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Harry Shearer and Judith Owen Talk New Orleans, the Knights of Soft Rock and the Grateful Dead

by Sam D’Arcangelo on December 13, 2013

Judith, you recently recorded an album with some great session musicians (drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar, and guitarist Waddy Wachtel), who played with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. How’d you end up working with them?

Judith: It was just that I’d had an epiphany. I’d had a really bad year, and my father had passed away, and it was a really tough time and I just thought, it’s not a rehearsal, “What do I really want to do to bring myself out of this really tough time?” And I thought, I want to work with the people who I, as a kid, admired hugely and the music that I’ve grown up doing and was hugely influenced by. So I just went to the source and went to these guys first hand. Thanks to Harry, we already knew Lee Sklar, who is just the most incredible bass player and it started that way. He became a fan and we became friends and the other two, thanks goodness, said yes. And then we went in to the studio and literally cut an entire record in, I think, four days. It’s all live and it’s all around the piano and we’re sitting in a room together. It’s old style, I mean it really is the way that it used to be in life. And I’ve made it a real kind of homage and love letter to these guys, and to that time, that time that I loved so much and was so influenced by. So, everything about the record I think is very much that feel, even down to the artwork, which is my own paintings and illustrations and the way the photographs are. Everything about it to me is like an old style concept record. I can’t wait for it to be on vinyl, which it will be. That will make me so excited. But it’s been a true honor to, really a privilege to work with people, with guys like that, who literally sat down and watched me play a song. It was the most beautiful thing. It was a hand and glove experience and you’re talking about the guys who cut their teeth on this music, on that style of music. So, it was the most enjoyable studio experience I think I’ve ever had and next year we’ll be on tour together. We’re doing invitation only dates, in America, in Britain, in Ireland and then I’ll be on the road. And I’m really, really thrilled to have this opportunity. It’s kind of a dream come true.

If you wouldn’t mind, can we talk about your Grateful Dead connection? We are Relix.

Harry: (Laughs) We. Are. Relix.

I heard recently that, when The Grateful Dead were busted in 1967, at their house in the Haight, that you had something to do with writing a statement for them.

Harry: Well I spent a lot of time in that particular residence because I was working in California, ironically at the California State Legislature in Sacramento, and one of my best friends at the time was the co-manager of The Dead [Danny Rifkin]. So on the weekends and time off I’d come down to hang at that house and got to know the guys in the band and everybody around that scene. My absolutely most vivid memory of it was Neal Cassady, who was a character in On the Road, the great Jack Kerouac beat novel, was hanging around The Dead at that point. I was one of the few people with a short, as automobiles were referred to in that scene, and Danny said, “Can you give Neal Cassady a ride, he has a doctor’s appointment?” Nobody else had a car and being a southern California man I always had a car, so I said sure. We’d never met though I’d seen Neal around and I knew his reputation, so he gets in my car and we now spend the next 45 minutes going from Haight-Ashbury to I think, the Castro District in San Francisco. It was a combination of him giving me very precise and very timely directions as to how to get to where we’re going and lapsing into the play-by-play of a 1945 Chicago Cubs baseball game. Just one toggle switch going up and down, up is directions, down is the Chicago Cubs game. I didn’t say a word, I mean, this guy was just like, turn left at Castro and then I forget even the names of the players but he goes into this most detailed play by play of a Chicago Cubs game. I have no idea what he was on, whatever it was, he was enjoying himself. Yeah, I was around and they knew I was a writer, and Danny knew me because I was the editor of the college newspaper when he was a reporter. So yes, they recruited me into the task of helping to write the statement that they made when the Dead were busted. I plead guilty to that.

Do you have any other Dead related anecdotes?

Harry: Oh, God. I guess the most memorable thing to me is that that was the time Owsley Stanley, the manufacturer of purple acid, was actually mixing the Dead shows. He was their sound mixer. So you have never heard rivers of reverb like what was slathered on Dead shows when he was mixing them. Somewhere back in there was the band and then there was [makes reverby noises]. So that’s my main memory.

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