By David Gans

My contributions to this year’s WALL OF NEWS will focus on photos and stories from my new book, Improvised Lives: Grateful Dead 1972-1985. Signed copies are available now from

Interview with Ned Lagin

Ned Lagin: In November-December of 1969, I was playing a lot of jazz but I had already completed or was working on electronic music pieces… A friend of mine said, “the kinds of things that you’re doing, you oughta listen to the Grateful Dead.” I think he meant the electronics, and I think he meant also long improvisations. I would sit in these practice rooms and play on one tune for like six hours! I was not a rock and roll listener at that time. I was a jazz musician. He played me a record or two. 

Then my friend made me go to a club to hear the Grateful Dead, I believe December 29th or December 30th of 1969 at the Ark. They were then playing in small clubs that held 200 or 300 people at most. The club that night was about half full, and there I was in a turtleneck sweater and a corduroy jacket with leather patches on the sleeves. Very academic with a taste of beatnik/ bohemian.

The Grateful Dead didn’t start for an hour or two after they were supposed to, and they all were sort of like sitting on their amplifiers or languishing around the club. I wasn’t sure who the musicians were. Then they got up and started playing, and my friend was right: we were doing the same kinds of things from very different places. 

So I bought some records. And my friend urged me to write them a letter telling them what I was doing. I don’t know where his idea for that actually came from. He wanted to get me interested in them, and now I guess he decided that they should get interested in me. And so I wrote them a letter.

At that time a lot of people perceived the Grateful Dead as in a sense an open entity. That there was a Grateful Dead family, and also that there was this view of San Francisco as being the Mount Olympus of music on the West Coast. All these musicians – the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, the Youngbloods – we heard they played together and hung out together, and they did all these things at Golden Gate Park together. The view of the Grateful Dead was one that they had all these different musical experiences, and they all got on a bus and toured around.It was the Tom Wolfe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test view of the Grateful Dead. It didn’t seem unreasonable that other musicians would enter in one way or another.

I wrote Jerry a letter, and I talked about… my electronic music, my jazz music and improvisation, and about numerological and acoustically organized music in space and time. I never heard anything back. And then my friend and other friends and I got the idea to invite the Grateful Dead to do a concert at MIT. So I helped with the committee of other people to organize that.

The Grateful Dead were then living in the town that I live in today, and we corresponded with their management at the time, and I didn’t mention that I had written a letter or anything. And then they arrived, I think it was May 4th, 1970, having just come from Yale; Kent State [killing of anti-war protesters] had just occurred.

They arrived late morning. Garcia was driving – they all drove their own vehicles at this point – and he was driving a rented station wagon with the guitar amplifiers and everything in the back. I met him at the motel, in the parking lot, and I went up to him and introduced myself. And he got out of the station wagon and just sort of quickly ran away down the parking lot yelling “Phil, I found the guy! I found the guy!” It turned out that the letter had had a tremendous effect on him. 

David Gans is one of the best-known media guys in the Grateful Dead world as well as an exceptional interpreter of GD music; he has performed with Phil Lesh, written songs with Robert Hunter, and played with many of the best-known jam band musicians around. He started as a journalist at BAM, the California Music Magazine, and wrote for many music magazines in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the mid-’80s he helped with the KFOG Deadhead Hour, which became the nationally-syndicated Grateful Dead Hour, still airing from coast to coast. He’s also co-host, with Gary Lambert, of the Sunday-afternoon talk show Tales from the Golden Road on SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead Channel. He’s the author (with Blair Jackson) of This Is All A Dream We Dreamed, An Oral History of the Grateful Dead, and Improvised Lives: Grateful Dead 1972-1985, a book of his photos and stories. He will perform at Skull and Roses.