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Built To Last: A Conversation with Jerry Garcia

Steve Peters | August 04, 2014

During the "Days Between" Jerry Garcia's birth on August 1 (1942) and his passing on August 9 (1995), we share this interview which originally ran in the December 1989 issue of Relix.

With the release of Built To Last, the Grateful Dead have reached another pivotal point in their career. The new album is the band’s first studio effort since 1987’s In The Dark, the record that spawned the group’s first Top Ten single and finally brought them beyond the realm of devoted Deadheads and into the pop mainstream. While this crossover success garnered the Dead the recognition their fans always knew they deserved, it also brought some unexpected problems. With the band’s 25th anniversary just around the corner, some of the venues that have hosted the Dead for years are refusing to invite them back to perform, the result of a number of isolated incidents surrounding certain shows. And with another potential wave of new attention seemingly imminent, there’s no telling what the future might hold.

But Jerry Garcia seems to be taking it all in stride. The Grateful Dead has undoubtedly had their share of ups and downs over the past two-and-a-half decade, and their recent surge in popularity is simply the latest excursion in what has indeed been a long, strange trip. With Built To Last, Garcia feels the band has inched closer towards their notion of a record that properly represents what the Dead is all about. "Foolish Heart, " a Garcia/Hunter song that is being released as the LP’s first single, is an upbeat, irresistible tune that explores the unpredictability of romance. The album also marks the emergence of keyboardist Brent Mydland as one of the Dead’s key songwriters, from the tough and rousing “Blow Away” to the tender and affectionate" I Will Take You Home." With tentative plans to play in Europe and possibly Russia in 1990, the band is clearly looking forward.

The following interview took place in an all-purpose space that the Dead have occupied for almost 15 years, located just across the road from the hotel that is depicted on the cover of the band’s Shakedown Street album. Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, during which the Dead performed “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” for the first time since 1970, and exactly four weeks before the new album’s Halloween release date.

Tell me about what’s happened with the band in the two-and-a half years since In The Dark was released.

Oh, I see―you’re just going to throw the door open! Well, let’s see… we started working on another record about a year and a half ago. We’d been more or less working on this project, but in reality we didn’t really start focusing on this record that we finished until about April of this year. We took some stabs at it, ‘cause we thought, “Well, the last approach that we tried, the In The Dark approach, worked really well…”

Do you mean recording the album live?

More or less live. So we thought "Well, what we’ll do is we’ll use that approach again because that seemed to work, "but it really didn’t work at all. We tried it again―we tried at the Marin County Civic Center, and then we did the stretch up at Skywalker Ranch and what we started to discover was that our material was saying something else about itself and that approach was not going to work on this record, and that we’re really looking for something else entirely different. So we screwed around there for about a year, a year and a half, and then right around April we started to get serious and sort of focus in on the record. The material shifted a lot too. We had a whole bunch of tunes that didn’t go on this record, so the whole thing mutated while we were working on it and we ended up with what did come out―which is a good Grateful Dead record.

A lot of people will probably be surprised to see that Brent has four songs on the record, as opposed to three by you and a pair by Bob…

You always go with whatever your strong suit is, and in this case it was Brent that had the good songs―I mean, more of ‘em. Actually, he had three or four songs that didn’t go on the record, so he had more of everything, generally. These songs are really good. The other ones are actually pretty good, too, the ones that didn’t go on. But I think it’s more the thing of Brent’s getting to be more comfortable with the band. He sees it being as much his band as everybody else’s. SO it’s just the thing of getting over the “new guy” thing.

Which took about ten years…

Ten years, right ( laughs ). He’s been pretty conservative about getting comfortable in it, but now―I mean this record, it’s nice to be able to show off what he can do on a lot of different levels. And his contribution to this record is really outstanding all over. Not just his tunes and vocals, but everything else―all the keyboard parts, and just ideas and general stuff.

Do you personally find it more difficult to come up with new material these days?

I’ve never been a very hot writer, you know? I tend to go in little fits and starts. I mean, if I do three songs a year, that’s pretty good for me. I’m not a songwriter. I’m really a guitar player, sort of, so writing music is not my forte. I’m a default songwriter. I write because you’ve gotta have new material, and that’s one of those things―that’s an axiom from back in this ‘60sm “You have to do original material,” and so it sort of fell on me to do it. It’s a default position, not something that I actually choose to do. I have never been particularly in love with my own inventions, for one thing. But over the years, working with Hunter, I’ve sort of gotten to where I’m getting a handle on the craft of songwriting. I don’t think I’m a brilliant songwriter but I get off a couple of good ones occasionally. By good I mean they have enough of whatever a song needs for me to be able to perform them and not feel awfully uncomfortable about it, and that in itself is a big thing.

Do you write songs with the consideration of how they might work in a live setting?

No. Sometimes I have a kind of a notion where I sort of imagine the band playing and I sort of imagine the song and the kind of effect that I hope it will have. But usually the idea that I have at the inception of a song is very different from the way the tune turns out. For me, the song that took the most turns on this record was “Foolish Heart.” I originally had a sort of Pete Townshed, acoustic guitar kind of rhythm, open strumming… you know, something along those lines as the setting for it. But the way it came out is completely different. It came out something uniquely Grateful Dead-ish. So a lot of times my sense of how a song is supposed to work or how it’s supposed to function, even in the live setting―just how it’s supposed to work―has no bearing on its ultimate evolution, so I’ve learned to disregard my own ideas alone those lines.

Some of this album seems looser than In The Dark, and then there’s Brent’s ballad, “I Will Take You Home,” which is really polished. Is that a potential single?

I really don’t know. For singles, it depends on the feedback we get from the record company and from radio airplay and all that kind of stuff. We can’t pick the singles. We’re terribly bad at all that kind of stuff, so really it’s for the industry to say, “Well this would be a good single. Put this out.” That’s really what we have that interface with the record business for, for their so-called expertise on that level. Whether or not anybody knows what a good single is is completely debatable of course, but if somebody suggested, “Hey, this tune would be a good single,” or whatever―hey, we’re up for anything. We haven’t drawn any lines through anything.