By Bill Harriman
Finally, after all these years, there’s going to be a book about the Grateful Dead written by a member of the Grateful Dead. Hitting the bookstores this month will be the long awaited memoir by Phil Lesh called “Searching For The Sound: My Life With The Grateful Dead.”
It’s all in here. Phil talks about the early days of how Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions became The Warlocks and how The Warlocks became The Grateful Dead.
There are the band mates - Jerry Garcia, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Billy Kreutzmann, Bobby Weir, Mickey Hart, Tom “TC” Constanten, Keith Godchaux, Donna Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick, and Bruce Hornsby. There are the songwriters Robert Hunter, John Barlow, and to a lesser extent, Bob Dylan. There are other topics that are written about such as the merry pranksters, the beats, the diggers, the hippies, the summer of love, Olompali, Haight-Ashbury, the human be-in, the acid tests, Monteray, Altamont, Woodstock, Bill Graham, the festival express, the Grateful Dead movie, Egypt, the tours, the venues, the albums, the deadheads, the tapers, the drugs, the 60’s, the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s, the new millennium.
There are sad parts with the deaths of Pigpen, Keith, Brent, and of course, Jerry. There are happy parts too, none more so than Phil’s sweet tale of meeting his wife Jill, who he’s been married to for twenty years now, and the birth of their two sons Grahame and Brian.
There’s also the recent story of the hepatitis that nearly took his life and the liver transplant that saved him.
So it was on March 14th that I spoke with Phil on the telephone. It was the 24th anniversary of my first Hartford Dead show. It was also the eve of Phil’s 65th birthday.
BH I always wondered how a talented young musician could start out on the violin, switch to trumpet, and then end up a bass player. But with you it made sense.
PL - “It’s a question really, of just being a musician and that’s always how I’ve thought of myself. I don’t really consider myself like an instrumentalist or a virtuoso player particularly. I’m just a musician who’s had some good training and I have a sort of knack for thinking fast and making quick changes and stuff. So it never really mattered to me very much what instrument I was playing as long as I could make some music.”
BH- Something I found interesting in the book was a quote from an old college roommate of yours named Lenny Lasher. You described him as an inspiring bassist, and when you approached him about teaching you the bass as a second instrument Lenny said “I would never teach anyone the bass as a second instrument.” I assume that’s something you came to understand only after you became a bass player?
PL - “Yes that’s true because I was approaching music, as I said, from almost an abstract standpoint at that time. I was thinking the bass is a cool instrument, it might be nice to learn something about it. So I asked Lenny and he gave me that rejoinder. And with the way he looked at me I thought ‘you know, that’s really an interesting thought.’ It made me think about the bass a lot differently.”
BH When you talk about the bass you get very technical and detailed.
PL - “I did that deliberately and I tried to couch it in terms that would make sense to a lay reader as it were. I don’t think it was too technical in the sense that I used terms that people couldn’t understand. But I wanted to get that part across, the way musicians look at making music.”
BH In the early sixties I always found it interesting that a banjo playing folkie like Jerry Garcia and a hard-core blues man like Pigpen would team up.
PL - “Well interestingly enough, Jerry’s first instrument was rock and roll guitar. He played guitar on the Bobby Freeman song ‘Do You Want To Dance’ when he was sixteen years old or something. It’s like a rhythm guitar part. And he’s always been a guitar player but then he took up the banjo to get into bluegrass because I think it was more of a challenge for him. But the neat thing about it is that he applied a lot of those techniques, especially the right hand finger picking techniques, to the electric guitar, which was one of the approaches that gave him his unique sound and approach to music. So he and Pigpen, they weren’t really opposites because they’d been hanging out together in clubs and coffeehouses and at parties for years actually. And they formed a jug band together. A jug band is kind of like a, how should I say, not a rat’s nest but a magpie’s nest of different kinds of music. It’s different kinds of roots music that all gets put together, blues and folk and country and mountain music and all that kind of stuff all melded together. And it was really natural to extend that to electric instruments, although it started out being an electric blues band but it didn’t last very long. Mainly that was because Pigpen knew more songs that could be electrified than anybody. At the same time it has to be said Jerry started bringing in folk songs that were electrified also and that’s when I got in on the act.”
BH I had to laugh when I was reading about your first days with the band and what you called the woodshed rehearsals. At the end of the day Jerry and Billy would go home to their families, Pigpen would head out to the blues clubs, and Bobby had high school the next morning. That’s a pretty odd mix.
PL - “But that’s the beauty of it in a way. Everybody was coming from different backgrounds and everybody had different influences. Jerry, as you know, had rock influences along with bluegrass, folk and electric country. Pigpen was a blues and r & b guy. Bobby was like a contemporary folk, jug band kind of guy. Billy was basically a jazz drummer but he played rock in local groups. And I came from jazz and classical music myself. That’s the thing that made it possible to have this unique combination when it turned into the group mind.”
BH Another guy who was around during those early years was Tom Constanten. There’s an interesting quote from him where he says “After all, music stopped in 1750 (the year of Bach’s death) and began again in1950 (the emergence of the postwar serialists). What did he mean by this?
PL - “He thought that there was an aspect of music that was kind of left behind by the classicists and the romanticists which lasted until after world war two. And then there was a whole new approach to music and I say this in the book, that it was comparable to Einstein’s theory of relativity. In other words, instead of having gravity or a tonal center, you had relativity or each note being related only to the other notes in the context. It was very much like relativity in music.”
BH You talked about how you found the name “The Grateful Dead,” however that story never would have happened if you didn’t discover that there was already another band called “The Warlocks.” Do you think your musical destiny would have been any different if the name “The Grateful Dead” never came to be?
PL - “I really can’t say. I kind of think we would have followed the same path in any case. In other words, we were rehearsing together, we played a few club gigs. But then we started playing the acid tests and that would have happened no matter what the band’s name was. And that was sort of the springboard.”
BH - On name that was prominent during the acid tests and the whole scene in general was Neal Cassady. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure I fully understand what he was all about?
PL - “Did you ever read ‘On The Road?’ If you read ‘On The Road’ that will help give you a sense of who Neal was. His name in the book is Dean Moriarity. And there’s another book called ‘Visions of Cody’ and he’s Cody Pomeroy in that book and he’s also in ‘Dharma Bums’ under that name. OK so, Neal is a guy who moved faster than anyone else. His acid test name was Speed Limit. And in a way he was a Bodhisattva, an avatar saint if you will. He was someone to emulate because he understood the nature of the flow. I know this sounds all very sixties but that’s when it was happening. He was a hero to the Beats and to the new culture that was coming on. He was an inspiration really just to see someone who could move through life like this. It’s really kind of hard to explain.”
BH I found the chapter on Altamont to be very informative. Now I no longer blame Mick Jagger for what went down.
PL - “I think as far as any accountability can be assigned, I think it’s pretty spread out everywhere you look. And that’s what I say in the book. I didn’t really think about it for a long time, I just sort of blamed it on the Stones also. But then after remembering it and writing it down for the book and thinking about it, you know I can see where everybody put a little bit of responsibility in it. So I don’t think we can point the blame on any individual.”
BH - Do you have a favorite year with the Dead?
PL - “If I did it would have to be 1968.”
BH - Does the making of “Anthem of the Sun” have anything to do with that?
PL - “Yeah, that was definitely a high point.”
BH The chapter about the dead of your father and how the song “Box of Rain” came to symbolize his passing was touching. Why did it take so many years before you began to sing that song in concert?
PL - “I don’t remember why that is. That’s one of the things that is lost in the haze of antiquity. Maybe it had to do with my singing and stuff. You know I’ve never been particularly proud of my singing. I never really thought I was very good at it. So I had to get past that before we could play the song.”
BH But I remember many times when deadheads would be chanting your name and begging you to sing something.
PL - “Oh yeah, go figure.”
BH The Festival Express was released on DVD last year and in fact, is up for a Jammy Award for “DVD of the Year.” That must have been a really special occasion.
PL - “It really seemed like it at the time. It really did because all these different kinds of artists it was, like I say in the book, 18 to 20 of the top acts in the world jammed together on this train with everybody in the bar cars playing music together. That was the real story. The real story of the festival express wasn’t the shows that we played, it was the interaction and the cross fertilization that was going on in the bar cars.”
BH- So how does it feel to be heading back once again to Madison Square Garden, this time as the host of the 2005 Jammy Awards?
PL - “I’m definitely looking forward to it a great deal but I have to say that I have not attended any of the other ones yet. So this is going to be my first one and I’m looking forward not only to hosting it but playing with whoever is there, to dig into a little music because that’s really what it’s all about.”
BH Do you keep up with the jam band scene? Do you have any favorites?
PL “Well, I’ve been working one of the guys from Particle. And Umphrey’s McGee, I sat in with them a couple of times, they opened for us at our Mardi Gras show. I’ve been working also with guys from Railroad Earth. And I’ve discovered that website Disclogic and every so often I’ll go on there and see what’s happening. I listened to a band called Signal Path and I thought that their stuff was interesting. So yeah, I try and look in on that scene from time to time.”
BH It’s been three years already since the Phil Lesh and Friends disc “There And Back Again” was released. Are you writing any new material? Are you working with Robert Hunter at all?
PL - “I actually got a lot of stuff going on. I’m working on a, I really don’t know how to describe it, a set link music theater piece with Hunter’s lyrics that has a cycle of seven songs and instrumental movements that is based on the voyage of the soul through the planetary spheres after death. So there’s that and I’m working with Hunter on a couple of other regular songs. I’m still making music, we’re just not going to be touring or playing anywhere until probably the fall.”
BH Finally Phil, what’s the first step someone should take if they want to be an organ donor?
PL - “The first step is to tell your family because they’re the ones who will have to make that decision, you won’t be there. The only reason I’m alive today Bill is because a young man said to his mom one morning ‘hey mom if anything ever happens to me I want to be an organ donor.’ Sadly something did happen to him but he saved the life of more than ten people. So, I mean, it’s not a real trade off but there is an upside to it. And the next thing that you want to do is to register somehow either with the state, or by means of your drivers license, or however it works in your community and carry the little card with you that says ‘I want to be an organ donor.’ And if anybody has an organ donor card and runs into me on the street I’ll happily sign it as a witness.”
There was so much more I could have talked about with Phil. I easily could have spent a few hours on the phone with him but I consider myself fortunate just to have had the twenty or so minutes. There will be another opportunity for a question or two though. Phil will be doing a few book signings including one at R.J. Julia bookstore in Madison, Connecticut on Thursday evening April 28th. I’ll probably have about five things for him to sign that night including three books, one Sound Waves cover, and one organ donor card.