phil has been mostly responsible for my picking up on the stuff in the first place, and on the album there are some attempts at my interpretation of what I've heard. I borrowed some changes from Johann Sebastian Bach though it turned out sounding nothing like the original source, or even like Procol Harum which is rock 'n roll classical music. At the moment, I'm interested in different music forms. I wrote the music of 'Playing in the Band' which is an exercise in 10/4 time. You can hear 10/4 time in Greek music and some East Indian music, but otherwise you just don't hear it in Western music. Sometimes the band picks up on a weird time signature just to see if they can make music out of it, like Phil's number 'The Eleven'. It's purely an academic experiment, I guess.'
Weir wrote most of the words and music for the 'Anthem of the Sun' suite. The words, though often awkward, are interesting in that they tell the real story behind the Acid Tests ('the bus pulled up and I got on/that's when it all began'). Garcia stated that Wolfe's account of the Trips Festival etc. was inaccurate and unbalanced.
'Tom Wolfe was just an observer writing about something he didn't understand. He never participated in what was going on - he never dropped acid. Also being a writer, he was more interested in concentrating on Kesey who was a novelist, whereas Cassidy was the real dynamo behind the whole thing.'
Bob Weir, who was a close friend of Neil Cassidy, took up the story.
'I wrote the lyrics to 'The Other One' in Portland, Oregon, on the night that Cassidy was dying somewhere in Mexico. He was a great friend of ours - it just all happened on the same night. The words are all about him, y'know; it really destroyed me when I found out. Cassidy was like the crazy big brother of the Grateful Dead. He had an infinite capacity for living and taught the band by example a great deal about life-styles and the way to handle a situation. How to come through it all and at the same time have a good time.
'Cassidy died from over exposure. I don't know exactly how it was - I've heard so many stories about how it was murder, how it was suicide. I think it was a mistake, a mistake he knew that he was going to make. When he left for Mexico, he left the house of some friends of mine, and his last words were 'Don't worry about it'. I guess you could say he burned himself out for the next ninety years, because he was capable of living in that way. He's surely one of the most interesting people who ever lived. He could make you laugh until you were sick and he had these weird, unbelievable powers. He was the unqualified master of telepathy.'
Cassidy's telepathic powers rubbed off on the Dead - 'After 7 years together, we know exactly how to inflect, exactly what nuances to use when playing, and the result is sometimes inspirational and then sometimes it just doesn't happen which is...y'know a bummer. We've found that we tend to communicate and therefore play better when our heads are closer together in physical proximity.'
The best recorded example of the Dead's work, Weir reckons, is 'The Other One'.
'There were some points on 'Dark Star', but that take of 'Dark Star' which ended up on the album was not as good as the one recorded the night before at the Avalon Ballroom. The recorder wasn't set up right or something so the good one got away. With a number like that, there's a beginning, a check-point - a middle, and an end. A stock motif and then a little sequence - the rest of it is built around a combination of circumstances - the environment, our collective mood. There is no basic rhythm; we usually dissolve it in sheets of sound and from there, we explore the possibilities. There have never been two identical performances of 'Dark Star'.'
Bob Weir and Pigpen present another Yin and Yang paradox, but as we sat together and rapped, it turned out they had a lot in common.
'Bobby and I don't mess with dope or booze anymore' muttered Pigpen. All the band seem to have moved away from their 'heavy drug' image. Kreutzmann and Lesh drink a lot and Garcia smokes a lot of pot, but the cocaine thing is past.
'What most people don't understand' said Garcia 'is that 'Casey Jones' is an anti-coke song. It's saying 'listen, watch your speed - that stuff is dangerous.' Then, almost as an after thought, he smiled and said:
'But y'know, I'm only human - I'll take anything.'
Not so with Pigpen, though. He's on the wagon. Perhaps the most amusing incident during the time I spent with the band was when booze orders were being taken and Pigpen muttered in complete seriousness 'Hey Frankie, couldya get me a soda?' Only it ain't so funny. Pig was very, very ill - a terrible liver complaint coupled with a crippling bout of hepatitis. He now looks skinny, his skin tight as a drum around his cheek-bones.
'I used to be very heavily into drinking. I never liked dope too much, whisky only got me off - but I quit. It was getting out of hand and I had to go into hospital. They didn't give me booze in hospital, so... Now my only vices are smokin' cigarettes and pesterin' the wenches.'
Pigpen's a bluesman, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker (Pigpen has worked with John Lee a few times), all those cats. Don't give him no jive about 'can a white man sing the blues'.
'If I like a song, I'll sing it - and I like the blues. I was brought up on the stuff - rock 'n roll, rhythm 'n blues.' His father was the first San Francisco D.J. to play rhythm 'n blues music in that area and was given the dubious title 'Ole Creepy' for his troubles. Pigpen digs a lot of soul music and his choice of Dead numbers usually comes down to a good soul classic, James Brown's epic 'It's a Man's, Man's, Man's, Man's World' (now dropped owing to a backlash from Women's Lib.), Otis Redding's 'Hard to Handle', and the Olympics/Young Rascals classic 'Good Lovin'. About those juiced raps he pulls out when the spirits are willing - 'It's real easy for me to make up that kind of stuff as I go along. A little story, a little anecdote - I got to get a little crazy to do that stuff.'
The Pig used to hang around bars and night-clubs way back when, working in various soul and boogie combos. Then one day he worked in a band which contained one Jerry Garcia on bass guitar and the occasional appearance of Bill Kreutzmann on drums. From those humble beginnings were born the Warlocks who changed their name to the Grateful Dead. And they're still all together - Garcia, Weir, Lesh, Pigpen, Kreutzmann. Sure, Mickey Hart's doing his own stuff now, living out his crazy, funky existence on some ranch, while Tom Constanten - 'JC' to the boys [sic] - is still heavily into Scientology.
But otherwise, there they all were backstage at the Empire Pool, Wembley, not quite knowing what to expect but not really getting worried. 'We'll just up and do our stuff and see how it all works out' muttered Pigpen, while Garcia, sharp as a hot Ferrari in black silk shirt and the trousers of his Nudie suit (emblazoned with magnificent skull design (what else?) on the bell-bottom) flashed these gold, cosmic grins from under that hairy tangle of beard and rapped with anyone who wanted to talk to him. Kreutzmann and Lesh boozed away happily and gregariously while the 7,000 people seated themselves. This audience, whether they'd picked up on the Dead through 'Anthem of the Sun' and 'Live Dead' or 'American Beauty' and the new live double-album, were all united in the knowledge that this was their band. Here was a living legend if ever there was - Kerouac and Cassidy were dead, Kesey was, god knows where Kesey was, Owsley was in jail, but the Dead were still high and rising. The magic band had survived it all and were flowing on this plain above all the rest.
Having seen them at rehearsal doing their new material (everything from a mournful Garcia version of Hank William's 'You Win Again' to an unbelievable workout on 'Bo Diddley' which is even better than 'Not Fade Away'), I had some vague idea of what to expect, but a live Dead concert in front of a massive audience would be something else again. At 7.30 the band casually appeared on stage, plugged in and kicked off. No fuss, no superstar bullshit or prima donna scenes; they just went straight into 'The Greatest Story Ever Told', tight and confident with Bobby Weir and Donna Godcheaux wailing out front while the band worked their way through the jerky, almost clumsy rhythm. From there they went into a couple of numbers from Garcia's solo album - 'Loser' and 'Sugaree' (the latter dragging just a fraction), picking up with two raucous Pigpen rockers. Pig never got out front for any length of time and there were no long inspired raps either. He's still getting back into his stride, though a super-moody 'Big Boss Man' proved that he's still got the goods. The audience remained appreciative and receptive, but there was the distinct feeling that something was missing. A ridiculously fine stomping version of 'Beat it on Down the Line' came near to what we were looking for, but the essential ingredient - the fabled magic of the Grateful Dead - had yet to make its presence felt. The levels of the performance wavered frustratedly until the band introduced 'Playin' in the Band'. From the first notes it seemed right - the near ecstatic pure electric guitar sound the Byrds could pull off in the mid-60s when the planets were all fixed in the correct proportions flowing straight into the churning 'Proud Mary' rhythm with Donna wailing, biting out a third harmony - 'Playing - Playing-in-the-band - Da-aay-break, Day break 'cross the land'. And then the band just floated off onto some weird beautiful plain, Garcia picking notes like bubbles bursting while Lesh was in total control on his side of the cosmos constantly there by the side of his comrades and building platforms for them to transcend. This indeed was space travel - Godcheax exploring every nuance of the music left untouched by his fellow-travellers while Kreutzmann lay back providing the fuel for the space-ship which was now airbourne. Just like magic. Before you could breathe out again, the band powerhoused into 'Casey Jones'. The star-ship had now become a locomotive, a fabulous electric monster pouring out, consuming anything around with substance riding the lines expressway to your senses. The words to the chorus were flashed on the back-drop just in case we'd forgotten them. But by now it was all too late to watch your speed. The Grateful Dead had begun.
After 'Casey Jones', there was a short break - just time enough to pick yourself off the floor. By now the energy level was unbelievably high, but more amazing was the fact that when the Dead came back on, they not only started at exactly that same intensity, they went straight ahead and got higher and higher. From 'Truckin'' they spun right into 'The Other One'. By this time, all the scribes had discarded their note-books and just stood back, bathing in all the rhythms and textures. It was all literally too much. I seem to recall the band doing 'Sugar Magnolia', 'Wharf-rat', a killer new Garcia-Hunter composition with outrageously fine lyrics (any song which mentions Wolfman Jack, Crazy Otto, Billy the Kid and Jesse James in almost the same breath must have something going for it) which I later found out was called 'Ramblin' Rose'. The band ended the set with the inevitable 'Not Fade Away/Goin' down the road feelin' Bad' medley, doing one encore of 'One More Saturday Night'.
I really don't want to make some glib statement about what happened being a spiritual experience. But that's all I can really think of. Everyone at the concert had been introduced to the New Music - the Dead had taken people into a new consciousness - all the doors had been opened.
After the gig, there was the usual party where everyone came to show off their Underground chic. Amid the velvet and satin, members of the Dead sat quietly bewildered and rather out of it all. Pigpen, still brooding, muttered that it had been a pretty mediocre gig, while Garcia was still giving out his raps to those around who had already been mind-blitzed. Outside the building, the last remains of the audience staggered around, hopelessly spaced, wondering where the hell they could go after witnessing all that. If they'd looked up into the sky earlier in the evening they would have noticed a giant rainbow hanging right over the Empire Pool. It was that sort of evening.
(by Nick Kent, from Frendz, May 12, 1972)
Thanks to Simon Phillips.
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