Jerry Garcia: Discovered or at Least Busted
photo: Jay Blakesberg
As we conclude The Days Between, the stretch that runs from Jerry Garcia’s birthday (August 1, 1942) to his passing (August 9, 1995), we share this interview from 1987, which we published in the August-September 2002 issue of Relix.
It’s July of 1987 and the Grateful Dead are taking a brief rest after completing their East Coast run with Bob Dylan, playing three sets each night – two of their own and one backing Dylan. Earlier in the month, In the Dark is released and becomes the biggest selling Dead album of all time, climbing to number 6 on the Top 200 album charts and moving more than a million units in its first year. The hit single, “Touch of Grey,” makes it to number 9 on the Billboard singles chart while MTV puts the video in heavy rotation.
Jerry Garcia is in relatively good health. A year earlier, almost to the day, he fell into a coma that nearly killed him. The band’s playing has continued to grow stronger as Garcia takes hold of his new lease on life, touring as hard as ever. In the wake of his triumphant return and the band’s commercial success, much press is given to the Dead and the thousands that follow them, the scene that is created and the culture it gives rise to. As Robert Hunter said, “Who else ever had an underground swell as large as ours and had it meet with another wave of aboveground approval? Look out: This is critical mass.”
Steve Benes had the opportunity to interview Garcia in the midst of all this at Club Front in Marin County, sitting beside the mixing board on a muggy Friday. Jerry arrived around noon, scrunched into the passenger seat of a small blue hatchback. He was a little bleary-eyed and looked as though he had just rolled out of bed. But he was also funny as hell, down-to-earth and just plain nice.
Steve Benes: Back in ‘68 when you opened the Carousel Ballroom, what was the mood? Was there a real hope that this was going to be the start of something really big, something new?
Jerry Garcia: Yes, in a way. Although it’s tough to get musicians to agree on anything. It always was. So it was one of the things where everybody was hedging seriously all the time. It’s the basic orneryness of the human animal. Even in those relatively free days, people still refused to trust each other. Even though they’d known each other all their lives and were old friends, it just didn’t work out.
Where did the Dead fit in back then?
Way at the bottom [laughter]. Back then we were definitely at the bottom.We’re a continuation of your basic street hippie. Or you could call us crossover beatniks. Somewhere in that strata is who we are, with a little bit of that folk music scare of the early ‘60s, you know, a little of that thrown in. The Grateful Dead really owes most of its interest to serendipity – just the fact that everyone in the band is very different and has very different musical backgrounds.
Did you go out a lot back then?
Not so much. We were all working a lot. The only real party situation I can remember that was absolutely a party all the way through was this Canadian train trip [Trans-Continental Pop Festival June/July 1970]. That was the only time I was ever exposed to a serious five-day party with nothing but musicians.
Delaney & Bonnie…
The Band, Delaney & Bonnie, a lot of people. But it was really a knockout. It was fun because it was nothing but musicians. There was music everywhere. There were three or four lounge cars just set up for jam sessions. Guys like Tom Rush, James Cotton, Buddy Guy…
Any stories you remember about that tour?
Mostly I remember being so blisteringly drunk. It was the drunk tour. I remember the longest – and worst – hangover of my life. I remember a lot of really great music and a lot of really funny stuff. Some of the Canadians on the tour, Ian & Sylvia, some of those people can really drink. They can knock that shit back. I was just this pot-smoking hippie. We stopped at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – which is a million miles from anywhere – and this trainload of freaks jumps off the train and hits the liquor store in town and empties it. We emptied it.
Were there any jams you can remember?
Me and Janis, Rick Danko, Ian & Sylvia, Delaney & Bonnie. Some really first-class voices. I mean, there were so many good people it was just incredible.
Was that a time when you found the music was going places you never imagined?
If that train had continued for another two weeks, it would have ended up one big band. That was the way it was going. If any of those situations could have sustained themselves for a little bit longer maybe something wonderful would have happened. The other really fertile period was during the time when the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Starship and Crosby, Stills and Nash were working in Wally Heider’s [recording studio] in San Francisco. We were all working there about the same time so we got into hanging out.
Communal music, sort of.
It was that kind of thing. It was very easy to do. It was sort of a central place and it was easy to get there. Most of us were working there anyway. It was mostly those kind of opportunities that were happening. We didn’t spend that much time doing national tours to the extent that they do nowadays.
You’re being portrayed in Fortune and Forbes as a big moneymaking conglomerate.
It’s really misleading. That stuff ’s all wrong.
Where do you think the Dead fit in with MTV and rock video?
[laughter] We don’t quite fit in, but they’re being very nice to us. I think we’ve become an institution so they treat us with a lot of respect. They treat us with that sort of institutional “whatever you guys want to do,” which is a little embarrassing. I don’t feel much a part of all that, but I dig it for what it is.
Where do the ‘60s ethics come into the ‘80s or how does the transformation come about? Or is there a transformation?
Well that’s making a lot of assumptions. First of all, you’re making the assumption that the Grateful Dead ever agreed entirely with anything that went on ever, historically. We were always off at a tangent about 90 degrees from everything. We were not agreeing with the ‘60s while they were happening. We didn’t agree with the ‘70s while they were happening and we don’t agree with the ‘80s now that they’re happening. But it doesn’t really matter; we’re part of the mix.
Are you afraid the ‘80s might discover you?
It looks like it’s too late to worry about it. It looks like we’ve been discovered – or at least busted.
Could it spoil the specialness of the experience?
I don’t think so; I think it’s too late for that.We already have an inkling of what we’re doing. Even if we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, we certainly know something about it. I think we can drive away the cheap seats, the promiscuous many who come out to see anything. We’re playing to that long audience.
Is “Truckin’” going to go down as one of the songs that represent who the Dead are?
Yeah, I think it’s too late to even prevent it.
Can you take something out of context like that?
I hate to be pinned down like that. Any single example is always too small. It’s like no, no, that’s not it. That’s almost it, but that’s not quite it. Any one thing is never quite enough. It doesn’t have quite enough room to suggest the whole organism.
Does that song represent something about [living in San Francisco]?
Not really. It’s more about us than it is about San Francisco. The big thing about that is we got off on R. Crumb’s little cartoon, guys truckin’. It’s also an old folk tune that was big in the coffeehouse days. So the notion truckin’ – the look of it and the feel it of it – was something we could relate to. That’s the word part of it. But the experience part of it, the verses and everything as far as our song is concerned, is really about us and about life on the road. Little snapshots.
That is the Dead life really, life on the road.What is life on the road like?
Well, it’s evolving. It’s changed a lot since those days.Those days we used to do like three or four-month tours and we were out there away from home for a long time and we’d get crazy.That’s when you get really crazy.
And it starts to get destructive.You get weird and it doesn’t help the music any. Pretty soon you start to get stale. So the thing about being able to keep the balance of staying fresh musically and enjoying what you’re doing and staying relatively healthy and all that, it’s a matter of pacing and figuring out how best to work.That’s one of those things that’s an ongoing thing.What’s the most comfortable length of time to be out? What’s the most comfortable pulse? When you’re on the road and working, two days off sometimes is worse than working. Two days off can really kill you. Your pace can get completely shot. So the whole thing is working it out in advance so it actually makes sense when you’re out there doing it, and we’re getting better at that all the time.
Back in Europe ‘72 you used “Truckin’” on the album and played it a number of times. What was it like when you were working it out back then?
It was one of those things that comes out very naturally. It made sense immediately. I remember that we wrote the thing in the space of about 20 minutes. I think Hunter had the basic verses and Weir started reading them.He set the verses. Phil and, I think, Bob wrote the choruses and I wrote the bridge.
How would you describe the music to the uninitiated?
It’s loud. It’s electric music. It’s kind of American music, although it has an edge of world music seeping out there somewhere.
Exotic drum rhythms?
It’s the Mickey [Hart] influence, that he is geographically conscious.
Do you see yourself as the years go by becoming a real roots American band, exploring all the different facets of American music?
Yeah, in a way. But I think that’s a serious over simplification.
But you can go from, say, “El Paso” to “Space.”
Every bit of what we do finds some expression somewhere else in American music – even the weird shit that we do is there somewhere. If you look through enough American music you’ll find it. But then there’s something else, too. I don’t like to use the word psychedelic, but it’s the only word that really fits. It has something to do with your mind or whatever has more organizing ability than you could have gained in this lifetime, you know what I mean? You’re able to think weirder thoughts than what your experiences have led you to. And we’ve capitalized on that to some extent. Just because it’s there. There’s a whole catalog, a whole huge library of possible things that you can do that all qualify as music. But we got them from drugs. We wouldn’t know about them if it wasn’t for drugs.
When you started out in San Francisco it was more to begin as a jug band.You were into country music a lot, playing banjo and pedal steel. Did the metamorphosis really come through the acid tests?
Well, the thing of acid coming along was one of those things, it was like exactly what we were all looking for.We are all looking for it in different ways, but that’s exactly what we were all looking for. It was like that thing of going, right, okay, I always suspected that that was there.
It gave [the music] a real firm twist.
Yeah, the effect it had on us was the thing of just tremendous affirmation. It was like okay, sure, all right, hold everything. Let’s proceed now as though this were truth.
Could you tell me a little bit about how the Dead have had this communal type thing,where you share songwriting royalties – and the whole extended family with profit sharing and how that works and how it’s maintained over the years?
Well, is that a question? [laughter]
It’s a long phrased question.
That’s a compound question. [laughter] I can’t answer that kind of question. Make it simpler and maybe I can…
How about this: You started out with this idea of everyone makes decisions together. How was that maintained over the years?
The only reason we do it that way – it’s not that that’s the best way to do things – nothing else works. If somebody doesn’t want to do something, that’s it. We’ve already learned that we can’t make each other do stuff. So if Kreutzmann says, “Hey, I’m not going to do it,” and he disappears for two weeks, that’s it. That’s the simple truth.
Things move slowly but they get done.
It’s inefficient and we’re not good at it, but it works.
And everyone’s pretty happy with it.
As happy as can be, given the circumstances.
That’s not the thing that makes us happy. The whole thing about the reality of business and all that stuff, it’s like an imprint from the outside world.We don’t really have a corporation.We’re a bunch of crazy people. We’re a bunch of crazy people that don’t have any form or structure or anything. We can just barely relate to each other and we can’t relate to the rest of the world at all. And then there’s the outside world that says, okay you’re a corporation. Ba-doom. You have to pay corporate tax.You have to have meetings. You have to have a secretary.You have to have minutes. You have to have all this shit. So okay, what do we have to do? What’s the least we can do to fulfill that thing and make it seem like we’re one of those things? In case somebody comes by checking, because we don’t want to go to jail. That’s the main thing. We don’t want to be locked up.We don’t want to go to jail, and we don’t want to get in any trouble. Right? So that’s what we’re doing here.We’re avoiding trouble.
Only in so much as it has to. Other than that, everything else is a total fiction. So the stuff about our corporation, our publishing company [shrugs disdainfully]. The money comes in here [holding imaginary stacks of money], and we spend it here [moving the imaginary stacks, laughing]. There’s really nothing else to it.And then we give this big, huge chunk to the government and hope they leave us alone. It hasn’t always been easy. A lot of times we’ve been like the fool stepping off the cliff. It’s a learning process. If you’re able to score smarter business
weasels to tell you what to do, they’ll tell you shortcut ways to go through all the stuff.
Hopefully, legal shortcut ways.
Yeah, that’s what you want. But you do want them weasels. Because it’s a weasel world and you have to be ready.
Were [the ‘60s] really as idyllic… when you went through it?
It seemed that way to us, but we were on the far side of biased. Let me see if I can give you some demonstration of what our position actually was.We were like outand-out anarchists, you know what I mean?
Like hanging out with the Merry Pranksters?
Our whole way of doing things and our way of judging things. Like for us, all sides of the war, every side of the war, was like bad news. So we didn’t like the Berkeley people.
They were too political. There were all these various kinds of edges that came into it. Our scene was more like really let it loose. Turn it loose.
See what happens.
Right. Give it a try. Try the weirdest possible thing.
Could it work long-term?
It might have.
What stopped it?
Too many people showing up to San Francisco?
That’s partly it. And partly that I don’t know whether you can have that much non-structure when you start to need structure. Once you get about three or four thousand people, you start to need some kind of structure. Even if it’s just stuff – like water. I don’t know. It worked really great for us. But for the rest of the world, I don’t even know whether I’d want to suggest it or not.
Can you give me an idea of what you think the San Francisco sound was? Or was there really a San Francisco sound?
I don’t think there was a San Francisco sound, no. The thing about San Francisco is it’s a beautiful place. It’s a nice place to be. There have always been a lot of interesting people of all sorts in San Francisco. So it was like really more the thing that it was a good place to be and a good audience. There was no San Francisco sound, though.
You don’t think that, like the beatnik poetry movement, there was something that could be directly associated with the city itself?
Yeah, that more than the music.
More a sense of living, a sense of lifestyle.
Yeah, I think lifestyles, lacking a better phrase. That sort of works.
Did San Francisco have an effect directly on the music?
Oh yeah, it’s just a great city, a beautiful place. It’s a great place to get high and run around. I mean, it was an inspiration just being there. It’s just a great looking place. It has beauty. And if you don’t believe me, go to Cleveland sometime.
Do you still feed off that with the music at all?
Yeah, I think so.
Do you get more strength, say, when you play at the Greek [Theater in Berkeley]?
Oh yeah, sure. The people know what’s happening, too. They know how to clean up.They’ve learned a lot of stuff. There’s people who’ve been actively directing this
stuff all the time from behind the scenes – the Hog Farmers and all those people.
The people who say, “Hey it’s not a really good idea to leave a big mess behind when you get a bunch of people together. Why don’t we clean this stuff up?” And those people have been really instrumental in helping that out. Now that stuff works pretty good here. But on the East Coast there’s no parallel development. There could have been, but there just wasn’t.
It also seems like they cheer for anything. Whether you guys are playing badly or playing well, they’re fanatical.
Well, they’re much hornier. They’re just like “come on.” They just want it to happen. They don’t care what it is. But that’s not to say they’re completely indiscriminate.
Is the scene still alive in San Francisco?
Not like it was. But for us and our friends, it still exists.