Deadicated: Tom Constanten

Jeff Tamarkin on September 2, 2014

Of the dozen musicians who passed through the ranks of the Grateful Dead during their three-decade run, only one full- time keyboardist survives. Yet Tom Constanten, or “T.C.” as he is known, remains something of a mystery figure even to many of the most hardcore Deadheads. He arrived on the scene in 1967, joined permanently in November of the following year and was gone by early ‘70, having helped the Dead transition from a tough, lysergically inclined mutant blues band to a more musically sophisticated and nuanced ensemble capable of complex improvisation and great emotional depth. Where did he come from, and where did he go?

T.C. was originally from New Jersey, grew up in Las Vegas and eventually found himself, albeit briefly, at the University of California, Berkeley, where in 1961, he met Phil Lesh, a fellow enthusiast for modern classical music and avant-garde composers. A detour into the Air Force beginning in 1965 might have taken Constanten far afield, but his hunger for challenging music and a bit of dabbling in LSD kept him in the game. After his discharge, he went from the military to the Grateful Dead overnight.

“Culture shock is my life,” Constanten says. “As soon as I was out of the clutches of the Air Force, I was on my way to Ohio to play with the band.” Before joining officially, though, T.C. added his distinctive, majestic keyboard parts to Anthem of the Sun, the band’s second album—a pastiche of mostly live tracks from different gigs layered and looped in an attempt to approximate the Dead concert experience on record. Constanten didn’t so much replace founding keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan as alternate with and augment him. The two of them, in fact, became quite close and roomed together while on the road.

“We were both interested in keyboard music,” T.C. says. “He had a lot to teach me about the blues and boogie players and I was into the technique of actually playing the instrument, so we picked each other’s brains. I was a practicing Scientologist and didn’t do any drugs. I’d call it more a philosophy than a religion, but at the time, I thought it [was] important to follow it sincerely. But that was then.”

When the album was released in 1968, T.C. found Anthem somewhat problematic, but over time he’s taken a more benevolent view of it. “The passing years smooth the edges,” he says. “Now I even look forward to some of the things I used to cringe at. It was conceived as an overcompensation. We’d been getting complaints as to how the recordings didn’t do justice to the live performances. So we said, ‘We’ll overshoot the mark and see what we get.’”

The feel of the next album, 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, was entirely different, more subdued overall and not nearly as dense. In addition to introducing staples such as “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower” via somewhat manicured studio takes, the album—written almost entirely by Jerry Garcia and new lyricist Robert Hunter—also included the soft, acoustic tracks “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Mountains of the Moon”—and a highly experimental sound collage called “What’s Become of the Baby.” If the band’s label, Warner Bros., was looking for a commercial breakthrough, then it was looking in the wrong place.

Anthem had been done on an 8-track recorder and Aoxomoxoa was done on 16,” Constanten says. “So even though this one wasn’t conceived as an over- compensation, it wound up being that anyway because we used multi- tracks for everything. We overdubbed vocals. It was assembled to the hilt. It was an adventure.”

By 1969, the Grateful Dead had developed into a live performance unit like no other. The special chemistry of that era was captured on the band’s fourth album, Live/Dead, recorded at a series of gigs early that year. The opening piece, “Dark Star,” has since become nothing less than iconic— the consummate example of the Grateful Dead’s improvisatory genius at its most highly evolved. T.C. remembers the evening that particular “Dark Star” was played.

“It’s remarkable how little the setlist changed: ‘Dark Star’> ‘St. Stephen’> ‘The Eleven’> ‘Lovelight,’ night after night. We wound up recording every night, and every night, there was something that somebody complained about,” Constanten says. “This night was the first that nobody complained about. We all got the same idea: ‘Send it off. We’re done!’ We were just happy to be able to move on.”

By the beginning of 1970, Constanten was also ready to move on. Due to the limitations of live music amplification at the time, he couldn’t even hear his own organ onstage. “I felt my own contribution was being limited,” he says. “I then had an invitation to write music for an off-Broadway show called Tarot and I said, ‘OK, it’s a smaller pond and I get to be a bigger fish.’”

T.C. left the Dead in January 1970 and, he says, he “bummed around” for a while, writing film scores, briefly taking a professorship in Buffalo, N.Y., and playing in different bands. He later hooked up with a reconstituted aggregation of Jefferson Starship and toured with them. He also released a series of recordings on the now-defunct Relix Records, including a 1994 collaboration with Jorma Kaukonen, consisting entirely of 11 variations on Kaukonen’s signature instrumental “Embryonic Journey.”

Today, Constanten doesn’t play in rock bands any longer, although he still performs solo piano dates and works with fellow keyboardist and former Dead sound technician Bob Bralove in a project they call Dose Hermanos. They recently released a new album, Batique, consisting of improvised acoustic piano duets.

“There was a moment at Jerry Garcia’s memorial service when Bob and I met and we had the realization that we had to pursue our musical explorations together,” says T.C. “We knew that it was what Jerry would have wanted us to do.Itwasawaytofanthe flames of that magnificent fire that ignited in the ‘60s. At first, we were surprised that we got away with it all. No setlists, no chord charts, nothing—just as close as we could get to 100 percent improvisation all the time. After a while, we were surprised again because the wilder and crazier we got, the better everyone liked it! Before long, we were orienting ourselves in a wondrous galaxy of ideas, a cross somewhere between John Cage and Jorge Luis Borges.”