Jon Gold—Jerry’s Middle Finger

I was born in Hollywood, California and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My mother was a musician, a child prodigy and classical pianist with perfect pitch, and the best sight reader I have ever met, even to this day. I fell in love with the piano by the time I was four because I loved what she was doing, and I remember I would crawl under the piano and come up underneath and hold down some of the keys that I thought she might play, and when she did hit them the note would be a dud, and that to me was hilarious! She’d then pull me up and sit me on her lap and she would play. I was fascinated. I learned pretty quickly to play what I heard, you know, to play by ear. So when I was 5 years old my parents started me on piano lessons with Miss Leah Effenbach and I learned classical piano, which if she played it, I could play it. Having this gift, I think I used that method to cheat myself out of reading notation to this day.

Photograph by Hal Masonberg

My dad was pretty strict about practicing so that kind of took the enjoyment out of playing music for me, so by the time I was at the ripe old age of six I quit lessons and that was that. A few years later I saw the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan and it pretty much sealed my musical fate right there. One time my cousin David came out from Cleveland and he showed me how to play this Ian Whitcomb novelty song called, “You Turn Me On” on the piano and it was a game changer for me.   

It’s in the most basic blues form and I didn’t know you were even allowed to play that bluesy sounding flat 7 note ever!  My dad had a good enough ear to know when I was fooling around with that kind of music, especially me playing notes that were not written, and he was really the one who did “not allow no rock ’n’ roll playing in here!”  

On that same trip out from Cleveland in August 1965, David somehow convinced my parents to let the two of us go see The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl! So in my musical pursuits I learned what I learned, the music that moved me, only in my parents’ absence. Thankfully they had a pretty full social calendar!  So whenever they would be out, whether it was at a film or the opera, the philharmonic, psychoanalytic institute meetings or friends’ cocktail parties back in the day, I had an AM transistor radio and a record player, and that piano, and I worked my stuff out by continually lifting and replacing the needle and running back to the piano, which also helped me remember musical passages. 

Photograph by Hal Masonberg

My fourth grade teacher Ms. Gertler played folk guitar in school and she opened a world for me so I wanted to learn, too. I started lessons at Every Woman’s Village on Sepulveda in Van Nuys, a little arts enclave where I also took ceramics and copper enamel workshops on weekends. I learned all the cowboy chords pretty quickly and I was pretty good, playing “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” And “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  At one point my teacher says, “this is all I can teach you because it’s all I know. The other teachers here are going to have a group lesson with somebody and you should come be with us and that will be your graduation from this program.”  So I go.  I’m the only kid, and Leonard Cohen walks in and teaches us that song, “Walk Right In” and that was my graduation from folk guitar lessons.  

By age 13 I’m taking both trumpet and classical and flamenco guitar lessons under the tutelage of Spanish gypsy Vicente Gomez as I’m starting junior high school. The first guy I meet the first day of 7th grade is Jeff Porcaro (Toto), who later became one of the most recorded studio drummers ever and all we talk about is groove.  Oh, my God… What is groove? How to be in the pocket?  Do we need solos? (No we don’t!)  We had a little band that covered a bunch of Jimi Hendrix tunes with another guitar player, Ron Ravenscroft.  His dad was the voice of Tony the Tiger and the singing voice of The Grinch. When we’d rehearse at their house Thurl Ravenscroft would sometimes come in and we’d ask, How’d that sound? And he’d turn up the reverb and say into the mic, Grrrrreat!!! So fun!  

My parents were part of the civil rights movement and the rising anti-Vietnam political sentiments being brought to the fore through folk music, like The Weavers and Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and later I discovered Doc Watson but I got more into the blues when I’d heard Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and especially piano player Otis Spann. I really flipped for Johnny Johnson’s piano work behind Chuck Berry, and Little Richard of course, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Also guys like Pinetop Perkins, Meade Lux Lewis, and certainly guys like Nicky Hopkins and Chuck Leavell, all big influences and they gave me inspiration. But no one was more influential on me than Leon Russell, especially The Homewood Sessions, and then early Elton John. At age 16, I was at Elton’s American debut at The Troubadour in August, 1970 as I’d only had my driver’s license for just over a month and was completely knocked out!

I’d given a classical and flamenco guitar recital at The Wilshire Ebell Theatre when I was 16 as part of my teacher’s program of his students, and the folks at University of Southern California School of Music came and told my parents that if I ever decided to go to school there I’d get a half-ride scholarship. When the time came I did indeed decide to attend USC, but then my first summer job after high school was building R. V. campers, and the boss tells me I’m not allowed to use power tools until I’m 18 after I had been using power tools for a month.  “Until then, you can only use a razor blade and a broom”, so after sweeping up one day I used a razor blade to cut moulding inside where the walls panels come together and I did camper after camper and my blade is getting dull and I’m having to push really hard and then all of a sudden I pushed the blade right through three of my fingers of my left hand.  So my plans when I got to college had shifted.  I couldn’t play anymore and it took over a year to heal.

My guitar teacher had given me a classical guitar, so after the accident I brought him the guitar back and said I’m not going to need it again.  He says let’s unwrap your bandages.  I’m going, whaaat?  We unwrapped the bandages and I’m thinking wait, you’re not a doctor! He goes, you’ll be fine — you ever hear of Django Reinhardt?  (I hadn’t heard of Jerry Garcia yet, either!) He told me that Django was a gypsy and he told me all about the caravan fire that disfigured Django’s fingering hand and that he’s the man of all modern guitar music now.  

So that kind of changed my trajectory, and in college I got involved in the film school and some experimental studies.  In this one particular Semester of the Arts program a friend of mine, Steve Leon is trying to get me into the Grateful Dead.  His favorite song is “Bertha.”  I’m sarcastically thinking great, I’ve heard a couple of albums, I don’t really think they can sing their way out of a wet paper bag, but what the heck, I’ll give it a go.  

So we organize a field trip for our class to go to Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, 11/17/73.  And I had seen the GD once before on a road trip with some friends and I thought it was awful, awful.  It felt like endless jamming on one chord or whatever.  I don’t know.  And I thought the singing was atrocious.  

But that night at Pauley Pavilion I heard them play some of these same songs but a little bit differently and all of a sudden I got it.  I understood they were playing in the moment. They were actually listening to each other and kind of surfing the excitement of the crowd which was surfing the excitement of the band and I realize this symbiotic magic was going on between us and them and we’re all in it together and each note is not as important as the whole.  And it turns out they’re not really out of tune either.  There were harmonies I had just never heard before.  I mean, Phil can sing a suspended two and it makes your ears tweak but he’s on it right. That was like oh, my God… That changed a lot of stuff for me. 

It came to Dad’s attention that what I was doing in college wasn’t as academic as my father was hoping, and we had a falling out.  I was looking for work, and my friend got me an audition at a restaurant at Santa Monica called the Great American Food and Beverage Company—you had to be a musician in order to work at this restaurant.  One Wednesday afternoon I go to audition and I’m watching some lord knows pretty great singer-songwriters audition, and the owner, Poppy, asks if I’m available to work tonight. I go yeah I am… Okay, well, here’s an apron!  

So there I am playing boogie woogie piano as well as also backing up other people on both piano or guitar. Who else is working there?  Rickie Lee Jones was a hostess and a waitress, Patti Davis (Ronald Reagan’s daughter) had just left her relationship with Bernie Leadon of the Eagles and was also a hostess and Katie Sagal was also a waitress. 

I started as a busboy with these two redheaded guys Rick and Danny Elfman and soon we’re busing tables and splitting up tips together and leading conga lines of employees and patrons through the restaurant banging out rhythms using pots and pans from the kitchen, and after six months or so Danny goes, “Hey Jon, my parents are out of the country for a year and the guys who were supposed to rent their house bailed on the deal, do you want to be my roommate?  We can split the rent over there, which is to say we only need the pay the property taxes.”  I said sure!  

So here we are living in Brentwood, Danny and I, and the next thing we know we’re putting a troupe together, the Mystic Nights of the Oingo Boingo with his brother Richard, since it was his brother’s idea that grew out of the Grand Magic Circus of Paris.  So now at the age of 20, I’m this multi-instrumentalist with the Mystic Nights of the Oingo Boingo and our first gig was at my former school in Bovard Auditorium at USC where I had my psych class, opening for Captain Beefheart.  

We were playing original Kurt Weill and Betty Boop-sounding music with fire breathers in Kabuki Theatre makeup wearing white Panama suits…  We’re basically a visual hallucination of a Max Fleischer Out of the Inkwell cartoon.  Cab Calloway, Hi De Hi De Ho… and Django music, too!  I left the Boingo after 5 years when Rick went more into film and Danny went in a different, more New Wave direction. I went back to the Great American Food & Beverage restaurant, then opened Poppy’s Star restaurant, and eventually left to go into the film business.  

I was a PA (production assistant) in TV commercials for a year or two between 1978-80, and then a friend of mine got a video camera and together we got a phone call from an editor friend saying he had an artist friend who needs some video shot. We set up a meeting and meet the artist, Toni Basil, and we wound up shooting, “Hey Mickey” and then 11 other videos for her video album, Word of Mouth. And then Toni had us film David Byrne in “Once In A Lifetime” which she also directed. Now I’d only been a PA for two years but I knew where to go to get generators, equipment, lenses, everything in film world, so I wound up being the de facto line producer. They’re giving me their money and I’m spending it! I’m renting the stage, the lighting and grip equipment, hiring crew…

So now I’m like in the rock video music business, but I’m also becoming prop master and eventually an art director in TV commercials and film and in 1982 I also met this wonderful woman and we get married a couple years later and we have three incredible kids and music takes a back seat to raising a family and earning a living and buying a home. But after about 12 years, we get into the 90s and I’m thinking to myself how do I call myself a musician when I never play?  

Guitar Center is having a Labor Day Weekend sale.  I meet this guy in bright tie-dye pants and shirt in the line, Mike Dwyer.  He says “I got a Grateful Dead cover band called Skunk Rose and you should come sit in with us we’re playing tomorrow night, so I do.  We play all these songs that I know and love and I don’t even need to think about it.  These songs are in my blood, and the bass player says “we need you in this other band I’m playing in, it’s called Remnants of Eden. The next thing I know is the Remnants’ incredible Jerry player Andy Braunstein (The Maykers) is telling me that I’m their new keyboardist. 

It was a crazy time of new Grateful Dead tribute bands cropping up. One was Stunt Road, which was very confusing and it turns out Halina (of JMF) was in it for a minute.  She was also in the Rum Runners, as was Lisa Malsberger (for many years) and Rodney Newman (for a short stint)! Cubensis was starting up among others, and then we’re starting to play these festivals that Howard Freiberg put on, Dead on the Mountain, Dead in the Desert…  

Photograph by Hal Masonberg

So now I’m getting back into playing live again and I’m saying yes to every opportunity, so I start playing keys at every Sunday’s open mic night at the Hideaway in Kagel Canyon in an amazing house band called Dave Loe & The Groove Dawgs. Anyone who signs up can sing or join our band for a couple numbers, and I’m learning a lot of tunes on the spot with the drummer from The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds, Steve Duncan, and sometimes Kirk Arthur, who played drums with Chuck Berry. One night Delaney Bramlett walks in and all of a sudden he invites me to jam with him at his ranch nearby and there I am, recording with Delaney Bramlett, my hero! Delaney & Bonnie and Friends? The friends being Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Duane Allman?! Delaney was the bandleader on the old TV dance show, Shindig, and his band was The Shindogs, with Leon Russell on keys and sometimes Glenn Campbell on guitar. What is my life right now?!

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m playing in a band called Cryptical Development with Andy Roth and we do a gig with Cubensis and a band called Jerry’s Middle Finger, and that’s where I met Rodney (Newman, drummer of JMF) while we were both loading in, but we didn’t play together.  It turned out they were looking for a keyboard player and Halina told Rodney and Garrett (JMF) “I think I know that guy.”  They called me up and we got together, and it turns out I was the missing piece at that time. My first gig with JMF was at Corazon in Topanga Canyon in January of 2017 and things just started blowing up from there. And it’s been all JMF ever since!   

It’s been so exciting to see what we’re doing resonate so deeply with so many, because on one hand we’re not doing anything differently than anybody else.  We’re doing what we always did, what I’ve always done, what Garrett has always done, Rodney, Lisa and her band Grampa’s Grass, Halina and Son Vo and their band Mother Jones.  

Photograph by Hal Masonberg

You play with other people, especially with this canon of music that everybody knows; but what’s special or interesting or different about Jerry’s Middle Finger is the sincerity.  I think that our feel for the music and the caliber of each other’s musicianship, the fact that Garrett and I can trade or call and respond with each other while knowing bass and drums will keep the groove and have our backs. Knowing that Halina and Lisa front their own bands just adds more power. We feel the energy.

There is something that’s sharp and edgy and risky and very improvisationally exciting and yet relatable to the audience and ourselves as well, that I think it gets the audience talking to each other, and then others, and that’s literally building our base. The word of mouth is phenomenal.  Maybe it’s because we don’t rehearse.  I mean we study individually, and it’s in our bones in the first place, but we don’t rehearse until sound check at a show to go over the basic arrangement, so everything is really very fresh.  And believe me, it’s all just as exciting for us as it is for the listener!  

See Jon Gold with Jerry’s Middle Finger at Skull & Roses Festival—Buy Passes here!