Photo by Susan J. Weiand
While we have Phil Lesh's ear it seemed wise to have him help dispel or confirm a few long standing rumors. Let's start with the widely propagated story that the Grateful Dead plan to open their own performance venue in San Francisco.

"Off and on, there have been plans made to do that sort of thing. It keeps coming up and ultimately we always decide we don't want to be in that business," Phil tells us. "We'd have to be in the business of promoting concerts. We couldn't play there ourselves all the time so we would have to book other acts and we just don't want to be in that business. It takes away energy from other stuff."

How about the symphonic rendition of Dead tunes you were reportedly working on a few years ago?

"I decided not to do the symphonic version of Grateful Dead (music) for many reasons. I was looking for closure. This was right after Jerry died and I was looking for closure with that music so I could go on and do something else. Turns out, the music won't let me have closure. It wants me to keep playing (it). It wants to be reinterpreted. The music is like a living thing, it's a living organism and in some mysterious way it's only alive when we're playing it, digging into it and expanding it and playing it in new ways. And it wants to live like any other living thing. I just realized there wasn't going to be any closure. I was gonna keep playing this music, I was going to keep reinterpreting it and there was no way in hell I was going to freeze it, to petrify it in amber."

However, he does want to do some symphonic writing eventually. "Might start doing something for dance," adds Lesh. "I do have some music that wants to come out in this manner."

And finally, what about putting The Vault (the G.D.'s archive of live and studio recordings) on the Internet?

Mickey Hart
"I want to do it real bad. I want it all to be out there so everybody can just have it. If you want all the 'Dark Stars' ever played they'll be available online. That's our plan and our goal."

Returning to more philosophical terrain, in a highly political election year, the subject of one's influence as a counter-culture icon comes up. Are music and politics good bedfellows?

"That's a good question but I'm not sure they're really compatible," Lesh states. "The Grateful Dead have never endorsed a candidate or performed for a candidate. Frankly, the use of music in political campaigns is like an advertising jingle. It cheapens it."

He continues, "Personal influence may be one thing but I don't feel music belongs (in this realm). As I said, it's just like advertising, which to me trivializes. Music is sacred. It really is. We used to say that any place we play is a church and we didn't say that lightly. What we're about is not entertainment or advertising. Mickey used to say we're in the transportation business, we move minds."

However, both Hart and Lesh made an exception recently when they performed at a John Kerry fundraiser. Mayhap our current President inspires all of us, even those dedicated to the separation of art and state, to make allowances in order to shift things in a more positive direction.

Photo by Susan J. Weiand
Besides the musical ones already mentioned, Lesh has been influenced by a diverse array of artists including sculpture Umberto Boccioni and painters Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock. He also finds a particular resonance in poetry, citing William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and Walt Whitman as touchstones. He says, "It's all food, food for the soul, and the soul takes it and transmutes it in its mysterious ways."

Poetry makes particular sense in regards to his music because it too requires a leap between stanzas by the audience. The listener, in this case, must make an act of faith to truly participate in the becoming unfolding around them. Without that existential jump across the borderline from the ordinary to the extraordinary the music doesn't fully breathe.

"It's a collaborative effort: we need good listeners just like we need good musicians. Sometimes it's just a matter of openness, a willingness to take a little trip," Lesh explains.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg
"It's like when you open a book for the first time, you don't know where the story is going to take you. Why should you expect that from music? Why should you expect music to take you to the same place you've always been? Maybe it's because people don't listen to music for itself anymore. It's always background as they're doing something else. The radio's playing or you got your stereo going as you're cooking dinner or whatever. It seems like music today is kind of trivialized by the process of how it's disseminated. So, when you have a group of people together in a concert hall who are putting themselves into the music it makes all the difference in the world to the depth and the weight of what's going on."

For better than 30 years, Phil Lesh has been making that difference, adding the weight AND the uplifting joy to literally millions of lives. But when he began doing this in the '60s there was no inkling that his life would run the way that it has.

"I don't think any of us thought we'd still be doing this in five years to be honest with you," explains Phil. "Just because of the nature of the music business at that time. We saw bands crashing and burning after six months. But the one thing we knew from the very beginning, almost from the first rehearsal, was that we had the chemistry and it could be art. It wouldn't be just silly pop songs. It could be art in the sense that Coltrane's art, that Miles Davis is art. Or like a Japanese painter painting on silk, where you can't go back over it, is art. As ephemeral as it can be we knew we were onto something really important. But, of course, nobody knew how long it was going to last."

The truth of their music, the truth of this man's character, has played out rather admirably in the way it's been woven into the fabric of so many lives.

"I think it's wonderful that it has. And that still today when my band goes out or when Ratdog goes or The Dead goes out we see four generations of people in the audience. It's like nothing else."

Words: Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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[Published on: 5/17/04]

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