Grateful Dead – How the hell do ya play them five-hour sets without slinkin’ off for a leak?
Yes, it's an interesting one isn't it? I mean, five hours…that's a long time, and well…camels are different of course, so really it must be a problem. However, Smilin' Jerry Garcia doesn't let The Grateful Dead's music get bogged down with details like that. Read his answers in NME – the one that dares ask the big questions.
IT'S DA Dead, mayun!
Everybody's bloody grinning.
The roadies who're running around Alexandra Palace launching frisbees into the stratosphere, the ones who're plugging things in and carrying things about, the Old Ladies'n Wives trucking around with their kids…
Everybody is grinning.
Jerry Garcia is grinning as well, wandering around in circles on the stage with his guitar tuned right in on the intergalactic noodle wavelength and a seraphic grin plastered over his mug.
His fingers trucking along busily like the game little troupers they are, he listens with his head on one side to the almost imperceptible sound of his beard growing.
A week ago he only had stubble.
Now he's sporting a Full Fledged Growth. They don't call him the Fastest Beard In The West for nothing.
What's da story, Jerry?
Welllllll, the story is that Jerry Garcia is standing in front of a scale model of the Great Wall of China playing his geetar. There's a bit of Kozmic Ragtime, some patented repeat-echo doodlerama…and what a lovely smile. The Osmonds should be so lucky as to be able to smile with the warm, friendly sincerity of the Grateful Dead and their crew. Why they weren't signed up for a Coke commercial hasta be one of the best-kept secrets of all time.
I mean, here's just one example – just one – of how thoroughly, overwhelmingly wonderful the Dead are. Are you ready for this?
It seems that at the Watkins Glen Festival (which out-statisticked Woodstock by 150,000 folks) the Dead set up speaker towers geometrically proceeding into the audience, complete with a delay system to keep it all in phase, so that even if you were one helluva way back you could still get good sound.
And – here's the killer part – they wired a goddam radio, transmitter into the sound system so that all the people stuck out in the traffic jams could hear Thuh Day – ud on their itty-bitty car radios.
Now, ain't that sump'n? Would you get ELP doing that? Would you get The Faces doing that? Wouldja? Wouldja, huh?
So Uncle Jerry stashes his axe and, still grinning through his chin-warmer, saunters back-stage to a room full of impressive-looking electronic devices. On the previous night, some extremely agile thieves had descended through an airvent and ripped off a tape deck. "It's basically what we get for starting late", beams Garcia. "That's the karma – the starting-late karma."
A philosopher, yet!
Okay, Jerry, let's do the interview. There's one real insiders' Grateful Dead question, the real heavy secret that we've all wanted to know for the last seven years, which is – how the hell do ya manage to play them long sets without needing to slink off and take a leak?
Is it some form of esoteric Yoga bladder control that you learned from Ken Kesey? Do you have tubes strapped under your jeans. What's the deal?
"Hahaaa. There isn't any real secret, I don't think … and I'm also not a beer-drinker, which probably makes a big difference. I haven't really thought about that before" – something goes click, Garcia's brain revolves 180 degrees and he feeds in another punch card – "There are times when somebody will leave the stage for some reason or other…it just doesn't seem like it.
"We don't really do five hours directly. Like we'll play an hour and a half or so, and then come back. Makes the whole thing more reasonable. Hahaaa."
"When you went off last night, I walked out into the crowd," volunteers a member of the road crew, "an' a lotta people thought you were putting them on a hype trip".
Garcia nods a couple of times, inserts an untipped Camel into his smile. "I can't understand why they would think that. They might think that that was where the band was at. I'm on a self-destruction programme," he says, alluding to the untipped cigarette. No filter tip's gonna come between you and that ol' debbil cancer, right, Jerry?
"Maybe. Hahaaa. Death has a better than fair chance anyway. Like tooth decay."
Ye-e-ah…mighty fine lookin' PA system you got there, Jerry.
"The reason that we have it and the reason that we developed it'n all that is that we weren't really anticipating an amazing growth in our audience, which has happened, and so in terms of – uh – respecting the situation and trying to deal with it righteously, our point of view has been, well, since we're playing to larger audiences in larger places, the thing to do should be to divert the energy into improving the quality of the performance.
"Obviously, the bigger the place, the worse the sound."
Yeah, but Jerry, that problem exists for lotsa bands …
"Yeah, but not that many acts are concerned about it."
"It's a problem of individual responsibility. If the musicians feel very strongly about it, then it's up to them to do something about it.
"The economics of rock and roll don't allow for trying to get a better and better sound, since the idea is to cut down on expenses. Our motive is simply a sense of responsibility about what it is. When you're playing in a big room, there's no way to – uh – de-escalate."
So that's why you play all those club gigs in your spare time, huh, Jerry?
"Oh, I do those 'cuz I'm a musician. I'm a player. The thing I want to do most is to play. I wanna learn how to play better, and the only way you can do that is to play."
Hey, Jerry…didja hear about Windsor? Bummer, man. Bad vibes, y'know?
"We've seen it happen in the United States…time and time again. It's almost at the point now where you can describe music as an illegal activity in terms of the free equation. Woodstock and Altamont and all the other large-scale things that were characterised by a certain amount of confusion or violence have all produced a new level of paranoia. We still get busted a lot.
"Basically we're outlaws. We're viewed as outlaws, and we've developed outlaw-style protective colouration. We're not immune, by any means. We haven't gained any degree of respectability."
Well, you could play it like the Allmans and get a dude from the diplomatic corps to waltz you through customs…
"Yeah. Hahaaaa. Screw it, I'd rather take my chances. I don't like to feel that I'm existing on that level. That's not who I am at all. I don't like any of the trappings of success at all. They're all poison. It's hard enough just playin', and that's all I wanna do."
In that case, does it hang ya up to be a guru'n a "signpost to new space" and all the rest of that Charles Reich aardvaark waste?
"It could, but…I don't deal with my public image. I regret having ever spoken to anyone…haHaAAAh…but I feel that as long al I have…I have a kinda responsibility to follow it up and clarify it as much as I can.
"The difficulty is that my viewpoint is not static. My mind is dynamic and my thoughts are changing and my ideas are changing. I'm embarrassed by that book (Garcia: A Signpost To New Space by Charles Reich and Jann Wenner), I'm embarrassed by seeing my name in print, I'm embarrassed by having to be out on stage, I'm embarrassed…on many levels."
Whoooo-ee. It's amazing that Garcia can even bring himself to walk out of his house in the morning.
"I really just love to play, y'know? I love to play without having to be – uh – fulfilling this human drama aspect of – uh – whatever it is."
Jerry Garcia is really such a nice old hippie that I felt kind bad about talking to him under false pretences. I mean, I saw the Dead two years ago at Wembley and they were great, but I've never been able to get off at all on their records. So I said just that.
"Ye-e-ahh – our records are awful."
"We've never bothered too much, y'know? HaHAAAA-haah! I don't think that recording is a suitable form for us. The live thing is what we do."
Well, if we're all agreed that the Dead's records just don't cut it, doesn't that make them a bit of a rip-off, something of a burn?
"That's exactly it. HaaHaaa-ha!! It's a burn for us and for the public, too. We've never really made money from records. Our records have always like sold to a small, closed audience. We've never scored big from records. We've always spent more making them than we've made back…or some other permutation of unsuccessful possibility.
"A lot of people come to see us, but don't but our records. There's a whole big scene of people who do nothing but swap live tapes of us – for free! That's a heavier trip than records, y'know?"
Has having your own label made any difference on that level?
"Yes, it's made it possible for us to get into a – uhhh – a scheming bag, y'know? Haa – HAAAA! We've got our own record company, which means that we can make any kind of crazy plans we want to.
"We can spend time…plotting, y'know. It gives us something to play with. And it also means that we can make records 'n stuff without feeling 'we're gonna turn out another record for The Man'."
The Dead not only tape every single show that they perform, but hey even tape their sound-checks as well, even if the sound-check is just Garcia doodling for three hours. It all goes down on tape. Why d'ya tape everything, Jerry?
"We-e-e-e-lll…you can't always trust your memory…can you?"
But what do you do with all these miles of tape?
"We take 'em all back to California and burn 'em. Hey – take a look at this." He ambles over to a corner of the room and pulls this huge mound of celluloid tagliatelle out from behind a chair. "This here is last night's show." He lets it cascade back on to the floor, wipes his boot on it and drifts back out on to the stage to play a little more.
When you glance over the sleeve credits on West Coast albums of the last few years, you get a distinct "old pals act" vibe off the whole schmear. Maybe these guys are getting a little insular in their old age. Hey, Jerry, have you ever been to see Alice Cooper?
"I never have; never seen him perform. Never been curious enough. It's not my trip. I'm not that much of an entertainment freak. If I go out, I go out to hear some music, and I usually know what I'm going to hear.
"If I'm goin' out, I'm goin' out because I know that so-and-so is playing bass. I hardly ever go to see rock and roll bands, because I'm not into the space of being able to get off on a rock and roll band. Whatever I would be digging would be whatever the band's limitations were, and I'm less interested in my own music than in the music I'm going out to see.
"So if I'm gonna go out, it automatically has to be better than me, which means that it has to be better than anything I'm better than. And I'm better than a lot of rock and roll bands.
"I have a small percentage of get-off space. There's not many things that get me off. It has to be pretty deep."
Hmmmmmm…it does seem as if Jerry Garcia is getting a trifle hidebound these days. I mean, it's one thing to rap about striving for new forms 'n all that garf, but if you don't bother to check out where other people are at then there's a very real danger of getting a trifle out of touch.
Jerry Garcia is a genuinely charming old hippie. If he wasn't in the Dead and wasn't a star and lived down the street from me, I'd probably try and hang out with him a lot and maybe cop the odd guitar lesson from him. But listening to the Dead these days is like visiting your relatives.
It's pleasant and relaxing and really quite enjoyable, but it's also more than a little soporific. They've lost most of their punch and power, and their music now is rich and full, but sluggish and old and fat and slow.
They open up their set with Chuck Berry's 'Around And Around' played about as inappropriately as is possible. It would be foolish to sing: "Well, the joint was flowin', flowin' round and round/just ebbin' and a-flowin', what a laid-back sound," but that's really the way it is.
Even when the Dead play Berry, it just doesn't rock.
Not that I'd want them to come on with strobe lights, power chords and green eye make-up, but…hey, wake up in there, you guys! It is only on 'Peggy-O' and 'I Know You Rider' that their laid-backery coalesces with their material and produces music of genuine, tranquil beauty.
The blue lights highlight the grey in Garcia's hair and beard, turning it almost silvery. He looks very old against the clean-cut All-American Boy collegiate look currently spotted by Bob Weir. Even that phoenix-like guitar sparkle seems a trifle dimmed, and the same licks just seem too be coming around again.
And – horror or horrors – at one point he even leaves the stage between numbers to take a leak.
Another illusion shattered.
© Charles Shaar Murray, 1974