Phil Lesh on Longtime Bandmates and New Friends: August 1999 (Throwback Thursday)
In the August 1999 issue of Relix, Phil Lesh reflected on his recent liver transplant, the final days of the Grateful Dead and his three-day Warfield run in April of ’99 with a band that includes Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell.
Despite being near death a few short months ago, these are now the best of times for former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Lesh underwent a successful liver transplant last December, and with the prayers and well-wishes of Deadheads around the globe, has recovered and forged ahead on a new musical odyssey with the help of several well-known “Friends.” In a remarkable rebound, Lesh returned to the concert stage on April 15, performing with an all-star band that included Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell from the band Phish, a group that many consider the finest of the next generation of “jam bands.”
A week after the three-night run of Phil and “Phriends,” Lesh was still glowing over the musical magic that occurred on the Warfield Theater stage. Anyone who was fortunate enough to attend would agree that these concerts established a milestone that will set the standard for all shows to come. Still basking in that glow myself, I met with Phil at his sprawling home nestled in the shadows of Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais. For a man who spent the better part of his life touring relentlessly as part of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest circus, Lesh is content these days to live a more serene life with his devoted wife and soul partner, Jill, and their two sons, Brian and Grahame. In fact, Phil is actually more at home watching his son’s little league games than lobbing bombs in the Phil Zone.
Lesh, looking fit and robust, is both thankful and appreciative of the outpouring of love and support that he received when he first made public his long, debilitating bout with Hepatitis C. “It’s a miracle of modern medicine and also the result of prayer and healing light that was sent to me by many, many Deadheads,” he said. “I want to say right now for publication that I really can’t thank everyone who prayed for me enough. I felt it, and I consider that to be a major factor in the rapidity of my recovery.” Lesh considers himself fortunate and marvels at his own progress. “The doctors are very pleased,” he added. “The blood tests are virtually normal. Everything is virtually normal.”
During the Phil and Friends show, and at all of Lesh’s future shows, he will make it a point to raise awareness regarding Hepatitis C. While not garnering the publicity of cancer and AIDS, and more importantly, the much needed research money, Hepatitis C has slowly crept up to become one of the leading causes of death in this country.
Phil approaches the subject with all the fervor of a Pentecostal minister when it comes to donating the much needed organs that are necessary to save someone’s life. “There needs to be more of an awareness of Hep C and the necessity for blood donations,” he explained. “There is a tremendous whole blood shortage in the Bay Area and other places, too, I’m sure. And organ donation is the key to life for many, many people. It’s estimated that at least four million people in the United States are infected with Hepatitis C, and half of them don’t even know it because of various reasons – they never had the opportunity to be tested for it or they aren’t showing any symptoms of it or any liver problems. It is estimated that in ten years there will be a need for 28,000 organs, and that’s more than three times what the average is today. So the main thing of what I was trying to say at the shows and what I’ll put out now is, if it is your desire to become an organ donor, it is necessary to inform your family as well because they are the ones who will have to make the decision in a very stressful and grievous, traumatic situation. So if that is your desire, then you’ll need to inform them; preferably in writing. Just say something like ‘In the event of my demise it is my irrevocable desire to be an organ donor.’ Your family may still decide not to do it, but at least they know how you feel about it and what your wishes would be.”
Jill Lesh is also actively involved in spreading awareness and education about Hepatitis C, with emphasis not only on physical healing, but also on the spiritual healing. “We want to do a huge benefit next year around Phil’s birthday that would raise money and awareness and would not only focus on Hepatitis C, but also spirituality in healing, because that was a big thing with us,” she stated. “That would be the place to really make appeals for organ donation and support of grassroots organizations because there’s a lot of people involved now. We’re working with a woman that works with art, music and spirituality, and the power of that really gets left behind, but is a big part of healing.”
One of the drawbacks to the technology in fighting Hepatitis C and liver disease is the lack of training and diagnosis by doctors. The test that discovered the deadly strain of virus was only discovered and implemented in the early ‘90s. Since then, numerous organizations have banded together to share information and support, a fact not lost on Lesh’s spouse. “There was a grassroots organization that we found out about afterwards [Lesh’s transplant] called the HCV Global Foundation,” she revealed. “We really want to support organizations like that. They compile all of the information out on Hepatitis C into a really concise picture. What we’re hoping is that maybe doctor’s offices will take some of these pamphlets because, in our own experience, some of our local doctors don’t know very much about Hepatitis C.”
“Or they’re very seriously misinformed,” added Phil. He speaks from the heart concerning his condition and the steps that he’s taken to prevent the recurrence of the virus by relying on alternative medicine to suppress it. “When I was first diagnosed, all they knew was it was non A/non B,” he disclosed. “Then, later on, when they discovered the test for C, they said, ‘Oh yes, you have Hepatitis C.’ But there was very little awareness of it. I went on a homeopathic remedy regime in 1991, and that sort of helped keep me going. I had actually changed my lifestyle before that. I started exercising and not eating red meat in ‘87, and then only vegetables and fish in about ’91, and that really kept me going. But after Jerry’s death, there was a lot of stress involved with the Grateful Dead. It was just sort of piling up. The funny thing about liver disease is that it is so subtle that you don’t really realize it. If you realize anything it’s like, ‘Gee, I feel tired.’”
In the fall of 1998, Lesh’s condition worsened, and it became apparent that a liver transplant would be necessary to save his life. On the West Coast, the demand for liver organs was at a premium and the waiting lists were long – so long that patients would die awaiting a suitable organ. Phil and Jill made their decision and quickly traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida to await a compatible organ. Even they were surprised by the speed in which they obtained a donor. “The Mayo Clinic in Rochester is one of the top three in the country, and they opened a satellite clinic in Jacksonville, which only had 35 people on the list,” recalled Jill. “We did a lot of research, and because it was a new clinic, we could transfer our time there, and it was much faster if we were willing to go there. They were only open nine months, and Phil was their 52nd transplant.”
Lesh received emotional and spiritual support from old friend David Crosby who was also the beneficiary of a liver transplant several years ago. “David was great,” laughed Lesh. “At one point, he was telling Jill that he had to have a picture of me in my hospital gown with my ass hanging out! He wanted us to go down to L.A. and use his doctor, but their list was longer than San Francisco’s.”
Just as Lesh went into surgery, he began a telephone chain that set into motion a mass convergence of spiritual support that he attributes to his success. “Without the healing energy, I wouldn’t have made it,” said Lesh succinctly. “I feel privileged to be part of that. And I’m sure that everyone else does, too. It brought people closer together, not only praying for someone to be healed, but being aware that you’re not alone in doing this, that you’re part of a greater whole. As scary as the world is, I think that it’s really important for people today to know they are part of a greater whole.”
Lesh’s recovery was remarkable, to say the least, and besides the healing vibes sent his way, he is quick to acknowledge the tremendous job done by his physician and his staff. “I was out of Intensive Care in six hours, walking within twelve hours,” announced Lesh. “They make you get up and walk within twelve hours. The operation itself only took three-and-a-half hours, when sometimes it takes twelve. I only used three units of blood, and some patients in some operations use fifteen. The surgical team was amazing. In fact, the whole team at the Mayo Clinic was amazing. They’re all really dedicated to their patients’ well being; that is their prime directive. The surgeon who did my operation, Dr. Jeffery Steers, is a well-known innovator in the techniques of the operation. He’s one of the reasons why I didn’t take very long.”
If Lesh was reborn with a successful liver transplant, another tragedy in his life brought him to a new musical crossroads. Lesh has acknowledged how the death of Jerry Garcia caused him stress and anguish. For nearly two years, save for the occasional sitting in at the Bay Area stops of the Furthur Festival, Lesh remained out of the musical spotlight. The time off gave the bassist time to rethink his musical direction, and it is no surprise that he again received strength from the Deadheads.
In September 1997, Lesh attended the first “Deadhead Community Center” benefit, held at Berkeley’s venerable Ashkenaz Music and Dance Club, that featured Grateful Dead Hour host David Gans and his band, the Broken Angels. The event had a profound effect on the former Grateful Dead bassist who heard the music with the new ears of an audience member. “That was a real revelation for me to see how many musicians there were out there that were familiar enough with Grateful Dead material that they could jam all night, well, like we used to,” recalled Lesh. “And that sort of started me out on the whole Phil Lesh and Friends concept. I sat in with Gans’ band, the Broken Angels, and we did a Phil and Friends show with them, and then just started to branch out and use other musicians around that I hadn’t played with that were familiar with the material.”
The irony was not lost on Lesh who laughed, “It was kinda weird!” adding in a deep booming voice, “‘Who is up there playing that bass?’ It reminded me of those dreams that I used to have every so often, kinda like Spinal Tap, where I’m in the bowels of some coliseum trying to find my way to the stage, but the band’s all up there and they’re playing, and I can hear it. And there’s a bass player up there too. And that’s the weird part. And the experience of walking in the door of a club and hearing this music, I said ‘Wow, who’s playing this music?’ And in some ways, it was just as good as the Grateful Dead.” Naturally, Lesh is aware that there is a whole Grateful Dead band scene out there.
Three months after the refreshing re-acquaintance with the music of the Grateful Dead, Phil held his PhilHarmonia at the Maritime Hall in San Francisco as a benefit for his newly established charity, the Unbroken Chain Foundation. He brought together Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay, Graham Nash, David Grisman, Michael Tilson Thomas, Bruce Hornsby, Edie Brickell and Jackie LaBranch for a heartfelt holiday season sing-along. Phil explained how it all came together. “It was Jill’s idea to have a sing-along,” he said. “Our kids have been attending the Waldorf School, and we’ve been exploring the philosophy behind that which is called Anthoposity. Jill was saying it would be wonderful if we could have an event where the audience was the band instead of the audience playing the band with their vibes and everything with their energy. Wouldn’t it be great if they could sing and actually make the music themselves? ‘Cause you’d hear people going out the door saying, ‘I haven’t sang that song since I was five years old in the third grade.’” Lesh revealed that plans are in the works for another PhilHarmonia to be held in December.
It was at the PhilHarmonia that the seeds were planted for the undertaking of the reunion of three of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead in a band that would be called The Other Ones. The following May, when the tour was announced, press releases stated that the group would include guitarist Stan Franks. Then, at the very last minute, Franks was dismissed, leaving the band to rehearse guitarists up until two weeks before the actual Furthur Festival tour.
Lesh explained the behind-the-scenes activity leading up to the tour. “When we were first discussing it, I was invited the night of the PhilHarmonia, as a matter of fact,” he admitted. “Those guys said, ‘Why don’t you come out with us next summer?’ My response was essentially, ‘I’d love to play with you guys, but let’s make a band out of it instead of having some forty-five minute jam at the end of seven hours of music, with you know, four or five warm up bands.’ I guess that they eventually agreed that that was okay, and we started talking about who was going to be part of it, and Stan was brought up. Bobby actually suggested Stan, since Bobby and I had both played with him on a David Murray gig at The Fillmore.”
Clearly it was a memorable gig for Lesh. “It was kind of funny,” he continued, “because Stan, Bobby and I were all on one side of the stage and the whole band was supposedly playing ‘Dark Star.’ We were on one half of the stage sort of playing ‘Dark Star,’ and then there was David and the other three horn players he’s got and his rhythm section there on the other side of the stage sort of playing what they played. I’ve never heard any tapes of it, but it was kind of amusing to perceive it. There were two different approaches to ‘Dark Star’ that never really quite blended. Bobby and I were both impressed by what Stan was doing that night, and it really fit in so we thought that he would be ideal for this because he’s nothing like Jerry. Nothing like Jerry at all. And he’s a fine musician. I made him the cornerstone of all my Phil and Friends gigs before the rehearsals started for the tour. But for some reason, I still don’t understand to this day, it just wasn’t working out. So, when we started rehearsals for the real thing, for The Other Ones, it became really apparent that Stan didn’t quite fit in.”
When it was suggested that the focus of a band playing the music of the Grateful Dead would need to be its lead guitar player and that Franks wasn’t a “step-out” player, Lesh readily agreed. “Not in that context,” he said, adding, “I’m sure he is in any other context, and we had to have that. We really couldn’t go on tour with just Bruce and Dave Ellis playing the leads. So, eventually we ended up with Mark (Karan) and Steve (Kimock). Mark had a certain sensibility, which was really a complement to Steve.”
Karan was originally tapped as the sole guitarist, while at the same time, local music fans touted Steve Kimock as the man for the job. Ironically, when Kimock first auditioned for the gig, he didn’t get called back immediately. It was evident, though, that Kimock had impressed Lesh. “I’d heard of him for a while, and I didn’t know what to think because everything that I heard about him was that he was pretty much following in Jerry’s footsteps, and all that,” recalled Lesh. “But then I started listening to some Zero tapes and some tapes of his band when they first started out – KVHW – and the more I listened, the more blown away I was, and the more I realized that here’s a guy that may have the same spirit that Jerry had, but he didn’t sound like him at all. I mean, Jerry would have loved to be able to do some of the things that Steve does, that just flow out of him. I’ve heard things that Steve does that I never dreamed could come out of a guitar. I mean, it’s just like a waterfall, almost like Coltrane shoots his sound. It’s really amazing. Once I got to that point, I was saying, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to play with this guy,’ (laughing), ‘I have to play with this guy.’”
Phil’s wish came true and surpassed his expectations. “Ultimately, we were able to play together,” he said, “although the best time I ever had with Steve before this last weekend (Phish) was when we did another Phil and Friends benefit – two shows in August of ‘98 at The Fillmore with Bobby and the other guys from Ratdog – Dave Ellis, Jeff Chimenti and Prairie Prince. And man, that was the shit! And, of course, these last shows just keep reinforcing my love for whatever Steve plays. He’s the key to the Phil and Friends shows. I always want to work with him, while the other personnel will rotate. Steve is my other half.”
What is one of the most surprising aspects of the Phil and Friends shows is Lesh’s ability to bring newfound life into the songs of Jerry Garcia. Lesh’s passionate renderings of such songs as “Days Between,” “Ripple” and “Morning Dew” that are so identified with the late guitarist, now seem tailor-made for Lesh. The bassist agreed saying, “There are those songs which I believe deserve to be heard. If by doing them myself I can open the door for others to hear them also, then I think that is a good thing. But I believe in those songs. I believe in ‘Day’s Between.’ When I sing it, I try to sing it like I experienced all the things that went into that lyric. I was there for all of that. For ‘Morning Dew,’ that song is universal, and I try to put everything into it that I have, that I know about that,” Lesh declared proudly. “A lot of that, in a way, was the core of the Grateful Dead repertory.”
In discussing other selections, he noted that “since Bob works with me frequently on these Phil and Friends shows, I don’t feel quite as comfortable doing Bob songs. Although I’d probably like to take a whack at ‘Playing In The Band’ with the proper harmony at one point. That’s such a great jam tune, and ‘The Other One,’ too. Those two. Those are fair game as far as I’m concerned.”
Many Deadheads were disappointed over Lesh’s decision not to tour with The Other Ones again this summer. While rumors were fueled on the Internet regarding the circumstances that led to the decision, Lesh revealed that there was nothing really sinister lurking behind his choice not to undertake a summer Furthur Festival tour. “There were many layers to that decision,” Lesh explained. “The main one is that it was never intended to be a full-time thing like the Grateful Dead. In any case, there were issues that were still unresolved that had nothing to do with who’s playing guitar. I just felt that it might be a good idea for us to put it to bed for a year and let everybody do their own thing this summer. And nobody seemed to have any objections to that. It’s not like we carved it in stone – ‘Okay, now this is it. This is the lineup, and this is how we’re going to proceed,’” Lesh said cautiously, recalling a newspaper interview a couple of weeks earlier that gave the issue a different spin.
“I said something about new material in my interview,” continued Lesh, “and now I’m getting heat about playing Grateful Dead material at Phil and Friends. Well there’s a very big difference between Phil and Friends, which is an ad hoc, one-lineup-at-a-time kind of thing where you rehearse for four days and play three shows, and The Other Ones, which in some people’s minds, is the lineup. But if that’s going to be the lineup, we’re gonna continue as a band with the same people, go on tour and play 30 shows, then we’re gonna need not to just recycle Grateful Dead material, we’re going to need new stuff. And although Bobby and Mickey came up with a couple of new things last year, we need more than that. That’s all. I hope that clarification will assuage a few people out there who are concerned that I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth at the same time.” Interestingly, Phil performed with Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Steve Kimock and Sammy Hagar at the Open Space Benefit in Santa Rosa a few days after this interview. It’s obvious that the remaining members of the Grateful Dead will continue to perform in the foreseeable future, although perhaps not as The Other Ones. One of the reasons may lie in the success of the Phil and Friends shows, which keeps the former Dead member close to home, with minimal stress from the rigors of the road.
The high-point of the Phil and Friends shows thus far has been the collaboration with members of the popular jam band, Phish. Lesh had never met Trey Anastasio or Page McConnell until the week of rehearsals. The Phish members were fans of the Grateful Dead’s music, and just one phone call from Phil began what will go down in the annals as a merging of the musical generations of improvisational rock bands.
“I was familiar, but not as familiar as many,” recalled Phil. “I heard enough to know that these guys would be very interesting to play with. And the event proved more than merely interesting. I had heard some tapes, and it was kind of like with Steve. I heard some of their studio material, and it showed a certain sensibility, but I wasn’t sure because I had heard that these guys were jammers. The CDs really didn’t reflect that. So I got some live tapes of Phish and heard what they do when they stretch out. Jill had it on the stereo, and I was just entranced by Trey’s guitar playing. I couldn’t hear the keyboard that well on the live tapes, but when I went back to the CDs to hear what Page was doing, that really made a lot of sense, too. I went, ‘Yeah, I want to play with these guys. I don’t care how weird it gets, in fact, I want it to get weird.’ And so we talked on the phone and they were up for it, and we set it up and they came out. The first tune we played, I think it was, ‘Viola Lee Blues,’ we were at it for 25 minutes in the studio.”
John Cutler, who recorded the event in the back of a truck outside the Warfield Theater’s stage door, recorded all three Phil and “Phriends” shows on 24-track ADAT. A week after the shows, Lesh was ecstatic with the results. “Cutler recorded multi-track so I can fix my vocals and everything,” he revealed. “I’m very pleased with what I’ve heard so far. And I’ve only heard one set out of six. It was recorded 24-track so we didn’t miss a note. If the tapes reflect the performances, let’s just say I’m extremely hopeful that something will be able to be done with those tapes.”
Since the death of Jerry Garcia, for some, Phish has filled a void that was left on the music scene. Like the Dead, Phish enjoys a fanatical devotion from its fans. Lesh saw both a musical and cultural connection between the two bands. “They started out being a Grateful Dead cover band, so I understand, and that was so cool because they knew all of our stuff,” remarked Lesh. “And not only that, they did their homework by rehearsing at home, the two of them, before they came out. I’d never heard them live except on tape, but I think that maybe their willingness to stretch out their songs is a connection. Aside from that, I think that they’re very much their own musicians, at least from the moment that they started doing their own stuff.”
Of the musical landscape, Lesh commented, “I’m just grateful that there’s a whole jam band scene out there that never existed 20 years ago. And there’s a demand for it on the grassroots level. This was what San Francisco music was all about in the very beginning – the medium is the message. Here’s five guys up there on the stage playing music together. You can do the same thing, whether it’s playing music or being in an art commune or writing software; you, too, can connect in this way. And I think that’s a message that jam bands have given. First the Grateful Dead, and now dozens, hundreds maybe, of jam bands all over the country, little and large. And I think that’s a great thing.”
Returning to the collaboration, Lesh continued, “With the Phish guys, I got to say, it was almost too easy. They knew the material so well, and they were such excellent musicians. They have that spirit, that questing spirit. They want to take it out and see where we can go. I was telling (drummer) John Molo on the phone today, I’m still blown away by all the different realms we visited. In only listening back to the one set that I heard, I was saying, ‘Jeez, this isn’t rock ‘n’ roll music, this is some new phenomena.’ It was really, really satisfying to listen to it, and challenging, too.”
While Lesh was recovering, he and Steve Kimock jammed regularly in the studio with other musical friends such as Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen, Michael Falzarano and Pete Sears; keyboardist Merl Saunders; and drummers Prairie Prince and John Molo. Since Phil has become more active musically, he remains amazed at the number of musicians that are interested in working with him. “There’s a whole list of people that I’d like to get around to working with,” he admitted, “because the Grateful Dead was my band and that is what I put my energy into, and I never really even thought about branching out and doing what I’m doing now. So now that the Grateful Dead doesn’t exist essentially, it’s really satisfying for me to find out how many people are actually interested in playing with me. And how successful it can be. This last weekend was one of the finest musical experiences in my life.”
Lesh and Kimock’s plans for future Phil and Friends shows include a Memorial Day festival performance in Calavaras, California that will feature Gov’t Mule’s guitar slinger Warren Haynes, former Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay, keyboardist Merl Saunders and drummer John Molo. The following week, Phil Lesh and Friends will embark on another three-day run at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater with a band that will include guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, keyboardist Pete Sears and drummer Prairie Prince.
Lesh was reluctant to elaborate on any far-reaching plans other than the one’s already scheduled. “It’s really vague right now,” he conceded. “I’ve got some thoughts, and people are always suggesting other musicians for me. I’m taking July off, and I have three weekends in August that are all possibilities. We like to think of it as being cosmically ordained.”
For nearly 30 years, the Grateful Dead toured virtually non-stop, except for a year-and-a-half in the mid-‘70s, with an obvious toll taken on both the band members and the Deadheads themselves, finally grinding to a halt with the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. The Grateful Dead’s final tour was dubbed by many as “The Tour From Hell,” with ominous signs that the party was finally coming to an end. From his vantage point on stage, Lesh and the other band members could see the signs as the once docile Deadhead scene convulsed into riot. “It’s never very pleasant to see people knocking down fences and trampling each other just to get in the show,” Lesh remembered sadly. “I could never understand it. Most of the time, the people who stayed outside had more fun just staying outside.”
The evidence of the changing times was staggering. “You can’t really come in and hear the show any better by breaking in,” Lesh noted. “The word that I got was that there was a group of people who, that was their fun – breaking into shows, sneaking in, getting in for free. They didn’t care about the music or being inside really, they just wanted to have the experience of getting something for nothing. And, of course, dragging a bunch of people along with them. And so that happened a couple of times, and then there was the incident with the shelter in St. Louis where there were kids partying under the shelter and there were kids partying on the roof. And the roof fell down, and people were seriously hurt.”
As if that weren’t enough, Phil added, “And then there was Jerry’s death threat. Some paramilitary dudes in the Midwest, I don’t even remember where it was, they got real upset at the thought of people like us, going around promoting drugs or whatever they thought we were promoting. So they decided that they were going to get Jerry. This is the story we got. I don’t really remember the details, but we had to play a whole show with the house lights up and security right down in front. The thing is, though, if somebody is really determined, you can never stop them. I thought that was a little ballsy of Jerry to go out there and play those shows.”
Looking back, Lesh recalled how the sheer size of the Grateful Dead organization required the band to be out on the road year in and year out. While most bands in the music industry usually record an album then tour in support, the Grateful Dead shed any of the typical show business routine that required it to even step into a recording studio to earn a living. I asked Lesh why the band never took a vacation from touring, and he was both open and honest in his response. “Several reasons,” he maintained. “We, the Grateful Dead, the band, we felt responsible for the employees that we had in our organization.
“At that time, we had 50 employees and 90 percent of our income came from touring. So if we stopped touring voluntarily, I mean, the band members would have been okay, but all the rest of those people would have been out of a job, on welfare or unemployment. And if we’d taken a year off, I mean, those people would have been out in the cold. We really felt that responsibility, and it was a real drag. And nobody really liked it. That’s one of the reasons that after Jerry’s death, I made it my business to try and consolidate everything in a way that it would be self-sufficient – all the merchandising and all of the publishing and all of the administrative stuff, so that it would be self-sufficient and would not depend on any income from touring from any of the musicians that were involved. And so far it’s been pretty successful that way. But that was a really stressful time for me. Jerry and I had talked about taking a year off. Our ideal solution was to play in one place and have everyone come to us, and we talked about that. And management kept saying, ‘Oh you can’t do that, they won’t come to you.’ I knew better,” Lesh recalled somberly.
By the summer of 1995, it had been nearly six years since the Grateful Dead released a new studio recording. During those final years, though, the Grateful Dead introduced several songs that remained unrecorded such as “Days Between,” “Lazy River Road” and “Childhood’s End.” Lesh revealed that there was an attempt to work on a new release by the band that was left unfinished at the time of Garcia’s death.
Unfortunately these songs may never see the light of day. “I personally don’t feel that there’s anything from those sessions that is worth using,” Lesh disclosed. “It’s kind of like, there’s a famous composer named Gustav Mahler, and he died before he finished his tenth symphony. Four or five people have done completed versions, completions of which have been performed and recorded. And as good as any of them are, none of them could ever approach what the composer himself would have done with it. So there’s no way that any of that Grateful Dead material, no matter who we brought in to sweeten it up, would be equivalent to what Jerry would have done with it. I mean, there are no lead vocals on his songs, and his guitar playing is just rudimentary on all of the tracks. I personally don’t feel that there’s any point in releasing those songs from those recordings. So I don’t think that it’s ever gonna happen myself,” Lesh explained, which may leave the door open for the release of new interpretations of those songs.
“Any of my tunes, I would feel comfortable about that, and I’m sure Bobby would be interested in taking some of his stuff and recording with Ratdog,” Lesh continued. “In fact, he may already have done so because they’re in the studio working on a record right now. Bobby’s really pleased with it. He said that he has 20 new tunes. So it gives him a lot of latitude to choose from.”
Two years ago, Lesh assembled a CD of vintage Grateful Dead recordings, Fallout From The Phil Zone (GDM), that celebrated the early music of the legendary band. Many Deadheads wonder if Lesh has any more gems to mine from the band’s legendary vaults. “Well, the trouble is in the difficulty in finding the gems,” Lesh explained. “At least two or three of those tunes were things that I had in my head to release. ‘Viola Lee Blues’ is one. ‘In The Midnight Hour,’ from Rio Nido, I knew it was a classic the day we did it. And it’s unfortunate that as far as that one’s concerned, we had to put it out in mono because the vocals were all on one channel and the whole band was on another because that’s the way it was done in those days. We didn’t have mixers. Bear (Stanley Owsley), the guy who actually recorded it, has developed a way to mix those things together, so that they’re in a kind of stereo. So, hopefully, we’ll find more of that stuff. That was one of the few Grateful Dead tapes that I had in my possession for the longest time. I actually kept it because I loved it so much. I didn’t want it to get away.”
As far as re-mastering the older Grateful Dead albums using new state-of-the-art technology, Lesh remains unimpressed. “They (Warner Brothers Records) keep coming back to us and saying, ‘Well why don’t we re-master everything for HDCD or why don’t we re-master everything for DVD?’” he reported. “To me, personally, that’s just a device to get people to spend more money for things that they already have that won’t be enhanced that much because they were not recorded at 96K sampling rate. It’s analog material, and I don’t think that it can be enhanced that greatly by transferring it to this new media. It’s just an excuse for the record companies to make more money.”
Lesh is quick to name his favorite Grateful Dead records quite readily. “There’s one that stands out above them all and that’s +Anthem Of The Sun_ ,” he revealed. ” Live Dead is right up there, too. I also enjoyed Blues For Allah .”
Of future recording projects, Lesh mentioned an ambitious undertaking that is tentatively entitled Keys To The Rain, where he plans to link the themes of Grateful Dead songs to symphony orchestra. “It’s kind of strange,” Lesh explained eagerly. “It was suggested to me that I do this, and I rejected it out of hand at first. And then I started thinking about it. If it’s going to be done, then I should be the one to do it. What I’m doing is taking material, as they say melodic material, chord sequences, rhythmic riffs, from twenty-nine Grateful Dead songs, and I’m weaving them into a tapestry that has seven movements and is going to last, forty-five, forty-eight minutes for symphony orchestra – no singing, just melodic ideas. It’s going to be me developing my version of Grateful Dead music. I’d love to have (renowned San Francisco Symphony Conductor) Michael Tilson Thomas do it because he has rock ‘n’ roll in his heart. When I finish it, I am going to show it to him, and if he likes it, maybe he’ll do it.”
Lesh acknowledged the problems that amplified music has in symphony performances, as he learned years before when the Grateful Dead attempted to blaze new musical trails with disastrous results. He stressed that the new project will avoid amplified instruments. “Any single electric instrument is louder than the whole symphony orchestra,” he said. “And when you have a whole electric band, forget it. It’s just going to be visual. We played with a full orchestra in Buffalo, 25 years ago. Lucas Foss was the conductor in Buffalo at that time. Any one of us could have drowned them out, and they were going full blast. Actually, they had two rock bands and the orchestra. It was one of those things where it had no structure to it at all. The orchestra had their part, and they would do whatever the conductor told them at any given moment. He wanted them to stand up and shout, and some of them wouldn’t do it. [Phil, in a Russian accent] ‘For this, I went to Julliard?’”
There are plans for the future other than recording projects. For instance, there was much said in the media last year when the city of San Francisco, in conjunction with the Grateful Dead, decided to honor the venerable band with a museum and cultural landmark. Lesh revealed that the project is still very much alive and closer to fruition. “We’re actually moving on that,” he disclosed. “It’s not going to be so much a museum as a gathering place for the Deadhead community. We want Deadheads to be able to come to a place and find others of their kind there. Just like the Haight Ashbury was in a way. We want to make this the kind of place, a single building where there would be performances, and if there’s not a performance that night, there might be an open mic kind of scene where people can come and do their own performances.”
The dimensions and location of the structure are important issues as well. “We’ve talked about various sizes – the biggest is about 55,000 square feet,” Lesh announced. “That would involve a whole lot of multimedia areas and museums and stuff like that. I personally would rather see a place for the Bay Area Music Archives and a few offices for our foundation, the Unbroken Chain Foundation, the Rex Foundation and a good-sized performance space. Something that’s in the middle between the Warfield Theater and the Henry J. Kaiser because there is nothing that size in the city or even anywhere around. We’re hoping to get something like that going.”
Since Phil Lesh’s miraculous recovery from near death, he has continued to bring people together. His good-natured spirit and unending relationship with the Deadhead community has rekindled a flame that will be hard to extinguish. As Lesh renews his life with the support of his wife, children and many friends, he remains humble in his approach to life and dedicated in his commitment to helping others. “When I was sick, when everybody communicated with each other to pray for my well being and my health and rapid recovery, it brought them closer together as a community,” he declared. “I think that, ultimately, what is going to be the most magnificent side effect of my whole experience is the fact that those people came closer together because of my illness.”