Rob Eaton Interview

I became a Deadhead it was Christmas of ’72, ’73. I was a Duane Allman fan before that, right after Duane had died. My stepbrother at the time, who was only my stepbrother for maybe a couple of years, gave me Europe ’72 for Christmas and I played that right I went to bed and played the record all night long with headphones on. The next day I went to my mother and told her, while she was cleaning up Christmas dinner the next day, I said ‘I want a guitar’ and she said, ‘Well, Rob, Christmas was yesterday.’ 

But I didn’t know the hierarchy of how the Dead players played you know, what they were playing. I came from the Allman Brothers school which was each guitar player played rhythm or lead depending on what part of the song it was. So I didn’t understand the concept of Bob and Jerry doing different things; but what I heard on the record—I didn’t know who it was—was Weir’s playing. And that became very—it’s like I understood exactly what it was and why it was. I never really studied Weir, I just wouldn’t know any other way to play. That’s when I became a Dead Head. 

And for me, the community—you know, I started seeing shows in the 70s, which was obviously a little bit different from how it sort of ended up in the ‘90s. For me, when I was at a show, it was the one place that I knew where you could go and be whoever you were. You checked your politics. You checked your sexual orientation. All that stuff got checked at the door. Everybody was there for the same reason, and when the energy was good, it was better than any drug you could ever take. It cut the room with a knife, it was so thick. I think that energy alone, it’s the only place I’ve ever seen it, so what it meant what the Dead’s community meant to me and the Dead itself was this enormous emotional response to what was going on; and it’s one of those very rare things that I can’t say that I’ve found anywhere else. 

Photograph by © Bob Minkin

I started seeing multiple nights in ’77, spring of ’77. And then from there on, of course ’78; but I was—I remember shows like Dartmouth College and RPI Fieldhouse, little spots. You know, little 2,500 to 3,000 seat places. I didn’t go to all the shows because I wanted to see every show. I went to all the shows because I didn’t want to miss the one where it all came together. I didn’t want to travel all that much, but I didn’t want my friends to say the next day, oh, you missed the Big One or something like that. And it was low key. In the mid 70s, ’76, ’77, there was no parking lot scene. Once the show started, it was a desert out front. 

So then I started taping. I was always kind of a techno geek. Even as a kid, I would modify reel to reels and cassette decks that I would swipe from school when was a freshman, and try to wire microphones and do that to bring to shows. I don’t think I was really very good until probably ’79. I think my earlier tapes are, you know, for a 13 year old kid, nothing I would never play for anybody. But taping was—it was just a fun hobby. You know, tape trading in the day, was very social, on tour and off tour. You were shipping tapes back and forth, you were sending lists around and keeping updates. It was fun. It was a hobby. It beat a lot of other things I could have been doing. After a show, everybody would have a suitcase with tapes from other places to trade and we just sit there and line the decks up in the hotel rooms and spin ‘em. We would have six, seven people to a room. 

I was working at—I was a staff engineer at the Power Station Studios in New York City. And Billy Rothschild was one of our techs, you know, he fixed the machines and stuff. Billy ended up being on the Dead’s road crew, of course… [He was hired to be Brent’s tech, came to California… and Brent died.]. I was working with Duran Duran, and Cassidy [Law, daughter of Eileen Law of the G.D. office staff, after whom the song “Cassidy” was named.] was about 13 or 12. She was a big Duran Duran fan. So Billy said to me, “Hey, you know, if you want tickets to shows, you know, why don’t you send some music to Cassidy,” which I did. I sent it all off to Eileen, and, of course, I never paid for a ticket again after that, I think. 

This was probably the late ’80s when the first set of Betty Boards started circulating on PCM. I spoke to Eileen, I said, “By the way, I have access to master copies of these; I can’t have the reels, but I can get the masters.” She goes, “Well, let me put you in touch with Dick.” That’s pretty much how it started. I think that might have been ’87 or ’88, maybe ’88. It’s all a little fuzzy back then, but Dick and I became good friends right away, all the way until his death, obviously. Listening sessions with Dick were always interesting, because you weren’t allowed to talk, which was fine with me. If someone was talking while he was playing a tape, he would get very upset to that. You were there to listen. You weren’t there to talk. 

McNally: Tell me about the transition to Dark Star Orchestra. 

We were playing at a Dick’s Picks Release Party at the Wetlands. 

Early on he used to travel around the country to a couple cities and do these playback parties. So we were playing at a Wetlands Dick’s Mix Release Party which was over the course of two days. Dick was staying at my house, and the Zen Tricksters were the other band, so that would have been Rob Barraco and Jeff Mattson. My band, Border Legion, had Skip, who is DSO’s bass player, and we were rival Dead bands back in the east coast. David Gans was hosting it, because Dick wasn’t very good at that kind of thing. Dick would talk. We would play. So to make a long story short, about a year later, or two years later, I got a call from Scott Larner, who was the keyboard player, the original DSO keyboard player. He had said he had gotten my number and stuff from David Gans, and that David Gans had seen me play in New York and was recommending me to them. So I—that’s how I got found by Dark Star— it was just by chance though we can blame Gans for this too. He gave the number and Scott called and I said no at first and about six months later the second time I was working for Ricky Martin in Florida hating every minute of it. So I’m like, okay, you know what, let me try something different. That was twenty years ago. 

Photograph by © Bob Minkin

And the great thing about playing in DSO is that you don’t have to play the same thing twice. Every time you play—I could play Sugar Magnolia seven days in a row and each one is going to be a little different somehow. Because there is no right or wrong way to play it. You just play it. So for me it’s mostly about me getting off. It’s really a selfish thing, honestly, because it makes me feel good, you know, when I’m playing; and I hope somehow that translates to somebody else in the audience. That’s all I can do. 

As far as DSO’s equipment obsession, again, I’m a tech geek. When I was in 7th grade and 8th grade I would be drawing on my books and I’d be drawing walls of sound. And still to this day you know the gear is everything. The better the gear, the better the tones. You can’t recreate some of these tones without having certain gear. and that’s part of the sound. The sound of the Dead is gear. It always was. I mean, that’s why he had Healy build us the mic’ing system so when we step off the pads all the vocal mics go dead. You know stuff like that that most people don’t do or don’t even really know about. We’ve taken all that and embraced it and sort of run with it a little bit.

Pandemic Update

You know, when our first tour got cancelled, which would have been an April tour—we didn’t get home from our last West Coast tour until February 25th. By the time we got home it really wasn’t a thing yet. It took a couple of weeks before a lot of the case numbers started rising and things started shutting down and Vail resorts here, where I live in Vail, started shutting down on the 15th of March. So the enormity didn’t really hit because I don’t think any of us knew how long it was going to last. We all hoped by the summer we would be back to normal…. Some people were saying, well by the fall, and some people were saying well this year is shot, let’s start looking at next year, and I don’t think anyone really knew where we were going in terms of how much work we would lose and how much time off the road we would lose, but I don’t think anybody predicted that we would be still— we’re almost May 1st of 2021 and I’ve done 15 DSO shows and maybe four other shows in over a year and that’s kind of unheard of for us.

I think my wife and my daughter probably—they’ve never known me to be home this long and be with them so I think that was a little bit of a shock. But you know we’re all really glad to be back on the road now. Bobby told me after I had my wrist problem, he said, “Well, you know, taking some time off from the music sometimes gives you a fresh perspective on it later.” I’m like okay, great, that sounds fantastic for a guy that can’t play guitar. We all now—we all realize we’ve never had this kind of break in our entire lives and we always wanted to take one, but we’ve never taken it because we got bills or this or that commitment. So we were kind of forced to stop.

So in a way it’s been a blessing and a curse at the same time, you know. We made almost no money as musicians last year but got a chance to spend quality time at home which we never get to do. So I try to look at that glass half full, so I got all this sort of enlightenment from being home for a year and now I’m ready to get back on the road and do what I do.

Dennis: Did you practice a lot?

I think the reality of it is because touring musicians like myself and other people like myself, so much of our lives are spent with an instrument in our hands, that sometimes between tours, after being on the road for a month I might not pick up a guitar for ten days. I would do other things, play some golf or go hiking or do other things that I don’t normally do. The guitar is always going to be there. I think, for me, personally, by spending a lot of time woodshedding with the guitar, which I did early on, I only got frustrated because there was no place to take what I’ve been learning— I’m almost 60 years old. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I’m not 20, where I need to spend 30 hours a week shedding in my room, and I would do that and then realize that you know in nine months I’m still not playing, what does it all mean? So I just keep up my chops. I keep up my calluses. I keep up—you know I try to learn things I don’t know, because there is lot of that I don’t know, things I get wrong, I try to figure out how to get them right. And I think for everybody it’s all really an individual thing. So to answer the question in a short form is yes I’ve been woodshedding, but, no, I haven’t gone over the top of it.

And then I broke my wrist on January the 30th and I had my first surgery to repair all the bones in my wrist, both the ulna and radius were fractured in multiple places. That was done on February 1st. I had my second surgery to take out the pins that were locking my wrist together on March 17th, and I did my first gig in Denver on April 8th. How I broke it was just one of those things.

Friends of mine had just finished construction on their new home just outside of Boulder, Boulder Hills. Actually they were from northern California and they lost everything in the Camp Fire there. They were living in an RV for a couple of years and then they built a house up in the hills outside of Boulder, invited us down to their house, so we went with our dog and there was a couple that we know that were there and he has sort of an indoor pool. The bottom level is polished concrete, so it’s—it looks very nice, because it’s inside the house, but once you step on it with a wet foot it’s like if you’ve ever seen anybody with a ski boot walk into a ski lodge, take one step and fall on their ass. It was just like that without the ski boot on and I broke the fall with my left wrist. It was—this all happened in probably less than a second. It was that fast.

And I knew it right away and I’m now 30 minutes from Boulder in the canyons and I’ve now got my wrist hanging down at a really unnaturally angle because there were no bones holding it together. It’s Saturday night at like 9:30 so I’m figuring the hospital in Boulder at U. Colorado Medical Center is going to be packed. I walked in the door and there’s nobody there because of Covid, people were scared to go to the hospital. I was in and out of there in 45 minutes with a cast, Xrays and a diagnosis of my wrist fracture. So I got home to Vail the next day on Sunday and on Monday I was in surgery in Vail here with probably the best hand wrist trauma surgeon in the world. He knew the enormity of the need for me to have my left wrist fully functioning before too long; and I was lucky enough to live in a place that has these kinds of surgeons. I was lucky enough to know a doctor there who is the US Ski Team knee and shoulder doctor. I called him the day it happened and he called his partner, who is Randy Viola who is also the US Ski Team doctor and, you know, famous hand, wrist trauma surgeon. He’s developed this kind of stuff, so he got me into his office in 24 hours and I had surgery within 36 hours of the injury and I just had my 30-day second operation postop and he basically kicked me out the office. So I’ve been a poster child for physical therapy; and anybody out there who might be reading this or listening to it or whatever it might be, physical therapy is the key to everything. I took it to an almost psychotic level where I was doing it from the minute I woke up out of bed until about the time I went to bed. I’m about 30 or 45 days ahead of where I’m supposed to be according to the people at Howard Sports Medicine who are doing my rehab.

Playing again was fantastic. I got to play with my old bandmate John Kadlecik, and Jay Lane and Rob Barroco, Skip Vangelas and Jake Wolf. We did four socially distant shows, indoors, four days of early and late shows. It was kind of like the old Garcia Band where they’d kick everybody out and let them back in, which I never really done before. But I found the hour and 45 minute break between the two shows quite fine.

I wasn’t sure I how that would go. That was my sort of first show that I did and I did those eight shows. I had a physical therapist there that was helping me with my wrist, so he kind of kept me going. The next weekend we played at Alabama & Tennessee for three DSO shows, which of course are longer shows and only a 30-minute break; so I had a little bit of a learning curve in terms of how to get my wrist ready to go for the next gigs; but by the third night I felt the best I felt since I had my injury and now I’ve had a week off and I’ve been working on it, so I’m thinking this weekend when I go to New Jersey to do a couple gigs, it’s going to be even better. My physical therapy people think I only need four more times. They’re going to kick me out of there too. So I’m so thrilled and proud of myself quite frankly for the hard work I did.

You know, the pandemic itself has been—it’s been an exercise in patience, I think, for the most part. I’ve been with my wife 21 years now, and my daughter is going to be 17 in September. They’ve I never known me to be home this long ever. I’ve never spent this much time at home; and, you know, I think it’s a wakeup call for people who cohabitate or are married or whatever they are, that I mean, you know this kind of—I mean, I didn’t do anything for months. You couldn’t go out. You had to stay home. You had to wear a mask. I could go walking, but I couldn’t socialize. I couldn’t play music with other band members. I could do some stuff streaming from my house, but that’s not very fulfilling; at the end of the day you’re really playing for yourself. So I think for me the pandemic was an educational experience. I try to always look at it like Monty Python says, “always look at the bright side of life,” so the fact that I was sequestered with the family that had never had me around that long, we’ve learned a lot about each other, personally, I think because of it. And everybody grows because of it. So my takeaway from the pandemic was the negative is I wasn’t working, but the positive was I learned a lot about life.

Just as a footnote to the whole thing… Everybody says everything comes in threes. So February 1st I had surgery on my wrist. February 13th I was diagnosed with COVID. And on March 15th I had to put my dog down to sleep. In a six week period I went through three of the worst things I could go through in my life; and now everything is good. Everything is looking positive. So like I said, always look at the bright side, but you know 2021 was way worse early on than 2020 ever was.

I was lucky with my COVID case. I lost the sense of taste and smell for about a week and that was probably the worst of it. I think if I didn’t even know anything about COVID, I probably wouldn’t have noticed that I had lost you know, it was only partial smell and taste. I probably would have written it off as nothing, you know, if I didn’t know. So I would have been one of those guys walking around that was asymptomatic just spreading it to everybody. Thank God I knew better and stayed home.