Jerry Speaks: Pranksters, Philosophers, Portals
Here is an altogether fascinating Jerry Garcia interview that ran in August 1995 issue of Relix (the issue hit newsstands before the musician’s death on August 9)
David Jay Brown and Rebecca Novick spoke with Garcia in the context of their writings, which explore science, religion and consciousness.
Jerry: I’ll take off my glasses. They don’t convey much humanity.
David: Jerry, how did you start playing music?
Jerry: My father was a professional musician, my mother was an amateur. I grew up in a musical household and took piano lessons as far back as I can remember. There was never a time in my life that music wasn’t a part of.
The first time I decided that music was something I wanted to do, apart from just being surrounded by it, was when I was about 15. I developed this deep craving to play the electric guitar. I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll, I wanted to make that sound so badly. So I got a pawn shop electric guitar and a little amplifier and I started without the benefit of anybody else around me who played the guitar or any books.
My step-father put it in an open tuning of some kind and I taught myself how to play by ear. I did that for about a year until I ran into a kid at school who knew three chords on the guitar and also the correct way to tune it. That’s when I started to play around at it, then I picked things up. I never took lessons or anything.
David: Who particularly inspired you?
Jerry: Actually, no particular musician inspired me, apart from maybe Chuck Berry. But all of the music from the ‘50s inspired me. I didn’t really start to get serious about music until I was 18 and I heard my first bluegrass music. I heard Earl Scruggs play five-string banjo and I thought, that’s something I have to be able to do. I fell in love with the sound and I started earnestly trying to do exactly what I was hearing. That became the basis for everything else—that was my model.
Rebecca: Jumping ahead a few years. During the ‘60s, you played a lot of acid-tests when you could fit all your equipment into a single truck. How do you compare those early days to now? Do you enjoy it as much?
Jerry: Well, in some ways it’s better and in some ways it’s not. The thing that was fun about those days was that nothing was expected of us. We didn’t have to play. (Laughter) We weren’t required to perform. People came to acid-tests for the acid-test, not for us.
So there were times when we would play two or three tunes or even a couple of notes and just stop. We’d say, “To hell with it, we don’t feel like playing!” It was great to have that kind of freedom because before that we were playing five sets a night, fifty minutes on, ten minutes off every hour. We were doing that six nights a week and then usually we’d have another afternoon gig and another night-time gig on Sunday. So we were playing a lot!
So all of a sudden, you’re at the acid-test and hey, you didn’t even have to play. Also we weren’t required to play anything even acceptable. We could play whatever we wanted. So it was a chance to be completely free-form on every level. As far as a way to break out from an intensely formal kind of experience, it was just what we needed, because we were looking to break out.
Rebecca: And you’re still able to maintain that free-form style to a certain extent even though you’re now more restricted by scheduling and order.
Jerry: Well, also we’re required to be competent, but the sense of accomplishment has improved a lot. Now when we play, the worst playing we do isn’t too bad. So the lowest level has come way up, and statistically the odds have improved in our favor.
Rebecca: What do you think it is about the Grateful Dead that has allowed you the lasting popularity which has spanned generations?
Jerry: I wish I knew. (Laughter)
Rebecca: Do you think you can define it?
Jerry: I don’t know whether I want to, particularly. Part of its magic is that we’ve always avoided defining any part of it, and the effect seems to be that in not defining it, it becomes everything. I prefer that over anything that I might think of.
David: When you say everything, do you mean something different for everyone?
Jerry: Well, that’s one way of saying it, yeah. But the other way of looking at it, from a purely musical point of view, is that it becomes a full-range experience. There’s nothing that we won’t try. It means everything available to us. It also works from an audience point of view, too. We’re whatever the audience wants us to be, we’re whatever they think we are.
Rebecca: Do you think there is a timeless quality about your music that appeals to people?
Jerry: I’d like to believe there’s something like that, but I have no idea, really. There is a human drive to celebrate and we provide ritual celebration in a society that doesn’t have much of it. It really should be part of religion. It happens to work for us because people have learned to trust the environment that it occurs in.
Rebecca: Do you feel at all disillusioned at the rate of social evolution? In the ‘60s, many people thought that massive social change was just around the corner?
Jerry: I never was that optimistic. I never thought that things were going to get magically better. I thought that we were experiencing a lucky vacation from the rest of consensual reality to try stuff out. We were privileged in a sense. I didn’t have anything invested in the idea that the world was going to change. Our world certainly changed. (Laughter) Our part of it did what it was supposed to do, and it’s continuing to do it, continuing to evolve. It’s a process. I believe that if you open the door to the process, it tells you how to do it and it works. It’s a life strategy that I think anyone can employ.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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