INTERVIEW: JERRY GARCIA OF THE GRATEFUL DEAD
David: Why weren't the Grateful Dead in the Woodstock movie?
Jerry: Well, we played such a bad set at Woodstock. The weekend was great, but our set was terrible. We were all pretty smashed, and it was at night. Like we knew there were a half million people out there, but we couldn't see one of them. There were about a hundred people on stage with us, and everyone was scared that it was gonna collapse. On top of that, it was raining or wet, so that every time we touched our guitars, we'd get these electrical shocks. Blue sparks were flying out of our guitars.
David: Your own light show.
Jerry: Yeah, right. [Laughter]
David: Why was there such a difference between Woodstock and Altamont?
Jerry: Oh God. Altamont was such a bummer, man. You could just feel the tension in the air.
David: Woodstock was spontaneous and Altamont was planned, forced.
Jerry: Right, man. It was a combination of a lot of things. You know, the Hell's Angels got a bum rap from it, but it wasn't their fault.
David: Couldn't the Stones have stopped it from the stage?
Jerry: Hell no. They were fucking scared. They were playing for their lives.
David: That sort of hysteria seems to have always been a part of the Stones.
Jerry: Well, see, the Rolling Stones never did have a cool audience. When they started playing, people were screaming. Then they knocked off for two or three years and now they come back, and it's back to screaming. But the one opportunity they had to go a different direction was on their regular tour, because the regular gigs, they had to get the audience to get up...
David: They always did.
Jerry: Yeah, but it was a trick. You know, Mick Jagger would make his little speech about turn on the lights so we can see you, and the lights would go on, and everybody would scream and run up to the stage. It was so predictable. They knew it would work.
David: But everybody got caught up in it.
Jerry: Sure, sure, but that's the thing that's going for it. It's like the magicians, like Cagliostro, man, you know what I mean? One of those trips. If you get to the point where you're playing music and you can't get off unless the crowd tears itself to pieces and attacks the stage, it's kind of like sinking your teeth way in. It's taking more than you need. You know, the Stones had the opportunity to come on as musicians during their tour, because people were sitting and listening carefully and digging the music. It's a whole other thing. It's something they'd never experienced before, they'd always had that hysteria.
David: But when you really got to listening, they were playing good.
Jerry: Hell yeah, man. They're good, they don't need any tricks. To my mind, they don't need any tricks. They put on a good show, they play fucking good, and they don't need any of the rest of the bullshit.
David: But they don't want to be musicians, they want to be stars.
Jerry: Well, I don't know if it's a question of wanting to be stars, but they definitely want to have that excitement goin' on, they want to have that hysteria. For what reason, who knows?
David: But unfortunately, they'll never be able to get rid of it.
Jerry: Yeah, probably. So it's doing weird things to them, I'm sure.
David: What was the Trans-Canadian train trip like?
Jerry: Oh, it was great. That was the best time I've had in rock and roll. It was our train, it was the musicians' train. There were no straight people. There wasn't any show biz bullshit. There weren't any fans, there were nothing but musicians on the train. So immediately we started pulling furniture out of the two club cars and putting amplifiers and drums in. Jam sessions all the way across Canada, man. Played music all the way across Canada, and we juiced. Everybody juiced because nobody brought dope into Canada, everybody was chickenshit.
David: How long did it last?
Jerry: About five days, six days maybe, but it was really fucking fun. Everybody got to be such good friends in that little world. It was like a musicians' convention with no public allowed.
David: What kind of music did you play?
Jerry: Everything. You name it, we did it. We had every conceivable kind of configuration that you could imagine, man. We had singers, lots of singers on the train, all kinds of trips. The most incredible combination of voices, like Delaney and Bonnie and Janis with Buddy Guy singing together, or Bonnie and Buddy Guy, or...
David: These are real dreams here.
Jerry: Oh, hey, man, there was one jam session with Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, me and Weir from our band, Rick Danko, Delaney and Bonnie and Eric Andersen.
David: Did anyone get it on film?
Jerry: Yeah, they got it all down on film. It'll really be far out.
David: When did you start including the New Riders of the Purple Sage in your sets?
Jerry: About a year ago, I think.
David: Does it make any difference in the Grateful Dead sets?
Jerry: Sure, sure. I mean it makes it so that none of us work all that hard...
David: Well, you do. You're on stage the whole time with three different instruments.
Jerry: Yeah, and that becomes the limit.
David: The amazing thing is that you're on stage for five or six hours, and when you finish, the people still yell for more.
Jerry: I know. That's the part that drives me up a wall. I mean, if they really wanted me to be out front and go out and slice my jugular vein and die on the stage, I'll do it -- for a price! But I ain't gonna do it every night. [Laughter]
David: They'll stand there and cheer until their lungs break.
Jerry: I know, it's crazy.
David: It seems as if they're not satisfied until you collapse on stage, because as long as you're still standing they feel they're entitled to more. They demand exhaustion.
Jerry: Well, I don't mind that. The thing that I mind is that after doing six hours somebody comes up to us and says, "What a burn, you didn't play Alligator," or something like that. That's the shit that makes me really crazy. That's when I want to kill. [Laughter]
David: What's the difference between the audiences now and of a few years ago?
Jerry: Well, they're more frantic now. I don't know, man. It used to be we didn't have audiences. We used to play at parties where we were the incidental music. We would be playing, and everybody would be jumping and screaming and raving. Everywhere you looked, you saw somebody you knew. We didn't start getting audiences until we started going out of town. Then we started getting audiences, and we didn't know what to make of audiences the first year we toured. We lost money for everybody the first year or so.
David: Nobody went to see you?
Jerry: Well, people would come to see us and then leave after ten minutes because we weren't a show or anything like that. We were just out there fucking around and playing music, crazy music.
David: You didn't wear all the same jackets and ties and...
Jerry: [Laughter] No, no, man. We never ever did that.
David: I'd like to see Pigpen in a jacket doing a whole dance routine, like in the soul revues.
Jerry: I'd love to do that. I'd love for us to get fucking suits and wear them on stage. Hey, man, that's really a flash! The Beatles used to do it.
David: The Grateful Dead, the moptop six. Getting back to the audiences, what do you think of the whole concept of free music, people's music?
Jerry: Well, we've always done free concerts, you know, even before we were the Grateful Dead, back around 1964 or 1965. The big difference now is that there's so many people, and it's getting real hard to accommodate all of them. There has to be some kind of organization involved in presenting rock music.
David: Then you think someone like Bill Graham is necessary?
Jerry: Hey, man when our band was first starting out along with the Airplane and Big Brother, Graham organized all those dances. He was down in Alioto's office [Mayor Joseph Alioto of S.F. -- Ed.] all the time getting the permits and all that shit. Hell, he worked hard. Someone has to do it.
David: What's your relationship with Graham now?
Jerry: I like Graham, he's funny. [Laughter] But I don't know. Like I always used to think that there had to be some kind of organization in presenting rock music, even if that meant that people like Graham were making profits. You know, because he worked for it, he worked real fucking hard for it. And then Janis said something to me about that it should all be free music, people's music. She came out very straight with it, and it blew my mind because I'd never really thought of it in those terms before.
David: On the one hand, you want everyone to be hip to this music, but when everyone gets into it all at once, it becomes chaos.
Jerry: Yeah, well, the function that musicians have and the discipline required to become a good musician are things that people who aren't into some kind of discipline don't understand.
David: The same discipline you need to have on stage when you perform.
Jerry: Fucking right, man! You have to have a certain kind of discipline to get around to learn how to play an instrument anyway. It's not a question of where it comes from. With most musicians it comes from loving music, and so you develop a kind of discipline out of that without even knowing what it is. But the point is that you've devoted your life to something, and you do it mostly as an experience that you alone can understand. Later on, your music is something you can share with other people because of the effort you've made. But it's that early effort that counts. Nobody supports that effort. It's the effort where someone says, "Hey man, how'd you like to go partying?" "No, I think I'll stay home and play." And anyone who's a good musician has spent a certain amount of his life in that world.
David: You've got to learn scales before you can play.
Jerry: Right. It's a yoga. The guy that's good in anything...
David: He's got to have it up on a platform. It's got to be the most important thing in his life.
Jerry: Right, and that's the thing that mentioned least in a musician's relationship to his music. Take someone like Janis. Now I knew Janis eight years ago, and she was singing her heart out in the funkiest places you could imagine with abscesses on her arms, dumpy and strung out, head all fucked up, wearing the plainest, most nondescript clothes you've ever seen. She was really singing, and nobody was even listening. She put in some really hard times on the street, and nobody supported that early effort.
David: Did she put more into her singing then than she did later on?
Jerry: She always put everything into her singing; always, she never let up. I mean, that's who she was.
David: What made her go into drugs like that then, the whole stardom trip?
Jerry: No, she was into drugs a long time ago, hard-ass ones. You gotta understand what it's like to someone whose music is their scene. It's strong, man. You have to consider her situation. The situation is you're making a record, and you're putting out a lot of effort, long hours in the studio. You get pretty weird. You come out afterwards, go to a bar, get a few drinks to level out. Everything's going pretty good, but you have to relax `cause tomorrow you have to go back to the studio. So it's back to the hotel, you have a little smack, you know, it's like a tranquilizer, or a downer when you're not strung out. Janis was not strung out. She had been, she kicked, she was clean. She took a hit, went down to get some cigarettes, back to her room, and two minutes later she's dead. You know, it was just a little too much, she had a few drinks, maybe she wasn't thinking too straight when she did herself, and that's how easy it is. Just a mistake, a little too much, a fucking accident. It could've happened to anybody. I don't think she killed herself or anything like that. In fact, I know she didn't. It was just an accident, a dumb fucking accident.
David: But is that acceptable, the fact that accidents may happen?
Jerry: Sure, well why not? They happen to everybody, driving a car or walking down a flight of stairs. You see, the payoff for life is death. You die at the end of your life, no matter how, and it's always appropriate in the sense that no matter how you die, that's it, you're dead. So it doesn't really matter how or when, that's not part of the statement. The statement was the life, the death was the close. I'd describe Janis's life as a good one because she went out when she was happy. She was happy with her new band, she was happy with her material, she was happy with what she was doing. She was singing better than ever.
David: But doesn't it make you feel sad that she won't be able to do it anymore?
Jerry: Sure, because I'm gonna miss her.
David: Well, not only personally, but for her too because she's not around anymore.
Jerry: Yeah, well I feel sorry for that, but it doesn't do me any good to feel that way, and Janis would've preferred for people to be partying rather than for it to be a downer. I can dig that.
David: The Dead do more singing now as opposed to a few years ago when you performed mostly instrumental compositions. When did this start?
Jerry: Oh, about a year and a half ago. We started singing a lot because we were hanging out with Steve Stills and David Crosby on the coast, and it was such a gas. It looked so easy. You just sit down with a guitar and sing. So we decided to try it, and it's been so much fun.
David: You guys have weird harmonies. Like the harmony on Uncle John's Band, they're not regular three-part harmonies...
Jerry: You mean parallel harmonies, triads, where you're always stacking a 1-3-5 inversion? We don't think of it in those terms. We just do whatever sounds right. We do a lot of suspensions where we hold a note over from one chord into another and sometimes through one over into the next one after that. You'll hear further expositions of it on our new album, American Beauty.
David: What kind of stuff is on it?
Jerry: Oh, acoustic, electric, acoustic with electric, electric with acoustic. All kinds of endless permutations. It's mostly a songs album, real tasty songs.
David: What's your relationship with Warner Brothers now?
Jerry: Oh, Warner Brothers loves us now.
David: Sure, all this sudden popularity.
Jerry: Yeah, right.
David: They didn't use to love you.
Jerry: Well, I don't know if they used to hate us, but they always looked upon us with a sort of patronizing indifference. You know, we never brought in much money, but we were a prestige band. It was good public relations.
David: What do you think has caused your sudden popularity?
Jerry: I don't know, man. I go through a million changes behind it, man. It's a mystery to me because, God knows, we've been around long enough, and we haven't really changed our scene materially. I guess the big thing is Workingman's Dead, because there it is, man. You know, it's got songs on it that anybody can hear.
David: You can hum the tunes.
Jerry: Anybody can. You can remember the words a lot of times. It's all pretty easy.
David: I think what's happening is that Woodstock has made rock acceptable to the masses. So that now everyone is into rock. Everyone buys albums and goes to concerts. And your band has been around so long that naturally people want to listen to your music.
Jerry: Yeah, that may be true. I just think that music, if it's halfway decent at all, will make it no matter what the time or situation. Like 500 years ago, we would've been making it on a different level. We would've been a little band of touring jugglers, pickpockets, fiddlers, card readers, and we would've been successful in those terms like we're successful now. The only thing now is that there are so many fucking people.
There's also yet another possibility, and that is that the whole history trip has been reduced. Say, for example, that Phil Lesh is the reincarnation of Beethoven. Now when he was Beethoven, it wasn't until a hundred years after his death that a lot of people knew who he was. In this lifetime, he doesn't even have to get to his best work before lots of people know who he is. Maybe he's even caught up with his Beethoven reincarnation. News travels fast. It used to be to send a letter to some cat in Europe, you had to send it by ship. It took months. Today, the news is so accessible. It's just how fast the news travels.
David: You're the children of the media, as Marshall McLuhan said. How does it feel to be an idol of millions? [Laughter]
Jerry: I'm not an idol of millions. [Pause] I may be an idol of hundreds of thousands. [Laughter]
(by David Bromberg, from Jazz & Pop magazine, February 1971)