Photograph Henry Hungerland

I was born and grew up in Hawthorne, in South Bay, the Los Angeles area. I couldn’t go to the Beach Boys’ alma mater, I had to go to Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, which was closer to my house. The guitar thing started when my folks were approached by a door-to-door salesman. He was selling a piece-of-crap guitar and a 10-inch amplifier combo, and it included free lessons, for $400. And they bought it for me, because they knew I wanted to learn guitar. It was 1967, and I was a freshman in high school. 

The lessons that came with the guitar happened a block away on Hawthorne Boulevard, and I went to exactly two of them. The instructor was an old hippie guy – he had long hair, some kind of hippie clothing, a tie-dye or something — teaching the lessons, and he mentioned the Grateful Dead to me, saying “you gotta check these guys out. You gotta go see these guys.” When I went up for my third lesson, the old hippie was no longer there, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll see you later.” Never had a lesson since. But he’d advised me to get the first album, their only one at that point. Sure would like to thank that guy. 

 In those days, record players had a switch where you could drop things from the normal 33 rpm to 16 3/4 rpm…which effectively dropped the playback of the record one octave lower. So I would sit there and listen to Garcia’s licks at half speed, and I would copy those licks, and then work on trying to bring them up to speed. So I always have claimed that virtually, Jerry Garcia taught me how to play guitar, because that’s how I learned to play guitar – essentially self-taught by listening to Garcia on those albums at half speed. 

There was no way I could play “Beat It On Down the Line” the way Garcia did it, unless it was at half speed, or “Cold Rain and Snow” or something like that. Eventually, I gained some facility – I was able to play, and that was my learning experience. I never got into music theory or anything like that, but I can play just about anything I want to by ear, and I’m happy with that. I would have loved to have been able to read sheet music, or know a bit more about theory, but so far, so good.

Photograph © Bob Minkin

My first Dead show was November 11, 1967, at the Shrine Exposition Hall, here in L.A. One of the reasons I went was not only for the Dead but that I was a big fan of Blue Cheer, and they were on the bill, along with Buffalo Springfield, believe it or not. What a bill, when you think about it today. I can’t remember who headlined. The poster read, “Amazing Electric Wonders.” 

 I went with high school friends, meaning we were high and we had a great time. And that’s when I got on the bus. I especially remember the light show – the Exposition Hall was a rectangular building with a balcony that went all the way around, and in one corner they had a strobe light. And they had a three-way sound system – a stack on both outer sides and one in the middle. And two stages, so one band would be setting up while the other was playing. I remember not dancing much, maybe for reasons of inebriation. 

I knew right away that the Dead resonated with me – I might have gone to the show a Blue Cheer fanatic, but I left a Deadhead. I said, “I’ve got to explore this” – so I just wore that album out. I went to the Newport Pop Festival the next year. I came up close when the Dead was playing, and during “Feedback” they were all facing their amps and bringing their guitars right up to them, causing that wonderful howl that they did – I was enough of a guitar player to know that this was pretty crazy, creating feedback instead of avoiding it, for musical experimentation. They also had this one beat that kept showing up in so many songs, great for dancing…and I remember thinking that I’d like to re-create this scene, but it would take me to 1987 to get to that place and form Cubensis.

I saw the Dead whenever they came to LA – once I saw them at The Bank in Torrance, which was really intimate, maybe 300 people. It was just a warehouse, I think they built electronics there during the day, and then at night it turned into this concert place. They had an amazing 360-degree light show that was projected from a platform hanging from the ceiling. Eventually the police closed the place down, but they had some great shows there. I saw Pink Floyd there as well. I remember going to Compton Terrace in Arizona and seeing them on some Indian land in those early days. But I was a single father and had kids and a job, so I couldn’t go to many shows in San Francisco. I remember a Chula Vista show that I loved. I saw as many shows as I could, though. 

I graduated high school in 1970, went to El Camino College majoring in journalism, and then my girlfriend got pregnant and I had to get a job quick. Found one at the post office during Christmas rush, and they told me if I showed up every day, and worked hard they’d keep me, and I turned out to have a thirty- year career there as a letter carrier, delivering mail house to house on foot. The band was working, and sometimes I’d get to bed after playing a show at 2:30 and get up at 6:30am to work 10 or 12 hours. It was a little taxing some times.

Before Cubensis, I had two bands, a Top 40 band called Widow, and also an acid rock band called Green Mourning. We played around with not much success, but it was fun. Eventually a group of us were not happy with the frequency with which the Grateful Dead made it to L.A. I think the LAPD gave them a hard time too, which didn’t make them feel welcome. So for our own amusement, we started a band consisting of a friend of my brother’s, my sister’s boyfriend, a kid who lived in front of the rhythm player, a skateboard kid with a mohawk who played bass. We formed a six-piece Dead cover band, just for our own amusement, just getting high and playing music in somebody’s garage. Soon folks started asking us to play parties, and we had a club gig or two, then a festival gig, and all of a sudden we were playing all over the place. And we’re still doing the same thing today. It’s just grown to bigger proportions, with a far bigger audience.

I was the lead player, but I don’t sing Jerry’s parts – I sound like a frog. Other people were happy to take the singing parts. Richard “Chester” Lawson was the rhythm player. He was a Northrup employee. Brian Lerman was the skateboard kid/bassist. We had two drummers, one of which was Gene Aulicino, my high school buddy who I went through Boy Scouts with, and C. W. Causer, was the other drummer, who was my sister’s boyfriend. And we had a fellow named Tim Greutert on keyboards. And that was the first band. 

We did OK. We called ourselves “Sugar Cubensis” (a takeoff on “Sugar Magnolia” and sugar cubes used for taking acid. At some point, some people who were looking for Björk’s band the Sugarcubes were showing up at our shows and getting really pissed that we weren’t them, so we cut it to just Cubensis. The name was C.W.’s idea – we were sitting around a fire on a camping trip and he came up with it.

For the Dead, losing keyboard players has been the curse, but for us, the drummer position has been the hot seat. We’ve lost three drummers to cancer. Gene first, and then C.W. last year, and also Steve Harris.

We got our first club gig up at Club Dead in the Valley, thanks to promoter Kenny Kulber, and then it just kept growing. Our biggest gig so far was around 7,000 people at the Hermosa Beach summer concert series last year. We once had about 3,000 people at a show at the Libby Bowl in Ojai with Vince Welnick appearing with us.

One of the things that attracted me to the Dead’s music was that there were no admission dues to be paid, you were automatically a member of the club just by your desire to be in the club. There weren’t any qualifications – you didn’t have to look a certain way or think a certain way. If you were kind, you were in. As musicians who play Grateful Dead music, there’s just no better thing than to incite happiness in people, get them dancing and enjoying themselves and getting away from life’s troubles for a while. 

The Dead’s music is wonderful. It’s varied, it’s got something for everybody. As you well know, the Dead played country, rock, jazz, improvisational stuff… and it’s almost like they left a little space in the middle of the songs for bands like us to do our improvisations. Like in the middle of “Eyes of the World,” there’s a perfect place to jam—they used it, we use it, DSO uses it. 

Let me tell you the story of the one time I met Garcia. In 1990 we were going to see the Dead in Eugene, Oregon, and our flight stopped over at San Francisco International, and there he was in the gift shop. My girlfriend went up and got an autograph and a hug…but I wasn’t going to bother him, because I figured everybody was always pestering him, but I knew I might not get another chance, so I went up and thanked him for all the good music. I said I was in a band called Cubensis and he nodded his acknowledgement of the name and what it meant. Then I revealed that we played all Grateful Dead music and he laughed in mock surprise and said, “Oh, yeah? So do we!”

I went on to ask him about his guitar effects and he launched a long dissertation about how he set up his effects, much of which was lost on me because I kinda got stage fright at that point because I was talking to “the man”, my favorite guitar player, but hopefully I absorbed some of it on some level. Anyway, I asked him how he felt about us playing his music and he said, “As long as you do a good job of it, go for it.” And nobody could dissuade me from doing it after that, because I received his permission in a way that completely satisfies me.

Photograph Hal Masonberg

Pandemic Update

It seemed to be shortly after January, somewhere in there, and the best I remember and I was struck with fear because when you’re talking about a new virus and a novel virus that we haven’t seen before and may not have any protection against, that’s bad and I worried for my family, and my grandkids and my band mates and humanity in general; but that was it. I probably saw something on CNN or one of the news cable news networks; and then the news just kept getting grimmer as more came out. Trump was in there with his opinion and it was a mess, a scary mess.

We did very few gigs—there aren’t so many outdoor venues down here that aren’t too big for us. You know, something like the Hollywood Bowl or Devore. Those are way too big for our band, so we looked for but could not find a lot of places, except we were back booked for an outdoor show in Hermosa Beach and they cancelled the whole affair. It was a three day weekend, Labor Day thing. They cancelled it a year ago. We did play it this past Labor Day, which was a lot of fun. But, no, there weren’t a lot of places to play. A lot of clubs closed and never reopened. And even the clubs that stayed open were not presenting live music, so there was quite a period of time there where we didn’t play and I actually sat the guitar aside for a while and I regretted it, because I lost my callouses which is, you know, a terrible thing to do if you’re a guitar player. When we started playing again I had a period of months which were painful. Literally painful, because playing again my fingers were tender. It was depressing and it seemed a bit hopeless. There seemed to be not much reason to keep my chops up. Now, in retrospect, I could have, you know, learned a bit of—gotten better, and I could have used that time to maybe learn a new style, Flamenco or something like that, but, unfortunately, I didn’t see the wisdom of it at the time. 

Outside of my fingers, returning was very pleasant. It was good to get back and it was surprising in a way how much we all remembered having played for so long and, you know, stopped counting at like four thousand Cubensis shows. It doesn’t make any sense to count anymore. So we say we’re upwards of four thousand. But it was surprising how muscle memory and whatever other processes were working to help us remember chords and passages and stuff like that. Once in a while on some of the trickier songs like “Lazy Lightnin’” or something I would get caught—So at that point I did the wise thing and just stopped playing and hopefully somebody else in the band knew the transition or whatever and then I would rejoin the band. So those are fun moments. Fun moment of panic. 

But we’ve been playing now almost every weekend, sometimes several time a weekend. Pretty steadily now, since April this year. Masked typically until we get on stage, of course it’s virtually impossible to sing with a mask on. 

I was watching some Phil Lesh. I guess it was the Family Band and poor John Molo was wearing a mask the whole time and I don’t know how in the world he could breathe or get any oxygen. He’s probably working harder than anybody else in that band, too. Two years ago, I don’t know if you know this, I fell on stage at the Mint in LA and I tripped over a cable and broke my right arm, and I finished the show, dammit, two more songs. I played with this broke, very broken arm as it turned out. And I had to have surgery on it and I have 11 pins and a plate in the shoulder area. So I had a good five six months off before I returned to the stage and we had some fillins. And then some shows the guys just did as a fivepiece. When I was able to return, that was two years ago on Halloween night. And I was doing a good deed, too. The guys had into drums and one of my drummers asked me to bring him a tequila shot. So dutifully I was coming back up the stage with a shot in hand, tripped and unfortunately that led me to fall on my elbow which jammed this arm, the arm up and broke here and so I really did a number on my shoulder—I can tell you when the weather is going to change now. 

Sure does make me appreciate being able to play, especially places like Ventura. Ever since I saw the Dead in Ventura in 1985, which was a wonderful experience on a number of levels, that’s been a favorite memory and a favorite destination too—beach side venue, nice cool breezes, lots of room, not too much trouble with the police. And the fact that we’re back in the very same place that, you know, that Grateful Dead played on the same, you know, kicking up the same dirt. But we really did, after two year of cancellations, we really need a Skull & Roses; and I’m so glad that fingers crossed, it appears to be happening.