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.