In a New York hotel room, on appropriately April Fool’s Day, 1976 (he has always appreciated a good joke), Jerry Garcia has agreed to an in-depth interview. Following two years of low Grateful Dead activity (which were filled with rumors of retirement), Garcia is in town with a solo band featuring John Kahn, Ron Tutt and Keith and Donna Godchaux. Being into gadgets, he inspects with interest, a new tape recorder I had just bought, and we begin…
I spoke with you briefly at the Providence Civic Center two
years ago. You told me, “I’m not doing interviews this year,” and then
you said, “I hate all my records. The Grateful Dead don’t make good
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s true.
You mean, that’s true that you said that or that’s true that they don’t?
Well, both of them are true. But it’s a matter of objectivity. It
depends on which side of the coin you’re on. For example, if I buy
somebody’s record—a Rolling Stones record or something—what I hear
obviously is the finished record, the finished music and the whole thing
that’s already happened. In other words, with a Grateful Dead record,
part of what I’m dealing with is the dissonance between the original
version, the original flash as a composer. When a song comes into my
head, it comes with a complete sound to it, a complete arrangement, a
complete format and a complete thing more often than not, which
represents my relationship to a personal vision. So, for me, comparing
the record to the vision, I always feel that it fails.
That doesn’t discourage you to the point of not wanting to make records?
It could. But it doesn’t, because there’s enough to making
records or making music that there are enough other ways to get off.
So I’m not that hung up on the relationship to the vision except that it
produces sort of a feeling of disappointment. You want it to work a
certain way and sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you want it to.
Like I had a whole long thing I was working on as far as Blues For Allah
was concerned that was a technical trip and it required a certain
amount of developing hardware to go along with the idea, which is often
the case with things I get involved with. Often I want to do something
that you can only do by developing or interfacing a certain number of
With Blues For Allah there was a thing I wanted to do that
had to do with an envelope shaper and stuff like that didn’t come
together the way I wanted it to. And so, when I listen to it, I think,
“Well shit, it isn’t quite where I wanted it to be.” But in the long
run, after, like, however many records—nineteen records or something
like that—you feel that at least your percentages are getting closer and
you’re able to score on other levels. Like on our earlier records, if I
listen to them now, they are embarrassing for reasons like they’re out
And your recent records are never out of tune.
JG: (laughs) Now they’re much more together on those levels than
they used to be. We’re much more able to pull off the technical aspect
without having to sacrifice feeling. In terms of Blues For Allah,
the latest Grateful Dead record I can talk about in this frame, I think
that’s the first record we’ve made in years where we really had fun.
We laughed a lot and got good and crazy. We had an opportunity to get
weirder than we normally get to getting. First of all because we didn’t
have the pressure of having to go out and tour and travel and thus
break the flow.
Why didn’t you have the pressure?
Because we decided not to perform.
You didn’t need the money?
Well, it wasn’t the question of needing the money or not. That was…well, say we didn’t need the money.
Most of your money comes from performing, obviously…
Well, yeah. Sure. That’s been our main thing. ‘Course, most of
our overhead and expenses are also the result of that too. It’s a lot
easier for us to survive on some levels by not touring just because our
expenses aren’t so huge. And with me going out and Kingfish going out
(with Bob Weir), we were able to pretty much keep ourselves together.
Anyway, a couple of years ago you weren’t doing interviews. Now you are. Why the switch?
I like to do ‘em when I feel like I have something new to say.
Every couple of years my viewpoint changes, you know what I mean? So I
have something to say. I have some substance. Also, at the end of a
year of rapping—if I have only one rap (laughs), one good thing to say
and I spend a year saying it—pretty soon I’m burned out and I can’t
stand to listen to it any more. But the fact that I haven’t been out
traveling a lot and I’m not road weary also has something to do with it.
In our brief conversation two years ago, you said—in
response to whether you were satisfied with the show—“If I was ever
satisfied, I’d quit playing.”
Yeah, I think I might, in the sense that part of it is the thing of trying, taking chances.
So why now, at this point in time, do you have something to say? Your solo album?
The solo album is one thing. I think the movie is the thing ( The Grateful Dead Movie_).
Tell me about the movie.
JG: When we decided we weren’t going to perform anymore, our
farewell show, so to speak, was five days at Winterland. It was after
we got back from our second trip to Europe—October ’74. About a month
before the Winterland dates I got the idea that it would be neat to be
able to film it, just because I didn’t know if we were going to perform
again. Or if we were going to perform in that kind of situation again.
And that five nights in a place would at least give us the possibility,
numerically anyway, that we would have one or two really good nights.
In about two or three weeks the whole production thing came together to
make the movie.
At first we thought, let’s just make a record of the idea, and I
wanted it to look good. I wanted it to be really well filmed but I
didn’t really know a lot about film when the idea got under way, but
when it was time for the show to start, we had about nine camera crews
and a lot of good backup people, good lighting people and the whole
thing was already on its way to happening. It was chaotic but well
organized in spite of the relatively short preproduction time we had.
After the five days were over—and during that time I involved myself
mostly with the music, I didn’t really get into the film part—we had a
couple of hundred thousand feet of film in the can. So then it was,
what’s going to happen to this? Originally, we were thinking in terms
of what about a canned concert. Would something like that work? Could
we send out a filmed version of ourselves? Then, after getting involved
and interested in the movie as a project, I started looking at the
footage and the concert stuff and I felt that there was a movie
there. A movie in a movie sense rather than a movie in a canned
concert sense. Then there was the thing of putting all that together
and that’s what I’ve been working on the last year and a half, ever
since the filming was over, really.
So it’s coming out not as a concert film.
It’s coming out as a movie.
Is there a plot to the movie?
(laughs) No. I mean, it’s a movie for Grateful Dead freaks. I
think you could enjoy it from a perfectly normal moviegoer standpoint. I
think it’s a very fine movie, but I don’t want to get into waving a
flag about it. I want to see what kind of response there is to it
first. Now we’re in our last series of fine cut stages. And I’ve tried
to structure it in the same sense that Grateful Dead sets are
constructed, so that it goes a lot of places. The concert footage is
To be shown in the proverbial theater near you?
So far, we haven’t ironed that out, but I think we’re gonna try,
like we always do, to distribute it ourselves. At least the first
flash, so that we’ll have some control over the kind of playback system
there is in the theaters.
I’ve noticed your concerts don’t change as much from show to show as your albums do.
That’s true. That’s because albums get to be a certain time and space and the concert thing is a flow.
And you always know what to expect from a Grateful Dead concert.
In a way. But we’re trying to bust that too. That’s one of the reasons we dropped out.
Is this it for the Grateful Dead as a touring entity?
No. We’re gonna start playing again.
You have so many members of the Grateful Dead on your solo album (Reflections), it could almost be a Grateful Dead album.
A lot of the energy from that record is really a continuation of the Blues For Allah groove that we got into. We sort of continued the same energy because we were having a lot of fun doing it.
One of my favorite things that you’ve been involved with in the last few years is the Old And In The Way bluegrass album you did with Vassar Clements, David Grisman, and Peter Rowan.
That was a good band. It was satisfying and fun to be in.
Was the reason you only put out the one Old And In The Way
album and didn’t do a whole lot of touring with that band, because of
the fact that there’s only a certain amount of acceptance bluegrass can
That and also we ran into a really weird problem in terms of
dynamics which was that bluegrass music is like chamber music: it’s very
quiet. And if the audience got at all enthusiastic during the tune and
started clapping or something, it would drown out the band and we
couldn’t hear each other.
What an album though. I didn’t know you were such a hot banjo player.
(laughs) Oh I was real hot when I was a kid. Now my reasons for
playing banjo and my reasons for liking bluegrass music are completely
different from when I started, ‘cause then I was really hot.
I think that Old And In The Way album may be the best bluegrass album ever recorded.
Wow. Thank you. I’m happy with it too, but the truth is, we had much better performances than were on that record.
That’s hard to imagine.
Oh yeah. We had performances that were heart-stopping. And perfect, you know, but there weren’t as many that were recorded that well.
That banjo solo you did on “Wild Horses” and Vassar’s violin solo on “Midnight Moonlight”…Jesus.
Well, that was really a thrilling band. And I think that was the
nicest that Vassar’s played, too. When he was playing with Old And In
The Way, he played the maximum of mind-blowing but beautifully tasty
stuff, and the music had enough interesting kinds of new changes and new
things happening—Pete’s good songs for example—so that Vassar had a
chance to blow with a lot of range. More than he does normally. That
The Grateful Dead have been a strange band for my taste, in
that, if I like a band a lot—and some of your stuff I’ve liked an awful
lot—I normally like just about everything the band does. But with the
Dead, some of the stuff you’ve done has just gone right by me, while
other stuff just blows me away. And it’s the same way with your
concerts. Say, you’re in the middle of a jam. I’ll be half asleep for a
few minutes, and all of a sudden, you’ll do something for five or ten
seconds on guitar that will make my hair stand on end.
See, I have that same kind of reaction to the Grateful Dead myself.
The Grateful Dead is not anybody’s idea of how a band or music should
be. It’s a combination of really divergent viewpoints. Everyone in the
band is quite different from everyone else. And what happens musically
is different from what any one person would do. For me, the band that I
have right now, I’m real happy with. I haven’t been as happy with any
little performing group since Old And In The Way in terms of feeling
“this is really harmonious, this is what I want to hear.” This band
that I have now is very consonant. The Grateful Dead had always had
that thing of dissonance. It’s not always consonant. Sometimes it’s
dissonant. Sometimes it’s really ugly sounding and just drives you
Do you spend a lot of time in San Francisco?
Yeah. I spend most of my time just working. I’m very taken with our scene. It’s very interesting.
Your records are getting softer. In fact, there’s only one uptempo song, “Might As Well,” on your new solo album.
That’s true. That’s probably the worst thing about it, the lack of balance of material.
You thought it was too quiet?
When I listened to it, I thought maybe you didn’t like to rock and roll as much anymore.
No, uh…it’s not that. All these things have to do with luck. And
timing. For example, the way that solo record was recorded, really a
lot of material was performed with the intention of using it on the
record, but of the takes that I felt were acceptable, they tended to be
more of those softer tunes. So I decided to go with those because I
felt the feeling of the tracks was better, not because of wanting it to
be that way.
You guitar playing has remained fairly constant the last few
years. The only real deviation was on this new album on the track
“Comes A Time.” You used a mild fuzz.
I just used a small amplifier.
There were some real nice sustain on your playing. It sounded terrific.
Yeah. I do those things more on other people’s sessions than I do
my own. I tend to be real off-handed about my guitar playing on my own
records. In fact, on Grateful Dead records too.
What other records are you referring to?
Well, when I just go and do sessions with somebody more or less anonymous.
You don’t do session that often, do you?
Not any more.
Who are the last few people you’ve done sessions for?
I did a whole spasm of local ones, like all those Merl Saunders ( Live At Keystone, Fire Up ) records. Tom Fogerty’s records. And the Airplane sessions. Stuff like that. I used to do more than I do now.
Kingfish and your band are both on similar—and sometimes
identical—tours at the moments and sometimes even cross paths, but you
never share a bill. Are the two bands’ identities so different that it
would hinder playing together?
Well, it’s just that neither one of us wants to cash in on the
Grateful Dead notoriety. And also the people that are in our respective
bands have identities of their own to support. So rather than get
everybody under the big Grateful Dead umbrella, it’s better if everybody
can have their own little shot. Because, for example, it would be
possible for Kingfish to go out and work without Weir. They’re a band
without him as well as a band with him. There are those kinds of
considerations, because when we start working on Grateful Dead stuff,
which we’ll start doing pretty soon, those bands will have their own
survival problems. Not so much my band, because Ron (Tutt) works with
Elvis. John (Kahn) does studio stuff and he’s always got stuff going
Are both you and Kingfish ending up your tours at about the same time?
Yeah. The Grateful Dead has to start rehearsing.
Are you going to do a big summer tour like everybody else?
We’re going to approach it differently. We’re going to try and do
small places. We’re going to do theaters. We’re not going to do any
Why, at this point have the Grateful Dead decided to get back together?
We’re horny to play. We all miss Grateful Dead music. We want to be the Grateful Dead some more.
What kind of material will you be doing?
Probably some old stuff but more new stuff, and I think probably the
biggest change will be that we have Mickey back in the band.
When you look back on your records—you still probably maintain that you hate all your records…
I don’t listen to ‘em. I can’t (laughs).
Are there any that you hate less than the others?
Well, I always like the one we’re working on, or the one that we’ve
just finished. That’s the one I feel closest to. But after that, I
have to disqualify myself. I can’t judge them against anything but an
emotional situation that I’m in, in relation to the Grateful Dead.
Either they recall to me what was going on at the time we recorded or
something else. It’s more personal than anything else.
When you work on songs, can you tell which ones maybe become classics with your audience, like “Sugar Magnolia” or “Truckin’?”
Uh…not really. I can’t. ‘Cause often, the ones that get me don’t get anybody but me (laughs).
Which ones have gotten you that haven’t gotten many other people?
Well I don’t know, but there are some songs that I really loved…like
I really loved “Row Jimmy Row.” That was one of my favorite songs of
ones that I’ve written. I loved it. Nobody else really liked it very much—we always did it—but nobody liked it very much, at least in the same way I did.
“U.S. Blues” got real popular in the summer of ’74 and became a big number for your live shows…
Well that kind of figured to me. Some of ‘em, you can say, “Well, this’ll at least be hot, if nothing else.”
I like “Scarlet Begonias” a lot.
Yeah, that’s another song too. That’s a song I like. “Ship Of
Fools” is a song I like an awful lot. But my relationship to them
changes. Sometimes I really like a song after I’ve written it and I
don’t like it at all a year later. And some of them, I’m sort of
indifferent to, but we perform it and find they have a real long life.
For me to sing a song, I really have to feel some relationship to it. I
can’t just bullshit about it. Otherwise, it’s just empty and it’s no
fun. There has to be something about it that I can relate to. Not even
in a literal sense or a sense of content, but more a sense of sympathy
with the singer of the song. It’s a hard relationship to describe, but
some songs have a real long life and you can sing them honestly for a
long period of time—years and years—and others last just a while and you
don’t feel like you can sing them anymore.
When you write with Robert Hunter, you write the music and he writes the lyrics?
More often than not. But also it’s a little freer than that, too. I
edit his work an awful lot and, for example, a tune like “U.S. Blues”
really will start off with 300 possible verses. Then it’s a matter of
carving them down to ones that are singable. Other songs are like
stories. A lot of time I edit out the sense of Hunter’s songs.
So you’re the reason he seems so deranged.
Yeah (laughs). I’m an influence in that. And when I edit his
stuff, he really treats it with skepticism, but we have a thing of trust
between us now so that he usually laughs when I hack out the sense of
the song. Dump it. We have a real easy relationship.
By the way, you have one of the strangest record company bios I’ve ever read. It was credited to Hunter.
I actually think that bio was written by Willy Legate.
Who is he?
Willy Legate is this guy who’s an old, old friend of me and Hunter’s
and Phil’s and out whole scene, and he’s a lot of things. And one of
those things he is, is sort of a bible scholar. And he’s a madman. We
were exposed to him really a lot during a formative period of our
intellectual life. And he’s still around in our scene.
He’s the guy who wrote “There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” and he wrote the little blurb inside the Europe ’72
album about the bolos and the bozos. We also call on him to do various
things. One time we asked the Deadheads to send us their thoughts,
just to get some feedback from them. And they sent us lots and lots of
letters and we gave ‘em all to Willy. And he ended up with, like, a two
page condensation of all the letters, with every viewpoint, that was
just tremendously amazing to read. It was just so packed with
Willy is someone who has a lot of different kinds of gifts. He also
even wrote some lyrics to some of our early songs before we started
recording, but we’ve subsequently stopped doing the tunes. But he’s
another creative head in our scene that operated way back from the
What kinds of things do you care a lot about these days?
(Pauses) I think the thing I’m most into is the survival of the Grateful Dead. I think that’s my main trip now.
Was there ever a point when you didn’t care a whole lot about that?
So this is pretty new?
Yeah, pretty new.
How long has this been going on?
I would say about a year.
Why is that?
Well, I feel like I’ve had both trips, in a sense that I’ve been in
the Grateful Dead for ten or twelve years and I’ve also been out of it,
in the sense of going out in the world and travelling and doing things
just under my own hook. And really, I’m not that taken with my own
ideas. I don’t really have that much to say and I’m more interested in
being involved in something that’s larger than me. And I really can’t
talk to anybody else either (laughs). So sometime in the last year, I
decided, yeah, that’s it, that’s definitely the farthest out thing I’ve
ever been involved in, and it’s the thing that makes me feel best. And
it seems to have the most ability to sort of neutrally put something
good into the mainstream. It’s also fascinating in the sense of the
progression. The year to year changes are fascinating.
I would say that’s the thing I’m most concerned about now. Everything
else has gotten to be so weird. And I’ve never been attracted to the
No. It just isn’t interesting to me.
Do you vote?
No. Vote for what? Even looking for decently believable
input from that world is a scene. So I haven’t developed that much
interest in the motions of the rest of the world. I’m mainly interested
in improving the relationship between the band and the audience, and
I’m into being onstage and playing.
How about causes, like the legalization of marijuana, that kind of stuff?
It’s all passing stuff. I don’t know. I don’t have anything to say
about moral things. Or legal things. I think there’s a lot of
confusion on those levels. Basically my framework politically or
anything like that is, I’m into a completely free, wide open, total
anarchy space. That’s what I want (laughs). Obviously I’m not going to
be able to sell that to anybody (more laughter). Nobody’s going to dig
You can’t even give that away…
Exactly. So I don’t even bother. If I have a flag to wave, it’s a non-flag. But as a life problem, the Grateful Dead is
an anarchy. That’s what it is, it doesn’t have any…stuff. It doesn’t
have any goals. It doesn’t have any plans. It doesn’t have any
leaders. Or real organization. And it works. It even works in the
straight world. It doesn’t work too good. It doesn’t work like General Motors does, but it works OK. And it’s more fun.
I’m curious to see what effect your new-found attention for the Grateful Dead is going to have on your music.
It’ll be interesting. See, I’ve always been real ambivalent
about it. It’s like one of those things that, I’ve always wanted to
work out, but I never wanted to try and make it do that. And, in fact,
everyone in the Grateful Dead has always had that basic attitude. So
we’ll see what happens.
(Steve Weitzman is a freelance music critic who has written for Rolling Stone, Musician, Billboard and others.)