This is an excerpt from Improvised Lives: Grateful Dead 1972-1985, my book of photos and stories that will be published later this year.
Everything changed for me after I got pulled ears-first onto the Grateful Dead bus. Before then, I was a half-assed college student more interested in playing my guitar and getting a girlfriend (trying to use the former to achieve the latter, as fumble-hearted teenagers are wont to do). I played the steak-and-lobster circuit and railed against loud electric music with all the fervor one might expect from a kid who couldn’t afford an amplifier.
The Dead showed me the incredible variety of sonic textures available with electric instruments; their refusal to narrow their ambit to make themselves more marketable had obviously paid off for them. I was also impressed with the fact that they didn’t talk down to their audience (nor talk at all, most of the time). Most of their songs didn’t sound like anything else I was hearing, and they drew material from a tremendous variety of sources, many of which were familiar to me but some of which were whole new turf. Their concerts ran for several hours and included originals, covers, and lots of jamming.
I had very little grasp of what was going on in those long instrumental passages. It took me a few years to begin to understand that I was witnessing a musical conversation unfolding in real time: improvising within a structure.
I can’t say for sure how I decided I needed to go to multiple shows, but somehow I knew. (The first book about the band, Hank Harrison’s The Dead Book, didn’t appear until 1973.) When the Dead announced a run of three shows at the Berkeley Community Theater in August of ‘72, Donnelly and I camped out overnight at the San Jose Box Office and scored seats that were close to the stage but off to the side. We went back for tickets to the fourth show that was added later – but completely missed word of a show in our own town that took place a few days before the Berkeley run.
Four shows in five days, a more manageable level of psychedelic consumption, and a highly motivated musician watching closely from the fourth row. It felt very special and magical to me. I began to get a handle on the uniqueness of Bob Weir’s rhythm guitar style, the fact that there were two lead singers, the blending of originals with nicely reimagined cover songs, etc. Jerry Garcia was the focus onstage most of the time, but it wasn’t because he was calling attention to himself.
In 1973, I followed my heart to Berkeley, and my high school pal Ernie Yoshioka introduced me to a group of his former Cal classmates who played Grateful Dead music. (I was in and out of bands with two of those guys, Al Feldstein and Bob Nakamine, for decades.) Through that crowd I was introduced to more of the Deadhead culture, got much more deeply into the way this music is made, and started collecting tapes of Dead shows, which pulled me even further into this unique and deeply satisfying way of making music. My playing, singing, and writing all began to evolve rapidly as my connection with this music deepened.
In 1972, I was using a camera borrowed from work. I didn’t get a camera of my own until my 21st birthday in October 1974, when I received a Nikkormat FTn and a nice, fast 50mm f1.2 lens. By the time I started working as a music journalist in 1976, I had a camera with me at all times.
Journalism was something of a detour from my original life path, but it was a necessary and deeply enriching trip.
I dropped out of college in 1972 because all I wanted to do was play music. I was on some sort of path toward a career as a singer-songwriter—I had a young would-be music publisher interested enough to pay for studio time to record demos of my songs (none of which ever got sold, recorded, or published— but I was in no way prepared to approach the music business in a mature and rational way.
In 1976 I got a job at BASS Tickets in Oakland, which gave me access to shows, and around the same time I started writing for BAM magazine, which gave me access to musicians, producers, engineers, and other sources of practical knowledge. In the winter of 1978, the BASS job turned into a travel gig: I was one of the first people on Earth who knew how to operate their new computer ticket system, so I was hired to go to new installations to manage and train the operations staff and ticket sellers. For three years or so I was on the road for two months at a time, which took me out of the performance scene at home. I played with my friends whenever I was off the road – mostly just jamming in garages rather than playing gigs – and I didn’t do much solo stuff at all for many years.
When the BASS job ended in 1980, I had a choice: get a job as a computer geek in some corporation (though I really didn’t have any training, I could definitely have found work in that rapidly expanding field) or take the pile of tearsheets I had accumulated in four years as a contributing editor at BAM and look for more writing gigs. I wound up with two cool editorships: music editor of Mix, The Recording Industry Magazine (after MI, a failed Mix offshoot aimed at working musicians, was folded into the parent publication), and musical instruments columnist for Record, a music magazine started by Rolling Stone at the end of 1981.
The Record gig evolved nicely. Editor David McGee saw some potential in me and nurtured it beautifully, coaching me in marathon phone calls between NYC and Oakland. “You buried the lede! Move this bit to the top, rewrite this, ditch that…” We worked together intimately for a couple of years before I ever saw his face. David McGee is the best teacher I ever had.
I got a million-dollar college education in the early ‘80s, interviewing mainstream stars like Rod Stewart, Joe Walsh, Randy Newman, Pat Benatar, Ric Ocasek, Ozzy Osbourne (for the cover of Relix!); up-and-comers like Marshall Crenshaw, Was (Not Was), the Plimsouls, Men at Work; and industry giants Leo Fender, Les Paul; and others. I brought my camera along most of the time, and I sold a lot of photos along with my interviews and articles.
My affinity for Grateful Dead music has served me well. I came into the Dead culture first as a fan, and then as a journalist. As I moved farther into that world, I let my other music-journalism gigs go. After Jerry Garcia died in 1995 I thought The Grateful Dead Hour would wind down, but the fans remained interested, the band members kept playing on their own and in various combinations, and the radio stations continued to air the show. I would not have predicted that today, decades after Jerry left us, the culture of the Grateful Dead would be even deeper and more widespread than it was then. Today I host two radio Dead-oriented radio shows—The Grateful Dead Hour and SiriusXM’s Tales from the Golden Road—and there are hundreds of Grateful Dead tribute bands keeping this conversation alive from coast to coast, and in Europe and Japan, too. Jerry agreed with Blair Jackson and me in our 1981 interview that this music would outlive the people who invented it. I am pleased to participate in that process, as a musician and as a historian.