David Gans: Musings from the Golden Road
Photo credit: Alan Scheckter
“At this point, I have played a live set from home almost every day since April 4, 2020,” David Gans reflects. “I’ve taken a few days off here and there for a brief vacation or when I’ve had another gig, but I’ve played pretty much every day since then.”
During the pandemic, Gans immediately connected with an audience of stalwarts, many of whom continue to tune in each day, maintaining a mutual support network that proved vital during the lockdown and beyond.
He recently tallied the number of songs that he has performed during his livestreams, and the total exceeds 500. This includes a few dozen of his originals, many of which have appeared on the studio albums he’s released during the past 25 years. He also blends in other tunes that he’s picked up ever since he started out as a young Bay Area musician in the early ‘70s.
“I use a looper, so it’s not just solo acoustic strumming,” he explains. “I’ll have six guitars going during certain pieces. I’m using it both for improvisation and for accompaniment. It’s really fun for me. For instance, I’ve taken Beatles songs, which are just these beautiful little masterpieces of guitar chords and melody, and figured out ways to expand them into loop jams.”
Gans’ repertoire also includes an ample representation of Grateful Dead material, which is not surprising given his many years focused on the group. The journalist has explored the band’s music in print via works such as Conversations with the Dead and This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead with Blair Jackson. He has also done so on radio, hosting the Grateful Dead Hour since the 1980s and SiriusXM’s Tales of the Golden Road with Gary Lambert starting in 2008.
What prompted your marathon stretch of livestreams and what has led you to keep it going?
My last public performance was March 6, 2020 and then the lockdown began on March 11. I had a huge tour planned for April of 2020. I had a two-week club tour and two festivals. It was going to be my biggest and most lucrative month ever. Then, one by one, all those gigs went away and the entire future got rolled up and put in the closet.
So I was sitting there at home while everybody was starting to do online things and I started thinking about when I would do something. Eventually, I decided that if I waited until nobody else was doing anything to schedule a special show, then I would never do it.
I decided that since I was stuck at home and the rest of my work is from home anyway, I should just start playing a live set every day and see what happens. So I started putting the word out and some of my fans—people I had met at gigs—just sort of attached themselves to it and began attending every day.
I wound up with a core group of a couple dozen people, and they’re still there every day. It blows my mind and it’s also turned out to be amazingly good for my musicianship—playing and singing every day.
I went back and revisited music from my entire performing career. When I was a kid, I was playing all these Cat Stevens songs and stuff like that at coffee houses in San Jose. In turns out, I still know those songs by heart.
Then, I have Grateful Dead songs like “Days Between”— the last great masterpiece of Hunter and Garcia—that I’ve started playing. I had been playing it previously in the trio that I’m in—Fragile Thunder with Stephen Inglis singing [and Anela Lauren on Celtic harp and vocals]— but I decided to take it on myself. It turned out to be an amazingly deep song. That’s because we’re in the song too. We walked halfway around the world with the Dead. So, in a way, it’s a song that’s about our journey as much as their journey, and I’ve played it close to a hundred times over the course of these two years because it’s just such a deep and amazing song.
So I’ve developed this ongoing relationship with my entire life history as a musician.
In terms of your own music, can you remember the first song that you wrote and what prompted it?
Yes, because the first thing I ever played on a guitar was an original song. I started writing short stories when I was a kid. Then, when I was a tortured teenager in San Jose, I was writing tortured teenage poetry.
I have an older brother and a younger sister, both of whom dabbled in guitar. One day, my brother took a couple of these tortured, teenage poems of mine, set them to music and taught me the chords. I played the clarinet all through school, so I had sort of learned the basics of music. But, I feel like I became a musician on that day in 1969, when my brother taught me those chords because from that point on, I was obsessed with doing that.
I started writing songs and I’ve been writing songs ever since. I felt an affinity for it. It became the most central thing to my life. I also feel like it made a difference in my approach to music. When most people start playing the guitar, they pick somebody they want to emulate. You might want to become Eddie Van Halen, so you learn all the Van Halen riffs. Then you have to figure out how to become yourself after you’ve spent all your time imitating other people. But because the first thing I ever played on guitar was an original song, I never went through that phase of only playing other people’s stuff. I was always writing my own material and adapting other people’s material. I never became obsessed with the perfect replication of other people’s stuff.
I think that’s one of the key dichotomies in creative people. There was an article about Springsteen in The New Yorker 10 years ago where Steven Van Zandt talks about how, when he was a kid and playing in garage bands with his friends, they would all go home and learn all the perfect licks off of everything. Then, they would come back and play them for each other. But he said that Bruce would come in and he never bothered getting it exactly right. He had his own spin on the songs every time. In that article, Van Zandt points out the significance of that. [Van Zandt declares, “In the long run, original wins.”] I really feel like that’s true.
How did your discovery of the Grateful Dead impact your songwriting?
When I started writing songs in ‘69, I was way into Cat Stevens, Elton John, CSNY, Jackson Browne and all that stuff. Then, when I first saw the Dead in ‘72, they just exploded my universe and started turning me onto all the music that came through them. The Dead and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, which was my other favorite band in those days, both did this thing of combining original material with interpretations of other people’s material.
Of course, the Dead added improvisation on top of that. So what made the Grateful Dead so unique and so attractive to people like me was that they did this thing where they combined and gave equal weight to originals, interpretations and improvisation. A given show was not 19 original songs and one cover—a favorite old song in the encore. Any show could be all originals or all interpretations and different proportions of improvisation.
So from the Dead, I learned to tell a story in my own voice and to pick songs from other people that helped me tell my story just exactly as they had done.
Can you identify a particular song you’ve engaged with in such a way that it feels like your own?
There are so many. I mentioned “Days Between”—that’s one of my favorite songs to perform these days because the way I designed it, it has five jams. I jam going into it and I jam between the verses. Also, as I said, the words themselves are so deep. The song is telling the Dead’s story and it’s also our story because we, the fans, were along for a lot of that trip, too.
So I feel like that song just really digs deep into my relationship with music and with being a Deadhead all these years.
Thinking back on that final batch of Jerry tunes, I remember being particularly drawn to “Lazy River Road.” I could sense the gravity of “Days Between,” but it might have been heavier than what I sought from the band at that time.
I love both songs and I play “Lazy River Road” a lot. I worked out a nice fingerpicking arrangement of it. It’s a beautiful song. It has that timeless Stephen Foster quality to it that we love.
But Jerry was singing “Days Between,” a song that summed up the history of the Grateful Dead at a moment when he was 53 years old but looked like he was 83. It has such a sad vibe to it, even as it sums up the glorious, joyous, psychedelic, multicolored history of that band. That summation of his life was so poignant. When all was said and done, here was this tired man standing on this stage, delivering huge amounts of joy at a great cost to himself. Every time we watched him singing that song, I was feeling that.
Maybe as a younger Deadhead, I wasn’t ready for that message, which almost feels like a form of cognitive dissonance.
Most of us in the older crew had been watching Jerry’s decline for quite a while, so I think it was less of a shock to us. I remember being at Cal Expo in June of ‘94 and thinking Jerry could keel over at any moment. He was white as a sheet and sort of tilted to one side. He lasted another year after that but he was on the decline for a really long time. So I think the older fans probably had a little better comprehension of what was at stake.
I remember walking out of the shows and feeling like a lot of people wanted to stay in denial. If I said, “Jerry just doesn’t look that good,” they’d tell me: “I don’t want to hear it.” So you were aware that things were precarious?
I think anyone who was paying attention to what was happening onstage had some sense of it. Having said that, I still experienced profound moments during those final years, although they were fewer and far between, particularly after 1993.
Everybody remembers 10/1/94 from that fall tour, but everything else is pretty forgettable. The Cal Expo ‘93 run was solid. I think that was the last solid collection of Grateful Dead shows that I went to.
Thinking back to your formative pre-Grateful Dead days, can you recall the first song or album that resonated with you and set you on your path?
It was probably an Al Jolson record. When I was a kid, they had the Million Dollar Movie and they’d show the same movie multiple times in a week. When I was a kid, I saw The Jolson Story and just fell in love with showbiz.
I remember lip-syncing to Jolson records at some party for my parents, and I, as I said, I started playing the clarinet. So everything that I was doing musically was completely unrelated to what I wound up doing later.
A funny thing about that movie is that, when I interviewed David Lee Roth for Record magazine in the ‘80s after Crazy from the Heat came out, I sat patiently through 20 minutes of Diamond Dave and then I finally got him to shut up and talk like a real person. It turned out he, too, grew up in the San Fernando Valley and fell in love with Al Jolson, probably watching the same showings I watched when I was a kid. Although where David Lee Roth went as an entertainer and where I went as an entertainer was a pretty interesting divergence. [Laughs.]
That dichotomy reminds of those musicians who eventually revealed they were Grateful Dead fans.
So many of the people that I knew who were hardcore punks were such softies underneath all that. It’s like the public posture versus who you really are. It turns out a lot of us are pretty similar underneath all that bullshit.
In the ‘70s, the whole punk movement and the whole DIY movement were reactions against the corporate rock-and-roll behemoth. I think the Grateful Dead got lumped into that in certain ways. They were also the object of contempt from that crew for being too ramshackle and not being as precise. They weren’t prog-rock and they weren’t heavy metal. They were something unto themselves that nobody understood.
I also think it’s almost universal, where if somebody said, “Oh, I hate the Grateful Dead,” and you quizzed them on it to tease out what was going on, it turned out they hated Deadheads—they didn’t know enough about the music to form an opinion about it.
I would always say, “You have to hate an awful lot of music to not like the Dead.” You have to hate country music. You have to hate jazz. You have to hate the blues. If you can’t find something to connect with in the music of the Grateful Dead, I don’t think you’re listening hard enough.
I think the late ‘70s and early ‘80s reaction against the Grateful Dead had to dissolve because there were all these people who grew up listening to that stuff who became musicians.
In 1988, Henry Kaiser called me. I had never met him before and he invited me to record with him. I wound up playing lead guitar on a Henry Kaiser record for fuck’s sake and singing lead on “Mason’s Children.” This was on his album Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It, which, by the way, also includes a fabulous “Dark Star” with Glenn Phillips. That record came out on SST Records and I remember Henry telling me: “That’s right, Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins are big-ass Deadheads.”
Later on, it became safe to admit that you liked that stuff. Steve Silberman had already told me that Patti Smith was into the Dead, but it blew my mind that on the day Jerry died, she was in the studio and recorded “Black Peter.” I wound up putting it on that album I put together, Stolen Roses. It also had Henry Rollins’ interesting cover of “Franklin’s Tower” from a side project of his [Wartime]. A lot of these people started revealing their secret love of the Grateful Dead.
I can’t entirely remember the timeline, but there was the “Row Jimmy” cover [by The Decemberists on 2010’s Long Live the King EP] and then that thing that the Dessners put together a couple of years ago with all those different artists playing Dead songs [2016’s Day of the Dead]. That was pretty revelatory as well.
Musicians knew how deep it went. They knew the Grateful Dead weren’t just standing up there flailing away in parallel. They were listening to each other and speaking a language that they had created and evolved together through deep engagement over a long stretch of time.
The people who were attuned to it, and could feel it, connected with it and stayed with it all their lives. People don’t age out of being fans of this band. You stay a fan of this band and then you bring your kids to it. By this point, we’ve got families that are four generations of Deadheads deep.
Great music will eventually find its audience.
You mentioned Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen earlier. I love Geoffrey Stokes’ book Star Making Machinery, which offers an inside look at their experiences with the recording industry in the mid-‘70s. From your perspective as a fan of that band, do you have any thoughts as to why they are somewhat lost to history?
That’s a great book, which tells you about a lot of the management problems that they had and their ill-starred relationships with record companies. Beyond that, their songwriting was more idiomatic and style-bound. They were sort of writing nouveau honky-tonk songs but not really pushing the envelope compositionally as the Grateful Dead did.
Of course, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen also didn’t have that improvisational thing. They were a party band—they were a bar band and their internal stuff probably kept them from being as cohesive as the Grateful Dead. All that was compounded by the external music business bullshit.
There are reasons why the Grateful Dead survived and a lot of those other bands didn’t. A lot of it has to do with the amazing mindmeld that those guys created and that all of us got to witness.
I’m doing the text right now for my photo book that’s coming out in the fall and I’ve been thinking about all this stuff. I’m trying to sum up my own relationship with it.
At my first show, I was blazing on way too much acid at the top of Winterland. I vaguely remember various things that went by. But the next four times I saw the Dead was several months later in the reserve seats at the Berkeley Community Theater. By then, I’d been studying the music for a while. I sat there watching these guys interacting and there was this amazing collective charisma coming off that stage—something magical was happening. You couldn’t point at it, but you could hear it going on by the way they interacted, the eye contact they made and the way that the music interlocked.
Just yesterday, I was listening to a rehearsal from 1990 and there’s a little stretch where they’re teaching Bruce Hornsby how to play “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” There’s this moment where Jerry’s playing his guitar part and Bobby’s playing his guitar part—nobody else is playing—and you can hear this incredible interlocked thing. That’s only a third of what’s going on in that song because the rest of the band isn’t playing. It’s just these two guitars and I thought, “Oh, my God, I’ve never heard that out of the context of the song.” It was amazing.
I remember sitting there being blown away by “Tennessee Jed” at the Berkeley Community Theater because you could drive a truck through the spaces between the notes. Everybody was playing short punctuation stuff. Nobody was playing a sustained tone. Bobby’s playing little stabs of things and Jerry’s playing little stabs of things and Phil is doing what he does in between. It’s like a Seurat painting with all the little points. If you look up close, it’s just little dots of paint, but when you stand back, it’s this amazing picture. And that’s what the Dead were doing. They were creating this incredible groove, where each individual part might not make that much sense, but together they lock into this other thing. I think the human interaction comes through the music in a way that transcends the sounds of the notes.
These days, even though you remain an active presence with the Grateful Dead Hour, and Tales, it seems like more and more people are discovering your music first. Does it feel that way to you?
It does, and that’s been great. That’s the crux of the biscuit right there. When I started touring back in the late ‘90s, I had this feeling that people were looking at me going, “What is that DJ doing up there with guitars?” I felt like I had to prove myself a little bit. But even though I was playing music that happens to overlap significantly with the Grateful Dead, I wasn’t pitching myself as a Grateful Dead artist. I don’t put Grateful Dead logos in ads for my music.
I always wanted to overcome people’s thinking that I was only one thing. Right now, it does feel like more people know me as a performer, which is very gratifying.
Oddly enough, though, my visibility and credibility in the Grateful Dead world feels higher than ever, after 14 years of Tales from the Golden Road.
So, in a funny way, I’m experiencing positive career activity on both sides of my bifurcated life. I don’t need to have them interact with each other, though. I’m happy in each realm on its own terms. It’s a pretty nice place to be. Plus, I’m married to my favorite human being in the world, so I remain absurdly happy.