Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s acoustic collaboration Jerry Garcia/David Grisman slipped into record stores with little buzz in 1991. The material reflected their wildly diverse mutual tastes; in the new film, Grateful Dawg, Grisman’s wife, Pam Grisman calls the fuzzy pair “beards of a feather.” The duo found a common language among blues (B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”) traditional tunes (“Two Soldiers” and “Walking Boss”) the Grateful Dead catalog (“Friend of the Devil”), pop confectioners of yesteryear (Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair”) and Grisman’s own Dawg Music, a beautiful traffic jam of jazz, blues, bluegrass and any other genre that approached the intersection.
Packaging for the album was spare, as the release was only the second on Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. But for Garcia fans, something immediately sounded different, there was an exuberance in his voice and the refreshing sound of his spidery picking sounded different freed from the muscle of the Dead’s wall of sound. “I think in the acoustic sparse setting, Jerry could hear his voice real well in the headphones,” Grisman says. “The Grateful Dead is a pretty dense musical entity: two drummers, keyboards, and two guitars. But I think Jerry could hear himself better.”
Towards the end of Grateful Dawg, which was directed by Grisman’s daughter Gillian, Garcia and Grisman sit in the latter’s home studio picking and grinning. A dog wanders into the studio, Grisman leaves his chair and Garcia turns to his left and looks out a large window. Grisman talks to him about scheduling subsequent dates and a distracted Garcia half-responds. His voice reflects a touch of weariness about the difficulty finding free time, but he’s elsewhere: fascinated, relaxed and happy in an environment free of the machinery that came with the Dead. It’s a soothing visual, a contrast to much Garcia footage: on stage, assuming his role as reluctant figurehead to legions of Deadheads. “That’s his favorite shot,” says Gillian of her father’s response to the film. “Jerry was very generous and taxed himself because of his generosity. And that’s the reality of it.”
Gallons of ink have been spilled about Jerry Garcia, but nothing written, filmed or recorded about the Grateful Dead figurehead comes close to offering as personal look into his life as that single clip, shot as a home movie and included in Gillian Grisman’s first feature film, a collection of music, photographs, concert footage, interviews and home films that document Garcia and Grisman’s musical and personal friendship, which spanned three decades.
The film as it exists is an unlikely success story. Initially planned as the first DVD release for Acoustic Disc, the project became a striking narrative about the friendship between the two, a tight history of the music they loved to share and the wonders and difficulties in communication between friends. Garcia (a hippy from California) and Grisman (a Jewish kid from New Jersey) met in 1964 at a Bill Monroe (a visionary from Kentucky) concert. “There were just pockets of kindred spirits like that,” David says of the unlikely first meeting in Pennsylvania. “We were around for the birth of rock & roll. Around 1959, ’60 it all evaporated. Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee Lewis was in jail, Elvis was in the army, Buddy Holly got killed, Frankie Lymon OD’d. There was nothing left but Leslie Gore and all those vapid popular musicians. Around this same time, the Kingston Trio came in and you got hooked into folk music which had a real authentic vibe to it, and it struck a chord in all of us.”
The two crossed paths occasionally in the Sixties, and in the early Seventies, they put together the bluegrass ensemble, Old and in the Way. A single disc was issued by the group (though Acoustic Disc has issued two subsequent recordings by OAITW) and Garcia and Grisman, due to their commitments to their respective ensembles (Garcia, the Dead and Grisman his David Grisman Quartet), drifted apart. It wasn’t until the early Nineties that they booked an acoustic gig that eventually led to the recording session that produced Garcia/Grisman. Two years later they released Not for Kids Only, a second inspired, and fairly self-explanatory collection. The sessions between the two continued until Garcia’s death in August 1995. Thus far three other releases have been culled from those pickings: 1996’s Shady Grove which features bluegrass, sea shanties, and English, Irish and American folk songs, 1998’s So What a venture into their mutual love of jazz and last year’s The Pizza Tapes, which featured bluegrass great Tony Rice. Grisman suggests that there is still good material from their collaborations to come.
Footage from some of these encounters are captured by Gillian Grisman in the form of a visual book. Grateful Dawg includes various footage of the pair in concert, as well as several clips from home movies Gillian shot as a fledgling filmmaker. As for the sound of the film, she and her father agreed that any song used in the film, would have to be used in its entirety. “What’s always frustrated me about music films in general, they’ll show you thirty seconds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and then some guy will start talking,” the elder Grisman says. “And who needs that guy? I’d like to see the whole damn thing. So I made that stipulation . . . or request.” For his daughter, it provided a means to break up the film into chapters.
Most striking than the structure of Grateful Dawg is the content in those chapters. “You’re not going to find the E Hollywood story of Jerry’s private death and drug-filled life here,” says Gillian, who admits she has never been a Deadhead. “I just wanted to build the film in a way that was appropriate to the music, so I used the songs to build a musical foundation. I was also aware that I was dealing with a highly public figure that a lot of people had a far-fetched, freaky fantasies as to what their relationship with him was and very few people knew the person behind the icon. There was an opportunity to humanize him a little bit. I decided that I was going to keep the scope of the film very narrow and protective in that way.”
Her father adds, “A lot of people have asked me if [watching the film] is painful. To me, it’s the opposite, because this is what Jerry was really about. Whether people want to talk about his personal life, we all have skeletons in our closets. And really, my relationship with Jerry was about what this film was about. And that’s what we had fun doing. Jerry was a real creative guy and artists should be judged by their work. But hey, there’s plenty of material out there for people who want something else. But that’s not the Jerry I knew.”
Despite an angle that eschewed the tabloid for the human, Grisman was approached by Sony Pictures Classics to give the film a bigger life than just a DVD release, which presented its own set of problems. “Lord knows, if I had intended to make this film, I would have shot some of those things a little bit differently,” she says. “That’s the problem when you shoot a movie that was never intended to be one. Cosmetically there’s a lot of cleanup involved. My first feature filmmaking experience is so backwards. Putting these pieces together but not knowing what the big picture was going to be when you’re done was the biggest challenge. Usually when you’re piecing together a puzzle you get to see what the final product will be.”
With Sony’s support, the film will open in major U.S. markets this weekend, with possible expansion to follow. It also spawned a sixth Acoustic Disc Garcia/Grisman release, the soundtrack, which includes some of the live material from the film, and songs from Bill Monroe and Old and in the Way.
“Though I’m not a Deadhead, I want Deadheads to like it, they can see another side of Jerry,” Gillian says. “But music fans should like it because of the creative process and the look at the music and the in depth look at the genres history of music and the dynamic between them. But I didn’t want to be exclusive to those audiences, so that anybody who doesn’t know anything about these musicians can still enjoy it. The reality is the characteristics of friendship and family ties those things exist in every family and in every friendship and I think people can relate to those things no matter what walk of life they’re from.”