Chapter 15: Some Rise, Some Fall, Some Climb ...
Page 282, middle; Keith Olsen meets the Dead:
"In November or December of '76 I had a meeting with Clive Davis," Olsen remembers, "and at one point he said, 'You know, I've signed a band that I've wanted to have for years and years, ever since I was at Columbia. I finally signed the band I always wanted to sign.' I said, 'Oh? Who's that?' He said, 'The Grateful Dead.' I said, 'Oh, that's interesting.' He said, 'I need a commercial record out of them.' And that's when I said, 'Nawwww! No way!'" Olsen laughs. "Clive said, 'Give it your best shot,' so I said I'd go talk to them."
Olsen flew to the Bay Area and met with the Dead at their Front Street rehearsal hall in a run-down warehouse district of San Rafael. This was the space that would became known as Club Front, and housed the group's recording studio beginning later that year. "They played a couple of songs for me which were frankly better than I had expected — I can't say I really knew their songs that well before this — and then Garcia and I started talking. He said. 'I've got this weird thing called "Terrapin Station."' 'What's a terrapin?' 'A turtle.' 'Oh. OK.' And he started telling me about it just sitting with me and telling me the story of it. And I got completely swept up in it and my mind started going, 'Why don't we put it together like a suite, like a concept record?' During this first meeting we even talked about orchestrating it. Garcia thought the song would be 'theatrical,' which appealed to me."
Page 283, middle; more of Keith Olsen's observations about the Dead:
"Phil Lesh had this really weird bass that I think was one of the first Alembics. And it basically sounded like somebody took a washboard with a broom handle and put one piece of rope on it. But he was really into saying, 'This is great — it's low impedance.' I said, 'It sounds like crap — got a Fender [bass]?' He didn't like that. But I dealt with it.
"Keith kept falling asleep. He was in sad shape. He'd be asleep on the couch, snoring an awful lot. He snored his way through the whole record. I was too naive to know what was going on. I just thought he was always tired." In fact, Godchaux had developed a fairly serious addiction to depressants and frequently seemed to be moving in slow motion during this period, both onstage and off.
"The other problem was, during the cutting of the basic tracks it was pretty hard to get every member of the band in the studio at the same time, because there were always places to go and things to do. So I told Steve Parish, 'As soon as we get 'em in, lock the doors.' Now, Sound City didn't have doorknobs on these two studio doors so Parish went out to the hardware store and got these giant nails and a great big hammer and as soon as everybody was in, he hammered the door shut from the inside, leaving the nails still sticking out on our side so we could pull it out to get out at the end of the night! We had a bathroom and a coffee room. You couldn't get anywhere else. After he started doing this, we didn't have drifters from the other studios coming in to listen. We didn't have people leaving to go screw around elsewhere. We started getting work done. I thought, this is great — Steve Parish, my hero."
One occasional interloper at the sessions was drummer Buddy Miles, who was working in one of the other studios and had a well-known taste for the partying life — Olsen says Miles was a reason they nailed the door shut. "One night Parish and one of the other guys had to do a, quote, 'run.' Now, there was this nutritionist named Penny who would make sure the guys in the Dead had at least one good meal a day. She would make food and bring it down about 7 o'clock. Well, this night she made meat loaf and I swear to God, this pan was about two-and-a-half feet wide, 18 inches long, a big pan. And she had plates and mashed potatoes and ketchup and brown sugar and all sorts of other stuff on top of the pan. It's about 10 o'clock and everyone had had a little slice of meatloaf and everyone had decided to go back to their drugs. Believe me, the last thing on anyone's mind was to have a some more meatloaf. So when the roadies went out to go out, they couldn't lock the door, because they weren't on the inside, so they left the back door open. Buddy Miles is out there and he smells the meatloaf and he comes in, looks at the meatloaf and says, 'You mind if I have some of this?' And Penny says, 'Sure, I'll get you a plate and a knife and a fork. I'm sure the guys won't be having any more.' And he says, 'No, no, that's.' all right. I can handle it.' He picks it up with his right hand, flies down straight on top of it, takes it and flips it over—this piece of meatloaf has gotta be six inches by eight inches. And he starts munching on it. Then he says, 'I'm gonna go se my ve-ry best friend, Jerry Gah-cia.' And he starts walking down the hall. Garcia hears this and he says, 'Keith, tell him I'm on the phone,' and he runs out and gets on the phone. 'Tell him anything!' So I'm sitting there, head in my hand and Buddy walks in: 'Where's 'Jerrah?' 'Look, Buddy, Jerry's on the phone with Jane Fonda. She wants him to direct her next film...' So Buddy says, 'Well, maybe I shouldn't be botherin' him then.' So he takes the meatloaf, flips it into his other hand, swats me on the back and says, 'Keith, I want to tell you what a great job you're doing on my friend's album,' and he puts this giant handprint of red meatloaf juice on my white T-shirt! It was huge. But he left and so Jerry escaped for the moment."
Page 285, bottom; completing the Grateful Dead movie:
The film required a massive effort up until the very end, as Garcia and Dan Healy tweaked the five-channel sound for the film in L.A. in hopes that the film experience could somehow approximate the feeling of being at Winterland. "What we wanted to do," Garcia noted, "was create the illusion of broad-spectrum sound. We wanted to create the illusion of volume, although what we're dealing with [in movie theater sound systems] is like 40-watt amplifiers. Any rock 'n' roll guitarist has more power in one guitar than a theater has. So dealing with these givens, how do you get maximum efficiency out of a really second-rate system, utilizing what's there?"
"We chose to mix the sound down at Warner Bros. in Burbank because on their biggest stage they had a great Neve board [mixing console] and it was a formal feature [film] stage," says Susan Crutcher. "We had three mixers, all of whom were very brave to work with us. We brought in a ton a outboard gear [sound effects processors] and hooked it into their board, which actually they had never had done. It music processing stuff that you’d commonly find in a recording studio, but never on a film soundstage in those days. So we were mixing and it was all going fine — long hours and tedious, but good. We got to the last night of the last day — Jerry was going on the road for the weekend and didn’t want to have to come back on Monday. We were already in overtime, heading for golden time [triple time]. We were trying to get the last reel done, which was going to be really hard to do in one day.
"So when we made that decision at midnight to go for golden time, everyone hit the coffee. There was also some tequila around. Anyway, a person, who shall remain nameless, decided that it might be even more exciting, since we were all exhausted, if we were dosed, so he dosed the coffee and the tequila but didn't tell anyone. About one-thirty, one of the union guys in the loading room had to be carried out. At that point I didn’t know what was going on; I was paying attention to the work. I knew things were weird, but I thought everyone was just tired. It wasn’t until I was driving back to the motel with my three editors that I started to notice that I was hallucinating. At one point my friend Pat mentioned she wanted an ice cream cone, and I turned around and looked at her and I saw an ice cream cone on the end of her nose and it was dripping down her face. That’s when I felt, 'I must be really, really tired.' It wasn’t until later at the hotel, when I started laughing uncontrollably, that I realized, 'Oh fuck, we’ve been dosed!' I’d never taken acid before so I didn’t know what to expect. I spent the next two days laughing. It was intense. In the end Jerry came back on Monday and we finished it then."
Rather than spending a huge amount making hundreds of prints of the film and then trying to release it into as many theaters as possible — the conventional Hollywood route — the Dead, working in tandem with John Scher, opted to strike just a few prints and to open it in one city at a time. "they had entertained several standard distribution deals," Scher says, "but they wanted to do something different. In those days they always wanted to do something different. They felt that movie theater P.A.'s were not adequate for what they had in this film, and that each theater should be treated somewhere between a film and the real experience of seeing the Grateful Dead in concert.. There wasn't surround sound like we're used to now. Generally sound came from a big speaker behind the screen. So we proceeded to go to the strongest Grateful Dead cities and we went to the local promoters to enlist their help. We brought in P.A.'s and promoted the film in a different way, more like a concert. It was a pretty exceptional experience.
Page 286, middle; Garcia on the movie:
"The movie works for me. I can watch it and get a pretty good buzz — hey far out. That's an interesting thing.' That's what I tried to make happen there. In terms of the flow of it, the first part [after Gary Gutierrez's animation sequence] has a roughness — it's little fuzzy, a little hot, and not really gathered. Then, later on, the whole thing composes itself, until finally the cinematography is really incredible. In the second half the clarity comes in. And that's a way of expressing that thing: when you go out there and play, at first things are confusing. It's noisy, you're still trying to tune up, and the whole first half is settling into something."
"We built in the complexity of the music," Susan Crutcher says. "We get into the jazzier, more free-form music towards the end, and it’s also a reflection of a certain pseudo-highness. We’ve got the little nitrous oxide scene. It gets weirder and weirder and weirder and it get out to a place where it’s just weird enough, and then it comes back around to some good-time tunes, just like at a real Dead show."
There were 13 songs in the movie, covering every style the Dead played, from spirited rock tunes like "Casey Jones," "Johnny B. Goode" and "One More Saturday Night" to ballads such as "Stella Blue" and "Morning Dew." The second half of the film is filled with incredible close-up photography of the band (mainly the work of Don Lenzer) — the fingers of Garcia's left hand moving slowly, gracefully over the strings during "Stella Blue," looking more like a great violinist's hand than a rock 'n roll guitarist's; Billy locked in a fluid dance at his traps during "Playing in the Band"; Phil a study of concentration during the climactic "Morning Dew." While the film is generally somewhat Garcia centric, it goes to great pains to clearly delineate the role each band member played in the different kind of songs the Dead tackled. What's striking, too, is that even though the film was already "out of date" in a sense when it was released — by '77 Mickey was back and the group really had a very different sound — it was fundamentally true, and more than 20 years later it still communicates the essence of the music and the experience better than any other single work. What it said about the music and the crowd, in its own impressionistic way, is no less valid in 1999 than it was in 1977.
Page 287, middle; reactions to the "Terrapin" orchestrations:
"I'm sorry I wasn't able to go over to London for the orchestration," Garcia said later that year. "It'll never happen again, because I felt the orchestration was a little overripe, and I felt that better lines could have been come up with than that weird samba line [on "Terrapin Flyer"]. Luckily most of it turned out successfully, so I don't mind too much.
"Paul Buckmaster has very good ears and he's very tasteful. The horn parts and string parts in that whole 'Terrapin' melody are exactly the voicings I play on the guitar. In the last part, the reprise of 'Terrapin,' my guitar is not there at all. Instead, I use all the orchestra parts that play my guitar parts. So that's them being me. That's the orchestral version of me."
Page 288, bottom; Weir and Garcia on the Terrapin Station album, plus the big gig at Englishtown:
"It's the Dead without all those wrong notes," Bob Weir said. "And it's not completely overdone either. Our past albums were like Dagwood sandwiches because you had to listen to them 30 or 40 times on very sophisticated equipment to hear everything we'd dub in. We have seven very strong opinions about what should be done with a song and it got too cumbersome in the studio [producing ourselves]. If you made a suggestion to put something in, then you'd have to let everybody else put in their suggestions, too. We needed one authority to make the decisions. Also, Keith [Olsen] is very short, so no one will hit him."
Garcia declared, "I'm happier with this album than with any other album we've done," and added that he hoped to work with Olsen again. "He's a good guy and a good musician. I have a lot of respect for him, and I love him a lot." Garcia even went as far as saying, "It would be fun to take strings and horns out on the road occasionally. I think everything is allowed. We've never spared the audience. We've played much weirder shit than what's on this album."
(A year later, however, in a revisionist mode, Garcia complained that Olsen had loaded down the "Terrapin" suite with "a gazillion fuckin' strings and counterpart you can't hear. It made me mad.")
Unfortunately, the Dead were unable to tour during the period when the album was first released because of the injuries Mickey Hart had sustained in an automobile accident. So Garcia played shows with the JGB in Northern California and on the East Coast while Mickey recuperated, and then, in early September, the Dead returned to play their biggest gig since Watkins Glen — a concert in a field next to Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, with the New Riders and the Marshall Tucker Band. The show drew 107,000 paying customers, it was broadcast live on the New York radio giant WNEW-FM, and for a change the group played sensationally before the huge crowd.
"We had outgrown Roosevelt Stadium and they'd played both Woodstock and Watkins Glen," concert producer John Scher remembers. "Now depending on who you talk to on what day, those experiences were either awful or they were great. There's revisionist history going on even now — guys in the band have said, 'Well, maybe we weren't as bad at Woodstock as we thought we were.' Anyway, we always thought they could draw 100,000 people, which was pretty much an unprecedented thing at that time, for anybody. But if they did something that big they wanted to do it on their own terms. And neither Woodstock nor Watkins Glen was entirely on their terms.
"Well, the people in the neighboring town freaked out when they heard about this show," Scher continues, "and it was your classic hippie-versus-the-straight community conflict. We were in court virtually every day — the townspeople were trying to enjoin us, of course. Ultimately we prevailed and the interesting thing was, one of the neighboring towns defied a court order and essentially closed down one of their main thoroughfares by ripping up the street. All that did was it made people park their cars there and walk."
To keep gate crashers away, Scher's troops put an impenetrable ring of container truck bodies around the perimeter of the field — a forbidding sight, but it worked. The concert drew 107,000 paying customers, it was broadcast live on the New York radio giant WNEW-FM," and it was a great show," Scher says. "It was one day, no camping or anything, and it went very smoothly; it was a pretty extraordinary show."
That fall the Dead toured extensively, hitting seven western states and a few cities in the Midwest and East. Most of the concerts were up to the high level that had marked the spring '77 tour, and in the Dead-starved Southwest the band was particularly well received. They played the University of Oklahoma during homecoming week at the notoriously football-crazy school, drawing just about every hippie from within 200 miles of Norman, as well thousands of curious students aware of the Dead's reputation as a supreme party band. Who knows what they thought when the Dead opened up the concert with a noisy and aggressive version of "Help on the Way"?
Page 290, middle; more on "Persian" opiates:
"I remember the first time we did the Persian how attractive it was," Richard Loren says. "I'll never forget saying to Jerry, 'Jerry, this is great, but it's too good. I'm gonna wait until I have sore bones and aches and pains. I'm going to wait until I'm 55 to get into this.' So I was always very leery of it, very careful of consuming it. I had a business to run, and I could see that it might not be the best thing to mix with conducting business."
"Persian happened in '77," recalls Ron Rakow, who left the scene in mid '76. "I know that because the guy that brought Persian around was invited by a mutual friend to my 40th birthday party, which was in '77. And he gave me some of this stuff and I said, 'Why do you call this Persian? Who are you kidding? This is smack.' And everyone told me to be quiet, I wasn't cool. Then I found out that's what Jerry was into."
"That stuff is way inside," comments Betty Cantor-Jackson. "That stuff is so far inside you can't see outside; you have no vision of the outside. It's way too tunneled, like looking at the world from the back end of telescope out through a keyhole. I think Jerry liked it because it quelled his desires and let him slow down a little. He had so many ideas all the time and he'd be thinking about the next thing he wanted to do and he'd get frustrated that he couldn't manifest them all. So that let him slow down his output so he could deal with what the world could take of his output."
Page 290, middle; more on the recording of Cats Under the Stars:
"What was happening is we were rehearsing and making little cassettes for practice purposes," Garcia said. "We were working on the material and [Ron] Tutt liked the drum sound in the room [Club Front] and we hadn't really thought about it before, so we whipped the place into a recording studio — it took about a month to do it; two months maybe. And this whole record is fundamentally, on a technical level, totally homemade. Everything was done in the same room."
"We didn't even have a [recording console] until after we did the tracks," John Kahn said. "All we had to start with was a 16-track tape recorder and we'd record directly into that machine. Then we got the [Neve] board and used that for the mixing. It wasn't even really a studio. It became a studio during the making of that record.
"I don't think any of the songs on that record were things that we'd played live. 'Cats Under the Stars' I know was written a few months before the rest. 'Rhapsody in Red' was done on the spot. Hunter was there working the whole time we were making the record."