Jerry Speaks: Pranksters, Philosophers, Portals
David: Do you feel sometimes at your shows that you’re guiding people or taking people on a journey through those levels?
Jerry: In a way, but I don’t feel like I’m guiding anybody. I feel like I’m sort of stumbling along and a lot of people are watching me or stumbling with me or allowing me to stumble for them. I don’t feel like, here we are, I’m the guide and come on you guys, follow me. I do that, but I don’t feel that I’m particularly better at it than anybody else.
For example, here’s something that used to happen all the time. The band would check into a hotel. We’d get our room-key and then we’d go to the elevator. Well, a lot of times, we didn’t have a clue where the elevator was. So, what used to happen was that everybody would follow me, thinking that I would know. I’d be walking around thinking, “Why the fuck is everybody following me?” (Laughter) So, if nobody else does it, I’ll start something—it’s a knack.
David: A lot of people are looking for someone to follow.
Jerry: Yeah. I don’t mind being that person, but it doesn’t mean that I’m good at it or that I know where I’m going or anything else. It doesn’t require competence, it only requires the gesture.
David: Is there any planning involved about choosing songs in a certain sequence to take people on a journey?
Jerry: Sometimes we plan, but more often than not we find that when we do, we change our plans. Sometimes we talk down a skeleton of the second set, to give ourselves some form—but it depends. The important thing is that it not be dull and that the experience of playing doesn’t get boring. Being stale is death. So we do whatever we can to keep it spontaneous and amusing for us.
Rebecca: You play more live shows than any other band I know of. How do you manage to keep that spontaneity? Is this a natural talent you’ve always had or is it something you’ve had to work to achieve?
Jerry: Part of it is that we’re just constitutionally unable to repeat anything exactly. Everyone in the band is so pathologically anti-authoritarian, that the idea of doing something exactly the same way is an anathema—it will never happen. (Laughter) So that’s our strong suit—the fact that we aren’t consistent. It used to be that sometimes we reached wonderful levels or else we played really horribly, terribly badly. Now we’ve got to be competent at our worst. (Laughter)
Rebecca: How do you compare a Grateful Dead show to a rave? There seems to be strong similarities between them.
Jerry: Well, if we would let people get up out of the audience and add their two-cents worth, then it would be kind of similar. The acid-test was like a rave, the same sort of idea.
David: Do you see the acid-tests or Grateful Dead shows as being an inspiration for the raves or do you think it goes back to something more ancient, more tribal?
Jerry: Back in the ‘50s, there was a place in North Beach called The Place. They used to have blabber-mouth night and everybody could get up that wanted to and rave for ten minutes. I don’t believe it’s something new, but I think the modern version of it is a spill-off from the stand-up comedy explosion. Plus, there’s been a resurgence of poetry-readings and performance art.
David: I’m curious about how psychedelics influenced not only your music but your whole philosophy of life.
Jerry: Psychedelics were probably the single most significant experience in my life. Otherwise, I think I would be going along believing that this visible reality here is all that there is. Psychedelics didn’t give me any answers. What I have is a lot of questions. One thing I’m certain of; the mind is an incredible thing and there are levels of organizations of consciousness that are way beyond what people are fooling with in day to day reality.
David: How did psychedelics influence your music before and after?
Jerry: Phew! I can’t answer that. There was a me before psychedelics and a me after psychedelics, that’s the best I can say. I can’t say that it affected the music specifically, it affected the whole me. The problem of playing music is essentially of muscular development and that is something you have to put in the hours to achieve no matter what. There isn’t something that strikes you and suddenly you can play music.
David: You’re talking about learning the technique, but what about the inspiration behind the technique?
Jerry: I think that psychedelics was part of music for me insofar as I’m a person who was looking for something and psychedelics and music are both part of what I was looking for. They fit together, although one didn’t cause the other.
Rebecca: If you were made Clinton’s drug-policy advisor, what would you do?
Jerry: I would make everything legal immediately.
Rebecca: Now when you say that, do you mean readily available to everybody without restrictions?
Jerry: Yes, because the first thing to do is to take the criminality out of it. Take the profit out of it and the whole criminal structure will collapse. The next part is the health aspect, making drugs that are clean and in knowable, understandable doses. Why not spend research money on making drugs that are good for you, that are healthy? Is the problem that we don’t like changing consciousness? I don’t think that’s a good enough reason not to have drugs.
The point is, humans love to change their consciousness and so there will always be drugs. You can either deal with this situation by acknowledging it, or you can pretend it’s not real and outlaw it. If you’re going to make laws about what human beings should and shouldn’t do, you need to have a template.
You have to be able to say what humans are and what they’re capable of without moral imperatives. You have to start with what humans are really like, not what we wish they were like or what Western civilization or Judeo-Christian doctrine wishes they were like—but what they are like.
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Crystal Bowersox stops by Relix to perform a song from her new album, All That For This.
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