Mar 26, 2024

1981: Grateful Dead Interview


He's a 35-year-old happily married father of four - the respected director of a research institute in Washington, D.C. But Jerry Toporovsky has a secret obsession, and on this cool All Hallows Eve he's about to drive six long hours to New York's Radio City Music Hall to indulge it. 
"Sometimes I try to reason with myself," explains Toporovsky. "I'm pushing 40, I've got a family and a full-time job - I've gotta be crazy to be doing this. But then I think of the last time I saw them and realize it's going to be worth it. It always is." Yes, friends, it's sad but true: Jerry Toporovsky is a confirmed Deadhead. 
There is no known cure. 
There are thousands like him who follow the Grateful Dead's moveable feast around the country like medieval pilgrims pursuing some mobile Canterbury. They range in age from 16 to 60, and some have been "on the bus," as Ken Kesey might put it, since the band's inception over fifteen years ago. What is it that attracts them? Certainly not nostalgia. The Grateful Dead are not the Beach Boys - a traveling oldie show cranking out sentimental favorites for aging hippies. No, the Dead are a living, evolving phenomenon who are still capable of acting as channels for the special quality of energy that can transform an ordinary concert into a transcendent event. Unfortunately, very little of this magic (what Garcia refers to as their "x chemistry") finds its way onto vinyl, making it difficult for the average un-Deadhead to understand what all the hoopla is about. 
"There are a few passages on 'Dark Star' and some of the other material from the live albums or old concert tapes that capture that 'otherness,' but they're the exception," explains Toporovsky. 
"We just don't play with the same fire in the studio," concurs guitarist Bob Weir. "We've even toyed with the idea of taking the time off from touring to learn how to make records in the studio; desperation being the mother of invention, we'd have to come up with something!" 
Well, maybe. 
True, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty came close, but those were albums of simpler, more concise material that sidestepped the real problem of how to deal with the more free-form exploration of a "Dark Star" or "Saint Stephen." It's not simply a question of capturing the spirit of the jam; there's another dimension that emerges when the Dead walk into their free-wheeling improvisation, a quality that seems impossible to recreate in the studio.
"It's not just a question of jamming - it's a little bit like jazz, but that's not it either," says Toporovsky. "It's a question of really connecting on a higher level with each other." 
Since a principal difference between the Dead live and the Dead in the studio involves the presence of an audience, it would follow that interacting with said audience is an indispensable part of the Grateful Dead experience. "Sure, we can get that magic on a record," laughs drummer Bill Kreutzman, "just cram about 5000 people in a studio with us while we record!"
Considering the band's early involvement with psychedelics, some have claimed that this "x chemistry" is entirely dependent on drugs. "Not true," argues Toporovsky. "Acid can give you a headstart in getting to that 'other' place, but it's not required in order to plug into the experience. I haven't taken psychedelics on over five years, but I still get the same high at a Dead concert now without drugs as I did on acid in the beginning." 
In addition to having an audience to work with, the other indispensable factor in the Grateful Dead equation is their commitment to taking risks. Not just propositional and conceptual risks, but a willingness to step out over the edge every night in concert. 
"That spirit of adventure is crucial," claims Weir. "We're dedicated to pushing everything a little further each time. Every time another verse comes up, even if I've played it a thousand times before, I try to play it a little differently, to understand and make it a little better each time...and then when we've really loosened up, we go for something we've never played before."
In short, nothing is allowed to ossify into a predictable pattern - everything is kept alive, fresh, and evolving: the Rolling Stones may be content to gather moss, but not the Dead. They have firmly grasped the idea that the only way to maintain their connection with the ineffable is through constant growth and change. 

As the band's newest member, keyboardist Brent Mydland discovered just before his first Dead concert two years ago, living with the unexpected can be a bit disorienting at first. 
"The day before the concert I asked what tunes we'd be doing, so I could concentrate on those songs, but no one would tell me. It freaked me a bit, but then when we got on stage, I realized that nobody knew what we were going to play. Keeps you on your toes..." 
Once into those swirling, birth-of-the-universe jams, almost anything goes; even long forgotten songs may emerge from the maelstrom like time travelers popping out of a black hole: "'Cold Rain and Snow' just reappeared after six years in the middle of a jam 'cause Garcia realized he could superimpose it over what we were doing," reflects Weir.
Band members encourage each other to step out at any point; if somebody states a theme emphatically enough, the rest will inevitably follow. "Well, almost always," corrects Weir. "Sometimes only half the guys will come along - but that's rare."
Of course the same is true of the mysterious "X factor": "We can prepare ourselves to be proper vehicles for it, but we can't guarantee it'll happen on any given night," explains the Dead's other drummer, Mickey Hart. "We can raise the sail, but we can't make the wind come." 
Toporovsky agrees: "Out of any five given concerts, one will be mediocre, one or two will be very, very good, and one or two will be utterly incredible."
In the old days the Dead would often come into an area for a sustained engagement of half-a-dozen shows, guaranteeing compulsive Deadheads at least one or two transcendent performances. Today, engagements are generally limited to two or three per city, and the faithful often have to catch the band in at least two different towns to secure their cosmic hit. 
But the amazing thing is that those moments do happen. In the course of interviewing all the band members (except Phil Lesh, who wasn't available), I tried to get them to articulate what they'd discovered about the principles that sustained this matrix, that kept the cosmic dance between performer, audience, and the music itself from collapsing into a chaotic jumble. This was more than a matter of mere curiosity on my part; the problem of longevity is one that must haunt every band as their youthful passion and energy wanes. Any group that's been around for 15 years and can still call down that illuminative power has something to teach all of us. Maybe something that could even save somebody's life. 
I can't help but think of a Bruce Springsteen concert a few weeks back. The magic just wasn't happening during the first set, and Bruce knew it. But being Bruce, he insisted on pushing himself and his band with a harsh urgency bordering on desperation, as if he hoped to break to the other side on sheer bravado alone. It hurt to watch him struggle like some beached swimmer, who thinks he can bring back an ebbing tide if he just continues to flail away hard enough on the sand. "My God," said a voice in the next aisle, "if he keeps that up, he'll kill himself." It was a frightening thought, and one that came back to haunt me the other day when I heard that Springsteen had cancelled a series of midwestern dates on account of exhaustion. 
After a decade and a half of experimentation, the Dead are convinced that sheer force alone isn't the answer. "It is not even a question of concentration," insists Weir. "You've got to let go and surrender to it; drop your cares, and be there for it." 
Okay, but who calls the shots? "Nobody calls the shots," counters Weir. 
"The Dead is bigger than the sum of its parts," adds Garcia. "We go where it leads us." 
Sounds simple enough, but how the hell do you keep everybody's egos from tearing apart the delicate balance needed to keep things open? According to the Dead, the answer involves standing the normal traditional Western attitude towards music on its head: concentration and individual assertiveness give way to a more diffuse awareness and the commitment to ensemble playing. 
According to Weir, "You have to reverse gears from the way you originally learned things. For a musician to master his instrument requires excruciating concentration; each note has to be conquered, then strung together to form riffs and passages. For ensemble playing you've got to let all that go and be aware of others. The key here is listening to what everybody else is doing. You can always tell when somebody's not listening, because they play too much and spoil the chemistry." 
So you divide your attention between what you're doing and what the group is doing? 
"No," insists Weir, "that's not it. Dividing your attention implies a separation between yourself and the music where none exists. Actually, I am the music and all that's necessary is to maintain a little concentration, just enough to articulate my part so it blends with the whole."

The Dead are guaranteed to consistently confound your expectations: every time you think you've got them pegged they toss you another curve. On their debut album they were cleverly disguised as an electric jug band, progressive-minded, but obviously tied to their blues and folk roots. Then came Anthem of the Sun - an about-face if ever there was one. It was an acid-drenched psychedelic garage sale that owed more to Stockhausen and Coltrane than Kweskin or Seeger. Next came Aoxomoxoa, a noble if not entirely successful attempt to compress all that weirdness into traditional three-minute segments. 
It wasn't until the double Live Dead that the record-buying public got a glimpse of what all the excitement was about. Although it remains for many, including most of the band members I polled, the quintessential Dead album, the fact that it's simply a taped concert performance served to highlight the Dead's inability to produce a studio recording that reflected their essential nature. They decided to shift gears once again, this time abandoning their complex improvisational material in favor of simpler musical forms whose spirit might be easier to capture on tape. The resulting albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, are the musical equivalent of the Gothic flying buttress: slender, delicate structures that somehow support a cathedral of sound and feeling. 
About this time the Dead were presented with a challenge of a different nature, with the death of the lead vocalist and keyboardist, Ron McKernan (alias Pigpen). Mickey Hart remembers: "A lot of people may not realize it now, but Pigpen was the boss in those days; it was his band, he was the leader, not Jerry or Bob. When he died, his responsibilities fell on everybody else's shoulders." 
It was also a time when rock bands were undergoing fundamental changes in their relationship with their audiences. The sense of communion, of oneness between player and listener, was disintegrating as musicians became unreachable superstars, and the audience in turn chose entertainment over communication. Instinctively, the Dead opted out of the whole mad game. They gave up the chance to become superstars, but it didn't matter. They had discovered how to keep that inner dynamic alive within themselves, and there was no way they could commercialize that without crushing its essence. They had something that money couldn't buy (besides, the very thought of Jerry Garcia in a gold lame jumpsuit is too painful to bear). 
Compelled by what Garcia refers to as "the call of the weird," the Dead returned to experimental themes on albums like Blues for Allah and Terrapin Station. The latter album's orchestral sweep, pristine production values, and superb ensemble playing qualify it as probably the most successful attempt yet at a studio rendering of their concert persona. Producer Lowell George brought a taste of funk to Shakedown Street and in the process showed the band how to take greater advantage of the rhythmic dynamics inherent in their two-drummer configuration in the studio. Last year's The Grateful Dead Go To Heaven was disappointingly tame AOR fare, though Garcia's peppy "Alabama Getaway" was the closest thing they've had to a hit in years.
This summer the Dead have presented us with a double-dose of what they do best: two double live albums, one acoustic and one electric, both recorded last fall in New York and San Francisco, the twin capitols of Dead-dom. (The band jokingly refers to the N.Y.-Long Island area as "The Grateful Dead Belt.") These releases are being heralded as the "definitive" Dead albums, and on the evidence presented by the acoustic set, which is the only one available now - the electric record should be coming out by the time you read this - that may be a fair assessment. Dan Healy's recording and production are state-of-the-art, and the performances are among the best I've ever heard from the band. 
Is the Grateful Dead satisfied enough with these live efforts to give up their eternal quest for perfection in the studio? Are they finally willing to concede that it can't be done without the help of an audience? 
"Well, maybe," says Garcia, sitting like a Buddha in a black T-shirt in his San Rafael home, "but I feel it's time for another wave of weirdness to hit, and I was thinking about trying a few ideas in the studio..." 
During a break in the interview, I buttonholed Brent Mydland, figuring as the new guy in the band maybe he'll give me some tips on dealing with the Ancient Ones. 
"I'll tell ya a funny thing," says Mydland. "When I first joined these guys I had the feeling I was on the outside of a massive inside joke, but I think I'm beginning to catch on." Gee, Brent, can you toss me any clues? "Of course not!" he replies in mock anger. "Are you trying to get me in trouble or something?" 
That's what I like about the Dead: they never preach or proselytize. Instead, they quietly go about constructing a working model of what might be a brave new world, based on openness to change and risk, diffusion of ego, sensitivity to the needs of the moment, and receptivity to higher forces. Rather than mere relics of a mythic past, Garcia and company may yet prove to be touchstones for a viable future.

(by Vic Garbarini, from Musician, October 1981, pp.60-63)

* * * 


Bill Kreutzman's music career did not begin auspiciously; his teacher tossed him out of the school band because he couldn't keep the beat. His revenge was twenty years coming but well worth the wait. Encouraged by a sympathetic high school music instructor, Bill eventually wound up teaching drums in a Palo Alto music store, where he and another instructor named Jerry Garcia got the idea of starting a band. The Warlocks soon metamorphosed into the Grateful Dead, and a debut album was cut for Warners. 
Shortly after its release, Kreutzman faced a crisis when the band invited Mickey Hart to join as a second percussionist. "In my darkest moments," admits Kreutzman, "I was sure he was trying to get me out of the band so he could take over. But in the end I saw it wasn't so, and that spirit of conflict served as a catalyst for getting me off my duff and deeper into the music." Thus began one of rock's most successful double-drummer combinations. 
Both drummers soon discovered that their styles were naturally complementary. "I tend to play the more rudimentary, straight ahead stuff," explains Kreutzman, "while Mickey handles the embellishments, tom fills, and other exotica." 
Hart agrees: "Usually Bill winds up doing the straighter, rock 'n' rollish stuff, while I'm turning it in, out and around. But there are no rules." 
How do they determine their respective responsibilities on any given tune? 
"Normally we just attack it and see what happens," says Mickey. "We might then discuss it, but we find the best work doesn't come from our minds, but from somewhere deeper. We actually breathe in the same time. It's not just two good drummers playing together; something is different between me and Bill. We feel our pulses before a show to get in common time, and we really are beating together." 
"You can never be afraid to take chances," says Kreutzman. "We may play the same song a lot, but it's different every performance. If you try to hold on to something you inevitably kill it." 
Hart takes it even further: "It's more than just an option - we have to take risks. I go up there every night hoping that someone will have a great idea that will take me away, that'll really make me understand what music is about after all these years. But you're part of an ensemble, so you wait for a good idea to come up, and if it's right, something makes you do it and it inspires the rest of the band." 
Sometimes this creative risk-taking spills out beyond the boundaries of the songs to fill in the spaces between tunes. "Call it rhythmic modulation," offers Bill. "Instead of a sudden modulation or key shift between songs, we try to establish a rhythmic relationship so we can slowly amble from one to the other. It's one of my favorite exercises, but it's damn tricky to pull off." 

Both Kreutzman and Hart are deeply involved with Asian, African and American ethnic musics. For Hart, interest centers on what he refers to as "pre-entertainment music": "It's music that's not based just on entertainment; it deals with activities such as making work easier or chasing away demons or washing clothes."
One incident that helped Hart develop a healthy respect for the innate power of this kind of music involved a gift from his friend, Airto Moreira, the noted Brazilian percussionist. "Airto gave me this Brazilian stringed instrument called the berimbau. He gave me a quick lesson in how to play it, and I took it home to practice on. Well, I wound up just staring into the fire and playing this thing for weeks. It just took over; I wouldn't accept phone calls or anything," laughs Hart. "Three weeks later I called up Airto and asked him what the hell was going on! He explained that in Brazil the berimbau was used to induce an altered state of consciousness for practicing the martial arts." Hart pauses. "The weird thing is that I've been into the martial arts for years, but had let it go for a while, and then got back into it when I started playing the berimbau... And there was Airto talking about how this jungle instrument could take you without you even knowing it!" 
Both Hart and Kreutzman cite Sudanese oud player Hamza El Din as a major source of both musical and spiritual inspiration. "It's so great to meet someone who could be so damn strong and yet not exude even a trace of evil, meanness, or fear." A few years ago, Hart accompanied Hamza on a journey up the Nile to visit his ancestral village in the Nubian Desert. "The first thing those Nubian drummers taught me was that Bo Diddley didn't invent that beat," said Mickey. Not speaking Arabic, Hart utilized the univeral language of music to exchange ideas and converse with the Sudanese, who were impressed with his dexterity. "Hamza had taught me to play the tar, a single-membraned African drum, and his people were really blown out by the rhythmic exercises I'd worked up." 
The Nubians would often hold the same rhythmic groove for hours, with different sectons of the ensemble coming forward to improvise over the basic pattern. But when Hart's turn to solo came up, he met with an unexpected reaction from his hosts. "My polyrhythms startled them at first. I asked Hamza why they were staring at me, and he explained that when they heard the off beat and polyrhythms they felt I was forcing the drum. They feel the drums should tell you what to do, and not vice versa, which they see as artificial. They say, 'Excite the drum and it will tell you what to play,'" reflects Hart: "It's a great concept, and I've found it works if you approach the instrument with the right attitude." 
Both Hart and Kreutzman were afforded an opportunity to draw on their work with African and Brazilian musics when they, along with bassist Phil Lesh, Airto, Flora Purim and others, accepted a commission from Francis Ford Coppola to compose the score for Apocalypse Now - The Rhythm Devils Play River Music. Hart's marching orders from Coppola were short and to the point: "All Francis said was 'you know what I want - you know how to make magic. Do it!'" recalled Hart. "I watched the film constantly. I had it on video cassette in my kitchen, in my bedroom, and in the studio. It played continuously for three months." 
Their task was complicated by the fact that the battle sound effects Coppola brought back from the Philippines sounded unconvincing. In the end they were asked to find a way of simulating the cacophony of war in the studio. "Try reproducing the sounds of a napalm attack using wooden instruments and bells," suggests Hart wryly. "The artillery sounded like cheap firecrackers, so we had to reinforce that, too, with steel drums I had built, and other percussive devices. We had over fifteen hours of material!"
For all their inventiveness, both drummers are surprisingly self-effacing about the Dead's success. "It's the audience that's the key," reveals Kreutzman. "They're really the eighth band member. There is some power, be it God or whatever, that enters the Grateful Dead on certain nights, and it has to do with us being open and getting together with the audience. If we can do that, then it comes...and spreads everywhere."

(by Vic Garbarini, from Musician, October 1981, p.68)

A companion piece to this Jerry Garcia interview: 


  1. I was going to post the Garcia interview from this issue of Musician, but then I thought I may as well include these pieces as well since several other bandmembers talk about their history and how they play together. (The issue also had a couple of technical pieces on the Dead's PA & equipment.) I added extra paragraph breaks here.

    1981 is a bit later than I usually venture in this blog, but aside from the obligatory travelling Deadhead, these interviews aren't all that date-specific; the Dead's comments could come from any year. Garbarini, a seasoned music journalist, tries to explore in depth just how the Dead work their magic. (Oddly, he says very little about how an actual Dead show goes, concentrating more on what's available on albums.)
    Unfortunately Lesh didn't participate (he could have had a lot to say on this topic), but Weir talks at length about their philosophy of playing, coming across as something like the Yoda of the Dead. (The 'Cold Rain' he mentions may be the 4/29/71 version, but that song was part of the regular repertoire at the time and rarely took more than a year off.)
    The drummers get their own piece as well: Hart is full of enthusiastic stories about his adventures in world music, but Kreutzmann (perhaps the least-interviewed bandmember at the time) also has some interesting things to say about playing in the Dead.

  2. To put in context what Weir says here, I'll add a couple of comments from Phil Lesh (from many years later, but expressing his lifelong philosophy).

    "The basic idea is always to be part of the flow of the eternal current of music always going on in some dimension. So when our group mind is tuned properly, we can open a door or pipeline to that dimension, and that music comes through us. We don't make up that music; it is dictated, in a sense. Everybody gets a different piece of it, but it all fits together, so the idea is to surf that flow or stream like a solar wind or an ocean current and take people through many different twists and turns and realms of activity."
    "'Dark Star' today is an extension of the 'Dark Star' that has drifted through all of us since 1967. 'Dark Star' is always playing somewhere, all we do is tap into it. I'm serious... It's always playing and we just pick up on what's happening in the moment. We just open the door and walk into it and bring it back." (Illustrated Trip, 2003)

    "Our group mind can open up the pipeline for that eternal music that we’re all trying to channel and funnel through ourselves so that it can exist in our plane... The door is halfway open at that point and we just try to lean against the door a little bit. There’s some kind of feedback circuit that operates when that’s happening and...allows that valve to open and let that divine eternal music to come flowing through... The challenge is to avoid yourself or what you think of as being yourself, your ego. And also the challenge is not to play what you know... I don’t think it’s a conscious process. I don’t think you can train for it, you just have to do it. It’s really more of an attitude than something you can practice." (Jambands 2001)