Today, "Five Questions" were put to Blair Jackson, co-author of This Is All A Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead. Jackson has written numerous books on the Dead, including Garcia : An American Life and Grateful Dead: The Music Never Stopped. We asked him the same questions we asked his co-author David Gans, so once again, let's talk some Grateful Dead!
I thought the oral history format worked as a wonderful metaphor for the collective experience that was the Grateful Dead. It made for a highly enjoyable read, that provided a lot of cultural context. Who came up with that direction and what was the process of piecing it all together like?
I had actually originally considered doing an oral biography of Garcia back when I was asked by Viking books to write what became Garcia: An American Life a year or so after Jerry died, but Robert Greenfield beat me to the punch — and did a fantastic job on his book Dark Star. (I was real happy with how Garcia came out, so no regrets here.) More recently, the GD oral history idea is one David and another writer tossed around a couple of years ago while each of us was involved with other book projects that eventually stalled, and then it was revived with the encouragement of our mutual agent, Sandy Choron.
The process of putting it together took about a year-plus and mostly involved us working apart for the first several months, digging through our respective archives, doing some interviews, and agreeing on a superstructure into which we pasted cool quotes as we encountered them. Later in the process we whittled things down together and wrote the interleaving passages as each of us did chapter assemblies. It was amazingly smooth; I guess we shared a similar vision of what the ultimate book should be, so we had literally NO major disagreements (nor minor ones, for that matter).
The women around the Grateful Dead — Mountain Girl, Rosie McGee, Sue Swanson and many others — have a real presence in the beginning of the book, with wonderful insight. That tails off towards the end. Was that just a natural progression of the relationships, or did the Dead become more of a closed boys club in those later (and darker) years?
It was always a boys club, but it’s true that the influence of interesting women in the scene seemed to diminish through the years. I don’t think it was any sort of diabolical plot or anything; it just evolved that way. Up until the end, too, there were a lot of cool women who staffed the office and helped the proverbial trains run on time. And on the creative end, there was always the magnificent lighting artist Candace Brightman — for my money an absolutely essential member of the crew.
OK. I was blown away by the disclosure that the Garcia Band had a “brief dalliance” with legendary New Orleans pianist James Booker. What can you tell us about this? Does any recorded output, live or otherwise, exist?
“Brief” is the word — I think it lasted about a week! There are decent recordings of a couple of shows they played at Sophie’s in Palo Alto in early January 1976. When I interviewed JGB bassist John Kahn for my Garcia book (just ten days before he passed away) he told me this story about the short-lived union (an outtake from the book): “Booker was my idea. I knew him from doing sessions in L.A. He came to my house in Mill Valley a couple of days before the gigs [at Sophie's]. First he didn't show up until 5 in the morning. Me and Jerry were there and we're getting calls from his grandmother and his priest — Booker had gotten lost en route somehow; they'd lost track of him. Finally I got a call and it was Booker himself. He was calling from Dan's Greenhouse, a liquor store. He was in front of there at 5 in the morning with an overcoat and no socks and a hat bag; that was it — no clothes. He had about 30 eye patches and eight or nine wigs.
"The shows were really cool. But he wouldn't learn any of our songs. We tried to teach him songs and he refused. He was a little crazed, so we ended up doing mostly his songs. He did half a set of solo piano and it was great; you could hear a pin drop. And he played things like the "Minute Waltz"; it was incredible. He could still play great. He could switch between piano and organ really easily and it would sound amazing. But he was out of his mind. He was watching cars go by and was checking out license plates and talking about the CIA. He saw a Louisiana license plate and then John Kennedy's name somewhere and that freaked him out. He saw bad omens everywhere and he was getting really weird. I didn't know he was that crazy, so I might have had delusions that we'd stay together longer." Crazy stuff!
I found the comments on the adoption of in-ear monitors (by Rob Eaton and soundman Don Pearson via Dennis McNally) startling. They seem to indicate the band had — literally — stopped listening to one another. Were they doing things by rote by then, as some of those ’90s show sound, or am I reading too much into this?
I think “rote” is too strong a word. There’s no doubt though that they weren’t listening to each other as much as they had in the past. Certainly there were some shows they had “get through” on instinct and by just knowing how to turn on the Grateful Dead switch. In general, though, I think they were trying up until the bitter end, but only firing on all cylinders intermittently, which was worrisome for both the band and the fans, I’m sure. Personally, I never lost hope that they were one Garcia rehab away from another renaissance. Alas, it was not to be. I was always an optimist. Still am.
In the 90s, the band, in large part, felt they simply had to head out on the road to support the Dead “corporation.” I was amazed to read that they had encountered this same problem as early as 1971, eventually leading to their “retirement.” To me, the real tragedy is that this group of highly creative outsiders were unable to solve this problem and, in some ways, were stuck in a dead end job towards the end. Fair?
Nah, I don’t buy that at all. Yeah, it got big and yeah, it caused problems. A dead-end job? Never. I think they were always aware that what they were doing was important to people and to themselves and they gave it their all (“how much we’ll never know… never know”) as long as they could, as well as they could…
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