There are some folks just woven into the musculature of certain music. David Gans has expanded our enjoyment and understanding of the Grateful Dead's music for decades. His books Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead and Conversations with the Dead are two of the few essential works in a large but often empty library about the band. He's been the host of the nationally syndicated radio program The Grateful Dead Hour, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and he also produces Dead To The World on KPFA radio in the Bay Area. But there's far more to Gans than a lurker on the edges of Dead territory. A gifted singer-songwriter, respected music journalist, inventive entrepreneur, and trickster in the archetypal sense, Gans vibrates with a love of things musical, which in turn inspires our own pleasure and feeling for sound and vision.
He began making his own music around the San Francisco region in 1970 but transitioned into writing about music as the decade progressed. He contributed to legendary free paper BAM and was an editor at both Mix magazine and Jann Wenner's short-lived Record magazine. He was also instrumental in setting up the BASS ticketing system nationwide, something that made obtaining tickets infinitely easier for tour-obsessed Heads. In the mid-90's after the passing of Jerry Garcia, Gans returned to making his own music, which carries echoes of the Dead's work but also has a playful character and wiggly organic shake that is wholly its own. In the past decade, he's become a staple of the festival circuit and can often be found in coffee houses living the folk singer life – a contemporary bard telling us tales to make us weep and snicker.
David took time from his always-hectic schedule to talk with us about his career, the Dead, and more. Pull up a chair, pour yourself something sweet, and bend an ear to a trooper who's been in the trenches fighting the good fight for more than 30 years.
1. Not many make the transition from being a musician to being a music writer. What has being on both sides of this proverbial fence taught you about making music?
Oh, countless things. I just sort of wandered into the writing thing in the mid-'70s, when BAM magazine started here in the Bay Area, and found myself interviewing all sorts of interesting people - not just musicians but also producers and engineers and legendary inventors like Les Paul and Leo Fender. It was a million-dollar education!
David Gans by Richard McCaffrey
2. What was the first Grateful Dead song to really flip your wig?
There were several identifiable scraps in the smoking crater of my mind after that first show (March 5, 1972). I later figured out that they were "Greatest Story Ever Told," "Bertha," and "Black-Throated Wind." Plus they played "Good Lovin'," and although I was as far away from the stage as you could be (in the last row of the high part of the balcony of Winterland), I got at least an inkling of what Pigpen was capable of. Unfortunately, that was the only time I saw him.
3. Tell us about Truth And Fun, Inc. Where'd the name come from? Why organize your business dealings under such a banner?
"Truth and Fun" was a phrase I came up with in the late '70s or early '80s, a sort of philosophical shorthand, or my version of the golden rule. I figure those are two things you want to keep in balance - if you're having fun at the expense of the truth, or if the truth isn't any fun, then something needs to change. I had those words on my letterhead when I was a freelance writer. In 1988, the Grateful Dead asked me to incorporate before entering into a contract with GDP and a radio syndicator. I decided to call the company "Truth and Fun, Inc." It gets a lot of comments, all of them favorable.
4. There's a kind of ancient vibe to singer-songwriters, something that ties into bards and other traveling storytellers. Do you ever feel this kind of ancient connection?
I grew up listening to AM radio and then "underground" FM in the '60s. That was a really rich variety of music, before everything was segmented by genre, skin color, and other factors. I didn't have much sense of the roots of the music I loved until much later, when people like Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan pointed explicitly to the great musicians who influenced their creative personalities. I am much more aware of my place in a centuries-long line of bards and troubadours now than I ever was when I was younger. I don't know that it makes all that much difference in how I work or what I do though. I have only rarely done that great Hunter-Dylan-Shakespeare thing of revisiting a classic motif and dressing it in new clothes. I wish I had that much control over my creativity, to tell you the truth.
Garcia & Lesh by Jay Blakesberg
5. You've done nearly 900 Grateful Dead Hours. How do you keep it interesting to yourself after all these years? What keeps moving you to create this audio space every week?
Actually, I've produced more than a thousand hours. I started numbering them in 1987, after more than two years on KFOG. I did 55 "Deadhead Hours" before Grateful Dead Hour #1, the new name having been instituted by the syndicator who distributed the show from Labor Day 1988 to Labor Day 1989.
I've never gotten anywhere close to bored with my day job. To the people who understand and appreciate it, Grateful Dead music is endlessly fascinating. I jump around from era to era, doing my best to cover every period of Grateful Dead evolution, and I'm always on the lookout for more great new music as well. Keeping up with the new archival releases from Grateful Dead, the Garcia estate, and other sources is another enjoyable part of the adventure.
6. Dead to the World, your weekly program on KPFA, ranges into bands other than the Grateful Dead and their offshoots. What criteria do you use to decide who makes the cut, who has the right vibe for what you're trying to do?
I trust my ears and my instincts. I hear a lot of good music at the festivals I play, and people send me new music all the time too. I also get ideas from friends and colleagues. Richard Gehr, a writer in New York, and Barry Smolin at KPFK, have both turned me on to a lot of fine music. I also hear from listeners, and I learn a lot in my online hangout, The WELL.
David Gans by Tony Bittick
7. A lot of folks don't fully appreciate what it takes to live life on the road and literally sing for one's supper. What wisdom, hard and soft, have you gleaned from touring?
Oh, that's a big question. I can carve out a little piece it for you.
I have been fortunate in that I don't think I've had to learn a lot of "hard lessons." Although I have been a musician for decades, I have only been touring for about eight years. I have a stable and satisfying home life and some very healthy living habits that I have acquired over time, and I do my best on the road to maintain a wise lifestyle. I don't eat junk food, I don't drink alcohol, I get a good night's sleep, and I try to get some exercise along the way.
Regarding the artistic and business side of the question, I do my best to deliver a good performance every time. When I'm opening for another artist, I don't take it personally if their audience isn't as attentive as I'd like. And if I'm headlining, I try not to freak out too much if the attendance isn't as high as the venue (and I) expected or hoped for. I am loyal to the people who treat me well, and I am grateful to anyone and everyone who listens to the music I make and to those who support me in my work.
8. So much of your creative output is associated with the Grateful Dead. In what ways is your own music similar to the Dead and in what ways is it different?
There's Grateful Dead in every note I play, just about, because there was a time in the '70s when all I wanted to do was learn how to play like that. But I was a songwriter and a guitar player and singer before I ever heard of the Grateful Dead, and there are any number of artists and styles I have studied before and since becoming a Deadhead. Someone else will have to tell you how much my songs sound (or don't sound) like Grateful Dead songs, because I honestly can't tell from here. Every song I write has its own weird path from inspiration to completion, and the muse doesn't much care for protracted arguments. I take what I can get.
Gans & Lesh by Minkin
9. What are your thoughts on the various post-Garcia aggregates like Ratdog, Phil Lesh & Friends, and most importantly, The Dead, which includes all the surviving Grateful Dead members?
I am glad those guys are continuing to make music, and I don't have strong feelings about whether or not they make it together. Obviously, they traveled a long road together, and there were many bumps along the way. It's been said (in Phil's book, for one) and I have observed that the bonds between Jerry and everyone else were much stronger than the bonds among the other band members. It's possible they just didn't have that much interest in continuing their collaborations after Jerry's passing.
Bob Weir with Ratdog by Susan J. Weiand
I'm a big fan of Ratdog since Robin Sylvester joined the band. Rob Wasserman is a fine musician, but Robin is much better suited to the role of bassist in that band, and the proof is in the music they've been making for the last couple of years.
And I'm very happy to see Phil Lesh continuing to mix it up, and to see him choosing some of my favorite musicians (and friends): Tim Carbone, John Skehan, and Andy Goessling of Railroad Earth; Barry Sless of the David Nelson Band; and Al Schnier of moe.
10. Are there any new bands that give you the same feeling the Grateful Dead once did? Is there currently an active group that makes you want to follow their tours and absorb their songs in the same cellular way?
The band that most consistently makes me forget where I am and what time it is is Donna the Buffalo. In a very different way from the Dead, they bring souls together in an ecstatic groove that elevates the welfare of the planet in some small but significant way.
Donna the Buffalo
Another band I really love is Railroad Earth. Todd Sheaffer is a terrific songwriter, and he's surrounded by excellent musicians who exhibit great virtuosity as individuals and who also know how to play together to make something happen that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The David Nelson Band is probably the best band on the planet in terms of carrying on the Grateful Dead's tradition of stringing great songs together with brilliant ensemble playing. That's no surprise. David Nelson was there with Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter and the rest when they created their unique form of musical storytelling. David knows, and his band does, too.
Other bands worth mentioning that aren't very well-known nationally are Free Peoples, from here in Northern California, and Joseph Langham and Each Others' Legend from Flagstaff, Arizona.
Not coincidentally, there is a CD you can get that features a track from each of these artists, It's called Live from Berkeley - a compilation of performances from my KPFA show. It's a fund-raiser for KPFA. If you'd like a copy, send a check or money order for $25 or more payable to KPFA, to Perfectible Recordings, 484 Lake Park Ave. #102, Oakland CA 94610-2730. Stanley Mouse did the cover art, which you can see and hear samples of all the tracks at www.gdhour.com/livefromberkeley.
11. When did you start playing guitar? What drew you to the instrument and what still draws you in now?
I started playing guitar when I was 15. I played the clarinet all through grade school and junior high and was still farting around with it in high school, but I wanted to be a folksinger or a rock star or whatever. My brother (two years older) set a couple of my tortured teenage poems to music and taught me the chords, and from then on, whenever he left the house I went into his room and got his guitar. I taught myself all the songs in the Crosby, Stills & Nash and Beatles' White Album songbooks, and that was it for me. So I was writing songs before I played the guitar.
David Gans by Jeff Kearns
What draws me to it is that it is a tremendous tool for self-expression. As Bobby Weir told me once in an interview, it's a lot easier to carry around than a piano. I can get on stage with my guitar and a couple hundred bucks' worth of electronic tools and make a hell of a lot of sound, tell my story, and maybe leave an impression in some people's minds.
12. Are there any Dead songs you're sick of? Any you don't like to play on your radio shows anymore?
There are some that I don't find terribly interesting over time, but there aren't many - and I try not to let my own personal gripes dictate the content of the show. There are some songs that began to seem obligatory, like filler, over the years - e.g. the "cowboy medley" that came up in every single first set from the early '80s until the end. After a while, it was extremely unlikely that anything interesting would happen in "Me and My Uncle" (especially compared to the exciting versions that came up in the middle of "Other One" jams in the early 70s!) or "Mexicali Blues" - and the transitions between them tended not to be very satisfying either. I got kinda' tired of Bobby's blues numbers sometimes too, although you couldn't give up on them completely. I remember a "Little Red Rooster" from the Greek (can't remember what year) in which both Bob and Jerry played some powerful slide guitar. But the GD originals always had some life in 'em, no matter what.
13. What was collaborating with Robert Hunter like?
It all took place in email! I was on the road, and I checked my email before heading out to a festival gig in Michigan and there was a message from Hunter! He said he'd been reading my online journal with "interest and empathy" and thought I'd like this lyric. Did I ever! The lyric was called "Like a Dog" (see www.dgans.com/lyrics.html).
Robert Hunter by Michael Mullen
I came back to my room after the show and got right to work on setting it to music. The next day, I drove to Ohio and taught the song to the Dark Star Orchestra, who came onstage with me without rehearsal and just nailed it. When I got home from that tour, I played the song on my radio show; Hunter heard it, liked it, and sent me another lyric right away: "Shut Up and Listen."
I've envisioned "Shut Up and Listen" as a nasty, Stones-y rock song but haven't had a chance to play it that way. But I did put an acoustic version of it on my CD Solo Acoustic.
14. Do you have an all-time favorite Grateful Dead show? Is there any other band's performance that competes for your personal top spot?
I don't really have much of an answer to that. I think there is merit in just about every GD show I saw (and I was at Boreal in '85!), and I've seen a zillion other concerts that moved me just as much. Off the top of my head, I'd say the Paul Simon Graceland show with Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Berkeley Community Theater, musta' been 1986) was the single most exhilarating show I ever saw. I saw Joan Baez turn the sold-out Greek Theater into an intimate living room concert. Joe Jackson's Night and Day tour in 1982 was brilliantly conceived (no guitars!) and executed with great power. I was blown away by Billy Joel at the Berkeley Community Theater (The Stranger tour). I could go on and on.
Grateful Dead at Greek Theatre by Jay Blakesberg
15. You're a regular on the music festival circuit. Many liken these gatherings to what people were doing in the '60s and early '70s. Do you think that's true - that the peace and harmony vibe is as strong at today's music festivals?
The festival tradition goes back many years before the hippies started carrying the flag at Monterey and Woodstock. I didn't go to any of the major festivals when I was a kid. I was on the wrong coast for Woodstock, and I overslept and missed my ride to Altamont. There were folk festivals for many years before that, and there were bluegrass festivals long before there were folk festivals. My favorite festival scene - MagnoliaFest and the Spirit of Suwannee - is in Live Oak, Florida, in a place where bluegrass festivals were held every year. The producers of those festivals are taking their good vibes to the Bill Monroe Festival site in Bean Blossom, Indiana, for the first time this summer.
In other words, people have been gathering in peace and harmony to enjoy great music and fellowship for decades - no, centuries! We are simply carrying on the tradition, and I am very happy to be part of that tradition. Festivals are a great thing. Performers get to hear each other play, jam with each other, get close to the audience - everybody wins! And it's great for me as a radio producer too because I always come home with new music to play on the radio show.
16. How'd the recent shows with your new band Guilty Pleasures go? Will this band go forward?
That was such a high experience! It started with Klyph Black, bassist of the Zen Tricksters. I just love that guy, and when we were doing some gigs together in February, I asked him if he'd like to come out and play the Invitational at Sweetwater with me. He said yes, and we agreed to do a few more shows to help cover the cost of his plane ticket and all that. Then we cooked up a band - Rob Barraco (Klyph's former bandmate who went on to play with Phil Lesh and Friends and The Dead) on keyboards and vocals, Barry Sless of the David Nelson Band (and currently playing with Phil and Friends as well) on pedal steel and electric guitar, and a young drummer I know in San Francisco, Adam Perry.
Rob Barraco by Susan J. Weiand
We only had one day of rehearsal, and then three shows in three days. Barry had to leave before the last gig to rehearse with Phil and Friends, so we did the May 8th gig with David Nelson. Everything about this tour exceeded my wildest dreams. The music was thrilling, the audiences were tremendously responsive, and we even came out of it a few bucks ahead.
You can hear two of the shows online, and the others should be posted soon:
May 6th at Six Rivers in McKinleyville, CA
May 7th at Lalo's in Mt Shasta, CA
I don't know when we'll be able to do it again. Barry is insanely busy with three regular gigs (he also plays with the Flying Other Brothers). Rob just put out a CD, Dragonflys, and is about to start touring with that band. Klyph plays full-time with the Tricksters. And I have a lot of solo work as well as various collaborations. I think everyone would like to do it again, but it's a matter of lining up the clear spots on all our calendars.
17. What role do politics play in your music?
I grew up in a time when we thought music would change the world. And it did, to a certain extent, although the world has continued to change and not in entirely desirable ways.
David Gans by M. Sheehan
Many of Donna the Buffalo's songs are spiritually positive and politically/socially conscious. I asked Jeb Puryear once if he was promoting any particular political, spiritual, or religious agenda, and he said something like, "No, but I figure if you're going to play music for people, you might as well have something positive to say." He cited The Beatles and Bob Marley as major influences. That's pretty much how I feel about it too.
I wouldn't say I specialize in political songs, but I have written quite a few in recent years because what's happening to the country and the culture and the planet and the human race is very important to me. After years of writing songs that were mostly about my own experiences, I made an explicit effort to write something that was purely fictional. The song I wound up with was not what I thought I was writing, but I was happy with the result ("An American Family," which is on Solo Acoustic and whose lyrics can be found at http://www.gdans.com/lyrics.html), a portrait of three family members coping with the economic straits of the present-day American kleptocracy.
And, partially inspired by the example of Donna the Buffalo, I have two new songs whose message is both socially critical and personally optimistic - "It's Gonna Get Better" and "Shove in the Right Direction," both of which you can hear online here.
18. Anyone you haven't worked with that you'd really like to?
I would love to sit in with Donna the Buffalo. I got onstage with them at the first couple of Suwannee events, but that was before I really got into what they do. Now I'm prepared to get down into that deep groove of theirs and help stir the soup.
Donna the Buffalo by Todd E. Gaul
The monthly Invitational that I do at Sweetwater has given me opportunities to play with lots of fine musicians. This week I will share the stage with, among others, the great bluegrass musician Laurie Lewis. I have some other ideas and some pretty cool acquaintances who have expressed an interest in joining me there.
I have been singing Beatles songs with Chris and Lorin Rowan (Peter's younger brothers), and we have talked about doing some gigs together. I did a couple of songs with Peter Rowan a few years ago, and I'd love to do more with him. I have toured with the great Seattle singer-songwriter Jim Page, and we hope to work together again soon.
I am feeling both challenged and satisfied these days, so I'm not spending much time or energy pining for unattainable musical partners.
It would be fun to get Bill Kreutzmann into a jam some time.
19. What's the most fun you've ever had on stage?
Another impossible question! I have been blessed in that department. I've had peak experiences playing all by myself with an audience that was really in it with me and a good PA making the connection. Two shows in the Northwest a year and a half ago spring immediately to mind: a house concert in Portland and a gig at Bishop's on Vashon Island, near Tacoma WA.
Gans & Lesh by S. Millman
But the most thrilling experience I can recall is the first three shows with Guilty Pleasures. I played way above my skill level in that context. I haven't played electric much in recent years so I was a little bit nervous about that, but the muse was kind to me and I played better than I ever thought I could.
Another peak experience was playing a sold-out show at the Fillmore Auditorium on January 31, 1998 - David Gans and the Broken Angels with special guests Phil Lesh and Vince Welnick. We sprang "St. Stephen" on Phil that night, and he rose to the occasion mightily, as did everyone else on that stage that night. I'll never forget it.
20. Is there anything more precious than music?
Music is one of the things that make life on Earth such a precious gift. The intimacy of real love is another. The ability to travel, to appreciate the beauty and magic of the planet is another. To have all these things in good measure is a tremendous blessing, and I am very happy to say I have all three in my life.
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