Has Maria Muldaur Found Her Oasis?

Singer finds her space with the living (Grateful) Dead

Maria Muldaur Credit: Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty Images

MARIA MULDAUR PULLED HER NEW GREEN SAAB into Sebastopol's Chevron station, cranked down the window, and asked the attendant, "Where's the show tonight?"

He didn't recognize her, which is not surprising, since she has more or less dropped out of sight the past couple of years and has put on a pound or two since her "Midnight at the Oasis" days. "It's on High Street," he said. " Ya want any gas?"

High Street! How perfect for Maria to warm up her vocal chops on High Street with the Jerry Garcia Band before reemerging on the national scene with a tour and an album. In a metaphysical sense, she's been on High Street the past two years since moving from Los Angeles to Marin County, becoming part of the Grateful Dead family, performing in local clubs with Maryann Price and Ellen Kearney as the "Bezbo Sisters," and settling down with her kids and her "old man," bassist John Kahn of the Garcia Band.

She wheeled out of the Chevron station in search of High Street. "Listen, Maria," said her manager Garry George, "are we gonna eat at that French restaurant here or what? I'm hungry."

"No," she said. "I wanta eat at the gig, not at Le Chateau of Your Smile. The family is fixing food, real home cooking."

Family? Gig? What kind of time warp is Sebastopol caught in here?

"Uh, Maria," I finally piped up from the back seat. "Just what is this gig tonight?"

"We're gonna save some underground paper; it's a benefit."

"What? What underground paper?"

"Oh, I don't know," she said. "The paper for Sonoma County, for the area."

We drove along in silence for some minutes. I knew Maria had disappeared from the national limelight, but I wasn't sure just how far she had disappeared. "Uh, Maria," I tried again, "why did you move to Northern California?"

She waved her hand at the car's window. "Just look at that sky." I looked. It was fairly impressive. "That's why I moved here. I just love it here. At first I was happy in L.A. because it was better than being stuck in my driveway in Woodstock all winter. But L.A. was a really lonely place, not a healthy place to live. Besides, I really feel the beauty up here and I get a nourishment from living with the redwoods."

A few blocks further and we finally reached the Veterans Memorial Auditorium on High Street. Real, actual hippies stood around outside smoking reefers. It took ten minutes to find someone who could direct us to the stage door. Garry George took a faded denim shirt out of his suitcase to wear as hippie camouflage inside. Maria was okay with her mane of frizzy hair, but I was in for definite trouble with my blue blazer and slacks.

Inside the hall, I might as well have been wearing a spacesuit. Everyone else was garbed in 1967: curtains, velvet, satin, feathers, leather. Hell's Angels mingled with members of the Hog Farm. Even Maria was taken aback for a minute: "This is like Marin County ten years ago."

I ran into the Grateful Dead's Rock Scully, the only other male there wearing a sport coat. Scully was recently released from Lompoc Prison, where he had done time for a marijuana bust. Maria was glad to see him again. This was getting to be like a high-school reunion. The alcohol was already running low backstage, so Scully and I went out to see what we could buy. I asked him about Lompoc.

"Well," he said, "it was weird, man. H.R. Haldeman was one of my cellmates."

What? What? "Yeah, it was really funny. I held back on him for a while. He had taken a lot of abuse, and it took him down a lot of notches, people spitting on him and all. He had become humble. He knew who I was — he had used a Grateful Dead film clip in one Nixon commercial — permissiveness and all that. His administration put me in jail and it also put him in jail. We talked mostly about power and where that juice comes from, 'cause that interests me and that's what ruined him. He told me all about his book while he was writing it, and what he told me didn't surprise me. He felt very betrayed by Nixon, that Nixon had sold him out. He said Nixon didn't need to go on that trip with him, he just knifed him in the back."

By the time we got back to the "gig," I half expected to find Scully's friend Haldeman backstage toking on a big reefer with his new buddy Jerry Garcia.

He wasn't, though, so I decided to go see what kind of space Maria was in by now. I went through the kitchen, where Hog Farmers were into the "women's trip," cooking up wild onions and other far-out and organic veggies.

Maria was into a food space, so I moved into it with her and we were soon scarfing down some really heavy spinach pie and eggplant.

"Have some wine," she offered. I swigged down half a bottle before an awful thought struck me. "Maria," I said, "you don't think this is electric wine, do you? I just realized who we're dealing with here."

"It better not be. I'm not that much Marin County."

The lights suddenly went out and I broke into a cold sweat. Oh my God. Dosed with some kind of deadly acid and forced to listen to Jerry Garcia play all night. Stuck on High Street with 800 screaming, drugged-out hippies who were already starting to tear up the folding chairs, just dancing to Robert Hunter's band. "Maria, I can't see. You've got to get me to a doctor, back to civilization."

"They just turned the lights out, silly." I looked around. She was right. Some hippies over in the corner were tripping with some kind of slide show. "You're okay," she said. "Now, when do we start the interview? I do have to get up and sing sometime tonight."

"Give me some more of that wine and we'll get under way. Now, why did you choose to wait so long before doing another album?"

She mock-scowled. "I didn't choose to wait so long. It just took me forever to find the right producer. I thought I'd go back into the studio about a year after Sweet Harmony, and then Lenny Waronker, who was my producer, announced he was in a terminal state of studioitis and didn't want to do it. We also mutually felt a little new blood, a new direction was needed. So, I said okay and figured, well, somebody will show up.

"But, everybody I approached was tied up — Tom Dowd, everybody. Jerry Wexler and I sent songs back and forth but we never really agreed on anything. Just one thing and another and time just went by."

We were suddenly interrupted by a woman who had the kind of appearance and beaming countenance that can only be described as "beyond stoned."

"Wavy says hello," she beamed. "Wavy Gravy?" Maria asked. "Is he here?"

"No. He charged me. I'm Calico. I live in the house in Berkeley. He's doing an interview with Tiny Tim for Paul Krassner."

"Well," Maria said, "give him my love."

"You're doing well," Calico said.

"Wavy looked very well when I last saw him, very dapper."

"Yep. Thank heavens."

My God, I thought, I am on acid.

Without getting up out of her chair, Calico suddenly...withdrew from our presence, and Maria went right back to her career.

"So, um, time went by and I got to love the Garcia band, I started showing up at every gig, totally got off just playing tambourine in the back. I just loved the creative growing space they allowed each other. Then Jerry said he liked the chamber-music space of four pieces but he felt that more should be happening with the vocals, so they asked me to join them and I was so thrilled that I dropped everything and came running out with them.

"Then, I finally got together with Chris Bond to produce the new album, Southern Winds. Do you like it?"

"Well, yes," I said, "but don't you think it will surprise a lot of people? It's a real departure from your other records, especially with all those Leon Russell songs."

"I don't think it will surprise people. The Leon Russell tunes just seemed so much to fit that I couldn't not do them. I've always loved Leon's music and there's such real love in what he's writing now. Real love, bordering on gospel. It's man-woman love, but it's intertwined with that.

"I mean, there's no 'Don't you feel my leg' on this album, but that's because long ago I said, 'Oh, oh, I didn't mean for this to happen.' I quit singing that song. Gospel stuff is much more moving on a much deeper level." Muldaur

"Did you get to feel," I asked, "that you were really becoming a sex object with many audiences?"

"Maybe so. I am more serious now. The people who thought I was titillating have gone on to other femme favorites. People might be more surprised by my singing now. I mean, to me the material is more contemporary and accessible. These aren't those artsy little Kate McGarrigle, real sensitive little tunes. It's more rhythmic, more grooving and you can dance to it. I think if people are surprised, it'll be by the way I'm singing. My voice is much stronger. I worked with Warren Barigian, a vocal coach that Jackson Browne and Danny O'Keefe told me about. It's a little like vocal Rolfing. He makes you take a few deep breaths and then hold a breath and then he presses his entire 200 pounds on your chest and says, 'Okay, now go EEK EEK.' It's real far-out medicine, is what it is."

She got up: it was show time. The screaming hippies were ready for four or five hours of Garcia music. Maria sang beautifully. By midnight, all the folding chairs were gone and the place had turned into a dance hall.

At two a.m., I found myself outside in a pickup truck with a woman high-school teacher who was eating mushrooms, rolling joints and telling me the significance of what I was witnessing: "I mean I tried to forget all this stuff. I went off to London and did all the drugs and came back here and thought I'd go into exile in Sebastopol but I live a block away and I heard the music and it was just magic and then I got these mushrooms and I just had to come down here and dance and have a toke off this and isn't Maria just wild I mean really wow what a trip I mean really have a toke this is magic stuff it's so beautiful just look at the sky and listen to the music I mean — WHEW!"

After the show, Maria gave me a bottle of wine, four tabs of B-15, a bowl of garlic dip to take home for her, three orange slices and her car. "Four hours!" she said, wiping the glow off her brow. "Are yuh okay? It was fun tonight, huh?"

The next morning when I met Maria, she was happy, even though her tour was a week away and she still didn't have a band to take on the road. She was looking at that sky again: "Ooh, I love it. This is it. I've finally arrived. Even as a native New Yorker, I always wanted to get out, even if it was only to Staten Island. But now I'm home."

"Well, Maria, that's all well and good. But do you miss being on top, having all that success? Do you want that again?"

She answered seriously: "I never even thought about success till 'Midnight at the Oasis.' It never seemed a possibility or even a desire. In the jug band [the Kweskin Jug Band], we always made enough money to get along. I sort of started my solo career by default, I really didn't want one. Geoff [Geoff Muldaur, her ex-husband], my musical partner for nine years, left. But when the success happened, it threw me off guard completely. It was a lot of pressure: cover of ROLLING STONE, interviews, headlining, responsibility, keeping a band together. In the jug band, I used to get high as a kite before every set, just float up to the mike. But doing my own trip meant I had to be careful and remember what the next tune was. I wasn't smart at money at all; my business managers had me renting a car for a year and a half for $18,000. I mean I could have bought a Rolls-Royce, you know? I have nothing to show for it now, except I had a real good time. Money? Dinner on Maria, everybody.' The one thing it did afford me was to be able to hire real good players and to have the best equipment. That's all I regret. That's the only reason I want a certain amount of success now, to have money to put back into the music. Having once been able to have the best," she sighed,"...that's hard to get over."

"I could've milked it for all it was worth," she continued. "But I would've had to leave my daughter and I couldn't have done that. I mean, Linda Ronstadt doesn't have a kid at home, or Bonnie Raitt, so they can tour three months at a time. If I do that, things fall apart at home. So, I have to take it slow. On the other hand, I've been a professional musician for fifteen years, so maybe I can do it at a slower pace and keep it going.

"Warner Bros. sticks by me. If I went to Mo Ostin and said, 'I want to do an album of Bulgarian lullabies,' he'd find me a Bulgarian producer. So, I'm happy. I'm happy with my association with the Garcia band and I'm happy with my singing. All I would like to do is find a band that shares my vision of music and make enough money to keep us all intact."