Jerry Garcia: The Rolling Stone Interview

The Grateful Dead leader looks towards the future . . .

Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead performs at Shoreline Amphitheatre on October 5th, 1989 in Mountain View, California. Credit: (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

They make an unlikely pair — one portly, in a rumpled windbreaker, black T-shirt and jeans, the other painfully fit, impeccably turned out in an elegant silk jacket — but Jerry Garcia and Sting seem to have hit it off quite nicely. Not that they had exactly memorized each other's musical catalog before Sting agreed to open a run of dates for the Grateful Dead during their summer stadium tour.

"I listened to American Beauty last night for the first time in 10 years," Sting tells Garcia as the two men relax one evening in the bar of the Four Seasons Ritz Carlton Hotel in Chicago. "It was quite good. I liked 'Friend of the Devil.' And 'Box of Rain.'" For his part, Garcia, after a stunning jam with Sting's group during sound check at Soldier Field two days later, asks a bystander the title of one of the songs the band had played ("Walking on the Moon") and which album it was on.

Garcia — whom Sting has genially dubbed Father Christmas — has taken to joining Sting onstage during his sets, adding his characteristically spidery guitar lines to a moody medley of "Tea in the Sahara" and "Consider Me Gone" on the first of two Chicago dates. "Sting's an A-list guy," Garcia says before one of the shows. "Everybody knows he's a wonderful musician and a truly fine person, too. It's nice that we get to meet him, hang out with him a little bit and sort of . . . network a little with him. We share interests, and I think there's stuff that we could do together in the hypothetical future that would be fun for him and for us — and possibly good for other things, too."

The hypothetical future: Now 51, battling diabetes and other health problems, Garcia still looks unstintingly ahead. In conversation he is a marvel, bouncing associatively from topic to topic, sharing his amiable intelligence as if it were a gift, in love with good talk. Childlike in his curiosity and enthusiasm, he has more projects going — and more different types of projects — than most musicians half his age. The Dead are planning to record a new studio album, their first since Built to Last in 1989, for release next spring. As the band's summer tour crosses the country, a collection of Garcia's artwork — pen-and-ink drawings, watercolors, computer-generated images — has accompanied it, with gallery displays in the various cities the Dead have visited.

An album of traditional children's songs, Not for Kids Only, with mandolinist David Grisman is set to appear in September on Grisman's label, Acoustic Disc. For a collaboration with the Redwood Symphony, with which his eldest daughter plays violin, Garcia is commissioning works for orchestra and guitar. Of course, the Jerry Garcia Band is a going concern, with an East Coast tour planned for November. And Garcia also hopes at some point to pull together another band, featuring Edie Brickell on vocals, for shows of entirely improvised music and lyrics.

"I had this idea of putting together a band that didn't have any material, nothing worked out — just the extreme version," he says. "Edie's actually prepared to do this. I've talked to her about it. She's even ready to have people in the audience say, 'I want you to use these words' or, 'I want you to make this the subject of the song.'"

Clearly, this is not a man who has run out of either energy, ideas or passion. But Garcia's collapse from exhaustion in August of '92 — and the consequent cancellation of a number of Dead shows — raised the specter of the diabetic coma that had nearly taken his life in 1986. Now he is back and leading the Dead through some of their best shows in years. He is also trying to change his life — cutting down on cigarettes, eating better, exercising some — motivated by his desire, eventually, to do everything. "I feel that I can honestly contribute something," he says. And as you'll see, he's looking ahead well into the next century.

Everyone knows about the origins of the Grateful Dead. What about your own musical beginnings?
Music was something I was not good at. I took lessons on the piano forever, for maybe eight years — my mom made me. None of it sank in. I never did learn how to sight-read for the piano — I bluffed my way through. I was attracted to music very early on, but it never occurred to me it was something to do — in the sense that when I grow up I'm going to be a musician — although I knew that my father had been a musician.

You never had thoughts along those lines?
Not ever. Not once.

Still?
[Laughs] Really, still, in a way. It's like I'm still sort of surprised by it. My older brother was a big influence — he was like four years older than me, so I listened to the music he listened to.

What kind of stuff?
He was into very early rock & roll and rhythm & blues. I remember, like, the Crows, you know, "Gee." Very early, before it actually started to become rock & roll. That tune, "Gee," was sort of the borderline. It was basically black music, the early doo-wop groups. I love that stuff. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were a big early influence for me. My brother would learn the tunes, we would try to sing them, and he would make me learn harmony parts. In a way I learned a lot of my ear training from my older brother.

What about bluegrass? When did you come to that?
My grandmother was a big Grand Ole Opry fan. Now this is in San Francisco, a long way from Tennessee, but they used to have the Opry on the radio every Saturday night all over the United States. My grandmother listened to it religiously. I probably heard Bill Monroe hundreds of times without knowing who it was. When I got turned on to bluegrass in about 1960, the first time I really heard it, it was like "Whoa, what is this music?" The banjo just . . . it just made me crazy. It was like the way rock & roll affected me when I was 15. When I was 15, I fell madly in love with rock & roll. Chuck Berry was happening big, Elvis Presley — not so much Elvis Presley, but I really liked Gene Vincent, you know, the other rock guys, the guys that played guitar good: Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley. And at that time, the R&B stations still were playing stuff like Lightnin' Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims, these funky blues guys. Jimmy McCracklin, the Chicago-style blues guys, the T-Bone Walker-influenced guys, that older style, pre-B.B. King stuff. Jimmy Reed — Jimmy Reed actually had hits back in those days. You listen to that, and it's so funky. It's just a beautiful sound, but I had no idea how to go about learning it. When I first heard electric guitar, when I was 15, that's what I wanted to play. I petitioned my mom to get me one, so she finally did for my birthday. Actually, she got me an accordion, and I went nuts — Aggghhh, no, no, no! I railed and raved, and she finally turned it in, and I got a pawnshop electric guitar and an amplifier. I was just beside myself with joy. I started banging away on it without having the slightest idea of . . . anything. I didn't know how to tune it up, I had no idea. My stepfather tuned it in some kind of weird way, like an open chord. I thought: "Well, that's the way it's tuned. OK." I played it that way for about a year before I finally ran into some kid at school who actually could play a little. He showed me a few basic chords, and that was it. I never took any lessons. I don't even think there was anybody teaching around the Bay area. I mean electric guitar was like from Mars, you know. You didn't see 'em even. During this time, too, I was going to the art institute on Saturdays and summer sessions — they had this program for high-school kids. So I was picking up that head. This was also when the beatniks were happening in San Francisco, so I was, like, in that culture. I was a high-school kid and a wanna-be beatnik! Rock & roll at that time was not respectable. I mean, beatniks didn't like rock & roll.

Because they were more literary or something?
They liked . . . jazz [laughs]. You know: "Jazz, man. Dig it." Rock & roll wasn't cool, but I loved rock & roll. I used to have these fantasies about "I want rock & roll to be like respectable music." I wanted it to be like art.

You consciously thought that?
Oh, yeah, even back then. I used to try to think of ways to make that work. I wanted to do something that fit in with the art institute, that kind of self-conscious art — "art" as opposed to "popular culture." Back then, they didn't even talk about popular culture — I mean, rock & roll was so not legit, you know. It was completely out of the picture. I don't know what they thought it was, like white-trash music or kids' music.

The Beats, though, not only played a role in opposing the dominant culture of the '50s, but they helped in the transition from the '50s to the '60s, as you did with Ken Kesey and the acid tests and all that.
Well, it was very resonant for me. The arts school I went to was in North Beach, and in those days the old Coexistence Bagel Shop was open and the Place, notorious beatnik places where these guys — Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth — would get up and read their poetry. As soon as On the Road came out, I read it and fell in love with it, the adventure, the romance of it, everything.

You've said that one of the reasons for the traveling culture surrounding the Grateful Dead is that it offers the possibility for the same kind of adventure that "On the Road" represents.
I think it does. It is this time-frame's version of the archetypal American adventure. It used to be that you could run away and join the circus, say, or ride the freight trains. One of the things that was fun about the early hippie scene was, all of a sudden all those people were around and you could meet them. I mean, Neal Cassady, meeting him was tremendously thrilling. He was a huge influence on me in ways I can't really describe.

Like an attitude or . . . 
Yeah, lots of things, though, kind of musical things in a way — rhythm, you know, motion, timing. I mean Neal was a master of timing. He was like a 12th-dimensional Lenny Bruce in a way, some kind of cross between a great stand-up comedian like Lenny Bruce and somebody like Buster Keaton. He had this great combination of physical poetry and an incredible mind. He was a model for the idea that a person can become art by himself, that you don't necessarily even need a forum.

Did you ever get to meet Lenny Bruce?
Yeah, very briefly. I worked for a secretary transcribing tapes of his performances for his trials. I learned so much about Lenny Bruce's mind, because sometimes he was so methed out that he would condense like a paragraph into one word. This is after he stopped doing routines — he would just sit down and blow. He'd have like a Newsweek or a Time magazine, and he'd thumb through them, and whenever something caught his eye, he would just start riffing. I used to have to try to find the Newsweek . . . you know, go to the library — and sometimes it was so amazingly far-out, the way he would condense the whole sense of an article. I wasn't close to him at all, but I did meet him some. A remarkable person.

When the Dead started out, did you have a sense that it would last this long?
We had big ideas. I mean, as far as we were concerned, we were going to be the next Beatles or something — we were on a trip, definitely. We had enough of that kind of crazy faith in ourselves. We were always motivated by the possibility that we could have fun, big fun. I was reacting in a way, to my bluegrass background, which was maybe a little overserious. I was up for the idea of breaking out. You know — "Give me that electric guitar — fuckin' A!" When we were in the Warlocks, the first time we played in public, we had a huge crowd of people from the local high school, and they went fuckin' nuts! The next time we played, it was packed to the rafters. It was a pizza place. We said: "Hey, can we play in here on Wednesday night? We won't bother anybody. Just let us set up in the corner." It was pandemonium, immediately. I don't remember ever thinking, "Now, am I going to be doing this in 20 years?" But it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be doing it. And as things went on, we went past my own personal — what? — goals, visions, my own imagining, "This is how far we could go." So we're way over in the land of pure gravy, so to speak — pure gold. Now it's like stuff that I might idly have wished for one day in 1957 is coming up.

One thing that's coming up is a new Dead studio album that you're writing songs for. How does your relationship with Robert Hunter work? Do you say to him, "These are the things that are on my mind," or does he just give you lyrics?
I don't usually discuss content with Hunter — I discuss stuff like energy. Like I say, "We really need something that's like a strong medium-tempo rock & roll feeling, a big idea." Or sometimes I'll say, "I'd like to do something that's very intimate and personal." Hunter knows me well enough that he can write me as good as I could ever hope to write myself. He knows the way my mind works. He knows what I'll accept, that I have thresholds — like "This lyric is too silly, I can't sing it."

You'll flat-out say that?
Yeah, or, "This lyric exposes too much of something, and I don't feel I can do that." 

Exposes a fact or an emotion?
For me, it's always emotional — can I live with this song? I'm going to have to get onstage and be this song. I'm going to have to represent this point of view, this idea. And if it doesn't work for me, I can't do it. I can't act, you know? So there has to be something authentic about it. Hunter knows that, and he's very good at pulling things out that are both specific enough and diffuse enough for me to feel comfortable. It's very intimate really, our relationship as co-writers. I feel like I can discuss anything with Hunter, any idea, without any difficulty at all. And we're both very comfortable with each other on the level of changing stuff. Sometimes I insist that he do something over and over.

Could you give me an example?
One of the songs we wrote recently is called "The Days Between." I had an idea there, it had to do with the length of the phrases and how I wanted the phrases to work. I had a hard time communicating it. But with Hunter, it's a matter of finding the key. I'll sort of scat-sing the way I want it to work . . . 

Like a melody?
Yeah. I always have the melody first. Well, that's not true, but the melody is the first thing I try to evolve. Sometimes it starts with the lyrics. I'll say, "I want these lines to rhyme and these lines not to rhyme." I tell him where I want the stresses to be, where I want vowels to be, and so forth.

It's that technical?
You can't hold a note if it's a consonant, so if you're going to have this long note in the melody, it has to be a vowel. You have to be that specific. Hunter and I have been doing this for a long time. We've discovered that — in the first three years — we wrote a lot of songs that you can't sing. [Laughs] They were too rangy, and there was no room to breathe in them. And sometimes you accent things in a way that's non-English, you know what I mean? Part of it is making it so that the musical syntax is the same as the linguistic syntax.

In "The Days Between," there's a lot of repetition of words — like "phantom" and "days" — that really adds to the song's spooky, melancholic feel.
The phantom thing was funny, because first that line went, "When ships with phantom sails set to sea on phantom tides." I said, "I want it to be, 'When something ships with phantom sails set to sea on phantom tides' — I want another two syllables." So Hunter came up with a bunch of things, but then he said: "What about phantom? Use phantom again." Yeah, right: "When phantom ships with phantom sails set to sea on phantom tides." It worked perfectly. It has this ghostly, hollow quality — it's skeletal. So singing that song is like, oooh, it works for me. I get chills. It's that happy marriage of setting and sense. Hunter — he's so good at that. We're really hitting some nice spaces lately.

The other two new songs you're been playing, "Lazy River Road" and "Liberty," both also have a real distinctive feel.
We have a few more on the rails that are not ready to be performed. I'd like to spit out another five or six tunes this year, and hopefully that'll happen. Really, it's pretty easy — all Hunter and I have to do is get together. I find it hard to write without being in his presence, but when we're together, it starts snapping. But it's also the hardest thing to do, because writing music is probably my least favorite thing in the world. I mean I'd rather ... you know, throw cards in a hat. Anything. Anything is more interesting than the idea of writing.

It's surprising to hear you say that. You're obviously literate and interested in words. Have you ever felt the impulse to write your own lyrics?
I never have. I've never felt that I have something to say that wasn't being said. I don't feel I have whatever it takes to be a writer. I've never been able to sustain an idea and get it down. It's hard for me to do it with music, too, as far as that goes. I feel like I'm swimming upstream — my own preferences are for improvisation, for making it up as I go along. The idea of picking, of eliminating possibilities by deciding, that's difficult for me.

That makes sense, because live performance has been so much more important than recording for the Dead.
Real important.

So what does a studio album mean for the band now?
I can't encompass it with my point of view, because it usually isn't made up of just my material — it's made up of all of our material. The material has to speak to us, you know — "This album seems to be going in this direction, or it contains these elements," and then you try to see if you can sew it together. The basic odyssey format or variety show, you know. Something rubbery like that usually is best because it's tough to get everything under the same umbrella. Sometimes the sound of it will be the unifying feature. Sometimes it's not there at all.

Are all of you in compatible spaces as far as this upcoming particular album is concerned?
I think so. It used to be wildly different. If you checked on each of us about what our version of Grateful Dead music was, it used to be way different from each other. We're all sort of looking at the same thing now — kind of. I mean, each person still sees it through his own frame of reference, but that's what Grateful Dead music is, you know: Grateful Dead music is a holographic experience. It's made up of the points of view of all of the members of the band; consequently, every angle that you look at it from, it's different. And a lot of times, it's unpredictable. That's one of the things that makes it interesting to keep doing. The way we're approaching this album, and we've done it in the past, too, with our better albums, is to let the material live onstage for about a year. It starts to evolve into something different. I mean, it's probably a way of saying, "This is a collaborative effort." Even though, say, Hunter and I write some of the actual songs, the way they end up and the whole presentation is really a collaborative effort. The whole Grateful Dead makes the music, you know. The writers don't do arrangements. The Grateful Dead is kind of an arrangement machine, and the arrangements are, by their nature, surprising. I almost never can predict what the band's going to do in any given situation. And it took a long, long time to realize that I'm not always right, you know [laughs].

Is this possible?
It's a tough thing to admit. My point of view really is, musically speaking, sort of conservative. I'm like a little on the . . . maybe a little stodgy, you know. Slightly.

How do you mean?
Well, I don't think of my ideas as being very far-out, musically. The thing that works for me in music is the emotional component, not the technical side. I am fascinated by musical weirdness — like Blues for Allah, for example. But really, the thing that propels me through music is the emotional reality of it. And as I get older, I surrender more to that. I trust that intuition.

How do you perceive your various musical relationships — the Dead, your band, your projects with David Grisman? Do they merge, or are they clearly compartmentalized in your mind?
They do bleed into each other, but that's OK. I don't prevent that from happening. But I do try to keep them separate, because I love them for reasons of their own. I like their identities to be clear.

What are the differences?
The Garcia Band really reflects my musical personality. The people in that band think — musically, conceptually — the way I do. Their notion of the way the instruments should speak to each other — I don't have to show anybody anything. When we work out a tune, all I have to do is say: "Here's the tune. Here's the changes. Here's the chords" — and it just happens. And it happens perfectly. It happens better than if I told everybody, "This is exactly what I want you to play." I mean, that band, to me, is total resonance. It's consonance. It's like — yes, yes, that's my version of music! The Grateful Dead has more dissonance in it. It has more variables and more wild cards and more oddness. And it has more tension, too. I mean, to Grateful Dead fans, my band might be a little bit too agreeable. Grisman is a very rigorous musician. He likes to rehearse and get things down perfectly. He's a master of detail. I'm not those things, but we balance each other out. I'm loose enough to loosen him up, and he's tight enough to tighten me up. We also share a love for American traditional music, for bluegrass and for acoustic music. And for swing. Me and David are working on a children's album right now. It's something I never would have thought to do. It's kind of a reaction to the revisionist approach to children's songs.

Like what?
Well, there are these shows that have the old children's songs, but they've rewritten the lyrics to make them tamer or more gentle. It's infuriating because these songs are part of the oral tradition of America. A lot of them are perfectly lovely. Some of them have teeth, but, hey, so what? I mean, kids get enough mindless, senseless stuff. So we've gone poking around in some mountain music and traditional stuff for children's songs that don't want to be changed. We'd like to introduce them to the kids the way they are and let them be. We've been taking a real simple and spontaneous approach — just picking and singing, you know. This music should be heard. It's part of our heritage.

One of your goals seems to be to explore every genre of American music.
Oh, definitely. If I live long enough, I hope to do exactly that. I missed out on a lot of legitimate music by not being a music student. I didn't play a band instrument; I didn't have that background. But I've been learning about these other worlds. I would love to be able to play, like, Gershwin tunes. And I will do it. There's a lot of great music in the American experience, and I hope to be able to touch as much of it as I can. I feel that I can honestly contribute something.

A friend mentioned to me that he had discovered Merle Haggard through the Dead, and on your solo albums you'll cover everyone from Smokey Robinson to Irving Berlin.
It's all good shit. I believe that a good song is a good song. My great experience in these last couple of years was Steve Parish, my road guy, his second cousin was Mitchell Parish, the guy that wrote the lyrics to "Stardust."

Oh, you're kidding.
I got to hang out with him, 92 years old. I hung out with him like five or six times — good hangouts, you know. He was so fun. He was like the book, you know. He wrote "Deep Purple," "Sweet Lorraine," some of the most incredible songs that were written in this century. "Stardust," for Christ's sake! "Sophisticated Lady," I mean, God — what a guy. Getting to know him was an incredible experience. When he died this last year, it was a crusher. I really wanted to write a song with him.

With your health problems, were you concerned that you might never get to do all the things you've been talking about wanting to do?
Absolutely. I was getting to the place where I had a hard time playing a show. I was in terrible fucking shape. I mean I was just exhausted, totally exhausted. I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without panting and wheezing. I just let my physical self slide as far as I possibly could.

Did you deny to yourself what was happening?
Oh, yeah, because I'm basically a lazy fuck. Things have to get to the point where they're screaming before I'll do anything. I could see it coming, and I kept saying to myself: "Well, as soon as I get myself together, I'm going to start working out. I'm going on that diet." Quit smoking — ayiiiiii [waves lit cigarette]. In a way I was lucky, insofar as I had an iron constitution. But time naturally gets you, and finally your body just doesn't spring back the way it did. I think it had to get as bad as it did before I would get serious about it. I mean, it's a powerful incentive, the possibility that, hey, if you keep going the way you are, in two years you're going to be dead. But I definitely have a component in my personality which is not exactly self-destructive, but it's certainly ornery. There's a part of me that has a bad attitude. It's like "Fuck you," you know? [Laughs] "Try to get healthy" — "Fuck you, man." And I mean, part of this whole process has been coming to terms with my bad-attitude self, trying to figure out "What does this part of me want?"

What is that about?
I don't know what it comes from. I've always clung to it, see, because I felt it's part of what makes me me. Being anarchic, having that anarchist streak, serves me on other levels — artistically, certainly. So I don't want to eliminate that aspect of my personality. But I see that on some levels it's working against me. They're gifts, some of these aspects of your personality. They're helpful and useful and powerful, but they also have this other side. They're indiscriminate. They don't make judgments.

What about in terms of the Dead? Were there times when the band was discouraged about its future?
Well, there were times when we were really in chaotic spaces, but I don't think we've ever been totally discouraged. It just has never happened. There have been times everybody was off on their own trip to the extent that we barely communicated with each other. But it's pulses, you know? And right now everybody's relating pretty nicely to each other, and everybody's feeling very good, too. There's a kind of healthy glow through the whole Grateful Dead scene. We're gearing up for the millennium.

Oh, yeah? What's the plan?
Well, our plan is to get through the millennium [laughs]. Apart from that, it's totally amorphous.

Historically, turns of the centruty have been really intriguing times. Does that date hold any real significance for you?
No, the date that holds significance for me is 2012. That's [writer and self-described expert in "the ethnopharmacology of spiritual transformation"] Terence McKenna's alpha moment, which is where the universe undergoes its most extraordinary transformations. He talks about these cycles, exponential cycles in which, in each epic, more happens than in all previous time. Like he talks about novelty, the insertion of novelty into the time track. His first example of novelty is, say, the appearance of life. So the universe goes along, brrrrmmmmm, then all of a sudden, life appears: bing! So that's something new. Then the next novelty is, like, vertebrates. Then the next novelty might be language — that sort of thing. They're transformations of a huge kind, gains in consciousness. So he's got us, like, in the last 40-year cycle now — it's running down, we're definitely tightening up — and during this period, more will happen than has happened in all previous time. This is going to peak in 2012. He's got a specific date for it, too — maybe December some time, I don't remember. But that moment, at the last 135th of a second or something like that, something like 40 of these transformations will happen. Like immortality, you know [laughs]. It's an incredibly wonderful and totally transformational view of the universe. I love it, personally. It's my favorite ontology, my favorite endgame. It's much, much more visionary and sumptuous than . . . like, say, Christ is coming back [laughs]. "Oh, swell. That would be fun." McKenna's version is much more incredible.

Are you concerned about what you'd leave behind?
No. I'm hoping to leave a clean field — nothing, not a thing. I'm hoping they burn it all with me. I don't feel like there's this body of work that must exist. I'd just as soon take it all with me. There's enough stuff — who needs the clutter, you know? I'd rather have my immortality here while I'm alive. I don't care if it lasts beyond me at all. I'd just as soon it didn't.

Maybe it will just scorch in 2012.
Yeah, I'm hoping that the transformations will make all that — everything — irrelevant. We'll all just go to the next universe as pure thought forms —wowwwnnnng. Yeah.