Jun 17, 2021

March 1981: Phil Lesh Interview


CL: There's a quote in the Harrison book that says, 'After the second Acid Test the Dead started playing dragon music, esoteric, asymmetrical music unable to be conceptualized except by a few,' or words to that effect. However all the early Dead recordings from that period, good though they are, sound like slightly psychedelic r n b.

PL: It's hard to differentiate because Hank was not at the Acid Tests. He wasn't welcome as far as I know. He had been our manager, for a short time, he got us one gig and then we moved up the ladder, professionally speaking, and we were working with an agent. After that we had our first major gig, a month long stand, 6 nights a week, 5 sets a night.
So this is all post Harrison having anything to do with the band, anything other than as a friend of mine. So anyway he wasn't at the Acid Tests, the only reason I think he might say that, is because - well he and I took acid together and [he] naturally assumed the rest. The way I remember the Acid Tests is that we played normally except we were stoned. It was kind of easy, strangely enough, it may not seem so.
The way the music developed from 65 to 68, let's say, it was like one long breath, long and slow. But I would say that your description of the slightly psychedelic r n b band was pretty correct up to the Anthem of the Sun period.

CL: In fact that description sounds more like...

PL: Hank Harrison!

CL: Well that too. But musically it sounds like the Anthem/Carousel Ballroom period.

PL: That's right. That music lasted about two years from the end of 67 to early 70, whenever we went in and recorded Workingman's.

CL: Do you remember the demos the Warlocks did for Tom Donahue?

PL: What are the cuts, can you remember?

CL: There's a thing called 'Can't Come Down'.

PL: God. That's a song that I can't remember. I know that we wrote a song called 'Can't Come Down' but I can't remember it [at] all.

CL: There's also 'Early Morning Rain' with you singing.

PL: Yes it is. I never did that much lead singing, cos I never felt comfortable with it, especially live. For some people it's easy, but for me to play the bass and sing - almost impossible.
It's curious that Jerry and Bob now play in the same place that we auditioned for the live gig with Donahue. It was Mother's then but it's now called The Stone. It's still a piece of shit place.

CL: The other thing about the demos is that in some ways they sound more interesting than the 1st Warners album.

PL: Well, for the album we had a producer - Hassinger. He went on to produce Seals and Crofts.

CL: Can we just talk a a bit about your days in Palo Alto before the Dead started.

PL: It was a guy called Mike Lamb who got me into all of that. That's how I met Kesey, Pigpen, Garcia, Alan Trist, all those guys. Mike was in a band later, he had the most amazing voice, sounded like a contra bass trombone that could speak. He was about 6'4" but slender. Good looking dude, man. I had to fight to keep the women away from him. He turned me on to about 3 of my first best girlfriends.
The folk scene in Palo Alto was all there was at that point. The jazz scene was so introverted. There was no local jazz scene at all and when anybody great came to town it was just too overwhelming. Later on we had to follow Miles Davis - the Bitches Brew band - 2 nights in a row. I don't ever want to hear anybody snivel about following anyone else. Because I got the one, man, right there. Made me feel so dumb. I thought, 'what the fuck am I doing here, why aren't I at home digesting what I just heard?'
Anyway to go back. I was going to college at San Mateo, studying music, of course, learning big band jazz charts. Sucking up as much music as I could - trying to find out about Stockhausen, because I'd read about him in the library. Actually one of the best breaks I ever had was a job testing records at the library.
I've always been a book person as well. My grandmother taught me to read at the age of 3, so that I could read the Bible to her. How convenient, says I 37 years later. She was also the one to turn me onto music. She discovered me with my ear against the wall during the Sunday afternoon symphony concert on the radio, my room was next to hers. The next week she said, 'Would you like to come in and hear the nice music?' It was the Brahms 1st symphony conducted by Bruno Walter. I'm four years old and thinking 'this is it. I don't know [how] or why but this is it.' Ah yes, the good old days. Seems like as soon as you turn 35 you start remembering.

CL: (One of the more interesting Dead tapes I have is from the Carousel Ballroom. 14th February 1968. At one point on the tape they move from Born Cross Eyed into a weird Spanish sounding thing that has overtones of Quicksilver. I played it to Phil and asked him what he thought about it.)

PL: I wish we still played like that. That was our Sketches of Spain take, it was part of our act at the time. Sketches of Spain was one of those classic albums, at one time you could walk down any street in a college town and hear it floating out of almost every window. Bringing It All Back Home was the same later on.

CL: Although he wasn't on that, I was going to ask you about Tom Constanten, since he was definitely part of the Dead's exotic period.

PL: It was late 68 that he finally joined. He helped us with Anthem of the Sun with the prepared piano piece. He just brought the tapes over and overdubbed his part. I think that's all he did on Anthem. Later on he joined as an addition, not replacing Pig Pen. He never quite got over a certain stiffness, he couldn't swing or at least at that time he couldn't. That was the big problem. He only stayed just a little over a year. We always had a problem with keyboards. Pig Pen was always a soloist with his harp and voice and his personality, but he wasn't really much of an organ player. So when we started getting into spaces that were more extended he would lay out, which was for the best, I guess. On the other hand, during the Other One he'd play little parts which was always helpful for the texture. But we always had that problem even up till 72 when Keith joined.
Tom Constanten is doing pretty well for himself. Pretty soon I expect to see his name on a movie score. He has a lot of contacts in Europe so it could come from there. He's gone back to performing his own work and lecturing. I met him when he was 17 years old, god he was a weird guy.

CL: That was my favorite period of the band.

PL: Mine too. Although we've become quite proficient at pulling out imitations of that style. But as that time fades into antiquity there are nights when I feel like a parody of myself. But that's got to be natural, because that is a very large part of music, to parody. I find that when we do the feedback stuff I have less and less to play. I have less and less ideas, not a lack of ideas per se, just that they don't seem to relate the same way that they did in the past. To me it's getting to be a mistake to do that every night. Back in 68 we did it every night because that's what we did, by God. In those days we used to say that every place we played was church and that's what it was like. A pretty far out church but that's how we felt.
Back in the early days some nights were amazing and some were terrible, but now we've reached a level of professionalism where we can almost always make it good for the audience, but the chances of the amazing nights [have] been dramatically reduced. But we did learn how to play and we can now stumble through a whole 3 hours and 15 minutes and it will still get the crowd off.

CL: To backtrack again, why didn't you use the complete version of St. Stephen and The Eleven on Aoxomoxoa? (The original has bagpipes, telephones ringing, etc. as well as The Eleven which wasn't used at all.)

PL: I forget, but I'd love to hear it.

CL: OK. There is also another interesting track - the Barbed Wire Whipping Party (possibly the weirdest thing the band ever did).

PL: God! As far as we knew there was never even a mix of that - so some slick sucker did make a mix of it. 'Meat, meat, give me my meat. Hump snippet, lump snippet.'

CL: What was it all about. Why did you do it.

PL: Why not? Well Hunter had this lyric, well it wasn't a lyric, it was just a rave which went something like 'The Barbed Wire Whipping Party in the razor blade forest,' that's the first line I think. 'Last week I went to Mars and talked to God, and he said 'tell 'em to cool out and not to worry, cos the end of everything is death!'' It was so great. Hunter himself read it, which was great because we never got him to perform on our records, so that was cool.

CL: Let's jump to some of your side endeavours like Warp 10.

PL: Well we never really called it that. That was more or less Mickey's term for it. It was kind of an offshoot of the feedback trip and my involvement with electronic music as a student and with Ned Lagin who we met at MIT when we played there in 70.
The thing took several forms, mostly Ned and I, sometimes Ned and I plus Mickey. Once it was the three of us plus David Crosby and Jerry. At one point it was Ned, myself and Crosby, and then finally Ned and myself. We actually went on the road and while we didn't make a lot of money, we drew people and they liked it. It was a lot more coherent with just the two of us, with five of us it was too thick for any real interplay. Then came the Seastones fiasco which was a horrible bummer for Ned both aesthetically and financially - it was a rip off. It was the lowest priority project for Round Records. Ned went his own way after that, although we still communicate. He's into video now with his computer. We essentially did a benefit for him and got him a computer and a synthesizer.

CL: There has been a subtle change of image for the Dead in the last few years. Particularly the slicker production of the albums and the white suits on 'Go To Heaven'.

PL: I think we can lay that in Clive Davis' lap. That's what he demanded. He didn't actually demand that we use producers but he did demand that we acted professional and got commercial.
The guy is a fool, he wanted the Grateful Dead because it is something that had always evaded him. I think the whole thing is dogshit, I hate producers, if I ever have to work with one again I'll probably kill myself. We still owe them another studio album. I'm going to put it off as long as I can. We still have another electric double album coming out from the Warfield and Radio City gigs.
Clive Davis actually went round the producer and made edits! I was thunderstruck. I can't tell you how much I hate the idea of 'Go To Heaven', I can't tell you how much I hate the white suits, although it was my idea. Not the white suits, but putting our faces on the cover for the first time. I could go on and on.
The new album is beautiful I think. It sounds very far out. The way that Dan and Betty put it together is that you can be sitting in the room and the audio image is bigger than the area covered by the speakers. If you are sitting in a certain position it sounds like you're sitting in the sound booth, if you move forward it sounds like you're in the front row, move back and it sounds like you're in the balcony. It's amazing.
The mixes are beautiful too. This is the first album I liked since Blues For Allah.

CL: I liked aspects of that album, especially the experimental quality, but really didn't like the sound of Keith Godchaux's electric piano.

PL: After a certain point Keith never wanted to play. He was so brilliant at the beginning. I heard some tapes from '71, wow that guy had it all, he could play anything. By 75 Donna had joined too; I don't know if you know how difficult it is having husband and wife in the same band? Well that didn't help either, but that's all in the past. Donna's doing well now, got a band called the Heart of Gold Band, singing her heart out. She sings like a goddess and she never sang that way with us and I cussed her out for it. She couldn't say anything.

(from Comstock Lode magazine, issue 9, 1981) 


  1. Comstock Lode was a short-lived UK music magazine edited by John Platt. The same issue had an interview with Mickey Hart which I may add sometime.
    The magazine caught Lesh during the March '81 visit to London. This interview seems to skip around topics abruptly; possibly they were short on time.

    One thing that's evident is that Phil misses the early days, calling the '68 era his favorite period of the band: "I wish we still played like that." Whereas Garcia in '80s interviews would always go on about how much more professional & consistent the band was now and how they're just getting started, Phil has a dimmer view of their progress: though the audience always gets off now, the amazing nights are few. He feels less engaged even by the Space sections and feels they're just repeating or imitating themselves: "there are nights when I feel like a parody of myself."
    As far as their recent studio work, he's very unhappy, and blasts Go To Heaven (and all their Arista albums). He's quite happy with Reckoning though (which came out in April '81), praising the mix.

  2. Some other things he mentions:
    - The Dead were annoyed by Hank Harrison's Dead books, which were set in some highly fictionalized alternate Harrison universe. Per McNally, in November '65 "Phil's friend Hank Harrison became their manager for about a week, and got them a gig at Pierre's, a strip joint on San Francisco's Broadway." This was after the "first major gig" at the In Room Phil mentions, but a little time displacement is natural. Hank did still hang out with the band in the early '70s, presumably until his book came out.
    - An article in Dark Star magazine mentioned the '65 audition for Tom Donahue: "Mother's, a North Beach district club, was owned by Tom (Big Daddy) Donahue... The Great Society passed the Mother's audition, although the Dead who auditioned on the same day...were turned down." Mother's was one of the first psychedelic nightclubs and didn't last long; the Warlocks had gone to see the Loving Spoonful play there in August '65. Donahue also owned Autumn Records, which they recorded the demo for. (They had a hard time getting started in San Francisco; they'd also auditioned for the Family Dog crew but were rejected by them too as "a mere cover band.") Anyway, Phil remembers it as being the same place as the later club The Stone, where Garcia played frequently - Mother's was 430 Broadway & the Stone was 412 Broadway so I don't know if they were in the same building, but the location became a succession of nightclubs in-between '65 & '80.
    - Phil blanks on the early Warlocks songs, but he remembers Barbed Wire Whipping Party almost word for word. (Like Garcia, he's surprised to find this stuff out on tape - and though he says "there was never even a mix of that," a couple mixes have circulated.) Garcia & Lesh were both fond of this "great" track, and it prompts one of my favorite interview questions: "What was it all about. Why did you do it."
    - At the time, only the second set of 2/14/68 was available on tape (from the radio broadcast). Hearing it makes Phil swoon with nostalgia. There's a picture of the 3/3/68 Haight St. show in the article, captioned, "Phil: That was the highest day of my life."
    - Phil & Ned played a handful of "Seastones" shows in '75 (listed in Nedbase), sometimes with Garcia & Crosby. (Phil preferred it when it was just him & Ned.) Mickey was also involved with them at the start - an October '73 Rolling Stone article mentions "an electronic music outfit consisting of Phil Lesh...an MIT music student named Ned Legin, and Mickey himself. 'It's biofeedback music,' said Mickey, 'neuro-sensory system music. Highly evolved music...we're gonna bring it out pretty soon. We've been building special equipment to play it. What are we gonna call ourselves? Ha! The other night we were thinking of 'Warp Ten.' We don't know yet — anyway, it's Warp Ten to me.'" (The name didn't catch on with the others.)

  3. I reckon this one is a gem, on Clive Davis:

    "The guy is a fool, he wanted the Grateful Dead because it is something that had always evaded him. I think the whole thing is dogshit, I hate producers, if I ever have to work with one again I'll probably kill myself. We still owe them another studio album. I'm going to put it off as long as I can."

    Phil did pretty well, delaying another six years.

    1. Mickey Hart said of the early Arista albums, "That music is not what I call Grateful Dead. It was produced by twits and plumbers; it was a shame and a travesty."
      John Barlow was also not too fond of Clive Davis, calling him "a scumsucking pig" for his interference on Go To Heaven.