Dec 23, 2012

Late 1973: Garcia Grumbles


"There are over one million Dead Heads and your numbers keep increasing every day..." – from THE DEAD HEAD NEWSLETTER, mailed out to all those who responded to a mailing address printed on the jacket of Grateful Dead.

Three frazzled red-freak winos spill out of a battered van parked outside the Universal City Amphitheatre and pause on the long trek to the entrance to piss away their Ripple on a shiny Nova. The sharp sound of three forceful gushes harmonizing against the side of the compact can be heard from some distance.
Having finished the deed, one of the trio groggily zips himself up and affectionately pats the car. “The Dead gonna be hot,” he asserts before cutting loose with a hoarse yelp. "AAAAAAAWWWWWWOOOOOOOOO." This wine-slurred call of the wild is immediately answered by a broadside of identically soporific shrieks from all directions.
Are these men Dead Heads?

Meanwhile, in a backstage trailer behind the outdoor venue, Grateful Dead magnate Rock Scully is fielding questions from a bright-eyed Japanese media representative.
“When weo Glatefoe Day pray in Japan?,” the interview brandishes a huge microphone. Scully, a friendly Joe and sharp businessman, smiles broadly. He loves it. “The Dead,” Rock speaks slowly, pronouncing each syllable as if conversing with a group of angry African cannibals, “want very much to visit Japan. We hear it’s a very big market for pop and rock music. We love Japan. We love Datsuns, and you guys make nice television sets too...”
Rock Scully is one of the three men (the other two being Sam Cutler and Jon McIntire) who manage the Grateful Dead. Physically reminiscent of a less sallow George Harrison, Rock first became involved with the Dead when they were all part of the Diggers, a group of thirty people gathered together by Emmet Grogan and Peter Cohen for the purpose of playing street theatre on the stage of San Francisco. He’s been with them, working mainly on the promotional side of things, every since.
Is this man a Dead Head?

The next day finds KSJO, a progressive FM San Jose radio station, celebrating their six year anniversary. Steve Brown, once a locally infamous disc jockey, has returned to the airwaves on reunion day to spin those discs once more for old times sake. An immediately likeable and enthusiastic sort, Steve is an eclectic lover of off-the-wall punk-rock. Today, however, he is featuring an exclusive airing of Bear’s Choice: History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One. While rummaging through a stack of battered obscurities, Steve concedes that the Dead are his first love. His house is a repository for Dead posters, photos and general memorabilia of the countless times he’s partaken of the Grateful Dead experience. Steve, a buddy of lead guitarist-vocalist Jerry Garcia, was one of the first recently hired to staff the new Grateful Dead Records label.
Is this man a Dead Head? And just what is a Dead Head, anyway? The question has been circulating unanswered for years now, and one English magazine made a straight-faced attempt at defining the phenomenon not long ago:
"The uprising of the Haight-Ashbury culture marked a time for change for many, and the Dead became known as ‘The People’s Band.’ Blacks were demonstrating for integration, students were in revolt, Martin Luther King’s star was rising, Kennedy was elected. [Author's note: Kennedy was dead, if the truth be known.] The Haight, a beautiful area of old San Francisco [Author's note: actually an old area of beautiful San Francisco] near Golden Gate Park, became a gathering place for kids who wanted out of the existing political and social system to try to find an alternative within which they could have fun, get high, go about life with wonder, love, music and laughter instead of orders, money, bribery, violence and fear. The Grateful Dead was their band."

“Fuck ‘people’s music’.” laughs Jerry Garcia from a reclining seat in the plush, wood-finished business offices of the band. (The comfortably expansive cluster of rooms are located in a streamlined San Rafael complex.) “I mean, I thought it was a dumb discussion even when it was the big thing a while back to talk about how music should be free...that music belongs to the people and musicians rip them off. That kind of thing really irks me.
“It’s like, in order to get so you can play music you have to sacrifice a lot of what would have been your normal life. You know what I mean? For lack of a better phrase, you have to pay the dues to get so you can play music. It’s not a thing you just do. If that were so, everybody’d be making their own music and there wouldn’t be professional musicians. There’d be no need for them. For someone to deny the fact that you spent a certain amount of your life working on some sort of discipline and learning how to play...that’s the rip-off. That’s the state versus the individual. Anytime someone comes down on artists and claims their work on any level, I think that’s pure bullshit. There’s been too many great musicians who died poor. People’s just ain’t so.”

Rock wanders into the room, catching the tail-end of Garcia’s statement. “That’s the confusion that’s created a lot by the press,” he says, “who identified the Dead with a sociological movement that happened in the Haight-Ashbury, right? So by the time the Grateful Dead got to New York for the first time, nobody would cover them as a music story. Instead the band got treated as some artifact from the decadence of the west-coast culture...something from Babylon.”
At 31, Garcia is not half the weathered old Grandaddy of psychedelia that one might expect from the multiplicity of legends that engulf his clouded past. “That’s all gone now,” he adds. “They don’t ask or talk about that much anymore. It’s pretty clear now that what looked like it might have been some kind of counter-culture is in reality just the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness.”

Legend has it that the Dead began their evolution towards the present when Garcia, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Bobby “Ace” Weir fell together in Palo Alto on New Years Eve, 1964. Joined later by Bill Kreutzmann on drums, they decided to form a jug band that became Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.
Jerry later stumbled upon Phil Lesh, who learned the bass (a la Chris Hillman) in the following two weeks and became a member of the band. By early 1965 they struck up an association with Ken Kesey. Kesey and Robert Hunter (Garcia’s writing partner) were two of the humans the State Hospital was using for pre-illegality LSD testing. It wasn’t long before the pair were infected with the idea of conducting similar experiments outside the hospital and on a considerably larger, decidedly non-clinical scale.
Kesey and his Merry Pranksters initiated their legendary Acid Tests in Palo Alto in the summer of ’65. A series of parties where (often unsuspecting) people could drop and dance the night away, it was the Warlocks who provided soundtrack for their mass hallucinations.
In 1966, their name was changed to the Grateful Dead and the group moved to (ta-da) Haight-Ashbury where a series of Be-Ins, free festivals and dances followed, as anyone who read Newsweek was made well aware.
Mickey Hart joined the Grateful Dead in 1967, leaving three years later when his father Lenny, then their manager, slipped off after having maneuvered them into a 100,000 dollar debt. (They eventually caught up with Lenny in San Diego, where he was masquerading as a priest.) Tom Constanten handled keyboards during 1969 and early 1970, and his departure left the position open until Keith Godchaux took over piano with the group a year ago. Donna, his wife, has also been added to the line-up as a vocalist.

Pigpen, the Dead’s notorious hard-drinking organist (and, in his biker leathers and psychedelic grubbiness, the symbol of the Dead as well), became very sick around the time Keith and Donna were added. Rarely did he join them on stage, their European tour being the only recent exception. “He had a whole bunch of things go wrong with his body all at once,” said Bob Weir late last year at a Dead show in Long Beach. “He had a perforated ulcer, hyperanemia, malnutrition and hepatitis all hit him at the same time.” Pigpen was found dead in his apartment earlier this year. His death was attributed to an overdose of natural cases. He was 27.
And while all this was going on, the Dead’s primarily west coast audience expanded into nation-wide, then world-wide proportions. In their hometown, where everybody still wears sandals and talks with nose-lifted reverence about how marvelous it is to live in "The City" – and while Bay Area radio has turned into a continuous grunt, sweat and toot Tower of Power record – Led Zeppelin may sell more tickets, but San Francisco still eats the Dead for breakfast.

Since the early days, the Dead have also grown into a corporation and an independent record company with well over thirty people on the payroll. Their hardcore San Francisco audience may still be locked into a 1967 consciousness, but the Grateful Dead operation is Big Business and strictly 1974. Why, Weir and Garcia have even been known to sport Nudie suits on stage every now and then.
“Pigpen was one of the main elements of our whole first years,” Garcia looks back on the Dead’s career. “His decline represented some kind of imminent change. And finally getting Keith and Donna, we’re a different band now. There are several periods we’ve gone through that overlap, but I tend to think of our existence in terms of the Pigpen-as-center period and then the more self-sufficient growing-out time that came when we got used to playing without him. I divide the band’s life span into those two categories, if any.”

The major news these days is Grateful Dead Records. Once just a pipe-dream for Scully and Garcia, it is now a reality. The new Grateful Dead album, Wake of the Flood, has been released on the band’s own independently distributed label. All things considered, could this be the end of an old and the beginning of a new era for the former Warner Brothers recording artists?
“Well,” Garcia considers while chain-smoking, “of sorts, yeah, but generally no. Grateful Dead albums have never been representative of the Grateful Dead. The live albums come the closest, but even they’re a year out-of-date by the time they’re released.
“But it’s dumb to complain about all that record company bullshit. I mean, if you’re enough of an asshole to stick it up where they can shoot at it, you can’t complain for getting shot. As far as I’m concerned the whole record trip was our mistake. It was our blunder and we’ve been living with our mistake for all these years. Now, hopefully, we’re free to make our own mistakes.”

Seeing as how the Grateful Dead and their inevitable off-shoots will market their own product, the obvious advantage will be the contractual freedom to release what they want, when they want (although leaving such considerations completely in the hands of the artist has not always proved such a wise move, as two of the Dead’s neighbors – the Airplane and the Youngbloods – have demonstrated), and make the effort more financially worthwhile in the process. If their newsletter is to be believed, the band has never made money from records in the past. “We’re a working, performing band,” Garcia emphasizes. “We’re not a recording band. Our records have always been a small part of our musical existence. That’s the truth. We’ve never been successful at records, really, and because of the way we run our scene we didn’t make any money at records either. If we want to keep feeding the babies, we’ve had to keep working.
“The bigger percentage we’ll be getting will make it possible for us to breathe and pick the concerts that we really want to do. We can also afford to lower the prices. Theoretically, that’s what should happen. But for us, the main get-off has always been playing live shows. It’s always been and always will.”

But that’s not the only reason why the last three Dead albums, Grateful Dead, Europe ’72 and History of the Grateful Dead – six records in all, have been live ones. “Our last record,” says Jerry of Europe (he prefers to ignore the History LP), “was live because we had a lot of people we wanted to take to Europe and that was the excuse to raise all the cash to do it. Warner Brothers gave us an advance that financed the vacation. You don’t make money playing England, so we needed to record an album there to pay the bills. Everything has many uses...”
The general attitude among the Dead inner-sanctum towards the History album, their final Warners product, is one of ambivalence at best. Weir is upset about the inclusion of a flat “Wake Up Little Susie” duet with Jerry. Garcia could care less about the whole thing. When handed his first copy of the album, he mumbled something about it having a less-than-stellar cover and didn’t even bother taking it home. “We had to give that record to Warner Brothers,” says Jerry, leaning back in his seat. “We weren’t contracted for it originally, but we hadda give it to them in order to make Europe ’72 a triple-lp. We could have been cut loose if we gave them two single records, rather than one triple album. We ended up giving them four discs instead of just two just to be able to go to Europe. It all goes back to that damn vacation of ours.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s something we owe them. I’m not interested in making Warner Brothers any richer. In a way, I’m glad it’s a low-profile, non-success record. It just means there won’t be any more energy going to WB via us. The music is what it is, us in early 1970. That was a time in our existence when we never made a record. The stuff we were doing at the time never got onto any of our records before now. I might not like it, but I played it. If they were no good, it’s too late to take those notes back.”

The new lp, Wake of the Flood, was recorded during the month of August at Sausalito’s Record Plant. It’s their first studio work since American Beauty hit the racks three years ago. “We finally made a record better than we play,” chortles Garcia. “The tunes are a little more sophisticated than what we’ve done in the past, but it’s Grateful Dead through and through. The tunes that me and Hunter wrote are the best we’ve written. But then again, I can’t really look at them. When I listen to my songs I’m listening to myself talking to myself. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a closed conversation. I’m not that fascinated with my own work.”

One piece of work Jerry Garcia was fascinated by was that of the Rowan Brothers, a couple of kids down the street from his Stinson Beach home. Garcia told an interviewer he thought they were “just as good as The Beatles” and the quote came back to haunt him on national ads and Sunset Strip billboards. The overkill destroyed the Rowans.
“It didn’t work did it?,” Jerry says sheepishly. “Their record company wasn’t successful in capitalizing on what I said. The Rowans’ album only sold a couple thousand copies. It was what I said alright, but it was embarrassing to hear it back on the radio and shit like that. It was a sorta lame thing to say, but the Rowans were friends of mine and they asked me if it was cool to use the quote... My feelings towards all that shit was that I should have never, ever, opened my mouth to anybody, ever, at anytime in my life. But it’s too late, now. I already blew it, so fuck it.”

(by Cameron Crowe, from Creem, January 1974)

This was a followup to Crowe's earlier Dead article:

1 comment:

  1. There's a bit of a story behind Steve Brown, mentioned in this article as a Dead collector. As McNally says, "One of the first new people to join Grateful Dead Records was Steve Brown, a fan who'd coincidentally submitted a proposal for a record company to the Dead in January."
    It turns out Brown had taped the Dead's 3/3/68 show (though I'm not sure whether he brought that up!) - when Garcia interviewed him, they just talked about music, growing up in San Francisco, and Brown's experience working at KSFO with a DJ Garcia admired. (Brown is mentioned in this article as "a locally infamous disc jockey.")
    McNally: "Brown was hired to be the album production coordinator, but he would also man a booth at Dead shows for the next two years, giving away postcards, signing up Heads to the mailing list, and so forth." (p.453)

    Brown goes into detail about how he joined GD Records in Greenfield's Dark Star book, p.142. (He also has many interesting comments about Garcia & Rakow through the book.)