Chapter 16: The Desert Stars are Bright Tonight
Page 300, top; the flight into Egypt:
"It was pretty intense culture shock going from Marin County to Egypt," Mountain Girl told me in 1985. "And no one was ready for the weather. I mean, you know a desert is going to be hot, but nothing quite prepares you for the way it really is. When we left Marin, it was a foggy afternoon, probably about 60 degrees. When we stepped off the plane in Cairo, it was at least 110. We'd hit Cairo in the middle of a heat wave.
"The charter flight over there was just wonderful, really crazy! We just had the greatest time, but the stewardesses were about ready to quit by the time we'd flown from San Francisco to New York. They were so freaked out at how we were behaving that when we reached New York, the Pakistani stewardess suddenly delivered the great blow: 'So sorry, but due to the rowdy element on the plane, we have removed all the alcohol. That's our prerogative as an airline. Goodnight.' Boy, after that you could cut the gloom on board with a knife! The situation improved on the Paris/Cairo leg ... and then, there we were with the Sphinx, the pyramids, the colored lights and the Grateful Dead!"
Because shipping their own sound and light equipment by boat from America was both time-consuming and prohibitively expensive, the Dead borrowed some gear from The Who in England, and lights from a European tour company. "Getting the equipment there was an adventure in itself," Trist says. "It went by truck to Trieste [Italy], and then by ship to Alexandria, then by truck to the gig. It was all very exciting: Will it make it there on time? Can we trust the Alexandrian dock people? There was fear that customs people would hang us up for weeks; they do that sort of thing. But our careful diplomatic work paid off and everything sailed right through."
The only problem came when the recording truck (another loan from The Who) got stuck in the sand near the Sound and Light Theater. First a tractor attempted to pull it out. When that didn't work, a herd of camels were brought in and that did the trick.
Susan Crutcher remembers, "I got to meet a hero of mine, Paul Krassner, and we had a little love affair in Egypt that was hysterically funny. And I got to hang around with Kesey. We went up to the Kings Chamber in the Great Pyramid and 'ommed' for a while, which was amazing. One day Jerry, Ken, Paul and I took a faluka [sailboat] ride on the river. On every boat theres a guy who steers the boat and a guy who keeps the hookah going, and usually they mix hashish with tobacco, so Ken suggested they mix it with some marijuana. After that I noticed we were tacking back and forth in front of the Hilton Hotel for a long time," she chuckles.
Page 302, upper-middle; the magical third show:
"I was on the side of the stage feeling no pain there were goodies all around," Bill Graham remembered a few years later, "and then, very gently came these notes, and it was Jerry's picking, like this bird that was flying over the stage, amongst the tar playing. Then there was a bass line! And one by one the guys picked up their instruments and they tapped into what the Nubians were doing. And they were as one for 20 minutes, and then the Nubians left the stage and the Dead played. That 20 minutes can't ever be equaled for me. It had nothing to do with the musical content. It was everything. Here's the Sphinx, here's the pyramid. And here I am. I can't begin to describe it." It was, Graham concluded, "the highest experience of my life."
"As they were playing there between the paws of the Sphinx," Kesey said, "the moon began to eclipse and all these Nubians who had come there with Hamza to open the show [took acid, too] and they rocked and rolled and had a great time. They couldn't speak our language, we couldn't speak theirs, and it's too loud to speak at a Dead gig anyway. There were only about 700 paying customers, yet the dunes, as far as the Dead's sound would carry, were covered with camels and horses and Bedouin and little families of people who had come up there to see American music at its farthest out. They were all kind of digging it."
"The first two nights," said Bernie Bildman, a friend of the band's who went to Egypt, "a group of Egyptian singers had opened the show. But the third night the band started the show and they had the singers come out after the break because they wanted to watch the eclipse. When the eclipse started happening, I walked out on the part of the stage where Jerry and Ram Rod were. Jerry was sitting in a chair, and Ram Rod and his kid and I laid down flat. We just lay there tripping, watching the eclipse coming on."
"And so the moon eclipses," Kesey said, "and pretty soon everybody's getting in to it and noticing it. The Dead kept playing and bonnnging around and kids started running through the streets nearby with beer cans filled with pebbles stuck on sticks, making this great noise shaka-shaka-shaka-shaka. You could hear it as the Dead went through this space jam, and then pretty soon the moon started coming back.
"We had 20 Nubians who didn't even speak Egyptian, and they're all ripped. Their faces are nothing but black with the eyes and the mouth and they're wearing these pastel blue gallabias. You go backstage and they're just swaying to the music, that same ol' Dead sway. Finally, this ubiquitous big-titted, braless Deadhead hippie, blond, suntanned, loaded woman jumps up on this big ol' rock thing and goes, 'Yeee-awww!' and pulls off her shirt. All these Egyptians start to shout, 'Yeee-awww! Yeee-awww!" And finally they did that thing that Egyptians can do where they use their tongues ululations while they made that noise. And pretty soon the Dead girls began to do that back 'Lu-lu-lu-lu-lu!' It was a thing where everyone knew what it meant and behaved themselves according to the height of the occasion. Wonderful stuff."
By that third night, Bill Kreutzmann couldn't contain himself any longer and he played furiously using both arms, even banging a cymbal with his cast now and again. It was definitely the best of the three shows, but not good enough to make a record from.
After the third show, in the wee hours of the morning, everyone headed out to a place called Sahara City, about half an hour away, for a party thrown by Bill Graham. "Bill had rented every camel and horse he could find and we went in a huge caravan across the desert to this big tent village a few miles away," M.G. remembered. "It was really fun. It was a full moon and we had just about everyone at least a hundred people. There were taxis that went the long way, and motorcycles. As I remember, Graham and Mickey led the procession, with Mickey on his fabulous white horse." The party was still going when the sun rose, and then everyone returned to the Mena House to crash.
Most of the band and family stuck around for a few days to unwind from the shows and take in some more sights. "The most remarkable part of the whole trip for me," Donna said, "was a couple of days after the shows, a bunch of us went on a three-day, three-night boat trip on the Nile. It was me and Zion [her son] and Keith and Jerry and Bob and a couple of the equipment guys. We all ate and slept on the boat, which was owned by this really nice Egyptian named Ati. He was just getting started in the boat business then. We'd stop off at various places along the Nile to see tombs and that sort of things. We went to the Valley of Kings, which was just amazing. The best part was that as you cruised down the river, most of the way it wasn't very wide, and people would gather on both sides of the river to watch the boat come through. All these kids and people who lived right on the banks came out and sang and yelled and played their drums and made the best music you've ever heard. After all the craziness around the gigs, it was great to get into the nitty-gritty basics of Egyptian life."
"When we didn't get any money back from the Egypt trip, I was on the hot seat," Richard Loren says.
Originally, too, Loren had hoped that some sort of visual documentation of the trip might be worthy of release, but that never came to pass, either. "We had agreed that we didn't want to mar the Egypt experience by allowing a film company to come in and film it all," he says. "There were small companies that wanted to do it. I had a friend at the time who was a filmmaker, a guy named Teppei Inokuchi who'd made a film of Miles Davis and shot 16mm. So we decided, 'What if we get a couple of super 8 cameras, me and Teppei?' We'd film some stuff, see what we got. So we went around and shot stuff, and then I collected the film from all the other people who had shot stuff Mountain Girl and Bernie [Bildman] the Dentist, and we put it together and we came up with about 25 minutes that was unacceptable because Jerry wouldn't justifiably approve the use of concert music. I invested $35,000 that I never got back and it was never used.
"Afterwards I felt what a wonderful thing that we were able to do this, but what a shame it was that it wasn't documented well. There wasn't a big album with nice photography of Egypt and Jerry on a camel and all that. I don't know I just thought it was a big piece of who they were and what they were into: the big mysteries."
Bay Area Grateful Dead fans at least got a taste of what the Dead's Egypt trip was like when the group played an often spectacular five-night series at Winterland that was billed as "From Egypt With Love." Slides taken by various family members on the trip were projected on a huge screen behind the stage each night. And at the last two concerts, Hamza el-Din joined the band onstage and sang the same song he'd sung at the Sound and Light Theater a traditional wedding number called "Ollin Arageed" and the Dead once again used the hypnotic rhythm of Hamza's tar as a launch pad for a jam. Hamza also played "Ollin Arageed" at two other concerts with the Dead later that year, including one broadcast nationally from the Capitol Theater in New Jersey.
"My thing with the Grateful Dead was I always wanted to take them to new places," Loren says. "I was ready to take them to China. I took them to Alaska [for a pair of summer solstice shows in 1980]. That's the stuff that made it so great. That's why I wanted to be with the Grateful Dead. I got sick of them playing tours and the same thing over and over again. I wanted to see them on Lake Titicaca. I wanted to see them at the Great Wall. But I wanted them to be there more than they wanted to go, and I think that's in part because of the financial failure of the Egypt trip, and because they weren't rich then. When we came back from Egypt, that's when the pain began."
Page 304, lower-middle; Keith and Donna, post-GD:
"After [we left the band]," Donna said, "we went to Alabama and stayed out at a place on the lake in Muscle Shoals for six months and water skied every day. It was the first time Zion, Keith and I had really been together as a family since Zion was born in 1974. Keith got healthy from being an absolute wreck, and then we came back [to California] and joined The Ghosts, who were already in existence. They had already made a record and they asked us to be on it, which we did, and then they asked us to go up to Oregon and play a couple of concerts, so we did, just as a lark."
Later, Keith, Donna and Ghosts drummer Greg Anton formed the Heart of Gold Band with a talented newcomer named Steve Kimock on lead guitar, and they managed to build a small Bay Area following playing a mixture of new original songs and a few Grateful Dead tunes. The promise of that band was never fulfilled, however: tragically, Keith was killed in an automobile accident in July 1980. The Ghosts managed to stay together a little while longer. Donna became a born-again Christian during the band's later days and eventually she married a Christian musician named David MacKay; to this day they play music together in Donna's hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Page 304, bottom; more on Brent Mydland's background:
Brent was born in Germany, where both of his parents were in the military, but he grew up in Antioch, California, a sleepy suburban town an hour east of San Francisco, near the Sacramento River delta. He started piano lessons at age 6 and had formal classical lessons through his junior year in high school. "In late high school," he said, "I got into playing rock 'n' roll with friends and it was like I had to start from the beginning almost, because if I didn't have a piece of music in front of me I couldn't do much. I changed my outlook on playing real fast after that. I think dope [pot] had something to do with that."
He was influenced by rock organists like Lee Michaels, Ray Manzarek and Goldie McJohn of Steppenwolf, and was in a series of bands that never amounted to much. In the late '60s he bought the first albums by the Airplane and the Dead, and "I was even in a band where I used to sing 'Morning Dew,' and we did 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,' too."
In the early '70s he was in a succession of groups that played different styles R&B, Top 40, even jazz-rock fusion. Then he moved to L.A. to be a keyboardist and singer with Batdorf & Rodney. When that band fell apart, he joined a country-rock group called Silver, which put out one album on Arista. Eventually, he hooked up with Weir's band though drummer John Mauceri, who'd also played with Batdorf & Rodney.
"Weir's band was a lot more structured than the Dead," Brent observed, "but it was a lot closer to the Dead than Silver was. ... With Bobby, at first, I'd say to him, 'Well, should I play this instrument on this song, or this other instrument?' and he'd say, 'I don't care. Why not play this one time and the other the next time if you feel like it.' It loosened me up and got me more into improvisation, which there hadn't been a whole lot of in Silver."
Page 306, upper-middle; changes for Mountain Girl:
When Garcia had split from his Inverness house with M.G. for the last time, "I raced home to mother at that point," she says. "I just threw everything in a truck, I got rid of everything from the house, sold it to somebody who really wanted it and went to the East Coast with my kids. I think I was having a nervous breakdown or something. I moved in there at my mom's that summer. Then I thought, 'Oh I better go to college. I gotta do something.' I had some friends over in Amherst so I did a little time at the University of Massachusetts two semesters. There was a writing teacher there I liked a lot. I got a little house in Amherst, which is just such a beautiful place. I loved it. But I was terribly lonely once again. I had cut myself off from everybody and set myself an impossible task being totally self-sufficient.
"Then Wavy Gravy came through and invited me to stay at the Hog Farm [collective] in Berkeley, so I did. I put the canoe back on top of the Volkswagen bus and went back to the West Coast and moved in with the Hog Farmers over on Henry Street in Berkeley. I lived there for almost a year. And I'd go over to Grateful Deadland and hang out and hope to see Jerry. I'd go over to Hepburn Heights from time to time and I'd take the kids over there; whatever I could do to make contact. I felt really bad about the idea of letting go, and I wanted to get it back together. I kept feeling like if I could just have gotten in there and fielded some of my personal energy, I could have fixed things. I was trying to have some effect on that scene; turn back the tide a bit. But I couldn't get in. I was shut out. It was so painful to see Jerry just drifting like that."
Page 306, middle; more on Reconstruction:
In Living With the Dead, Rock Scully says that the name of the group derived from a process by which cocaine is reconstituted, but Kahn scoffed at that idea. "That's just more Rock Scully bullshit," he said. "I made up the name myself. I have no idea what it means. It's the period after the Civil War, right?
"I remember after one of our first gigs," Kahn continued, growing animated, "Gaylord Birch, who had this long history playing with the Pointer Sisters and Edwin Hawkins and all these other groups, but didn't know about the Dead or Deadheads, came up to me and said, 'What was happening up there? What was that roar I heard coming up to the stage.' And I said, 'Oh, that was when Jerry moved his leg!'" he laughs.
Page 307, lower-middle; Gary Lyons meets the Dead:
"I had a relationship with Clive Davis at Arista and he asked me to go out to California and see the band and talk to them, and to be honest with you, I don't think I was really aware of their music at all at that point. I'd been living in America about a year, but when I mentioned to my assistant engineer, Peter Thea, that I was going out to talk to the Dead, he flipped it turns out he was a Deadhead.
"I remember I flew out in the morning to San Francisco, I met the band, and then got on a plane and came back. It was a very casual meeting. Jerry was eating ice cream and I was really struck by how friendly he was. Intelligent, too. We just chatted for a bit about how I work and that was it. I guess they liked my attitude. They wanted to record it essentially live in the studio with the six of them playing at once, and then do overdubs later, and that was fine with me. I liked to work that way."
Page 308, lower-middle; Brent's contributions:
The remaining two songs on Go to Heaven were songs that Brent wrote with Weir's band in mind, but which Garcia encouraged him to work up for the Grateful Dead. "I figured Bobby was into some off-time signatures," Brent said, "and 'Easy to Love You' had a little twist that was interesting. Clive [Davis] didn't like the lyrics to 'Easy to Love You,' so John Barlow and I got together and worked on it. I think we ended up with the same song anyway. The stuff I write isn't necessarily lyrically Grateful Dead. The stuff I write is a little tight to the vest, as opposed to painting images in your mind, which is what most Grateful Dead songs are real good at. My songs don't really go in that direction."
And that's one reason some Deadheads didn't embrace Brent from the start. His contributions to Go to Heaven, "Easy to Love You" and "Far From Me," were regarded by some as just banal love songs at the time of the album's release, "Easy to Love You" was widely compared to Michael McDonald's slick, middle-of-the-road hits with the Doobie Bothers. But Garcia liked Brent and his songs, and went out of his way to encourage him to write more.
Page 309, top; more observations from Gary Lyons:
"Bobby, on the other hand, might have the basic idea for the song, but he might not even have the melody worked out. We'd get the tracks down and he'd still be working on the melody and lyrics. Bobby took a little more advice from me; we collaborated a little closer, and we became good friends on the project.
"It was interesting, too," Lyons continues, "because a couple of times during the making of the album they'd go off and do a tour, and when they'd come back, the songs would have changed a bit. But it was actually fine having the breaks [in recording]. I was trying to do an Aerosmith album [Night in the Ruts] at the same time, so I'd be two weeks in New York with Aerosmith, who were going in one direction, and then a couple of weeks on the West Coast with the Dead, who couldn't have been more different. In New York it was all doing lines of coke and running around, and in California it was smoking pot, being laid back and everything was cool. It was a strange combination.
"Peter Thea, my assistant, would work with them while I was back doing Aerosmith. He'd be sending me cassettes of the overdubs and I'd make comments. Then I'd go out to California and be with the Dead, and Peter would go to New York and take over the Aerosmith record. Finally, I finished the Aerosmith album and then could devote more time to the Dead."
At this stage of his drug addiction, Garcia still had periods in which he was able to completely focus his attention on important tasks that needed to be done, whether it was recording or staying in good enough shape to play well on a tour from beginning to end. And while one of the assistant engineers who worked on the album said Garcia "wasn't in the best shape sometimes," Lyons, for one, got the same charge working with Garcia that Keith Olsen had experienced two and a half years earlier, and which Garcia's collaborators and workmates had since the mid-'60s.
"Jerry was so great to work with," Lyons says. "He was very curious and always interested in what I was doing. And in general he was very patient; he didn't get frustrated if things didn't happen easily. Sometimes he'd do solos and there'd be good bits and bad bits so we'd compile a solo from different performances. I'd combine all the best licks into one great solo. On one song I can't remember which one he played a solo from beginning to end and it was just fabulous. I thought, 'OK, we'll keep that and we'll do another on a different track.' He played a completely different solo also fabulous! I played one back, then the other and I couldn't decide which one I liked. I turned to him and said, 'Well, I can live with either of these; which do you prefer?' And he was like, 'You're the producer. You decide.' I took that as him saying, 'We're paying you to make these decisions.' Mick Jagger was the same way, and in both cases it surprised me. But it makes them easier to work with."
Betty Cantor-Jackson tells this story about one of Lyons' attempts to construct a Garcia solo for the record: "One day Gary said to me, 'I want to play you this combine I did of all these different guitar tracks, like five tracks of guitar leads.' So he played it for me and I said, 'He wouldn't play it that way.' He said, 'What? What's wrong with it? He played all of it.' I said, 'There's nothing wrong with it, he just wouldn't play it in that way.' So Jerry comes in later and Gary says, 'I want you to listen to the combine track I did.' He plays and Jerry's sitting there and Gary says, 'Well, what do you think?' And Jerry says, 'I wouldn't play it that way.' It was true, because his style had a certain logic to it and there were certain ways he put together notes, the sequence of notes, which had to do with the way he thought about music. So to cut that up it no longer sounded the way Jerry thought."
Page 309, middle; more on 1980:
The Dead appeared on Saturday Night Live on April 5, 1980, performing high-energy renditions of "Alabama Getaway" and "Saint of Circumstance." "Alabama Getaway" was released as a single, and lo and behold it became a minor hit, climbing all the way to #68 on the charts. It was surprising, then, that Go to Heaven wasn't more successful it sold far fewer copies than Terrapin Station or Shakedown Street. What was the problem? Well, the first turn-off for many Deadheads was the cover, which had the Dead wearing white suits, like hippie versions of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Of course that wasn't the intention the white suits and the mist surrounding the band were meant to play off the title of the album. In fact Weir said that originally the back cover was supposed to depict the title's theological opposite, with the band "lying in a doorway with a four-day growth of beard and some cheap wine bottles lying around," but they ran out of time to implement that idea. The Dead in white suits certainly was a stark contrast to the last Dead record that had included a photo of the band Workingman's Dead and it only served to make the Dead look silly and stodgy in an era when they were already being seen by more and more people as a dinosaur band exactly what the New Wave was trying to wash away. It's not that people didn't get the joke; the joke wasn't that funny.
During the first half of 1980 the band toured in their familiar East Coast haunts for the most part a mixture of basketball arenas, large civic auditoriums and a couple of smaller venues with character, like the Fox Theater in Atlanta and Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama. Garcia said that after the band's appearance on Saturday Night Live and before the spring tour he didn't practice at all for a couple of weeks "and my musical chops declined so enormously that I'll never do it again. That's like the longest period in the last 10 years I've gone without playing, and it's taken almost the whole tour just to get myself together again."
One of Garcia's old friends from the Palo Alto folk music days, Eric Thompson, saw Jerry for the first time since the mid-'70s on that spring tour, when the Dead rolled through Ithaca, New York, to play at Cornell University. Thompson says he found the backstage scene there "really depressing. When the [set] break came, some frat boy came and poured out a giant pile of cocaine and Jerry methodically snorted up a tremendous amount, and I was there thinking, 'How can this guy play?' We were just wired. I went to Rochester same thing. Jerry said, 'Somebody gave me some hash. Maybe we should smoke this.'
"Jerry took it as his mission to see what it would do to his consciousness to do that. But then the world rewarded him for it and told him that this is what he should do. He already had that bent, but the world sort of said, 'Yes, you should do that for us. You should try
this out for us and then we'll see if we want to.' At that point, to me, touring with a rock 'n' roll band looked pretty hollow. It was also very depressing that there were always people around who wanted something. They didn't get the message that they should do things themselves. That being set free means that they could do whatever they wanted to do. Instead, they thought that being set free meant they were free to take a piece of Jerry."
Page 310, bottom; director Len Dell'Amico's baptismo del fuego:
"It was the day of the first Warfield show [September 25], which was also the first acoustic performance by the band," Dell'Amico remembers. "I didn't know anything about that, and I was meeting Jerry 20 minutes before showtime. The tension was ... well, it was bizarre because I later deduced that the band didn't really seem to be into this [video project] or have the faith that it was really going to be good. But it seemed to be Garcia's idea and plus he was auditioning directors, and the other band members were making fun of him about that."
Page 311, top, more on Franken and Davis:
"The first time I sat down with them in 1980," says Dell'Amico, "Franken said, 'Look, when we walk out there, they're going to boo us off the stage. There are going to be 5,000 Deadheads who don't give a shit about us or any comedy. What are we going to do to deal with that?' So then the idea was that Franken and Davis would come out and say 'We're going to do an hour of comedy,' and get booed off the stage. That worked so well. It was a huge boo. It was heartfelt," Dell 'Amico says with a smile.
That moment in the telecast was preceded by a series of hilarious, knowing vignettes in which Franken and Davis went into the dressing room of each member of the band before the show to ask if he would introduce the comedy team to the rowdy, expectant crowd that was primed for the Grateful Dead to come out any minute. To avoid putting too much pressure on the band during the live telecast, Dell'Amico's crew actually shot this segment during the Warfield series in mid-October, "and the Warfield actually looked more like a backstage than Radio City," Dell'Amico says. In Garcia's dressing room, the hapless hosts mistakenly drop one of Jerry's guitars. Bob Weir turns them down because "my hair isn't ready yet." The pair mess up their chance of having Kreutzmann introduce them when they make a pass at his wife in the hallway outside his dressing room. And so it goes until they run into a long-haired guy backstage and ask him to go buy them a couple of six-packs of beer. It turns out to be Brent Mydland, the joke being that they didn't recognize "the new guy." In desperation, Franken and Davis ask Brent to make the introduction, which he does: "I don't know who these guys are, and I don't think they're very funny. Ladies and gentlemen, Frank and Dave." Cue lusty boos.
Page 312, middle; Garcia on the '80 acoustic sets:
"[The acoustic set] had the effect of sort of galvanizing the whole process; the evening. Really, the proximity had a lot to do with it. In our acoustic setup the band is set up very close together. We're close enough to hit each other. We could reach out and touch each other if we wanted to. That's kind of refreshing. The acoustic music gets so quiet that the audience also got to be very receptive and responsive during that first part. So it also changed the nature of the electric sets that followed they started with a little more delicacy and so forth; they were also a little more relaxed than normal, so the whole evening was actually really nice. It wasn't at all tiring; in fact it was refreshing.
"Where that level of performance comes from," he continued, "is hearing guys play fiddles. [And] have you ever seen any of the East Indian players Ravi Shankar or any of those players perform? Well, their music goes to those levels and it's very quiet. The instruments are very quiet; they're like at a whisper. But the power is there."
Page 312, bottom; more of Dell'Amico's observations:
"Nineteen eighty changed me professionally and personally," he says. "And most of it was spending all this time editing with Garcia. I learned an approach to work which was totally process-oriented, instead of goal-oriented, and I learned that you could be process-oriented even in the television business. And I learned about tension-removal, which was necessary when you're going after that spontaneous improvisational thing that may or may not happen. The main thing is you have to be dedicated to having fun and not dedicated to getting something on tape. You can't force anything good. If you can really purely go after it, you'll get it. And if you can't, you won't. So it's perfectly logical that that's the way you should do it. I had more fun than a human being should be allowed to have working on those shows, and it was just a great experience.
"But you have to remember that what I got to do was at the highest level it was working on an artistic level with the artists. I didn't have to get rid of a girlfriend or score drugs or deal with an asshole about a contract. I was so fortunate. I got the best of it. And a lot of people who worked there forever got good, but also had to deal with some downside."