Ozzie Ahlers played keyboards with the Jerry Garcia Band from October 1979 to August 1980, between the tenures of Jerry’s longtime partners Merl Saunders and Melvin Seals. He was in the band that made the live album After Midnight: Kean College, 2/28/80, which includes that wonderful medley of the title track and “Eleanor Rigby.” I interviewed him on the phone for the liner notes of GarciaLive vol. 1, also culled from that winter 1980 tour. Here are some edited excerpts.
Ozzie Ahlers – phone interview 11/28/12
I was playing with Robert Hunter. Jerry had me over to the rehearsal studio a few times. He had a keyboard setup over there, and just said he wanted to jam.
The Godchauxs left the Dead in February 1979, during your time with Hunter. Did you try out for the Dead?
No. I had a talk with [Rock] Scully about that. I didn’t want to die! I told him, straight up! I looked at their history. I looked at what was going on with them, and it just didn’t feel right. And honestly, I didn’t like the music. I’m not an elitist; I don’t think I’m a better player than any of them. I didn’t dig what was going on with it, and so – foolish musician that I was – I wasn’t interested in the gig, whether it was going to be offered to me or not.
If I was approached now, I’d take the gig. Knowing what I know about music, it’s okay to play with anybody. But a younger guy decided not to. I was glad I played with Jerry. Jerry wanted to play, and play, and play, and then go home.
We got together at the warehouse. We got together [maybe] two times before he said, “We’ve got a gig” at the Keystone or something like that.
Did he give you a set list?
Oh, sure. He said, “Here’s about 15 songs that I like to do.” A couple of them were Dylan songs, so I already knew them. A couple were Grateful Dead songs, kind of folk songs with half-measures left out of them and stuff like that.
My first impression playing with Jerry was, This is not the Grateful Dead. It was basically Jerry stretchin’ out. He was such a giving, easy-going guy, always smiling. The tours were pretty much that way: no stress. He let Parish stake the stress.
Jerry was a musicologist. He loved stuff. Therein lies the deep friendship with Kahn. They were like brothers, as far as I can see. Musically, they got on so well. Kahn was another musicologist. His record collection filled two rooms of the house. Deep, weird stuff.
I was a Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes player, but when I got in Jerry’s band he said, “Look, I really want you to experiment with sound.” I had an Oberheim [synthesizer], and I think he had one, or Kahn had one. I would have been more comfortable on Rhodes and B3, especially since those guys had roadies and they’d take care of it. That would have been great. But Jerry wanted to experiment.
Did Jerry hang out on tour, or did he keep to himself?
He hung out big time. We didn’t spend all of our time together. We all marched in and out of each other’s dressing rooms; I had breakfast with him a couple of different times – usually around 1:00 in the afternoon.
We were both science fiction fans. He carried numerous science fiction books. He usually had more paperbacks than clothes! A couple of black t-shirts, some underwear, and science fiction books. That’s something we had to talk about outside of music. Playing together was fun, but you want to chat about other things.
I had met Theodore Sturgeon [author of More Than Human, a novel that posited a human gestalt—which had earlier inspired the nascent Grateful Dead to pursue the notion of performing as a single group mind], who lived somewhere outside of Woodstock. I met his daughter; she invited me over for lunch, and I met Theodore Sturgeon. When I told that to Jerry, his jaw dropped. “You met him?”
Jerry was a gracious, giving, funny guy. His experimentation in music was refreshing to me. Playing the JGB was really good. He just wanted to experiment—just go and go and go and see what’s gonna happen in the next chorus. And to have eight or ten thousand people watching this go on…
How did your time end?
I wanted to join a band called the Average Beach Band. Lorin Rowan, Jimmy Dillon. We really had an idea of what we wanted to do, and I—fool that I was at 32—I decided it was important that I follow my dream. The Average Beach Band became The Edge. I was not following money or fame or whatever that is – I was following my musical heart. When I started jamming with Lorin and Jimmy, something happened that hadn’t happened that hadn’t happened for many years before that. Jerry was fun, but it was Jerry and his selection.