Chapter 11: The Wheel Is Turning
Page 201, middle; more on Janis' death:
While the mainstream media talked endlessly about the evils of heroin and how the pressures of stardom and celebrity had supposedly led to Janis' death, Garcia was typically sympathetic and nonjudgmental. "You have to consider her situation," he said shortly afterwards. "The situation is you're making a record, and you're putting out a lot of effort, long hours in the studio. You get pretty weird. You come out afterwards, go to a bar, get a few drinks to level out. Everything's going pretty good, but you have to relax because tomorrow you have to go back into the studio. So it's back to the hotel, you have a little smack — it's like a tranquilizer, or a downer if you're not strung out. Janis was not strung out. She had been, she kicked, she was clean. She took a hit, went down to get some cigarettes, back to her room, and two minutes later she's dead. You know, it was just a little too much. ... It could've happened to anybody. I don't think she killed herself or anything like that. In fact I know she didn't. It was just an accident, a dumb fucking accident.
Page 204, middle; Garcia on New York, continued:
"[New York] is the only place where you can't get away from it. You can try but you can't really get away from it. Because it's a trip here. New York has got that kind of theater trip and that thing of focusing on personalities; that's a big trip in New York because there isn't jack shit else to do. Really, I mean what else is there to do — walk the streets and buy things. And so it leaves the human things just completely fucked up and that's one of the things that has never been successfully handled in the society.
"The whole star system was a merchandising invention in the '20s for movies. It's not something that really happens; it's something somebody invented and laid on the public. It's responsible for all the evils in the music business, that whole trip, in terms of what it does, in terms of why people turn to downs or drugs and stuff like that just to get away from the shit for a while. I mean, Jimi Hendrix lived with it. I never saw him without a half-dozen weird people hanging around him — vampires and shit. It's just a bummer; a big fuckin' bummer." (Hendrix died of drug-related causes the week after Janis Joplin.)
And a final rant on New York from the same interview: "New York is locked into a weird game that has to do with the material universe, on one hand, and the intellectual universe on the other hand — both of which are just fictions of Western civilization. They don't have anything to do with what life is about. And this is like the last bastion of that ethos — the big city, the incredible marketplace scene, and it's just really weird. The people in New York think that New York is the way everything is, and it's not that way. My advice for New Yorkers is for everybody to leave; just go away." New Yorkers didn't just go away, however, and the city remained the Dead's biggest market for the next 25 years.
Page 205, top; Garcia and Freiberg:
"One time we saw a UFO on the way back from Bolinas," Freiberg says. "We were on Novato Boulevard and all of sudden we saw something up in the sky. I think we were each in our own cars — you know, he had this Bentley that had a high beam that was a single light in the middle; very weird. Anyway, we'd been smoking a lot of pot — hey, we'd been at Kantner's! — and we both pulled off the road and got out of our cars and just stood there looking up at it. This light just kept getting bigger and bigger and then it just sort of disappeared. We never did know what it was, but I'm pretty sure it was there. I suppose it could've been something from Vandenberg Air Force Base or something, but it didn't look like anything we'd ever seen. Many years later, in the early '80s sometime, I heard an interview with Garcia on the radio and they asked him if he'd ever seen a UFO and he said, 'Yeah, with Frieberg,' and he told the whole story. So I guess whatever it was we saw made a lasting impression on him, too."
Page 205, upper-middle; more on Merl Saunders' background:
Like so many African American keyboardists of his time, Merl grew up playing music in the church; in his case a Methodist church at Geary and Webster in San Francisco, "though I also used to sneak over to another church where the holy rollers were," he adds conspiratorially. As a teen, he and his family lived in a large house in Haight-Ashbury — in fact, Merl says that during the Summer of Love era, long after he'd moved out, his mother would sometimes call the police to complain about the noise being made by local hippie bands; and his father, who worked as a doorman at 2090 Pacific, actually knew Garcia before Merl did!
As a teenager, Merl soaked up all the music he could — jazz, blues, R&B — and spent nearly every waking hour practicing the piano. "The thing about growing up in music during my generation is you had to learn how to play everything," he says. "I listened to Stan Kenton, B.B. King, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, down to Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter and Louis Jordan, who doesn't get the credit, but he was the first rapper. Slim Gaillard — he came to my high school and played piano with his hands backwards; I thought he was amazing. I used to love Saunders King — my name is actually Sanders, but I changed it because I liked the sound of Saunders King. My mom and dad used to take me to this supper club and I'd hear Saunders King at 10 or 11 o clock in the morning, back when Fillmore Street was like 125th Street in New York. I used to see Dinah Washington there in the afternoons. People like Duke Ellington and Harry James would play at the Warfield or the Golden Gate Theater, and then later I started going to the jazz clubs — Basin Street West, the El Matador, the Jazz Workshop, the Blackhawk. I saw some of the greatest musicians in the world in those places, and it made quite an impression on me."
Then, "when I was in Paris in the service, I heard Jimmy Smith, which really got me interested in the organ. Later on, he and I became friends and he showed me the fundamentals of playing organ." Saunders was also influenced by Hammond B-3 masters like Jimmy McGriff and "Brother" Jack McDuff. Merl spent several years on the road playing in an organ trio, eventually settling in New York City, where he did session work and played on commercials. He also had a stint conducting a band at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas before he moved back to the Bay Area. There, he hooked up with Michael Bloomfield, and through him met Kahn, Vitt and Garcia. Their first work together was at Wally Heider's on an album by a singer named Danny Cox.
Merl says that Garcia was an eager and gifted pupil with an insatiable desire to learn new things, whether it was working off a relatively easy tune like "My Funny Valentine" or some incredibly complex number by the supremely gifted pianist Art Tatum, who became one of Garcia's favorite musicians. "I saw Art Tatum play when I was about 15 years old and I got so disgusted I stopped playing piano," Saunders says with a laugh. "I thought, 'What's the point?' He was so amazing you could never hope to be that good in your wildest dreams. I was hurt; I was crushed. But he was a genius, and of course I came to appreciate him more, and I actually studied him a bit. I managed to learn a few of his runs and I'd be there warming up on this stuff and Garcia would be saying, 'Hey man, what's that run?' 'That's Art Tatum.' And we'd go over them together. Then we'd be out at the Keystone in the middle of a song and all of a sudden I'd hear him doing an Art Tatum run, and I'd look over and he'd have this big smile on his face! Man, when Jerry would get on something, he'd keep going with it until he got it. He'd stumble through it at first, but he understood music so well and he had such a good memory that he could eventually get almost anything he tried down. And getting down Art Tatum is not easy — on piano or guitar."
Page 208; middle; who the heck is "Bertha"?
According to Garcia, Hunter's original inspiration for the song wasn't a woman, but a giant electric fan, nicknamed Bertha, that used to sit in the Grateful Dead's San Rafael office: "You'd plug it into the wall and it would hop along the ground. It was this huge motor and way overpowered and the fan was a little off kilter and it would bounce around and bang up and down. It was the only air conditioning that we had at the time and if you left it for a minute, it would crash into the wall and chew a big piece out of it." Leave it to Hunter, though, to turn that whimsical image into something much broader and less specific.
Page 208, lower-middle; a nugget about "Deal":
The probable antecedent for "Deal" was a song called "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," a white country blues originally recorded by Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers in 1925 and revived by the New Lost City Ramblers in 1958. Aside from the title refrain, the two songs aren't that similar, but spiritually they are kin; at the very least part of the same tradition.
Page 212, top; more on the first NRPS album:
"I liked that first album the best because Jerry was on it with that great outer space steel guitar on it," comments Steve Barncard, who engineered the album in the same studio the Dead had used to cut American Beauty. Just his presence being there was like having a father figure in the room and he sort of calmed them down. But those guys were wild. They'd get so blasted that I made sure I could get the takes before one o'clock, before the Drambue and the Grand Marnier and the hash and the beer combined to make everything real sluggish. I'd get about one track a day and we'd spend the rest of the time doing overdubs. A lot of it was sort of pasted together."
Page 213, top; more on Richard Loren, Garcia and Stinson Beach:
"I remember when I first came out here in 1970 — at Jerry's suggestion, Grisman and I came across — I couldn't believe the freedom out here," Loren says. "And the weather; you can't overlook the weather. It was December, the sun was shining, it was warm. The East Coast had a different mind-set than the West Coast, and when I came here there was freedom and there was acid and there were beautiful women, tie-dye. There was an attachment to nature I found really appealing. I lived with Marty Balin [in Mill Valley] for three weeks and then I found a place in Stinson Beach for Grisman and me and the Rowan Brothers to live in. We rented this house on the beach; a beautiful place. We all chipped in. Sure enough, one day I ran into Jerry Garcia downtown. He, Grisman and I became very close friends during those early years when I was managing the Rowan Brothers.
"Stinson was cheap back then," Loren continues. "We were paying $750 a month. We had three bedrooms and a room that we turned into a studio and which was also living quarters for the roadies. We all just hustled and scraped. It was like a little commune with David and me and the Rowan Brothers and our wives and lovers. We cooked together, we lived together. We got advances from Columbia Records [who signed the Rowans after they auditioned for Clive Davis]. I'd get them gigs, they'd play in clubs, we'd make a few hundred dollars a week and we'd divide it up: 'Here, you get ten bucks and I get ten,' we'd share a lid of grass, we'd roll joints--'You take three.' It was great. And probably not that dissimilar to what I'm sure the Dead did when they started. Jerry was living up the hill." Garcia would often come down to the beach to visit and jam with the Rowans, and vice versa.
Page 213, bottom; more on Sunfighter:
"That was a little more focused than Blows Against the Empire," Kantner says. "By that time Grace and I had moved out to Bolinas and a lot of that stuff was constructed and thought of there, between the two of us. Then we'd ask other people, like Jerry, who was always happy to help out, to come in and sort of follow in those footsteps. But it wasn't as casual and happenstance as the first one; it was more thought out."
Page 216, middle; more on "Late for Supper":
Though there are no lyrics per se, Hunter was again Garcia's co-conspirator on these tracks: "That's my voice on there talking about J. Robert Oppenheimer and all that stuff," Hunter said. "That's all me doing the rapping on it, playing horns and all of the funny sounds. I used to be quite a tape recording nut. What Jerry did was I gave him a collage and then he put [his own] collage down, used all kinds of tape loops and stuff on that, too. Playing on the strings of the piano with wooden mallets. Then he got all the tape loops together and played it all on the console, bringing this up and this up [on the console's faders]. He just had a great time; masterminded the whole thing."
Page 216, middle; Garcia as a steel guitar player:
Because he was relatively unschooled on the steel, Garcia always spoke modestly about his talents on the instrument, but in just two years of part-time work he developed a signature sound that was nearly as unique as his electric guitar style.
"What I'm doing with the steel," he said in 1971, "is I'm going after a sound I hear in my head that the steel has come closest to. But I have no technique on the steel. I've got a little right hand [picking] technique from playing the banjo, and I've listened to records. But my intonation with the bar [the slide, held in his left hand] is still really screwed up. I have to do it by ear. ... I'm really a novice at it, but I'm not really trying to become a steel player. I'm trying to duplicate something I hear in my head."
Page 217, top; another quick trip to Europe:
The group's most exotic gig in 1971 was a one-shot in France. "We went over there to do a big festival, a free festival they were gonna have," Garcia said. "We went over [at the promoter's expense], but the festival was rained out; it flooded. We stayed at this little chateau [Chateau d'Herouville] which is owned by a film score composer who has a 16-track recording studio built into the chateau, and this is a chateau that Chopin once lived in; really old, just delightful, out in the country near the town of Auvers, which is where Vincent Van Gogh is buried. ...
"We were there with nothing to do: France, a 16-track recording studio upstairs, all our gear, ready to play, and nothing to do. So, we decided to play at the chateau itself, out in the back, in the grass, with a swimming pool, just play into the hills. We didn't even play to hippies, we played to a handful of townspeople in Auvers. ... We played and the people came — the chief of police, the fire department, just everybody. It was an event and everybody just had a hell of a time — got drunk, fell in the pool. It was great."
Page 217, bottom; more on the "Skullfuck" episode:
So when the Dead went down to Los Angeles in early August to play a pair of shows at the Hollywood Palladium, a meeting was set up between the Dead and Warners executives to discuss this and other issues. Actually, it was the Dead family and Warners executives, as New Riders drummer Spencer Dryen explained:
"The Dead always had a very big scene. Everything was always done in large groups, and it always seemed that whoever was around at any time could be involved in the decision making. We were pretty democratic in the Airplane, but the Dead really took it to extremes. Roadies, girlfriends, everyone got involved.
"I was one of the people at the famous meeting in Hollywood when the Dead met with the heads of Warner Bros. to tell them they wanted to call their album Skullfuck. There must have been 35 or 40 people from the Dead, or who were just part of the scene, in this conference room in a big hotel [the Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard]. People were sitting around this giant table, and then there were a whole bunch of people sitting on the floor, standing against the wall, just everywhere. This was very typical of Dead meetings. They looked unwieldy and they were, I guess, but things would get done. I saw meetings where things got real emotional, like when somebody got let go or something, and there would be tears and everything — very heavy. But this one was funny because everyone sounded very rational. It was like almost everyone in the room took a turn in trying to explain to these straight guys from Warners why it made perfect sense for the record to be called Skullfuck. People had these long explanations, explaining the word on all sorts of different levels, totally serious. And the Warners guys were very polite. They listened to what everyone said and then tried to explain why they just couldn't call it Skullfuck, 'cause how were they going to sell the records in Korvettes [a defunct New York-area chain akin to Wal-Mart] and places like that? Somebody would say, 'Well, we don't want to be in those kinds of stores,' and the Warners guys would just kind of smile.
"Anyway, this went on for hours, it seemed, and the thing was, I knew going in that there was no way they were going to let them put it out as Skullfuck. You might be able to do that now, but we're talking about 1971. It just wasn't going to happen. I think a lot of people in the room believed it would happen, though, because, like I said, everyone had their reasons, and they all sounded like good ones. But that's the Grateful Dead. They were never exactly in tune with the real world. Of course that's one reason they're great, too."