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Jerry Garcia Puts His Mettle to the Pedal (An Excerpt From ‘Jerry on Jerry’)

February 01, 2016

“Jerry Garcia was the most remarkable mind and personality that I— and a lot of other people—ever encountered; the most curious, the most articulate, the most charismatic,” longtime Grateful Dead publicist, and now-biographer, Dennis McNally reveals. “Talking with him was about as much fun as I could stand. I got to do that quite a lot, and I took along a tape recorder.”

Many of those conversations appear in the new collection Jerry on Jerry: The Unpublished Jerry Garcia Interviews (Black Dog & Leventhal). Jerry’s daughter Trixie Garcia contributes a foreword to the book, which is filled with intimate photos of the musician and supplemented by numerous examples of Jerry’s artwork. The audio edition offers more than eight hours of original audio recordings, which explore Jerry’s thoughts on music, psychedelics, politics and creativity. In the following excerpt, Jerry shares insight into his musical mind-set circa 1969, including his decision to play pedal steel guitar.

1969 was one of the oddest years in the history of the Grateful Dead. At the same time that they were playing their wildest, most psychedelic, most cosmically far-out jams, they were getting ready to make an enormous pivot in their music, to reach out and do something quite different—not instead of, but in addition to.

Along with a sizable selection of the rest of America’s rock bands, they were going to come in from the chilly winds of psychedelia and engage the warm, fireplace glow of acoustic folk and country music. There were many sources for this evolution, and being the Grateful Dead, it was natural that at least one major element in the transition was entirely random; after years of curiosity, Jerry encountered a functioning pedal steel guitar in a store and had something of a revelation.

DENNIS: You started out as a—what did somebody call it? A slightly freaked R&B band?

JERRY: Yeah.

DENNIS: With a heavy accent on the blues, and then, from that, gradually turned into the experimental band that recorded Anthem of the Sun and hired Tom Constanten and got really weird.

JERRY: [Laughs.]

DENNIS: And in April of ‘69, you bought the pedal steel, started fooling with that, and then as the summer went on, with Marmaduke and all kinds of other things. Plus, simultaneously, you’re living with Hunter in Larkspur and you start working out the acoustic material.

JERRY: Yeah.

DENNIS: And eventually—

JERRY: We started doing a lot more singing then, too.

DENNIS: Right, well, that’s the thing.

JERRY: Yeah.

DENNIS: And to me, that’s the ultimate change. The most single distinctive thing in the history of the Grateful Dead…

JERRY: Yeah.

DENNIS: But you made a conscious decision, or at least an unconscious decision at some point, that rather than go on and be the ultimate experimental, 45-minute “Dark Star” band—you were going to try and be complete musicians and sing as well as—you know, jam and write interesting material that people could relate to.

JERRY: Right. Well, that was definitely pulling me. I mean, that was something that was happening to me.

DENNIS: A lot of times in interviews, you’ve mentioned the fact that Crosby, Stills and—well, Crosby and I guess Stills were around.

JERRY: Yeah, that was definitely something because they made it seem so easy. Well, it’s the most natural thing on Earth, you know. And it was fun to do. It was something that we could do… And when we found ourselves—when we did it, it sounded so cool. And just sitting around with an acoustic guitar and working up those songs. It sounded pretty, and, “Oh, man, that sounds nice,” you know? And some of those songs, man, when we sang them, they could stand your hair on end, like “Attics of My Life.”

DENNIS: Oh, man.

JERRY: Oh, man, that’s a gorgeous song, a gorgeous song. And when we sang that, there were times when it was just beautiful, you know, it really was, and I mean, that’s something nice to be able to do.

DENNIS: I mentioned living with Hunter, which clearly—you know, those two albums’ worth—Workingman’s and American Beauty—

JERRY: Yeah.

DENNIS: —that’s a certain kind of peak in terms of material.

JERRY: Oh, yeah.

DENNIS: Incredible stuff.

JERRY: We were doing a lot of stuff. It was fun coming up with that stuff.

DENNIS: As I said, was that a motive on your part, just to be a more complete musician?

JERRY: No, not really. Workingman’s Dead was something very conscious because the idea of that was to be able to go into the studio and do a very simple, unambitious record.

DENNIS: A year before that, in April, for instance, when you got the pedal steel—were you thinking in terms of, “Well, pedal steel sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll fool around with it,” or—

JERRY: No, nothing with any kind of planning like that. Here’s what happened. I’ll tell you. It’s really very simple.

I’d fooled around a little bit with pedal steels and stuff, but I couldn’t make any sense of them. And then we went to a music store in Denver, and there was a completely strung-up, tuned-up, nicely put together, set-up and everything, pedal steel. You know, state-of-the-art 10-stringer, with two necks and everything. And I sat down at it, and I played with the pedals a little bit and I fooled with the tuning. I dug the tuning and I played with the pedals a little. And I said, “Oh, I see!” You know, suddenly I finally started to understand a little of the sense of it, the tuning and the way it worked. And that was the first time I’d ever been near one and I saw how this works, you know. So I said, “I want to buy this fuckin’ thing, but can you send it to me with it in tune, you know, ‘cause I’ll never remember this tuning.” So they packed it up and sent it to me in tune. I took it out and unpacked it, and sure enough—it was really the thing of discovering that I could relate to it because it’s very different than a guitar. It’s not a guitar, and it’s not a banjo, either. It’s not like either one of those instruments in any way. And it’s only superficially like anything that I played at the time. And it’s really very different. It has very different logic to it.

Being in that music store finally, with one correctly tuned and one together the way they’re supposed to be, and just a chance to touch it and fool with it for about 15 minutes, I finally could start to see the sense of it. And seeing the sense of an instrument is the whole instrument. You know what I mean? If you don’t understand the logic of an instrument, the sense of an instrument, how it works, what makes it do what it does, you’ll never understand the instrument. Never. It would be like picking up a saxophone and, “What is this?” You know?

DENNIS: Right.

JERRY: Somebody has to show you the sense of it, of the fingering… Well, the pedal steel is not a self-explanatory instrument by any means, you know. It’s a difficult, very strange instrument. It’s evolved in strange ways and it has a very singular kind of logic to it. And it is only because of having the glimpse of the interior of the logic of the instrument that made it— because I’ve always loved the sound of it, and I wanted for years to get one and play one right. I had one, actually, in Ashbury for the longest time—an old cable one. But I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to set it up or tune it or anything. So it just sat around and I fucked with it a little bit. I couldn’t make any sense of it. It was just totally senseless.

DENNIS: I’m chuckling because, of course, knowing you… I mean obviously if you’re going to get a flash like that, it’s going to be experiential and not consciously thought out.

JERRY: That was the whole thing.

DENNIS: You know—

JERRY: That was exactly what it was.

DENNIS: Get your hands on it and the feel, the inspiration.

JERRY: That’s it, getting my hands on it, feeling it. And it was just doing something that I had wanted to do for years, really. Because I wanted to get into pedal steel back when I was playing the banjo. I was attracted to the sound of it on records. “Now there is a snappy sounding instrument. That fucker really sings.” But I didn’t have the slightest notion of what made it talk, you know, how it worked or anything like that. And getting my hands on one and just that thing of—the flash. Oh, yeah. Like, you know. Really, that’s it.

DENNIS: Makes sense.

JERRY: Yeah, really.

DENNIS: Makes sense.

JERRY: It was very obvious, you know, when—

DENNIS: Once you know.

JERRY: Absolutely. It was just the thing of opportunity and time and so forth permitting, you know. It was the thing of finally falling into that place. Because, for one thing, where in the Bay Area can you find a fucking pedal steel, even to this day? I don’t even know if you can get one in the Bay Area, even now.

DENNIS: Good question.

JERRY: You certainly couldn’t back then. So if you wanted to get one, you couldn’t even get one in the state of California. I mean, I’ve been to LA. They didn’t have them down in LA. You couldn’t get them in Bakersfield. As far as I knew, you had to go to Nashville. The only people that made them were one or two small companies that make them kind of the way sports car or racing car companies work. You know what I mean? They make them on—

DENNIS: Small scale.

JERRY: —order. They don’t have them sitting around, you know? It’s not like that. So that was it. It was really going [to] the part of the country, first of all, where you can find one in a store. That turned out to be the whole story.