By David Gans

I’m taking a break from posting excerpts from Improvised Lives to share a 2008 interview with John Cutler, who passed away a few days ago. John was the engineer and co-producer of In the Dark and Built to Last; he became the Dead’s front of house sound engeer after Dan Healy was fired in 1994; he did sound and recording for the Jerry Garcia Band for many years, too.

John Cutler talks about Egypt ’78, part 1

I Back in 1978 I was not yet on salary with the Grateful Dead. I had my shop at Hard Truckers with [Joe] Winslow and Sparky Raizene, and I was doing all the electronics repairs and design – but I was independent. 

When the band decided to go to Egypt, they decided to record. They had the truck sent over from England, a 24-track truck that the Stones used to use.

Somebody got the bright idea that we should try to wire up the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid as an echo chamber. Lucky me – I wasn’t at the meeting, but it was decided that I should come, and this should become my job. I was, of course, ecstatic. I’d been working under Dan Healy in the studio on some of the records, but I was just an electronics tech.

Back in those days things weren’t quite as technically advanced. I’m saying to myself, “The stage is going to be this far away from the base of the pyramid, and then we have to go up inside the pyramid a long way to get to the chamber.” And so we telexed the band on the road and said, “I want to buy a mile of cable to bring with me.” I waited for days, and I got this answer, and they said, “No, you can’t. Just come.”

John Cutler in Jamaica, November 1982

We played a gig in Red Rocks and then we went to Giants Stadium just before Egypt. I was in New York after Giants Stadium; before I left for Egypt, I had to pick up a whole lot of equipment to bring with me. We were renting.

Wireless guitar systems had just come of age, and a company named Schaffer made wireless equipment.

The [recording] truck was down at the Sphinx Theater. We got a little wireless transmitter and put it up on the top of the recording truck. It was beaming a signal up to the top of the pyramid, where we had an antenna and a receiver, and then we had a long cable going down from the top of the pyramid to the entrance, and then way up inside to the King’s Chamber. In the chamber I had a little battery-operated amplifier I’d made, and a speaker, and then we had a microphone and a mic preamp that I’d built – and again, the cable had to go all the way back out of the King’s Chamber, out of the pyramid, back up to the top, and transmit on another transmitter back down to the truck. Well, it never worked. [laughing]

At one point, Dan Healy and Ram Rod decided – they’d read books about the pyramid, and there was supposedly some kind of a little shaft inside the king’s chamber that went out to the outside, not all the way to the top. So those two guys climbed the outside of the pyramid trying to find this hole. They spent a whole day at it, I remember, but we never succeeded.

The whole thing was so nuts from the beginning. I flew from JFK. Brett Cohen, who was the monitor mixer at the time – he and I were both in New York, and we both had tickets to go, but his plane went through Athens and mine went through Paris. We left within an hour or two of each other, and we had all this radio equipment with us, and we had all these special forms from the Egyptian consulate and everything so we had permission to bring radio transmitters into the country – because there was a lot of tension there with the Israelis. Camp David had just happened… Somehow, the radio equipment ended up with me, my bags ended up with Brett, and he had the paperwork for the radios and I didn’t.

After hours of flying, and totally disoriented, the stuff comes down the baggage thing and the customs guys are like freaking out because I don’t have any paperwork and I have all this equipment. I ended up having to leave it there. I got to got in a cab and there was a Muslim woman with the veil and everything driving the cab. I said “Mena House,” the hotel we were staying at. I had no idea where it was, and it was a long way away from the airport, and I had no idea where I was or what was going on. I ended up at the Mena House, and I walk in the room, and there’s Ram Rod, and he comes up to me in typical Ram Rod style, sticks out his hand and says, “Cutler, welcome to Cairo.”

I spent the whole time there without my clothes. My bags didn’t arrive until the day – a month later – that I was leaving Cairo. They showed up at the hotel. For the whole tour, the whole time, I was borrowing clothes. There’s a great picture of me and Ram Rod where I have like one black sock and one gold sock on.

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.