Bill Walton

Bob Weir and Bill Walton
Photograph by Susana Millman

I grew up in a house of radio.  We didn’t have a television.  We had a radio. My parents were classical musicians and my dad was a player. He was also a singer. I was 15-years-old the first time that I heard about the Grateful Dead. It was 1967 and we just stumbled across FM radio. I was 15 and I had an AM transistor radio where I found Chick Hearn (the announcer for the L.A. Lakers). That opened up a whole new world for me. We soon found the FM rock and roll station here in San Diego, KPRI. I remember jamming when the disc jockey says, ‘Boys and girls, that’s a new band from San Francisco. They call themselves the Grateful Dead.’  And oh, my God, and that was the beginning.  

When we heard on the radio that there was going to be a concert in Los Angeles, which for us in San Diego was a universe away,we said hey man, this is the Grateful Dead. Let’s go. And so we got there and we had nothing.  We had no money, no tickets, no clothes.  We had shorts and a T‑shirt, and that’s all we had, and we somehow got in and to the front of the stage. I never left.  It was a remarkable experience of everything that I have come to know and love in life: hope, joy, celebration, community, purpose, help, activity, constant motion, being part of something bigger than just your own individual lives and of course, just how happy everybody was.

We didn’t even know there were different places for concerts.  We just thought that it was the place that we were.  Being a Dead Head is very, you know, it’s different for everybody.  For me it’s been a spiritual journey of love. Love of life, love of fun, love of happiness, love of service, love of stories, love of hoping to ease and lift the burden, love of trying to figure things out. 

And then, you know, one of the great things about the Grateful Dead — and it’s an endless list — is that they played all the time.  You did not have to wait long for the next concert. They were all over California all the time and we went to everyone we could.  And, you know, we had our limitations because nobody had any money.  But that really didn’t stop us. Whether they were playing in West Los Angeles, UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, The Long Beach Arena, The Shrine, out in San Bernardino, San Diego, wherever. Wherever we could get to, we went.   

Dennis McNally: So let me tell you a story. I’m reasonably sure that Ram Rod (the Dead crew’s senior member and spiritual leader) told me this and I think I have it accurately.  So there would be a time shortly before the show started where the crew would have done everything they had to do and they’d sort of be standing around being bored until the show started and at that point, you know, they could sort of look for trouble if they wanted to.  And so they’re at this point and they’re looking out in the audience and they see what they think is a guy standing on a seat. I think it was in Portland at The Paramount. 

They see a guy standing on a seat; and, of course, they immediately call over a security guard and say, “Tell that guy to get off the seat”. 
And the guy comes back and says, “Uh, he’s not standing on the seat.” 
And they say, “Oh, well, then we might as well put him on stage. Let’s have some sympathy for the people behind him.”  

And, of course, that was you, and they brought you up on stage. Is that the way you met the band? 

Bill Walton:  Yes, that is the way I met the band.

Dennis McNally: Well, you know, Ram Rod never lied, so that makes sense. 

Bill Walton:  I’ll give you just a few more details. So it was in Portland in August.  I had just joined the NBA.  I had moved to Oregon, living in Portland, saw the news in the newspaper and said, ‘I got to go’.  So I got down there early and waited in line and bought a ticket, got in early and, you know, raced in and got a perfect seat, you know, ten rows back, right in the middle, where I still love it today. 

The show started, and they kept asking why everybody was sitting down except for that one big guy with the red hair. “He’s really tall.” It was me. And they said, ‘Get him out of there. He’s blocking everybody’s view, please.”

So they sent somebody out with backstage passes and told me the band would appreciate it if I came back to watch them from stage, because I was blocking everybody’s view. I said I wasn’t leaving…I loved the crowd. They said, ‘Well… come back at halftime,” so I did and met then all and they have all become my best friends.

Dennis McNally: We met at Ventura when you went to take a walk out through the crowd and just around, and Frances (Shurtleff, Ram Rod’s wife) sort of said, go with him, he, you know, he might be bothered.  It was like, oh yeah, yeah.  (A), I mean, it could only be friendly; but, (B), yeah right, I’m his bodyguard?  What?  But Frances was Frances, so I wouldn’t want to disappoint her.  So I took a walk with you.

Bill Walton:  No, the Grateful Dead crowd is remarkable and the level of kindness and patience and love and joy and happiness and all the stuff we listed before is just —it’s overwhelming and it is so inclusive and so warm and so inspirational. I loved being in the crowd for  shows. And up on stage you can’t see anything, you can’t hear anything.

And we have to pay special tribute to all the different sound guys over the years, currently Derrick, because one of the endless things that I love about the Grateful Dead is that the sound is always perfect. 

And not every band, not every artist has that incredibly unique standard of excellence, perfection and brilliance in terms of the quality of the sound.  And that doesn’t even begin to mention how spectacular the lights are. The light show and how the visuals impact the entire experience.  And what they’ve done now. I’m trying to think of the name of that group in Atlanta; what’s the light people now?  Filament Productions.     

Here’s one thing I learned from Jerry and the band.  You know, it’s been 53 years since I’ve been going, and hopefully I’ve changed for the better. I always used to bug the entire band about what they were going to play, where they were going to play, when they were going to play.  And they would just kind of patiently listen and nod; and, finally, just wave me on. “Yeah Bill, we got this.”

And then, you know, if I ever got one song, if I ever even got a measure of a tease of a song, I would just feel so happy and so proud.  Or if they ever announced the tours of places that I had been begging for them to go, this is just the greatest. But I have completely changed.  Now I don’t care where they play.  I don’t care when they play.  I don’t care what they play.  I just care that they play at all.  And I care how they play.  And the playing today is just spectacular and fantastic.     

I remember one time fairly recently when we were out. We went to the start of one of the tours, one of the recent tours.  We were in Las Vegas and it was ‑‑  you know, it was spectacularly fun and everything, and late in the show they flowed into “Black Peter,” and I’m just there and it’s just, like, overwhelming me with every emotion possible. I had just tears; tears of life streaming down my cheeks. I turned to my wife Lori and I said, we’re going to go to every show the rest of this tour, and we did.  We just cancelled everything, changed everything in our lives and we just went on tour for the whole time.

But I don’t like to talk to other people during the show about anything. It’s always sad when the show is over, and the tour is over.  You always want more, but I always just ‑‑ I always just stand there and reflect for a moment, just a moment of pride, of loyalty, of gratitude, and I just say to myself, you know, man, I’m with those guys.  And then we raced out and went to the next show. 

Dennis McNally: So tell me a story. You got to take part in one of the bands’, maybe, all‑time greatest adventures, namely Egypt.

Bill Walton:  Okay.  So wait.  Let me just back up on that.

Dennis McNally: Okay. 

Bill Walton:  Don’t rank and rate and compare the adventures, because it’s all an adventure.

Dennis McNally: Fair enough. But Egypt was exceptional.

Bill Walton:  Egypt was over the top.  It was so fun.  I was having a very hard time, physically.I was on crutches as a result of a playing injury and was on a non‑weight‑bearing cast, so it was tough.  I was emotionally, spiritually, mentally broken, because of the way that my injury had happened.  And the guys were all, you know, very insistent. “Hey man, Bill, we know this is a really tough time for you, and so just come to Egypt.  Let’s go.” And so I did, and I was fantastic, and I had the time of my life.  And they couldn’t have been nicer, every single one of them. I was able to loosen the slipknot on my soul and I was healed.  And it was a fantastic moment and I was able to get up and get started again, and long live the Grateful Dead.

And it was not just the concerts. It’s never just the concerts.  It’s all the things you do.  You know, getting there, the incredible cultural differences.  And [in Egypt] the crowds were very sparse.  It was not a huge venue.  It was not overwhelmingly crowded.  I could not move around as much as I would have liked to, but I was able to get on the camels and I was able to go to all the historical and cultural sites. [I met] the families and friends and the Mena House where everyone stayed. They went on that boat trip right after, right after they left and I said, I got to get back.  I got to go home.  And I —  I should have just stayed.  I should have just stayed forever. Not in Egypt, just with the Grateful Dead.

I’m just a fan. I’m a fan who loves the Grateful Dead and who has been most fortunate and privileged to get to know this remarkable and eclectic and electric group of spiritual warriors, guys who are out there changing the world on a constant basis.  And what could be better for me and to be ‑‑ to be able just to do that and to be able to have spent so much of my time ‑‑ to be able to have spent so much of my life, you know, on tour …  It’s been one of ‑‑ one of the greatest thrills, privileges and honors of my life.

Dennis McNally: Mine, too. So the Grateful Dead were playing in San Diego in 1980. And I know there was a party scheduled at your house after the show. And there were certain inconveniences that were visited upon the band that night.

WALTON:  It was a setup.  That was one of the lowest moments in my life.  I mean, it was in my hometown, in the arena that I played so much basketball in, and it was the Grateful Dead. It was just a remarkable celebration of everything created in the world.  And then at the end, the cops took everybody (road manager Danny Rifkin, Bob Weir, and Mickey Hart) to jail.  Everybody was headed to my house, and it was an absolute nightmare and disaster.  It still haunts me to this day.

I was personally saved by Bill Kreutzmann, who was the first to realize that it was a setup. As everybody else was getting sucked into this vortex of evil, he just put his hand on the inside of my elbow and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Dennis McNally: Smart guy, Bill.  I understand that in addition to all of your other current professional obligations, you’ve taken on the job of being third drummer in the Electric Waste Band.

Bill Walton:  The other drummers are Ed Fletcher and Danny Campbell, and they are fantastic. I love the Electric Waste Band. I’ve been a fan of theirs for, I’m going to say, 30 years, maybe a little bit more.  If you remember, you forget when. But they play regularly down the street at Ocean Beach. try to play with them as much as I possibly can and I love it and anybody who knows anything will tell you, I have no talent.  I have no skill, but I love to play.  And I work really, really hard at it. 

Dennis McNally: I’m going to talk to Bob (Harvey, of the Waste Band) and maybe we can get you a mic for next year’s Skull & Roses. 

Bill Walton, Mill Valley, CA Photograph © Bob Minkin

Pandemic Update

The first days are the hardest days—don’t worry any more,  
When life looks like easy street—there is danger at your door

The devastating power of the pandemic became clear to me early on. We were in Las Vegas with the Pac 12 Basketball tournament on March 11, 2020. We were minding our business, tending to the job at hand, but we could see this giant tsunami coming straight toward us. During our game that night, the news scrolled that the NBA had suspended all activities.

We looked at each other, and nodded to ourselves, realizing woefully, that we’re about to be next.

The next morning the powers that be called us together and said that everything was put on hold and to get home as quickly as possible. Lori and I caught the next flight out to San Diego and we stayed there, with no place to go but just to hang around—for 15 months. 

Everything in life—for goodness to succeed and flourish—requires superb servant leadership. We did not have that at the beginning…But the leadership has changed. And now things are incalculably and immeasurably better.

My business world is live events… we were the first to go. And we’ll be the last to come back. 

So while the Pac-12 and ESPN have continued to broadcast, things have changed, and our challenge is be out in front of that change. Fortunately, we have terrific leadership with those giant media and entertainment companies.

We’re doing everything we can to continue to provide the content and the substance of what it is that we do and who we are; but with every challenge that we face, we must find a new path forward. We have to make different better. And we have to do what’s never been done before. No problem.

Dennis McNally: No pressure.  

Bill Walton:  I love pressure.

I’ve been doing most of everything that I normally do, just different, and without the travel. I have become an expert on Zoom. My technology skills have improved dramatically. 

I have plenty of experience in having to start over. COVID19 was the 21st time that I’ve been forced to start over in my life.

I know from experience that you have to have a dream, a goal, and a plan. You have to have a coach, a teacher, a leader; preferably someone who’s on their way back from where you want to go.

You have to be a part of a team.  Nobody makes it to the top alone. You have to completely immerse yourself in the culture of the team. You have to build your own personal foundation. The strength of the team is based on the strength of the individual.

And then you have to lead a life of honor, sacrifice and discipline. In a group dynamic, those three elements are critical and essential.

On an individual micro-level, I need to work on my own personal orthopedic health on a constant basis—it’s always a challenge. Fortunately, we have a lot of the stuff that I need right here at the house, where we’ve been for 42 years. We’ve got the water. We’ve got the work-out gym.  Fortunately, one of the things that was allowed throughout the pandemic was being able to go out and ride your bike.I could and did do that. I’m a long-time and regular bike rider. My bicycle is my gym, my church, and my wheelchair all in one.  

I’ve learned what my medicine is over the course of my now 68 years.

I’m always sick of something, or somebody. My medicine is participation in sports—- the ones that I can do. There is a lot that I can’t do any longer; but I focus on the things that I can do. So participation in sports with the team, with the group and then, I listen to the music play.

I listen to music constantly. I also read lots of books.  I’m the son of an educator, musician and librarian.

I am also an avid and active plant collector. We have a wonderful, beautiful, diverse and healing garden.

And then we also always focus a lot on helping those in need.  COVID19 destroyed so much of everything, including hope. One of things we did immediately was to start a new program that we call Bike For Humanity. We’ve already had four different virtual events since the pandemic started and have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide food, shelter, athletic equipment, and medical supplies and care. We do whatever we can to lift the burden and ease the pain.

And then, in our ongoing efforts to make my home town, San Diego, the best place possible, we continue to refurbish public parks and recreation centers. We raise the money and fix them up. We’re currently redoing South Mission Beach Sports Park, which we initially created back in the late 1990s.

We also just finished a major renovation of the public park and recreation center where I started playing sports and basketball in 1960, It’s where I found my very first coach. Rocky was instrumental in putting me on the path to where, and who, I am today. 

We constantly raise money for scholarships for people who have been negatively impacted by substance and chemical abuse —— whether it’s their own or a family member.  We’re part of an initiative, the Brad Fowler Memorial Scholarship Program, that provides college scholarships to people who are in trouble and need.

We are currently working on the Filo Fest, raising money for the people who work so hard to put on the shows and live events that we all live for. The people who are the first ones there and in, and are also there to the very end, before they’re finally out the door. All of these incredible first in—last out souls have been completely shutdown by the coronavirus. They are in dire need of our help. No shows, means no work, means no income, and that equals yikes. The Filo Fest is being hosted on our Bike For Humanity platform in conjunction with Events.com

I’m also the long-term volunteer executive chairman and director of San Diego Sport Innovators (SDSI)—- a nonprofit business accelerating trade organization that helps guide the vibrant sports and active lifestyle economy here in San Diego. We represent 1,200 companies that are responsible for some $4Billion in annual economic activity here in San Diego.

I’m also a long time and active board member for Clean Tech San Diego (CTSD), which comprises all of the renewable energy companies and all of the people and companies that are working diligently, tirelessly, and endlessly to provide a sustainable opportunity for the future for our world. 

And I work with Stellar Solar, San Diego’s #1 solar company. And I’m an ambassador for U.C. San Diego, UCSD Health System. UCSD Health saved my life when I had my spine surgery more than a dozen years ago.

And I helped create an incalculable and immeasurable number of movies, documentaries, commercials, videos, PSA’s, blogs, interviews, speeches, presentations, webinars, memorabilia projects, consulting, advising, and content creation—for corporations, media companies, non-profits, NGO’s, schools, faith-based groups, friends, friends of friends, and a lot more. I lost track of the number of graduation speeches I gave.  And we did endless and non-stop fundraisers for all of the initiatives and nonprofits that Lori volunteers for.

We have 6 adult children and now 14 grandchildren. Lori’s parents (98 and 93) live with us. And my Mom (94) lives 10 minutes away, still in our forever family home, for the last 69 years. Lori and I take care of both sets of our aging and still very much alive parents.

Other than this, there’s not much going on.

Dennis McNally: Actually Bill, I have only one other question. One of the things you love the most is sitting in with the EWB. I gather you have not done that in the last year?

No, we followed all of the rules, protocols, directives and guidelines of the CDC. Lori and I were the poster people for following the Covid rules.

But now that I’m fully vaccinated and have the necessary anti-bodies, I have just recently started back up again with our band and my guys.

Dennis McNally: But you have started up again, correct ? It must be fun. 

Yes.  And I love it. I’m playing again, outside, with the fans, now that they’re back.

The Electric Waste Band, during the lock-down, did continue their ongoing streak of 30plus years at Winston’s, but that was with no fans. It was virtual, on a live stream.

I’m a fan-guy. I love the people. I love the interaction between the musicians and the fans.  Now that the EWB has started playing every Sunday at noon on San Diego’s Mission Bay at the Aquarius at Quivera Point, I’m there every weekend, and we’re back to being a rare and different band, while remaining a spiritual force of nature like few others. 

When I wasn’t playing with the EWB, I was able to go back to practicing the drums and the piano. I practiced on my own, as much as I could, for the entirety of the pandemic-induced lock-down.

I do have to regularly ask myself—where does the time go.