Might As Well Suck & Blow: An Interview With Author Dean Budnick
Words by: Ryan Dembinsky
It’s been a busy couple of years to say the least for Dean Budnick. In addition to his daily responsibilities as co-editor-in-chief of Relix, which include writing and editing for the magazine as well as running the online sister site Jambands.com, he has also undertaken the herculean task of writing and publishing two books with release dates within a month of each other – both of which were just issued this past winter.
The first is a highly entertaining (and wildly funny) fictionalized multi-character account of a Grateful Dead show, called Might As Well, which details the experience of both the lot scene and an actual show (for those who could get tickets) at Brendan Byrne Arena in the fall of 1989. Might As Well gives an all angles viewpoint of the experience on Dead tour from the eyes of quintessential tour characters such as the newbie, the security guard, the pre-K youngster at the show with her Deadhead mother and aunt, the vendor and even the highly dosed party girl.
The second book is a more straightforward co-written biography with John Popper of Blues Traveler, called Suck & Blow: And Other Stories I’m Not Supposed To Tell, which chronicles Popper’s life as an unconventional rock star. An overweight-harmonica-playing-gun-loyalist hardly describes the standard template for a modern celebrity, but Popper built Blues Traveler into one of the biggest bands of the 1990s with those very traits. The book highlights Popper’s hysterical sense of humor, including some unbelievable pranks on other famous musicians, as well as the immense obstacles and losses he faced over the years such as the untimely passing of band mate Bobby Sheehan and narrowly avoiding death himself with a 95 percent clogged artery prior to having gastric bypass surgery.
For anyone looking for a summer read that will stoke your inner jam nostalgia and take a self-deprecating historic look at where this peculiar scene came from, you can’t go wrong with either book. I spoke in depth with Dean Budnick to get an inside look into the processes behind both stories.
JamBase: In terms of the two books, I imagine the germination from idea to publication was quite different for each project. Could you touch on how each one came to be?
Dean Budnick: Sure, John’s book actually originated with an idea that I had brought to him. This was maybe two years ago and I was getting a quote from him in the context of Relix. He and I were just chatting a little bit and reflecting on his life and career. I first saw him play back in 1989 at Wetlands – so, just watching his career develop and getting to know him, I’ve come to realize he’s such a unique individual with a unique take on life that is unlike anyone else I know. I initiated a conversation with him as to whether he might be interested in telling his story. We sorted out the details and eventually he decided he was interested and everything rolled from there.
JamBase: Alternatively for Might As Well, which is entirely fictional, I imagine you were probably marinating the story in your head for quite a while on that one?
DB: [laughs] Yes for a very long, long while. The precipitating incident took place October 14, 1989 at a Grateful Dead show at was then Brendan Byrne arena. It was the night Adam Katz was killed somewhere in the lot and it’s a mystery that has never really been solved. Pretty soon after that, I thought, if not specifically that story, maybe some variation on that would make for an interesting novel. Early on, just a few years after the show happened, I wrote a very rough version of what I thought the book would be. Ultimately, I wasn’t very happy with it and I put it away for a long time.
Jumping ahead really to late last year, John and I had finished a draft of his book, and I was used to the habit of writing every day. I was getting up really early so I could get in a few hours before I started my responsibilities at Relix and still be free and clear by about 9 a.m. When John’s book was finished, I felt like I want to keep it going. It was around this time Peter Shapiro had begun talking about what ultimately became the Fare Thee Well events. Sharing in that enthusiasm of those events really ignited my own interest in trying to explore this particular story again. I came to realize that a lot of time had passed since 1989 and a lot of people either weren’t there at all, or have forgotten what it was like to be on the road with the Grateful Dead.
Phish tour and Phish lot is very different from the Grateful Dead lot. The people who weren’t there to experience it don’t get a chance to fully appreciate it. They were both fun and interesting in different ways – well, not always fun – but because of the nature of how long the Grateful Dead played and because of the scene they emerged from in San Francisco in the late 60s, there was this whole age dynamic.
In thinking back, I decided that it was time for the story. Before writing again, I started just getting up during that time in the morning and focused on thinking about little moments and elements I could incorporate in some manner, shape, or form. After about three weeks, I probably had 50 pages of sketches and notes. So I went back and looked at what I had written many years earlier and kept maybe 15 percent of it. By then, I was ramped and ready. I just blasted through a first draft. Ultimately, I ran it through a couple more drafts and before long I had a novel. Finishing the novel was tight, because I had a hard deadline to finish copy edits from John’s publisher, so I effectively had a hard deadline on both. I was never working on the two simultaneously. I kept going back and forth, but I eventually I got them both done.
JamBase: I kind of have a theory about this already, but I was curious which character or characters would you say takes the most from your life, or which character would you say you identify with the most?
DB: Here’s the honest answer: The answer is none of them. The problem I actually had initially was that at first there was a character that was very similar to me, but I wrote that character out of the book. I found that everything flowed very well, right up until the points where I put myself in the context of the story. I found it very freeing when I was no longer there. There are parts of me in all of them and I know all of those people. I’ve seen all of them out of them on tour. I’m interested to hear your theory, but I promise you that at least in my conscious knowledge it is none of them.
JamBase: What you just alluded to was going to be my guess – which is that it’s a little bit of all of them. Everyone can obviously identify with Steven’s character, the noob. And I noticed in an old interview I dug up that you did for the Phishing Manual years ago, where you used the line “I attend the meetings,” which one of the female characters actually used in the story.
DB: Well, I never sold bagels on tour [laughs]. But, I did sell baseball caps…
JamBase: And you used to tape shows too, right?
DB: I did [laughs]. So, everything in the book builds on all these experiences. I actually had another character too, because I thought the one side of the story that wasn’t reflected was the inside story. At this point, I know the concert industry quite well, so I had one other character that was working on the show. The problem with that is I know enough about the concert industry that I couldn’t make it fictional when it came to who was the promoter of the show. In real life, the promoter of the show was John Scher. I didn’t want to manufacture someone fictional who was too much like John and it felt like I was taking too many liberties if I start to manufacture a promoter who is not John Scher. I also didn’t want it to be someone who was working for John Scher.
So, maybe the character that was closest to me was this one that I actually took out of this final version of the book. I wrote the book Ticket Masters that came out a few years ago on ticketing, and in working on the Grateful Dead ticketing chapter, I compiled so many stories that I was trying to back my way into including in the book, but it was getting away from what I thought this should be about. I decided let’s just include people out in the lot experiencing the show as it transpires.
In terms of your question, even the person who is working security, some of the stuff he’s talking about with the film references, those are things that we have talked about in some context. I didn’t want it to be too stark in terms of someone is a villain. I really do think that everyone has two sides to them and if you take it out of the context – one can make judgment – but there are a lot of shades of grey there. That’s the one thing I wanted to do. The Grateful Dead scene had people who were trying to be positive that had a negative impact, and negative people that had a positive impact.
JamBase: I don’t want to put any big spoilers in here, but the part where the Whole Earth Access tape tree comes up – was there any truth to that story about the blackmailing and how those tapes eventually got out?
DB: The basis of that story is the story of the Betty Boards, which I wrote about for Relix a couple years ago. If I were to look back at my favorite piece I’ve written for Relix in the past few years, it’s that story. It was something that I’ve always wondered about. What happened to these tapes? How did they make their way public, and how did they seep into circulation?
I can remember back when people were much more actively trading tapes, I knew a lot of people who actually had two versions of their tape list. One version had the Betty’s on them and one version didn’t, and you had to know somebody pretty well to get onto the version with the Betty’s. That was my first exposure to a really great Legion Of Mary tape, and it was the first time somebody showed me their secret list with the Betty Boards. I had him spin me this Legion Of Mary tape. It’s easy to say you were blown away by something, but I was truly blown away. Ever since, I have been an aggressive advocate for that particular Jerry Garcia Band.
So that’s why I rolled that part into the story. Especially in 1989, that was the era when those tapes were really starting to make their way past just a few people and drift into more people’s collections. In fact May 8, 1977, which a lot of people say is the greatest Dead show or others say it’s at least the cleanest audio, I know someone around that time who had that tape and it was the only tape he wouldn’t spin. This was because he was jealously guarding it because he didn’t want anything to happen to it. It’s not as if he was holding it for cultural capital, but he was legitimately fearful that something would happen to it if he played it too many times. That’s how that story in the book actually evolved.
JamBase: I did have a question regarding Ticket Masters, which you alluded to earlier. This is somewhat neither here nor there, but I came across an interesting story the other day and it made me think of you. This was a story where an investor at a hedge fund apparently bought up over $1 million worth of tickets to an event before the tickets even went on sale to help finance production costs in collusion with the promoters, and then they turned around and made a fortune on the secondary market. I’ve never heard of anything like this. I think most people think of scalping as happening by ticket broker type agencies, but not these deliberate cahoots type deals between promoters and investors. Have you heard about this happening more and more?
DB: Certainly, this is increasing over time. The fund story is definitely growing. Some of my favorite parts of writing Ticket Masters were some of the stuff with Pearl Jam, the story of Ticketmaster and how Fred Rosen changed the revenue model, and then finally exploring how StubHub came about. As a result of all these things, we now have this platform out there anyone can use to hold tickets to any event in the world and then profit off of it. Because it’s out there, so many more people are using it. Whether it is a pure investment play or an individual, people do it all the time. Sometimes it’s a promoter, sometimes it’s even an artist.
When you read all this stuff about bots scarfing up all the tickets, sure there are bots and that is happening, but really a lot of the story is about soccer dads, college students, and the underemployed scooping up tickets because they know if they can get tickets to Adele, they can flip them immediately and make some quick cash. Every transaction that you make can come from the comfort of your chair in your underwear. This has all made this more complicated for music fans who really just wanted to go to the show and support their favorite musicians. The role of StubHub has completely changed the nature of the game.
JamBase: Lastly, I mentioned earlier that interview I read that must have been from around 1996 when the Phishing Manual came out, you mentioned that part of the reason for embarking upon that particular project was that you were seeing a lot of elitist behavior and almost cruelty toward people with less experience or less information about these bands. Having come from a Grateful Dead background and also from seeing Phish early on – and now of course with internet it’s gone hyperactive – would you say it’s always been that way or has this kind of hierarchical behavior always existed?
DB: I would say it’s always been like that. There are people who try to do what they can to amass cultural capital. The attitude that, “I believe that I am better than you, because I’ve seen this band more than you, or I saw them at a much smaller venue than you possibly could.” All of that stuff irritates me. For the most part, it’s irrelevant. It’s something that I wrestle with particularly when a band that’s out there playing now and doesn’t have a great night and I want to compare it to another great night that they had say 20 years ago, but I never want it to be I saw them then you saw them now. I simply want to use that as a reference point. But it’s so easy to fall into the trap of being grandpa sitting on the porch telling stories.
I’m also teacher and I teach a class a week at the University Of Rhode Island, and I’m a believer that there are no bad questions. It’s energizing for everyone, so to be dismissive of other people for being on a higher level than them, that is completely silly. That’s a hang up for those people, and they are going to struggle to maintain their so-called status because the information is so freely distributed nowadays as opposed to say 1995 when I was writing the Phish book. Still, people turn to other things like knowing somebody who knows somebody. I wish we could just get past that and let’s just talk. I’m most satisfied in just having conversations that are an exchange of ideas and there isn‘t any challenging of who adds value. It’s a big mistake to go through life doing that, people should keep their eyes and their ears wide open.
JamBase: Finally, what’s next from here? Any new projects on the horizon or any plans for another round of The Jammys?
DB: I wish we could bring The Jammys back, but we can’t for various reasons – not having to do with us per se – I don’t think that is going to happen. We do occasionally talk about doing a slightly different version of it. I really miss The Jammys. The evolution of that show from the first one at Irving Plaza to the final night when we did it with Phish in 2009, it was not only was it gratifying and satisfying, but it was also plain old fun. It was a lot of work, but I love those moments when you work and work but eventually you just have to let go and see what happens on stage. I’ve never experienced being on stage improvising. I’m not a professional musician, so I don’t have that experience otherwise where you’re up on stage letting it happen, but when you work a show like that you’re improvising all the time. Other than that, obviously I’m still here at Relix writing and editing. Beyond that, we’ll see. I have a little bit of this and a little bit of that [laughs]. We’ll see how it all comes together.