The Grateful Dead Revisited : A 1976 Interview with Jerry Garcia
Today we revisit this Jerry Garcia interview from April 1976.
Just think of the possibilities…Imagine H.G. Wells’ most celebrated vision – the time machine – as accessible as a Hertz Rent-a-Car. Where would you go? And when??
For the millions of rock fans who have seen the Grateful Dead perform live, that decision would be made with very little deliberation. Quicker than you could say “Casey Jones,” the controls would be set for the Fillmore West in San Francisco.
The year? 1967, since on any given night at Bill Graham’s storied Bay Area auditorium, there was the distinct likelihood of witnessing the hall’s three “house bands” – the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane, all sharing the same bill and presenting their new material to a small but fanatical audience.
As most music fans know, other San Francisco groups who eventually used the same Fillmore stage as their springboard to national prominence include The Doors, Santana, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish and Big Brother and the Holding Company, which featured a transplanted Texas tornado of a blues singer named Janis Joplin. The combined notoriety that each of these acts achieved marked San Francisco as arguably the most fertile spawning ground for rock and roll of any city in the U.S.
Looking back from a 1988 vantage point, those Fillmore performances will never be forgotten by those lucky enough to have witnessed them; the fact that the passage of time has left them behind in another dimension (unfortunately H.G. was a novelist rather than an inventor) makes them seem magical.
But, for the Grateful Dead, it’s the other way around. These are the magical times. Twenty-two years after the release of their debut album the Dead are more popular than ever. Their latest album, In The Dark, shocked everyone in the music business (and probably the band themselves) by becoming their largest-selling record ever. A long, strange trip? They couldn’t even have imagined how long or strange it would be.
In 1974, I was the music critic for the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper. Being a regular writer for a major-city daily newspaper at the age of twenty-four was rewarding and gave a certain satisfaction to a young rock fan’s life. Getting paid to see and interview bands like the Grateful Dead, was, at times, so much fun, it almost seemed illegal. But someone had to do it, so…
Anyway, that summer of ‘74 the Grateful Dead were booked for two nights at Philadelphia’s Civic Center. My job was to do a preview story in the Sunday Bulletin on the band. Their publicist approved an interview with Bob Weir (Jerry Garcia, I was informed, “wasn’t talking to the press” ), and provided me with ticket to see a show in Providence, Rhode Island, a couple of weeks before Philadelphia, and off I went.
The interview with Bob Weir before the concert was terrific. Weir, as most people know, is a friendly, witty man and gave me more than I needed for the story.
The show that night, at the Providence Civic Center, was a five hour extravaganza, leaving everyone, band and audience alike, drained and exhausted but in a state of euphoria. A few minutes after the last encore, I noticed Jerry Garcia, wearing a dark green t-shirt, Wranglers and Acme boots, leaning against a wall backstage, winding down. I went over to say hello and asked him about a new (at the time) song from Mars Hotel they had closed the show with.
Spotting the tape-recorder I was carrying, he said “I’m not doing interviews this year,” in the same tone of voice he might use to order an after-dinner wine. “I hate all my records,” he added as an afterthought. “The Grateful Dead don’t make good records.”
Was he satisfied with the performance they had just given?
“If I was ever satisfied,” he added totally seriously, “I’d quit playing.”
Two years later, in a New York hotel room, on appropriately April Fool’s Day, 1976 (he has always appreciated a good joke), Jerry Garcia has agreed to an in-depth interview. Following two years of low Grateful Dead activity (which were filled with rumors of retirement), Garcia is in town with a solo band featuring John Kahn, Ron Tutt and Keith and Donna Godchaux. Being into gadgets, he inspects with interest, a new tape recorder I had just bought, and we begin…
I spoke with you briefly at the Providence Civic Center two years ago. You told me, “I’m not doing interviews this year,” and then you said, “I hate all my records. The Grateful Dead don’t make good records.
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s true.
You mean, that’s true that you said that or that’s true that they don’t?
Well, both of them are true. But it’s a matter of objectivity. It depends on which side of the coin you’re on. For example, if I buy somebody’s record – a Rolling Stones record or something – what I hear obviously is the finished record, the finished music and the whole thing that’s already happened. In other words, with a Grateful Dead record, part of what I’m dealing with is the dissonance between the original version, the original flash as a composer. When a song comes into my head, it comes with a complete sound to it, a complete arrangement, a complete format and a complete thing more often than not, which represents my relationship to a personal vision. So, for me, comparing the record to the vision, I always feel that it fails.
That doesn’t discourage you to the point of not wanting to make records?
It could. But it doesn’t, because there’s enough to making records or making music that there are enough other ways to get off. So I’m not that hung up on the relationship to the vision except that it produces sort of a feeling of disappointment. You want it to work a certain way and sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you want it to. Like I had a whole long thing I was working on as far as Blues For Allah was concerned that was a technical trip and it required a certain amount of developing hardware to go along with the idea, which is often the case with things I get involved with. Often I want to do something that you can only do by developing or interfacing a certain number of existing possibilities.
With Blues For Allah there was a thing I wanted to do that had to do with an envelope shaper and stuff like that didn’t come together the way I wanted it to. And so, when I listen to it, I think, “Well shit, it isn’t quite where I wanted it to be.” But in the long run, after, like, however many records – nineteen records or something like that – you feel that at least your percentages are getting closer and you’re able to score on other levels. Like on our earlier records, if I listen to them now, they are embarrassing for reasons like they’re out of tune.
And your recent records are never out of tune.
JG: (laughs) Now they’re much more together on those levels than they used to be. We’re much more able to pull off the technical aspect without having to sacrifice feeling. In terms of Blues For Allah, the latest Grateful Dead record I can talk about in this frame, I think that’s the first record we’ve made in years where we really had fun. We laughed a lot and got good and crazy. We had an opportunity to get weirder than we normally get to getting. First of all because we didn’t have the pressure of having to go out and tour and travel and thus break the flow.
Why didn’t you have the pressure?
Because we decided not to perform.
You didn’t need the money?
Well, it wasn’t the question of needing the money or not. That was…well, say we didn’t need the money.
Most of your money comes from performing, obviously…
Well, yeah. Sure. That’s been our main thing. ‘Course, most of our overhead and expenses are also the result of that too. It’s a lot easier for us to survive on some levels by not touring just because our expenses aren’t so huge. And with me going out and Kingfish going out (with Bob Weir), we were able to pretty much keep ourselves together.
Anyway, a couple of years ago you weren’t doing interviews. Now you are. Why the switch?
I like to do ‘em when I feel like I have something new to say. Every couple of years my viewpoint changes, you know what I mean? So I have something to say. I have some substance. Also, at the end of a year of rapping – if I have only one rap (laughs), one good thing to say and I spend a year saying it – pretty soon I’m burned out and I can’t stand to listen to it any more. But the fact that I haven’t been out traveling a lot and I’m not road weary also has something to do with it.
In our brief conversation two years ago, you said – in response to whether you were satisfied with the show – “If I was ever satisfied, I’d quit playing.”
Yeah, I think I might, in the sense that part of it is the thing of trying, taking chances.
So why now, at this point in time, do you have something to say? Your solo album?
The solo album is one thing. I think the movie is the thing (The Grateful Dead Movie).
Tell me about the movie.
When we decided we weren’t going to perform anymore, our farewell show, so to speak, was five days at Winterland. It was after we got back from our second trip to Europe – October ‘74. About a month before the Winterland dates I got the idea that it would be neat to be able to film it, just because I didn’t know if we were going to perform again. Or if we were going to perform in that kind of situation again. And that five nights in a place would at least give us the possibility, numerically anyway, that we would have one or two really good nights. In about two or three weeks the whole production thing came together to make the movie.
At first we thought, let’s just make a record of the idea, and I wanted it to look good. I wanted it to be really well filmed but I didn’t really know a lot about film when the idea got under way, but when it was time for the show to start, we had about nine camera crews and a lot of good backup people, good lighting people and the whole thing was already on its way to happening. It was chaotic but well organized in spite of the relatively short preproduction time we had. After the five days were over – and during that time I involved myself mostly with the music, I didn’t really get into the film part – we had a couple of hundred thousand feet of film in the can. So then it was, what’s going to happen to this? Originally, we were thinking in terms of what about a canned concert. Would something like that work? Could we send out a filmed version of ourselves? Then, after getting involved and interested in the movie as a project, I started looking at the footage and the concert stuff and I felt that there was a movie there. A movie in a movie sense rather than a movie in a canned concert sense. Then there was the thing of putting all that together and that’s what I’ve been working on the last year and a half, ever since the filming was over, really.
So it’s coming out not as a concert film.
It’s coming out as a movie.
Is there a plot to the movie?
(laughs) No. I mean, it’s a movie for Grateful Dead freaks. I think you could enjoy it from a perfectly normal moviegoer standpoint. I think it’s a very fine movie, but I don’t want to get into waving a flag about it. I want to see what kind of response there is to it first. Now we’re in our last series of fine cut stages. And I’ve tried to structure it in the same sense that Grateful Dead sets are constructed, so that it goes a lot of places. The concert footage is tremendously beautiful.
To be shown in the proverbial theater near you?
So far, we haven’t ironed that out, but I think we’re gonna try, like we always do, to distribute it ourselves. At least the first flash, so that we’ll have some control over the kind of playback system there is in the theaters.
I’ve noticed your concerts don’t change as much from show to show as your albums do.
That’s true. That’s because albums get to be a certain time and space and the concert thing is a flow.
And you always know what to expect from a Grateful Dead concert.
In a way. But we’re trying to bust that too. That’s one of the reasons we dropped out.
Is this it for the Grateful Dead as a touring entity?
No. We’re gonna start playing again.
You have so many members of the Grateful Dead on your solo album (Reflections), it could almost be a Grateful Dead album.
A lot of the energy from that record is really a continuation of the Blues For Allah groove that we got into. We sort of continued the same energy because we were having a lot of fun doing it.
One of my favorite things that you’ve been involved with in the last few years is the Old And In The Way bluegrass album you did with Vassar Clements, David Grisman, and Peter Rowan.
That was a good band. It was satisfying and fun to be in.
Was the reason you only put out the one Old And In The Way album and didn’t do a whole lot of touring with that band, because of the fact that there’s only a certain amount of acceptance bluegrass can get?
That and also we ran into a really weird problem in terms of dynamics which was that bluegrass music is like chamber music: it’s very quiet. And if the audience got at all enthusiastic during the tune and started clapping or something, it would drown out the band and we couldn’t hear each other.
What an album though. I didn’t know you were such a hot banjo player.
(laughs) Oh I was real hot when I was a kid. Now my reasons for playing banjo and my reasons for liking bluegrass music are completely different from when I started, ‘cause then I was really hot.
I think that Old And In The Way album may be the best bluegrass album ever recorded.
Wow. Thank you. I’m happy with it too, but the truth is, we had much better performances than were on that record.
That’s hard to imagine.
Oh yeah. We had performances that were heart-stopping. And perfect, you know, but there weren’t as many that were recorded that well.
That banjo solo you did on “Wild Horses” and Vassar’s violin solo on “Midnight Moonlight” …Jesus.
Well, that was really a thrilling band. And I think that was the nicest that Vassar’s played, too. When he was playing with Old And In The Way, he played the maximum of mind-blowing but beautifully tasty stuff, and the music had enough interesting kinds of new changes and new things happening – Pete’s good songs for example – so that Vassar had a chance to blow with a lot of range. More than he does normally. That was neat.
The Grateful Dead have been a strange band for my taste, in that, if I like a band a lot – and some of your stuff I’ve liked an awful lot – I normally like just about everything the band does. But with the Dead, some of the stuff you’ve done has just gone right by me, while other stuff just blows me away. And it’s the same way with your concerts. Say, you’re in the middle of a jam. I’ll be half asleep for a few minutes, and all of a sudden, you’ll do something for five or ten seconds on guitar that will make my hair stand on end.
See, I have that same kind of reaction to the Grateful Dead myself. The Grateful Dead is not anybody’s idea of how a band or music should be. It’s a combination of really divergent viewpoints. Everyone in the band is quite different from everyone else. And what happens musically is different from what any one person would do. For me, the band that I have right now, I’m real happy with. I haven’t been as happy with any little performing group since Old And In The Way in terms of feeling “this is really harmonious, this is what I want to hear.” This band that I have now is very consonant. The Grateful Dead had always had that thing of dissonance. It’s not always consonant. Sometimes it’s dissonant. Sometimes it’s really ugly sounding and just drives you crazy.
Do you spend a lot of time in San Francisco?
Yeah. I spend most of my time just working. I’m very taken with our scene. It’s very interesting.
Your records are getting softer. In fact, there’s only one uptempo song, “Might As Well,” on your new solo album.
That’s true. That’s probably the worst thing about it, the lack of balance of material.
You thought it was too quiet?
When I listened to it, I thought maybe you didn’t like to rock and roll as much anymore.
No, uh…it’s not that. All these things have to do with luck. And timing. For example, the way that solo record was recorded, really a lot of material was performed with the intention of using it on the record, but of the takes that I felt were acceptable, they tended to be more of those softer tunes. So I decided to go with those because I felt the feeling of the tracks was better, not because of wanting it to be that way.
You guitar playing has remained fairly constant the last few years. The only real deviation was on this new album on the track “Comes A Time.” You used a mild fuzz.
I just used a small amplifier.
There were some real nice sustain on your playing. It sounded terrific.
Yeah. I do those things more on other people’s sessions than I do my own. I tend to be real off-handed about my guitar playing on my own records. In fact, on Grateful Dead records too.
What other records are you referring to?
Well, when I just go and do sessions with somebody more or less anonymous.
You don’t do session that often, do you?
Not any more.
Who are the last few people you’ve done sessions for?
I did a whole spasm of local ones, like all those Merl Saunders ( Live At Keystone, Fire Up ) records. Tom Fogerty’s records. And the Airplane sessions. Stuff like that. I used to do more than I do now.
Kingfish and your band are both on similar – and sometimes identical – tours at the moments and sometimes even cross paths, but you never share a bill. Are the two bands’ identities so different that it would hinder playing together?
Well, it’s just that neither one of us wants to cash in on the Grateful Dead notoriety. And also the people that are in our respective bands have identities of their own to support. So rather than get everybody under the big Grateful Dead umbrella, it’s better if everybody can have their own little shot. Because, for example, it would be possible for Kingfish to go out and work without Weir. They’re a band without him as well as a band with him. There are those kinds of considerations, because when we start working on Grateful Dead stuff, which we’ll start doing pretty soon, those bands will have their own survival problems. Not so much my band, because Ron (Tutt) works with Elvis. John (Kahn) does studio stuff and he’s always got stuff going on.
Are both you and Kingfish ending up your tours at about the same time?
Yeah. The Grateful Dead has to start rehearsing.
Are you going to do a big summer tour like everybody else?
We’re going to approach it differently. We’re going to try and do small places. We’re going to do theaters. We’re not going to do any barns.
Why, at this point have the Grateful Dead decided to get back together?
We’re horny to play. We all miss Grateful Dead music. We want to be the Grateful Dead some more.
What kind of material will you be doing?
Probably some old stuff but more new stuff, and I think probably the biggest change will be that we have Mickey back in the band.
When you look back on your records – you still probably maintain that you hate all your records…
I don’t listen to ‘em. I can’t (laughs).
Are there any that you hate less than the others?
Well, I always like the one we’re working on, or the one that we’ve just finished. That’s the one I feel closest to. But after that, I have to disqualify myself. I can’t judge them against anything but an emotional situation that I’m in, in relation to the Grateful Dead. Either they recall to me what was going on at the time we recorded or something else. It’s more personal than anything else.
When you work on songs, can you tell which ones maybe become classics with your audience, like “Sugar Magnolia” or “Truckin’?”
Uh…not really. I can’t. ‘Cause often, the ones that get me don’t get anybody but me (laughs).
Which ones have gotten you that haven’t gotten many other people?
Well I don’t know, but there are some songs that I really loved…like I really loved “Row Jimmy Row.” That was one of my favorite songs of ones that I’ve written. I loved it. Nobody else really liked it very much – we always did it – but nobody liked it very much, at least in the same way I did.
“U.S. Blues” got real popular in the summer of ’74 and became a big number for your live shows…
Well that kind of figured to me. Some of ‘em, you can say, “Well, this’ll at least be hot, if nothing else.”
I like “Scarlet Begonias” a lot.
Yeah, that’s another song too. That’s a song I like. “Ship Of Fools” is a song I like an awful lot. But my relationship to them changes. Sometimes I really like a song after I’ve written it and I don’t like it at all a year later. And some of them, I’m sort of indifferent to, but we perform it and find they have a real long life. For me to sing a song, I really have to feel some relationship to it. I can’t just bullshit about it. Otherwise, it’s just empty and it’s no fun. There has to be something about it that I can relate to. Not even in a literal sense or a sense of content, but more a sense of sympathy with the singer of the song. It’s a hard relationship to describe, but some songs have a real long life and you can sing them honestly for a long period of time – years and years – and others last just a while and you don’t feel like you can sing them anymore.
When you write with Robert Hunter, you write the music and he writes the lyrics?
More often than not. But also it’s a little freer than that, too. I edit his work an awful lot and, for example, a tune like “U.S. Blues” really will start off with 300 possible verses. Then it’s a matter of carving them down to ones that are singable. Other songs are like stories. A lot of time I edit out the sense of Hunter’s songs.
So you’re the reason he seems so deranged.
Yeah (laughs). I’m an influence in that. And when I edit his stuff, he really treats it with skepticism, but we have a thing of trust between us now so that he usually laughs when I hack out the sense of the song. Dump it. We have a real easy relationship.
By the way, you have one of the strangest record company bios I’ve ever read. It was credited to Hunter.
I actually think that bio was written by Willy Legate.
Who is he?
Willy Legate is this guy who’s an old, old friend of me and Hunter’s and Phil’s and out whole scene, and he’s a lot of things. And one of those things he is, is sort of a bible scholar. And he’s a madman. We were exposed to him really a lot during a formative period of our intellectual life. And he’s still around in our scene.
He’s the guy who wrote “There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” and he wrote the little blurb inside the Europe ’72 album about the bolos and the bozos. We also call on him to do various things. One time we asked the Deadheads to send us their thoughts, just to get some feedback from them. And they sent us lots and lots of letters and we gave ‘em all to Willy. And he ended up with, like, a two page condensation of all the letters, with every viewpoint, that was just tremendously amazing to read. It was just so packed with information.
Willy is someone who has a lot of different kinds of gifts. He also even wrote some lyrics to some of our early songs before we started recording, but we’ve subsequently stopped doing the tunes. But he’s another creative head in our scene that operated way back from the public.
What kinds of things do you care a lot about these days?
(Pauses) I think the thing I’m most into is the survival of the Grateful Dead. I think that’s my main trip now.
Was there ever a point when you didn’t care a whole lot about that?
So this is pretty new?
Yeah, pretty new.
How long has this been going on?
I would say about a year.
Why is that?
Well, I feel like I’ve had both trips, in a sense that I’ve been in the Grateful Dead for ten or twelve years and I’ve also been out of it, in the sense of going out in the world and travelling and doing things just under my own hook. And really, I’m not that taken with my own ideas. I don’t really have that much to say and I’m more interested in being involved in something that’s larger than me. And I really can’t talk to anybody else either (laughs). So sometime in the last year, I decided, yeah, that’s it, that’s definitely the farthest out thing I’ve ever been involved in, and it’s the thing that makes me feel best. And it seems to have the most ability to sort of neutrally put something good into the mainstream. It’s also fascinating in the sense of the progression. The year to year changes are fascinating.
I would say that’s the thing I’m most concerned about now. Everything else has gotten to be so weird. And I’ve never been attracted to the flow politically.
No. It just isn’t interesting to me.
Do you vote?
No. Vote for what? Even looking for decently believable input from that world is a scene. So I haven’t developed that much interest in the motions of the rest of the world. I’m mainly interested in improving the relationship between the band and the audience, and I’m into being onstage and playing.
How about causes, like the legalization of marijuana, that kind of stuff?
It’s all passing stuff. I don’t know. I don’t have anything to say about moral things. Or legal things. I think there’s a lot of confusion on those levels. Basically my framework politically or anything like that is, I’m into a completely free, wide open, total anarchy space. That’s what I want (laughs). Obviously I’m not going to be able to sell that to anybody (more laughter). Nobody’s going to dig that.
You can’t even give that away…
Exactly. So I don’t even bother. If I have a flag to wave, it’s a non-flag. But as a life problem, the Grateful Dead is an anarchy. That’s what it is, it doesn’t have any…stuff. It doesn’t have any goals. It doesn’t have any plans. It doesn’t have any leaders. Or real organization. And it works. It even works in the straight world. It doesn’t work too good. It doesn’t work like General Motors does, but it works OK. And it’s more fun.
I’m curious to see what effect your new-found attention for the Grateful Dead is going to have on your music.
It’ll be interesting. See, I’ve always been real ambivalent about it. It’s like one of those things that, I’ve always wanted to work out, but I never wanted to try and make it do that. And, in fact, everyone in the Grateful Dead has always had that basic attitude. So we’ll see what happens.
(Steve Weitzman is a freelance music critic who has written for Rolling Stone, Musician, Billboard and others.)