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 2
When I got to Cairo, there wasn’t enough wire, and so Alan Trist and I don’t know who else hooked me up with an engineer from Cairo TV. He and I went in a cab through the back streets of Cairo, all over the place, to these little shops. We’d find one reel of cable; we’d buy it, and then we’d go to some other street and we’d find another one. Most of this cable was World War II surplus stuff that had been sitting there for 35 years by then, and it wasn’t good anymore.
When the concerts came, I was going nuts. I was feeling totally inadequate – they’d sent me all the way over to Egypt to hook up this whole system, and I never got it to work. We’d wire it up, and sometimes I could hear the signal from the truck getting to me. But by the time it went back from the microphone, the shield was broken on the cable, and it was like a giant antenna, picking up Egyptian radio stations.
John Cutler and Dan Healy with Furman audio gear, for a 1983 magazine ad
It it was wonderful for me, though, because I became Mr. Pyramid. I had private access to the Great Pyramid. At five o’clock, tourists no longer. It was my place, and I had one of the Mohammeds – the famous guys that worked there – tall skinny Egyptian dude in a Galabea. When Jerry and Bobby and MG got there one day after five o’clock, I got to bring them up into the pyramids and show them up into the king’s chamber. We had a great time.
The funny thing is – you know, I’m basically a scientist. I’m a very cynical person, and I’m not one of the believers that the pyramids are some great mystical thing. I believe that Jewish slaves built them. I don’t believe that Martians built them – and maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I believe. Everyone else was all like, oh, it’s the pyramids and all this energy, and everything’s incredible – and I was always, you know, pooh-poohing all that. So it was ironic that I became the pyramid guy, because I was the least likely suspect.
So [wiring the pyramid] never worked, and I felt bad Hamza El Din was there, and he said, “Well, did you ask permission?”
I said, “Well, of course I asked permission. We had to go to all these government offices and get all these special approvals.”
“No, that’s not what I’m talking about. Did you ask permission of the gods?”
What could I say?
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.