This week the Grateful Dead trucked back into Britain. In America they're more successful than ever – and even Jerry Garcia can't work out why. He'd rather see Gary Numan...
"Sit down in that corner," says the photographer. "Are you asking me or telling me?" murmurs the musician, innocuously. "Which corner?" He looks around the room, eyes twinkling with amusement. "That corner! On the floor! Jesus, do you think I'll be able to get up again?"
He sighs good naturedly and plonks onto the floor underneath a lamp, spreading his legs out.
"Hiyeee," he gestures, mildly embarrassed. "This is for what? New Musical Express... Yeah, I remember. That's pretty amazing. I don't remember much. Memory is the first thing to go."
He chuckles to himself, and then steels himself as the photographer snaps. A lump of cigarette ash has found a good home on his profoundly shapeless greasy green cord trousers. When he stands up the ash will drift to the floor and the bottom of his trousers will sadly fail to reach his ankles.
"Do you listen to much new music?" asks the writer as the camera clicks again.
"I haven't heard anything really new," the musician admits.
Within the last ten years?
"Well, within the last year. I'm a big Elvis Costello fan. I like Dire Straits, but that's to be expected – it's easy to see why I like them. And I like Gary Numan a lot."
You like Gary Numan!!
"Sure do," he earnestly announces.
Have you seen him in concert?
"No, but I would like to. I think his stuff is really interesting. I think he's got a real thing. I like people who have a real conviction about what they do. Convinced that they have something to say and a real way to say it."
You should meet up with Numan and do some work with him.
"Oh no! I'd be intimidated by him. Shit yeah...these guys all seem so much more together than I feel. I feel like someone who is constantly on the verge of losing it, of blowing it. I feel tremendously insecure. When I see people perform with such panache... I don't see how they do it. It takes tremendous nerve, tremendous balls.
"I admire those guys. I admire Elvis Costello for his amazing output. Goddamn, the guy is so fucking prolific. For me a good year is like writing three songs. Songs don't come easy to me."
To the musician's bafflement, he's led by the photographer to a well lit mirrored bathroom for more photos. He poses uncomfortably in front of a mirror. Does he know what a mirror is? It looks like maybe he doesn't. He doesn't look too secure.
"We celebrities are used to this shit," he mock-boasts when he catches the writer's eye. "The typical bathroom shot."
More than any other psychedelic era band, The Grateful Dead epitomised the hippie in rock'n'roll.
– The Rolling Stone Record Guide
This is a good Tuesday. The sun is shining. The rain is falling. The traffic is moving. The tape is whirring.
The day after Joe Jackson calls me arrogant and superior at Cabaret Futura, an hour and a half after fighting my way out of bed, I'm keeping a 4:30 date in a posh hotel room with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.
We mix something like Grundy and the Pistols, or sugar and whisky. He looks like a busker drowning in a puddle of bad luck; I still have traces of make-up from the night before not quite rubbed away.
Garcia, cheery features awash in a stiff black-silver brush of hair that doesn't have shape or beginning is a collection of curves straight out of one of those quaint Robert Crumb cartoons.
"Yeah, well, I'm certainly part of that Crumb world," he admits.
We find things to talk about. I ask him whether he could stop existing now and not mind too much.
"Yeah, I think so. I'm not crazy about life. I wouldn't want to live here for hundreds of years. There isn't that much I'm interested in. There isn't much that I think I'm going to see that I haven't already seen."
So what sort of things concern you?
"Music. Music and drugs."
Does that limited concern manifest itself as the gross indulgence I see in Grateful Dead music?
"Weeaaall, I don't know what you see..."
I see gross indulgence: perhaps because you're only concerned with music and drugs. He laughs.
"No, actually I am concerned with a few other things. But in terms of what is actually compelling me to stay on this earth, there's not really a whole lot there. I'm interested to see what it's all about. It seems as though an awful lot has happened in a very short while. More has happened in the past 150 years than happened in all the time before that...trillions of years. It seems we're zipping up towards a moment. I don't know what's coming. But having come this far I'm determined to be around for the turn of the millennium. If nothing else. Just cos it's so close. Shit, it's only twenty years away."
He raises his eyebrows a little cheekily. So I would presume, with that sort of attitude, that political force and the like is abstract for you?
"Oh, I think all that shit is bullshit. I think the doings of people is actually really small potatoes. Really! It's like a playground!"
What about the individual stress that pressures people?
What about murder?
"Well, murder may have some kharmic implications. I think the idea of death...I mean, everybody dies." Except the Grateful Dead, I dryly interrupt. Garcia is not thrown. "Well there it is! But death is something that everybody has to confront. Murder...I'm not interested in murdering anybody. If there's a crime, that might be it. I feel like this because I have a lot of respect for the biological effort that has gone into putting humans here.
"If I was going to take a life I would start with my own. I flashed once that maybe a nice way for the world to govern itself would be that everyone would be issued at about five years old with a weapon. It would be like a two-way weapon. If you wanted to murder someone they would vanish instantly – but you would too! It would give everyone the power to make once in their life a life or death decision involving some other person, and they would instantly pay for it. All the hotheads would be gone immediately. I can imagine things working that way. It's a little radical...I haven't been able to sell the idea yet."
It'd be very clean.
"Something that's undramatic and unglamorous."
Thinking of the bits and snatches of drippy Dead music I've run into during the year, I tell him that, incidentally, undramatic and unglamorous pretty well sums up Grateful Dead. If you're being kind. Would he agree?
"Oh, very much," he smiles. "Very much, yes."
Impressed by his lack of anger at my lack of awe, I gain in confidence. Are you into making money, Jerry?
"Fuck no! Money! What is it? That's not to say I'm not greedy, but for me having something to do is better than having something. Having things has never been much of a turn-on for me. Having something to do is much more interesting."
Would you ever cut your hair?
"Would I! I did it once...I do it every couple of years. I do it once in a while, but only because it gets in my way, not because of style or fashion. I don't grow it because I have something to say. It just grows!" He laughs affectionately.
What kind of things embarrass you?
"Performing embarrasses the hell out of me! Getting on stage in front of people, shit, that's embarrassing!" He squirms. "Terribly fucking embarrassing."
But you stay on a stage for up to FIVE bleeding hours.
"Yeah! It takes me that long to get used to it. No, maybe after twenty minutes I'm used to it. I've been embarrassed by other things, like naked girls jumping out of the audience and grabbing me... But it can't compete with the embarrassment of just being visible."
I stare intensely at Garcia. He looks like one of those Muppets they get doing rollicking C&W music on rickety porches with Crystal Gayle. I should have asked him if he would like to be a muppet, but I ask him if he would like to appear on the show.
"Huhuhuh... No. I'm not an actor."
You're a branch of showbiz.
"I prefer The Muppet Show to almost any other show. We've thought of it, actually. It's maybe the one show we'd be comfortable on."
He leans forward in his chair and laughs. I lean back in mine and join in.
"But it's constrictive as a format. I don't think I could fit in there. I don't think of myself as a professional performer. I just can't imagine what an audience would find interesting about my interacting with the Muppets."
But there is comedy in the music of the Grateful Dead, surely.
"Yeah! Sometimes it's funny."
Do people laugh? Or do they still hold you in awe?
"I don't know whether they laugh or not. I know that I laugh! Openly. It's very funny, sometimes. But I really don't know whether the audience laughs. I certainly don't hear great gales of laughter roaring back at me."
What kind of things do you find funny about life?
"All of it is kind of funny."
Humour seems to form the wrapping of your worldview.
"Sort of...but not superficially. My inner me is sort of characterised by like hollow mocking laughter. It's kind of like, well, everyone is the butt of the cosmic joke. The cosmic joke is – you're it! Oh! To me that is always very funny. The 'why me' situation. That's funny!"
There's been over a score of Grateful Dead LPs, none of them in any way essential. Do you have a quiet laugh at all those people who buy all those LPs?
"I have a lot of respect for them! I'm thankful...I'm thankful that anyone comes through the door to see us! Shit, hey, listen man it's been surprising to me that people haven't been walking out in droves ever since we started. Who knows why people like us..."
In their first beginning they were nothing spectacular, just another rock'n'roll band made up of suburban ex-folkies who, in '64 and '65, with Kennedy dead, the civil rights movement split into black and white, Vietnam taking over from Ban The Bomb, with The Beatles, Stones and Dylan, were finding out that the sit and pluck number had outrun its course.
– Rolling Stone, August 1969.
The Grateful Dead acid mythology has always been, for us, a joke.
– Jerry Garcia, March 1981
They co-sponsored Altamont; hired the Hells Angels. They've wandered the world generously scattering their music, like seed. They were one of the first groups to introduce the huge sound systems and complicated light shows into rock. They were one of those groups that switched the emphasis of rock away from 'style' towards 'experience'. They were "true explorers into the infinite recession that acid opened up," stars in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. They didn't do 'gigs' – they did Acid Tests. "Thousands of people, man," Garcia said in 1969, "all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a roomful of other thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far out beautiful magic."
In the '60s the group were a family: a flowing freedom psychedelic musical experience. Sounds mediaeval. Maybe there was a weird transcendentalist drive that fitted into the formlessness and restlessness of the times, but the innocent adventure transformed easily into rock production, big business, a slimy perpetual motion. The Dead sifted into the '70s, splintered, came together and just grew and grew as if they couldn't help it. "The Dead, we all know, is bigger than all of us," said a group member 12 years ago.
They've emerged out of the '70s wastelands as '80s superstars: it's a familiar nightmare.
"We're not big big," Garcia points out with a little chuckle, "but we have our platinum and gold discs."
Instead of just disappearing into small clubs of lost America, the Dead became pop stars for the new American age. Their audience is teenage and indiscriminately enthusiastic.
What this stands for is depressing. That they are successful, celebrated, adored; that they've inevitably failed to fundamentally alter their synthesis of musical idioms; that they are unglamorous and undramatic; all this encapsulates the steady status quo of rock and roll music.
"Music at its finest addresses something that I think is universal. Whatever is great about all the music that has ever existed remains great. The music of Beethoven and Bach...anything that is great and uplifting and speaks the Universal. That is ideally what we would be trying to go for."
At the moment American youth seem astonishingly passive. When you emerged there was the spirit of participation and adventure. People were rummaging around. There's little of that now. Despite your popularity, the universal music you speak of aspiring to, essentially you're just a part of perpetuation of bland, blanketing myths. Does that disappoint you?
"Well, it's a certain kind of disappointment. The world changes very slowly."
But surely it's turned against you.
Why not? Aren't you disappointed the way America has turned out?
"Naah! I didn't have any expectations. I started out without expectations. It's a trick. That's all. If you start out expecting to fail and expecting the worst then anything that happens is an improvement over that. So that's the kind of head I go into it with. In the '60s I wasn't imagining the world was going to be a beautiful and better place, y'know..."
But is Dead music a celebration of life?
"At its best moments it can be something like that. It's kind of hard to put into words. I don't really know exactly what it is. I just know that subjectively speaking there are special moments that make it feel that after being in the Grateful Dead all of this time...we're just starting."
I gasp. Garcia concentrates.
"We're just starting to get ourselves together in a lot of ways, to start to do what we hope to do."
Does it disappoint you that after those 16 years and what you've struggled and soared through, people like me can be disrespectful of you: think you are rusty, crusty, dusty and fusty?
I just get the last -usty out and Garcia exclaims: "No! I don't give a damn. I would be afraid if everybody in the world liked us. The responsibility. I don't want to be responsible for leading the march to wherever. Fuck that. It's already been done and the world hates it. Humans hate it."
Wasn't that leading the march thing your '60s attitude?
"Fuck, no! Hell! For me the whole combination of music and the psychedelic experience taught me to fear power. I mean fear it and hate it. In those times there were lunatics that were constantly trying to nail the Grateful Dead up as being the vanguard of some power trip. It was always the same thing. It was basically Hitler, y'know?"
As a creative body of sorts, can you feel comfortable within the present political and cultural context in America?
"Oh yeah. There's a lot of space for me. A lot of room. I enjoy America when America is involved in tension, y'know, I prefer a tense America. I prefer conflict. When there are difficulties going on, I like that vitality, that kind of energy. Like in the '70s it was dull, there was nothing to get mad about, nothing to get excited about, nothing to celebrate. I can live in that environment pretty successfully as well. But I prefer a little tension in the air."
You talk of tension and vitality, but I feel none of this in your music. It's dull; there's no celebration. To me it's a stream of nothing.
"Well...in a way that is what it is. I don't know what your exposure to our music has been but our music is not what our records are. If you see us play live you'll see that what we do is a different sort of thing. I think it'll be evident...it's tough to talk about...our music is attached to the moment in which it happens. The moment. It's very much that. It's more jazz in that sense. It's not art music. It's not form music. Things like records are a little artificial for us."
Have you ever made a decent record?
"I don't think so."
I think your music is dead dull – how would you sell it to me? Where's the turn-on?
"I wouldn't try to sell it to you. If you think it's dull maybe it is. Yeah, I could find things to agree with. For me our records are a series of failures. I see them in terms of what they might have been, or what I'd wished they'd been and what they weren't."
So why make records?
"Well, because it's one of the things you can do when you're a musician. What is there? When you're a musician you perform and what? Make records. It's a way to conserve music. But records are not really appropriate to what the Grateful Dead does. Time alone is a big enemy of ours. On an album a short Grateful Dead song is seven or eight minutes."
"I don't know! I suppose at the beginning we were playing for a dance audience, not a listening audience, and when you play for a dancing audience you don't want them to stop, and they don't want to stop either. In those days people got real high and they danced all night. So three minutes of dancing is not enough. Fifteen minutes is really a bit more like it, for people to stretch out."
Have you heard of the Fire Engines, I say, a little ambitiously. Well, they play 15-minute sets.
"It's not my desire to say there is only this or that. For me it's a full range of experiences, and within that it includes things like boredom. Sometimes boredom is what is happening in life, that's what it's about sometimes. Sometimes the tension between boredom and discovery is like an interesting thing. The idea of noodling around aimlessly for 15 minutes, and we are notorious for that, but then hitting on some rich vein of something that we may never have got to any other way, and that's the reward. I want there to be a complete vertical experience. I want it to be the full range."
I've been into music so long that I'm dripping with it: it's all I ever expect to do.
– Jerry Garcia, August 1969
I'm surprised at our success. I can easily relate to the days when we outnumbered the
audience. In my mind that isn't long ago. And it wasn't that different. I'd enjoy it whether we
were obscure or hugely successful. Shit, I would pay to play music.
– Jerry Garcia, March 1981
Garcia is cheery; mordant and ironic at times. His intelligence is quick and precise. He and the Grateful Dead seem to wash along in the mysterious tide of change without changing too much. It all changes and nothing much seems to change.
In 1979 a Rolling Stone reporter noted that Garcia looked you right in the eye and smiled encouragement. In 1981 Garcia looks you right in the eye and smiles encouragement. He noted that Garcia, however complex, was entirely open and unenigmatic. I could say the same today. In 1979 though, Rolling Stone was convinced Jerry Garcia had clear and inspired ideas. In 1981 I'm convinced that Garcia is a man in love with his instrument who's pretty lucky how his mind's turned out. Despite the resonance in Garcia's conversation, the Grateful Dead seem to stand for the essential dowdiness of life.
Would you want to grow up like the Grateful Dead? As a force of change the Dead seem...dead. As a 'love draw' they're so alive if I think about it too much it aches.
Come on, Jerry, youth, rebellion, I don't want to be like the past, like you...pop is quick, a confrontation, flash...you're being consumed by millions of Americans and you're tastelessss!
Garcia chuckles, shoves a leg underneath his body and looks me in the eye with genial firmness. "First of all I don't think of myself as an adult. An adult is someone who's made up their mind. When I go through airports the people who have their thing together, who are clean, well-groomed, who have tailored clothes, who have their whole material thing together, these people are adults. They've made their decision to follow those routines. Brush their teeth regularly and all that.
"If you get to that stage all you get is rock solid boredom. With no surprises, when you're pretty sure that your best years are behind you. I run into people who are 24, 25, who are into that bag and I feel tremendously intimidated by them. I feel they're adults."
American youth seems to be adult at 15.
"It's just a phase. It'll pass. The next group of people will dislike that so intensely and so thoroughly that they'll fight through."
That will include the resentment and antipathy towards the Grateful Dead that I think should exist now.
"If it does, it does."
So if you're not an adult, what are you?
"I would say that I was part of a prolonged adolescence. I think our whole scene is that."
Moving towards what?
"Middling adolescence!" He laughs. I switch the tape off.
"Yeah, that's far enough!"
(by Paul Morley, from the New Musical Express, March 28, 1981)