Transcript:

Jerry Garcia Interview

November 12, 1987

Part 1 of 4

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By Mary Eisenhart

This interview took place in a back room at One Pass Studios in San Francisco, where Garcia was working on the edit of the "Throwing Stones" video with Len Dell'Amico. This was the heyday of In the Dark's popularity, following on Garcia's recuperation from his near-fatal diabetic coma a year earlier, and the band's much-delayed overnight success was the background of the conversation.

The previous evening, the documentary Sgt. Pepper: It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, a retrospective about the Beatles album and the era it represented, had aired; the program had included a clip of Garcia in 1987 explaining "We would all like to be able to live an uncluttered life—a simple life, a good life—and, like, think about moving the whole human race ahead a step. or a few steps."

On this occasion, Garcia was in a cheerful mood and willing to chat at length about just about anything, starting with the "Throwing Stones" video, and the Dead's relatively recent explorations of that medium.

Portions of this interview appeared in the December 18, 1987 (#271) issue of BAM magazine Copyright 1987, 1998 by Mary Eisenhart. All rights reserved.

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Wanna talk about the [Throwing Stones] video, as long as we're in the neighborhood?

Jerry Garcia: Sure, anything you like.

Getting into video at all is something of a departure for you guys.

Not really. It's kind of a cousin to what we've always done. It's a cousin to audio. I mean, that is to say, it's part of the electronic world, so it's only different in that it end up on a cathode tube, not on a loudspeaker. But audio is a component of video, so there's always been that anyway, and although we've never expressed a visual side apart from the Grateful Dead movie, I don't find it that remote, you know what I mean? It's a departure of sorts, but it's like a first cousin.

A lot of the techniques overlap?

Yeah, it's never felt quite that remote to me. If anything, I've been optimistic about it. I've tended to think it was easier and more available and simpler to deal with than it actually is.

Is that because of the problems of editing digitally, or. . .

Yeah, but the most complex video editing problems are nothing, in terms of the amount of time they take, compared to film. Film is a much more time-exhaustive medium. So with video, you can do the kind of stuff you saw us doing today, just things like colorizing images, changing the density of images, that's the kind of stuff that you normally.

In film you need a lab to do that, which means you need two weeks to see it. So I mean, there you go—the relationship between fifteen minutes and two weeks is extraordinary. That's one of the things that's fun about video, and in fact the source material of the video that we're working on right now is 16 millimeter film, so we're actually using film as the visual vehicle, and then we're using the video to modulate it, to change it, and to edit it. It's not much different from making movies on some levels, except it's much faster. The immediacy is the part that makes it like audio.

Do you see doing a full-length project like the movie with all these new tools?

Yeah, yeah.

Would it be a concert-type thing necessarily?

I don't think so. I don't see us doing that much more concert stuff, except—we would do concerts the way we use a video screen at the shows. That is to say, we would pull them down routinely, so that every show would, say, have a video tape—you'd be able to get a videotape of every show with digital soundtrack included. . .

There's certainly a market for that.

Yeah, we think so. We're planning along those lines, but we wouldn't do them—they would be the way we do our shows. In other words, whatever happened, that's what you'd get. The discretion, in terms of the images, would be with the online director, who would be Len [Dell'Amico] or someone like him, who would be making the editing decisions in the now, as it's going on, and we wouldn't spend time on post-production. So all this stuff would come off exactly the way it occurred, and we wouldn't fool with it.

So in that sense it would be a by-product, rather than a product.

But we have lots of notions along the lines of doing things that are formal works. Like the So Far video is a formal work. The albums are formal works. That's what we're getting together, we're working on something on purpose. . .

They've got a structure, they've got a theme. . .

That's right. And they're characterized by "it takes us a long time to do them." For one reason or another. It's part of what we do, and in an effort to keep ourselves amused, the oftener we change the sort of thing we're doing, the more amused we are, you know.

Do you see that Sirens of Titan [to which Garcia owned film rights at the time] might have more viability in the video medium than in film?

I have all the patience in the world about Sirens. For me it's not a Grateful Dead project, it's a Me project. My real interest in Sirens of Titan is preventing it from being made into a bad movie. So everybody who I meet in the movies, every contact I make—as I get closer and closer to the center of the cyclone, I turn more and more people on to the script, and onto the idea, and Tom and I work on it regularly. Tom Davis is the guy who co-wrote the script with me, and we both are very much in love with the project.

But I'm not in any hurry. I don't care how long it takes to see the screen, just as long as when it does go to the screen, it really goes well. That's my interest there, that I'm maintaining as much control over it as I can from my point of view, in terms of ownership of the screen rights and so forth, to make sure that it doesn't fall into the hands of a hack. That's the thing I fear most.

What did you think of the treatment that Slaughterhouse-Five got?

I don't think that Slaughterhouse-Five was successful movie material. In fact, Vonnegut's books mostly I don't feel are movie material.

They're very structurally strange.

They are, and you have to have read them all.

And they're all elliptical in your own head.

That's right, and they work that way—and the tone of them is a lot of what makes them, that wry...the voice, the author's voice. Which is something that you can't put on the screen. You can put style on the screen in place of it.

But Sirens of Titan is the one that goes—and also Mother Night, which I think would be a wonderful movie—it's a simple enough, and a direct enough A-B-C-D, linear, Act One, Act Two, Act Three kind of dramatic structure—it would work as a play, it would work as a movie. Sirens has that format also, only it's tremendously convoluted, you know, and that's the fun of it.

87 subplots and characters winding in and out. . .

Not in our version. Our version keeps all the major characters, but—if you read it through carefully, there's really not so many subplots. It really is very simple in a way.

A convergence of plots.

That's right. There's really three basic characters that are having things happen to them. Three main characters.

Which is to say Malachi,

Rumfoord, and Bea. It's like a triangle, a complex, convoluted love story. And it's really that simple.

So our task has been to take the essential dramatic relationships, make it playable for actors, so that it's free from the Big Picture emphasis of the book. The book is all kind of long shots, you know? But the ideas and the funny stuff and the human part of it...

There's also some extremely lovely, touching moments in the book. It's one of the few Vonnegut books that's really sweet, in parts of it, and it has some really lovely stuff in it. It's the range of it that gets me off, the thing that it goes from that black comedy kind of, and the Why Me plot, all that stuff, the ironic twists and so forth, and that stuff which is just fun, to the really sweet, the tender things that I—

I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff.

To the total bottom falling out of everything. . .

Yeah, I love that. It's wonderful stuff. But it took some work for us to start to really understand the simplicity of it. And it really doesour screenplay really works good, so like I say, we're. . .when I was in New York I met with Jonathan Demme, who's a really nice. . .

He did the Talking Heads movie.

Yeah, he's a good director. He was very excited about it, because he's done a Kurt Vonnegut project before. I also found out he was a Deadhead.

Great credentials!

Well, I think so.

But like I say, I'm not trying to—I'm not flogging it. I have a lot of faith in it, and it's one of those things where I'm real ready to wait around. I don't care how long it takes.

Why that book of all the ones Vonnegut ever wrote?

Well, it's very simple. For me, when I read it, it was a movie in my head. All the others are novels in my head. This one, when I read it—every time I read it—boom!—it plays like a movie in my head. If it wasn't a movie I never would've taken it on.

For me, the ideas come the way they come. Sometimes I have ideas about plumbing, you know what I mean?

I mean, just because you're a musician doesn't mean all your ideas are about music. So every once in a while I get an idea about plumbing, I get an idea about city government, and they come the way they come.

In this case, Sirens of Titan, when I read it, it's a movie. It plays like a movie, so it's a movie idea. If I didn't see it as a movie I'd have no faith in doing it. I feel it's a movie; I feel enough confidence in my own vision of the movie of Sirens of Titan that I feel I could direct it, no problem. I see it. It's that simple. If I didn't see it, I never would have taken it on. It plays in my head—I see the blocking, I see the action, I see the camera moves. I see—it just plays. And that's one of those things—I didn't ask for that, that's just the way it hit me back when I first read it in '61 or something. It's been that way every time I've read it since then, and it's just. . . There are a couple of other things I've read too that are movies for me.

Like what?

Another notable one, which is much more difficult to read, but also played as a movie for me, was The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, Nikos Kazantzakis's continuation of The Odyssey. It's an amazing book.

It's a continuation of Odysseus's life up to his death, after he got home. And it's all written in Homeric style. It's like Kazantzakis, who's Greek—it's a tribute to his own—and his writing's wonderful, and for me it's just total sensual, visual experience.

And I think it would make an incredible movie, but it has an awful title and I know nobody will ever do it. It's because most people, when they open it up and see that it's in meter, and it's this thick, you know, it's like, oh... Most people can't read it. But if you can get past that, and just read it as though it were a novel, it's just amazing.

That's another notable one that—it plays for me. But somebody would have to give me. . .I couldn't make the movie for less than forty million, fifty million (grins), sixty million, something like that. In order to really do that one right, that's like big-time.

Next venture capitalist I see, I'll be sure and tell them.

Tell them if they're looking for someplace to lose money, I've got lots of plans!

Given all the raw material you have to work with, in terms of Hunter being a very prolific lyricist, how do you decide what to write?

I don't decide. I take his stuff, he'll give me maybe ten songs at a time. I'll take them and read through them, and look at them and look at them and look at them, and sometimes I'll sit down at the piano and fool around a little. And one of 'em will start talking back to me, or maybe two of them, or three, sometimes. All of a sudden a line or two will start resonating, you know? And I'll start—I'll have it going around like doggerel, like skip-rope stuff (singsong "yadda-da-dum, da-dum"), and pretty soon I'll start to hear something that fits it, that works with it in some way. Hunter and I—our best collaborations are when we work together. That is to say, when I feed him a melody, and I say, "Okay Hunter, I've got this melody, and these changes that go like this." Because he has a tendency to write in very dense rhythmic and metrical stuff that's hard to break out of the meter. And so they lend themselves to a sort of folk song structure.

When I work with him, I make him do things that are more irregular, and I give him phrases that he wouldn't normally come up with. We both agree that that's our best way to work, but I'm such a lazy sucker that I rarely get around to. . .

So as far as his songs, the ones he gives me and that I eventually turn into music, they find me, and it really has to do with an emotional quality, which I can't describe. It's not mechanistic, you know what I mean?

An emotional quality of the words?

It's an emotional quality of the words, or something about the way a word sounds, or something about the meter, or something about something in it. Sometimes I don't even know what it is. Sometimes the sense of the words doesn't occur to me until years later. There's just something about them that I feel, "Yeah, this song speaks to me."

I don't know why, it's the same reason why you like some music and you don't like others. There's something about it that you like. Ultimately I don't find it's in my best interests to try and analyze it, since it's fundamentally emotional. You know what I mean? So as far as which ones find their way—the ones that speak to me on some emotional level that I don't know what—it's a non-verbal level. That's it usually. It's rarely the sense of it. Sometimes it's the sound of the words.

He puts a lot of work into it—this is a vowel, and it goes here. . .

We've had to learn that, just because we've found the difficulty you have when you write a song and you don't consider what's open and what's closed.

I mean, you can't hold a consonant when you're singing. So closures, and using vowels, and what kind of vowels you want them to be, and stuff like that, have a lot to do with whether—it's the craft of songwriting.

That's one of those things that we needed at least an album to learn that stuff. And now we've got it down to "Okay, you need to breathe sometimes." "You can hold vowels better than you can consonants," that's another one. Percussive sounds are better if they're consonant sounds, and so forth. All that stuff you start to experience, shows you that.

When Hunter and I first started, neither of us had written anything but a couple of little ditties. Hunter was a writer, legitimately, but I was certainly no composer. We've lucked out and gotten some really nice songs. I mean, I have the experience of singing those songs over the years, so I know how really nice they are. It's hard to sing a song that doesn't mean something to you, and it's hard to have a song keep meaning something to you when you repeat it a lot of times. It's a testament to the power of a lot of those songs that I can still sing them and they still mean something to me.

Do you have any favorites at this point?

They rotate. I don't have any specific favorites. There are a few songs that I always really love—"Stella Blue" is a song I'll always really love. There are others. There's lots of them, actually. More of them than not, really, because they've already gone through the editing process—just the fact that they exist is a huge amount of pre-editing in there. Like I say, the only ones that find their way into existence are ones that speak to me on some level anyway.

Musical Darwinism prevails.

That's right, exactly. They're surviving because they're fit.

Hunter's version of "Touch of Grey" is really different.

That shows you the difference between Hunter and I as composers. Hunter can write a melody and stuff like that, but his forte is lyrics. He can write a serviceable melody to hang his lyrics on, and sometimes he comes up with something really nice. Like "Must Have Been The Roses" is largely his melody, and I thought it was really lovely the way it worked. And so I used it pretty much the way it is, with only a few little changes.

But other things I changed so they have absolutely no relationship to his original—"Touch of Grey" is a good example. Luckily we have enough respect for each other so that—I rarely change his lyrics without consulting him, although I've gotten more comfortable with changing a word or a phrase here and there than I used to be—I would never touch anything. And any changes that I wanted I would work with him, and we would make the changes.

Some things we worked on for years, before they ever came out to be performable songs. One of the ones that I thought really ended up working well on that level was "Ruben and Cherise," which is one of my favorite of our songs together. That's a song that was not a matter of inspiration. That's one of those songs where we worked on it year after year. We'd bring it out—"Let's try this again—no, it still doesn't—ah, forget it."

The whole process took about seven or eight years. We worked on it intermittently for that time before it actually turned into the form it has, which is a neat one. It has some very original stuff in it. And a great lyric. But the changes that that song went through, compared to the inception of it, both lyrically and musically, are just—

But it's odd that it still retains a few of the very first ideas that it had, although not because they stuck around, just because they mutated and found themselves back in the song later on. It's odd how that process went. I had a chance recently to dig into some old tapes where we were first starting to work on that tune, and seeing what it was, what made me start.

The thing that made me start was this notion I had about musical hunks that would get smaller and smaller as they progressed. "Ruben and Cherise" basically works that same way. For some reason we were able to preserve that original idea. It goes from a thing that's like four beats to three beats to two beats, in the verses. But it's almost totally invisible—it still fits into 4/4 time, so you don't go, "Oh, that's a bar of 5/4." It's very smooth, so you don't notice—it all is in the vocal phrasing. And it's one of those things that I'd completely forgotten about, but it was the original architecture of the tune. Everything else changed around it, but for some reason that little part of it stayed all the way through to the end.

Is the fact that your version and his version of that song are so lyrically different just a product of the fact that it took ten years to get into final form? Because your version argues a diametrically opposed point to his version.

Yeah, probably. Well, Hunter, a lot of times, after the song is done, he rewrites it, and says, "Okay, that's your version, now here's my version." And he chooses to take the opposite tack. Sometimes he rethinks what he's done and decides, "Well, this would've been a better ending." But usually he doesn't insist that I use it. Like he's got a verse that he's been wanting to do for "Friend of the Devil" for a million years. I refuse to do it.

Why?

Not for any reason. Just to be an asshole. Not for any good reason. (grins). It's gotten to be that kind of thing. But maybe I'll blow his mind someday and do it.

Hunter has the right to be able to make those decisions downstream. And change them. Like he's got his version of "Lady with a Fan" and "Terrapin" and all that. He's got one version—he's got several versions of it, but one version at least has a beautiful conclusion, where everything comes together finally in the end. I prefer the open—you don't know what happened, we don't know what happened, it's not...

It's like the storyteller makes no choice—and neither do we. And neither do you, and neither does anybody else. I prefer that. I prefer to be hanging.

I've always been really fond—in folk music, I've always been fond of the fragment. The song that has one verse. And you don't know anything about the characters, you don't know what they're doing, but they're doing something important. I love that. I'm really a sucker for that kind of song. There's a couple of songs in my acoustic set now, I get a chance to do the originals of some of the songs that Hunter and I later warped into alternate reality. There's a song that I do that—I think it's a Civil War song, although I'm not really sure. Its lyrics sound as though they date from about that period of time. But it's a fragment—it tells very little about what's happening. There's only three verses in it, but by the third verse—

What's it called?

It's called "Two Soldiers." You haven't heard me do it out here.

I've loved the song for a long time—but I didn't learn it to do until we went to the East Coast.

What happens in it?

Well, this tune starts off with a Boston boy and a friend sitting around a campfire, and the Boston boy is saying, "I'll do what you want me to, provided you write to my mother, if I—if something happens to me." So we don't know what the other guy wanted him to do, and then he talks about his mother a little, like a good 19th-century boy. He talks about his mother a little, and then they go off to the battle. And then there's a great verse of battle stuff that has incredible lines in it. And the battle is over, and at the end of the battle the people who are dead, left on the hill after the battle, are the boy with the curly hair, the Boston boy, and the person he was talking to. So there's nobody to write to mother, and it ends.

There's so little to it that you just barely understand what happened. Undoubtedly it was originally 20 verses. But it's got a beautiful melody and it's just real evocative. It's the kind of thing I'm a real sucker for. It's just a beautiful tune.

"Sugaree" is kind of like that for me.

Yeah, "Sugaree" is kind of like that. I like for a song to work that way. All my favorite stuff is like that. They're like little. . .

But that's own my personal bias, and Hunter's really aware of it. So he knows how to really—I mean, if I want him to do something that's mysterious, he knows just what I like. And he writes me really well. When he does something that's my point of view autobiographically—like "Mission in the Rain" is a song that he wrote that's me.

It's like it scratches that itch—any desire I have to write a song from my own point of view, Hunter does it as well as I could do it. So I go with his version. It's a lucky combination that works very well.

It seems to me that the vast majority of the first 22 years of Grateful Dead songs have been situated in their own universe, that's everywhere and everyplace and nowhere and no place.

That's right.

And it seems to me on the other hand that In the Dark is very much a creature of the 80s.

Well, we're starting to find that place right here. That place that used to not have any strict location—I think if you take In the Dark and put it in some other decade, it speaks to that decade just as clearly. And it's equally nonspecific. I mean, if you really listen to it carefully it doesn't say anything that pins it to the 80s.

It's stuff that pins it to this world, though. That may be the difference—we're finding that living this long of a time in this world and surviving it, there's some things that you start to be prepared to talk about.

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Copyright 1987, 1998 by Mary Eisenhart. All rights reserved.