The Days Before: Dennis McNally & Brian Miksis Discuss Jerry Garcia Pre-Grateful Dead Box Set

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On May 11, Round Records will release a jaw-dropping collection called Before the Dead, a four-CD boxed set featuring rare and early recordings from Jerry Garcia’s formative years that, as the title alludes to, occurred before he became “Jerry Garcia.”

Here is Garcia, on some tracks as young as 18, coming of age musically — coming into his own especially as a guitarist — in the heat of the San Francisco folk revival in the early-1960s: aware of his considerable talents but perhaps not yet sure of them. There’s Garcia and Robert Hunter, here “Bob And Jerry.” There are Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, Hart Valley Drifters, Wildwood Boys, Black Mountain Boys, Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys. There’s a lot that very few people will have ever heard before: a time capsule in the spirit of, say, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music collection, with a particular focus on Jerry himself.

The collection is accessible, but curated especially for the knowledgeable Jerry fan: the music painstakingly chosen and sequenced for four CDs (or a limited edition five-LP box), along with a 32-page book with essays, photos, memorabilia, listening notes, and “Tales Of The Tape” content that shares how the music was recorded and found. Dr. Neil Rosenberg, a renowned musicologist and expert in American folklore (and a one time classmate of Phil Lesh), is among contributors providing commentary for the music shared.

Documentarian and archivist Brian Miksis and author, historian and longtime Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally co-produced and curated the collection. I asked both to share some insights just ahead of the box set’s release.

JAMBASE: Guys, I honestly don’t even know where to start with this. I want to unpack it, slowly and deliberately — it’s something to savor. So let me ask you — how did you start with this? How did this become what it now is?

BRIAN MIKSIS: I came at this whole thing from a fan’s perspective. The journey was an amazing one. I was a Dead fan and this was a piece of the story, musically, that I didn’t quite understand. All the clues were kind of alluding to a much larger tale, so I went searching.

DENNIS MCNALLY: He knows that he’s more than a little obsessive. [laughs] And he’s done such phenomenal legwork over the last, what, decade? When did you start?

BM: The crazy part is I started this before my children were born, and my oldest is 8 now. I think about it in terms of the bigger steps we took, and I certainly can’t say I saw a boxed set coming and everything we have now, but to be able to have gone to the depths we did is unbelievable. It’s an official piece, up there on the shelf, and it started as a desire to simply learn more.

DM: I want to say it was 10-ish years ago, and I got a phone call or an e-mail or something … Brian reached out. You know, I felt an absolute obligation to respond, as I do to people researching aspects of the Dead. I got helped a lot when I started, and I have to pass that on. There was a want here to know everything about the folk and bluegrass years of Jerry, and even I was saying things like, you know? I did my main research on that subject maybe 30 years ago at this point, and there’s a lot I just don’t remember. I had a lot of those moments with Brian. But I dug deep and made my notes available to him, including various tapes that were copies that I had made or, really had been made for me of cassettes, I was never a taper.

Somewhere along the line, the folks at the Garcia estate got involved and they explained that we’ve got this guy who’s done just an amazing job assembling all these tapes of early Jerry, and we’d like someone with your level of experience and recognition to supervise the project. And I just said yeah, sure. Little did I know! What I do think is really impressive, and why I legitimately teased Brian about being just a little obsessive, is that he and I dug up people, and tapes, and found the earliest versions of tapes, and kept moving. I’m really proud of the booklet we assembled with [Neil] Rosenberg, and the contributions we all made. Brian, I guess it was your idea to include Neil Rosenberg?

BM: Yeah, I’d known him for a while.

DM: He was in Phil Lesh’s class at Berkeley, and he went off to Oberlin and then discovered bluegrass music and then settled into an academic career as a teacher of folklore and a bluegrass player himself. He formed the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, which was one of Jerry’s inspirations and heroes. So Neil was the ideal guy to offer an academic look at this and overview to help what we were up to.

BM: Yeah, given that he had a doctorate and had spent his life in folklore, he was an obvious choice to ask about things rather than Dennis and I spending a lot of time in libraries researching. I mean this is a guy who knew most of these tunes off the top of his head and could explain them.

DM: He and Jerry only met once I think. Jerry and Sandy Rothman went back East on a bluegrass pilgrimage and one place they stayed was near the Bean Blossom, you know, Bill Monroe’s bluegrass park in Indiana. Neil became the next leg of the tripod to help this. Without being too braggadocious, I’ll say it’s an impressive package of information. We have comments from Sara Ruppenthal Katz, Jerry’s first wife, who was there and who witnessed all of this. And we have Stu Goldstein, one of the founders of [Palo Alto club] The Tangent, which is where most of the tapes come from and who was a witness to the young Jerry — who was there for the origin.

JAMBASE: Is there anything that surprised either of you in the whole course of doing this?

BM: I think for me, maybe the effect of the cross-country trip that he and Sandy Rothman took, basically in search of bluegrass. It was the first real travel experience that Jerry had had; I think Sandy had been in New York once or twice already. The two of them had kind of a really tough go getting accepted in the larger world of bluegrass, partly due to ethnicity and partly due to … well, I think Jerry felt like he wasn’t quite stacking up in technique when he finally got to be next to some of the legends. The eventual choice he made to move on and basically leave that whole scene was maybe a bit surprising.

DM: The big surprise to me, actually, was the first tape, which is one of the more remarkable things in the package. It’s the only known tape of Bob [Hunter] and Jerry’s performance on May 25, 1961 — Brigid Meier’s 16th birthday. I’ve known Brigid for forever and got to know her well when I was doing my research, and after some time, I for some reason just never asked, “Oh, do you have any tapes?” It never came up! She never mentioned it!

Someone smarter than me, namely Blair Jackson, did ask her. And a snippet of that is in The Grateful Dead Movie, so when we were starting, one of the things Brian asked is, “There’s a tape I really want and it’s that one I think that is from Brigid, I don’t have any access to it.” Well, that’s not so tough — I had her number. We called and said, “Please, can we have a copy?” She said, “you’ll have to make the copy” and she sent us her only copy. [laughs]

[Bob & Jerry – Trouble In Mind – Brigid Meier’s 16th Birthday Party – May 26, 1961]

JAMBASE: Yikes! In the mail?

DM: The idea of putting it … OK, I trust FedEx I guess. At any rate, listening to that, to that tape, it’s Jerry playing guitar, and he’s only been playing acoustic guitar for about five months at that point. He’s really at the beginning of it — he’d played, but he was pretty much at the beginning of being a serious musician. He had a near-death experience in January 1961 in a car accident, literally blown out of his shoes and through the windshield, and it was pretty miraculously that he had lived. After that, he became this 16-hours-a-day-guitar-in-hand kind of musicians.

So you hear the beginning of that, in this. Some of it is summer camp stuff, some of it is Civil Rights movement singalong type stuff, and some of it is considerably more sophisticated, with some unusual choices. In the tape you get a sense of a number of things. One is the way that people were already glomming on to what he was doing — and he’s only 18! And yet, you can hear in this audience this thing that he had, the effect he had on people, which of course he had until the day he died. Another thing is that you hear, early on, a good beginning guitarist. By the time you get through the whole package, you’re hearing an exceptionally proficient bluegrass banjo player who could fantasize about playing with Bill Monroe. So the surprise for me was finding and hearing the Brigid tape, definitely.

BM: The fun part is, we discovered that music at the same time. It hadn’t circulated. Very few people had heard it before. It ended up being the beginning of the story we tell with the package. It contains a number of different elements of the folk revival, but he also doesn’t forget it’s a birthday party — there’s some pretty raucous group singalong and they take a few requests. What was interesting too is it sounded like they knew all the requests — they knew those songs. Couple of blues numbers in there, too, it’s pretty special to listen to.

JAMBASE: Something I always ask folks who create collections like these, is how much do you leave in? I mean sonically — there are going to be plenty of collectors who want to hear every last note, no matter how horrible the audio is. Others are obviously going for a listen that’s more agreeable to the ear. The San Mateo festival in 1962 is one, you write in the notes, just couldn’t be well expressed.

BM: We couldn’t give everybody everything. We knew that at the beginning. But I think we both, as tape collectors in our own rights, looked at what we would feel is fair to charge for if we were the ones buying this thing. I’m actually working on San Mateo, cleaning it up as well as I can. We’re going to see if we can share it publicly at some point, but it’s pretty bad. [laughs] Not the performance, the recording. I can tell you that, there’s one number on that, a sort of sea chantey, that it kills me we couldn’t include. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the package.

DM: That show is a remarkable document. It really captured what was going on at a college folk festival at that time. Jerry played too long and too much because he wanted to show a lot of different varieties of folk music, I think. But we made every effort in capturing some of these to keep the between-song chatter. Deadheads from the 80s and 90s remember Jerry as someone up there on stage who never said a word. But back then, the people in the audience were his friends, and at the shows at The Tangent there probably weren’t ever more than 50 people there, and I’m sure he knew most of them. He’s a very funny guy and so is Robert Hunter for that matter. They’re goofing, they’re entangling, they’re throwing one-liners out there.

JAMBASE: I think it’s fair to say it’s the little details that make this package almost as much as the music does. There’s a certain class of Deadhead, for example, who gets giddy seeing little details like a pay slip for $5 randomly made out to a fill-in musician named “Ron McKernan” for a Wildwood Boys show.

BM: Yeah. Part of my trip was that a year and a half in, I wanted to make a documentary film about the folk revival with Garcia as a character who was part of a larger fabric. I really wanted to spend time with a lot of these people, and as I set out, I eventually met and sat down with anybody who was part of it who was still around. Peter Grant, or Sara Ruppenthal Katz, or David Nelson. There were very few of them that I found who were uninterested in sharing what they remembered. I kind of did what Dennis did in his research: I took the lead off of what people did before me and then began to ask, “What do you remember and what do you still have?” Scrapbooks would come out, and photographs would come out, and occasionally — occasionally — a new tape would come out. When I first met [Tangent owner] Stu Goldstein, he was one of the few people no one looking at this had spent much time with.

DM: That’s right. I spent time with Dave Schoenstadt, his partner, but Stu didn’t turn up then.

BM: I found Stu eventually, and when I met with him, sure enough, he had the Jerry and Sarah tape and the Wildwood Boys tape. There they were after all these years. But he also had lots of ledgers, and lots of photographs and handbills and just these little things that hadn’t been shared before. I mean, to someone who understands that scene, a Tangent ledger — showing how the artists got paid, and who owned the deli. You could draw some interesting conclusions and dig into this stuff.

[Jerry & Sara – Deep Elem Blues – Top of the Tangent – May 1963]

JAMBASE: Dennis, in your time with Jerry while he was still around, was he up for discussing this time in life much? I mean, outside of your formal interviews with him where you might ask, was he forthcoming about this period just in regular day-to-day discussion?

DM: Oh yeah. He wasn’t sentimental about it; he wasn’t a super sentimental guy. But he appreciated that scene in particular. He and Hunter and Alan Trist and some of the other musicians, from their very early days in Palo Alto, they had no money, but they did have all the time in the world.

By the time I started interviewing Jerry, this would be in the 80s, by which time he was in his 40s, had several kids, and was the de facto head of a corporation making millions with lots of employees. He was a guy with responsibilities, which wasn’t something he was particularly in love with — he just wanted to play. But when he talked about this stuff, it’s not … nostalgic, precisely, but he was certainly conscious and fond of it. If you see the epigraph we used for the book, we took that from one of the last interviews Jerry did [April 28, 1995], and that was for a guy doing some research for the Palo Alto historical society that I sourced as a publicist, and it’s to the effect that, they had time.

Every person in their 40s says that, looking back: “the amount of time I had to do X, Y and Z in my 20s.” It’s extraordinary how Jerry used that time — he used it really, really well. But I think he also cherished it as a time of friendship and fun, with minimal responsibilities. So he was very forthcoming in that sense.

All the interviews I did with him, which were considerable, I only ever caught him in one fib.

JAMBASE: Do tell.

DM: It was something it’s fairly clear that he didn’t do that he claimed he did, which is play on a record by Bobby Freedman. I actually tracked down Bobby Freedman and said, “there isn’t any guitar on that song is there?” I think it was a case of [Jerry] inflating his ego. He didn’t yet have the accomplishments he’d later have. When I asked him about that once, he changed the subject real fast and we moved on. [laughs] That was the only time I ever got the sense he was being anything less than forthcoming.

JAMBASE: All the excitement around this begs the question: Will there be more stuff? Is there more to release and promote from this era?

BM: I’ve already found more stuff, and I know now where even more of it is that I can’t quite get to right now. As Dennis knows, I’m going to keep digging. The sales of this release will tell some sort of tale, I’m sure, but I don’t have the sense right now about more. I think everyone is pretty excited to have this piece of it be a whole release and be on the shelf. So we’ll see.

DM: Brian I know also wants to make a documentary film about the Bay Area folk scene. There’s a big hole there. No one’s ever done a treatment of it at the length that, say, the East Coast folk scene was covered in Baby Let Me Follow You Down and many others. It’ll be the next 10 years of obsession for Brian because it’ll take that amount of time — getting a documentary film made is no easy task. But if anyone can do it, he can, and I’ll help in any way I can.

But as far as Jerry in this era, I think we have picked the cream and are presenting it here. You know, throughout this whole process, we had one argument about selection. One argument.

BM: [laughing]

DM: What was that song?

BM: It was a goof – it was a little barbershop quartet thing they did … hmm … oh, it was “Sweet Adeline.”

DM: “Sweet Adeline,” and they deliberately did it badly — they were farting around. Because it was just so weird, Brian said, “we have to have it.” It’s the only time I think I said, “no, this is terrible.” We came to a consensus about everything else, and this was the only time where I had to say no, I don’t approve.

BM: And for not having worked together all that deeply, I think that’s pretty remarkable. We basically joked our way out of the argument.

JAMBASE: But now that you’ve said that, there are no doubt fans who will clamor to hear that “Sweet Adeline.” [laughter all around]

DM: That reminds me of when we first started doing Dick’s Picks. I had a guy actually complain to me that we were bad archivists because we didn’t include all the tuning between songs. I didn’t want to say, “are you crazy?” I think we did say, “well, that’s what your tapes are for.” That would mean that instead of a two-CD thing for which people can pay a reasonable price, you’d want a four-CD thing just to listen to the tuning? Well, sir, you are in the minority on that.

[Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers – Man of Constant Sorrow – Boar’s Head Coffeehouse – June 11, 1962]

BM: And I can promise you that if it were in this case, banjo tuning is a lot less palatable than guitar tuning!

DM: But you do get the banter. While Jerry’s in the back doing twang, twang, twang and getting in tune, they’re telling stories. It’s not this endless tuning, you get some comedy bits and the stories that people would love to hear.

BM: That’s a chicken or egg thing: did the need for tuning create the jokes, or did the jokes need the tuning?

DM: Well, here, you get both!

JAMBASE: Well, gentlemen it’s been a real pleasure. This is something to celebrate.

BM: If there’s just one more thing I want to say it’s a big thank you to Marc [Allan] and Kevin [Monty] at Red Light. They believed in this and they were so supportive. It’s how we got it done.

[Black Mountain Boys – Salt Creek – Top of the Tangent – January 10, 1964]