Musician, March 1991

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US rock magazines


Strange bedfellows

Mark Rowland

As everyone knows, Grateful Dead fans come in all sorts and sizes — including one Elvis Costello. And so, when Musician got the idea of putting him together with the Dead's eminence grise, Jerry Garcia, Elvis took a detour on his way to Los Angeles, where he's putting finishing touches on a new album, Mighty Like a Rose, to San Francisco, where the hardest-working band outside of show business had recently played their ritual New Year's Eve show. They met at the homey Dead office in nearby San Rafael, Elvis nursing some London jet lag and Jerry a slight cold. "So instead of hours and hours and hours," Dead publicist Dennis McNally prophesied, "you'll probably only talk for hours and hours." That was about right. Contrary to casual perception, Garcia and Costello have more than a little in common — voluble personalities, inquiring minds, Irish blood, handy wit and those shaggy beards, for starters, not to mention a way with a melody.

Perhaps that's why both musicians will be featured on upcoming albums as far flung as Rob Wasserman's Trios and Hal Willner's tribute to Charles Mingus. Or why Costello's rendition of Garcia/Hunter's "Ship of Fools" is on Deadicated, a benefit LP for the Amazon rain forest comprising covers of Grateful Dead songs. Nor does it take too much of a stretch to imagine Garcia someday spinning out fine choruses behind "Brilliant Mistake" or some other Costello tune. It wouldn't even be the first time they've played together.

But we'll let them tell the stories. Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair.

Elvis: Certainly a candidate for the world's greatest record store is Village Music, in Mill Valley. Every year John Goddard has a party for his friends and customers, and he always has a really good bill of people. So last year on the twenty-first anniversary, I did a show with Nick Lowe, and he invited James Burton and Jerry Scheff, who'd played with me on the road. I did my little set, Nick did his set and then it was a free-for-all; Charles Brown did a piece, and people were getting summoned to the stage. I was standing in the corridor when I suddenly heard, "Jerry Garcia to the stage!" And, emboldened by several margaritas, I decided to join him.

Jerry: Not only that, but it was one of those situations where I had the choice of playing either Elvis' guitar, which is low and it's stiff, and the strings are quite wide as well, and all this confusing script, or of playing Burton's guitar, which is strung with spider webs. I mean it's the absolutely lightest you can string a guitar and still get a sound out of it. I'd take Burton's and play a note on it and it goes "spack." So I opted to play Elvis' guitar as the lesser of two evils. [laughter] And I vowed I would never go to another one of those shows without my own.

Elvis: It was a whole Three Stooges routine — "Here, you take my guitar," "No, I'll take your guitar." Of course guitar players who can play usually don't refer to the fingerings [position markers] on the fretboard — but if there are fingerings, they can be bewildering. I think I had Burton's old Telecaster for half a song, and James had my old Martin acoustic which wasn't cranked up so he couldn't solo — and Jerry's struggling with my guitar. But once everybody got settled we managed to struggle through a couple of Hank Williams songs. Like any sort of jam thing it inevitably came to degenerate towards lots of blues. But we managed a few songs with changes.

Jerry: A pretty high level of jam-sessionry really, considering what it was. Really fun. And Elvis' solo set was phenomenal, I thought. That's one of those things that I can't do at all, just playing the guitar and singing. You're so solid with that, you don't miss a band. I always feel like I'm missing a band.

Elvis: I did start in folk clubs, but I never learned any technique. When I found it necessary to go out on the road solo, in 1984, I booked these shows, in North Carolina or somewhere, and I kind of rehearsed a set in the solitude of my own room. Then I was horrified to find there was 6000 people there [Jerry laughs]. And I'd never played solo since before I was a professional. It was sheer fear.

When I first went on the road as a professional, it was sketching in parts that had been played much more efficiently on the record by John McFee. I was trying to cover a lot of ground. You say you miss a band; I try to compensate for better or worse. I don't play an even stroke, it's all accents. Sometimes it works and sometimes it's a mess, depending on my state of mind.

Jerry: John Scher talked me into doing a solo show one time. He kept saying, "Come on, it'll be great, go on out there with an acoustic guitar." Finally I relented — I got weak. Two shows I had booked at Scher's little theater in Passaic, New Jersey. So I went there — and I was petrified. I had [bassist] John Kahn fly out on the next flight. Like, I'll do the next time, but I'm not going onstage again by myself. I'm a support musician, that's how I think of myself. It comes from being a banjo player really, which is where you fit into the rest of the music, you have a clearcut role. So I tend to define myself as that person. That's what I enjoy most, supporting somebody else.

Musician: Do you think your style as a player comes out of that bluegrass background?

Jerry: Oh yeah, it comes from my fondness for a clearly spoken line, a clearly enunciated note.

Musician: I think it will be a surprise to some readers to see you two together, because of the stereotype that comes with the territory, of who you are. To what extent does that stereotype have truth, and to what extent are you perhaps trapped by it?

Jerry: I don't have much reality on my stereotype, because I'm surrounded by it, you know what I mean? So I don't know what it includes. For example, is my stereotype famous for being musically very accepting or...?

Elvis: It's the balance of the musical stuff and the cultural stuff. Seeing you in London, it wasn't just the Grateful Dead comes to London. It was the Grateful Dead and all their friends. And it wasn't actually like that when I first saw you there in the early '70s, probably just because it wasn't as easy to travel then as it is now. And also the following maybe has a bit more money.

Jerry: That's true, and it's much larger too. In those days our mystique sort of preceded us, more than people who had actually experienced shows.

Elvis: The first time I ever saw Jerry's picture was on a record — it was the first album — that my dad gave to me. This would be about '68. My dad was a little older than I am now, he grew his hair and he got into the contemporary music. One day he brought over a stack of records that he thought I might want. There was your first record, Surrealistic Pillow, a Country Joe and the Fish record and a Marvin Gaye album. The kind of stuff that was big at my school was Tamla/Motown. So I played the Marvin Gaye record more than the others, then I'd put 'em aside and pull 'em out sometimes and puzzle over them...

Then I went up to live in Liverpool when I was 16. I think people in San Francisco maybe would bear this out, that if you have any big scene in a town, it sucks all the energy out and makes it almost impossible for anybody else to operate. Liverpool was like that, it was an absolute vacuum: The Beatles thing left everyone confused, they didn't want to hearken back to Merseybeat, so they were trying to grab pieces of what was going on, and there were all kinds of experimental groups. It didn't have any of its own identity. At school, far from everybody being into post-mod skinhead music, which was reggae and Tamla, everybody was into what was called "progressive rock." Progressive could cover anything from Joni Mitchell acoustic records to Deep Purple with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. And the real esoteric people were into West Coast bands. 'Cause it was mysterious, it was like collecting stamps or something. You have this message from the other side of the world and you have no way of verifying it. And I made almost this willful decision, maybe 'cause I'd had the record through the years: I went, "Right, I'll go further out now. Nobody will follow me to this one: the Grateful Dead." [laughter] You know, this music almost nobody can dig.

Jerry: The West Coast perception of English bands during the early Rolling Stones was also very cloudy. There was no real understanding of the complexities of English life, the nuances. For me, the most resonant thing was hearing the Rolling Stones play music that I'd grown up with, the Chess stuff. That was surprising because it was music that had already happened in my life, and then hearing it again, it was like, "Right, that would be fun to play." In the Grateful Dead's earliest version as a bar band the option was to play Beatles stuff or Rolling Stones and we always opted for whatever the Rolling Stones were doing — because we had a better understanding of where their music was coming from.

When I was a kid, rock 'n' roll was totally disreputable. I wanted to play rock n' roll but I wanted it to be respectable. I thought, gee, it'd be nice if rock n' roll had the acceptability that jazz has, that kind of cerebral appreciation. I loved the music, but not the stigma attached to it; nobody took it seriously until Ray Charles played the Newport Jazz Festival and rock 'n' roll started making these little appearances in the jazz world.

Elvis: The image of the Grateful Dead that people had in England when you first came over was kind of like a biker band, kind of creepy. Musically more serious than Steppenwolf, but a similar image in terms of a relationship to a dark world. And the name now seems kind of a jovial thing, particularly since so many groups have adopted the skeleton logo and occult sort of images, without any spin on the humor of it, just copying it for crass reasons.

Jerry: Well, it is a very potent image. It's been with us all along. Things that have to do with death, I mean, it's one of the biggies. [laughter] As long as death remains mysterious, it's going to remain powerful. That was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to us in a way, because the name has always prevented us from being absolutely acceptable in a Michael Jackson sense. We've never been entirely respectable. [laughs] Death is always death.

Elvis: It should be pointed out that we're both sitting here dressed in grim reaper outfits.

Jerry: Discussing the niceties of soul-collecting.

Musician: It's ironic that people now are trying to recapture the so-called "danger" of rock 'n' roll and —

Jerry: We're still trying to transcend it. We're living in the shadow of that reputation and it still haunts us. Every couple of years a Grateful Dead bashing goes on in the newspapers. In this case they're working on the crowd more than the band. It's xenophobia, pure and simple; people fear what they don't understand. And when a bunch of people come to town, even if they're utterly harmless, just the appearance or the numbers alone is somehow frightening. So we're having to cope with that kind of unreasoning fear now, in townships all over the place. We're running out of places to play, quite frankly. We're heading toward on "over-success" kind of extinction.

But this is the problem with the whole music world, really: There are no options, nothing you grow into. You can get to the point where you're successful enough to play Vegas for the rest of your life. But that totally sucks. And the other option is that you get so popular the numbers insist that you play in huge stadiums — which also sucks. So apart from inventing your own way to continue working, you're stuck really, 'cause inertia will take you to one of those two places, and neither one of them is acceptable, as far as I'm concerned.

We're starting to deal with the possibility of having a permanent venue of some kind to play in, where you play for a season, instead of once a year. Three nights a week, say, or whatever you have the stomach for, and people will come and see you there. For the Grateful Dead it's starting to make sense to do something like that. One advantage would be knowing the room. So your performances can start at a fairly high level.

Elvis: You played Broadway; we did that as well. But it's an expensive place. They are very small theaters and to make it pay, the ticket price has to be higher. Then you look out in the audience and you don't see your friends...

Jerry: Because they can't afford to be there. Being fair is always a problem. But I really think you can help alleviate some of that stress by communicating with the audience, by saying, "This is something I'm gonna try this one time, and the overhead of this theater requires that the ticket price go up because after all we're not making more money, we're in fact spending more money." I think it's helpful to address the audience. You have to consider them allies or else I don't know who the hell they are, you know?

Elvis: One immediate similarity between us is that roulette wheel of material every night, whether it be the physical one I attempted to use on that tour or...

Jerry: More metaphorical.

Elvis: You're hoping they'll enjoy something that you enjoy — maybe you bring some different musicians, or a new approach. With the Dead, on every occasion I've seen them over a number of years, you have no idea what songs you're going to play. And what's so beautiful about it is that the songs appear as if they had been planned.

In the late '60s, I saw the Fairport Convention — whose very name, I think, suggested they tried to model themselves after a West Coast band — almost coming to blows about which songs they were going to do next. Onstage at the Albert Hall. It was great.

Jerry: Well, if you're not entertained, you can't expect anybody else to be. The idea is to create challenges, I think. If you're lucky, that band does that. With the grateful Dead it's impossible to predict what anybody is going to play — just hopeless. So if you expect to not have things go past you, you have to pay attention. Being required to pay attention in itself makes things dynamic; they keep changing. All you have to do is pay attention and you have to go with it. Otherwise you sound like you're disagreeing.

And that has its own fascination. Conflict, an angry show. You're pissed off, or some of the guys in the band are fighting, or one of the guys is having a terrible evening or whatever, all those things also have their own interest.

Elvis: Ironically, when I first wanted to do "Ship of Fools" as a solo, a friend of mine gave me a tape; it was one of your first gigs after you were ill. And it had an anger about it I'd never heard. Whether or not it could have been the monitors or whether just that particular night it was a passionate performance... it was a different kind of singing.

I think one thing that's overlooked about the Dead is the strength of the songs. If it wasn't for all the cultural baggage that comes with the Grateful Dead, and maybe the name being in one way a defense and in another an alienating thing, and also if you were Norwegian or something, I think by now you'd be regarded as a sort of super jazz band. And on the other hand, if it wasn't for the improvisational aspects, you would have better credit for having written really good songs. Because they're not just platforms for improvisation. I think that's an element that, aside from Dead fans, is very overlooked.

I remember being very impressed on that tour in '72 by a body of songs that were never recorded in the studio, that were all on that live album, that are really terrific, and a kind of music that — nobody's ever put a name to it, but it's kind of electric ragtime.

Jerry: Yeah, that's pretty close.

Elvis: Obviously a big thing in the perception of the Dead was Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, 'cause it was acoustic-based. But from that period on for maybe the next seven years, there's a body of songs which are kind of connected, I think. And then it changed again.

Jerry: You're right, they're definitely connected. Well, we had something in mind, actually, when we started. In fact it's so pragmatic it's almost silly. We spend so much money on our third album, Aoxomoxoa — we spent almost a year working on it and it was not that great of an album — that we had a huge deficit. So I was thinking, when we go to the studio next time, let's try a really close-to-the-bone approach, like the way they recorded country and western records — a few instruments, relatively simple and easy-to-perform songs. It was quite conscious, an effort to say, "Let's not spend a year, let's do it all in three weeks and get it the hell out of the way." And that way, if the record does at all well we will be able to pay off some of what we owe the record company. So that worked very well. And it was a chance to expose a side of us that we certainly hadn't exposed very much.

Elvis: And also, presumably, music that had always been in the background. You played banjo...

Jerry: Yeah. We're kind of on the far fringe of it, but we're part of that California Bakersfield school of country and western rock 'n' roll — Buck Owens, Merle Haggard. We used to go see those bands and think, "Gee, those guys are great." [Buck Owens' guitarist] Don Rich was one of my favorites, I learned a lot of stuff from him.

So we took kind of the Buck Owens approach on Workingman's Dead. Some of the songs in there are direct tributes to that style of music, although they're not real obvious.

Elvis: You can see the connection between Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues" and "Cumberland Blues."

Jerry: Absolutely. I can elucidate it point by point, in fact,if you want to spend a million years studying it. I don't think anybody wants to get into it that far. But certainly there was a conscious decision. And then that, of course, led [Robert] Hunter and me into the gradual discovery process of crafting a song, putting a song together that is singable, that has the thing of being able to communicate at once at several levels, and that you can feel good about singing — that you can live with. For me that's real important, since I feel relatively limited as a performer, as an actor, where you can sing a song and be the person in it. I'm not that good at that.

Some songs wear well and some don't. You perform them a few times, their time is over, that's it. Others, the more you perform them the richer they get, the more resonant, until finally it doesn't matter what the words are about anymore. You carry so much emotional baggage along with them that you can't help but invest them with some life.

Country and western songs are so directly narrative, if you don't get the point the first time you play it, it's a failure.

Elvis: It's funny, it's like a light went on when you said Don Rich. Because even in a very simple country-structured song, you're likely to begin a solo on a very unusual note. Which is a thing he would do. It would almost sound like he was playing in the wrong key.

Jerry: I got that from him. Roy Nichols, he's another one. Both of them are important influences for me. I heard them both live lots of times. And Don Rich's attitude was always so cool. His fiddle playing was great too. He was one of those guys who just sounded good on anything he picked up.

Elvis: The parallel thing that I always enjoyed about Jerry's soloing is that way he can appear to paint himself into a corner and then sort of wriggle out. Another one who does that is a guitar player who you don't hear much about Amos Garrett.

Jerry: Amos! Oh yeah, he's an old buddy of mine.

Elvis: Was that style of improvisation just a natural development for you?

Jerry: Well, I get my improvisational approach from Scotty Stoneman, the fiddle player, who is the guy who first set me on fire. Where I just stood there and don't even remember breathing. He played with the Stoneman family for years; he was just an incredible fiddler. He grew up in bars, and he was a total alcoholic wreck by the time I heard him, in his early 30s, playing with the Kentucky Colonels — who used to have Clarence White and Roland White.

So I went down to hear him the first time, at the Ash Grove in L.A. They did this medium-tempo fiddle tune, like "8th of January," and it's going along, and pretty soon Scotty starts taking these longer and longer phrases — 10 bars, 14 bars, 17 bars — and the guys in the band are just watching him! They're barely playing, going ding-ding-ding, while he's burning. The place was transfixed. They played this tune for like 20 minutes, which is unheard of in bluegrass.

I'd never heard anything like it. I asked him later, "How do you do that?" And he said, "Man, I just play 'lonesome.'"

He probably died of drinking hair tonic; he was one of those guys. He grew up in bars and when you're 14 or 15 the first thing you do in bars is drink. So playing in those razor-totin' bluegrass bars and getting involved in that whole country and western soap opera life took him away and he died pretty early. But his playing on the records he appears on — mostly anonymously — is this incredible blaze. He's like the bluegrass Charlie Parker. They just recently released a live tape of the very show I was at, with the Kentucky Colonels. So you can get that. You can probably get it at John's store.

Musician: Is that something you can work on, that improvisational approach?

Jerry: Well, it's always been a part of my playing. But sure you can. The whole thing is that you have to not mind failing. There's all those times you have to paint yourself into a corner and not get out.

Elvis: Before I became a solo folkie, which led to what I do professionally, I had a little band in the pub rock scene, and at times I had ambitions to play guitar. But I didn't have the nerve for it.

Jerry: You have to have a certain attitude, I think. To say, "I don't care if I blow it. If 80 percent is good and 20 percent sucks, hey." Of course, Elvis has his guitar working against him. [laughter]

But you know something? Having high action and heavy strings is the best way to get good tone and it's also the best way to keep the guitar in tune. And the situation you're in, where you're really anchoring the band, it works great.

Musician: Do you have a work schedule to keep your creative juices flowing?

Jerry: I do. There's a definite threshold for me. I like to leave no longer than a week between playings. Otherwise, my technique starts to slide to the point where it takes me three weeks to get it back up. If I lose three weeks it's really two months, in terms of getting back to normal. Then I also have plateaus of boredom, so I go out and buy books of clarinet studies, violin things. I transpose the ones that I can to guitar. I look for stuff to challenge me 'cause there's lots of music that I'm not good at. I pick something that I don't know much about and try working on it. It usually takes about a year for something like that to find its way into my playing. I can't force it.

The last spasm of stuff I did like that, I spent a lot of time listening to Art Tatum records. Not that I could play it on the guitar. But the way he was able to endlessly come up with new tonal settings for any melody is real fascinating to me. There's something about the way he approaches rhythmic stuff too that always surprises me and says to me: Difficult. [laughs] This is hard to do. I'll take some little part of a tune and say, "If I can work out just this much to my satisfaction...."

Elvis: I don't have any comparable discipline to that, since I can't play and I can't read either. [laughter] But in the last couple of years I did a similar thing: Whereas I once would get obsessive about styles, I realized that there was no way I was ever gonna be Jerry Lee Lewis. You know that stylized authority he has? He'll play from levels of intensity from frenetic to completely maniacal, but it will never change that authority. I don't have that; I basically steal from wherever I can. And create song structures. All I know to do is write songs, really. I can't properly play an instrument in any expressive way.

Jerry: But your songs get more complex, or have more language to work with.

Elvis: And you usually achieve that by the basic model we were talking about early on, like the decision to make the country record, just 'cause it was expedient. At a certain point, about 1984, I'd made two albums in succession which owed a lot of allegiance to contemporary pop sounds. I found that dissatisfying. So the next step was to go completely to blues, R&B and country models and write songs that were still mine. Once you get outside pop music, it gets more difficult for your songwriting to be effectively influenced without allowing your music to get incredibly obscure.

It's great to want to write a song like James Carr would sing, or Mel Tormé, no matter how short of it you might fall. But if you start to listen to Egyptian music or classical music, it's harder to see how the influence would be brought to bear. You become more aware of how music is structured, internally and also emotionally.

Jerry: That's right. Sometimes the effect is really indirect. I don't seek specific influences; I don't want to end up sounding like Art Tatum. But just observing somebody else's approach finds its way. My fantasy is, what's it like to be this guy? To sit down at the piano with this total mastery of the instrument, and play one intimidating possibility after another. Seamlessly, with Einsteinian super-logic, you know? It almost transcends music.

When the Gipsy Kings were touring, there was something about the way that guy stepped up and played his solos — yeah! So for the next couple of shows, I tried it — "I'm just gonna snap these babies off like that guy." And it worked for me. It had nothing to do with the music, it had only to do with the way the guy addressed the whole problem — how do you take your guitar and play a solo?

Elvis: A few years after the American Beauty/Workingman's Dead period, there are certain ensemble pieces of playing which you can see repeated, but in a whole song structure-contained way; for instance, this strange sort of accented beat — it's not really reggae or calypso, starts with "China Cat Sunflower" but is most pronounced on something like "Scarlet Begonias." As if the chord is thrown right 'round the band with the same sensibility as a jazz band but inside a very tight song structure.

Jerry: I don't know exactly where that comes from. Actually, I think it comes partly from my misperception of how English rock 'n' roll works. [laughter] If you made a big loop starting in New Orleans, and took in the Caribbean and came out somewhere north of North Carolina...

Elvis: You would have that music. From about '70 to about '76, the bar scene, which preceded punk in London, was very influenced by bands like Little Feat, who worked using New Orleans riffs and then grafting the blues thing with a country sort of melody. Some of the Dead's music from that period has that same flavor.

Jerry: At that time, in the early '70s, we were listening to the old Neville Brothers — the Meters — and also the early reggae stuff that was coming in. So that was in our ears. The interesting thing about that reggae stuff is that the Jamaican guys were trying to get that sleight-of-hand with modular instruments: from the Larry Graham bass thing and the little things Sly used to do on those records. So they copped that idea that way.

Elvis: Plus the way the Meters played on Lee Dorsey records, that was a similar sort of blueprint.

Jerry: It's all been stolen back and forth at several different levels.

Elvis: That was the time at which my first record came, and I put some voltage into it — not in terms of volume, but in terms of speed — which was a quite self-conscious attempt because I realized that the music that I liked was about to be stranded by the tide going out. The very band I had to play on it was a Marin County band, Clover. And they came to town at exactly the wrong moment for their careers; they were persuaded by my manager to come here and arrived just in time for their playing in tune to go right out of style. But it was possible, because of their ability to play anything, for me to say, "Okay, this is kind of like the feel of You Ain't Livin' Until You're Lovin',' but playing it like a bar band, pedal-steel first solo." I didn't even say that, this was decided spontaneously. The self-conscious element was not to pretend that I never liked that music — 'cause I couldn't do that, I liked it too much — but to make it not too polite.

Musician: When you spoke earlier of aspiring to the respectability of jazz, did that in any way influence the group to move in an improvisational direction?

Jerry: Not really. By then I'd forgotten I'd even had thoughts like that. I'm thinking about how I felt when I was 15. It was a very youthful point of view. By then I'd "gotten over" rock 'n' roll and was involved in bluegrass music, and seriously pushing in that direction — when all of a sudden the Beatles came along and all that and I went — "Oh, okay, sure."

Elvis: When you're 15...I remember there was six months where I wouldn't buy a record that had an electric guitar on it. I thought I'd left that behind when I was 10. [laughs] There'd even be times where you'd sell records which you'd buy again a year later. 'Cause you'd completely change your mind.

It's possibly not going to happen like that anymore, simply because there isn't the variation. Everyone hears the same music all the time, the sources are so universal. Which is too bad really — there's no mysterious message.

Jerry: In the early days of rock n' roll, every record sounded real different: Starting around 1970 or so, things got really homogeneous. I remember a friend of mine saying there was no more country music, there was only suburban music. [laughter] Those cultural pockets of isolation don't exist anymore.

Elvis: That's really true, though I'm nobody to talk because I learned music mostly through English bands who imitated American bands, or from American bands. Therefore I developed a sort of transatlantic style. But I appreciated the totally English rock 'n' roll sense of which there have only really been three — Ray Davies, Ian Dury and Johnny Rotten. Even Joe Strummer really could have been an American with a strange accent. Now everybody's from a certain neighborhood, in the Bronx. Even the people in Manchester.

Jerry: Now you hear the strains of South African music in your neighborhood.

Elvis: I do feel that sometime in the last 18 months we've slipped into a Bizarro World, where Manchester is the center of the universe [laughter] and Donovan is a folk hero and Bob Dylan isn't any good anymore.

Jerry: It's a strange world.

Elvis: And part of that might be that the only person who grosses more money in the concert than the Grateful Dead is Frank Sinatra. On the other hand, it's a funny world where Frank can write a letter to the L.A. Times about George Michael, where Frank is actually hipper than this multi-million-selling pop star. I agree with him: George is on the top rung of a tall ladder called success, and he should loosen up and swing. I'm with Frank on this one. George could do with some swinging lessons.

Jerry: He sure could! Well, there is a certain thing [Sinatra] does with songs that anybody can learn from. I don't know what that thing is exactly, but he has a way of turning a song into his own. He can sing a ballad better than I can, that's for damn sure.

Elvis: If you compare Sinatra's original stuff on Columbia to the later period on Capitol — I don't know whether he did this consciously or just in terms of aging naturally from a young man to a middle-aged man — but he lowered his range, or he chose to sing lower. He can still hit the high notes in the Capitol records, but he didn't choose to; he often put them in a lower, more conversational range. Which is why people from that time feel they know him intimately. It was like he was talking to them.

Jerry: The microphone produced that style of singing. Starting with Bing Crosby. The thing of being able to sing at a conversational level — "crooning" — so you didn't have to below from the back of the room. All those Nelson Riddle arrangements are designed to surround that middle range and plug in the holes. There's almost no accompaniment when he's actually singing.

Elvis: I have a track on the new record where we're doing a lot of things with bells, and celeste, toy piano. Trying to record the vocal, I had really difficulty because the register of the song kind of went right between two voices where I go into a harsher range, and as I went up there was all this obnoxious high end. Then we used an old RCA mike —

Jerry: It takes the overtones out —

Elvis: And suddenly you could hear it. You realize there's a lot of overtones in your voice you don't need.

Jerry: I've always had a problem with Sennheisers and the other German microphones, because they're designed for the Germanic percussives for the language, linguistically. So they're really heavy on the sibilants, on the crackling part of your speech. And if you have on earphones, the microphone makes you sing a certain way. So the thing is, the old ribbon microphones, if you can get them, will make you change the way you use your voice, and they make it so don't lean so much on that gravelly shit.

Elvis: But you can sing rock 'n' roll into those microphones, because they distort. They do the same thing as when you hear those Little Richard records: They seem to take up the whole room, because there's no high end at all.

Jerry: He definitely distorted with that voice.

Elvis: There are people who attack a song so hard that the mike actually winces. I have a problem with a gap in my teeth. It's disgusting to talk about, but I spit on them. And that's then end of 'em. In the studio it's like: "He's coming again, lock up the good microphones!"

Jerry: Get the sponges.

Musician: When you're writing songs do you think about how your voice will carry it over?

Jerry: I wish I were that meticulous about it. I'm not. I always have to rewrite it into a more singable key for me. I write a lot on the piano, not on the guitar that much, and my transposing chops are not that great on the piano; I'll have all these in the key of C. I usually have to transpose. I view it as if I'm writing it for somebody to sing besides me.

Elvis: Do you have ambitions for any of your songs to be done by other people? 'Cause once again the whole Grateful Dead "thing" is probably a barrier to that: You couldn't really imagine someone saying, "I've got a great idea, let's send Frank Sinatra a Grateful Dead song!" But I can see Tony Bennett doing "Stella Blue," you know?

Jerry: Oh, yeah, Tony Bennett could definitely do "Stella Blue." I bet he'd do a wonderful job of it. I think it's got the kind of imagery those guys are used to, you know, that smoky barroom [sings] "Set 'em up, Joe"...a little of that flavor that those guys can probably get behind.

Elvis: Has there ever been a Grateful Dead show where you decide, well, tonight we're just not going to go anywhere? 'Cause obviously, there are people who come for the moment when they can lose themselves.

Jerry: Well, this is all part of a large misperception that goes on with the Grateful Dead. We think we are playing normal. [laughter] But we are constitutionally unable to do it. Departures for us are not necessarily departures. It all depends on your point of view. We basically don't have the rigor to do the other. We're not capable of it.

Musician: The Dead have remained relatively consistent in terms of what they're about, but the culture has changed quite a bit since the late '60s.

Jerry: Well, those people all have real, authentic lives. Their sense is as authentic as anybody else's. We've seen the cycle now several times. The people who were our fans in the '70s are now professionals. The kids who were in law school coming to our shows on weekends and getting crazy are now doctors and the heads of law schools. There are Deadheads all over society in every shape and size of experience. Musician: But in the late '60s you were a paradigm of the surrounding culture; now it's more of an aberration.

Jerry: We didn't fit into that much better than anything else. We were part of the times, but certainly we didn't typify the experiences. We were more San Francisco while the rest of the world was following Berkeley, if you want to split hairs. We were not in that political reality that was so prominent in the late '60s and early '70s.

Elvis: Plus, that's the approved Newsweek version of the '60s. All the National Lampoon parodies of the alternative culture have come true — now you really can get '60s Golden Protest Favorites, a historical view which completely distorts that time. When you were 15 or 16 it was an enormously exciting time, and reading the magazines then you were really believing the sense that there was gonna be a revolution in '68, and then this moment of it "not happening." Now there's the "approved" version, which is that it was all some nice kind of outing people went through and then didn't so much wise up as start feeling sorry for themselves during the Carter administration, and then got embittered and self-serving during the Reagan administration. These historical vandals are changing history, putting spin control on it even before it's finished.

Jerry: We are still living out that history. Our original alternative decisions are still alternatives. We're still acting it out; in that sense our revolution never ended.

Elvis: The Newsweek version is explaining real life to people who haven't got time to live it. What I find difficult to take seriously now is some groups we have in England who are pretending to be on drugs. That's a very strange thing. Perhaps they're aware that doing the same drugs that achieved a certain effect in 1967 won't achieve the same effect now, because circumstances are so different.

Musician: Part of what makes the Dead meaningful to audiences is that it can still provide a different way of looking at the world. I think that's true with any great music. And I think that's been true with drugs as well.

Jerry: I think some part of being human is to seek other levels of consciousness. It's human curiosity. If you watch kids play, they love to spin around in a circle until they get real dizzy, and then fall on the ground and laugh like hell. As soon as you know you can change your consciousness you want to do it as much as you possibly can. Because it's fun. And it's a human thing to want. I have no problem there. The only conflict is that there is somebody somewhere who finds that to be morally unsupportable. I don't know why. Of all the things to decide, "This is not a good thing to do," why changing consciousness? It's people who have such great fear of the unknown. Of what? More light? More information?

Life is inherently dangerous — everybody dies. I'm not trying to apologize for drugs, certainly. The biggest problem with drugs is that they're illegal, and you take on a lot of problems if you get busted. Back in the old days, LSD was not illegal. It wasn't a "drug." We could take LSD and apart from appearing to be really crazy, there was nothing that anybody could do to you. So it wasn't a paranoid kind of experience; you didn't worry for half of your trip if you were gonna get busted. Which is now a very real concern.

Getting high on a gig now is something I wouldn't do myself. Mostly because I feel the sense of responsibility to people who paid for tickets to come to a show and deserve to hear me play as well as I can, unimpaired. As far as making things more difficult for myself, that's something I might want to do — but I don't want to do it professionally. I've already done that, and I thing I've learned what there is to learn from it. But as far as the audience is concerned, the whole drug problem has been turned into such a cheap cause.

Elvis: There are also bands taking very serious cocktails and all kinds of stimulants, and it's not the same thing as doing it to reach some pleasantly changed state of mind, which might have been seen as a possibility 25 years ago. Now it's the opposite — it's a blotting out.

Musician: But because that channel just doesn't work anymore or because it's being legally repressed, music's place becomes that much more important.

Jerry: Part of music's primary function has always been to get people to celebrate or to produce changes of consciousness. That's what music is about. It changes your mood; it produces the heroic background music for your own life.

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Musician, No. 149, March 1991

Mark Rowland interviews Elvis Costello and Jerry Garcia.


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Cover photo by Leslie Flores.

The knackered and the dead

Mark Rowland

Jerry Garcia: Doug Irwin, who lives in Santa Rosa, has been making guitars for me since the early '70s. They're not set up like Stratocasters, three pickups, single-coil, with a five-way knifeblade switch. I've invented a kind of effects coil: It goes out through the pickups and before the selector switch in a loop, one side of a stereo cord back up the other side, into the guitar and out after the volume pot. So it's a regulated signal in which all of the set-voltage input-sensitive devices are received full blast form the guitar. I leave the pickups wide open. They come back into the guitar and I control their volume by the output knob.

I use strings by Tommy Vincey, who builds the string-winding machine the other companies buy. He's out on Long Island. They have a small string company, and the strings are a combination of strings and nickel that have about 50 percent more efficiency than regular strings. They're very in tune--I never have to retune the bridge on the guitar, ever. They're that consistent.

I still use a 1964 Fender Twin Reverb amp that's been rebuilt about a million times. It goes into a McIntosh power amp and JBL speakers. That's it. I'm very straight-ahead.

Elvis Costello: The only thing different from the last time I spoke to Musician [Jazzmaster; mid-'60s Gretsch Country Club; '60s Rickenbacker and Telecaster electric guitars; Gibson Country; '30s Martin and Santa Cruz acoustics] is that different guitars go in and out of favor. The only modifications on my Jazzmasters from the day I bought them is the scroll work on the neck. I use two vintage MusicMan amps and Ernie Ball strings, pretty heavy-gauge. Then only effects I use are the tremolo, I use a lot of that. It's the non-guitar player's friend. My main instrument at home has been the piano, a Bechstein baby grand which is way beyond my capabilities.

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