ONE AFTERNOON LONG AGO...
An interview by Randy Groenke & Mike Cramer
Originally published in Golden Road, Summer 1985
Blair Jackson’s 1985 introduction:
There are surprisingly few Grateful Dead interviews available that took place before 1969. Of course, the rock press was just beginning in 1967, and the straight press all but ignored rock and roll…
When Santa Cruz record collector/archivist Glenn Howard told me that he knew of a never-published-before tape interview with Garcia from early ’67, my curiosity was piqued. Getting the tape proved to be a difficult task, however; it was ultimately dug out of storage several months later and many states away.
This interview was done at 710 Ashbury in February or March of 1967, just before the release of the Dead’s first album. Randy Groenke, the principal interviewer, had been a banjo student of Garcia’s in the early ‘60s when they both lived in the South Bay. He and his friend Mike Cramer simply called Jerry up and arranged to do the interview, friend to friend. The tape then sat unused until now.
Why run parts of a nearly 20-year-old interview? Because when we listened to the tape it struck us how little Garcia’s ideas have changed during the interim. Plus it is a revealing look at him and the band at a very early point, before the Haight Street scene began its decline. It’s a snapshot in time, as it were.
To set the scene: Garcia, Randy and Mike are talking in an upstairs room at 710. The band’s equipment truck had been stolen the night before, so there is considerable commotion in the background about that. Weir drops by at one point, as does Mountain Girl, bearing a plate of Oreos. The conversation starts on the topic that first brought Randy and Jerry together – bluegrass.
Q: So you’ve left the bluegrass world completely, eh?
GARCIA: No, I’m re-entering it by way of the electric banjo. My banjo is in the process of being electrified.
Q: Oh no! I never thought Garcia would go electric banjo! How does it sound, anyway? I’m really not familiar with it.
GARCIA: I haven’t used it yet ‘cause it’s not finished. I played a friend of mine’s who did it by means of a very simple operation involving a ceramic cartridge from a stereo taped underneath the bridge of the banjo. It sounds really good, better than a contact microphone or a magnetic pickup microphone. It still sounds like a banjo, but an electric banjo. I don’t know how I’m going to use it, but I’m going to use it. I also have another instrument, pedal steel guitar. I’ve been working on it about a month, and I should be using it with the band within about six weeks. [In fact he didn’t play one publicly for nearly three years. – BJ] This is just an effort to broaden the scope a little, experiment a little. We’re ready to experiment.
Q: What do you like better, rock and roll or bluegrass?
GARCIA: I’m not saying what I like in terms of what I like to listen to. What I like to play is the music that we play. I don’t want to call it rock and roll because it isn’t exactly. It is, but it isn’t. It’s our music. We’ve developed it. We’ve developed our own sound, and it’s our own music. That’s what I’m into. I still listen to bluegrass. I don’t listen to that much rock and roll. I listen to almost everything but rock and roll.
Q: What do you think of the Airplane’s stuff?
GARCIA: Well, their most recent album [Surrealistic Pillow] I’m kind of prejudiced in favor of because I’m on it. [Laughs.]
Q: You played flat-top on ‘My Best Friend’ and ‘How Do You Feel’?
GARCIA: I played flat-top on ‘How Do You Feel.’ Skip Spence played on the other one. He wrote that song. I played the high guitar line on ‘Today,’ and I played flat-top on ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover.’ And I played on ‘Coming Back To Me.’
Q: That and ‘Today’ I think are about the best tunes on the album. What do you think?
GARCIA: I’m kind of fond of the songs that Gracie sings. I like ‘White Rabbit’ a lot. I like ‘Somebody To Love.’ The arrangement on the album is more or less my arrangement; I kind of rewrote it. I always liked the song as she used to do it with the Great Society, but the chord changes weren’t really very interesting.
Q: How do you think the sound of the Grateful Dead fits in with what people are now calling the ‘San Francisco Sound’?
GARCIA: I’m not sure what they mean when they say the ‘San Francisco Sound.’ I’d say we’re a perfect example of the ‘San Francisco Sound,’ since we’re from San Francisco. [Laughs.] That term is somebody’s idea besides mine. There’s a similarity in the sound of San Francisco groups because they tend to do things kind of long, and they tend to have a certain kind of sound because you hear them in the same halls all the time. The Quicksilver Messenger Service sound a little more like us than, say, Big Brother & the Holding Company. But neither of them sound very much like us. We don’t sound anything like the Jefferson Airplane. It’s a matter of fine points. Superficially it might all sound similar, but actually, if you listen to the stuff, it’s not very similar.
Q: OK, let’s take these San Francisco groups you just mentioned and compare them with the Byrds or the Animals and the English groups.
GARCIA: It’s different. It’s a different sound. But each of the San Francisco bands sounds as different from each other as they do from everyone else. I think the San Francisco scene is healthier, and there’s more stuff going on in it than there is anywhere else. The musicians are all young, and we steal freely from each other because we all play together and we’re all friends. We all listen to each other and we’ve all gotten good together. We’ve all improved over the last year or so, playing the same gigs the same weekends, getting together and jamming and so forth.
Q: What’s your definition of a hippie? You hear so much about it and people write it up…
GARCIA: I’m not sure I have a definition. I’d say it’s someone that’s turned-on. And they can be turned-on any way; like someone who’s in forward motion. They might have been called “progressive” at one time. But it’s motion, and creative energy at its best. It’s just a better way for people who are in a creative community to look at things.
Q: Do you like the term “psychedelic” to apply to all of this?
GARCIA: It could, but any of those kinds of terms could apply, because I don’t think the scene excludes anything. I think it’s more inclusive than exclusive. Everyone has his own particular way of going about things and getting things done. Our way of doing things has to do with integrity and how we feel about what we’re doing. We’ve been together for almost two years and we’re only just now making a record. And the reason we’ve done it that way is in the past we’ve had all kinds of offers but we were never in a position to be able to control what we were doing. But because we held out, because we thought we were worth something, now we can do anything we want. We have control over our product. It’s not going to be chopped or changed. It’s our stuff, and because it’s our stuff, we’ll take full responsibility for it. Record companies don’t want you to do that.
The point is, we’re not trying to be famous or rich. We’re just trying to make our music as well as we can and get it out, because we’ve created a demand for it to some extent. It’s a matter of artistic pride with us, because it’s the only thing we do – make music. So we devote a lot of time and energy and thought and actual work to it. We practice every day.
Q: Do you think the Airplane have the same view, or do you think they’re going more commercial?
GARCIA: I think they have the same view. If their stuff has a commercial thing, it’s because they’ve been victimized by the record company to some extent, in that they don’t have a say…their producer decides what their sound will be like sometimes. Hopefully, that won’t happen on their next album, though this album was more a product of them than their producer. But it was his idea to have a lot of echo and reverb, and they’re really not too satisfied with it. But the Airplane is concerned about being musically good. They are really a talented organization. All the people in the Jefferson Airplane are professionals and good musicians, and they work well and have good ideas.
Q: These kids who come down to Fillmore Auditorium – are they phonies or really in with the music?
GARCIA: Who knows? The point is that they’re really people. Anything else that they are doesn’t alter the fact they are really people. They’re human beings. Like I was saying, I don’t want to exclude anybody, or include anybody. Whether or not they’re all musicians or music critics I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me. Because on the level of the musical part of it, there are musicians there who will recognize when something musically groovy happens. If they don’t, I will. But for some reason with the music we’re playing, when something groovy does happen, everyone knows about it. Nobody has to tell anybody, because it’s obvious music. It’s loud and there’s excitement about it. But it’s like reciprocal excitement. We pick it up from the audience, we feed it back to them; it works back and forth. For any kind of music you play, it’s always groovy to play for an audience that’s responsive, and I find the audiences at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom to be pretty responsive. When something groovy gets going we can always depend on a little support. If that wasn’t happening, the music wouldn’t be as much fun to play.
Q: If you were to go to New York right now, what do you think your reception would be like?
GARCIA: I don’t know. We’re going to New York pretty soon, so we’ll find out. What we’ve heard from the people that we know from New York who’ve been here is that we’d really kill ‘em in New York. Whether or not that’s so is something I don’t know, because I don’t know about New York and what it’s like to play there.
Q: Well, I guess it’s a fact that this San Francisco music scene isn’t anywhere else. Why is that? Why did it happen in San Francisco?
GARCIA: I don’t know. Here’s the thing: there really aren’t that many musicians in San Francisco, but there is a fantastically good scene going on in San Francisco. San Francisco is a good place to live, and then, incidentally, a good place to play. But first it’s a good place to live, and having that place – where you can do what you want and feel the way you want – has something to do with your outlook on things.
The San Francisco music scene is unique in some aspects, socially. For example, there isn’t any competition going on; the bands don’t compete with each other. The bands do things to help each other. The managers don’t do things the old cigar-chewing-manager way. When our managers [Danny Rifkin & Rock Scully] go someplace, they go just the way they are around the house. They have long hair, wear outlandish clothes and beads, and they talk like people on Haight Street do. Because that’s the way they are. That’s the way we all are, and we’re not sacrificing any part of ourselves to do business. When we go into the business part of things – when we talk to lawyers, the vice presidents of Warner Bros. – we talk to them the way we talk to our friends. We’re being out front. We’re trying to change the whole atmosphere of music, the business part of it as well as just the way it is, just by dealing with it on a more humanistic level because it’s a valuable commodity – it’s an art.
Q: What did you think of that article in Newsweek, “Dropouts with a Mission”?
GARCIA: It surprised me that it was in Newsweek, but it didn’t surprise me too much because they’d taken the pictures here and everything. But if we hadn’t known in advance that the article was going to be favorable, we wouldn’t have consented to appear in pictures. But because it was favorable they got a good reception.
Q: How about that title, “Dropouts with a Mission”?
GARCIA: I am a dropout. When I was teaching music, I was doing it because it was a way to exist without having to do a work thing – put on a collar and go do eight hours a day and all that stuff. I’m not interested in doing that. What I was interested in doing was making music, and I’ve been willing to put down everything else for that at one time or another. So in that case, socially I’m a dropout. But the result has been that because I was willing to take a chance and say, “I want to play music and I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it,” it put me in the position of where I’m starting to be successful at it, which I never dreamed I’d be. I was willing to work at it like I might have worked at a job, but I worked at it out of love, and not because I had to eat and make car payments or any of that stuff.
Q: If you’d had enough money to exist, would you have not taught and spent all your time with your music?
GARCIA: I might have. The teaching was valuable, though, because it made me think about what I was doing –
Q: It was valuable to me!
GARCIA: - and it might have been valuable to a few others, like you or any of my students. But it’s not really my thing to be a teacher. My thing is to play.
Q: What really made you quit pounding on the banjo and start playing guitar?
GARCIA: It was a gradual changeover. The main thing was, when I was playing the banjo there was nobody to play with and no place to play, no way for anyone to hear me. There wasn’t enough popular interest in bluegrass music for it to ever be worthwhile in this area. That’s what happens when you take up something that’s pretty esoteric. You have to sort of accept that. I didn’t want to do it.
I got into rock and roll music through the jug band. When I first started playing [guitar], I played rock and roll. My first guitar was electric, and I played Chuck Berry, stuff like that.
Q: I remember when you were the Warlocks and at Magoo’s you were doing stuff like ‘The Last Time’ –
GARCIA: Right, popular stuff.
Q: Did you have your sights on what you’re doing now?
GARCIA: We didn’t know what we were doing! We were just screwing around. We were just trying something.
Q: Did the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones help you get into this?
GARCIA: For sure. Because the Beatles’ music was interesting music. The Rolling Stones’ music was not that much of a surprise, because I’d listened to a lot of rhythm & blues, and early Rolling Stones was similar to that music, although not as well done. But the Beatles were doing something new and they had great musical ideas and a great thing going. Plus, seeing the movie Hard Day’s Night was a turn-on. It was very “up,” and I’ve always preferred things that are a little on the “up” side.
Q: If it comes along that you become successful and fairly wealthy –
GARCIA: - then we’ll see if there’s a better way to become successful and wealthy! A way that’s more rewarding to us. A way to spend our money so that it brings about more enjoyment for more people, or more something for people. More food certainly. A lot of what we make now is just money to live on for us and our friends and anybody around who doesn’t have anything. There are always people who need something. I don’t need anything. I don’t really want anything. I’ve got instruments, I know I can eat, so there’s nothing to worry about.
Q: How is this war in Vietnam hitting you?
GARCIA: Well, not directly at all so far, except that it’s getting hard to buy things like cymbals and guitar strings because they’re making bullets out of them.
There’s something going on in the world that nobody knows about. It’s like a big mystery. But it’s not really a mystery. The war is an effort on the part of the establishment to keep the economic situation in the United States comparatively stable.
Q: If you had not already been in the service –
GARCIA: - would I go? I would not go. I am totally against war. I could never kill anybody. Killing might be the only “sin” that there is. It’s anti-life. I don’t see how anybody could do it. I don’t feel like any kind of subversive force. I feel like an American, and I’m really ashamed of it lately.
Q: Do you think your music is talking about those kinds of things?
GARCIA: We’re trying to make music in such a way that it doesn’t have a message for anybody. We don’t have anything to tell anybody. We don’t want to change anybody. We want people to have the chance to feel a little better. That’s the absolute most we want to do with our music. The music that we make is an act of love, an act of joy. We really like it a lot. If it says something, it says it in its own terms at the moment we’re playing it, and it doesn’t have anything to do with…we’re not telling people to go get stoned, or drop out. We’re just playing, and they can take it any way they want.
Q: In short phrases, name some “in” things and some “out” things, some things you like and don’t like.
GARCIA: I can only tell you about things I like. There isn’t that much that I don’t like. I don’t have any complaints.
Q: What do you think of Buffalo Springfield?
GARCIA: I like them a lot. Have you heard Moby Grape? They’re really good.
Q: What do you think of the Monkees?
GARCIA: What am I supposed to think of them? [Laughs.] I mean, what do you want me to say?
Q: Well, I mean, why should they get to be Number One?
GARCIA: I don’t know. Maybe because their records are really pretty good. They should be good, because they have the best L.A. studio musicans and the best arrangers…
Q: You’ve heard your own album by now. What do you think?
GARCIA: Well, I think our album is honest. It sounds just like us. It even has mistakes on it. But it also has a certain amount of excitement on it. It sounds like we felt good when we were making it. We made it in a short period – four days – and it’s the material we’ve been doing onstage for quite a long time. It sounds like one of our good sets.
Q: What do you think is going to happen to the San Francisco scene?
GARCIA: I don’t know. I’m not even sure why there’s so much commotion, let alone what’s going to happen to it.
Q: All things come to an end, and things go “out” – like the English sound is sort of going out. What will you do if this goes out – switch back to bluegrass?
GARCIA: Who knows? I’ll know that when I get there. It doesn’t bother me now because the thing I’m most interested in is the thing that’s going on around me now, not what might happen tomorrow or yesterday.
Q: In that respect, you don’t seem very concerned about the stuff [the band’s equipment truck] that was stolen.
GARCIA: Well, it’s pointless to worry about it. I could work myself into a frenzy about it, but somebody stole it; it’s gone. I hope they can have a good time with it. [Laughs.] I hope we can get it back without having to put somebody in jail. It’s not that big a thing, because we can afford to get more. And maybe that’s some sort of spiritual dues that we paid for being successful; that means that now somebody can steal our equipment and not feel too guilty about it because we’re making more money than they are.
Q: As far as creativity goes, it seems like outside of music there really hasn’t been that much going on.
GARCIA: There never is. But there is a small, heavily concentrated area of a lot of activity. There is a lot of creativity, but it’s not always on levels you can observe because there are different trends happening in what we used to call “the arts.” For example, six or seven years ago, if you were a painter in San Francisco, you never sold anything, because nobody in San Francisco buys paintings and there’s no place to sell them. But a guy with a light show can make money. The guys who run the light shows are the guys who were painters a few years ago, and they’re finding out something new about color, and the eye, and about spontaneity. Those are all aspects the plastic arts have never had before.
Poster design and printing, all those things are skills. These posters here are a product of a lot of people’s working at something, and they’re getting a return for it. The people who run the dance halls are doing a thing. The people who are being managers are doing something. There’s a lot going on. People are opening stores. Not everybody is an artist or a creative person, but not everyone has to be a bookkeeper or a businessman to make it. They can get into something that turns them on a little. With our scene here, we’ve managed to employ just about everyone we know in some capacity, because everybody has something they can do.
Q: How do the Hell’s Angels strike you?
GARCIA: I like ‘em. They’re honest and they’re out front and they don’t lie to you. They’re good people. They’re brutal, but their brutality is really only honesty. You have to know a few of them. They’re kind of like the cops in a way. They have very heavy standards of what they do and what’s right.
Q: But by what you were saying before, you’re not into that.
GARCIA: That’s their scene, not my scene. They’re also capable of not being brutal. They can be depended on in a funny way. When there was the Be-In up here [1/14/67], I’d never seen so many people in my life. It was really fantastic. I almost didn’t believe it. It was a totally underground movement. It was all the people into dope of any sort, and like 20,000 people came out in the park and everyone had a good time. There was no violence, no hassling. But one of the things that happened was that somebody came along and cut the lines of the P.A. and the electricity. Some guys got together to repair it, and then the Hell’s Angels guarded the wire. They took care of lost kids, they baby-sat! You can hit on ‘em to do that kind of thing. Like we’re hiring a couple to guard our warehouse, now that the equipment’s been stolen.
I know that they’re making a big change, that they’re different than they used to be. They’re hanging out in the scene and getting out of their brutal bags and just taking it easy a little.
Q: Do you think they see what you guys are doing and then –
GARCIA: Well, they know that we’re all doing the same thing. What we’re saying is, “We don’t want the world the way you’ve got it” – the establishment. We don’t want to be successful or super-rich or businessmen. We don’t want to do any of that shit. We want to have a nice quiet life and a few good times.
[Bob Weir comes in the room and announces that the Dead’s equipment van has been found. There’s much rejoicing.]
Here’s another similar scene. We once played a ski shop, a very plush ski shop for this super-rich ski crowd. It was jet-setters and what have you. Joan Baez was there. And the guy who owned the ski shop hired two Hell’s Angels to guard the door to make sure nobody got in without an invitation. And they did it fine. And then the guy took us all out to dinner – us and the Hell’s Angels. So we walked into this restaurant and lots of tourists split in horror, and this juiced San Francisco attorney came over and slapped us on the back and said [slurring] “Glad you folks are here,” and he bought us all wine. [Laughs.]
Q: Would you like to do a movie?
GARCIA: Well, as a matter of fact, when we were in L.A. making our record, we got a movie offer from ABC-Paramount. We got an offer to be in a James Coburn movie in which he plays the psychiatrist for the President, who runs off from his job for a series of misadventures, one of which is to spend a certain amount of time with us, with a rock and roll band that is traveling around in a nomadic fashion. We’re written into the script, with speaking parts and everything. We’ve agreed to do it, provided we have control over the section we’re in. So we might not do it because they might not give us control. We don’t want to be in a movie unless it’s good, and it won’t be good unless we do it ourselves.
[The film was The President’s Analyst. Ultimately, the Dead were not in it. – BJ]
Q: What do you get out of smoking dope? Do you play better under it?
GARCIA: No, but I might feel better. I feel like if you want to have something that makes you feel a little better and maybe gives you a slightly different outlook than your normal one, it’s nobody’s business but yours. Grass is so much like an everyday thing. You don’t get wasted on it.
Q: How about LSD and the whole “Captain Trips” thing?
GARCIA: That’s a whole ‘nother matter. We’ve played on acid and that does do things to your time sense, and it does other things. It produces an unimaginably wider scope of ideas. More consciousness means you have more of an understanding of what you’re doing, and that means you can do it better because you’re doing it with that much more of your mind.
Q: But you don’t go down to the Fillmore or Avalon on acid…
GARCIA: Not anymore. We used to. I wouldn’t do it anymore because we’re in a different position than we were a year ago. At this point, the experimentation we’re doing now isn’t a matter of drug experimentation; we’re experimenting with music.