Sep 10, 2021

September 1974: Phil Lesh Interview


Some of you out there probably think that ZigZag has just about OD'd on the Grateful Dead recently, which is a fair criticism considering that in the last ten issues we've had them on the cover twice, and carried a 21-page three-part history plus a feature on the technical aspects of their equipment. But with the advent of their visit last September I just couldn't, on any account, let the occasion slip by without talking to at least one member of the band, and for reasons which you no doubt know if you read ZZ35, I was especially pleased that it was Phil Lesh who I finally got to interview formally.
It was on the Saturday morning before the Dead were due to play Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night at Alexandra Palace that the 'phone rang and the band's copyright/publishing manager and co-ordinator for their visit, Alan Trist, spoke amidst a riotous cacophony of noise from the other end. Before I had time to even imagine the purpose of his call, he asked the sort of voice you'd expect if say a mate rang up and said come down to the pub for a pint...he asked me if I'd like to come over later in the day to the 'tour headquarters' just off the Fulham Road to chat with Phil Lesh. Unfuckingbelievable!!
Just try and stop me.
Well, naturally, the rest of that day was spent in feverish anticipation preparing a load of questions and wondering whether he'd turn out to be the 'genius' I'd reckoned him to be. When I arrived at the house (appropriately enough, a huge four-storey building of the sort you'd expect to find in Ashbury, San Francisco), I was greeted by a variety of friendly Americans, all having the appearance of, shall we say 'slightly out of the game', when, from the depths of the basement appeared a stocky livewire of a figure sporting a full-grown beard and looking more like a cross between a studious university professor and Santa Claus than the bass player in a rock band. After all the introductions, we found our way to the quietest room in the house and there we talked for well over an hour, mainly about the different types of music from Lesh's experience that manifest themselves in the Grateful Dead at different times, and also about his own personal history and influences. Inquisitive as to why a proper interview with him had never appeared in print before, and why I had been given the opportunity to put that straight, I was well chuffed, as you can imagine, to find out that he'd read my articles in ZigZags 35, 36 and 37 and had been impressed enough to want to talk.
"I don't like to do interviews very much because everybody always wants to talk to Jerry, and I just sort of got off the trip. Besides, nobody ever asks me anything interesting. I used to get the same old questions, you know, how did you find the name? — that sort of thing. Did you guys really take all that acid? It just turned out to be boring. But after reading your articles it seemed that you might have another kind of slant. I'm sure you might want to talk to Jerry too, because you could say that Jerry has the big picture. Or he'll give you what he thinks is the big picture. Also Jerry's the guy who will always answer questions and always talk. He's always got something to say. Me, I've not always got something to say, I don't always want to talk, I'm not always interested."
Well, on that afternoon he had a hell of a lot to say, and fortunately for me he was very enthusiastic, going to great lengths explaining the more complicated areas of his musical interest. By the time we'd finished talking I'd learnt more about music in general than I probably have in the last three years, and my estimation of him as a person as well as musician remains unparalleled.
Okay, here it is, edited and arranged for consumption by Dead-heads and ZigZaggers, starting with...

Early Days

"Well, I picked up the violin at about age 8 because one year at Christmas, the last school day before Christmas we had this big party in the third or fourth grade, this kid came and played the violin all by himself...that was his trip for Christmas... He played 'We Three Kings Of Orient Are,' or something, and I thought "Wow, that's far out!" But even before that my grandmother had introduced me to music. When the Philharmonic would broadcast on Sundays over the radio she would invite me into her room to sit down and listen to the music, and the reason she did it was because one day when the music was on she happened to walk out of the room and she saw me sitting on the floor with my ear against the wall. My mother told me this, I don't remember at all. And so, she said, "Well, listen kid, come on in and dig the pretty music." And I remember it very well — the first time. It was Brahms' First Symphony, played by the New York Philharmonic. What a flash! I think that's probably the biggest single flash I've ever had in my life, except for the first time I took LSD. Which might give you an idea of how heavy it was for me.
"After that, whether it was subconscious or not I knew what I had to do. I had to have something to do with that. It was just the heaviest thing I have ever imagined. And so I started taking violin lessons which wasn't very good at all, and I got to the point where I could play second violin parts in orchestra pieces. However, I'd always wanted to play the trumpet but my teeth were fucked up, so after my teeth got straightened I started taking trumpet lessons which by then I was age 14. That lasted for about 6 years.
"I went all the way through Junior College playing in the jazz band and writing. That's where I started doing some real writing for the jazz band. And after that I came up to Berkeley, the University of California, Berkeley, and went into their music department, but it was so jive. I suppose it was like colleges everywhere. You have to take all of the stuff that doesn't really mean anything...they want to make you into a music teacher. If you get to talk to Ned Lagin he'll you about this, even in graduate school, that's what they wanted to do to him. They wanted to make him conform so that he could go out and teach other aspiring musicians how to be music teachers. It was a circle of mediocrity which fortunately he wasn't into.
"I never even got that far, I dropped out of Berkeley in the middle of the first semester because it was incredibly lame. Even so I did learn, just being around a large university like that it is impossible not to learn something. So I was able to learn enough and keep my hand in enough so that when the time came I was ready, thanks to the intervention of my room-mate who was also a composer, who had gone to see Berio at Mills. He said, "Hey, Berio's gonna be at Mills," and even then I knew who he was. He said to Berio, "My room-mate is interested too, can I bring him along?" and the guy said, "Yeah." So I went along.
"The guy is so amazing [Berio], he doesn't teach you a fucking thing, he just does his thing, and you have to do your thing. But he'll play tapes for you and we went through the Rite of Spring and that kind of thing. He doesn't teach you anything about composition because he knows it can't be taught. So after that it was like completely open and I kept composing and staying in that area of music for a couple of years, but it was like getting to be a dead-end both philosophically and practically, because in order to get anywhere in that area you just have to know somebody, and also you have to have the right credentials. And you have to have gone to school somewhere, you have to have graduated somewhere, and you have to have gone to graduate school.
"There are no short cuts. You can't be like Ives, although Ives is the wrong example because he actually went to school for four years and studied music and then he went into the insurance business because he knew music wasn't where it was at. While he was at school he played piano at the movies or in the bars. But you just can't come out of nowhere and get your music performed and so I just gave up and thought 'fuck it!' At that point I was out of music entirely. I had nothing to do with it except I was a great listener.
"Then I figured, well man, if I can't be a musician I'll be a great listener, and great listeners are very important. Without them some music might not survive. And then it turned out that a year later one of my old friends had this rock'n'roll band, so we all took some acid and went down to hear his rock'n'roll band at this pizza parlour in Menlo Park, California. Good God, it sure was a great scene!
"At some party, I guess a month before that...we'd just been to see the Rolling Stones, and The Byrds had been in town, this was in '65, their first gigs ever...and I just happened to mention in passing to Garcia...he was at the party too, we were both stoned out of our minds, he had the band even then, Weir came along with some grass and we went along to the car and got high...and I happened to mention sometime during that evening to Garcia, "I think I'll take up the electric bass and join a band." The next month, or the next whatever it was, we go down to hear the band, and Garcia takes me aside and puts a beer in my hand and says, "Listen man, you're gonna play bass in my band." "But me? Well Jesus, that might be possible." Actually, it excited the shit out of me because it was something to do. And the flash was, "Oh shit, you mean I can get paid for having fun!" Of course, it was so ironic because before I'd gotten to the point where I just wanted to quit music entirely, I hated rock'n'roll music, I didn't think it was anything, I hated it, I thought it was so lame. I said, "What can you do with three chords?"'

ZZ: So that story about you learning to play in two weeks, is that true?

"Two weeks before the first gig, yeah I didn't play too good man, it was a real wooden sound, real stiff. But we actually did play a gig two weeks afterwards. And for three or four years after that when I would tell people how long I had been playing bass they would say, 'amazing!'. Now it's been almost ten years so I don't have an excuse anymore."

Tunes and Musical Structure

ZZ: It seems to me and perhaps a lot of other people, that rather than Jerry, you are the musical centre of the group.

"That's kind of hard to really pin down in my opinion, since Jerry writes most of the tunes, along with Hunter, although I have been getting back into writing tunes lately. I didn't do it for a long time, but we all sort of contribute to the evolution of a so-called tune. Before we were into doing tunes like with a whole bunch of lyrics and very little instrumental and a beginning and an end, that sort of thing, I always felt that I was able to bring into the rock'n'roll medium a little kind of highly structured symphonic kind of flow to the music which has been sadly lacking in rock'n'roll music for one thing and especially in our music since we started trying to focus it all down into tunes — or narrow it down to tunes.
"I personally think that tunes, that is songs with can only go so far with them, you can't take them into a new realm, and you can hardly ever develop them. In other words, all it is is the melody and the lyrics and a chord change, and if you're gonna have a tune that's comprehensible you have to more or less be musically repetitive. I personally have never been into that kind of music, although I love to play, and the part of playing when we get off the best is the part that’s not structured like that, that is repetitive, over and over.
"I mean, structure is necessary, some kind of structure, is necessary in music if it's gonna be communicative at all. It just seems that tunes don't go past a certain level. That's just a personal opinion. There are some people who do tunes very well. As far as I'm concerned, I don't think that our tunes are that great. I think what we do best is improvise, with some kind of spontaneous structure occurring at the time of the improvisation going on. There are a lot of people who write really good tunes but that's all they are, they're tunes. And I suppose that's a criterion of value judgement at this point in time, especially since the Beatles and all that, who managed to put a lot of development in their tunes, as far as I can tell.
"I may have missed something between then and now, but there's nobody yet who has equaled what they did with a tune. I have always been kind of wary of us trying to do that ourselves because that's not what we do best. Eventually, there might be some musicians who come along, or a single musician, who can do all of those things, who can improvise and stretch out, in a meaningful manner, and at the same time condense everything down to a tune where every note is meaningful, and so on. I don't think it's happened yet. 'Cause when the Beatles first came along they weren't doing that, they learned to do it with a little help from their friends, I think. I don't know how they did their recording sessions, but George Martin must have had a hell of a lot to do with it. A hell of a lot. 'Cause after they broke up and they weren't using George Martin, even their last records when they were using Phil Spector it wasn't the same. It just wasn't the same. But anyway, enough about them."

Classical Influences

ZZ: Who else besides the people you've mentioned do you listen to, or admire?

"I come from classical music myself, so my roots run back to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Mahler, Chopin and Ives, and that's the kind of thinking that I would like to bring to any kind of music that I am involved in. It's a kind of larger scale kind of thinking. Since about 1970 the Grateful Dead hasn't been into that too much. It's been like I say more or less small-scale tunes that repeat themselves. As far as rock'n'roll music, or contemporary music, or whatever you want to call it, there are very few people I listen to. My collection consists of people like the Allman Brothers, The Band, Bob Dylan. I have a few Rolling Stones records and I have a lot of Beatles records. I have more jazz actually than I do rock'n'roll."


"John Coltrane. When Coltrane was alive I would catch him every chance I had. Back in the late '50s when he was with Miles Davis I had the opportunity to catch that sextet with Miles Davis, Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley 'live' in San Francisco in one of the old jazz clubs. That sort of thing, and in a more expansive vein Gil Evans Big Band recordings, and Cecil Taylor in some of his more comprehensible moments.
"I don't know, the modern, or so-called avantgarde jazz doesn't sound too much to me — I don’t have too much of that. Weather Report is a really good band, but as far as Mahavishnu or say, even Corea... Anyway, all those guys seem to me to be like boogaloo, or a superhyperphonetic boogaloo. I don't know, I might be old fashioned but I really love to hear people swing, and it seems to me that it would be possible to combine that with the kind of frenetic, super-fast rhythmic trips going on in Mahavishnu and all those guys.
"Like in Mahavishnu there are two elements to it — there's the rhythm, and then there's the melodic line and that's all there is to it. It's super-primitive music, almost like Indian music. I don't know why people call it sophisticated because it isn't. It's just melody and rhythm which, in a way, is a highly evolved kind of music when the Indians do it, but it's certainly not as jazz musicians do it, it's not systematic in the slightest. Like Weather Report — they're into a more kind of polyphonic kind of music which makes a lot of sense to me. ‘Cause then there's electronic music."

Electronic Music

"In my late college years which lasted until about '62, I was fortunate enough to get into a class in Mills College in Oakland, California, which was right across the bay from San Francisco, with Berio, and at that point he wasn't into electronic music too heavily, in fact he's done very little since then, he's more into the voice and instruments. And of all the people who are composing that music today — the three major forces, Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio — conveniently enough they're from each one of the major musical European countries — Stockhausen and Berio are the only ones who are still producing meaningful music. Actually, that last Berio work I heard in, I guess it was '68 or '69, was magnificent — 'Laborintus 2' it was called. Since then he's brought out a recording of that which doesn't capture the power of this work which had tape — stereophonic tape, two drummers — jazz drummers, essentially, playing tape drum-sets instead of the regular percussion outfit, chorus, a speaker and some instruments like a fourteen-piece instrument ensemble.
"Stockhausen, of course, is getting more and more into this intuitive music, which is, amazingly enough, a lot similar to what we are trying to do. As far as improvisation is concerned, his style is a lot farther out than ours is, but the principles are the same, with the exception of the fact that he notates a lot of the stuff in intuitive ways like, 'Play the longest sound that you can possibly play,' or 'Play a flurry of the shortest sounds as fast as you possibly can, on a given cue. Tune your shortwave radio to something that turns you on and work against it,' that sort of thing. Which is a lot like concept art, and I haven't really heard too much of that music so I couldn't tell how successful it would be. But everything he's done up to 1970 has been extremely impressive to my mind.
"My partner Ned Lagin, Mickey Hart, and myself were involved in experimenting with electronic music, but Mickey's since dropped out so there's just the two of us. We perform it in the intermission at concerts. We do it as a break. Ned has a very evolved instrument which consists of a synthesiser, a modular synthesiser with keyboard, and electric piano, and a computer. The computer is like a score in a way, he lays out certain functions, let's say changes, that'll go down in the course of the music, and he programmes it into the computer, and then when he starts the computer, the changes all occur automatically within a certain time period. This is the way he's planning to use it. It's the most primitive way because we just got the computer in June or July, something like that.
"The system that I was going to have built is not happening because the guy who was going to build it completely crapped out in the middle of the job. I have the bass with all the switching on it and I've got the frets for the console with all the tone modulation modules, and the foot pedals with all the switching on it and stuff, but that's it, and right now I'm using a ring modulator. So the contrast is pretty great 'cause he has under his control, I should say, virtually an infinite range of sounds and music that he can play, and I've got a very limited range, so it's really over-balanced. He'll tell you different, he'll say, 'Well Phil, you just haven't worked with that enough, you can do more than you have been doing' and so forth, and he's probably right up to a certain point, but I know enough about it to know that there's no possible way that one guy with two pedals and a ring modulator can possibly compete with an entire computer/synthesiser system. That's even the wrong word, it's question of polyphonic music.
"So, I essentially have to be the drone, relating back to Indian music, I have to be the drone, the ground, the pre-conscious state out of which the synthesiser, which he's playing, rings thoughts, let's say. So that's sort of the stage we're at now. I personally don't think that the middle of a Grateful Dead show is the best place for this music, although in some places the response has been amazing. Hollywood, for instance, people were all pretty crazy cause there were some security people who were getting pretty violent, and so we went out and did our thing — everybody was pretty high in Hollywood, they just sort of relaxed, they just got into the zone, in the space of long slow changes which, if you're pretty high and feeling like killing, it might just change your thinking. I really don't know exactly what it will do to a person but the vibe was totally different after we'd finished. Tom could tell you something about it — he was there, he was amazed by it all — all those people, he said, 'You really got them into a good vibe situation, and that was the last thing I would have expected from electronic music.'
"I suppose eventually we'll get something out on record. Ned has already one composition that's almost finished, it's 45 minutes in all, so that could come out on a record. Ned has a composition that was complete about two years ago but now he wants to revise it. It's got David Freiberg, Grace Slick, Garcia, Spencer Dryden, Mickey Hart, myself and Ned, like an all-star cast you know, doing this electronic music which nobody except Ned and myself had any experience with before, and it was amazing how intuitively all these people were able to absolutely get into it.
"I mean, the way he [Ned] had us do it was he played white noise, or actually pink noise (pink noise is white noise that has been filtered), and he just had us improvise, more or less, upon this white noise. It was amazing how synchronised the whole thing turned out to be. It just totally blew me away. I would lay down a part, and then Ned would lay down a part and then I would lay down another part, but none of us would ever hear what any of the others had done. We only had this one level, this one layer of stuff to work with, which was the white noise in the cans, and there was also a synthesiser track which was like bleeps and swoops and that sort of thing. Ned would not dig me saying it like that, but that's what it sounded like.
"Those two were the only things that everybody had in common to work with, and it all came out sounding incredible, especially the vocal parts. But now he wants to revise it and add the chorus parts, so he plans to do that probably by the end of the year, and so I don't know whether the record will ever get out over here. Of course, it's not going to be a big seller or anything like that. Although I really shouldn't say that, it could be. It could be crazy enough and 'heads' might decide that they really want this so that they can completely zone out.
"But anyway, some of it is going to be coming out on records in one form or another. As a matter of fact, the first step that we made towards that was using the synthesiser, using Ned playing synthesiser on 'Unbroken Chain' on the new album, which I thought was extremely successful. Not so much necessarily the tune itself as a whole, but the tune itself as a sketch of what happened when we finally laid it down. It blew me over I must say. Even though I had thought of using synthesiser in the beginning, what happened in the middle part when he started playing it like it was drums — that really made it."

ZZ: How much of the 'Feedback' track on Live/Dead was your idea?

"Most of that stuff originally was my idea. Because there we were with all those electronic instruments and it was starting to be obvious to me that it could be used for that, for those functions, in that kind of manner. Even though you can't control them too well, they more or less end up being pretty tonal, tonal in a sense that the sounds that usually come out tend to have the harmonic structure of tonal notes. When that got started, we only did that for a little while, it was for only about two years that we did that, and now when we do it just doesn't sound right because people are on the wahwah pedals.
"Weir actually was one of the masters of that stuff but he doesn't do it any more at all. I can't imagine why, 'cause he would just come out with this incredible stuff and it was absolutely off the top of his head, totally. That's why it amazes me that he doesn't explore that. Maybe he just thinks that it's too complicated or whatever, which it isn't. I mean, if you've got an ear, the whole range of any kind of music is open to you, you don't have to know what the rules are. This is my theory, anyway. Being a college drop-out."

Bass Playing & Improvisation

ZZ: You don't really play the bass like any other bass guitarist do you?

"No I don't. I don't like that kind of playing 'cause it's too repetitive, most of it. I rarely, rarely hear bass players play stuff that's not a pattern, and in fact, that's the way people think of it. They say, 'OK you lay down the bass pattern for this one,' or the 'bass line' they sometimes call it, but it's still very repetitive. So I like to play it more in the sense of like the continuo bass of the baroque period, or the real bass line in classical music — Beethoven or Mahler, in a way that, like, makes the music move to different places even though in rock’n’roll music it just seems to be more convenient to play the root of the chord all the time. Unless you've got a specific kind of harmonic change that's happening like where you can play the fifth of the chord which becomes the root of another chord, being the same note."

ZZ: Do you think of what you play as melodies, because in that sense it's counterpoint?

"Yes I do, because the bass line always has to be like that. Although it's a little slower than the main melodic line which is up on top, or even some of the voices. Yes, I can see them like that — polyphonic counterpoint or as much as I can which, when you've got four musicians playing pitched instruments, that excludes the drums, it's real easy to step on someone else's lines or notes. In recent years I've slacked off a little bit in that concept, just because first of all we've narrowed it down to tunes, and Keith came along and he's very accomplished and can do all that stuff. Sometimes I like to just play on the high register of the bass and let Keith play the bass line. Which doesn't fit as well with the drums, but it's a different texture. I never have liked having the same texture in a band, or any kind of musical entity because where's it at if it's the same all the time?"

ZZ: Can you throw some light on this business of improvisation? There are times in your performances where one instrument changes the basic pattern and everyone follows one by one over a certain number of bars until you are doing something else completely. But there always seems to be somebody in charge.

"That's just the way our group does it. There are some people who can do it faster than that. Some bands, like jazz bands, can do it faster than that, although they don't very often, they've gotten to be more same-sounding. If we were more aligned in the jazz area it would be just like jazz music, that is solos, the head, the first melodic statement, then everybody takes a solo, and maybe there's a drum solo, and then the head comes back again and it's out. Which to me is a pretty lame structure, surely.
"Even in so-called modern jazz, guys do the same kind of thing. They play the head, although it's more complex, then they do a bunch of solos, then they do the head again and then it's out. I don't know, that's more simple than any kind of structure that was ever used in pre-classical music, even a baroque suite or anything like that. So we're not into that level. I think that my group improvisation is more interesting, that's what I've been trying to inject into the way the Grateful Dead thinks about things. Everybody in the band is more or less inclined towards that. It's just real difficult to do because some people just want to get into a rut, as it were.
"So group improvisation is real difficult to do because you just have to be super-intuitive about it. Although, like you were saying, it's true there's always someone that leads it into that direction and then the rest of the band will pick it up. Sometimes it's all at once, but mostly though it's one at a time as you say. I think it's pretty interesting the way it works out. The first idea comes out and then somebody else picks up the other end of that to a point where everybody's doing something completely individual, and then where do we stop? I don't know what will carry on from that. I hope a higher level of togetherness. Because there was one point when we were thinking as one person. None of that was ever recorded of course. The only good it ever did was that we knew we could do it.
"It's very fragile, it depends on people's state of mind, how many drugs they've had, what kind of drugs they've had in their system that day, how they're getting along with their ladies, how many stops you had to make on the flight, how many drinks you had, it's so gradual. On our last U.S. tour we played Ohio, Chicago, Virginia, Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia, and out of those six gigs there were three that were good. Unlike four years ago when our average was higher. The thing about the kind of music we play is that you can't do it that well every night. I seem to recall when I was playing in orchestras and stuff like that, when I was at classical school, I thought I'd become a conductor or something like that, I always thought that if I had been born a hundred years ago that's what I'd be. Anyway, our averages were just so much higher then, it was easier."

ZZ: How far have the possibilities of your instrument been extended? You've got probably the most sophisticated bass guitar anywhere, if you can call it a bass guitar.

"The instrument, as it was originally conceived, would have been at one end of the spectrum an electric bass with which you could play rock 'n' roll music but in entirely different tone colours, new tone colours. Like every note would have a change in it rather than just being a note that was attacked, sustained and then died away. During that period it would change internally, that was what I was after on one end of the spectrum.
"On the other end of the spectrum it would have been a synthesiser which would have been controlled by the strings of an electric bass, so that I could still use my hands to play the electric bass, which I've learned to do fairly well in ten years, and still have a synthesiser to modify the sounds and make a new kind of music with this relatively simple instrument. Unfortunately, that didn't happen so what I have now is a super electric bass which is real easy to play, and has all kinds of great tone colours just for the electric bass, but it doesn't have that synthesiser capability of being able to change or, like, play around and say every note have a different tone colour and that kind of thing. That's what I was really after and it just hasn't happened.
"It's possible that something like that could happen in the future, but with the present synthesiser technology it's just real difficult because everything is voltage controlled and you get voltage out of an electric bass but it's voltage according to amplitude — how loud you play, not what you play, and the hang up of the system that I was going to have built was that we couldn't get a frequency to voltage converter. That is something that will pick out what note you are playing in the audio spectrum and convert it to voltage, a certain amount of voltage, which would then cause your filters, or whatever else you wanted to use, to track along with what you were playing. So it's like still in the future but I do have a great electric bass, it's just a flash, it's just a trip to play. The people from Alembic built it essentially. Rick Turner built the wood, built the instrument itself and the pick-ups, and George Mundy who is an electronic technician, you might call him, he used to work for Alembic but now he's on his own, he's freelance."


"I can't say for sure that the music would have been the same without the drugs, in fact, I'm not qualified to say. The thing about the audiences was that they were exactly where we were, we didn't even have to play good. It was like we were them, they were us, and when you're just standing there on the stage boogying away and you can see 5,000 people going up and down in a wave like an ocean, it tends to give a feeling like you're doing something right. I guess that was where we got the idea that we could play whatever we wanted and it would still work.
"But the drug influence sort of diminished, and at a certain point there was none of us that would take any of those drugs, none of us. Like at the Monterey Pop Festival in '67, everybody was as stoned as they could possibly be except us; because we'd been there before, and nobody wanted to go on that trip at that time. I for instance, I do it all the time, acid I mean. All the time, I love it. I think that it's one of the greatest tools for learning about yourself. It's my quality knob. I take a few drops of acid and I turn up my quality knob.
"Listening back to what I've played later on a tape, because the drugs can't have any influence on a tape, I find that generally speaking the quality is just what I thought it was. Especially about what I, myself was playing. The relationship between what I was playing and the whole band is not always that good because not everybody is always on the same plane. Or on the same trip. I've seen some people take acid and just get bombed out horribly, and I'm sure you have too. It all depends on your state of mind, but as for now, the drug influence now, I would say it's a lot lighter that it was at the peak. It's like we're coming down off the other side of the mountain, and besides the quality of acid has gone down to such an alarming degree that you just can't get good shit, and apart from that there's all these other new drugs available that have come around, whose names I don't need to mention I'm sure. Most of which I don't care to use. Cocaine, for instance, makes me evil and makes me hate music. I hate music when I'm under [the] influence, so I can't use it, it's just impossible."

The Rock Press

"In the United States we've got a million of them and they're just so jive. What I do, I usually pick up the classical magazines like The Gramophone, Records and Recordings, and stuff like that, and I've been noticing that our latest records have been getting a lot of flack over here. One guy in Records and Recordings said something like 'Well, this here band has been getting a lot of flack for the last couple of years and everybody seems to have forgotten how great they were when they came over here and played, and at that time everybody was getting on the bandwagon for superlatives. So why don't we just look at it as a sort of ongoing process. Just because it's not like it was, or not like you expect it to be, is that bad? That doesn't make it bad.' However, I would say that it's really difficult to perceive, just through the recordings, some kind of continuity rather than, like, we're just churning them out."

(by Andy Childs, from ZigZag, October 1974)
For earlier Andy Childs writing on the Dead, see: 

Aug 13, 2021

April 1976: Jerry Garcia Interview

In 1974, I was the music critic for the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper. Being a regular writer for a major-city daily newspaper at the age of twenty-four was rewarding and gave a certain satisfaction to a young rock fan’s life. Getting paid to see and interview bands like the Grateful Dead, was, at times, so much fun, it almost seemed illegal. But someone had to do it, so…

Anyway, that summer of ‘74 the Grateful Dead were booked for two nights at Philadelphia’s Civic Center. My job was to do a preview story in the Sunday Bulletin on the band. Their publicist approved an interview with Bob Weir (Jerry Garcia, I was informed, “wasn’t talking to the press”), and provided me with ticket to see a show in Providence, Rhode Island, a couple of weeks before Philadelphia, and off I went.

The interview with Bob Weir before the concert was terrific. Weir, as most people know, is a friendly, witty man and gave me more than I needed for the story.

The show that night, at the Providence Civic Center, was a five hour extravaganza, leaving everyone, band and audience alike, drained and exhausted but in a state of euphoria. A few minutes after the last encore, I noticed Jerry Garcia, wearing a dark green t-shirt, Wranglers and Acme boots, leaning against a wall backstage, winding down. I went over to say hello and asked him about a new (at the time) song from Mars Hotel they had closed the show with.

Spotting the tape-recorder I was carrying, he said “I’m not doing interviews this year,” in the same tone of voice he might use to order an after-dinner wine. “I hate all my records,” he added as an afterthought. “The Grateful Dead don’t make good records.”

Was he satisfied with the performance they had just given?

“If I was ever satisfied,” he added totally seriously, “I’d quit playing.”

Two years later, in a New York hotel room, on appropriately April Fool’s Day, 1976 (he has always appreciated a good joke), Jerry Garcia has agreed to an in-depth interview. Following two years of low Grateful Dead activity (which were filled with rumors of retirement), Garcia is in town with a solo band featuring John Kahn, Ron Tutt and Keith and Donna Godchaux. Being into gadgets, he inspects with interest a new tape recorder I had just bought, and we begin…

I spoke with you briefly at the Providence Civic Center two years ago. You told me, “I’m not doing interviews this year,” and then you said, “I hate all my records. The Grateful Dead don’t make good records.

(Laughs) Yeah, that’s true.

You mean, that’s true that you said that or that’s true that they don’t?

Well, both of them are true. But it’s a matter of objectivity. It depends on which side of the coin you’re on. For example, if I buy somebody’s record – a Rolling Stones record or something – what I hear obviously is the finished record, the finished music and the whole thing that’s already happened. In other words, with a Grateful Dead record, part of what I’m dealing with is the dissonance between the original version, the original flash as a composer. When a song comes into my head, it comes with a complete sound to it, a complete arrangement, a complete format and a complete thing more often than not, which represents my relationship to a personal vision. So, for me, comparing the record to the vision, I always feel that it fails.

That doesn’t discourage you to the point of not wanting to make records?

It could. But it doesn’t, because there’s enough to making records or making music that there are enough other ways to get off. So I’m not that hung up on the relationship to the vision except that it produces sort of a feeling of disappointment. You want it to work a certain way and sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you want it to. Like I had a whole long thing I was working on as far as Blues For Allah was concerned that was a technical trip and it required a certain amount of developing hardware to go along with the idea, which is often the case with things I get involved with. Often I want to do something that you can only do by developing or interfacing a certain number of existing possibilities.

With Blues For Allah there was a thing I wanted to do that had to do with an envelope shaper and stuff like that didn’t come together the way I wanted it to. And so, when I listen to it, I think, “Well shit, it isn’t quite where I wanted it to be.” But in the long run, after, like, however many records – nineteen records or something like that – you feel that at least your percentages are getting closer and you’re able to score on other levels. Like on our earlier records, if I listen to them now, they are embarrassing for reasons like they’re out of tune.

And your recent records are never out of tune.
(laughs) Now they’re much more together on those levels than they used to be. We’re much more able to pull off the technical aspect without having to sacrifice feeling. In terms of Blues For Allah, the latest Grateful Dead record I can talk about in this frame, I think that’s the first record we’ve made in years where we really had fun. We laughed a lot and got good and crazy. We had an opportunity to get weirder than we normally get to getting. First of all because we didn’t have the pressure of having to go out and tour and travel and thus break the flow.

Why didn’t you have the pressure?

Because we decided not to perform.

You didn’t need the money?

Well, it wasn’t the question of needing the money or not. That was…well, say we didn’t need the money.

Most of your money comes from performing, obviously…

Well, yeah. Sure. That’s been our main thing. ‘Course, most of our overhead and expenses are also the result of that too. It’s a lot easier for us to survive on some levels by not touring just because our expenses aren’t so huge. And with me going out and Kingfish going out (with Bob Weir), we were able to pretty much keep ourselves together.

Anyway, a couple of years ago you weren’t doing interviews. Now you are. Why the switch?

I like to do ‘em when I feel like I have something new to say. Every couple of years my viewpoint changes, you know what I mean? So I have something to say. I have some substance. Also, at the end of a year of rapping – if I have only one rap (laughs), one good thing to say and I spend a year saying it – pretty soon I’m burned out and I can’t stand to listen to it any more. But the fact that I haven’t been out traveling a lot and I’m not road weary also has something to do with it.

In our brief conversation two years ago, you said – in response to whether you were satisfied with the show – “If I was ever satisfied, I’d quit playing.”

Yeah, I think I might, in the sense that part of it is the thing of trying, taking chances.

So why now, at this point in time, do you have something to say? Your solo album?

The solo album is one thing. I think the movie is the thing (The Grateful Dead Movie).

Tell me about the movie.

When we decided we weren’t going to perform anymore, our farewell show, so to speak, was five days at Winterland. It was after we got back from our second trip to Europe – October ‘74. About a month before the Winterland dates I got the idea that it would be neat to be able to film it, just because I didn’t know if we were going to perform again. Or if we were going to perform in that kind of situation again. And that five nights in a place would at least give us the possibility, numerically anyway, that we would have one or two really good nights. In about two or three weeks the whole production thing came together to make the movie.

At first we thought, let’s just make a record of the idea, and I wanted it to look good. I wanted it to be really well filmed but I didn’t really know a lot about film when the idea got under way, but when it was time for the show to start, we had about nine camera crews and a lot of good backup people, good lighting people and the whole thing was already on its way to happening. It was chaotic but well organized in spite of the relatively short preproduction time we had. After the five days were over – and during that time I involved myself mostly with the music, I didn’t really get into the film part – we had a couple of hundred thousand feet of film in the can. So then it was, what’s going to happen to this? Originally, we were thinking in terms of what about a canned concert. Would something like that work? Could we send out a filmed version of ourselves? Then, after getting involved and interested in the movie as a project, I started looking at the footage and the concert stuff and I felt that there was a movie there. A movie in a movie sense rather than a movie in a canned concert sense. Then there was the thing of putting all that together and that’s what I’ve been working on the last year and a half, ever since the filming was over, really.

So it’s coming out not as a concert film.

It’s coming out as a movie.

Is there a plot to the movie?

(laughs) No. I mean, it’s a movie for Grateful Dead freaks. I think you could enjoy it from a perfectly normal moviegoer standpoint. I think it’s a very fine movie, but I don’t want to get into waving a flag about it. I want to see what kind of response there is to it first. Now we’re in our last series of fine cut stages. And I’ve tried to structure it in the same sense that Grateful Dead sets are constructed, so that it goes a lot of places. The concert footage is tremendously beautiful.

To be shown in the proverbial theater near you?

So far, we haven’t ironed that out, but I think we’re gonna try, like we always do, to distribute it ourselves. At least the first flash, so that we’ll have some control over the kind of playback system there is in the theaters.

I’ve noticed your concerts don’t change as much from show to show as your albums do.

That’s true. That’s because albums get to be a certain time and space and the concert thing is a flow.

And you always know what to expect from a Grateful Dead concert.

In a way. But we’re trying to bust that too. That’s one of the reasons we dropped out.

Is this it for the Grateful Dead as a touring entity?

No. We’re gonna start playing again.

You have so many members of the Grateful Dead on your solo album (Reflections), it could almost be a Grateful Dead album.

A lot of the energy from that record is really a continuation of the Blues For Allah groove that we got into. We sort of continued the same energy because we were having a lot of fun doing it.

One of my favorite things that you’ve been involved with in the last few years is the Old And In The Way bluegrass album you did with Vassar Clements, David Grisman, and Peter Rowan.

That was a good band. It was satisfying and fun to be in.

Was the reason you only put out the one Old And In The Way album and didn’t do a whole lot of touring with that band, because of the fact that there’s only a certain amount of acceptance bluegrass can get?

That, and also we ran into a really weird problem in terms of dynamics which was that bluegrass music is like chamber music: it’s very quiet. And if the audience got at all enthusiastic during the tune and started clapping or something, it would drown out the band and we couldn’t hear each other.

What an album though. I didn’t know you were such a hot banjo player.

(laughs) Oh I was real hot when I was a kid. Now my reasons for playing banjo and my reasons for liking bluegrass music are completely different from when I started, ‘cause then I was really hot.

I think that Old And In The Way album may be the best bluegrass album ever recorded.

Wow. Thank you. I’m happy with it too, but the truth is, we had much better performances than were on that record.

That’s hard to imagine.

Oh yeah. We had performances that were heart-stopping. And perfect, you know, but there weren’t as many that were recorded that well.

That banjo solo you did on “Wild Horses” and Vassar’s violin solo on “Midnight Moonlight” …Jesus.

Well, that was really a thrilling band. And I think that was the nicest that Vassar’s played, too. When he was playing with Old And In The Way, he played the maximum of mind-blowing but beautifully tasty stuff, and the music had enough interesting kinds of new changes and new things happening – Pete’s good songs for example – so that Vassar had a chance to blow with a lot of range. More than he does normally. That was neat.

The Grateful Dead have been a strange band for my taste, in that, if I like a band a lot – and some of your stuff I’ve liked an awful lot – I normally like just about everything the band does. But with the Dead, some of the stuff you’ve done has just gone right by me, while other stuff just blows me away. And it’s the same way with your concerts. Say, you’re in the middle of a jam. I’ll be half asleep for a few minutes, and all of a sudden, you’ll do something for five or ten seconds on guitar that will make my hair stand on end.

See, I have that same kind of reaction to the Grateful Dead myself. The Grateful Dead is not anybody’s idea of how a band or music should be. It’s a combination of really divergent viewpoints. Everyone in the band is quite different from everyone else. And what happens musically is different from what any one person would do. For me, the band that I have right now, I’m real happy with. I haven’t been as happy with any little performing group since Old And In The Way in terms of feeling “this is really harmonious, this is what I want to hear.” This band that I have now is very consonant. The Grateful Dead had always had that thing of dissonance. It’s not always consonant. Sometimes it’s dissonant. Sometimes it’s really ugly sounding and just drives you crazy.

Do you spend a lot of time in San Francisco?

Yeah. I spend most of my time just working. I’m very taken with our scene. It’s very interesting.

Your records are getting softer. In fact, there’s only one uptempo song, “Might As Well,” on your new solo album.

That’s true. That’s probably the worst thing about it, the lack of balance of material.

You thought it was too quiet?


When I listened to it, I thought maybe you didn’t like to rock and roll as much anymore.

No, uh…it’s not that. All these things have to do with luck. And timing. For example, the way that solo record was recorded, really a lot of material was performed with the intention of using it on the record, but of the takes that I felt were acceptable, they tended to be more of those softer tunes. So I decided to go with those because I felt the feeling of the tracks was better, not because of wanting it to be that way.

Your guitar playing has remained fairly constant the last few years. The only real deviation was on this new album on the track “Comes A Time.” You used a mild fuzz.

I just used a small amplifier.

There were some real nice sustain on your playing. It sounded terrific.

Yeah. I do those things more on other people’s sessions than I do my own. I tend to be real off-handed about my guitar playing on my own records. In fact, on Grateful Dead records too.

What other records are you referring to?

Well, when I just go and do sessions with somebody more or less anonymous.

You don’t do sessions that often, do you?

Not anymore.

Who are the last few people you’ve done sessions for?

I did a whole spasm of local ones, like all those Merl Saunders (Live At Keystone, Fire Up) records. Tom Fogerty’s records. And the Airplane sessions. Stuff like that. I used to do more than I do now.

Kingfish and your band are both on similar – and sometimes identical – tours at the moments and sometimes even cross paths, but you never share a bill. Are the two bands’ identities so different that it would hinder playing together?

Well, it’s just that neither one of us wants to cash in on the Grateful Dead notoriety. And also the people that are in our respective bands have identities of their own to support. So rather than get everybody under the big Grateful Dead umbrella, it’s better if everybody can have their own little shot. Because, for example, it would be possible for Kingfish to go out and work without Weir. They’re a band without him as well as a band with him. There are those kinds of considerations, because when we start working on Grateful Dead stuff, which we’ll start doing pretty soon, those bands will have their own survival problems. Not so much my band, because Ron (Tutt) works with Elvis. John (Kahn) does studio stuff and he’s always got stuff going on.

Are both you and Kingfish ending up your tours at about the same time?

Yeah. The Grateful Dead has to start rehearsing.

Are you going to do a big summer tour like everybody else?

We’re going to approach it differently. We’re going to try and do small places. We’re going to do theaters. We’re not going to do any barns.

Why, at this point have the Grateful Dead decided to get back together?

We’re horny to play. We all miss Grateful Dead music. We want to be the Grateful Dead some more.

What kind of material will you be doing?

Probably some old stuff but more new stuff, and I think probably the biggest change will be that we have Mickey back in the band.

When you look back on your records – you still probably maintain that you hate all your records…

I don’t listen to ‘em. I can’t (laughs).

Are there any that you hate less than the others?

Well, I always like the one we’re working on, or the one that we’ve just finished. That’s the one I feel closest to. But after that, I have to disqualify myself. I can’t judge them against anything but an emotional situation that I’m in, in relation to the Grateful Dead. Either they recall to me what was going on at the time we recorded or something else. It’s more personal than anything else.

When you work on songs, can you tell which ones maybe become classics with your audience, like “Sugar Magnolia” or “Truckin’?”

Uh…not really. I can’t. ‘Cause often, the ones that get me don’t get anybody but me (laughs).

Which ones have gotten you that haven’t gotten many other people?

Well I don’t know, but there are some songs that I really loved…like I really loved “Row Jimmy Row.” That was one of my favorite songs of ones that I’ve written. I loved it. Nobody else really liked it very much – we always did it – but nobody liked it very much, at least in the same way I did.

“U.S. Blues” got real popular in the summer of ’74 and became a big number for your live shows…

Well that kind of figured to me. Some of ‘em, you can say, “Well, this’ll at least be hot, if nothing else.”

I like “Scarlet Begonias” a lot.

Yeah, that’s another song too. That’s a song I like. “Ship Of Fools” is a song I like an awful lot. But my relationship to them changes. Sometimes I really like a song after I’ve written it and I don’t like it at all a year later. And some of them, I’m sort of indifferent to, but we perform it and find they have a real long life. For me to sing a song, I really have to feel some relationship to it. I can’t just bullshit about it. Otherwise, it’s just empty and it’s no fun. There has to be something about it that I can relate to. Not even in a literal sense or a sense of content, but more a sense of sympathy with the singer of the song. It’s a hard relationship to describe, but some songs have a real long life and you can sing them honestly for a long period of time – years and years – and others last just a while and you don’t feel like you can sing them anymore.

When you write with Robert Hunter, you write the music and he writes the lyrics?

More often than not. But also it’s a little freer than that, too. I edit his work an awful lot and, for example, a tune like “U.S. Blues” really will start off with 300 possible verses. Then it’s a matter of carving them down to ones that are singable. Other songs are like stories. A lot of time I edit out the sense of Hunter’s songs.

So you’re the reason he seems so deranged.

Yeah (laughs). I’m an influence in that. And when I edit his stuff, he really treats it with skepticism, but we have a thing of trust between us now so that he usually laughs when I hack out the sense of the song. Dump it. We have a real easy relationship.

By the way, you have one of the strangest record company bios I’ve ever read. It was credited to Hunter.

I actually think that bio was written by Willy Legate.

Who is he?

Willy Legate is this guy who’s an old, old friend of me and Hunter’s and Phil’s and our whole scene, and he’s a lot of things. And one of those things he is, is sort of a bible scholar. And he’s a madman. We were exposed to him really a lot during a formative period of our intellectual life. And he’s still around in our scene.

He’s the guy who wrote “There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” and he wrote the little blurb inside the Europe ’72 album about the bolos and the bozos. We also call on him to do various things. One time we asked the Deadheads to send us their thoughts, just to get some feedback from them. And they sent us lots and lots of letters and we gave ‘em all to Willy. And he ended up with, like, a two page condensation of all the letters, with every viewpoint, that was just tremendously amazing to read. It was just so packed with information.

Willy is someone who has a lot of different kinds of gifts. He also even wrote some lyrics to some of our early songs before we started recording, but we’ve subsequently stopped doing the tunes. But he’s another creative head in our scene that operated way back from the public.

What kinds of things do you care a lot about these days?

(Pauses) I think the thing I’m most into is the survival of the Grateful Dead. I think that’s my main trip now.

Was there ever a point when you didn’t care a whole lot about that?

Yeah, always.

So this is pretty new?

Yeah, pretty new.

How long has this been going on?

I would say about a year.

Why is that?

Well, I feel like I’ve had both trips, in the sense that I’ve been in the Grateful Dead for ten or twelve years and I’ve also been out of it, in the sense of going out in the world and travelling and doing things just under my own hook. And really, I’m not that taken with my own ideas. I don’t really have that much to say and I’m more interested in being involved in something that’s larger than me. And I really can’t talk to anybody else either (laughs). So sometime in the last year, I decided, yeah, that’s it, that’s definitely the farthest out thing I’ve ever been involved in, and it’s the thing that makes me feel best. And it seems to have the most ability to sort of neutrally put something good into the mainstream. It’s also fascinating in the sense of the progression. The year to year changes are fascinating.

I would say that’s the thing I’m most concerned about now. Everything else has gotten to be so weird. And I’ve never been attracted to the flow politically.


No. It just isn’t interesting to me.

Do you vote?

No. Vote for what? Even looking for decently believable input from that world is a scene. So I haven’t developed that much interest in the motions of the rest of the world. I’m mainly interested in improving the relationship between the band and the audience, and I’m into being onstage and playing.

How about causes, like the legalization of marijuana, that kind of stuff?

It’s all passing stuff. I don’t know. I don’t have anything to say about moral things. Or legal things. I think there’s a lot of confusion on those levels. Basically my framework politically or anything like that is, I’m into a completely free, wide open, total anarchy space. That’s what I want (laughs). Obviously I’m not going to be able to sell that to anybody (more laughter). Nobody’s going to dig that.

You can’t even give that away…

Exactly. So I don’t even bother. If I have a flag to wave, it’s a non-flag. But as a life problem, the Grateful Dead is an anarchy. That’s what it is, it doesn’t have any…stuff. It doesn’t have any goals. It doesn’t have any plans. It doesn’t have any leaders. Or real organization. And it works. It even works in the straight world. It doesn’t work too good. It doesn’t work like General Motors does, but it works OK. And it’s more fun.

I’m curious to see what effect your new-found attention for the Grateful Dead is going to have on your music.

It’ll be interesting. See, I’ve always been real ambivalent about it. It’s like one of those things that, I’ve always wanted to work out, but I never wanted to try and make it do that. And, in fact, everyone in the Grateful Dead has always had that basic attitude. So we’ll see what happens.
(by Steve Weitzman - originally published in The Music Gig magazine, August 1976, as "Jerry Garcia" - republished in Relix, August 1988, as "The Grateful Dead: A Look Back")

Aug 4, 2021

September 1974: Jerry Garcia Interview #2

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,!...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. 
Specific example? 
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? 
", 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)

Jul 29, 2021

September 1974: Jerry Garcia Interview


Yes, it's an interesting one isn't it? I mean, five hours...that's a long time, and well...camels are different of course, so really it must be a problem. However, Smilin' Jerry Garcia doesn't let The Grateful Dead's music get bogged down with details like that. Read his answers in NME – the one that dares ask the big questions.

It's da Dead, mayun!
Everybody's bloody grinning.
The roadies who're running around Alexandra Palace launching frisbees into the stratosphere, the ones who're plugging things in and carrying things about, the Old Ladies 'n Wives trucking around with their kids...
Everybody is grinning.
Jerry Garcia is grinning as well, wandering around in circles on the stage with his guitar tuned right in on the intergalactic noodle wavelength and a seraphic grin plastered over his mug.
His fingers trucking along busily like the game little troupers they are, he listens with his head on one side to the almost imperceptible sound of his beard growing.
A week ago he only had stubble.
Now he's sporting a Full Fledged Growth. They don't call him the Fastest Beard In The West for nothing.
What's da story, Jerry?
Welllllll, the story is that Jerry Garcia is standing in front of a scale model of the Great Wall of China playing his geetar. There's a bit of Kozmic Ragtime, some patented repeat-echo doodlerama...and what a lovely smile. The Osmonds should be so lucky as to be able to smile with the warm, friendly sincerity of the Grateful Dead and their crew. Why they weren't signed up for a Coke commercial hasta be one of the best-kept secrets of all time.
I mean, here's just one example – just one – of how thoroughly, overwhelmingly wonderful the Dead are. Are you ready for this?
It seems that at the Watkins Glen Festival (which out-statisticked Woodstock by 150,000 folks) the Dead set up speaker towers geometrically proceeding into the audience, complete with a delay system to keep it all in phase, so that even if you were one helluva way back you could still get good sound.
And – here's the killer part – they wired a goddam radio transmitter into the sound system so that all the people stuck out in the traffic jams could hear Thuh Day–ud on their itty-bitty car radios.
Now, ain't that sump'n? Would you get ELP doing that? Would you get The Faces doing that? Wouldja? Wouldja, huh?
So Uncle Jerry stashes his axe and, still grinning through his chin-warmer, saunters back-stage to a room full of impressive-looking electronic devices. On the previous night, some extremely agile thieves had descended through an airvent and ripped off a tape deck.
"It's basically what we get for starting late," beams Garcia. "That's the karma – the starting-late karma."
A philosopher, yet!

Okay, Jerry, let's do the interview. There's one real insiders' Grateful Dead question, the real heavy secret that we've all wanted to know for the last seven years, which is – how the hell do ya manage to play them long sets without needing to slink off and take a leak?
Is it some form of esoteric Yoga bladder control that you learned from Ken Kesey? Do you have tubes strapped under your jeans. What's the deal?
"Hahaaa. There isn't any real secret, I don't think...and I'm also not a beer-drinker, which probably makes a big difference. I haven't really thought about that before" – something goes click, Garcia's brain revolves 180 degrees and he feeds in another punch card – "There are times when somebody will leave the stage for some reason or just doesn't seem like it.
"We don't really do five hours directly. Like we'll play an hour and a half or so, and then come back. Makes the whole thing more reasonable. Hahaaa."
"When you went off last night, I walked out into the crowd," volunteers a member of the road crew, "an' a lotta people thought you were putting them on a hype trip".
Garcia nods a couple of times, inserts an untipped Camel into his smile. "I can't understand why they would think that. They might think that that was where the band was at. I'm on a self-destruction programme," he says, alluding to the untipped cigarette. No filter tip's gonna come between you and that ol' debbil cancer, right, Jerry?
"Maybe. Hahaaa. Death has a better than fair chance anyway. Like tooth decay."
Ye-e-ah...mighty fine lookin' PA system you got there, Jerry.
"The reason that we have it and the reason that we developed it 'n all that is that we weren't really anticipating an amazing growth in our audience, which has happened, and so in terms of – uh – respecting the situation and trying to deal with it righteously, our point of view has been, well, since we're playing to larger audiences in larger places, the thing to do should be to divert the energy into improving the quality of the performance.
"Obviously, the bigger the place, the worse the sound."
Yeah, but Jerry, that problem exists for lotsa bands...
"Yeah, but not that many acts are concerned about it."
"It's a problem of individual responsibility. If the musicians feel very strongly about it, then it's up to them to do something about it.
"The economics of rock and roll don't allow for trying to get a better and better sound, since the idea is to cut down on expenses. Our motive is simply a sense of responsibility about what it is. When you're playing in a big room, there's no way to – uh – de-escalate."
So that's why you play all those club gigs in your spare time, huh, Jerry?
"Oh, I do those 'cuz I'm a musician. I'm a player. The thing I want to do most is to play. I wanna learn how to play better, and the only way you can do that is to play."
Hey, Jerry...didja hear about Windsor? Bummer, man. Bad vibes, y'know?
"We've seen it happen in the United States...time and time again. It's almost at the point now where you can describe music as an illegal activity in terms of the free equation. Woodstock and Altamont and all the other large-scale things that were characterised by a certain amount of confusion or violence have all produced a new level of paranoia. We still get busted a lot.
"Basically we're outlaws. We're viewed as outlaws, and we've developed outlaw-style protective colouration. We're not immune, by any means. We haven't gained any degree of respectability."
Well, you could play it like the Allmans and get a dude from the diplomatic corps to waltz you through customs...
"Yeah. Hahaaaa. Screw it, I'd rather take my chances. I don't like to feel that I'm existing on that level. That's not who I am at all. I don't like any of the trappings of success at all. They're all poison. It's hard enough just playin', and that's all I wanna do."
In that case, does it hang ya up to be a guru 'n a "signpost to new space" and all the rest of that Charles Reich aardvaark waste?
"It could, but...I don't deal with my public image. I regret having ever spoken to anyone...haHAAAAh...but I feel that as long as I have...I have a kinda responsibility to follow it up and clarify it as much as I can.
"The difficulty is that my viewpoint is not static. My mind is dynamic and my thoughts are changing and my ideas are changing. I'm embarrassed by that book (Garcia: A Signpost To New Space by Charles Reich and Jann Wenner), I'm embarrassed by seeing my name in print, I'm embarrassed by having to be out on stage, I'm embarrassed...on many levels."
Whoooo-ee. It's amazing that Garcia can even bring himself to walk out of his house in the morning.
"I really just love to play, y'know? I love to play without having to be – uh – fulfilling this human drama aspect of – uh – whatever it is."
Jerry Garcia is really such a nice old hippie that I felt kind of bad about talking to him under false pretences. I mean, I saw the Dead two years ago at Wembley and they were great, but I've never been able to get off at all on their records. So I said just that.
"Ye-e-ahh – our records are awful."
"We've never bothered too much, y'know? HaHAAAA-haah! I don't think that recording is a suitable form for us. The live thing is what we do."
Well, if we're all agreed that the Dead's records just don't cut it, doesn't that make them a bit of a rip-off, something of a burn?
"That's exactly it. HaaHaaa-ha!! It's a burn for us and for the public, too. We've never really made money from records. Our records have always like sold to a small, closed audience. We've never scored big from records. We've always spent more making them than we've made back...or some other permutation of unsuccessful possibility.
"A lot of people come to see us, but don't buy our records. There's a whole big scene of people who do nothing but swap live tapes of us – for free! That's a heavier trip than records, y'know?"
Has having your own label made any difference on that level?
"Yes, it's made it possible for us to get into a – uhhh – a scheming bag, y'know? Haa – HAAAA! We've got our own record company, which means that we can make any kind of crazy plans we want to.
"We can spend time...plotting, y'know. It gives us something to play with. And it also means that we can make records 'n stuff without feeling 'we're gonna turn out another record for The Man'."
The Dead not only tape every single show that they perform, but they even tape their soundchecks as well, even if the soundcheck is just Garcia doodling for three hours. It all goes down on tape. Why d'ya tape everything, Jerry?
" can't always trust your memory...can you?"
But what do you do with all these miles of tape?
"We take 'em all back to California and burn 'em. Hey – take a look at this." He ambles over to a corner of the room and pulls this huge mound of celluloid tagliatelle out from behind a chair. "This here is last night's show." He lets it cascade back on to the floor, wipes his boot on it, and drifts back out on to the stage to play a little more.


When you glance over the sleeve credits on West Coast albums of the last few years, you get a distinct "old pals act" vibe off the whole schmear. Maybe these guys are getting a little insular in their old age. Hey, Jerry, have you ever been to see Alice Cooper?
"I never have; never seen him perform. Never been curious enough. It's not my trip. I'm not that much of an entertainment freak. If I go out, I go out to hear some music, and I usually know what I'm going to hear.
"If I'm goin' out, I'm goin' out because I know that so-and-so is playing bass. I hardly ever go to see rock and roll bands, because I'm not into the space of being able to get off on a rock and roll band. Whatever I would be digging would be whatever the band's limitations were, and I'm less interested in my own music than in the music I'm going out to see.
"So if I'm gonna go out, it automatically has to be better than me, which means that it has to be better than anything I'm better than. And I'm better than a lot of rock and roll bands.
"I have a small percentage of get-off space. There's not many things that get me off. It has to be pretty deep." does seem as if Jerry Garcia is getting a trifle hidebound these days. I mean, it's one thing to rap about striving for new forms 'n all that garf, but if you don't bother to check out where other people are at, then there's a very real danger of getting a trifle out of touch.


Jerry Garcia is a genuinely charming old hippie. If he wasn't in the Dead and wasn't a star and lived down the street from me, I'd probably try and hang out with him a lot and maybe cop the odd guitar lesson from him. But listening to the Dead these days is like visiting your relatives.
It's pleasant and relaxing and really quite enjoyable, but it's also more than a little soporific. They've lost most of their punch and power, and their music now is rich and full, but sluggish and old and fat and slow.
They open up their set with Chuck Berry's 'Around And Around' played about as inappropriately as is possible. It would be foolish to sing: "Well, the joint was flowin', flowin' round and round/just ebbin' and a-flowin', what a laid-back sound," but that's really the way it is.
Even when the Dead play Berry, it just doesn't rock.
Not that I'd want them to come on with strobe lights, power chords and green eye make-up, but...hey, wake up in there, you guys! It is only on 'Peggy-O' and 'I Know You Rider' that their laid-backery coalesces with their material and produces music of genuine, tranquil beauty.
The blue lights highlight the grey in Garcia's hair and beard, turning it almost silvery. He looks very old against the clean-cut All-American Boy collegiate look currently sported by Bob Weir.
Even that phoenix-like guitar sparkle seems a trifle dimmed, and the same licks just seem to be coming around again.
And – horror of horrors – at one point he even leaves the stage between numbers to take a leak.
Another illusion shattered.

(by Charles Shaar Murray, from New Musical Express, 21 September 1974)

Jul 23, 2021

October 1974: Death of the Dead

San Rafael -- We had been watching a horror movie on the BBC, and by the time we started upstairs, we were terrified. The house, a ready-for-demolition Victorian pile, creaked ominously as we climbed the steeply-angled servants' stairs. Sheet-shrouded furniture, familiar by day, loomed eerily from around corners. After a brief fling at rationality ("We're adults. This is silly."), followed almost immediately by a return of the willies ("I'll watch the door while you go to the john if you stand out in the hall when I go."), my housemate hit on the cure: "Put on a Grateful Dead album." It worked. Halfway through "Ripple," things already seemed brighter. Sure that no monsters lurked in the shadows, we went happily off to our rooms. 
They have always been good for what ails us, but now the Dead are dying. Three winters ago, they played a four-night stand at the Felt Forum. Though they could easily have swooped into New York and shaken their money-makers for only one night at the Garden, they chose to work the smaller hall. But last summer, they played only once - at umpty-thousand seat Roosevelt Stadium. And now they've announced that they will not be coming back to New York - or anywhere else - for a while. Maybe never. The Grateful Dead will no longer perform live, and the Golden Age of Boogie is over. 
"Listen, if there's one thing we learned in ten years on the road," said Ron Rakow of Grateful Dead Records, "it's that celebration is a valid form of revolution." He's wrong. There are any number of reasons why the Dead are going into hibernation, and one of them is that they tried to run their revolution as though it were a celebration. It didn't work. 
Their revolution - not the one that made us boogie on our chairs, but the one that made record company execs quake in theirs - was structural rather than stylistic. True to their mushy Marin principles, the Dead thought music belonged to the people, and they put their money where their minds were. Unlike the adaptive model of rich hippie-cynics - who usually perceived the absurdity of a rock'n'roll "industry" as clearly as they did - the Dead tried to do something about it. They created what was essentially a people's corporation - a family if you will. Rather than working through an established booking agency, they fostered their own (Out of Town Tours, Inc.) in a corner of their San Rafael office, and peopled it with Dead Heads. And their own travel agency (Fly-by-Night) in another. Finally - and most threateningly - they began their own, independently-distributed, record label. 
Out of Town Tours expired in a welter of accusations a few months ago, sending its director (Sam Cutler, of Altamont fame) back to Texas. The people who worked for him - all of them long-time members of the Dead family - were then visited by Hell's Angels and told never to work for the Dead again. "They said something would be coming along in about a month, and that we'd be taken care of," one recalled, "but that if we took any job connected with the Dead, they'd come after us." Far out, man. 
Fly-by-Night folded several weeks ago, and last week a for rent sign went up on the floor of offices that once housed the Dead's operations. The real estate agent says a group of dentists may take it. 
Yet the record company - the most genuinely revolutionary of the Dead's offspring - continues. In a decaying house forever safe from invading dentists, plans go on for a resurrection. The band will continue to record (and a good thing, too - "From Mars Hotel" is their best album since "American Beauty"), and may go back on the road sometime in 1976. If they can find a sane way to do it. 
That condition will be a hard one to meet. Victimized by their own success, the Dead got caught in a spiral of working larger halls so that they could make enough money to support their corporate family, which meant they needed exponentially increasing amounts of equipment (800 lbs. in 1965; 6000 in 1968; 30,000 in 1973; 56,000 now) and more people to transport it and set it up. Which meant more overhead, hence a need to play larger halls. Which meant more equipment... 
All of which was compounded by the legendary disorganization of their entropic road crew. To some extent, their 32-hour set-up time was a function of the complicated equipment and the band's perfectionist zeal. But it also reflected the lingering inability of acid casualties to concentrate on the job - any job - at hand. Besides, who's to give orders in an anarchist family? 
So the band found itself working harder and harder in its attempt to give huge audiences the same experience that they used to share with small ones - with no discernible increase in net income. Though about one-third of their income came from record royalties, almost all their enormous overhead (well over $100,000 a month) went to touring. Six musicians up on stage, not having as much fun as they used to, supporting people who often acted less like family than like superannuated spare-change artists. No wonder the party's over. 
They talk now, bravely, of alternatives. Perhaps buy raw land eight places in the world, then travel from one spot to another, setting up and playing for as long as people want to hear them...or maybe four-walling the group in small halls for a month at a time...or...or... But for now, it's over. Next weekend's Winterland concerts will be the last. 
Say this for the Dead: they tried. And say too that we will miss them.
(by Geoffrey Stokes, from the "Rock Notes" column, Village Voice, October 31, 1974)