Long Strange Trip Out-takes: An Interview With Steve Silberman
I feel deeply honored to have been one of the Deadheads interviewed by director Amir Bar-Lev and producer Ken Dornstein for the wonderful new documentary Long Strange Trip, which is debuting on Amazon Prime on June 2. Our interview took place on September 30, 2014 in my apartment in the Haight-Ashbury. I expected it to be a relatively brief exchange, but Amir and Ken and I ended up talking for hours because his questions were so sharp and wide-ranging. Though many of the best parts of our conversation are featured in the film, inevitably some interesting stuff ended up on the cutting-room floor. To celebrate the release of Long Strange Trip, I wanted to make these "out-takes" available to my fellow Deadheads. We cover a wide range of subjects, from the influence of Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac on the band to what it was like to be friends with the late Dick Latvala, the father of the Dick's Picks series of vault releases.
Over the years, I've written a lot of liner notes for official releases, co-wrote Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads with David Shenk in 1993, and co-produced the So Many Roads (1965-1995) box set with Blair Jackson and David Gans. In my day job, I'm a science writer and the author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which became a New York Times bestseller in 2015. Enjoy. - Steve Silberman
Amir/Ken: Are the Grateful Dead still a presence in your life?
Steve Silberman: The Dead are still very much a living presence in my life. Many of my most treasured memories took place in the world that the Dead and their fans created together. I can't even think about what growing up would have been like without going to all of those concerts. They were in a register of experience that I rarely get to feel anymore in late middle age. It was a very intense place to be artistically because of the music, and also because the physical environment of Dead shows was very demanding. I remember sleeping outside of venues the night before shows. At the Keystone in Berkeley where the Jerry Garcia Band would play, I would camp out on the sidewalk for ten hours. I can’t imagine doing anything like that now. But there was a tremendous return on that investment, because the emotional peaks of being at a Dead show were unlike any other emotional peaks I ever had in any other setting. And the fact that I would be sharing those ecstasies with all the people around me, for hours at a time -- there was nothing else like it. When I look back on my years of being a Deadhead, it’s like looking back on the first time that you fell in love, or the first time you went into the wilderness, or the first time you climbed a mountain. And this was all happening in basketball arenas and other humble venues. It was a way of having ecstatic experiences that were almost outside of civilization but were easily accessible from within civilization.
Amir/Ken: I think of the word "ecstatic" in religious terms. Is that what you mean?
Steve Silberman: Yes -- they were religious, non-theistic experiences. Some people heard God speaking through Jerry’s guitar or whatever, but because I'm basically a Jewish Buddhist, I didn't think in those terms. Yet something sacred was definitely going on, created simultaneously by everyone there -- the band onstage and the people in the audience, and the fact that almost everybody in the room felt linked up in some telepathic way. That sounds overblown, but it's not that hard to understand how that happened, because the setlists generally followed a predictable structure. People would know when the really out-there music was coming, so there was a way that expectations would be met and then exceeded on a regular basis. It was like a dependable recipe for having peak experiences.
Obviously, psychedelics also played a role. Though LSD was invented back the 1940s, psychedelics have been part of human culture for a very long time. It's not unusual in cultures where mushrooms or peyote grow for those plants to play a role in healing or in initiatory ceremonies for adolescents. The Dead and their fans improvised a sacred structure that allowed you to make the most of the psychedelic experience. Dead shows were the absolutely perfect place to take psychedelics, because you were surrounded by people who were either having a similar experience, had similar experiences before, or at least understood what it was like for people having that kind of experience. And the music was perfectly structured to elicit a broad range of emotions from a psychedelic experience. There was something uncanny about the relationship between what Phil Lesh called the "waveform" of a Dead show -- the basic two-set structure -- and the psychedelic experience, which is not surprising, because the crucible in which the band was formed was the Acid Tests.
That's not to say that people couldn't enjoy shows while they were sober. There was a whole crew of Wharf Rats, people following the 12-step path, who would experience the same ecstasy just sharing the music with each other while being sober and serene, which I thought was great. They held meetings during the set breaks.
But for people taking psychedelics, it was an absolutely exquisite opportunity to explore the limits of consciousness and explore this rich musical tradition that they were serving up nightly in this incredibly well-architected form. I'm sure on my deathbed, I'll think of those experience as some of the most rewarding I ever had in my life.
Amir/Ken: What traditions are you invoking when you refer to initiatory experiences?
Steve Silberman: Most Deadheads were probably like me in that we grew up in suburbia. We didn’t grow up in any kind of extremely challenging environment. One of the worst problems we had was boredom -- what are you going to do, go to the mall? Watch TV? We didn't even have the Internet, so we couldn't talk to each other. The Dead and Deadheads invented ways of routing around the terrible loneliness in American suburbia that was life in the late 20th Century for many of us. For the most part, the range of emotional experiences that was available to most young Deadheads was rather limited. The whole straight world that Jack Kerouac and the Beat generation had risen up against was still there, oppressing everyone in new forms. But when you went to a Dead show, you would have experiences that were outside all of that robotic banality. You would feel like you engaged parts of yourself that weren't called on in day-to-day life. You would engage archetypes that were very, very deep in your mind and were the product of millions of years of evolution.
When I talk about initiatory experiences, I'm talking about experiences in cultures where young men would be taken away from their parents by a shaman and they would have to spend three days in the wilderness or longer, fasting, waiting for a spirit animal to appear, having to survive on food you could hunt and in shelters you could build. You would have to face basic kinds of human experience that had been carefully filtered out of daily life in suburbia. You could feel like you were wrestling angels or devils or whatever, and after the show, you would feel like you had survived a kind of ordeal or spiritual test. That's what young people in cultures that have initiatory rituals do. They have to survive out in the wilderness, with the advice of an older mentor. In the case of the Dead, the older mentor was basically Jerry. For a lot of kids, Jerry became a sort of surrogate father-figure whose music would point them to more intense and more enriching experiences than were generally available. I remember some young Deadheads referring to Jerry as "the Old Man," as if he was a spirit-guide or shaman.
Amir/Ken: Do you think Jerry wanted to be in that role?
SS: Oh, no, the role of being a surrogate father was completely thrust upon Jerry, he didn't want it at all. He never wanted to be the leader of the Deadhead community -- he didn't even want to be the leader of the Grateful Dead. Jerry always shunned the spotlight. But it turns out that he was more of a leader of the music than he copped to, because his particular gift for providing a narrative structure to relatively formless jamming turned out to be a form of genius that focused the chaotic creativity of the band to a laser point where you always felt like the music was going somewhere very purposefully.
The lesser jam bands who say they're taking the Dead as a model don't have the same kind of narrative intensity that the Dead had -- and a lot of that was Jerry. The other band members were obviously the perfect collaborators for him. They could complement, and amplify, and shade, and make more intense everything he was doing. But Jerry had a particular gift for starting with no assumptions about where the music was going to go and then taking it somewhere. There's that line in "I Know You Rider" about being the "headlight on a northbound train," and Jerry was that headlight, moving through the formless mystery of all the places that the music could go but always seeming like he was going somewhere intently, even if he was inventing where that place was in the moment he was playing.
I also think one of the things that made Dead music so appealing for people who were tripping was that even if you were melting down in acid space, you always felt like there was like a lighthouse out there, and it was Jerry's guitar, guiding you off the rocks to safer waters. So if you followed where he was going, you would end up home.
Amir/Ken: How did you become a Deadhead?
SS: The first time I ever saw the Dead was at the Watkins Glen Summer Jam in 1973, which makes me very typical for people in my generation. With 500,000 people there, it was one of the largest gatherings of human beings on the North American continent in history. I have to admit that I didn't go there to see the Dead. I went to see The Band and the Allman Brothers. The Allman Brothers had "Ramblin' Man" on the radio or whatever. I knew about the Dead, and I liked them, but I felt like I hadn't really gotten them yet. The night before I was supposed to go, my friend who I was going with copped out, so I had to lie to my parents and tell them I was still going with this friend, though I was going by myself. I ended up taking Greyhound buses there with my sleeping bag or whatever. I was a 14-year-old Jewish nerd, so it's not like I even knew how to go camping! And I get up there and promptly lose my sleeping bag. I'm immersed in this huge crowd of humanity, like something you would expect to see in India, which meant that the nearest Port-o-san was a thousand people away. I basically couldn't move from my spot on a blanket for a couple of days.
The day before the festival was scheduled to begin, the Dead came out to do a soundcheck. They ended up playing one of the most gorgeous, inventive, spontaneously creative, imaginative, lyrical improvisations that they ever played in their entire career. It's now become a legendary performance -- the "Watkins Glen Soundcheck," which I ended up putting on the So Many Roads box set. I didn't realize what the heck I was seeing, but I knew it was this unbelievably beautiful, exploratory, and amazing piece of music. By the following day when the actual concert occurred, I had taken so many sips from so many bota bags that were being passed around, I didn't even know where the hell I was. I had probably been dosed a dozen times over, and I hadn't even taken psychedelics intentionally at that point, so I was really out there. Later that night, someone set the Port-o-sans on fire, so after a whole day of not being able to go to the bathroom, I had to go pee in a burning Port-o-san. It was a completely bizarre environment. At some point, I just had to get away from everybody, because I was so disoriented. I ended up going up this trail towards a kind of lover's leap, a cliff that was overlooking the festival. The show was being broadcast on a pirate radio station, so these couples had convertibles up there that were tuned into the show, and you could hear the music coming out of the car radios, and then a couple seconds later, you'd hear this echo from down the hill, which was the actual event! So there was this weird psychedelic displacement. Then I hiked back down, started hitchhiking, and got a ride home.
My second experience of the Dead was on August 6th, 1974, at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. The band had their Wall of Sound set up, and the third song they played was a long jam on "Eyes of the World." Most bands would be playing a song from their recent album, but they were playing whatever they felt like. Twenty minutes into the show, I'm hearing this incredible lead on electric bass played through quadrophonic speakers, some of the lowest notes I had ever heard in my life. I was listening to jazz improvisation, which I was not familiar with yet. So I really lucked out, because the first two times I saw the Dead were two of the greatest sets of music they ever played in their lives.
I'm a so-called trailing-edge baby boomer, born in 1957, so I was used to getting to the party just as it was over. We were always late, always too young. We were the little brothers and sisters who got to the party right when the empty bottles were being swept up and the people who'd vomited were being carried out the back door. That happened over and over again. But when the Dead came back from their hiatus in 1976, they were still in their prime. For once in my life, I wasn't too late.
One of the things that people my age were looking for was a place where the anti-establishment insurgency of the 1960s had not died out. The Dead scene was like a floating piece of the mythical Haight-Ashbury, which we'd glimpsed in things like the posters from that era, which we hung in our bedrooms, and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In the Dead scene, there was a sense of historical continuity with the Merry Pranksters, Woodstock, and all that. When I was a little kid, my family would take me to Central Park, and I would see people dancing naked in Bethesda Fountain and think, "That's what I want to be when I grow up!" But by the time I had gotten old enough, the hippies were basically gone. But they were surely not gone from the Grateful Dead scene. If you really got into the pudding of Dead shows, you felt like you were part of something that had been unfolding since the Summer of Love, and was still going on.
Amir/Ken: A sense of nostalgia?
Steve Silberman: No. In fact, it was anti-nostalgia. That's so important. You wanted to hear the songs completely reinvented in front of your ears. You wanted to hear the very best version of "Scarlet Begonias" into "Fire on the Mountain" you ever heard, played in a way that you couldn’t expect. You'd feel like the top of your skull had just been blown off in a beautiful way. So it was not nostalgia for something that the original hippies had experienced -- it was more like, "We can make something equally cool that is appropriate for this historical moment." Because the world kept changing, and the thing that the Dead and Deadheads were creating kept changing too.
That expressed itself in the changing sonic palette of the music. When Mickey started introducing tape loops into Drums and Space, hip-hop sampling had not been invented yet. Mickey used loops in a way that is very much like laptop musicians now, and he was doing that in the mid-1980s. One of the things that kept blowing my mind over and over was that though the Dead were playing to mass audiences, they were playing very avant-garde music. I mean, how many people actually went to see John Cage concerts? I did, but there weren’t that many. The Dead were assembling these huge crowds of people who were not generally going to see Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman -- normal American schlubs who loved baseball and hot dogs. But they were hearing the most challenging, exquisite, technologically sophisticated avant-garde music to be had anywhere on the planet, regularly, and they were digging it.
Amir/Ken: What did Hunter's lyrics add to the scene?
Steve Silberman: Hunter is a very subtle lyricist. He would coin these aphorisms that many different types of people could relate to, and that contained within them an ethical sense of the world. Hunter came from a very serious literature background. Nobody can imagine that "Dark Star" was actually informed by poems like "The Four Quartets" by T.S. Eliot, but it was. Hunter loved James Joyce, he loved poets like Lew Welch, and he was able to produce these self-extracting aphorisms that would accumulate meaning as you went through your own life experiences. They would expand to encompass whatever complexity of experience you were going through.
I love the lyric to "Dark Star," though it’s one of the most completely -- you can’t explain what it means. When I was in my late 20s, I was a teaching assistant for the poet Allen Ginsberg. He saw the Dead at the Human Be-In in 1967 and loved them. I was with him one time in the early 1990s and he asked me, "So what is 'Dark Star'?" Then he asked me to sing it. When Allen Ginsberg asks you to sing "Dark Star," even if you can't sing, you do it. And he fixated on the phrase "transitive nightfall of diamonds." He said, "I wonder where he got that?", referring to Hunter, because he thought it was beautiful, but he couldn't pin it down any mundane meaning. The best poetry does that, and Hunter's best lyrics do that.
Musically, there's no other song like "Dark Star." It doesn't really seem to have a beginning and ending -- it seems to endlessly generate itself, like some Hindu vision of a snake eating its tail. Tom Constanten once said, "'Dark Star' is always going on. Sometimes we join it and then we drop out for a while."
One of the greatest nights I ever had as a Deadhead -- while being unable to attend the show -- was October 9, 1989, when the Dead brought back "Dark Star" at Hampton Coliseum for the first time since 1984. I went out for dinner or movie that night, and when I came back to my answering machine in the Haight, I saw I had like 30 messages. 30 messages? I thought something really terrible must have happened. So I start listening to them, and they all started in the same way: "Steve, are you sitting down? You'll never believe what the boys played tonight!" The great thing about that particular performance is that if you listen to an audience tape, you can hear the sound of a wave of samadhi washing over the audience -- everyone is becoming completely ecstatic at once, roaring as it dawns on them that they're hearing this rare mythical song.
Outside of "Dark Star," one of the most important things that informed Hunter's lyrics was these human archetypes that appeared in British ballads that go back hundreds of years, like the soldier, and the sailor, and various maidens. It was as if Hunter was carrying forward these possibilities of human experience that had evolved in thousands of folk singers' mouths and performances over the years. That gave the entire Grateful Dead oeuvre a sense of history, because the music and the lyrics seemed to come out of a much older world than they literally came out of.
Another key influence on Hunter in the Workingman's Dead/American Beauty era was the Band, who had done a similar thing in songs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," creating a sense of history. That was part of the aura around the Dead that was very compelling. Smart young people don't want to feel like they just got here and they're listening to the latest crap on the radio. The Dead were like a genre of folk music unto themselves, which gave the band a kind of authority they would not have had if they were just singing about the fight they had with their girlfriend last week. They seemed to embody a tradition, even if it was one they synthesized themselves. Just like in folk music, certain symbols -- like roses, gamblers, and trains -- would appear over and over again, becoming an arcana of archetypes that would inform your life like a kind of Tarot.
Amir/Ken: What influences did Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg have on the Dead?
Steve Silberman: When Jerry was growing up, guys like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady were the coolest guys around. By the time Garcia and Hunter met Neal, he was this kind of legendary figure, because he had been the real-life model for Dean Moriarty, the hero of "On the Road," one of Jerry's favourite books.
Neal and Allen both liked to be around young people, and got a lot of energy from them, and were able to stay relevant in the Sixties. Jack, however, who was much beleaguered by fame, and had been blamed in the media for creating a generation of "juvenile delinquents," retired into the solitary alcoholism that would finally kill him.
For Allen, being regarded as a guru by the members Jerry's generation was enormously affirming. Allen grew up as this skinny, bookish nerd who was tormented by the fact that he was gay before anyone was out of the closet. He felt like a beta male beside people like Cassady and Kerouac. But when he wrote his breakthrough poem "Howl" in 1957, he gave voice to a whole generation's unexpressed desires, hopes, and nightmares. He saw the hippies as acting out something that he and his friends could have only dreamed about in the Fifties. Growing their hair and beards long like Adam, fucking in Golden Gate Park -- it was like some Blakean dream come true. And Allen was right at the center of it all, chanting and space-dancing in his Indian schmatta.
When the Summer of Love happened, Allen had just come back from trips to India and Japan, where he fled to escape the same Beatnik hype that embittered Jack. He returned to a completely transformed America where people were taking alchemical drugs like acid and trying to build a New Jerusalem in the Haight-Ashbury. It was a huge turn-on for Allen. He was also old enough that he could ground some of the crazy naive overabundance of energy flying around at the time. There was a lot of talk about how it was the end of Western civilization or the beginning of a new, enlightened civilization or something. Allen could bring a kind of New York delicatessen-intellectual skepticism to the scene without being a buzzkill, like a wise old uncle. If people were getting too blissed out on acid or chanting Hare Krishna or whatever, he would guide them to sitting meditation to ground them.
Amir/Ken: How do you think Ginsberg experienced Dead shows?
Steve Silberman: In India, he had seen the original hippies -- naked sadhus who would smoke massive quantities of ganja while meditating on burning corpses. Naked people dancing in the street was nothing new to Allen. He knew it was part of the deepest layers of human civilization. What was unusual was seeing it on American streets.
Bob Dylan was one of Allen's favorite musicians because he carried some of Kerouac's poetic impulses even farther. Allen would always talk about how Dylan was expressing his essential yearning for the transcendent in the breath of those long vowels: "Hooow does it feeeeel." And a song like "Visions of Johanna," which the Dead eventually covered, I mean, there’s no better modern poetry. One of the first songs that the Dead really jammed hard was "The Other One," which makes explicit references to Neal, like a temporal hyperlink for Deadheads to click on in their minds and discover the whole Beat world through the character of this cowboy driving a psychedelic bus.
Jerry actually studied art with a Beat painter at the San Francisco Art Institute, Wally Hedrick. For Jerry, I think the Beats were an example of living in accordance with your own madness or gifts with honesty.
Amir/Ken: Hunter’s lyrics are not topical in terms of current events, but they have an "outside looking in" quality.
Steve Silberman: Yes, that's right. It's like a meta perspective on life. Hunter is very good at that. I tend to think that the Dead's lyrics generally make the case for compassion. In "Jack Straw," there's the sense that the people in the song are in an ethically fraught position, and they have to make wise choices, or they could suffer some terrible fate. There's something really at stake in the lyric to "Terrapin" -- whether the guy is willing to risk everything for love or not.
I'm always a little surprised when someone like Ann Coulter, a professional troll who basically says vile stuff about people for a living, flaunts her Deadhead credentials. What does she think those songs are about? But it's a tribute to the accepting nature of the community that even some liberals defend Coulter's right to call herself a Deadhead. I would not want my own interpretations of the lyrics to be all that the lyrics were saying.
Amir/Ken: The Dead seemed to appreciate having critical listeners.
Steve Silberman: I think one of the things they probably enjoyed was that they didn't have to introduce the nuances in their music every night to the audience that was hearing it. Deadheads became scholars and authorities on Dead music through sheer force of obsession. I think that pushed the band to greater levels of subtlety in the same way that Miles Davis enjoyed a jazz audience knowing what he was doing with an old standard like "I Fall in Love Too Easily." The Dead invented their own standards and then played intelligent variations on them.
When I was younger, I used to have this fantasy of being one of the last Deadheads who even remembered who Jerry was. I'd be sitting on the porch of some nursing home, listening to him play his banjo. Instead, I'm now older than Jerry ever got to be, and that's incredibly sad to me. The thing about creative genius is that it doesn't make you immune to addiction.
Amir/Ken: Tell me about your friendship with [band archivist] Dick Latvala.
Steve Silberman: I loved Dick very much. While he was alive, he was my closest older friend. He would call me several times a week and we would talk for hours about music, and not just about the Dead. When he found a new tape in the vault that excited him, he would shout into the phone, "This is better than Beethoven!" He was a very sweet man. I remember seeing Dick interviewed on MTV by some snarky young VJ who asked him, "Mr. Latvala, when was the last time you took LSD?" He immediately replied, "Now!" I'm sure he was telling the truth.
Dick had been exposed to the sacred potential of music when he was young, going to black churches in the East Bay where congregants would get the spirit during the call-and-response sections of gospel music. He would see people faint and get carried out to the hall, be fanned awake by ushers, and get carried back in, all in their best Sunday clothes. Dick thought white people didn't have any kind of music that could approach that kind of power, but once he saw the Dead with Pigpen, he said to himself, "This is it."
Dick was like the ultimate Deadhead. He started out as a fan with no inside connections. He was just this hippie guy smoking tons of pot and taking acid in a sex commune in Hawaii. Then he started keeping notebooks of his favorite tapes and annotating them, as many other Deadheads do. Eventually his notebooks became so precise, and so well organized, and so elaborate… I mean, it wasn't that Dick totally had his life together, but his notebooks were together.
He started working for the band as a go-fer, running out to get coffee and sandwiches for the road crew. He was treated as a pretty low man on the totem pole, which caused him grief. But when the band decided to air out their scene a little bit, and allow Deadheads to have more input in choosing official releases, they gave Dick access to the vault. I remember walking around in there with him, surrounded by these tapes of legendary shows I had only seen listed in DeadBase, the actual reels or cassettes or DATs or whatever. And Dick was completely happy, like a little kid. He knew he was living out his destiny. One of the wisest decisions the Dead ever made was to put Dick in charge of the vault releases. He gave Deadheads what they always wanted. The recording industry wanted them to produce an album every four years that had a hit on it - good luck with that! But what Deadheads really wanted was access to the vault, and the Dick's Picks series was the closest we could get to that until Archive.org came along.
Dick had some limitations as a curator. He tended to only really care about what he called "primal Dead," which was all stuff from before 1970. As he once put it to me, "Before they wrote the songs that sucked." He didn't always have ears for stuff that was great later, like the amazing '80s shows with Brent. But David Lemieux is doing a fantastic job of carrying on Dick's mission while expanding the vision to celebrate later eras of the Dead, which encompassed, after all, shows that more Deadheads saw.
Amir/Ken: What made the Dead great?
Steve Silberman: Jerry once said, "All I ever want to be is a pretty good guitarist" or something like that. If you look at footage of him sitting in a room, he's always got a guitar in his hand, exploring his scales. Though hardly anyone ever talks about the Dead as consummate professionals, to say the least, they worked really hard to get good.
One of the things that really attracted me to the Dead was that it was not all sweetness and light. Deadheads turned the dancing bear into a happy icon because the band’s official icons were pretty macabre. The original Grateful Dead icons, like the name "Grateful Dead," had an edge of terror, as indeed the music did. That was another way in which the music was suited to psychedelic experience, because you’re probably going to face some difficult passages in any journey with acid. It's not "all good," all bubbles and unicorns and love. Sometimes it's Kali, the Mother of the Universe, devouring her own children. The Dead spanned that whole range of human experience. On Europe ’72, "Morning Dew" comes out of chaos -- totally discordant, unpredictable, grating, even frightening at points. The prettiness of the song means so much more after the jam that precedes it.
Amir/Ken: How did the burgeoning Deadhead subculture put pressure on the band?
Steve Silberman: The Dead scene eventually became its own mobile nation-state of refugees in their own country, who could support themselves without using cash. People would barter drugs or tickets for burritos or those shawls the Spinners wore. Some Deadheads wanted to live within that milieu all the time, and they wanted to see all of pop culture around them refracted through that prism. One of the things that was so hilarious about the culture was watching Deadheads gleefully rip off various corporate logos and slogans and turn them to their own subversive purposes, like t-shirts riffing on whatever sports brand was big at time, "Toakley" with a pot leaf or whatever. The Dead became a lens through which you could look at everything. And if you were a "perma" as my friends used to say -- permanently on tour -- you could support yourself without having a day job, just by serving the needs of the community, selling burritos or felafels in the lot and whatnot.
In Reagan's bullshit America, the Dead scene offered a meaningful alternative. It was a great way to grow up. I had a friend named John Merola who saw his first show in the early 1980s and never missed a show after that until the very end, except for being late to one set because he got stuck in traffic.
Amir/Ken: What will be lost when the last Deadhead who actually went to a show is gone?
Steve Silberman: I meet kids who are just as much of a Deadhead now as people my age ever were in the 1970s. It's true that they will never get to see Jerry play. But they seem very familiar to me, though they're thirty or forty years younger. It's like they're the same people that me and my friends were. They tend to find meaning in the same cultural touchstones. It's almost uncanny how young Deadheads will read "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and then "On the Road." It's like a self-administering curriculum for life. Once you get into the music, there's all this other cultural data that comes along with it. It's almost as if some people were destined to become Deadheads. Then they have to acquire the information in the world that enables them to fully manifest the person they were inevitably born to be.
There's nothing better than watching a young Deadhead close their eyes during a titanic performance like the "Hard to Handle" from Hollywood Bowl, August 6, 1971. That shit is magic. And it will keep working its magic in whatever form it's transmitted into the future. Grateful Dead music will still be transforming lives hundreds of years from now, and the people who are attracted to it will still be the same kind of people -- smart, nerdy misfits who know how to really enjoy themselves in some secret, beautiful place inside themselves.
Steve - Thanks for making this additional transcript available. I think much of what you've said here is just as interesting and relevant as the parts that made it into the film; I imagine it was left out for considerations of time more than content.
I'm only a couple of years younger than you are - I was born in 1960 - but my experience of Dead shows was very different than yours. I first became aware of them in high school in the mid-'70s, mostly through slightly older kids who were into their music. The report I heard, though, was that there was no reason to go seem them any more - they were burned out, PigPen was gone, they were just going through the motions. The impression I got was that they were expected to quit any day, as so many other bands from the '60s had done by then.
For that reason, I never bothered to see them until the early '80s, by which time I had become completely enthralled by their music from the "experimental phase" of '66 - '69 or so. I also liked the '70 - '74 music but hadn't heard anything that I really liked later than the Blues for Allah album. I guess I had a somewhat skeptical ear when I first saw them, and sure enough - as much as I really enjoyed the overall experience (I completely concur that there was no better environment for enjoying psychedelics), I had a hard time seeing Bob Weir's new stage persona, especially as he took on what I still considered to be PigPen songs.
I continued to see them a few more times through the '80s, but my experience was always mixed - I was thrilled to be seeing the guys, but also torn because what they were playing wasn't what I wished I could hear. I never heard them play Dark Star, and I think it's just as well, since I'm not sure I could have avoided the urge to compare it to how they played it in 1969.
My last show was right after Touch of Grey had charted, and the waves of "Touch Heads" were starting to flood the shows. I saw them on a 90+ degree humid day at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, perched up on the upper deck a mile from the stage between a couple of sweaty shirtless guys who screamed a lot. This was also one of the shows that I experienced without the benefit of psychedelics, which I had also found to be difficult to handle.
I left that show feeling much as I did about the entire collected experience of all the shows I had seen - glad that I had at least been able to see them, but kind of sad that I had missed the experiences of the late '60s and early '70s that seemed to me to have been so much more magical.
I'm sure you must have encountered a lot of people like me in those days, and maybe you dismissed us as cynics who were not giving a fair listen to what the band were currently doing - and you probably would have been right. For me, though, the feeling of nostalgia that you say you never felt was one that I was never able to shake.
I accept it for what it was. Well done, the Frankenstein footage served many purposes for me. The interviews were relevant, funny at times. The self destructive nature of the band, especially Jerry was mirrored by the fans as the scene grew. The reluctance of Jerry speaking out in the 90s about the out of control Shakedown scenes was understandable. As Jerry spiraled down, so did the scene, and to his credit he wasn't going to be a hypocrite. Tragic, but as humans we are all flawed, hence Jerry's imperfections, yours, mine and the documentarys.
Just not the doc I wanted I would have much appreciated an in depth look at the music-the world of difference between Dead eras, a segment on the instruments (beyond The Wall), all the guys that contributed-Martin Fierro, Grisman,Wales, Berio. Where were Tom Constanten, Vince and Hornsby? What about the Dead's record company? The saga of Mickey Hart's Dad? The fact that their business model was copied and written about? Why was there an episode devoted to Deadheads (every knucklehead who whomped me while they were drunk and grooving and cheering notes like they were overtime goals) I couldn't believe the Dead family and Martin Scorsese were involved! Who thought that the extensive opinions of road managers (Parish and Cutler) was so germaine?Who thought that interspersing Frankenstein footage was telling? Why the endlessly repetitive reaction shots of Jerry mugging? At least there were no dumbass psychedelic whirligig animations during Space jams.
Really dug the story about recording Morning Dew though-that was the bomb!
...At IFC in The Village. Excellent job! Amir gave a Q&A after. They used a small bit of Super-8 I shot in Saratoga in '84. that was an honor. Great insight into the whole scene Steve! Many thanks.
Thanks, busyb! Just to be clear, there's plenty of me in the movie -- these were just the parts that didn't make it. But believe me, I say plenty in the finished film.
Very eloquent Steve, thanks for a wonderful and enlightening read.
Only one thing I can add to that which is I actually was listening to Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass and John Coltrane, directly as a consequence of listening to the Dead. As they didn't play in the UK that often I was always looking for alternative avenues and these seemed to be those spaces.
This was perhaps the most insightful and spot on discussion of the GD that I've ever read. My observations and feelings are totally in line and I appreciate your input.
Excellent perspective on Grateful Dead...i taped an interview with Barry smolin , david Gans, and silberman on LA radio while i was down there...they discussed Dick latvala's passing and the making of So Many Roads...Steve seems a highly intelligent mensch and this interview was delightful
That was one of the most honest and descriptive conversations I've ever read about the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic experience. How did this not make the movie? It's like the Since I've Been Loving You from Led Zepplin's movie Song Remains the Same didn't make the soundtrack. Are you kidding me? Can't wait to see the film.
Thanks, guys! I really appreciate all the comments here.