So when I wrote the book (Steve’s memoir, Home Before Daylight / My Life on the Road with the Grateful Dead), Owsley was still alive and so I couldn’t tell something in there. In 1968, I was living at Brady St. And I was outside one day and there was a truck, a van, a Dodge van, right across from me. And I didn’t even realize that I lived across from the studio, Pacific High Recording. And so Ram Rod (birth name Larry Shurtliff)—I didn’t know him—he was taking a bass cabinet out of the truck. Right. And struggling. I didn’t even know what a Dual Showman was. He was taking it out from the studio and putting it in the truck.
So my father, when I was a kid, told me a story about when he had gotten out. I didn’t know he had been in prison. He didn’t tell me that part. He had gotten out from New Jersey where he was in trouble and he wanted to start over. He moved to New York. Standing on a street corner and a guy was working on a radiator. And he said he started helping the guy and that opened up his whole life; it led to a career in refrigeration mechanics and then an ice cream company and then to the Teamsters and all the way to being Jimmy Hoffa’s vice president, I mean this was amazing. So he told me that story. And so I go, OK, I’m going to help this guy. And it turned out that Hagen (Johnny Hagen was a GD crew member) who was on STP, he was in the studio, but he was fucked up. As I got to be friends with Ram Rod he told me about it. Now, right around the corner from Brady Alley was the Carousel Ballroom, which was just changing to the Fillmore West. So I got to help him a little bit there. He liked me right off the bat and Jackson was around with him also but I didn’t meet him that day. I started helping a little bit and then I got to meet Jerry and Hunter. We moved them first. And then I made money.
Ram Rod was living with Owsley (aka “Bear”) and so I got to know him. Went over there and it was really an experience. Bear was really pissed at Ram Rod for bringing me there because he was very paranoid. Ram Rod—it was like a gold ticket, man, having Ram Rod bring me there, he was living there, so I got to know Bear a little bit and that led to me working at Alembic later, but between that, I took a package of LSD to New York and I could never talk about it, because I would have been betraying the secret. So when I wrote the book those guys were all around and I just couldn’t say what exactly happened, so I still talked about getting busted, getting sent to Rikers Island and having to get a job which happened to be at the Pavilion (New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair site in Queens; Steve was a security guy for concerts there) by chance.
And then the first band to play there was the Grateful Dead, it was the destiny of my life and I had to keep exploring that. So when my father, being the smart man that he was in the underground world, because I was looking at 20 years for— it was a hundred tabs of LSD. That was the biggest sale in New York City at the time, in 1968. And so I was held over for trial. I couldn’t leave. And I started working at these theaters in New York, because I met guys and they liked me and I worked at Fillmore East. Saw Bill Graham and how all that place worked. Got to work with Keith Kevin, who became Ron Delsener’s (Delsener was the major New York City promoter) stage manager and Michael Ahern, who became Delsener’s and other people’s stage manager, and I met Dee Anthony (a major talent manager), all these characters man.
And then when we went before the judge again—the first time I went before the judge, he said how many tabs of LSD did this man sell? I said, “What, where is the trial? He just plead me guilty.” My dad paid off five grand and in those days it was a lot of money. We walked into the court and the judge looked at me and he said—I was 18 years old—and he goes, “You know what, you look like a good kid. Rely on your own recognizance. Walk out. You’re scotfree.” He was smiling from ear to ear. He wasn’t smiling before, when I went before him for the arraignment. I got off on that and me and my dad walk down the steps and he kicks me really hard in the butt and he says “There goes your college money, you idiot. What are you going to do?” I said I’m going back to San Francisco and work with the Grateful Dead and he laughed at me. Just laughed. And sure enough I went back there and when I got back into town there was a show at the Family Dog on the Great Highway and I—Ram Rod just kept me with him after that all the time and that lead to everything else. And then you know I had to do a year, I just had to hang around and get to know everybody, get trusted by everybody, and that was the end of 1969 all the way until now. You know I’m still learning about those guys. I felt that when I look on it now, it was destiny of sorts you know and we always were—you know very well what I’m talking about.
We were very closed mouth about certain things and that was because of Bear. We were told that a lot of heat was on this band and we had to be careful and he had the Hells Angels that were followed by the DEA and FBI and everybody. So we didn’t like photographers around. When you tried to interview me, even you, who had been with us for a while and had been the publicity guy and all that, I wouldn’t talk to you. Because I kept thinking everything has to be a secret. A deep dark secret, you know. But really, now I love talking about it. You know what I mean? And there isn’t anything that isn’t known. I mean, the Dead Heads know everything that you and I know. That’s the way it is. The day you came around, Jerry—it was about a week before that Jerry gave me your book on Kerouac and I loved it. I read it from cover to cover and it opened me up to something I didn’t understand completely—the Beat Generation. You know and the Beat Generation was so attached to us. I didn’t even realize it. You know and so all those connections began to open up at that point in the ‘80s for me even. And then I had all these people to talk to around. So it was cool. And I loved your book for that reason. We all have a lot of learn in life, you know, everybody keeps learning. If you’re not learning you’re nothing. Right. And I like to challenge myself so that’s why I’m doing the Ass Bites again after all these years.
Being part of the crew was a unique bond. Right. It was at Rucka Rucka (a ranch in Nicasio that was Bob Weir’s home but where lots of other members of the GD family lived; Cassidy Law, for whom the song was named, was born there) that we started to really get close. We had fun times together too, you know. You see because I was the city boy and they were all really country boys. Deep country, from Pendleton and Umatilla County and Echo, where Jackson came from. That’s what we talked about all the time.
And so Jackson (first name Rex, for whom the foundation is named) and Ram Rod and Heard (first name Sonny), they had a craving to learn how to act in big cities. And so I wanted to know all about country ways, their ways. They were cowboys, the real deal. And Jackson would tell me about how he rode ditch (checking road drainage) with his dad when he went to school. Rode ditch, what do you mean? His dad’s job—and Rex Senior was real Americana. He was born in Kentucky and he was a lumberman up in the Northwest and he was just crystal blue eyes and I got to know him through Jackson and they were bigger than life, these people to me; and so when Jackson would tell me about riding to school every day with their guns and they would stop and hunt along the whole way to school. I thought that was amazing. You know?
And then they would tell me about Jackson and the Pendleton Roundup. He would ride when he was a kid and he just would take these horses… Weir had an Appaloosa, a big giant Appaloosa stallion, and you would see Weir jump on it and it would go straight up the hills, where we lived in Marin and Nicasio, run straight up these big hills and Weir’s just hanging on for dear life.
Jackson grabbed the reins. Holy shit, man. It was like, he’s staring that horse in the eyes. And Appaloosa are big horses, man. And they were uncut, these horses, and he was ready—Jackson would get on and ride it. And then we saw how amazing, massive a rider he was. And he was the same way in cars. And he would teach us how to do things, driving, and motorcycles and that’s where you got sucked into all the stuff and it was like a renaissance world. He went up to Alembic, and we had to work there and cut our teeth there first. That’s where I started. In the basement there—it was Rick Turner and (Doug) Irwin. When I came around we were moving into the Judah and Ninth Street place from Ignacio. That happened before I went and got busted.
There was this guy Mississippi there, a friend of Rifkin’s (Danny Rifkin was one of the early Grateful Dead managers), and he was a guy that you had to talk to when you came in and he had no teeth. He was a guy that picked Rifkin up on a cross country trip on a motorcycle. My mind has all these unbelievable characters. This whole scene was full of them. And dope dealers and Hells Angels and just hippies of all kind and Janis (Joplin) and her scene. Quicksilver, all these bands, Jefferson Airplane. And so at Alembic everybody would come there. Jack Casady and Kantner and Jorma and everybody. It was just amazing for me to be in this world where I’m learning how to do all that stuff. I had some electronics, from being a kid and hanging with my dad at his friend’s TV repair shop in the early ‘50s. So I learned how to solder and do other things that came in handy. I was strong and a big kid, so that was the other thing. I had been a street kid, so I wasn’t afraid to go with these guys and we got in a lot of fights and we had to bully around against stage hands and cops. And Jackson was a tough guy. In those days you could still hit a cop before all the heavy felonies for doing something like that. It was just amazing to be part of the crew, and like Jerry would say, you guys invented yourselves, you know, and it was true.
We did. We did. But it was from a reason and no other crew—most crews or most bands don’t even want people to know who their crew really is. You know? They want to be invisible. And it was different with the Pranksters and the scene on stage and everything, you know. Kesey was a big friend of mine when I first met him he grabbed my hand and said new blood, and I felt so good. And then I kept asking him stuff. How do we make sense of all this scene here, you know, New Year’s Eve at Winterland?? He would say, if they’re polite, ask them a question, if they’re polite you can tell them what to do and ask them to move or something. If not, they’ll see you move them. A lot of people were so stoned and they wanted to touch everything behind the band. So Jerry would have a cigarette, his drink or whatever; and I noticed that when he’s playing, when somebody touched his amp he spun around. You know? And I understood that—something that you only learn if you’re around it that way is that when musicians are playing in a big place like that, they’re out of their bodies. They’re in the fourth dimension. They needed us. They needed this crew to protect them in a way. You know?
So we started slowly inching space between the amps, and we’d sit on cases, and the party went on and people just didn’t care who you were. They’d say, hey, get me a beer man. Hey, I’m not a fuckin’ bartender and there is no beer here, anyway. There was no catering in those days, there was none of that stuff. And so we would go on the road in those days and they threw the keys down and you room with everybody from the band. So you get Jerry one night and you know he liked to watch TV and smoke pot. It was a lot of fun. Phil was reading a book and the TV didn’t go on. You know, you were talking intellectual shit which I can do with him. And then Pigpen would play the blues for you. And I loved rooming with Pig. He’d want you to drink with him. He drank that Southern Comfort and everybody hated it. Bobby was a whole other thing. You know, it’s like rooming with a teenage roommate and he wanted to prank around and never watched TV. Bob never watched TV, so you didn’t bother with that. You know? We might turn the TV on and blow it up or something.
Now Jerry’s band started forming—we were standing in front of Alembic and Jerry pulls up. He came there every day anyway and hung out with us. Ram Rod and I were standing on the street there and Jerry said, “Hey, Ram Rod, would you take my guitar and amp over to the Matrix? I’m playing with Howard Wales tonight.” Ram Rod looked at me, he had just got together with Francis (Whelan, his wife-to-be for many years) and he said, “I’d like to go home. Would you mind doing it?” And I had a Cadillac that I had bought from Ram Rod. It was a ’51, a beautiful pearlescent, and Jerry looked at me and he said, you would do that? And I said, yes of course, sure. And so we went over together at one o’clock in the afternoon. A dark night club. I bang on the door. A guy opens up, lets us in there, and we’re sitting in the shaft of light in a dark club, man, and Jerry starts telling me stuff and playing. He showed me how to set his amp up right there. And he starts playing songs and then we hit on me asking him—you know, name that tune. I was saying play this, play that; and he kept going and going and we started talking about Rondo Hatton (an extremely obscure actor). And that blew his mind when I mentioned him. He realized that we both knew a lot about black and white movies. And then I had no more songs in me. And I said “Stardust” and then I said, my uncle wrote the words. And he said that’s my mother’s favorite song and it was like this thing happened. And so we became really close.
From that time we stayed together, it became the Garcia Band out of that. Actually Hooteroll, first we went on the road with Howard; and it was all Howard and (John) Kahn and Bill Vitt. And some Midwest cats came in and Kahn was replaced by Jelly Roll and Ginger on drums and this other guy Tom on guitar. That was the Midwest band, as Howard called it.
We got really friendly with all the clubs around the Bay Area. Then we met Freddy (Herrera, the founder of the Keystone clubs, from SF to Berkeley to Palo Alto). We met Freddy just as he started the Keystone on Vallejo and Stockton (in San Francisco) and he had just killed his partner. They had a topless place. And he lived in the back of the club and the guy came in to kill him. And Freddy pulled a sawedoff shot gun out and blew him away right in the back of the club. So Freddy then changed from topless to music. He had Elvin Bishop in there, and Charlie Daniels. And so Truck Driving Sherry, who was (David) Nelson’s girlfriend, started working there as a waitress sometimes.
And so we came down there, we’re playing for Freddy, and it was right across from the police station. That’s why he called it the Keystone. And so we would smoke pot there and have a great party and cops would just bang on the windows and tell us knock it off. They were coming in. And that became Merl, Jerry, Kahn, Vitt, that was a lot of great nights in all those Keystones and still playing every fucking nightclub in California. Jerry would refuse to go into bigger places. He just wanted to stay in clubs with that band. And he had two bands; and so one day I said, what do we do when it’s Grateful Dead or this band? What should we do? He said Grateful Dead first, always. So those guys (members of the GD) were just like always, say, hey, why you guys doing that? Don’t play Jerry that way, you know. Really, Jerry wanted to play every night, basically, in those days.
Ram Rod was a very special guy. That first day that I met him after we carried a couple of things in, we shook hands, and I never—I shook hands with a lot of people in my life and I was taught that you don’t hand somebody a cold fish. You shake their hand like a man; and I thought because I shook hands with Jimmy Hoffa and all these other strong guys like my dad, Tony Provanzano, and they broke your hand, literally hurt you; and they’d hold on to it while they talk to you. You get their attention, especially, you know, if you had a ring on or something. Owww, wait a minute. So Ram Rod’s hand was like no other, man. It felt like it was all callused from the tip of his fingers to the palm. And I said, wow, how do you get a callus like that? He said in reform school from milking cows. So I started telling him I was in trouble my whole life too. I was a smart kid and I read, but I never did my schoolwork. I never finished high school. I just was wild. You know? Because that’s what was happening when the ‘60s were blasting out. I found drugs when I was really young and that was a great way out of it. And I got in trouble with the police. So we had—all of us seemed to have that thing.
Him and Jackson were sent to reform school when they were 17 or 18, I think. I said, what did you guys do. You know? They said we stole a bottle of liquor from a farm hand’s truck. I said, you got a year in boys’ reformatory for a bottle of whiskey? I said in New York we would boost—we’d find a liquor truck, a beer truck. We’d start pulling the shit off. We’d drink hot booze, man all the time and get crazy. And get in all kinds of in trouble, you know, because it makes you stupid. And so it was so funny comparing notes and country boy stuff. And so we took a liking to each other. He had only read a chapter of Tom Sawyer, so I would tell him. We would talk about all this stuff, and he had such a thirst for knowledge. You know he was a smart guy. And he would tell me every detail of his life, man.
He grew up where his mom cooked on the railroad in the Northwest and she cooked on gangs that painted the bridges silver and red leaded them, you know, in these really remote places. And you weren’t allowed—they lived in a train car; but you weren’t allowed to have children and him and his sister were there with their mom. His dad has deserted them when they were babies; and so his mother, when the bulls came to check, and they did all the time, Ram Rod and his sister had to go underneath the railroad car and be quiet for an hour while the bulls ate up in the dining car right above them. That got him into not talking a lot. You see? And he expressed himself to a few people who got to know him.
But to me and him, he started talking all the time and he was fascinated. All the stories I could tell him about growing up in New York. Because he was in New York, now, with the band, and Jerry would always say “Steve, you know, you’re our New York guy. And we need somebody to be with us out here. Some of the things you understand. So when we go places, I could tell them like holy shit, you know where we are, we’re five miles from Antietam, man. We’re in Maryland in the country. What’s Antietam? And I would tell Ram Rod about it and he loved all that stuff. And, you know, even Jackson was interested in it. I would get the People’s Almanac and other great reference books and I read them. Even Jerry—I mean being in limos and stuff and I read him stuff for what I really loved was all this information and there we were in these places. You know? And so the history stuff—then Jerry would play it that night. He would signature it, you know, and we talked about the Civil War and make jokes or something about it or talk about World War I, the camps, for some reason all these facts were in my head. Wow, we’re in Virginia now. So all these battles in the Revolutionary War era and then Williamsburg. We’d go to all the historical places in the country and talk about it. And so that was a beautiful thing that happened.
And then Ram Rod, of course, taught me so much. And Healy was a really smart guy about amplifiers and sound, and he could teach you. Now Matthews was great too, but he was more high-strung and harder to get stuff out of. Owsley was a good teacher, but he was having a lot of legal problems, in and out with the law. And so that was another thing that was going on, acid everywhere. So you had to have a cast iron stomach and a cast iron mind; because you would get dosed every day and you weren’t eating really good back then. You were eating what you could grab. You know.
And Rucka Rucka. Weir was pretty much feeding us and we lived in the barn. And everybody came up there every day. And it was so much fun, because we had Mickey’s ranch, which was called the Pondareister, after Jonathan Reister, who was a road manager at the time. Sam Cutler was hanging around, this was after Altamont. And he was exiled from that and Jerry kind of hid him out. So Sam was around and getting to know us all too; and he was forming this crew out of that. He liked us and he loved hanging out with us. These guys are really cool, and so me and Sam became good friends; because he was intellectual in a sense. He was raised by lefties in London and we understood a common language. So we were good friends and then—the longer you’re on the road, the tighter you get.
And that’s the start of the Ass Bites. As I’m working around these guys, Billy (Kreutzmann) started teaching me some drum stuff. Healy can play guitar, and Ram Rod always had a guitar and he would play and he had a Martin and then he had an electric guitar, a Gibson; and Jackson liked to thump around on the bass. So we slowly evolved in early 1971. Healy would come over to my house and he would start playing drums and guitar. When Jerry and I would do Garcia Band, he would be there early. Right? Always early. And so he would play with me all afternoon. It was just me and him and we would just play; and so he got me working out on the drums, you know, really good, because he would just look at me and play faster and faster and slower and keep me up with him. And then because Ram Rod had to teach me how to take care of Jerry’s guitar in the Jerry Band when no one else was around, I was learning guitar from him. He was teaching me—in those days it was rudimental tuning machines, so he had to teach me how to tune the hard way, you know, with an A, and that was hard. And so when tuning machines came in, that made my thing so much easier.
And Ram Rod was great in teaching you how to put strings on and do it properly for Jerry, you know, and he’s so giving in sharing with me. It’s unbelievable. So the Ass Bites started—we had everything set up, here was our chance on the gear to start playing. And Mickey was out of the band so I would be playing Billy’s drums. And Ram Rod would be playing rhythm guitar, Healy lead guitar, Jackson on bass and then Sparky would come out and play some harmonica. And we started doing rudimental songs and learning them and playing them. And then the guys would come in and do sound check and we used to be playing away and they would jump in with us. I have pictures of Phil playing us, big smile on his face, Bobby, Jerry. You know, they would just jump in; and then it was sound check and sometimes they would be playing, you know, if they were coming late, weather or something would keep them. So we ended up playing and the audience would come and we would just be playing away. And they loved it, man; and they would come running up and jump at the front and start applauding and they knew who we were. You know, and they loved it. And it became a legendary thing.
We went on a couple of tours and went until 1973 where we start to really get off. Right? And one day they (the band) came in. We were up in Buffalo, New York, at the War Memorial up there and we were playing away and they come in and they were in a bad mood, you know, it was late and the place was open. The audience was out there. And so Jerry comes up to me and he goes, you guys are so good. You could start your own band now. You should do it. You can play. And I said oh no, no, no, no. We’re not leaving you, man. We knew how good we had it with the Grateful Dead. And so then Kreutzmann says, yeah, you’re playing so hard now. You’re going to break my drums and I said I’ll fix them. He said no, no bring another drum set out. They wanted us to bring another set of gear. So that was the thing. So we never played again. Never played again. We would play at home or we would play Ram Rod’s barn or parties sometimes. But we never played.
So the idea for this incarnation of the Ass Bites came from Chris (Skull and Rose’s promoter). I know Chris from helping him with the festival. I liked it. And so, two years ago, he said, Steve, you got to put the Ass Bites together and do it, man, because I was the MC. He’s superior, you know, and he’s coming from a pure place. So I put it together with the roadies from Dead & Co. The core band is me, and AJ (Santella, Bob Weir’s guitar tech) and Mike McGinn (RatDog’s sound mixer who still works with Weir), Vadim Canby (also part of Weir’s group) on drums. Because now I’ve challenged myself. I’m singing. I’ve got LSD, lead singer disease, bad. And part of it has to do with my radio show on Sirius that so many people were telling me that your voice is nice for the radio. So I sort of started trying to do things. I’m still playing drums. We’ve got two sets.
We also have Don Was—everybody knows who he is. He came over to me and he said, “Steve, I love you. I love you, man. And you’re so great. I want to be in your band.” And he knew we needed a bass player. He sussed that and I said you’re our bass player. So he’s in the band. And I told him, “Don, you know you’re joining a bunch of guys that are not quite the par, the level of musicianship that you’re used to.” And he said, “No, Steve. It’s something else. It’s this feeling that rings through.” He loves the Grateful Dead scene like everybody we know, and he just wants to pay everything to it, and he loves it. He loves it. And so I put a couple of other people—Ralph Woodson, you remember him from the Trichromes, on guitar. And George Michalski (music director for the Nash Bridges TV series) on keyboards.
Now that rounds the band out and we are really having fun with this. Unfortunately, you know, the guys are on the road with Wolf Brothers, so we’re now trying to do our rehearsals on long distance. It’s very difficult. But nothing stops the Ass Bites. I reminded Weir of that the other night when we were here at the Sweetwater. I said, Bobby, you named the Ass Bites. He goes, “That’s right. I did.” And he was really proud of it. Weir walked into rehearsal two weeks ago and he came in from the other studio and we had the lights down real low; and he came in and he picked up this guitar that we had plugged in and he started playing. And then he did a double take and realized that I was singing. And looked at me in a whole different way, as long as we’ve known each other. And for—like that, I could tell, he didn’t have to say anything. He went, wow, you’re singing. Okay. And he was playing a song we both knew and so it was kind of fun. Yeah, but he always was very supportive of that, because it gave him a hell of a laugh. He cracked up about it.
I know this is for the Wall of News, I read the whole thing and I like the way it spotlights everybody that’s up there. We’re going to get our turn in the spotlight. I consider it a beautiful honor to have this amazing scene to test different things that I can be now. You know? Whoever thought all these things would open up for us? Really. I know I’m a lot looser about the stories now, and it’s all because of the radio. You know, you realize how people love it. It’s good to share all that. And there is so much more that I realized I knew; and then exposing it to the light sometimes is fun. And some stuff is shocking to people. They never heard or thought of, you know, and that is interesting to me; because you can’t put Grateful Dead in a bag. You just can’t.