Jerry Garcia Interview

November 12, 1987

Part 2 of 4

Previous Next

By Mary Eisenhart


Why do you suppose after 22 years of relative obscurity. . .(Garcia cracks up) . . . the commercial fame god has smiled on you?

I don't know. I thought it was going to happen on the first record.

Well, I liked it...

Yeah, me too. It's just one of those things. I hadn't been thinking about it really. I guess if you wait around long enough eventually that stuff either comes to you or something. Or else maybe just the slow-rising amount of Deadheads over the years has finally turned into a substantial enough figure now to make it look like we're successful.

The album sales, on the other hand—Reckoning and Dead Set never did anything like this.

No, no. Of course not.

Do you think having videos made a difference on record sales?

Maybe. Some. You're asking someone who knows as little...I mean, I've been in the music business (laughs), the industry, as we call it, for all this time, and the closest I've come to hits is the Jefferson Airplane and that kind of stuff. I don't believe it's something you can know for sure—we didn't do anything different, other than our approach to making the record was a little different, but that doesn't account for the success. I think that we--a particularly lucky moment in terms of accessibility of material.

The next material we put out may be too weird or something. It may be that our next record won't find a public. But we are excited about making records again, so it's one of those things where now we're sort of anxious to make another record, to see whether or not—is this a roll? Are we on a roll now?

We're not uncomfortable with it, and we've already been through enough of the music business where I'm not really worried that commercial success is going to in some way—we're already past saving, you know what I mean? It's too late for us.

All your bad habits are entrenched.

That's right, yeah. So we're going with what we have. Our strong suit is what we do, and our audience. And the live show is still our main thing. So the advance of age makes it so our pace just necessarily has to slow down some. Otherwise we'll kill ourselves.

There's nothing more difficult than being the Grateful Dead, I gotta tell ya. And even when you're—these last shows that we did in Oakland, even though it was only about a month since our last Grateful Dead shows, they were—it was hard work, and when those three days were over, we were all pretty tired.

So it's one of those things where we have to—our problem is pacing ourselves and still reaching a large enough number of our audience. Because we don't want to burn the audience. And we don't want to be excluding anybody. So it's gotten to be an interesting kind of success problem. Just where to play, what kind of places, what kind of conditions to play in. All of the things that—

The alternate media are becoming important and viable alternatives to playing live. Records, videos, that kind of thing. They're going to start to count for something. Because there's only a limited amount of us-time available to us.

Do you plan to cut down on touring?

Yeah, I think we have to. If we want our shows to be—if we want the quality of the shows to be good, and we want the energy to be high, and if we want to be in good enough physical shape to do them, and not exhaust ourselves on the road, and not get stale, we have to pace.

This last year has been pretty good for pace, not really too bad—apart from the Dylan shows, those were work, and also, that large starts to get meaningless. So we are pretty convinced we don't want to play huge stadiums unless we can play them well. We don't want to play them often, certainly. So that restricts us to the Oakland Coliseum kind of places, which are still large rooms.

And we already have trouble—I mean, we could probably sell out the Spectrum in Philadelphia for a month. So we're going to run into a problem somewhere.

Supply and demand.

Yeah. So we have to figure out some creative solutions to this stuff, and we want the Deadheads—we need their help.

In what way?

Well, in whatever way. Anything that has to do with figuring out ways to solve these problems. We want them to be conscious that we're working on them, and that things don't always go in our favor, since now we're in a world that we don't control. The world of the big stadiums and that stuff--we don't control them anymore.

You essentially retired once because you couldn't deal with that stuff.

Absolutely. That's right.

Did you learn anything from that experience?

Not really. No. (laughs)

Only that it's possible to grow to that place where you finally are just breaking even, and we can't operate that way. It's essential that we're—economically, we're not at a problem. If it came to it, if our records were successful, we could subsidize our playing.

Which is the way most people do it—they make money on the records, and take their losses on the tours.

That's true. Exactly. Right. With us it's been just the other way around.

It's been more fun for us.

Well, it's been more fun for us too. But we're definitely mortal. What would really be helpful would be for there to be half a dozen other Grateful Deads playing.

Have you ever checked out any of the Grateful Dead clone bands?

Yeah, but I don't think that's where it's at, exactly. Really, it's people who have to invent their own version of what the Grateful Dead is, starting now. Not doing what we've done, but digging the way we've done it, and doing what they're going to do—continuing this notion. But somebody else has to see that—it isn't going to work just by following our footsteps. It's gonna work by taking off perpendicular to every direction we've gone off in.

There are probably people out there doing it. Doing their version of it, and it's certainly heartening when you get good musicians who seem concerned about their audiences, and who really love to play. The more of that you see, the better it makes me feel about the future of music. And the future of adventure in America, or whatever it is that Deadheads represent at their best. All that stuff.

Do you see that in any of the young bands you look at?

Bits and pieces here and there. Any time people go out and have a great time, and feel uplifted by the music, there's some of that in there. And really, that would be enough, as far as I'm concerned.

There was an interview where somebody said to REM, it seems like what you do is not unlike the Grateful Dead, and they said fine with us, we want to take care of our audience and stay honest.

That's right. That's it, man. It's heartening to hear that kind of stuff from anybody.

You go to an REM concert, and their crowd is very much like we all were 20 years ago.

Sure. I think there's a lot of people out there that are doing stuff that . . .

There's a lot of music that I like personally, and there's some soulful people there. The rock and roll survivors are all maybe—I'm a big Peter Gabriel fan, I like Stevie Winwood's stuff—still good, still great. Los Lobos is one of my favorite bands—U2.

There's all kinds of—there's lots more. When I was in New York I went to see Suzanne Vega.

Isn't she great?

I love her. I offered to produce her next record. I'd love to do it, and I really have huge respect for her. I found her so real that I. . . She's very there.

I thought she was a wonderful performer. She is terrific, really really good. It's that thing of commitment to what you're doing, commitment to your music, and the thing of something real there. That means a lot to me. I just--

Whenever I run into these people, people who are getting into the music business, starting to build their careers and stuff like that, I feel protective of them.

'Cause it's a jungle out there. . .

It is, and it's like there's a certain amount of stuff that we've learned over the years, just personally surviving, and I feel like, God, if I could just spend 15 or 20 minutes with this person, I would really feel good about that I at least was able to share something of what's involved in getting through. I really don't think there's much more to it than that, really.

But there's time for all that too. I'm not trying to clock scores in this lifetime, it's just that things are better now than they were like five, ten years ago. Music has gotten a lot better. There's a lot of people who are committed to—soulfully. Music, once you're in that thing where it gets to be so facile, where it's all technique and no substance. It looked like it was going to hang there for a good long time, but luckily it didn't last very long, because ultimately it's really boring. People are not that interested in it.

The mystery, still, in the music world, is how do you—nobody can predict a hit. That's still fundamentally mysterious.

I wouldn't have expected "Touch of Grey" to be a hit.

No. Me neither.

It stands to reason that you've got the 40-year-olds like me, but how do you account for the fact that you've also got the 15-year-olds? A whole bunch of kids that are just discovering rock and roll, period, are getting into being Deadheads. How do you account for that?

I just think that there's a certain kind of kid for whom we say something. And it's been that same person in each generation. Back when we started it was the people who were our age, and we've been picking them up younger and younger every decade.

And there's a lot of that stuff with people bringing their kids, kids bringing their parents, people bringing their grandparents— I mean, it's gotten to be really stretched out now. It was never my intention to say, this is the demographics of our audience. I was delighted the first time that people didn't leave. Everything above and beyond that is pure gravy. So when anybody likes it for any reason, great.

And as far as why or what or the sociology involved or what's happening, or anything, I think. . .

On that show last night [Sgt. Pepper: It Was 20 Years Ago Today], that BBC show that was on there, somebody, I'm not sure who it was, maybe it was Peter Coyote or one of those guys, says, we won. It's over, and we won. They don't know it, the Reagan era is, they don't know. . .

They're dying off, and we're still here.

They're dying off. The point is, it happened, there was a revolution, and we won.

And he's right, and a large part of this is the expression of, yeah, we did win, here it is. You want proof, here's the proof. We've always basically had that feeling, and the audience is finding something that scratches a lot of itches. The thing of just having fun, having adventures, having something to follow around, having something to bounce off of, having something that's the background music for your life, which is always great no matter how close you are to it, or how far away you are from it.

All of those functions get fulfilled, and hopefully the whole little society that's out there now, the new Grateful Dead marketplace out there, and all that stuff, these all represent alternates, and they're all part of the—these are all the extensions off of the American idea. The American experiment.

Everything you've done from Day One is stuff you're not supposed to be able to get away with.

Yeah, right. And we're here to say that you can get away with it, and that in fact this is the place you can get away with it at. This is the place.

And if it works here it can work someplace else.

That's right. If it works here it can work anywhere.

I mean, we're buying into that. We're basically Americans, and we like America, we like the thing about being able to express outrageous amounts of freedom, and all of those things, and knowing that there's all kinds of stuff that goes along with it, that there are no—you don't get something for nothing, things are still—there's still cause and effect relationships, life has its ups and downs and all the rest of that stuff, but even so, it's mostly out the other end, you know, it's mostly free space.

Do you think the Grateful Dead had something to do with the fact that we won? Just by insisting on that little piece of metaphysical turf.

I don't know. It may turn out that way. It depends on what happens in the future.

It may turn out that way. It may turn out that just the thing of holding out, and being ridiculously—of refusing to lie down. It may be that that. ..

But we're not the only ones. I mean, everybody we know, like Coyote said, it's not a matter of fashion, long hair, short hair, what you do for a living, or any of those things, it's what you believe. What things did you cling to as the polar beliefs in your life. What's the important stuff to you.

For us, it was never a question of—there never was a debate. It was over from the very beginning. For us, the very first acid trips, the very first excursions into psychedelia was—whatever there is, there's more than we've been allowed to believe. Whatever there is. We don't know what it is, we can't describe it, we just suspect its existence, but we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there's more than anybody ever let on. We know that.

This is not the Leave It To Beaver boilerplate.

That's right. You can't lie about that. Once you've had that experience, or an experience like it, there's no going back. I mean, you can go back if you insist upon really blinding yourself, and refusing to look at what your eyes have seen, but for me there never was any going back. That was it. Once opened, I haven't been able to shut 'em, you know?

And for me there's still more material than 20 lifetimes that I can use up. I mean, I'm way out the top end, you know what I mean? This lifetime has led me so far past my own expectations on every level that it would be so mean-spirited of me to criticize any level of life at this point.

I think there are a lot of people who are similarly convinced, and they don't need any convincing or anything like that, and they're going along with what's there, because they know that force only leads to force, you can't fight things by fighting them, some things you can win by just surviving.

An old friend of mine once said, yeah, the revolution is over, it was over the first day, the rest of it is a cleanup operation. All this is a cleanup operation. It may go on for another fifty years, but I believe that the battle is over. The victory is won. It's done. It's over.

But I also—this is not something that I can say unqualified for everybody in the world. This is one of those things that everybody has to see with their own eyes. You can't experience enlightenment for somebody. Everybody has to view it how they will.

I don't believe that psychedelics are absolutely necessary, but I think they're surely helpful, at some point in your life when you really feel that there's got to be more than this drab, dull bullshit. They were helpful.

I think it's too bad that everybody's decided to turn on drugs, I don't think drugs are the problem. Crime is the problem. Cops are the problem. Money's the problem. But drugs are just drugs.

Some of them are better for you than others.

That's true.

As far as life and death is concerned, and drug-taking and all that stuff, they ran a little thing last night of all the people who've died in rock and roll in that BBC show, and it's like—the ones I knew were not suicides, they were just people who fucked up. They didn't mean to die any more than somebody in their car who puts their foot down and the car goes out of control and they end-over-end and they're dead.

Death comes at you no matter what you do in this life, and to equate drugs with death is a facile comparison. It's like equating—sure, equate poison with death. (laughs) I mean, whatever kills you kills you, and your death is authentic no matter how you die. So I've always thought that was a cheap argument.

My feeling about all that stuff is on record. I'm on record.

So you're not joining the Just Say No crowd.

No. I think that's much too easy, and it doesn't address the problems. The real problems are cultural. The problems of the people who take drugs as a cultural trap—I think there's a real problem there, the crack stuff, the hopelessness of the junkie. The urban angst.

But hey, when you live in Watts, you need a little smack to get by, you know what I mean? You need something soft and comfortable in your life, 'cause you're not going to get it from what's around you. And society isn't going to give it to you.

And as far as I'm concerned, it's like I say, drugs are not the problem. Other stuff is the problem. If we had any nerve at all, if we had any real balls as a society, or whatever you need, whatever quality you need, real character, we would make an effort to really address the wrongs in this society, righteously. Deal with them, okay, what's really wrong here. The deep-seated racism—America has its problems, no question, but if everybody's fearless enough, we can deal with them.

It seems, though, judging by the fact that Reagan's in office, that a lot of people are willing to go for the facile bullshit answers.

They didn't want to believe that the '50s were over. And they were really frightened by the '60s. And this is their last chance to put up the thing—"ah, everything's okay, that was just a little flurry. A little mania of some drug-taking freaks. "

But that's like, you know, they're holding up a ruined edifice. It's coming down. It's on its way down, and nothing they can do—it's too late, really, to do anything about it. Those people are not going to be here that much longer. Reagan can't live forever.

I mean, I don't blame them for being afraid. A lot of them had to live through some real horrors, the Depression, the second World War and so forth, and they deserve a rest. They deserve to be able to spend their final years in non-anxiety, floating comfortably in hypothetical America. And I wish them no ill, you know what I mean?

But it's unfortunate that they're creating a kind of second wave of young people who are buying into the same mythos. And who are not seeing, historically, what happened—here was legitimate, authentic, real stuff.

But I think when it happened, it was too widespread. It reached everybody that cared, everybody that cared to look, everybody got at least to try—everybody smoked a little pot.

Even Reagan's tame judge smoked pot.

That's right. Everybody did.

So it's one of those things where I feel it's just a matter of time, just a matter of sitting it out and waiting for it. And also people coming up with looking at some of this stuff creatively, and dealing with the things that are real. De-politicizing the whole AIDS thing. We've got some real problems. There's some awful stuff in the world.

Get rid of the knee-jerk reactions.

Right. Exactly. Cut out the bullshit, get the politics out of there, get the unfortunate old notions about human sexuality, all the rest of that stuff. Clear the tables, dump it, let's get rid of it. It's bad baggage.

Let's look at the problems. Let's be here now, let's deal with the real stuff. It isn't that hard. It just means that Americans have to not be fearful. It can happen. It will. This stuff will be taken care of. It will be dealt with eventually, I think.

Is there anything in particular in the current scene that you find most spooky-looking?

No. I see more light than I do darkness right now.

There is a trend towards understanding, in spite of the forces of endarkenment. They don't have power that they once had. They don't have the power to scare that they once had.

Stuff that's hidden and murky and ambiguous is scary because you don't know what it does. Now that everybody knows the government's crooked, everybody knows that this stuff is manipulative and self-serving—hey, you know, it's just a matter of—America has always had a long tradition of people really distrusting politicians anyway, a nice healthy distrust of politicians. If that's in place, we're okay. We'll get through all this stuff.

I was interviewing the president of Apple Computer, who came from Corporate America and he says that to be successful in this day and age, first of all you've got to do things by group, you can't be the John Wayne company leader, you have to be willing to make mistakes, and the whole company buys into the vision that they're going to change the world by doing the coolest things they can.

Right, that's it. I'm sure they've got their problems too, but they've got the right idea.

They're saying, we're not going to do this just because people always did it that way, it strikes us as being pretty lame.

Yeah, right. Why do the lame stuff? That's great. That's terrific.

There should be more of that stuff out, because that's the stuff that makes America special. I mean, the different points of view, the different ways to make things work.

I mean, part of us, we've had that problem of identifying ourselves since we have to fulfill all the requirements of being a California corporation. So we've had certain stuff that's false definitions from the outside, that don't have anything to do with the way. . .

The whole thing is remembering, this is who we are. Remember who we are? We are in reality a group of misfits, crazy people, who have voluntarily come together to work this stuff out and do the best we can and try to be as fair as we possibly can with each other, and just struggle through life. And we want to do it our way, we don't want to do it that way.

So it's just a matter of fictionalizing all the other stuff and putting it in place, and then they get a corporation that looks right to them.

Each guy gets the version he wants to see.

That's right. It's just a matter of playing the game. You can do it. It can work.

It is work, that's the thing. We've discovered that in order to manage ourselves successfully, we do have to take some responsibility for it. So we have our meetings every week and so forth, where we actually do take care of business and stuff like that, and it's really against our nature. Everybody really hates it. Any level of authoritarian stuff brings out the weirdo in all of us. We all hate it.

But we do it, and it's working. It works out pretty good, we're actually coming to terms with all this stuff. I feel real good about our development on those levels.


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