David Gans Interview

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Photo: SFGate

For the past twenty years I’ve been listening to live Grateful Dead shows nearly every day. There are thirty year’s worth of crispy soundboard concert recordings in the band’s vault which amounts to a lifetime’s worth of music for Deadheads to explore, trade, and compare notes from. The live concert was always what the Grateful Dead experience was all about and the primary form of communication among the band’s devoted followers has always been the tapes of these shows.

With an archive so large and freely accessible, collectors (including myself) needed someone to help us along the way. David Gans is the world’s foremost ‘Tour Guide’, who has introduced thousands of hours of music straight from the Grateful Dead’s vault and into our lives. His nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Hour radio program is going on thirty years and David can also be heard every Sunday co-hosting The Golden Road on the Sirius / XM Grateful Dead Channel 23.

I spoke to David Gans this week as he was traveling to Florida on a tour bus with the Rumpke Mountain Boys for this weekend’s Suwannee Springfest music festival. Big thanks goes out for his time and expert insight into the music of the Grateful Dead.

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Photo: Chuck Miller

Nick Santora: You’re a major reason why I’m a Deadhead, so thank you. When I was in high school in the early 1990’s I used to record your show every single week for nearly three years.

David Gans: That’s great. Well you know, that’s what it was all about; turning people on to the music and the band was kind enough to let me do it because they trusted me to put their best musical foot forward on the radio every week. I mixed it up. I played stuff from the archive, I played recent stuff, and just did my best to get people interested in this wonderful music.

You were actually picking the tapes yourself straight from the vault?

They gave me permission to go into the vault so I was pulling out tapes of stuff that interested me and putting it on the radio. They recognized that I was helping them. It was marketing and increasing their audience by playing their music on the radio, so they gave me access.

When did you start hosting your Grateful Dead radio show?

It started as the KFOG Deadhead Hour in November of 1984. I showed up in February of 1985 to promote my book Playing In the Band. The guy who was doing the show, a wonderful DJ named M. Dung was hosting the show but not particularly much of a Deadhead and not well connected for tapes and stuff. He was relying on a couple of local freaks to help come up with the music. Well, I turned up and had a great time producing a little documentary about the song; ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’ and had a great time doing the show. I became one of those people that was helping him come up with material. Since I had a relationship with the Dead and access to their vault, eventually the radio station asked me to take responsibility for the show. Then I started getting calls from other radio stations asking if they could carry it too. The next thing I know it’s thirty years later and it’s been my day job for all that time.

How many total hours have you logged on the air?

I just produced Grateful Dead Hour number 1,332 and there were 55 nationally syndicated Deadhead Hours before those numbers started. Then there was a couple of years of KFOG Deadhead Hour before that, so I’m guessing close to 1,500 [hours].

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The Grateful Dead began recording their shows to replay and learn from in the early days. Did they continue to listen to their own shows over the years?

I think in the early days they were listening to the performances back at the hotel after the show. They were listening to the show and critiquing it to see what they could learn in order to develop their music moving forward. They were jamming so much and they would listen to it and say, ‘Well that really worked. Let’s see if we can get there again’ and things like that. Owsley [Stanley] was their sound man and he was also recording so he could check out the quality of his mixes and make sure he was doing well. The tradition of recording the performances and listening back to them began pretty early, but I also think they stopped listening to the shows every night together. By the time I came around and started spending time with them in the eighties, there was certainly no getting together and listening to the show afterwards. But the archive continued to grow because everybody thought it was worth doing; to continue recording.

I was just reading the Egypt chapter in your book Playing In The Band. It made me think there’s a difference between critiquing recordings and enjoying the actual live concert experience. Most tape collectors don’t think too highly of the Egypt shows, but I’m pretty sure they were incredible for anyone who was there.

Everybody’s experience is unique and sometimes a show sounds really good on tape and didn’t have that much energy when you saw it. That could be because the performance is clean and tight, so they work better on tape but weren’t necessarily all that exciting when you were there. Sometimes a show that was really hot and crazy live comes across as a little sloppy on tape. So really, a tape is a tape and a live show is a live show.

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In your book you also said that the most fascinating thing about the band was their ability to evolve musically throughout the years. Can you speak more on that?

The Grateful Dead started out as a bunch of folk musicians and a blues guy playing folk and bluegrass, then becoming a jug band, and then electrified. From the very beginning they had very diverse influences and really high-quality musicianship. Phil Lesh brought this very sophisticated 20th Century classical approach to the music. Jerry was a roots guy. Bob Weir was a young folkie and a fan of Joan Baez and the Everly Brothers stuff. Bill Kreutzmann was a professional rock drummer and Pigpen was deeply absorbed in the blues. They put together a sophisticated and versatile sound to begin with and proceeded to evolve and mutate it over the years.

If you listen to some of their earliest shows; the stuff from 1966, they sound fairly much like a conventional band of the time with a cheesy organ and the twangy echoey guitar. Then they started to expand their thing and to jam and open things up. Then they developed these big, long, deep grooves that the music was going into while people were dancing, but there was also this incredibly intense musical conversation happening on top of that. They went through this period in 1968 as just this tribal, feral, jamming band, and then they started integrating more of their other musical influences back into it. By 1969 we’re hearing more acoustic music, more country influences, and more sophisticated original compositions. Then starting in 1971 when Keith Godchaux joins the band and Pigpen is beginning to decline and Bob Weir is ascending as a song writer, we see this huge expansion of the Grateful Dead’s original repertoire, and a great development and extension of their improvisational abilities.

The early 1970’s Dead is sort of this Americana jam band that’s playing these terrific country rock songs with piano in them and then stretching out for these forty minute jams that go across the universe. And then it changed again. In the mid seventies they took time off and started developing music in the studio. Blues For Allah doesn’t sound like anything that came before or after it. They sort-of wandered through this fusion period and then when they started touring again, their personal growth took them into different places and they started to settle into an arena rock kind of identity where the jamming was a little more circumscribed. The repertoire was a tiny bit smaller yet a little bit more focused.

Then of course they moved on to Brent Mydland and that organ and synthesizer driven period, all the while Jerry and everybody else developing their own musical sensibilities along the way. Then they started getting a little bit more tired and less inspired over time, which was inevitable as they got older and their chemical composition changed. They changed over time and the cool thing about it is that they attracted new audience members and didn’t really shed that many. Very few people gave up and said, I’m done with this. I don’t like this version of the Dead. A few did here and there. I know a guy that said it was all over when Pigpen passed. But they kept evolving and kept growing, and they kept themselves interested and kept growing their audience.

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It’s been almost 20 years since Jerry’s gone. How is the community now compared to 1995?

It’s amazing to me how strong the Deadhead community is. There are still people getting turned on to that music because so much is available on the Archive [.org] and Dead.net. Since Jerry passed they released hundreds and hundreds of hours of great music, so the legacy of the Dead is continuing. We always knew that, those of us who were fans when the band [Garcia] was alive and on the road. We all knew that this music was immortal and that it was our mission to make sure it kept being heard, so we’ve all been spreading the word ever since.

The community is different now, but the living musicians are still out there playing and drawing crowds and younger musicians are playing that music and turning their fans on to it. I keep running into teenagers who couldn’t possibly have seen Jerry and who are big fans of the music, so it’s a good thing.

Why is the music still relevant today?

There’s the tapes, the books, and the oral tradition. I know lots of Deadheads who are in their sixties and seventies who still love this music and they wear Dead t-shirts out into the world and they pass along tapes and music to their friends and kids. It works because they’re great songs and there’s this huge legacy of unique performances. People figured out that you want to hear a bunch of different ones because it’s not like when you buy the album and you’ve heard all the songs. You want to listen to recordings from 1973, 1976, 1987. It’s a huge world of music. There’s thirty years of music. Literally thousands of recordings, so you can spend your life exploring it and never run out of new stuff to listen to.

The Dead encouraged audience taping, but the equipment crew wasn’t so nice about it until the official taper’s section began in 1984, right?

That’s right. The Grateful Dead road crew did not necessarily share the values of the band members, but remember, Jerry Garcia Band didn’t allow taping either. That was a decision made by Steve Parish and John Cutler, who were the manager and the sound guy respectively, for the Garcia Band. Whatever Jerry’s attitude was about taping, he was overruled by those guys. And there’s a valid position to be taken that allowing taping reduces the value of their music for later use. The Grateful Dead’s idea, which sort of emerged organically, was that it’s all marketing so what the hell?

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Photo: Chris W. Nelson

Do you think it’s easier for people to appreciate the music now without the stigma of the Deadheads attached?

I’ve never been interested in promoting the lifestyle. The whole Deadhead dressing in tie dye and living in the parking lot and all that stuff. I never really participated in that life. I came to this as a musician and became sort of a scholar or journalist, or documenter of it. I didn’t figure out until several years into it that that culture existed. I didn’t know there was a Shakedown Street until the 1980’s when it really started getting big. I don’t really know. I think there’s always a certain stigma. Actually I think it might be true because I think now the colorful hippies are congregating somewhere other than Dead concerts, so I think now the music can speak for itself free of that context.

Do you currently work with the Garcia Estate as well?

I assist them in putting their music out. I’ve written some liner notes for them and I did work for the Garcia Estate in 2003. They hired me to review the entire contents of Jerry’s vault; the multi-track recordings. I listened to everything; all of Jerry’s studio sessions and produced a box set called All Good Things: Jerry Garcia Studio Sessions. I also assisted in preparation of some other stuff too.

Are there soundboard recordings of the full Fall 1991 Jerry Garcia Band tour?

I assume so, but not necessarily multi-track. They made multi-track recordings of certain tours when they were working on a live album, but they didn’t record every show multi-track because it was expensive to do in those days. These days it’s really easy to do a multi-track recording with just a little more hardware than you’re already using for a live show. But in those days you had to bring a truck and stuff like that. I’m sure they made DAT soundboards of almost every show, but they didn’t necessarily have a multi-track at every show.

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What was it like seeing Garcia Band at The Keystone?

It was great. It was a neighborhood band and a neighborhood scene. When I saw them back in those days when Jerry was playing The Keystone, it was before he was this global God-like figure. Believe it or not, the cult of the Grateful Dead was very small in those days. You’d wait in line to go see the Garcia Band at Keystone, but it wasn’t the same crazy mob scene or anything like that.

Any particular Dark Stars stand out for you?

I did a lot of listening on Dark Star a couple years ago for a project and I came to the conclusion that the Live Dead Dark Star really is the best one. Other favorites of mine are 4-28-71. I don’t have all the dates off the top of my head. Let’s say 4-8-72 in Europe is a great one. Pick one at random from 1974, there weren’t very many. And maybe something from the summer of ’72. 8-27-72 or the one from the week before at the Berkeley Community Theater. 8-24-72 I think, with the Dark Star > Morning Dew.

But I’m not a list maker. I’ve never been a big fan of ranking everything as this is the best one ever played and here are the ten most important. My brain doesn’t work that way even though I was a music journalist for ten years. I wasn’t a big list-maker and ranker of stuff.

David Gans is currently on solo electric tour with the Rumpke Mountain Boys.

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