Built To Last: A Conversation with Jerry Garcia
During the “Days Between” Jerry Garcia’s birth on August 1 (1942) and his passing on August 9 (1995), we share this interview which originally ran in the December 1989 issue of Relix.
With the release of Built To Last, the Grateful Dead have reached another pivotal point in their career. The new album is the band’s first studio effort since 1987’s In The Dark, the record that spawned the group’s first Top Ten single and finally brought them beyond the realm of devoted Deadheads and into the pop mainstream. While this crossover success garnered the Dead the recognition their fans always knew they deserved, it also brought some unexpected problems. With the band’s 25th anniversary just around the corner, some of the venues that have hosted the Dead for years are refusing to invite them back to perform, the result of a number of isolated incidents surrounding certain shows. And with another potential wave of new attention seemingly imminent, there’s no telling what the future might hold.
But Jerry Garcia seems to be taking it all in stride. The Grateful Dead has undoubtedly had their share of ups and downs over the past two-and-a-half decade, and their recent surge in popularity is simply the latest excursion in what has indeed been a long, strange trip. With Built To Last, Garcia feels the band has inched closer towards their notion of a record that properly represents what the Dead is all about. “Foolish Heart, ” a Garcia/Hunter song that is being released as the LP’s first single, is an upbeat, irresistible tune that explores the unpredictability of romance. The album also marks the emergence of keyboardist Brent Mydland as one of the Dead’s key songwriters, from the tough and rousing “Blow Away” to the tender and affectionate” I Will Take You Home.” With tentative plans to play in Europe and possibly Russia in 1990, the band is clearly looking forward.
The following interview took place in an all-purpose space that the Dead have occupied for almost 15 years, located just across the road from the hotel that is depicted on the cover of the band’s Shakedown Street album. Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, during which the Dead performed “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” for the first time since 1970, and exactly four weeks before the new album’s Halloween release date.
Tell me about what’s happened with the band in the two-and-a half years since In The Dark was released.
Oh, I see―you’re just going to throw the door open! Well, let’s see… we started working on another record about a year and a half ago. We’d been more or less working on this project, but in reality we didn’t really start focusing on this record that we finished until about April of this year. We took some stabs at it, ‘cause we thought, “Well, the last approach that we tried, the In The Dark approach, worked really well…”
Do you mean recording the album live?
More or less live. So we thought “Well, what we’ll do is we’ll use that approach again because that seemed to work, “but it really didn’t work at all. We tried it again―we tried at the Marin County Civic Center, and then we did the stretch up at Skywalker Ranch and what we started to discover was that our material was saying something else about itself and that approach was not going to work on this record, and that we’re really looking for something else entirely different. So we screwed around there for about a year, a year and a half, and then right around April we started to get serious and sort of focus in on the record. The material shifted a lot too. We had a whole bunch of tunes that didn’t go on this record, so the whole thing mutated while we were working on it and we ended up with what did come out―which is a good Grateful Dead record.
A lot of people will probably be surprised to see that Brent has four songs on the record, as opposed to three by you and a pair by Bob…
You always go with whatever your strong suit is, and in this case it was Brent that had the good songs―I mean, more of ‘em. Actually, he had three or four songs that didn’t go on the record, so he had more of everything, generally. These songs are really good. The other ones are actually pretty good, too, the ones that didn’t go on. But I think it’s more the thing of Brent’s getting to be more comfortable with the band. He sees it being as much his band as everybody else’s. SO it’s just the thing of getting over the “new guy” thing.
Which took about ten years…
Ten years, right ( laughs ). He’s been pretty conservative about getting comfortable in it, but now―I mean this record, it’s nice to be able to show off what he can do on a lot of different levels. And his contribution to this record is really outstanding all over. Not just his tunes and vocals, but everything else―all the keyboard parts, and just ideas and general stuff.
Do you personally find it more difficult to come up with new material these days?
I’ve never been a very hot writer, you know? I tend to go in little fits and starts. I mean, if I do three songs a year, that’s pretty good for me. I’m not a songwriter. I’m really a guitar player, sort of, so writing music is not my forte. I’m a default songwriter. I write because you’ve gotta have new material, and that’s one of those things―that’s an axiom from back in this ‘60sm “You have to do original material,” and so it sort of fell on me to do it. It’s a default position, not something that I actually choose to do. I have never been particularly in love with my own inventions, for one thing. But over the years, working with Hunter, I’ve sort of gotten to where I’m getting a handle on the craft of songwriting. I don’t think I’m a brilliant songwriter but I get off a couple of good ones occasionally. By good I mean they have enough of whatever a song needs for me to be able to perform them and not feel awfully uncomfortable about it, and that in itself is a big thing.
Do you write songs with the consideration of how they might work in a live setting?
No. Sometimes I have a kind of a notion where I sort of imagine the band playing and I sort of imagine the song and the kind of effect that I hope it will have. But usually the idea that I have at the inception of a song is very different from the way the tune turns out. For me, the song that took the most turns on this record was “Foolish Heart.” I originally had a sort of Pete Townshed, acoustic guitar kind of rhythm, open strumming… you know, something along those lines as the setting for it. But the way it came out is completely different. It came out something uniquely Grateful Dead-ish. So a lot of times my sense of how a song is supposed to work or how it’s supposed to function, even in the live setting―just how it’s supposed to work―has no bearing on its ultimate evolution, so I’ve learned to disregard my own ideas alone those lines.
Some of this album seems looser than In The Dark, and then there’s Brent’s ballad, “I Will Take You Home,” which is really polished. Is that a potential single?
I really don’t know. For singles, it depends on the feedback we get from the record company and from radio airplay and all that kind of stuff. We can’t pick the singles. We’re terribly bad at all that kind of stuff, so really it’s for the industry to say, “Well this would be a good single. Put this out.” That’s really what we have that interface with the record business for, for their so-called expertise on that level. Whether or not anybody knows what a good single is is completely debatable of course, but if somebody suggested, “Hey, this tune would be a good single,” or whatever―hey, we’re up for anything. We haven’t drawn any lines through anything.
Has the increase in popularity that occurred when In The Dark was released leveled out at all?
Not very much, no. They’ve continued sloping up. We haven’t come to the end of whatever out growth spurt is. It never has been the kind of thing where we enjoy a growth of audience and then it flattens out. It’s always been a slow, steady curve, so it’s still doing that. It’s hard to tell where it can go ‘cause there isn’t much left, you know? So as far as the success curve, we’ve already topped it out a couple of times. It’s like, “Where can we go from here?” I don’t know. We could conceivably sell more records but that’s also one of those things that’s problematical. Also, as far as records go―I can’t let this go by―you felt that this record is looser? I think that this record is actually tighter than the last record in terms of control.
It’s just that it feels more natural…
I think the thing is feeling more natural is what we’re after. I think we’re finally getting to it now. We’re learning how to make a record that has some of that Grateful Dead quality of loose tightness, but also has all of the detail that you can have on a record.
The appearance of casualness, although it’s kind of calculated casualness…
Yeah, absolutely. That’s an interesting response to it. I mean, that’s kind of what we’ve been hoping to get all along on records, and I think we’re finally getting to the point where we can do it.
Your popularity has caused some problems such as ticket demand exceeding supply and not being asked to return to certain venues. Have you come up with any solutions?
We don’t have any solutions. The thing is that by the time they get to us they’re ultimatums. They’re no longer possibilities, they’re lack of possibilities. By the time we hear about something―say, the town of Hartford says, “Absolutely not. You can’t play here,” and we say, “Why not?” “Because of the camping and the vending,” and that kind of stuff. We’re getting that same rap from nearly everywhere now. There’s very few places that welcome the way the shows, the way the audience and so forth, has defined itself previously. It used to be kind of a nice thing, but I guess now it scares people or something. I’m not sure what the objection is, but the point is that there’s somebody out there who objects seriously to the way the crowd is. And this is not behavioral. I don’t know what it is exactly that they don’t like. I don’t know what they’re offended by so badly, but whatever it is it’s very offensive to somebody because they’re not letting us come back to places. This put dud in a weird situation where we now have to start to try to control the outside world, which is like hey, c’mon. Nobody can do that. The police can’t do it―why do we have to do it? It’s one of those kinds of situations. I really feel that our audience is getting a bad rap that is doesn’t deserve. I think probably the only reason that we have problems is because we play more than one night at a place. I mean sporting events, the audiences are way worse. Any professional football game, the audience is way rowdier. SO it isn’t just the behavior of the audience. I guess it must be the thing of being there for two or three days or whatever. We try to communicate with Deadheads: “Look, we’re scaring them. We either have to do this, clean up, behave yourself, park out of town,” I don’t know what. We can offer suggestions and open up the subject for discussion and hope for some helpful suggestions, and hope that Deadheads will find some other way to define themselves in some other context, though I’m not exactly sure how.
One thing that’s been brought up is the idea of newer Deadheads who might not be as conscientious as to how to carry themselves within the of shows…
I’ve heard that kind of talk, but I don’t buy it, really. I mean, we don’t have that much trouble at our shows no matter what. We don’t have riots and that kind of stuff, so if there’s a whole lot of new Deadheads and they don’t know how to behave, why aren’t we having more of those kinds of problems? The “why” part is almost completely moot. The point is that we are having the problems and places won’t let us back. That’s it. That’s what we have to deal with, and everybody else has to deal with either we’re gonna have it the way we want it or we’re not gonna have it at all. Those are our choices. We don’t have a third alternative in there. It’s not open to negotiation yet.
Next year marks your 25th anniversary. Do you have anything special planned?
We don’t have anything specific planned, except that we know we’re going into our 25th year―well, actually, our 26th year. As far as are we going to do anything special, hopefully everything we do is special!
Is there any chance you might do some acoustic shows like you did in 1980?
Don’t know, don’t think so. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen right away. First of all, you can’t support an acoustic show really worth a shit in stadiums. It’s totally the wrong environment for it. It’s even pushing it to do the theaters, really, as far as the quality of sound is concerned. I don’t think we’re going to do something like that. We may do something off-the-wall, but there’s no telling what it is at this point.
The word is going around that you may cool off in the U.S. for a while and tour Europe in the beginning of 1990…
Yeah, that looks like it pretty much is going to happen. We’ll be playing here, too. We don’t be doing one instead of the other, we’ll be doing both. It’s just that they’ll be separated in time a little bit. Mostly the thing is that we’ve neglected going back to Europe for a long time. We have people over there waiting for us to come back.
I also heard a great rumor about a show in Russia next year with the Dead, u2, and Paul McCartney…
I don’t know about U2 and Paul McCartney, but we’re talking about going to Russia, yeah. It looks pretty likely… now that things are kind of loosening up, I think we definitely want to go to Russia. We haven’t been looking at it for a long time though, saying “Gee, wouldn’t it be great to go to Russia?” We know at least that we aren’t going to have to worry about the audience being biased. They’ve never seen us over there, so whatever it is that we’re going to bring to them, it’ll be a chance for us to kind of check out something, you know what I mean? What it’s like to take the Grateful Dead to entirely fresh minds and see what their response is, or what their reaction is, or anything. We have no idea.
Do you get mail from Russian Deadheads?
Well I don’t think Russians can get their letters out of the Soviet Union all that successfully, you know? ( laughs ) No, we’ve always have a little trickle of stuff from behind the Iron Curtain, but it’s mostly been Czechoslovakia, Poland―the more liberal, the easier-going of the Warsaw Pact nations.
Besides the Dylan And The Dead LP, you haven’t released a live record in some time. Are there any plans for one soon?
We recorded the summer and we’re recording this autumn tour, so we may cough up a live album. That may be a good 25th anniversary project.
I heard that you recently transferred the tape archives to compact disc…
No, that’s not true―what we’re doing is we’re gradually transferring the stuff mostly to DAT (digital audio tape), not to compact disc. We’re just getting into the digital domain, just so it’ll last longer. But that’s a project that could take a hundred years, you know? We’re not doing it in any kind of methodical way. We certainly don’t have the ability to say “Get it done” ―we know we can’t assign that kind of work. It’s one of those things you have to do in real time… it’s tedious and it’s time-consuming and it’s a total bummer. We may or may not do it. It may be that we’ll just take certain stuff and convert it to DAT, I don’t know. Again, it’s one of those things. It’s a resource that in a way we’re not exactly sure what to do with. We’ve got it all. It’s all sitting there, but none of us has the heart to go through and listen to it. I certainly don’t. None of us has the time, either. We’re all moving ahead, so the idea of going back and looking back―it’s for somebody else to do. It’s not for us to do.
Have you considered maybe someday putting out an extensive anthology?
Yeah, we may anthologize stuff by slowly activating the things and putting out limited edition versions of them through our own merchandising―CDs of various performances―and see just what happens, you know? We’ve tossed it around for a long time, but we haven’t really figured out exactly quire how to deal with it. Ideally, the thing we would do is record the shows, and after the show is over you can get a cassette of the show you just went to. We wouldn’t have the tapers. We’d cut all that loose, but we would still be able to provide music to anybody who wanted it from any given show. That’s kind of our idea, but then implementing that kind of an idea is totally out of the question. It can’t be done. That’s one of the reasons why we still let the people tape and so forth. It’s hard to figure out exactly how to approach this stuff when you’re dealing with the reality of it. I mean, where do you start? What year, say, or what performance specifically?
Well, how far back do you have recorded?
It does back to ‘66, ’67 somewhere. There’s some stuff that’s really old. Certainly not all of it is good by any means―most of it is terrible. There are some things that are pretty interesting. But it does go pretty far back.
Do you ever go back and listen to any of that stuff?
Nah. I can’t do it. I only hear it in terms of what I―although I’m so far removed from most of it now, I don’t have the trouble with it that I used to have. I hear what’s wrong with it. I don’t hear what’s good about it, I hear what’s wrong with it, and listen to it and say, “God, that’s terrible! It’s so out of tune, anf the tempo’s all weird,” and it’s just horrible. For me, it’s kind of a pain. It’s not something I can enjoy.
Can you give me an example of a recent performance that you felt was particularly strong?
No, not really. Well, Sunday night I kind of liked, down here at Shoreline was pretty neat. And the third night at the Greek Theater that we did not too long ago, that was a good night.
That’s interesting because I preferred the second night. Goes to show you how subjective it all is…
Absolutely subjective. I mean, I’m talking about it from my point of view. I have to do it, like― when I go out onstage, I think of it as kind of like being up to bat, you know, what your batting average is. So for me, I judge it from a batting average point of view. “How many times did I try for something and have it work out kind of nice and invisibly?” And when that happens, nobody appreciates it but me. ‘Cause it sounds like I mean it, it sounds like “Hey, this guy is just playing competently, he’s not playing great.” But if you go from the point of view where it starts off from absolutely nothing and I’m inventing it as I go along, if it works out right―if the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed and it’s punctuated correctly―like a miracle. So from my point of view this stuff is miraculous, but nobody else is able to appreciate how really miraculous it is ‘cause nobody is inside me when I’m playing.
How soon in the context of any given show can you gauge its success of failure?
I can’t. Again, it’s one of those things that for me, it’s so emotional―it’s just the way I feel. If I’m not enjoying myself, the music may be great, but if I’m not enjoying myself it really doesn’t matter. For me, it’s hard to get over the emotional barrier. The experience as it is for me, there’s all kinds of different ways it could conceivably go, and even at the very worst it’s still interesting. So if I think of it in terms of being approximately what I meant or not, it’s one of those things that there’s no ground to stand on where you can say, “Well, this is absolutely better than this over here.” It just isn’t that kind of thing. I don’t know exactly what it is. There’s certain aesthetics where you can say “Well this is definitely in tune, this is definitely out of tine, this is in time, this is not in time, there figures are rushed, these figures are played too far back.” You can do that kind of stuff, a note-by-note analysis of what’s going on, but it still doesn’t say whether or not―I mean, to me the whole thing has to do with either intention or the gesture of music. Music is like listening to a language. Does it make sense to you as its going by? And something like that, there is no good gauge.
How in touch are you with the Deadheads themselves? Is there any interaction beyond getting onstage and playing?
Yeah, a certain amount. I don’t have meetings with Deadheads on a regular basis, but people do talk to me, and people write to us endlessly. People make known what their feelings are. And also there’s things like The Well, which is a computer network where lots of Deadhead discussion kind of stuff goes on, and you can always poke into it if you want to find out what people are saying. There also are people who are very concerned with what Deadheads say who are part of our scene who will report saying, “Hey, look, they’re saying this” or “they’re saying that.” But we operate on rumors and stuff just like everybody else does too, to a certain extent. But there is some dialogue on there.
A lot of people were happily surprised to hear you bring back “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” this past weekend. How did that come about?
I remembered the song! ( laughs )
It wasn’t spur-of-the moment obviously…
No, we rehearsed it. You pretty much have to rehearse something if you haven’t done it for a long time, at least go through it and say, “Here’s how it does.” And that’s one of those tunes―it’s a good tune. There’s no reason not to do it.
The same can be said for a lot of other songs you’ve dropped from your sets…
That’s true, but some of them are not very performable. Some of them are very difficult to perform, or at least weird to perform, and some of them just don’t work now. But some of them do. We’ll eventually find the ones that do and, you know…
Then there’s the people that come to every show hoping for that elusive “Dark Star” or “St. Stephen” …
Yeah, right. Well, eventually we’ll play ‘em.
Are the rigors of constant touring taking more of a toll on you as you get older?
No, it’s getting easier in some ways! And we also make every effort to make it as humane as possible, too. I mean we’ve already done our tough tours. We had those during the ‘70s. It’s pretty easy to survive it now.
Are you feeling healthy these days?
Yeah, pretty good.
Did you have to find substitutes to replace your previous habits?
Not really, no. It’s kind of like when you’ve had enough, you’ve had enough, really. For me, it was one of those things that was not that difficult. It was easier than I thought it was going to be. On the other hand, I have no idea how much drug-taking or any of that had to do with my subsequent breakdown. But it’s ironic that after I cleaned up, then I broke down! ( laughs ) That was weird. It was like “Hey, maybe I was better off on drugs! At least I wasn’t dying!” But I’m okay now.
I wanted to ask you what kind of music you’re currently listening to. Do you keep abreast of new things?
No, I don’t keep abreast but I do listen to new stuff. I’ve been listening to some interesting music from Martinique, which is a French-speaking island, and this stuff is recorded in France. It’s got some of that Afro-Cuban intensity, but some of that kind of Brazilian sophistication harmonically. It’s something in between those two worlds. It’s very engaging music, really pretty stuff, and also has a great drive. Other stuff, too―there’s some interesting African guitarists, a kind of finger-picking thing with African music that’s interesting. I keep up with the bluegrass world some, and I kind of listen to whatever’s going on. I spend a lot of time going back and listening to stuff, too. I always go back and listen to Art Tatum and Django Reinhardt, and Miles’ [Davis] stuff I listen to all the way through, his whole career. John Coltrane. Ornette Coleman. Mostly it’s one of those things where you stumble from one thing to another, and somebody says, “Hey, listen to this. This is really great.” Musicians turn you on to stuff.
The collaborations you did with Ornette on his last album were great. It was really a pleasure to hear you in that kind of setting…
Well, it’s a trios thing. Rob Wasserman is doing a trios album. His last one was Duets. Now he’s doing a trios one, and he wants me to do a thing with Edie Brickwell. I would love to do it. It would be interesting and fun to do. I like to stay open for things like that. I’m doing some stuff for Merl Saunders, and I did some stuff with Warren Zevon. You know, whenever these things come up, if the time is there―I owe Country Joe McDonald a record, too. I’m supposed to produce one of his records, and if I ever get the time I’d love to do it. I’d love to do more producing if I could. Time is the killer for me. There’s not enough time to do all the stuff I want to.
How do you relax when you have time off?
I go scuba-diving.
No, in Hawaii usually. That’s what I like to do.
During the Shoreline shows, I thought I noticed some onstage tension between you and Bob, and it made me realize that all of the other so-called “huge” bands―the Stones, the Who―have been forced apart at one time or another by a monumental rift. How has the Dead managed to avoid that? Do tempers ever flare?
Nah. What’s the point? Well, sure, they flare all the time. But it never amounts to anything.
How do you keep that in check?
I don’t think we could put up with anybody else to tell you the truth! It’s gone past family, it’s gone past blood. We’ve been together and so intimate for so long that it’s beyond any other kind of relationship. There’s just nothing that quite compares to it. It’s who we are, really.
Does it bother you that sometimes in the straight press, the element of drugs at the shows sometimes overshadows the music?
No. It’s always something. The press is always looking for a handle other than what it is that you do. If it wasn’t drugs―it used to be stuff like the Hell’s Angels. They’ve always had some way to characterize us that didn’t have anything to do with our playing. They’ve always done it, so there’s no reason to imagine that it would stop now, or that they would suddenly become fair-minded out of the clear blue sky. But that’s the nature of news. You look do look for other handles on stuff.
Do you think the band is getting more respect now as opposed to ten or 15 years ago?
Yeah, in a way. On some levels, yeah, but I’m sure that’ll disappear. It comes and goes in waves. Sometimes it’s fashionable to be a Grateful Dead basher for a couple of years, but we’ve seen this stuff come and go several times already. It seems to be that there’s times when the press approves of us and times when they don’t. It kind of goes like that.
Are you concerned at all that Built To Last could create a whole new wave of Deadmania?
I think we’re ready for almost anything, unless it’s something completely unexpected but we’re also ready for that. That’s what we’re in it for, really.
If you had to pick a song that the band currently performs that you could take or leave, what would it be?
That I could take or leave? You mean preferably leave?
You mean a song that I really am tired of? I would say it’d have to be probably―I’m starting to get tired of [some of] the Dylan tunes, but I still love ‘em. I think―” Minglewood Blues” probably. We’ve done that more than is fair and right, you know? I try to get Bob to start doing more of his regular tunes from the past. And he keeps saying, “Well, I’ gonna rewrite the words on this or rewrite the words on that” or something like that but he never does.
Out of Bob’s songs, are there any that leap to mind as tunes you really enjoy playing?
Most of his tunes are at least challenging to play. I love “Estimated Prophet.” I think that’s a wonderful tune. He’s really a truly interesting songwriter. Weir is, and his songs are really interesting too.
Do you have any final comments about the Grateful Dead in the ‘90s?
Well, I hope we get through them the way we did the ‘80s. Or maybe better.