Chapter 18: If Mercy's in Business, I Wish It For You
Page 338, bottom; projects in the winter of '85:
During the first week of March, Garcia and the other band members went into the studio to record music and sound effects for a new version of the late '50s/early '60s television series The Twilight Zone. The new series' producer, Phil DeGuere, had been a Deadhead for years, and had even been instrumental in the making of a 1972 Grateful Dead concert film that was never released, called Sunshine Daydream. DeGuere hired Merl Saunders, who had worked with him on a couple of projects for Universal Studios, to be the music supervisor for the series, and then, with DeGuere's approval, Merl brought in the Dead. Mickey Hart was hired as the primary sound designer on the series, and he noted at the time, "We're using anything that fits: the sound of rain, light bulbs breaking backwards at half-speed, branches falling, car crashes, wood breaking. It's kind of a 21st-century orchestra."
Hart worked on the series for most of the year, whereas the involvement of Garcia and the other band members was more limited. The band and Saunders worked out a new main theme, which was a short dissonant burst of "space" ending in a variation of the original Twilight Zone theme by Marius Constant. Garcia also helped work up "a collection of little music inserts called stings and bumpers you know, little hunks of nonspecific music of various lengths that have different moods," he explained. "One might be a mood, 'Don't open that door!' or 'Don't go in the attic!' Or, 'I'm going to work, honey. Are you sure you'll be OK at home alone?' They go all the way from a sort of noncommittal [he makes a light, playful guitar noise] to a real ominous 'Braaaaaugh!' They gave us a huge menu of those 40 that are like five seconds, 20 that are six-and-a-half seconds; a bunch that they can fade in and out. Then it's the music editor who actually fits them into the show."
The new Twilight Zone debuted in the fall of '85 and lasted just one season. Most critics felt it was a pale imitation of the old black-and- white series, though those who stuck it out and watched it regularly were rewarded with a number of mind-bending stories that rivaled and at times exceeded the original. The production values were first rate, and the Dead's and Mickey Hart's contributions were suitably weird. Robert Hunter even got into the act, writing an episode titled "The Devil's Alphabet," as well as some narrative bridges for the series.
In the winter of '85 the Dead also formalized the philanthropic wing of their organization by creating the Rex Foundation, named after their late roadie Rex Jackson. For a few years the Dead had donated the proceeds from a couple of local concerts to a wide range of mostly Northern California-based nonprofit groups. With the formation of the Rex Foundation, however, the procedure for dispersing money (in sums up to $10,000) to different organizations was set: A "circle of deciders," consisting of Grateful Dead band, crew, office and "family" members, plus a few enlightened outsiders like Bill Graham, Bill Walton and several others, were responsible for finding worthy groups to give to. Organizations couldn't apply for grants; in most cases checks were sent to groups with no advance warning and with no indication of who at the Rex Foundation had championed their cause, like a flash from the '50s TV series The Millionaire. The first Rex shows took place over four nights at the Berkeley Community Theater in mid-March '85, and every year after that the band earmarked a set of shows to raise money for their foundation. Over the years Rex has handed out well over $1 million.
Page 339, lower-middle; more on the video shoot:
"We were looking for intimacy, for the look of a band at work," Dell'Amico explained. "We were trying to stay away from the 'rock concert' look, with star filters, big crowd shots, fog and all those shots up into the lights. What is called the 'up-shot' is supposed to make you feel like you're in the front row, so you shoot up into the lights as Tina Turner or whoever struts across the stage. We did more shooting across the band, as if we were eavesdropping."
"Len had a master list of some 50 tunes that he more or less wanted
us to concentrate on, so we had that as a guide going in," Garcia said. "My experience with the Grateful Dead has always shown me that you can't predict anything, and that any plans you make you have to be ready to change, so the thing to do is go in with a real flexible plan and see what you get and then work off of that. So that was essentially how we approached it philosophically: We don't know what it is precisely, but we know we want it to look good and we want the performances to be good and we want it to sound good."
"My normal approach to a job," said Dell'Amico, "would be to figure out what it is, do it, then finish it pre-production, production, post-production. ... And what it is determined very early in the process for budgetary reasons. But I found out, after about a year, that the Grateful Dead don't work that way. I learned that how much time it took was not relevant. The only thing that mattered was what it was, how good it was and that it be the best it could be, whatever it was.
Page 340, middle; more on making movies:
Garcia went on to note, "The nice thing about movies, like the nice thing about playing in a band, is that a lot of times people will have opinions that are better than yours. Then you get surprised: 'Hey, that's a great way to do that!' Movies and bands have some of the same kind of energy because they're both collaborative. It's good that they are, because you get the best of everything, providing the chemistry is right. If it isn't, then you blow it; you miss it. When a movie or music really works, it's because everyone sees the thing and loves it enough that they'll let enough of themselves into it as possible; sort of free themselves into it."
Page 341, middle; more on the 20th anniversary hoopla:
There were so many interview requests from Northern California newspapers and magazines around the time of the Dead's 20th anniversary shows that the band decided to try something new a press conference backstage before the first concert. The six members sat at a table facing a battery of microphones and cameras and, in the grand irreverent tradition of The Beatles, fended off a slew of inane questions with witty retorts and the occasional pearl of wisdom. A relaxed and smiling Garcia fielded most of the queries, but the others chimed in as well:
Reporter: To some people, psychedelics and the Grateful Dead are synonymous. Do psychedelics still have a large role in the appreciation of your music?
Garcia (pretending not to hear the question): What? What?
Weir (at the reporter): His lips are moving, but nothing is coming out!
Reporter: Do drugs still play a part in the enjoyment of Grateful Dead music?
Hart: I can't hear a word he's saying.
Garcia: Do you mean does the mind have anything to do with it?
Reporter (becoming flustered) ...with the appreciation of the music?
Lesh: We play it; we can't appreciate it.
Page 343, top: New Year's Eve madness:
The Dead's New Year's shows were legendary, dating back to the late '60s. New Year's Eve was always the toughest ticket to get, and through the years it became the one night when the older members of the tribe folks who'd basically stopped going to Dead shows years ago because it became too much of a hassle scoring tickets, getting seats, etc. would turn out, toke up, maybe drop acid for old time's sake. The backstage at a Grateful Dead New Year's Eve show was nearly as crowded as the hall itself.
The New Year's Eve shows themselves weren't reliably mind-blowing through the years sometimes all the celebrating surrounding the year-end series took its toll on both the band and the audience but the show was almost incidental to the party, which was always a raucous good time. Through the years, New Year's Eve became Bill Graham's night as much as the Dead's. Each year he and his staff would concoct a different fabulous entrance for Graham as the midnight hour approached. One year, dressed as Father Time as had become his tradition, Graham "rode" a motorcycle down a wire stretching from the balcony of Winterland to the stage. Another year he made that same journey in a giant joint, even tossing joints and roses to the crowd below him as he descended to the stage. There was the incredible growing mushroom float that carried Graham to the stage at the Oakland Auditorium New Year's '82-'83, and the lightning bolt that flew him over the heads of the crowd at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in '83-'84.
"That moment is really my only relative understanding of what it's like to be a member of the Dead or of the Stones, but in the guise of Father Time," Graham said in 1985. "And for a good 30 seconds the rest of the time I'm busy throwing flowers, or trying to see where I am, or pushing some button that's going to do something I get to see that absolute joy on the faces of the audience. I get to experience for just a few seconds what performers experience year round. It's pure joy. It's an awesome experience."
The hundreds of thousands of Deadheads watching New Year's '85 on television saw quite a spectacle. It was the first time the Dead had played a New Year's Eve show in such a large arena, much less on national TV, so Graham and his troops decided that the midnight entrance should be the biggest ever. And it was. As midnight approached, a 20-foot-high pink birthday "cake" (for the Dead's anniversary) appeared at the back of the hall and started rolling slowly toward the stage, causing untold thousands on the floor of the arena to be nearly crushed as they struggled to make way for the colossus. The lowest level of the cake was ringed by people wearing giant, horrific papier-mβchι heads of the band members, like a Mardi Gras parade run amok. On the TV broadcast, Ken Kesey, who seemed to be high, drunk, or both, provided hilarious running commentary on the float's entrance. Screaming almost to the point of incoherence, he first suggested that the float was a replica of the Civil War battleship The Merrimac, then exclaimed that the huge heads were representations of everyone from FDR to Rasputin (must have been the Garcia head) to Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show. "This must have cost millions!" he shouted at the peak of his hyperbolic rantings.
The Dead's midnight set was not one of their best, but the show was deemed a success by the USA Network, as it helped clear the way for other national telecasts (all directed by Len Dell'Amico) over the next few years. The Dead looked to TV partly as a way to alleviate the tremendous demand for tickets to their shows, but one has to wonder if the added exposure actually increased their popularity and thus added to the craziness that was building each tour outside the shows.
Page 343, upper-middle; more on Melvin Seals:
"Playing with Jerry and Elvin totally turned my head around about what's important in playing," Melvin said in 1985. "Now I don't think I could play with a regular band that didn't have that soul. That's what it's all about to me soul. There are so many people out there who are worried about technical precision I used to be one of them but they don't feel anything."
Page 343, middle; the winter of '86:
Garcia and Kahn spent two weeks in the winter of 1986 on an acoustic tour of a few East Coast theaters, and while the shows were shorter and less varied than most Deadheads were expecting most sets consisted of just five or six songs, and every show but one ended with "Bird Song" and "Ripple," followed by an encore of the old Leadbelly folk classic, "Goodnight Irene" most fans agreed that both Garcia and Kahn looked better and played with more spirit than they had in '84.
The Grateful Dead began their performing year with five rollicking concerts at the Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland. By 1986, the Dead played in large sports arenas and coliseums almost everywhere outside Northern California, where, with the exception of the '85 New Year's shows, they stuck to venues under 10,000 seats; Kaiser (as it was known) held just 7,500 and had a lot of the old Winterland vibe, but with better acoustics. All through the early '80s, Bill Graham and his principal production lieutenants, Bob and Peter Barsotti, looked for ways to make the Dead's many hometown shows special, extravagantly decorating arenas and amphitheaters and trying whenever possible to schedule shows on significant dates.
For these February '86 shows, one of the concerts fell on the evening of the Chinese lunar new year, so Kaiser was festooned with giant paper fans, dragonflies and Oriental lanterns dangling from the rafters, and the front of the balcony was bedecked with red, green, and yellow streamers. The Chinese Orchestra of San Francisco opened the show, and during the drum solo in the Dead's second set, a traditional Chinese parade dragon its 20-foot body covered with red, blue and a few custom-designed scales, and a silver lightning bolt streaking down the middle of its back snaked its way through the hall and up to the stage. The dragon, named Flash and put together and operated principally by members of Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm collective, became a fixture at the Dead's biannual Chinese New Year's concerts.
Two nights later it was Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras and Graham's troops added more thematic decorations to the arena: huge cutout silhouettes of harlequins and thousands of balloons in the traditional colors of Mardi Gras purple, gold and green. Graham even managed to snare New Orleans' best rock 'n' roll band, the Neville Brothers, to open the show. The Nevilles had played at the Dead's '85 New Year's show (along with a troupe led by the great African drummer Babatunde Olatunji) and the Dead crowd had loved the band's funky, syncopated New Orleans rhythms and upbeat, socially conscious songs. At the beginning of the Dead's second set that Mardi Gras night there was a spectacular parade through the audience featuring the Mardi Gras "Indian" tribe the Wild Tchoupitoulas in their colorful headdresses and the huge papier-mβchι heads of the Grateful Dead from the New Year's show, repainted in New Orleans themes and colors (pirates, harlequins, Neptune, etc.) Members of the Neville Brothers joined the Dead for part of the second set that night and the next, and Garcia in particular appeared to love jamming with these musicians who were obviously soul mates.
Art Neville noted a week after the concerts, "Now that I've played with the Dead, instead of just opening for them, I can really see why people are so faithful to them. Playing with the Dead was a serious experience for me, man. ... We did a couple of jams that were something. I mean, did you see the grins on everybody's faces? Everybody was looking at each other, keying on each other, watchin' to see where it was goin'. It was great seein' that grin on Jerry Garcia's face. Not just a smile, man, a grin. Like, 'Wow, this is happenin'!' We had a great mutual respect and that's why it was such magic."
The final night of the Kaiser series fell on Valentine's Day, so of course for that show pink, red and white balloons and streamers dominated the decorations, and the band closed the show, appropriately enough, with "Turn On Your Love Light."
The smiles and enthusiasm onstage carried through the Dead's entire spring tour. Highlights included by the triumphant return after 13 years of Phil's "Box of Rain" (which benefited from the tighter harmonies of the mid-'80s Dead) and the introduction of two new Bob Dylan covers Garcia unveiled the powerful "Visions of Johanna," and Weir bravely tackled Dylan's epic "Desolation Row."
Page 346, lower-middle; M.G. gets the news about Garcia's collapse:
"I was up in Oregon, out at the Country Fair helping my friend Camille set up her booth," she continues. "We'd been out there all day and I didn't get home until about 11:30 and as soon as I walked in the phone rang. And it was Jahanara [Wavy Gravy's wife] calling from Camp Winnarainbow [the Hog Farm's summer camp] because Trixie was at camp. And she said, 'Oh, M.G. I'm so glad you answered the phone. I've been calling you. Is Jerry going to be all right?' I said, 'What?' Because I hadn't heard anything about it. She was the only person that called me. So I called the doctor and he said Jerry was going. I jumped on a plane at 6:30 the next morning and took the airporter up to the hospital and I got there and the doctor was saying, 'We're not sure he's going to live through the hour.' They were saying, 'We're readying him for a tracheotomy to help his breathing.' I said, 'A what? No, you're not!' I told them I thought that was a really bad idea. Obviously if it was absolutely necessary as a last resort to save his life that would be one thing, but ...
Page 352, upper-middle: Annabelle on JG's recovery:
"Dad wasn't really talking that much because he had a lot of things going on in his head," daughter Annabelle says. "He spent a lot of time re-learning how to play. He started with the banjo. He picked up the banjo and had to teach himself all these things. So he was awfully grumpy because he was madhe had lost bits of him that he could rely on ever since he was a kid. He was frustrated. I remember seeing him banging the banjo hard, just pissed because he couldn't make his fingers do what was so easy just six months before. But he kept at it. He kept saying, 'I've gotta try harder!' Instead of resting on his talent, he found himself in a situation where he had to actually work at it again, which I think was both rewarding and irritating at the same time. But I think the most positive thing it did was make him go off in some different directions and think about taking more control over his life."
Page 356, top; Garcia on the comeback trail and the Joseph Campbell connection:
For Len Dell'Amico, the sign that Garcia's recovery was well on track came unexpectedly one night when he and Garcia went out to see the band Los Lobos at a San Rafael club called New George's. "I was going to go with Sue Stephens and Annette Flowers [both of the Dead office] and I said, 'Jerry, you want to go see this band?' I thought it would be nice get him out of the house and all, but I didn't think about the implications, because as far as I know he hadn't been out socially in years, because the previous year he was being the working rock star and afraid to go out or not being asked the beautiful girl syndrome. And before that he was just a heavy drug user, and you can't really be doing social things when you need to fix every 15 minutes. I hadn't thought about any of that.
"So I went up to his house and it was basically his first time out in a long time. So Mountain Girl said, 'All right, but just the first show, and no drinking.' 'OK, I'll have him back at 11.' So the four of us got a table there and people were remarkably respectful and polite. Actually, most people were completely shocked, because of the rumor mill. He was just a regular guy sitting there. And he had a drink. 'I thought you weren't going to drink.' Well, I guess he is. And that relaxed him a little. Then the show was on and after a while he was up dancing in front of the stage with some people. Then, after the set, we were backstage and Santana was there, too, and they had a very warm, heartfelt embrace and they talked for a while. And David Hidalgo [one of Los Lobos' two guitarists] and Jerry seemed to really hit it off. When Los Lobos played the Warfield a year later, Jerry gave Hidalgo a guitar backstage. They were mutual admirers, to be sure. So then I'm thinking, 'Well, it's time to go.' But Jerry wasn't going anywhere. The second show comes; it's midnight, 1 a.m., Jerry has another drink and then Los Lobos calls him up onstage, and they give him a guitar, which he'd never held before, and they played 'La Bamba' and he ripped out this incredible solo and I was just overcome it was all there; it was like nothing had changed. It sounded exactly like him. The audience went nuts, of course; it was like a riot broke out or something. This was the answer to everyone's question. It was going to be OK. And it was all there in that one moment.
"The show goes on to its conclusion. It's 2 a.m., we're all thrown out and the house is emptying and Sue and Annette and I are looking around and we can't find Jerry. We look backstage and he's not there. I'm panicking, of course. 'Oh shit, I've lost him. Mountain Girl's going to kill me.' So we walked outside and he was standing on the sidewalk by himself, kind of loose and goofy with a big grin, talking to one fan after another. He was just sort of politely waiting for us."
On November 1 the day after the Garcia Band played a Halloween concert, with Kingfish, at Kaiser Convention Center Garcia took part in an extraordinary all-day symposium/performance at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theater entitled "Ritual and Rapture, from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead," which had grown out of the Dead's unusual association with the noted mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell, whose PBS series with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, made him a national celebrity in 1987, had never seen a rock 'n' roll concert before a friend took him to a Grateful Dead show at Kaiser in February '86, and he came away from the experience transformed. As he noted in a lecture two days after that Dead show:
"This is powerful stuff! And what is it? The first thing I thought of was Dionysian festivals, of course. This energy and these terrific instruments ... This is more than music. It turns on something here [the heart]. And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I've seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence. And when the great beam of light would go over the crowd, you'd see these marvelous young faces in utter rapture for five hours! Packed together like sardines! Eight thousand of them! Then there was an opening in the back [of the auditorium] with a series of panel windows, and you look out and there's a whole bunch in another hall, dancing like crazy. This is a wonderful, fervent loss of self in the larger self of homogenous community. This is what it's all about!"
Campbell and the Dead hit it off personally, too, so when the symposium idea was suggested, Garcia and Mickey Hart eagerly agreed to participate. The way the day was set up, the morning session opened with a lecture by Campbell about the role of the ecstatic experience in rituals, from ancient times to the present. He concluded his talk by discussing his experience at the February Dead show and by noting that Deadheads are doing "the dance of life" at Dead shows and "this, I would say, is the answer to the atom bomb." Following a presentation on madness and creativity by Jungian analyst John Perry, and a lunch break, came the performance part of the program: the premiere of a 90-minute composition by Mickey Hart and Rand Wetherwax called "The African Queen Meets the Holy Ghost," which had come out of Hart's and Campbell's common interest in the role of music in spiritual transformation. The musical piece
ranged from serene, hymn-like passages featuring the wordless moaning of a Persian singer above mellifluous keyboard and percussion textures to the sheer cacophony of Steve Parish and few others noisily thrashing pieces of metal and plastic debris that were heaped in a pile on the front of the stage. Garcia sat in a chair on one side of the stage improvising on electric guitar through the quiet and the storm.
The final portion of the symposium was a question-and-answer session with Campbell, Garcia, Hart and Perry discussing the issues brought up by the lectures and performance, and whatever else people wanted to know. Not surprisingly there were quite a few questions about Garcia's health and his plans. Garcia was in fine form, unleashing one-liners at every turn, and gladly deferring most of the heavy philosophical questions to Campbell who, despite Garcia's celebrity, was the real star of the event. All in all, though, the day was further proof that Garcia's mental acuity was very much intact.