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Jerry Garcia by Jon Carroll

(This originally appeared as "A Conversation with Jerry Garcia" in the Spring/Summer 1982 Playboy Guide: Electronic Entertainment.)

Jon Carroll: Why are the Grateful Dead more convincing - and more entertaining - in concert than they are in the studio making albums?

Jerry Garcia: When you're on stage, all of these things that are really technical tend to occupy your attention. Music is something that escapes between frenzies, between anxiety attacks. Usually you're thinking, my God, that amplifier sounds a little weird, or what's wrong with that string. But every once in a while there are wonderful clearings in the wilderness.

JC: The curious part is that they seem to require an audience.

JG: I've never experienced it without an audience. I try to psych myself up in the studio - getting a nice tasty stereo mix in the earphones and closing my eyes and kind of imagining, kind of projecting myself into an audience situation, but it doesn't work. It's just some two-way street. The audience is hoping to get off, and you're hoping to click. We used to talk to Bill Walton, the basketball star, about being on, you know - hitting it just right. There's a great correlation between professional sports and music. They're both improvisational.

JC: You said that the Grateful Dead doesn't will it to happen; it lets it happen. The Rolling Stones always seem to be trying to make it happen, to force the issue.

JG: Right. They can sound very ugly and harsh at times, and then at other times they're just wonderful. But their attitude is different. There's antagonism there. It's one of the classic rock'n'roll attitudes; it's the punk attitude. I dig it, but it's not what we do. We're friendly. For me, I can't see relating to the audience any other way. We exist by their grace. It's very hard for me to do anything but like them. They're nice people. This thing of following bands on the road is very funny. Some bands make it hard for other bands; some audiences are real rowdy and smash everything. You get lumped in with everybody, and you have to constantly separate yourself. Listen, our audience is not the Black Sabbath audience.

JC: So your main responsibility is to your audience.

JG: Sure. Of course, we want to give them their money's worth, but we also want to avoid putting them in positions of harm. There are some places in America where we can't play because of the friction between the local authorities and the audience. We've had the experience of, basically, acting as bait. The first couple of times we played Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, the police busted about 100 people. They took advantage of the situation. We have to try to make sure that doesn't happen.

JC: Have you ever worked for the authorities? Would you ever consider playing to support a political candidate?

JG: Never. We draw the line at that. Who's that cool, really? Who's so cool you would want them leading people? Nobody, certainly no politician. We've been hit on by all kinds of them, candidates, gurus, holy men. All kinds of power freaks have hit on us at one time or another to raise money for them or get on the bandwagon and sell their trip. It's our responsibility to keep ourselves free of those connotations. I want the Grateful Dead experience to be one of those things that doesn't have a hook. We're all very anti-authoritarian. There's nothing that we believe so uniformly and so totally that we could use the Grateful Dead to advertise it.

JC: Not even toothpaste?

JG: Not even real good toothpaste.

JC: Do you still get hassled by the law?

JG: It's an ever-present danger. I have a feeling this whole Reagan era means a tightening down from the top, so we're always on guard. We try to be as cool as we possibly can. The world is still not that safe for people like us. But I don't think any law enforcement agency sees us as a real menace.

JC: That's interesting, because ten years ago you were perceived as a menace to public health and safety.

JG: Well, we might still be. It's just that nothing's ever come of it. No major disasters or anything; our audience comes out for a good time and that's it. We've had countless sheriffs and chiefs of police giving us points because they've dealt with our crowd, and they know the difference between our crowd and other crowds. I mean, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they have thick dossiers on all of us and they're just waiting for us to make a false move. But I don't think so. I think we've won the fight against our Sixties image.

JC: But that image was cultivated. The skulls and the Hell's Angels and. . .
JG: Well, let me put it this way: We didn't make any effort to *avoid* scaring people. But we didn't think we'd scare them as much as we did. It all seemed pretty normal to us.

JC: Were you surprised by the power of the images you put forth, by the power that other people invested in you because of them?

JG: Well, one of the things about the name, right from the beginning, was that it has a lot of power. It was kind of creepy. People resisted it at first. They didn't want us to be the Grateful Dead. It was too weird. But that response has sort of flattened out. I don't think the connotation is anywhere near as creepy as it used to be, though sometimes the *power* is very evident. It comes back to us. Every once in a while, some soul out there overamps. And all of a sudden there's a guy banging on the door with a whole complex pathology, a whole weird Grateful Dead universe woven up with images from our stuff.

JC: Well, at least that's not happening much anymore.

JG: Hopefully there aren't as many suckers for rhetoric now. It was so obvious what was happening back in those days. Like the Black Panthers. I mean, what happens when a bunch of black guys put on berets and start packing submachine guns? They're going to get killed, man, they're going to get fucking killed. You can't do that in America. You can't wave guns in the faces of the biggest guns in the world. It's suicide. That's obvious, but how could you say it? LIke, all that campus confusion seemed laughable too. Why enter this closed society and make an effort to liberalize it when that's never been its function? Why not just leave it and go somewhere else? Why not act out your fantasies, using the positive side of your nature rather than just struggling? Just turn your back on it and split - it's easy enough to find a place where people will leave you alone. You don't have to create confrontation. It's a game, and it's a no-win game. I remember once being at a be-in or one of those things, and the Berkeley contingent - Jerry Rubin and those guys - got up on stage and started haranguing the crowd. All of a sudden it was like everybody who had ever harangued a crowd. It was every asshole who told people what to do. The words didn't matter. It was that angry tone. It scared me; it made me sick to my stomach.

JC: Well, it must be hard to be stuck with your own charisma, discovering that you have it and not knowing what to do with it.

JG: Yeah. It's the only thing you have. And charisma is no shield. It's not something you can hide behind. All you can do with it is stuff like making speeches. And where do you go with that? It's a drag to be a celebrity. It can even be a drag to be a talented celebrity, with something to do. But if you're not a performer, being a celebrity could be all negative.

JC: But don't you have people coming around and saying, "Be my leader; tell me what I'm supposed to do"?

JG: We tell them we don't know. I've made every effort to tell them that we're not in a position to lead, that everybody's going to have to lead themselves. What it boils down to is: Who do you trust? Who would be such a perfect kind of person that you would trust him enough to follow him? Nobody I know. And even fewer people want to lead. And the kind of people who *do* want to lead are mostly assholes. I mean, being a politician is a lot like being a stand-up comic. The only thing you have is your personality, and the only thing you can do is stand up and say, "It's me, it's me, it's me." What kind of personality do you have to have to do such a thing? Do you want someone with that kind of personality controlling *your* life? No sir.

JC: Of course, you guys never really had those temptations. Maybe it's a good thing that you didn't have a number one record in 1968.

JG: Boy, you're telling me. It is lucky. I mean, 1968 - we were ready to go. It's been a learning process. As we've gone along we've gotten more and more cautious about what we're doing, and we've been able to upgrade it.

JC: And insist on surviving.

JG: That's been an accident. We didn't really insist; it just worked out that way. It's a matter of tremendous luck; I don't know what else to call it. For us, there's never been an alternative as attractive as the Grateful Dead. You can't imagine, playing with people who really understand you. . .I'm glad it worked out the way it has. All in all, it's been pretty neat. I mean, that's a lot to ask of life right there.


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