Drummer Bill Kreutzmann, best known as the steadfast heartbeat of the Grateful Dead from 1965 to 1995, has devoted his life to stretching and surpassing the percussive limits of music. Armed with his signature dynamic rhythm and uncanny subtly, Kreutzmann’s lifetime pursuit has garnered him the reputation as an unequivocal, if enigmatic, backbeat.
Enigmatic because, during his four decade career with the Grateful Dead, and even since then, Kreutzmann has let his sweet rhythm and undeniable musical charisma do the talking. And that’s right where he’s most comfortable. He and fellow Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart (who joined Kreutzmann and the band in 1967, making the Grateful Dead the first rock band to have two drummers), were together known as the “Rhythm Devils” due to their ability to send audiences into paroxysms of polyrhythmic ecstasy. Today, Kreutzmann’s compelling musical dialogue continues in his potent new trio project BK3, Bill Kreutzmann featuring bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt) and guitarist Scott Murawski (Max Creek).
With BK3, Kreutzmann finds himself lined up and locking into a powerful new wave of musical freedom. In all it’s lineup variations (Phish bassist Mike Gordon and Allman Brothers’ bassist Oteil Burbridge have both done gigs with BK3),Kreutzmann is thoroughly enjoying making music with such great players, and is driven by musical chemistry that is simply "over the top."
BK3 will tour for select dates in 2009. Listeners will undoubtedly hear echoes of Kreutzmann's four-decade trip in BK3's original material, which features a dozen new songs co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. "I sent Hunter some music we'd been jamming on, including 'Eyes of the World,'" recalls Kreutzmann. "He asked me, 'What do I write? I've already written that song.' I answered, 'Don't listen to the words; listen to the jams out of the tunes!' He did, and that inspired all these great new songs."
Also in 2009, Kreutzmann will reclaim his longtime drum seat beside fellow “Rhythm Devil” Mickey Hart, along with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, in The Dead. The highly anticipated reunion, which brings promise that the extraordinary tradition of the Grateful Dead concert lives on, will tour from coast to coast beginning mid-April.
Bill's fate as a drummer was sealed the day he was kicked out of his sixth grade band class by the teacher who told him, "Billy, you can't keep a beat." This didn’t shut down his passion for playing drums; drumming is what he was meant to do. Relieved at no longer being forced to play music that couldn’t come close to the wailing R&B tracks his parents spun at home, the thirteen-year-old immediately hopped on his bike and headed for downtown Palo Alto in search of a drum teacher. Seeing a sign on a music store offering $3 drum lessons, Kreutzmann skidded to a halt.
Lee Anderson taught Billy how to play drums in a Perry Lane home decorated in Hawaiian style. ("Maybe that's one of the reasons I live here today," surmises Kreutzmann.) By somewhat eerie happenstance, acid-test godfather Ken Kesey was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the house next door following his stint as a psychedelic guinea pig at the local veterans hospital. At times, Kreutzmann found himself rubbing elbows with Kesey and other bohemian luminaries during breaks from practicing on Anderson's silver-sparkle Slingerland drum kit (which Bill eventually bought), or at the Palo Alto, CA weekend jazz hang, The Château.
By 1964, Billy Kreutzmann had become a familiar local musician, playing in a band called “The Legends,” who dressed in black pants, red blazers, and black pin ties. 1964 was also the year that Kreutzmann first met his future Grateful Dead band mate, Jerry Garcia. Kreutzmann was at Dana Morgan's music store, where Jerry worked, when Billy’s dad sold Jerry an old banjo. Kreutzmann recalls watching Jerry play during a regular stint at The Tangent in Palo Alto. “I was so inspired by his playing,” Bill reminisces. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to follow that guy forever.’” He subsequently joined Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan in the Warlocks, precursor to The Grateful Dead. The Warlocks played their first real gig on May 5, 1965, two days before Bill's nineteenth birthday.
If such a thing as a psychedelic style of drumming exists, Kreutzmann arguably defined in all its extended percussive energy. His preference for a shuffle rhythm, he reckons in retrospect, is rooted in an early passion for the music of Fats Domino and Ray Charles. "I like to turn corners rapidly," Bill says. "I like to establish a feeling and then add radical or oblique juxtapositions to that feeling."
After losing both Garcia and his father within one month of one another in 1995, Kreutzmann moved to Hawaii, where he and Garcia had promised to relocate together should the Dead ever call it quits. Bill was glad to keep his end of the bargain he’d made with his best friend. Hawaii has been quite healing for Bill, and he’s kept his chops fresh playing with a casual Hawaii hookup featuring wonderful local players and fellow musicians from around the world who often stop by to visit.
When he's not playing music, Bill devotes much of his energy to surfing, kayaking, and other aspects of the life aquatic. His 1994 video, Ocean Spirit, documents a diving expedition to Mexico's Revillagigedo Islands. An outspoken supporter of protecting the world’s oceans, Kreutzmann is active in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and is part of a new movement to raise awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “Living on an island, the ocean gets into your blood,” Bill explains, “and that’s been a really good thing for me.”
Bill is also a cyber-artist (his artwork has been shown at Colorado’s Walnut Street Gallery), a farmer, and horticulturist. Orchids, he asserts, are the world's smartest plants. "I just tie them up on a palm tree with some wire, and pretty soon the roots surround the tree and cover it in flowers. It's gorgeous." He's started growing puakenikeni, a fragrant flower used to make Hawaiian leis. And he recently built an "honesty" farm stand to sell the bushels of grapefruit and other consumables.
"My favorite hobby is growing things," says Kreutzmann, who is also passionate about leaving a small footprint on the earth. “I feel compelled to help Mother Nature - to nurture the things she offers to this planet, and to try not to negatively impact the process.”
For Bill Kreutzmann, his drumming is a gift from something bigger than himself. He just helps it grow. But this time, it’s leaving a big mark on this planet.
Keep tabs on Bill's musical and artistic activities at www.billkreutzman.net and http://www.myspace.com/billkreutzmann