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Bill Graham-Grateful Dead, October 1984

It was always easy to get Bill Graham to talk about the Grateful Dead! While I was working (with Peter Simon) on my first book, Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead, Bill was kind enough to invite me to his home in Marin County to talk about our mutual friends on October 16, 1984.

BG: There are times when I talk about the Dead, and I go away thinking, “Why did I need so many words?” and “Did I really explain?”

It isn’t just the music. It’s the combination of their audience and the music. I like listening to the Dead driving the car or being at home, but the greatest pleasure I derive is seeing and feeling the effect of their music on whoever’s there. They don’t need to decorate a room; they certainly don’t have to wear tight pants so their crotch looks just right; there are no strobe lights; there are times I wish I’d see different t-shirts on them …

I would say there if there were a hundred exciting, or poignant, or very special, beautiful, sad moments—where the visual, aural, the scent, the essence of the moment were captured, I would say close to half could possibly be attributed to something that happened at a Grateful Dead show. I could tell you the personal highs and public highs from being in a place – The Last Waltz, or the Rolling Stones, or a Dylan piece, or a Santana show in Japan – moments of just pure joy. But what happens at a Dead show is, not only are all the guards dropped, it’s as if the tsouris (Yiddish for troubles), the problem door closes and the fresh air door opens. It’s like saying, “Time out, world – I’m just here to have a good time.” Nobody wants to beat anybody, nobody wants to get the edge on anybody at these shows. 

They’re the artists, and I never try to crowd that. And yet, once a year I partake in the Father Time ritual on New Year’s Eve. That one time a year, for that one minute, I have an idea of what most artists feel like – but I have a much better idea of what the Dead put out. Whatever I’m riding on or flying in on, I am privy to a very rare wave that is always going toward the Dead.  

These Dead fans – many of them don’t know it’s me; it’s not important that it’s me. But whatever Father Time represents, it is the only experience I have, every single year, of X thousands of eyes and hands and bodies exhibiting pure joy. It is clean, it is pure. Every face is happy, one minute a year, at those shows. There is no problem on this planet… It’s got nothing to do with drugs. It’s just this total exuberance. There’s a feeling of… everybody’s going straight up, but somehow touching. They all seem to like each other. There’s a common denominator, and that common denominator is on the stage.

On the New Year’s dates, we started 10-12 years ago answering when somebody’d write from Tokyo asking for tickets… We take a good portion of the tickets and feed those people, who meet once a year at this place. I think last year there were two charter flights from Tokyo, one from Paris, two from London.

Add to that all the people who just migrate here and sleep in the park … You get a real significance of who they are.

These moments that we talk about. At the beginning of the show when they walk out and tune up for a good five minutes – It’s like, “Where’s my shoe?” I always get the feeling that sometimes one of them says, “I’ve established the fact that these are my amplifiers. Is that right?” During that period, in hundreds of different ways, the feeling of familial spirit is evidenced by comments like… one guy will say to the other, “Phil lost weight.” Just like that. Or another guy’ll say, “Same shirt!” But they’re talking about people they’ve never met! They never talk to these people. One may have, somewhere along the line, and when he has, it’s like [claps hands] a ship in a bottle – “I once passed Mickey on the bridge, and he gave me the high sign!”  But it’s not bragging … it’s like family. That is what I’m talking about.