Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Les Kippel Interview with Dave Nelson, 1/76

Volume #3, Issue #1 -- January 1976
Interview with Dave Nelson
by Les Kippel
     This is an interview with Dave Nelson (who is not the brother of Rick Nelson), who plays guitar with the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Good Ol’ Boys.
     The interview was held during his morning hours, 12 midnight to 2 A.M. at the band’s hotel, while they were on tour on the East Coast.
D.R.: Why don’t we start with the Unofficial Grateful Dead Family Tree? You were saying that there were a few errors in it?
Dave: Yes, the Hart Valley Drifters were years before Mother Macree’s and the Grateful Dead stems from Mother Macree’s, not the Hart Valley Drifters. Also, I don’t remember John Dawson being in Mother Macree’s, even though he might have when I wasn’t there.
     Mother Macree’s personnel was: Dave Parker on Washboard, Bob Matthews on Jug, Bob Weir on Jug, as well as "Washtub Bass", myself on guitar, and Garcia, and I think Hunter for a while, and then Pig Pen came in on it. The prime of the Jug Band was when I was living in Los Angeles, and Weir switched to guitar, and Pig Pen was singing a lot, in fact, most of the stuff.
D.R.: What year was Mother Macree’s?
Dave: I think around 1963 and 1964.
D.R.: We have a tape of Mother Macree’s that has two songs on it, from San Jose. On the tape, there is this rap from Garcia, and he says something like, "O.K. you guys, you come here, and you don’t know what to expect, and you have this misunderstanding built up in you, so we are going to give you a boo break, so you can boo us." Have you ever heard that tape?
Dave: No, but that sounds like a Hunter rap. He is the one who originated that type of stage rap. I have a tape of Hunter and the Black Mountain Boys, or the Wildwood Boys, which came before the Black Mountain Boys…
D.R.: I must interrupt. Who was in the Black Mountain Boys?
Dave: On banjo we had ‘Honest’ Jerry Garcia, and on guitar we had ‘Simple’ Dave Nelson, who never says anything, but wants more than anything to be a real boy. Anyway, Hunter would say things like "We got an instrumental here that Jerry wrote, and we didn’t know what to call it. We were going to call it "Sweatshirt" but that didn’t work, then we were going to call it "Giffilts Fish," but that didin’t work, and so we thought we would call it "Jerry’s Breakdown" because that sounds so much like "Earl’s Breakdown" and things like that.
D.R.: Is that where the song from Old and In the Way comes from?
Dave: No, this was a totally different thing, done in minor chords.
Another thing on the Tree is here, I was never in Bobby Ace and the Cards off the Bottom. And in fact, I don’t even know what that was, actually. I think it was just before the Riders were formed. That’s when I was playing with the New Dehli Band with Torbert, and Chris, the drummer in Kingfish, and this guy named John Thomasi.
D.R.: When did this all take place?
Dave: This happened around 1969. Jerry was into learning how to play pedal steel, and people were into coming down to Grateful Dead gigs, like Pete Grant, he was there too. And they used to put these impromptu bands on, and one of them was Mickey Hart and the Hartbeats, and another was Bobby Ace and the Cards, they were whoever arrived… I never did any of those. Some New Riders gigs they called ‘Bobby Ace and the Cards off the Bottom’, when Weir would come and play with us.
D.R.: When did Robert Hunter stop playing in public?
Dave: Oh no!! Oh no!! Uh, never. You mean he stopped playing in public?
D.R.: Did he ever start?
Dave: Yes, he never played with the Dead, but he did play with the Riders.
D.R.: What was the first gig that the Warlocks played?
Dave: It was a pizza parlor in Menlo Park, I forgot the name of it, it was something like Pete’s or Moe’s or Magoo’s…
D.R.: It shows you all bands start off humbly…
Dave: Yea, and there was this strange air of strangeness in the air (?) there was all this freakiness going on and it seemed like they were superstars already to all the rest of us regular people.
     So, they had Dana Morgan on bass, and Phil Lesh got back into town from Las Vegas, I think. He was living there with TC, and he was studying music. He was around back in the Boar’s Head days summer of ’60, Rodney Albin, older brother of Peter Albin, who was Big Brother’s bass player…
D.R.: What was the Boar’s Head?
Dave: It was the Carlos Book Stall….. in San Carlos, that is where I am from, and we got the upstairs on Tuesdays and Thursday nights, and set up a little P.A., and chairs to sit on, and a little cabaret scene called the Boar’s Head, like in Shakespeare.
     Those were the last of the old beatnik days. Everybody lived in a place called the Chateau, in Palo Alto. All the real beatniks, it wasn’t a public place, it was run by this old man who used to sublet the rooms to beatniks, like Bob Hunter, and Dan Barnette, the drummer, and whoever was around. Everyone would stay at the Chataeu.
     Anyway, we heard about it in high school, about those beatniks, who probably smoked marijuana. So the summer of ’60, Rodney gets the book store for two nights a week, and we started to hang up posters all over advertising it.
     So we went there. We got Garcia to come up with Bob Hunter and David X, who sang some stuff real good, Troy Widenheimer, a guitar player, a super guitar player, and various other people. Anyway, lots of bands came out of that scene. And me and Pete used to go and watch, and learn. That was when I was learning how to play. Phil was there in those days too, he was a jazz trumpet player, and also composing classical music for orchestra.
     In the summer of ’61, we moved to the Jewish Community Center because we couldn’t get the book store and had one final show in the spring of ’62. It was a big long show. In fact, that is where Pig Pen showed up and got his name. He was Ron McKernan who could play harp and blues guitar and everybody was just amazed. Anyway, I think it was Sherry Huddleson who said ‘your name oughta be Pig Pen’ and everybody went ‘yea’ and since that time, that was his name.
     And Adams Otis was there, he was the big taper of the day. He had tapes of Doc Watson before anybody knew who Doc Watson was……. So, after the last show Phil left for Las Vegas (remember Las Vegas) and studied under a composer named Berrio, I think, and went to school, so it must have been a year after that. That was the summer of ’62. So I was there a few months, and Phil came back from Las Vegas. I remember the day he arrived, he wasn’t doing anything, and then he disappeared for a few more years, til’ the Warlocks were practicing with Dana Morgan in ’64. Then he went out and got a bass and learned it very fast, so he became part of the Warlocks.
D.R.: So they changed the name from the Warlocks by opening up the dictionary?
Dave: Yea, it was at Bill’s house on High Street, in Palo Alto.
D.R.: Was there such a person called ‘Emmet Grogan’?
Dave: Sure. He lives in New York now. He was the head digger. He wrote a book that’s real good.
D.R.: When did the real beginnings of the New Riders happen?
Dave: The real beginning of the New Riders can be traced back to when John and Jerry played at that pizza parlor. Jerry was into learning pedal steel, and John was back from Europe having written these songs, and he wanted to try them out. So he went down to the pizza parlor with Jerry, so that is officially the first actual thought of the Riders.
     But the actual beginning was a few months later than that, almost a year maybe, after I didn’t have anything to do, and I got called by Pete Albin to come and help with some studio work and play with Big Brother after Janis had left.
D.R.: What year was that?
Dave: That was around 1968 or ’69. And Dave Getz, Pete, and me, I was living in the Warehouse, and that was Christmas ’68, and then in March ’69 I was looking for a place to live up in Marin and we were going to do the thing with Big Brother and I was staying at Garcia’s house. John came up and Garcia suggested that I play electric, and we would teach Matthews how to play bass and it was us four.
D.R.: How was Mickey Hart on drums?
Dave: He was pretty far out. He was good. I liked him. I liked him a lot. But he was just too far out for the Riders at the time. John having no band experience at all, it was too weird having someone going into thirteenths of a beat, ya know, which you can follow if you have a little band experience, but it used to be too much of a thing to keep together.
D.R.: What was the first gig of the New Riders?
Dave: It was at the Bear’s Lair during coffee hours, downstairs, in the U.C. Berkeley.
D.R.: How much did they pay you in those days?
Dave: I don’t even remember. I don’t even know if we did get paid. We were billed as "Jerry Garcia and Friends". Then the next night we had two gigs….
D.R.: Everyone better watch it, the next time you see a show billed as "Jerry Garcia and Friends" it can turn out to be the New Riders……
Dave: …… the Longshoreman’s Hall, the Hell’s Angels Annual Ball, and that is the one where Owsley came to do the sound and he decided that the amplifier wasn’t right just before we were supposed to go on. All these Hell’s Angels were walking around this huge hall, and the stage was only about a foot off the floor, and we were looking up to most of these guys anyway….. and Owsley decides to take the amplifier apart because it was ‘not quite right’ and we looked around when the P.A. went off, and we were there with our guitars, and these Angels were saying in deep voices, "play, play, play anything, I don’t care man, play."
D.R.: Do you remember your first gig in the Fillmore East?
Dave: Yea, it was in May, 1970, on a Thursday night. Bill Graham put us on before the Dead. Bob Matthews was playing bass that night.
D.R.: John cracked a joke that night. It seems that Bill Graham painted the stage purple for you guys, and John said something like, "Hi, we are the Riders of the New Purple Stage."
Dave: Far out, so that is where that got started. So many people come up to us and say the Riders of the New Purple Stage, too much.
I remember what we started out with, we played Workingman’s Blues, and Six Days on the Road, I played the first not on the purple stage.
D.R.: What is that song about the Sawmill?
Dave: Sawmill. That was the one Bobby and John sang, when Bobby would come out and do Sawmill, Mama Tried, The Race is On, Seasons of my Heart, Green, Green Grass of Home, and Kathy’s Clown.
D.R.: How did the change from the New Riders with Hart, Garcia, and Lesh to the new New Riders come about? How much of an effect did it have on the members of the band?
Dave: Well, we knew all along we would have to have our own band, and not have some of the members be Grateful Dead, so we just started to get them as fast as we could. We were lucky enough we had the time to do that. When we got Buddy Cage, it was a turn on. Buddy is one of the best, and it was a real pleasure working with him.
D.R.: What do you like about the New Riders?
Dave: I love the New Riders. It’s a great story, the whole thing.
D.R.: When did the Good Ol’ Boys begin?
Dave: It started at the Vasser Clements California Bluegrass Festival, put on by Judy Lammers, at the Marin County Fairgrounds. The real biggies that were there were Jim and Jesse McReynolds, the Virginia Boys, Frank Wakefield, Vasser, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, Maria Muhdaur, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Doug Dillard.
D.R.: What year?
Dave: You know, I don’t remember. That is when I played with Frank, and Sandy Rothman, he was our first banjo player. He is on Powerglide. He was in the Black Mountain Boys, too. He plays everything real good.
D.R.: Let’s go back to the Riders again. When did you meet Buddy?
Dave: Well, I was walking around this stadium in Toronto, while the Great Speckled Bird was playing, and here was this pedal steel player, and he was tearin gass, and I said to myself, and prayed Lord, if we need a pedal steel player, I want that guy. If you’re asking me to choose which guy I want, yea, that’s him. That would be the guy, after Garcia.
D.R.: When was he asked?
Dave: Not for a year and a half after that.
D.R.: He said yes immediately?
Dave: He had a bunch of commitments, which he took care of, and then he joined us. I think Atlanta, Georgia was the First gig that he played in.
D.R.: And then you had one final change to bring you up to today, and that was when Torbert left.
Dave: Yea, Chris, from the New Dehli, a good friend of Torbert’s, came back, and they started playing together, and Matthew, he is another old friend of Dave’s, and Dave wanted to play with them. He knew he would have to take a financial cut, but he wanted to do it, because it was his chance to play with them.
D.R.: How do you look at the New Riders now?
Dave: Happening. We are all real excited about what we are doing, and it is like a rebirth.
D.R.: Your future plans?
Dave: To make records with Bob Johnston, and we are really getting off playing live, really. More than anything, we get off on playing live.
D.R.: Who are the three girls you have been playing with now?
Dave: The three in New York are Susan Collins, Margie Raymond, and Nancy O’Neal, and they’re called Sumagna.
D.R.: What are you looking forward to on the next record?
Dave: That’s a surprise. It will be a good album.
D.R.: Anyway, do you know how to end an interview?
Dave: No.
D.R.: Dead Relix says, "Have luck and happiness."
Dave: Thank you very much, and bye out there in tape land.


  1. This is a fascinating piece of archaelogy. Nelson has a few timelines garbled (Bear's Lair was after Longshoreman's, for example), but this interview would have been perhaps only the second time he was asked about it. Thanks for reprinting this.

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