The Rebirth Of Phil Lesh (Relix Revisited)
As Furthur opens its summer tour tonight in Rhode Island, we present this archival interview with Phil Lesh from the August 1999 issue of Relix.
Despite being near death a few short months ago, these are now the best of times for former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Lesh underwent a successful liver transplant last December, and with the prayers and well-wishes of Deadheads around the globe, has recovered and forged ahead on a new musical odyssey with the help of several well-known “Friends.” In a remarkable rebound, Lesh returned to the concert stage on April 15, performing with an all-star band that included Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell from the band Phish, a group that many consider the finest of the next generation of “jam bands.”
A week after the three-night run of Phil and “Phriends,” Lesh was still glowing over the musical magic that occurred on the Warfield Theater stage. Anyone who was fortunate enough to attend would agree that these concerts established a milestone that will set the standard for all shows to come. Still basking in that glow myself, I met with Phil at his sprawling home nestled in the shadows of Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais. For a man who spent the better part of his life touring relentlessly as part of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest circus, Lesh is content these days to live a more serene life with his devoted wife and soul partner, Jill, and their two sons, Brian and Grahame. In fact, Phil is actually more at home watching his son’s little league games than lobbing bombs in the Phil Zone.
Lesh, looking fit and robust, is both thankful and appreciative of the outpouring of love and support that he received when he first made public his long, debilitating bout with Hepatitis C. “It’s a miracle of modern medicine and also the result of prayer and healing light that was sent to me by many, many Deadheads,” he said. “I want to say right now for publication that I really can’t thank everyone who prayed for me enough. I felt it, and I consider that to be a major factor in the rapidity of my recovery.” Lesh considers himself fortunate and marvels at his own progress. “The doctors are very pleased,” he added. “The blood tests are virtually normal. Everything is virtually normal.”
During the Phil and Friends show, and at all of Lesh’s future shows, he will make it a point to raise awareness regarding Hepatitis C. While not garnering the publicity of cancer and AIDS, and more importantly, the much needed research money, Hepatitis C has slowly crept up to become one of the leading causes of death in this country.
Phil approaches the subject with all the fervor of a Pentecostal minister when it comes to donating the much needed organs that are necessary to save someone’s life. “There needs to be more of an awareness of Hep C and the necessity for blood donations,” he explained. “There is a tremendous whole blood shortage in the Bay Area and other places, too, I’m sure. And organ donation is the key to life for many, many people. It’s estimated that at least four million people in the United States are infected with Hepatitis C, and half of them don’t even know it because of various reasons—they never had the opportunity to be tested for it or they aren’t showing any symptoms of it or any liver problems. It is estimated that in ten years there will be a need for 28,000 organs, and that’s more than three times what the average is today. So the main thing of what I was trying to say at the shows and what I’ll put out now is, if it is your desire to become an organ donor, it is necessary to inform your family as well because they are the ones who will have to make the decision in a very stressful and grievous, traumatic situation. So if that is your desire, then you’ll need to inform them; preferably in writing. Just say something like ‘In the event of my demise it is my irrevocable desire to be an organ donor.’ Your family may still decide not to do it, but at least they know how you feel about it and what your wishes would be.”
Jill Lesh is also actively involved in spreading awareness and education about Hepatitis C, with emphasis not only on physical healing, but also on the spiritual healing. “We want to do a huge benefit next year around Phil’s birthday that would raise money and awareness and would not only focus on Hepatitis C, but also spirituality in healing, because that was a big thing with us,” she stated. “That would be the place to really make appeals for organ donation and support of grassroots organizations because there’s a lot of people involved now. We’re working with a woman that works with art, music and spirituality, and the power of that really gets left behind, but is a big part of healing.”
One of the drawbacks to the technology in fighting Hepatitis C and liver disease is the lack of training and diagnosis by doctors. The test that discovered the deadly strain of virus was only discovered and implemented in the early ‘90s. Since then, numerous organizations have banded together to share information and support, a fact not lost on Lesh’s spouse. “There was a grassroots organization that we found out about afterwards [Lesh’s transplant] called the HCV Global Foundation,” she revealed. “We really want to support organizations like that. They compile all of the information out on Hepatitis C into a really concise picture. What we’re hoping is that maybe doctor’s offices will take some of these pamphlets because, in our own experience, some of our local doctors don’t know very much about Hepatitis C.”
“Or they’re very seriously misinformed,” added Phil. He speaks from the heart concerning his condition and the steps that he’s taken to prevent the recurrence of the virus by relying on alternative medicine to suppress it. “When I was first diagnosed, all they knew was it was non A/non B,” he disclosed. “Then, later on, when they discovered the test for C, they said, ‘Oh yes, you have Hepatitis C.’ But there was very little awareness of it. I went on a homeopathic remedy regime in 1991, and that sort of helped keep me going. I had actually changed my lifestyle before that. I started exercising and not eating red meat in ’87, and then only vegetables and fish in about ’91, and that really kept me going. But after Jerry’s death, there was a lot of stress involved with the Grateful Dead. It was just sort of piling up. The funny thing about liver disease is that it is so subtle that you don’t really realize it. If you realize anything it’s like, ‘Gee, I feel tired.’”
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