Jerry Garcia: The Relix Interview (Part I)

Jeff Tamarkin on August 1, 2022
Jerry Garcia: The Relix Interview (Part I)

photo © Jay Blakesberg / Retro Photo Archive
Today is the 80th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s birth. To mark the occasion, we present part one of an article that first appeared over two issues in 1980. We’ll run part two on August 9, the day of Garcia’s passing, as we span the Days Between.***

Jerry Garcia ambles into the hotel room overlooking New York’s Central Park. He appears relaxed, although in four hours, he will be on stage at Nassau Coliseum for the second of a three-night stand. But he doesn’t seem overly concerned about that or anything else. Garcia appears happy, and if being a major rock star has ever gotten to his head, he doesn’t show it. He’s as cordial as can be. Does he mind if the photographer shoots a few pics? No, go right ahead. Does he want to do the interview anywhere special? Wherever we want. He’s that kind of person, and as an interview subject is a delight, answering every question in detail, in an honest, forthright manner. He seems to enjoy talking about the Dead, himself, the Deadheads, and the group’s mystique as much as the most avid Deadhead does. And for someone in the eye of the hurricane, he has a remarkably acute understanding of its workings.

This is the first of two parts of the Relix interview with Jerry Garcia. In this half, he talks about the Deadheads–how he views them, how they’ve changed over the years, how they affect the band–and about his relationships with Robert Hunter, the Dead’s record company, and drugs in the ’80s.

I’d like to start off with a general observation and hear any comment you have on it. That is, that most people, after experiencing the Grateful Dead, either love them or hate them. There is no in-between. Someone will either become a Deadhead after hearing or seeing the band, or shrug them off and say yechh! But they will rarely, if ever, have no opinion. 

Jerry Garcia: Well, that seems pretty cut and dry (laughs). I’m aware of that phenomenon, I guess. What happens is that someone turns their friends on to us in the same spirit or sense that they would turn their friends on to pot. They turn them on because they have a good experience and they have a good time. It used to be real frustrating. I’ve talked to fans about this who have said, ‘Jesus, I invited 20 of my friends to this and you guys played awful!’ (laughs). That stuff used to happen to us all the time. We’ve gotten to be a lot more consistent. Now, those people can bring their friends and at the very worst, they’ll get a nice, professional show. But I’m aware of that mechanism. The thing is that it’s an ongoing process. Our audience now has a very large number of 15, 16 and 17 year-olds. They’re kids who are obviously not from our generation but are every bit as enthusiastic about what we did as any of our audiences have ever been. Our audience is larger now than it’s ever been. It’s more vital now than it’s ever been, and we’re happenin’.

Do you relate to an audience of 15 and 16 year-olds today the same way you related to the kids that came to see the band in the ‘60s, when you were a lot closer to that age yourselves?

JG: Sure, ‘cause they’re the same kind of people. They’re people that can dig what we’re doing. And it’s hard not to like someone who likes what you do.

How do you feel about the hard-core Dead fanatics who follow the band on a 25-city tour? Do you think that’s a healthy thing to do?

Well, it’s obviously very important to them. And more than that, it’s giving them an adventure. They have stories to tell. Like, “Remember that time we had to go all the way to Colorado and we had to hitchhike the last 400 miles because the VW broke down in Kansas.” Or something like that. Y’know what I mean? That’s giving them a whole common group of experiences which they can talk about. For a lot of people, going to Grateful Dead concerts is like bumping into a bunch of old friends. There’s a vast network of Deadheads. They’re kind of like people who have come to know and recognize each other and it’s like support. Sometimes a person can find a ride across the country with a Deadhead, or stay over at somebody’s house, or any of that. So, that seems to function pretty well for them.

Isn’t it possible, though, that some people might put so much of themselves into the Dead experience all the time, that they lost a part of themselves in the process?

JG: Oh, for sure. I know I have (laughs). So, I’m sure it’s possible. But our commitment to the idea is as deep as the most crazed Deadhead’s. So I don’t feel as though we’re burning anybody on that level. We continue to do what we’re doing.

This is somewhat related. It seems there are two basic types of Deadheads in a given audience. There’s the one who just goes to get high and dance around and have a good time, and the one who goes there to analyze, like by saying, “Well, that guitar solo wasn’t quite as good as the one he did in Boston in ’73, but…”

JG: Right, the scholarly approach. The students of Grateful Dead music.

If you were a member of the Grateful Dead audience, instead of the stage, which type do you think you’d be?

JG: I could go both ways. There was a time in my life when I was one of those guys who toted around a tape recorder. I used to follow bluegrass bands around and record them. I was of the analytical bent. I was a comparer- this show was better than that and blah, blah, blah. But that was sort of a different me. I understand, though, and sympathize. I understand both points of view. I understand the sheer joy of being there, even if the music is not the best possible performance. And also, there are those times when it gets lucky, it gets special. Those are worth waiting around for. Those are the glue that holds us together, our glue-on particle, the possibility that something exceptional will happen musically.

How have the audiences changed the most over the years?

JG: They’ve gotten bigger, that’s for sure. But for us, surprisingly, they haven’t changed too much. They respond similarly. The Grateful Dead audience is kind of like the Grateful Dead audience no matter what, and no matter where, either. That’s another interesting phenomena. European Grateful Dead audiences are not that much different than American Grateful Dead audiences.

Or Egyptian Grateful Dead audiences.

JG: Right! Or Egyptian Grateful Dead audiences. It’s an interesting thing.

There’s always a lot of talk about a certain lifestyle or philosophy based around, or rather, attributed to the Dead. In your opinion, does such a lifestyle exist?

No. Not in a dogmatic sense. We don’t sit around and work out Grateful Dead dogma, or catma if you prefer (laughs). Our trip is that everyone is entitled to believe what they want. There’s an old Prankster proverb that goes, “The mind believes what the mind believes.” Our experience has been the more the merrier. The more possible interpretations…Like, (Robert) Hunter and I get reports on the contents of our tunes, which include incredibly complex interpretations of what the lyrics must mean and all that. And we find, Wow! There’s no intention on our part to include those things, but it’s lucky that there’s that kind of openness, that that kind of range is available.

There’s a question I was going to ask later on, but since you already brought it up: Do you yourself actually understand all of Hunter’s lyrics?

I edit some of them mercilessly. Sometimes I edit the sense out of them. Sometimes they come to me and they are narrative in intent. But the narration itself will be 90 stanzas. That’s a little cumbersome for a song (laughs). Hunter and I have a trusting working relationship, so he understands when I edit. Sometimes he’ll say, “Well, you’ve taken all the sense out of the song.” And I say, “Trust me, man, it’ll work out.” For me, my own personal preference, because of my background in folk music, is that I always like songs that hint, that hint at either a larger story or something behind the scene, shifting around. Maybe something not quite nameable. So I go for that. The raw lyric might be out front, but what we’ll end up with is something slightly more mysterious. And it tends to work out good because it leaves Hunter and me open doors. None of these started as conscious decisions. These are things I’ve noticed in process. Just because I have a preference for the ambiguous.

Is Hunter aware of this when he writes?

JG: Yeah, he’s real aware of my consciousness. Real aware. He writes songs for me that say what I would have said if I had any kind of agility with language, which I unfortunately don’t.

Does Hunter usually write a song with the Grateful Dead in mind, or are some of the songs intended only for his own use?

Oh, sure. You never know. Sometimes we’ve written songs and just completely forgotten about them because they just can’t be used. Sometimes we write them and record them and they turn out to be valueless because they can’t be performed. There’s no handle that we can get on them. Then, also, there’s the thing where a song might go into a dormant period, like we’ll record it and maybe forget about it. Then we’ll resurrect it in a few years, and start performing it and find that it has something. So, luckily there’s a lot of material, there’s enough to keep ourselves interested just with the book that we have already. And now everybody is producing (new songs). We have a new guy in the band (keyboardist Brent Mydland) who’s writing and has his whole personality. And (Bob) Weir and (John) Barlow have been clicking. So all that is neat. We have more input and more stuff to work with.

When you have some spare time, when the band is off the road and not recording, what do you like to do?

JG: Play music. I study music when I’m not playing music, and film making is something I’m very interested in. That’s about it.

Relix: A lot of Deadheads probably have some fantasy of what kind of person you are in private. Do you think they’d be disappointed if they knew what your offstage life is like, or would their idea be pretty much on target?

JG: Uhmm, I have a feeling they probably know as much about me as I know about myself. Maybe more. They may be in a better position to be able to see. I might reveal more than I know. It’s difficult for me to know something like that. But when people write us letters I don’t get the sense they’re missing the mark. They know who they’re talking to. So that makes me feel good since our only tool of communication is our music and what we do. And when they speak to what they conceive of as the Grateful Dead consciousness, they’re usually not wrong.

Is there a difference anymore between the New York audience and the San Francisco audience?

JG: Oh yeah. The New York audience is much more (makes a gorilla noise and raises his arms). But the San Francisco audience is equally dedicated. It’s just that the vibe there (San Francisco) isn’t so urgent. Here (in New York) there’s great urgency, all the time. I think life here is more urgent, y’know? So things are like that.

Do you ever format a show according to the location? In other words, are there certain songs you might tend to play in the Midwest or the East that you won’t play in California, or vice versa?

JG: At least we don’t do it consciously. There’s an unconscious process, yeah. That’s one of the things we try to leave open, and that’s why we don’t plan a show. Like last night (May 14 show at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island), they were ready to accept a radical shift in mood. They didn’t just want to boogie their heads off, which is sometimes the case. They were ready to go in any direction and that’s sort of unusual for a place the size of Nassau Coliseum and for this part of the country.

When you’re touring in tandem with the release of a new album, like you are now, do you ever try to make sure you include a certain percentage of material from the album?

JG: No (laughs). Sometimes that makes Clive (Davis, president of Arista Records, the Dead’s label) pretty unhappy. I remember when Shakedown Street came out, he came to see us one night at Madison Square Garden and we didn’t play a single tune from the album. We don’t do it on purpose. On this tour, we’ve been playing the new material a little more, mostly because we like it.

I’m sure you get asked this a lot, and must be tired of being associated with the subject, but one more time: What is the role of drugs within the Grateful Dead’s existence today, especially as compared to the role they played during the ‘60’s?

JG: Well, for one thing, drugs are much more expensive now. And the quality of drugs is correspondingly lower. I think that’s unfortunate. Luckily, there’s been great strides in homegrown, and home cultivation. Some people have turned us on to pot that was growing in Iowa that was incredible! Really, just amazing. And there was a time when people would grow pot and take the little leaves off a plant about this high (about six inches off the ground) and roll ‘em up and wonder, “Why can’t I get high on this?” Now they understand because the technology of growing has been greatly improved. Now, there’s good homegrown in virtually every state we’ve been in. So that kind of makes up for the commercial problem.

In our last issue, Grace Slick said that in the ‘60’s, people took drugs to find things out, whereas in the ‘70’s, people took drugs to get away from things. Do you agree?

JG: I’d say so, yeah. Definitely. That was definitely true in the ‘60’s. She’s right about that. In the ‘60’s, we were looking for something and drugs were the tool for helping to look. But as far as I was concerned, psychedelics were the confirmation of that seeking. All of a sudden, here’s this experience that goes quite beyond everyday reality, and is certainly very convincing and organized, and there’s something there. It’s a pity all that has been driven underground, because now we don’t know much about the mind as a result. I think a lot could have been found out if it weren’t for the fear.

Do you think people who are taking psychedelics today are finding things out, or was some of that finding out that we experienced in the ‘60’s a cultural thing as well?

JG: Yeah, I think (people are still finding out). But I think each human being has things to find out in his own life that are inescapable. They’ll find them out the easy way or the hard way, or whatever.

You’ve been playing with the same musicians for 15 years. Is it still spontaneous every time you get on stage?

JG: It sure is. Totally unpredictable too.

Just from playing together so long, you get to know each other person’s musical habits. Don’t you know when, in a certain jam, Bob is going to do one thing or Phil (Lesh, bassist) is going to do something?

JG: Not really, I never know, really, what Bob’s gonna do or what Phil’s gonna do. Those guys have an endless capacity for being able to surprise me. It makes it interesting. Plus, everybody keeps changing, too. So everybody keeps growing and keep changing and the whole thing is dynamic. Luckily, we don’t feel that we’ve peaked. We feel that we’re still on the rise. I have no idea where it’s going.

You were talking before about the shows being more consistent. Is it still obvious to you when a show is especially good or not so good?

JG: No, it’s not so obvious to me anymore. I recognize also that I’m a victim of subjectivity just like we all are in the band. But there’s a great agreement now. For instance, if we have a good night, it’s more likely that we’ll all feel that it’s a good night. Rather than one of us having a great night and the rest of us having a lousy night. We’re all seeing more of the music all the time, so it’s more important how the whole music worked rather than how any one person performed.

Do you think the audiences are more objective now?

JG: I think they know. I don’t think that anything can be concealed. We can’t fool them. If we had a night that didn’t quite reach escape velocity, or whatever, they know. And it’s nice that they’re as patient and they cut us a lot of slack. We have a lot of slack. They give us a lot of room. We aren’t under any particular pressure to perform the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits, or anything like that. They welcome unfamiliar stuff. And I think any group could have been able to approach their audience in that way. It’s really just the matter of us making the assumption that the audience is intelligent. That’s worked for us. We have great freedom. We can go out there and play anything, really-all new stuff, stuff that nobody’s heard before-and the audience won’t go away angry, or disappointed. As long as they understand that we’re doing the best that we can and that’s our shot.

When the band re-introduces a song that hasn’t been played in a few years, is that ever because of audience demand? Like, if enough people started shouting out for “Dark Star,” would you play it again?

JG: Sometimes that happens. But more often, it’s because we discover something about the tune that would be fun to do again. It comes from us, from our own personal preference. Then the audience is pleasantly surprised, or maybe unpleasantly surprised. ‘Why did they drag that turkey out again?’ That can go either way.