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“LOOKING INTO THE NEXT CENTURY”
BY ANTHONY DeCURTIS
SYRACUSE HERALD JOURNAL
SYRACUSE, NEW YORK
NOVEMBER 7, 1993
Now 51, battling diabetes and other health problems, Jerry Garcia still looks unstintingly ahead. In conversation he is a marvel, bouncing associatively from topic to topic, sharing his amiable intelligence as if it were a gift, in love with good talk. Childlike in his curiosity and enthusiasm, he has more projects going — and more different types of projects — than most musicians half his age.
The Grateful Dead is planning to record a new studio album, the first since “Built to Last” in 1989, for release next spring. As the band’s summer tour crossed the country, a collection of Garcia’s artwork — pen-and-ink drawings, watercolors,computer-generated images — accompanied it, with gallery displays in the various cities the Dead have visited.
An album of traditional children’s songs, “Not for Kids Only,” with mandolinist David Grisman, was released this fall on Grisman’s label, Acoustic Disc. For a collaboration with the Redwood Symphony, with which his eldest daughter plays violin, Garcia is commissioning works for orchestra and guitar.
Of course, the Jerry Garcia Band is a going concern, with an East Coast tour now under way, including a stop next Sunday in Syracuse. And Garcia also hopes at some point to pull together another band, featuring Edie Brickell on vocals, for shows of entirely improvised music and lyrics. Clearly, this is not a man who has run out of either energy, ideas or passion:
Q What about your own musical beginnings?
Music was something I was not good at. I took lessons on the piano forever, for maybe eight years — my mom made me. None of it sank in. I never did learn how to sightread for the piano — I bluffed my way through, I was attracted to music very early on, but it never occurred to me it was something to do — in the sense that when I grow up I’m going to be a musician — although I knew that my father had been a musician.
Q What about bluegrass? When did you come to that?
My grandmother was a big Grand Ole Opry fan. Now this is in San Francisco, a long way from Tennessee, but they used to have the Opry on the radio every Saturday night all over the United States. My grandmother listened to it religiously. I probably heard Bill Monroe hundreds of times without knowing who it was. When I got turned on to bluegrass in about 1960, the first time I really heard it, it was like, “Whoa, what is this music?” The banjo just … it just made me crazy. It was like the way rock ‘n’ roll affected me when I was 15. When I was 15, I fell madly in love with rock ‘n’ roll. Chuck Berry was happening big, Elvis Presley — not so much Elvis Presley, but I really liked Gene Vincent, you know, the other rock guys, the guys that
played guitar good: Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley. And at that time, the R&B stations still were playing stuff like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims, these funky blues guys. Jimmy McCracklin, the Chicago style blues guys, the T-Bone Walker-influenced guys, that older style, pre-B.B. King stuff. Jimmy Reed — Jimmy Reed actually had hits back in those days. You listen to that, and it’s so funky. It’s just a beautiful sound, but I had no idea how to go about learning it.
When I first heard electric guitar, when I was 15, that’s what I wanted
to play. I petitioned my mom to get me one, so she finally did for my
birthday. Actually, she got me an accordion, and I went nuts — Aggghhh, no, no, no! I railed and raved, and she finally turned it in, and I got a pawnshop electric guitar and an amplifier. I was just beside myself with joy. I started banging away on it without having the slightest idea of . . . anything. I didn’t know how to tune it up; I had no idea. My stepfather tuned it in some kind of weird way, like an open chord. I thought: “Well, that’s the way it’s tuned. OK.” I played it that way for about a year before I finally ran into some kid at school who actually could play a little. He showed me a few basic chords, and that was it I never took any lessons. I don’t even think there was anybody teaching around the Bay area. I mean electric guitar was like from Mars, you know. You didn’t see them even.
During this time, too, I was going to the art institute on Saturdays and
summer sessions — they had this program for high-school kids. So I
was picking up that head. This was also when the beatniks were happening in San Francisco, so I was, like, in that culture. I was a high school kid and a wanna-be beatnik! Rock ‘n’ roll at that time was not respectable.
Q When the Dead started out, did yon have a sense that it would last this long?
We had big ideas. I mean, as far as we were concerned, we were going to be the next Beatles or something — we were on a trip, definitely. We had enough of that kind of crazy faith in ourselves. We were always motivated by the possibility that we could have fun, big fun. I was reacting, in a way, to my bluegrass background, which was maybe a little over-serious. I was up for the idea of breaking out. When we were in the Warlocks, the first time we played in public, we had a huge crowd of people from the local high school, and they went — nuts! The next time we played, it was packed to the rafters. It was a pizza place. We said, “Hey, can we play in here on Wednesday night? We won’t bother anybody. Just let us set up in the corner.” It was pandemonium, immediately. I don’t remember ever thinking, “Now, am I going to be doing this in 20 years?” But it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be doing it And as things went on, we went past my own personal — what? — goals, visions, my own imagining, “This is how far we could go.” So we’re way over in the land of pure gravy, so to speak — pure gold. Now it’s like stuff that I might idly have wished for one day in 1957 is coming up.
Q So what does a studio album mean for the band now?
I can’t encompass it with my point of view, because it usually isn’t made up of just my material — it’s made up of all of our material The material has to speak to us, you know — “This album seems to be going in this direction, or it contains these elements,” and then you try to see if you can sew it together. The basic odyssey format or variety show, you know. Something rubbery tike that usually is best because it’s tough to get everything under the same umbrella. Sometimes the sound of it will be the unifying feature. Sometimes it’s not there at all.
Q Are all of you in compatible spaces as far as this upcoming particular album is concerned?
I think so. It used to be wildly different If you checked on each of us
about what our version of Grateful Dead music was, it used to be way
different from each other. We’re all sort of looking at the same thing
now — kind of. I mean, each person still sees it through his own frame of reference, but that’s what Grateful Dead music is, you know: Grateful Dead music is a holographic experience. It’s made up of the points of view of all of the members of the band: consequently, every angle that you look at it from, it’s different. And a lot of times, it’s unpredictable. That’s one of the things that makes it interesting to keep doing.
The way we’re approaching this album, and we’ve done it in the past, too, with our better albums, is to let the material live onstage for about a year. It starts to evolve into something different. I mean, it’s probably a way of saving, “This is a collaborative effort.”
Q How do you perceive your various musical relationships — the Dead, your band, your projects with David Grisman? Do they merge, or are they clearly compartmentalized in your mind?
They do bleed into each other, but that’s OK, I don’t prevent that from
happening. But I do try to keep them separate, because I love them for reasons of their own. I like their identities to be clear.
Q What are the differences?
The Garcia Band really reflects my musical personality. The people in that band think — musically, conceptually — the way I do. Their notion of the way the instruments should speak to each other — I don’t have to show anybody anything. When we work out a tune, all I have to do is say: “Here’s the tune. Here’s the changes. Here’s the chords” — and it just happens. And it happens perfectly. It happens better than if I told everybody, “This is exactly what I want you to play.” I mean, that band, to me, is total resonance. It’s consonance. It’s like — yes, yes, that’s my version of music! The Grateful Dead has more dissonance in it. It has more variables and more wild cards and more oddness. And it has more tension, too. I mean, to Grateful Dead fans, my band might be a little bit too agreeable. Grisman is a very rigorous musician. He likes to rehearse and get things down perfectly. He’s a master of detail. I’m not those things, but we balance each other out. I’m loose enough to loosen him up, and he’s tight enough to tighten me up. We also share a love for American traditional music, for bluegrass and for acoustic music. And for swing. Me and David are working on a children’s album right now. It’s something I never would have thought to do. It’s kind of a reaction to the revisionist approach to children’s songs.
Q Like what?
Well, there are these shows that have the old children’s songs, but they’ve rewritten the lyrics to make them tamer or more gentle. It’s infuriating because these songs are part of the oral tradition of America. A lot of them are perfectly lovely. Some of them have teeth, but, hey, so what? I mean, kids get enough mindless, senseless stuff. So we’ve gone poking around in some mountain music and traditional stuff for children’s songs that don’t want to be changed. We’d like to introduce them to the kids the way they are and let them be. We’ve been taking a real simple and spontaneous approach — just picking and singing, you know. This music should be heard. It’s part of our heritage.
Q One of your goals seems to be to explore every genre of American music.
Oh, definitely. If I live long enough, I hope to do exactly that I missed out on a lot of legitimate music by not being a music student I didn’t play a band instrument; I didn’t have that background. But I’ve been learning about these other worlds. I would love to be able to play, like, Gershwin tunes. And I will do it. There’s a lot of great music in the American experience, and l hope to be able to touch as much of it as I can. I feel that I can honestly contribute something.
Q With your health problems, were you concerned that you might never get to do all the things you’ve been talking about wanting to do?
Absolutely. I was getting to the place where I had a hard time playing
a show. I was in terrible … shape. I mean I was just exhausted, totally exhausted. I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without panting and wheezing. I just let my physical self slide as far as I possibly could.
Q Did you deny to yourself what was happening?
Oh, yeah, because I’m basically lazy. Things have to get to the point where they’re screaming before I’ll do anything. I could see it coming, and I kept saying to myself: “Well, as soon as I get myself together, I’m going to start working out. I’m going on that diet.” Quit smoking ~- ayiiiii (waves lit cigarette).
Q What about in terms of the Dead? Were there times when the band was discouraged about its future?
Well, there were times when we were really in chaotic spaces, but I don’t think we’ve ever been totally discouraged. It just has never happened. There have been times everybody was off on their own trip to the extent that we barely communicated with each other. But it’s pulses, you know? And right now everybody’s relating pretty nicely to each other, and everybody’s feeling very good, too. There’s a kind of healthy glow through the whole Grateful Dead scene. We’re gearing up for the millennium.
Q Oh, yeah? What’s the plan?
Well, our plan is to get through the millennium (laughs). Apart from that, it’s totally amorphous.
Q Historically, turns of the century have been really intriguing times. Does that date hold any real significance for you?
No, the date that holds significance for me is 2012. That’s (writer and self-described expert in “the ethnopharmacology of spiritual transformation”) Terence McKenna’s “alpha moment,” which is where the universe undergoes its most extraordinary transformations. He talks about these cycles, exponential cycles in which, in each epoch, more happens than in all previous time. Like he talks about novelty, the insertion of novelty into the time track. His first example of novelty is, say, the appearance of life. So the universe goes along, brrrmmmmm, then all of a sudden, life appears… bing! So that’s something new. Then the next novelty is, like, vertebrates. Then the next novelty might be language — that sort of thing. They’re transformations of a huge kind, gains in consciousness. So he’s got us, like, in the last 40-year cycle now — it’s running down, we’re definitely tightening up — and during this period, more will happen than has happened in all previous time. This is going to peak in 2012.
Q Are you concerned about what you’d leave behind?
No. I’m hoping to leave a clean field — nothing, not a thing. I’m hoping they burn it all with me. I don’t feel like there’s this body of work that must exist I’d just as soon take it all with me. There’s enough stuff — who needs the clutter, you know? I’d rather have my immortality here while I’m alive. I don’t care if it lasts beyond me at all I’d just as soon it didn’t.
Q Maybe it will just scorch in 2012.
Yeah, I’m hoping that the transformations will make all that — everything — irrelevant We’ll all just go to the next universe as pure thought forms — wowwwnnnng. Yeah!
GRATEFUL DEAD DISCOGRAPHY:
1967 The Grateful Dead
1968 Anthem of the Sun
1969 Live dead
1970 Workingman’s Dead
1970 American Beauty
1971 Grateful Dead (Skull & Roses)
1972 Europe ’72 (Live)
1973 History of the Grateful Dead (Bear’s Choice)
1973 Wake of the Flood
1974 Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel
1975 Blues for Allah
1976 Steal your Face (Live)
1977 Terrapin Station
1978 Shakedown Street
1980 Go to Heaven
1981 Reckoning (Acoustic Live)
1981 Dead Set (Electric Live)
1987 In the Dark
1989 Dylan & the Dead
1989 Built to Last
1990 Without a Net (Live)
JERRY GARCIA BAND DISCOGRAPHY:
1971 Hooteroll? (w/ Howard Wales)
1973 Live at Keystone (w/ Merl Saunders)
1978 Cats Under the Stars
1982 Run for the Roses
1988 Almost Acoustic (Live)
1991 Jerry Garcia Band (Live)
1991 Garcia Grisman
1993 Not For Kids Only (w/ Grisman)
1996 Shady Grove (w/ Grisman)
1997 How Sweet it is (Live)
1998 So What (w/ Grisman)
2001 Dont Let Go (Live)
2001 Shining Star (Live)
2004 After Midnight (Live 1980)
2005 Garcia Plays Dylan (Live)
2009 Let it Rock (Live 1975)
CLICK THE LINKS BELOW TO SEE JERRY GARCIA PHOTOS:
GRATEFUL DEAD PHOTOS BY BEN UPHAM
JERRY GARCIA BAND PHOTOS BY BEN UPHAM
GRATEFUL DEAD ART BY BEN UPHAM
JERRY GARCIA FINE ART AMERICA IMAGES BY BEN UPHAM