Mar 26, 2024

1981: Jerry Garcia Interview


MUSICIAN: You guys have probably put out more live albums than anyone I can think of - two double live releases this summer alone. Is the mysterious "x factor" that sometimes transforms a Grateful Dead concert impossible to capture in a studio situation? 

GARCIA: I'm not sure if it can or can't be captured in the studio, though I agree that so far we've failed to capture it there. But we've never really been set up to perform in the studio. Our idea of performance is what we do live, and making records is more of a concession to the realities of the music business than a real expression of our natural flow. Let's put it this way: if making records was a thing you did as a hobby, it's possible we might have turned to it at one point or another. But I really think live music is where it's at for us.

MUSICIAN: How about playing live in the studio? 

GARCIA: Yeah, we've tried that, but it's difficult to do with the type of band set-up we have, especially the technical problem of recording two drummers at once. We can't baffle or isolate them; they have to be together, they have to communicate. So live in the studio the microphone hears them as one big drum set, and that's not something you can straighten out in the mix.

MUSICIAN: But isn't there also a psychological reason having to do with the role of the audience? 

GARCIA: Very definitely. But that's something we have to talk around; we can't talk about it directly. It's not an exact science, it's more an intuitive thing, and you're right, it does have a lot to do with interacting with the audience. But we don't manipulate them, we don't go out there and try to psyche them out or anything. It's quite involuntary.

MUSICIAN: Can you feel when it's happening?

GARCIA: There are times when both the audience and the band can feel it happening, and then there are times when we have to listen to the tapes afterwards to confirm our subjective impressions and see what really happened. That's the way we've been able to deduce the existence of this "x" chemistry. In any case, it doesn't have to do with our will.

MUSICIAN: Is there something you can consciously do to facilitate it?

GARCIA: Well, in a way that's what we're all about: making an effort to facilitate this phenomenon. But the most we can do is be there for it to happen. It just isn't anything we can control on any level we've been able to discover.

MUSICIAN: All right, if it isn't what you do, maybe it's who you are: the chemistry between you; the internal dynamics of the band; your value system; what you eat for breakfast...

GARCIA: I'm sure that's a major part of it.

MUSICIAN: Can you delineate some of the principles that you feel help maintain who you are?

GARCIA: Actually, trying to pinpoint those principles is our real work - it's what we're all about. As far as I can tell, they have to do with maintaining a moment-to-moment approach, in both a macro- and micro-cosmic sense. It's hard to maintain that moment-to-moment freedom in large-scale activities because things like booking tours have to be planned well in advance. So it's in the smaller increments, the note-to-note things, that we get to cop a little freedom. You can see it in our songs, where there's an established form and structure, but the particulars are left open. In terms of the macrocosm - the big picture - we know the tune, but in terms of the note-to-note microcosm, we don't know exactly how we'll play on any given night, what the variations might be. Even simple cowboy tunes like "Me and My Uncle" and "El Paso" change minutely from tour to tour. "Friend of the Devil" is another tune that's changed enormously from its original concept. On American Beauty it had kind of a bluegrassy feel, and now we do it somewhere between a ballad and a reggae tune. The song has a whole different personality as a result.

MUSICIAN: How much improvisational space is built into the longer, more exploratory pieces like "St. Stephen" and "Terrapin Station"? 

GARCIA: An awful depends on the piece. "Terrapin" has some sections that are extremely tight, that you could actually describe as being arranged; there are specific notes that each of us have elected to play. The melody, lyrics, and chord changes are set, but the specific licks that anyone wants to play are left open.

MUSICIAN: Would you say that this looseness, this willingness to stay open and take risks is a crucial factor in creating a space for that special energy to enter?

GARCIA: Absolutely! It's even affected the way I write songs. In the past, when I had an idea for a song, I also had an idea for an arrangement. Since then I've sort of purged myself of that habit. There's simply no point in working out all those details, because when a song goes into the Dead, it's anybody's guess how it'll come out. So why disappoint myself?

MUSICIAN: Who or what gives the Dead its overall direction, then?

GARCIA: It's been some time since any of us have had specific directional ideas about the band... The Grateful Dead is in its own hands now; it makes up its own mind, and we give it its head and let it go where it wants. We've gotten to be kind of confident about it at this point. It's becoming an evolving process that unfolds in front of us. 

MUSICIAN: As a band you guys seem to have a dual personality; on one hand there's the improvisational, exploratory material like "Anthem" and "Dark Star," while on the other there's this very structured, tradition-bound sort of music. It was generally the earlier material that was stretching boundaries, while the albums from Workingman's Dead onwards have been more structured. So I was wondering if that was because the relationship between artist and audience was falling apart at that point, and that '60s energy envelope you were tapping into was beginning to disintegrate, forcing you to resort to simpler, more formalized material that didn't depend on that energy field? 


MUSICIAN: was such a great little theory...

GARCIA: Let me straighten that out right now. First of all, you're right about the audience/artist communication thing falling apart, although that didn't happen to us. Let me give you a time frame that might shed some light on all this: at the time we were recording and performing the Live Dead material onstage, we were in the studio recording Workingman's Dead. We weren't having much success getting that experimental stuff down in the studio, so we thought we'd strip it down to the bare bones and make a record of very simple music and see if that worked. Time was another factor. We'd been spending a long time in the studio with those exploratory albums, six to eight months apiece, and it was really eating up our lives.

MUSICIAN: You didn't feel any aesthetic conflict?

GARCIA: No, not at all. Because those two poles have always been part of our musical background. I was a bluegrass banjo player into that Bakersfield country stuff while Phil was studying Stockhausen and all those avant-gardists.

MUSICIAN: Is that where the...

GARCIA: ...prepared piano stuff on "Anthem" comes from? Sure.

MUSICIAN: Wait a minute, how did you know I was going to ask that?!

GARCIA: (Smiles)

MUSICIAN: Okay, never mind, but what happens when you reverse the procedure and play Workingman's Dead in concert? Can you still get the same kineticism?

GARCIA: Yes, it turns out we can. For the last year or so we've been doing some of those tunes, like "Uncle John's Band" and "Black Peter," and they fit in well in that they become poles of familiarity in a sea of weirdness. It's nice to come into this homey space and make a simple statement. It comes off very beautifully sometimes. And inevitably it draws some of the weirdness into it. What's happening with the Grateful Dead musically is that these poles are stretching towards each other.

MUSICIAN: Which of your albums do you believe come closest to capturing the band's essence? 

GARCIA: I'd pick the same things that everyone else would: Live Dead, Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, Europe '72. I'd take Terrapin Station, too, the whole record. I'd also definitely recommend the two live sets that just came out.

MUSICIAN: How important is the acoustic approach to the band?

GARCIA: Not very, because we only do it in special situations. In fact, there have only been two periods in our career when we did acoustic material: first in the early '70s, and then again just lately.

MUSICIAN: Why did you come back to it?

GARCIA: It's something that's fun for us because of the intimacy involved; it brings us closer together, both physically and psychologically, and as a result we play with a lot of sensitivity. I mean, I can just turn around like this and go (swats imaginary band member) HEY, WAKE UP! Lotsa fun...

MUSICIAN: Speaking of direction: some people are wondering if you've gone totally off the experimental approach, since you haven't released anything in that vein since Terrapin Station back in '77.

GARCIA: Yeah, but '77 isn't really so long ago in Grateful Dead terms, you know. That's just a few records ago! Ideas around here take a year or so just to find their way to the surface, much less achieve their expression, which can take three or four years. We're always looking at the bigger picture. People have been hollering for us to bring back "Dark Star" and stuff like that for some time now, and we will. But in our own time.

MUSICIAN: You're not afraid of your old material?

GARCIA: Oh, absolutely not. It's partly that there's a new guy who hasn't been through all that with us, and we have to bring him up through all those steps slowly. It's not that he's a slow learner, it's because we originally spent months and months rehearsing those things that were in odd times.

MUSICIAN: Like "The Eleven"?

GARCIA: Right, that was tacked onto the "Dark Star" sequence. It's called "The Eleven" because that's the time it's in. We rehearsed that for months before we even performed it in public. Luckily Brent's a much better musician now than we were then, so it shouldn't take that long. But we've still got to find the rehearsal time to put those songs together again.

MUSICIAN: Are you ever concerned that any of you will fall into cliched patterns, either as individuals or as a group?

GARCIA: No, because the musical personalities of the various members have been so consistently surprising to me over the years that I'm still completely unable to predict what they would play in any given situation. In fact, I'd challenge anyone to check out any Grateful Dead album and listen to, say, what Phil plays, and look for stylistic consistency. You won't find it. These guys are truly original musical thinkers, especially Phil. Let me give you an example: Phil played on four songs for a solo album of mine called Reflections. Now, I write pretty conventionally structured songs, so I asked Phil to play basically the same lines on each chorus so I could anchor it in the bass. But I didn't really see the beauty of what he'd done 'til later when I was running off copies of the tape at fast forward. The bass was brought up to a nice, skipping tempo, right in that mellow, mid-range guitar tone, and I was struck by the amazing beauty of his bass line; there was this wonderful syncopation and beautiful harmonic ideas that were barely perceptible at regular speed, but when it's brought up to twice the speed... God, it just blew me out.

MUSICIAN: Considering all the improvisations you do, I'm surprised you don't acknowledge jazz more as an influence on your playing. You had to be listening to Coltrane, at least.

GARCIA: Oh, definitely Coltrane, for sure. But I never sat down and stole ideas from him; it was more his sense of flow that I learned from. That and the way his personality was always right there - the presence of the man just comes stomping out of those records. It's not something I would've been able to learn through any analytical approach, it was one of those things I just had to flash on. I also get that from Django Reinhardt's records. You can actually hear him shift mood...

MUSICIAN: The humor in his solo on "Somewhere Beyond the Sea" is amazing...

GARCIA: Anger, too. You can hear him get mad and play some nasty, mean little thing. It's incredible how clearly his personality comes through. It's one of those things I've always been impressed with in music. There's no way to steal that, but it's something you can model your playing on. Not in the sense of copying someone's personality, but in the hopes that maybe I could learn how to let my own personality come through.

MUSICIAN: So it's a question of imitating essence, not form.

GARCIA: Right. My models for being onstage developed from being in the audience, because I've been a music fan longer than I've been a musician. A very important model for me was a bluegrass fiddle player named Scotty Sternman [sic], who was just a house-a-fire crazed fiddle player. He was a monster technically, played like the devil. Anyway, he was a terribly burnt-out alcohol case by the time I saw him, but I remember hearing him take a simple fiddle tune and stretch it into this incredible 20-minute extravaganza in which you heard just everything come out of that fiddle, and I was so moved emotionally that he became one of my models... I mean, there I was standing in that audience with just tears rolling out of my eyes - it was just so amazing. And it was the essence that counted, none of the rest of it.

MUSICIAN: Looking back, were there any other groups or artists that were pivotal influences on your concept of the band? 

GARCIA: There have been a couple of different things for a couple of different people. For myself, I was very, very impressed by the music of Robbie Robertson and the Band. There isn't any real textural similarity between what we play; I just admired their work very much.

MUSICIAN: Is there anybody on the current scene that you feel a particular kinship or identification with?

GARCIA: The Who. I think the Who are one of the truly important architects of rock 'n' roll. Pete Townshend may be one of rock 'n' roll's rare authentic geniuses. And there's also the fact that they're among our few surviving contemporaries... I'm just really glad they exist.

MUSICIAN: I was talking with Ray Manzarek recently, and he remembered reading Kerouac describe this sax player in a bar who had "it" that night, and how badly Ray wanted to get "it" too...whatever the hell it was.

GARCIA: Hey, that same passage was important to us! Very definitely. Our association with Neil Cassidy was also tremendously helpful to us in that way.

MUSICIAN: And of course there was Kesey and the Acid Tests. That must also have been about going for the essence and not getting stuck in forms...

GARCIA: Right, because the forms were the first thing to go in that situation. You see, the Acid Tests represented the freedom to go out there and try this stuff and just blow.

MUSICIAN: Did the acid simply amplify that impulse, or did it open you to the possibility in the first place?

GARCIA: Both. The Acid Test opened up possibilities to us because there were no strictures. In other words, people weren't coming there to hear the Grateful Dead, so we didn't have the responsibilities to the audience in the normal sense. Hell, they didn't know what to expect! Sometimes we'd get onstage and only tune up. Or play about five notes, freak out, and leave! That happened a couple of times; other times we'd get hung up and play off in some weird zone. All these things were okay, the reality of the situation permitted everything. That's something that doesn't happen in regular musical circles - it took a special situation to turn us on to that level of freedom.

MUSICIAN: Had you experimented with either acid or musical "weirdness" before?

GARCIA: Yeah, we'd taken acid before, and while we were on the bar circuit playing seven nights a week, five sets a night, we'd use that fifth set when there was almost nobody there but us and the bartenders to get weird. We joined the Acid Tests partly to escape the rigors of that 45 on, 15 off structure that the bars laid on us every night.

MUSICIAN: Did you have ideas about what all this might open you up to, or was it just "let's step through this doorway"?

GARCIA: Just that: let's step through this doorway. We didn't have any expectations.

MUSICIAN: Do you feel any ambivalence about it now? Acid had a down side for some people...

GARCIA: No, I loved it. I'd do it again in a second because it was such a totally positive experience for me, especially when you consider that we were at the tail end of the beatnik thing, in which an awful lot of my energy was spent sitting around and waiting for something to happen. And finally, when something did happen, boy, I couldn't get enough of it! When we fell in with the Acid Test, I was ready to pack up and hit the road. We all went for it.

MUSICIAN: How did that evolve into the whole Haight-Ashbury scene? 

GARCIA: What happened was that the Acid Test fell apart when acid became illegal, and Kesey had to flee to Mexico. We ended up down in L.A. hanging out with Owsley in Watts, then moved back to San Francisco three or four months later.

MUSICIAN: Were psychedelics really the main catalysts in initiating the Haight scene?

GARCIA: I think it was a very, very important part of it. Everyone at that time was looking hard for that special magic thing, and it was like there were clues everywhere. Everybody I knew at least had a copy of The Doors of Perception, and wanted to find out what was behind the veil.

MUSICIAN: What closed that doorway?


MUSICIAN: Just cops?

GARCIA: That's it, really, cops... It was also that this group of people who were trying to meet each other finally came together, shook hands, and split. It was all those kids that read Kerouac in high school - the ones who were a little weird. The Haight-Ashbury was like that at first, and then it became a magnet for every kid who was dissatisfied: a kind of central dream, or someplace to run to. It was a place for seekers, and San Francisco always had that tradition anyway.

MUSICIAN: Sort of a school for consciousness.

GARCIA: Yes, very much so, and in a good way. It was sweet. A special thing.

MUSICIAN: Sometimes I think that whole scene was a chance for our generation to glimpse the goal, and now we've got to find out how to get back there.

GARCIA: Right, and many people have gone on to reinforce that with their own personal energy. It is possible to pursue that goal and feed the dog at the same time, it just takes a little extra effort.

MUSICIAN: Can you talk about your relationship with the Hell's Angels? I played in a band backed by them in Berkeley and it was, ambivalent experience.

GARCIA: Well, that's it. It is ambivalent. I've always liked them because they don't hide what they are, and I think all they require of you is honesty - they just require that you don't bullshit them - and if you're out front with them, I think you don't have anything to worry about.
The Angels are very conscious of their roots and history, so the fact that we played at Chocolate George's funeral way back during the Haight-Ashbury was really significant to them. They didn't have many friends in those days, and so anybody who would come out for one of their members was demonstrating true friendship. And with them, that really counts for something.

MUSICIAN: What do you feel attracted Kesey to them in the first place? The noble savage concept? 

GARCIA: No, I think Ken saw them for what they are: a definite force of their own which you can't hope to control. When they come around, it's reality, and you go with it.

MUSICIAN: What about Altamont?

GARCIA: Horrible.

MUSICIAN: It sure was. But having been in the Bay area at the time, I can understand how you might have thought it a good idea to recommend them as security people...

GARCIA: We didn't recommend them!!

MUSICIAN: I thought the Stones people said you suggested it?

GARCIA: Absolutely not! No, we would never do that. The Angels were planning on being there, and I guess the Stones crew thought this might be a good way to deal with that fact.

MUSICIAN: The Angels aside, as soon as you entered that place you could feel this incredible selfishness - the complete antithesis of what went on at Monterey and Woodstock.

GARCIA: Yeah, that's what it was: an incredibly selfish scene. Steve Gaskin pinned it down best when he said that Altamont was "the little bit of sadism in your sex life the Rolling Stones had been singing about all those years, brought to its most ugly, razor-toothed extreme." Kind of ironic, since they were the ones who started that "Sympathy for the Devil" stuff.

MUSICIAN: You guys have avoided falling into the darker side of things. Did that require any constant vigilance on your part?

GARCIA: It did for me at any rate. During the psychedelic experience, the fear and awfulness inherent in making a big mistake with that kind of energy was very apparent to me. For me, psychedelics represented a series of teaching and cautionary tales, and a lot of the message was "Boy, don't blow this!" Back in the Haight there really were some Charlie Manson characters running around, really weird people who believed they were Christ risen and whatever, and who meant in the worst possible way to take the power. Some of them saw that the Grateful Dead raised energy and they wanted to control it. But we knew that the only kind of energy management that counted was the liberating kind - the kind that frees people, not constrains them. So we were always determined to avoid those fascistic, crowd control implications of rock. It's always been a matter of personal honor to me not to manipulate the crowd.

MUSICIAN: Did that temptation present itself?

GARCIA: Yeah, sometimes we'd discover a little trick that would get everybody on their feet right away, and we'd say let's not do that - if that's going to happen, then let's discover it new every time. Let's not plan it.

MUSICIAN: Back in those days there was a real bond between the audience and the musicians. Something changed around '71, and it became a spectacle, with the audiences sucking up your energy and the band falling into egotistical superstar routines. It was entertainment rather than communication, and something special was lost. Were you aware of this change, or am I crazy?

GARCIA: Yeah, it was obvious, because in spite of all that talk about community, we knew it couldn't happen among the musicians, because each wanted to be the best and overshadow the others. A truly cooperative spirit was not likely to happen.

MUSICIAN: Was it the record companies and the materialistic orientation they represented that spoiled it? 

GARCIA: I don't think so. To me, the record companies have never been a malicious presence...they're more like a mindless juggernaut.

MUSICIAN: I didn't mean that it was intentional on their part. I just feel they represent a set of values and a means of organization that are at odds with the goals of music. They created an environment in which the soul of music couldn't survive...

GARCIA: Yeah, I agree it was the music business and entertainment as a whole that killed it, because in entertainment there's always this formula thinking that encourages you to repeat your successes. All that posturing and stuff is what show business is all about, and that's what a lot of rock became: show business. It's just human weakness, and I guess it's perfectly valid for a rock star to get up there and...

MUSICIAN: But wasn't what happened in San Francisco a few years earlier on a much higher plane of experience? Audience and performer were meeting and interacting in a real way...

GARCIA: That's true, but that was something that just happened in the Bay Area, you know. It never made it to the East Coast, and it definitely didn't make it to England. And so those people were coming from a much more rigorous model of what it meant to be a rock 'n' roll star. That came from their management and business levels, as things were lined up for them in advance and they were given those models as the way to do things. When we met English rock stars at the time, it was like meeting birds in gilded cages; they really wished there was some way of breaking out of what they were into, but they were trapped. 

MUSICIAN: What happened to the energy field you'd established with your audience when you went to, say, New York or London?

GARCIA: We found that we'd brought it along with us, and the people who came to see us entered right into it. And that's what's made it so amazing for us, because our audience, in terms of genuineness, has been pretty much the same as it was back in the '60s. And so has our own experience.

MUSICIAN: Including your new generation of fans?

GARCIA: Sure. The 16-year-olds coming to see us now are no different than they were in the Haight; they're looking for a real experience, not just a show.

MUSICIAN: Going back to the idea that there was an opening for a while to a different quality of experience that gave people a taste of something other, it seems - and I don't want to sound mawkish - that you guys are one of the guardians of that experience. On a good night, anyway. It's as if you guys serve as a touchstone for some people.

GARCIA: Well, that's the way it's sort of working out, but it isn't something we decided or invented. In fact, it's inventing us, in a way. We're just agreeing that it should happen, and volunteering for the part.

MUSICIAN: I wonder how many people really believe this is a bona fide phenomenon you're talking about, and not just a purely subjective impression.

GARCIA: Deadheads already know, but they disqualify themselves just by being Deadheads. We try to measure it all the time, but it's hard to communicate to people. But that's okay, 'cause it probably isn't everybody's cup of tea. But it ought to be there for those who can dig it.

MUSICIAN: This conversation keeps bringing me back to something I heard in an interview a few months ago. It was the idea that maybe music is looking for a musician to play it...

GARCIA: There's more truth in that than you can know. It just chooses its channel and goes through. And you may be able to spoil it in other situations, but you can't spoil it in the Grateful Dead.

MUSICIAN: But couldn't you destroy that matrix by egotistically closing yourselves off from each other and the audience? Lots of other bands have.

GARCIA: Certainly, but luckily for us the music has always been the big thing for the Grateful Dead, and all that other ego-oriented stuff is secondary. I mean, we've had our hassles, who doesn't? But all of those things have only added more and more into the experience. Nothing has made it smaller. It's been a fascinating process and...

MUSICIAN: ...a long strange trip?

GARCIA: (Laughs) Yeah! And it still is.

(by Vic Garbarini, from Musician, October 1981, pp.64-74)

A companion piece to this Grateful Dead article: 

1 comment:

  1. A classic Garcia interview with many well-known quotes of his. Garbarini was an experienced interviewer (and the editor of Musician magazine at the time), and he brings out many thoughtful answers. The interview took place at Garcia's home sometime in the summer of '81, so they had plenty of time to chat.
    There's very little in this interview that ties it to 1981 - take out an occasional reference and it could be from any year; it's mostly concerned with the Dead's past, not what they're up to now.

    I'll add just one bit of context - Garbarini goes on about how the bond between artist & audience fell apart after the '60s, and the communication between them was lost. Garcia says "that didn't happen to us," but Phil Lesh might have agreed more with Garbarini.
    Phil, from a 2001 interview: "At the very beginning I used to think of there being a carrier wave that was stringing us all together, the audience and the band. For the first three or four years of the Grateful Dead it seemed as if there was information being transmitted back and forth on that carrier wave. Then in the early '70s it seemed to change in that the energy and the link was still there, but what was transmitted back and forth was just energy, there wasn't information of any kind. And that sort of held through the rest of the time with the Grateful Dead."