Jerry Garcia Reflects on the Grateful Dead’s Relentless Success and Ever-Growing Catalog
I heard there was a meeting recently, and you told the other band members that you weren’t having fun anymore, that you weren’t enjoying playing with the Dead. Did that actually happen?
Yeah. Absolutely. You see, the way we work, we don’t actually have managers and stuff like that. We really manage ourselves. The band is the board of directors, and we have regular meetings with our lawyers and our accountants. And we’ve got it down to where it only takes about three or four hours, about every three weeks. But anyway, the last couple of times, I’ve been there screaming, “Hey, you guys!” Because there are times when you go onstage and it’s just plain hard to do and you start to wonder, “Well, why the fuck are we doing this if it’s so hard?”
And how do the other band members feel?
Well, I think I probably brought it out into the open, but everybody in the band is in the same place I am. We’ve been running on inertia for quite a long time. I mean, insofar as we have a huge overhead, and we have a lot of people that we’re responsible for, who work for us and so forth, we’re reluctant to do anything to disturb that. We don’t want to take people’s livelihoods away. But it’s us out there, you know. And in order to keep doing it, it has to be fun. And in order for it to be fun, it has to keep changing. And that’s nothing new. But it is a setback when you’ve been going in a certain direction and, all of a sudden, boom! A key guy disappears.
You’re talking about Brent Mydland?
Yeah. Brent dying was a serious setback — and not just in the sense of losing a friend and all that. But now we’ve got a whole new band, which we haven’t exploited and we haven’t adjusted to yet. The music is going to have to take some turns. And we’re also going to have to construct new enthusiasm for ourselves, because we’re getting a little burned out. We’re a little crisp around the edges. So we have to figure out how we are going to make this fun for ourselves. That’s our challenge for the moment, and to me the answer is: Let’s write a whole bunch of new stuff, and let’s thin out the stuff we’ve been doing. We need a little bit of time to fall back and collect ourselves and rehearse with the new band and come up with some new material that has this band in mind.
Do you think you might stop touring for a year or so, like you did back in 1974?
That’s what we’re trying to work up to now. We’re actually aiming for six months off the road. I think that would be helpful. I don’t know when it will happen, but the point is that we’re all talking about it. So something’s going to happen. We’re going to get down and do some serious writing, some serious rehearsing or something. We all know that we pretty much don’t want to trash the Grateful Dead. But we also know that we need to make some changes.
You mentioned writing some new material. Why do the Dead seem to have such difficulty writing songs these days?
Well, I don’t write them unless I absolutely have to. I don’t wake up in the morning and say: “Jeez, I feel great today. I think I’ll write a song.” I mean, anything is more interesting to me than writing a song. It’s like “I think I’d like to write a song…. No, I guess I better go feed the cat first.” You know what I mean? It’s like pulling teeth. I don’t enjoy it a bit.
I don’t think I’ve ever actually written from inspiration, actually had a song just go bing! I only recall that happening to me twice — once was with “Terrapin” and the other was “Wharf Rat.” I mean, that’s twice in a lifetime of writing!
What about when you made Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty? Those two albums are full of great songs, and they both came out in 1970.
Well, Robert Hunter [Garcia’s lyricist] and I were living together then, so that made it real easy. Sheer proximity. See, the way Hunter and I work now is that we get together for like a week or two, and it’s like the classic songwriting thing. I bang away on a piano or a guitar, and I scat phrasing to him or lyrics, and he writes down ideas. And we try stuff.
Have you ever thought of making another album in that vein?
Oh, jeez, I’d love to. But it has to do with writing the stuff, and like I said, I’m about ready now to write a whole bunch of new stuff.
Why do you think the Dead have had such problems making good studio albums?
Well, I think we have made a few good ones. From the Mars Hotel was an excellent studio album. But since about 1970, the aesthetics of making good studio albums is that you don’t hear any mistakes. And when we make a record that doesn’t have any mistakes on it, it sounds fucking boring.
Also, I think we have a problem emoting as vocalists in the studio. And there’s a developmental problem, too. A lot of our songs don’t really stand up and walk until we’ve been playing them for a couple of years. And if we write them and try to record them right away, we wind up with a stiff version of what the song finally turns into.
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