Might as Well: An Interview with David Gans
First Appeared at The Music Box, December 2000, Volume 7, #12
Written by Steve Silberman
Some records take two or three listens before you realize you're hearing a classic album for the first time. This isn't one of them. Might As Well is the kind of record that seems familiar and deeply right the first time you hear it.
For years, I'd been seeing the world that Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter sketched out through the band's eyes. Other people who covered their music had a way of sounding like tourists in that world, dressing up in the native garb for a tune before catching the next plane out. This record is different. The Persuasions sing like they live in that world — they are of that place that all those songs on Workingman's Dead and American Beauty and Europe '72 are about.
It's no wonder. The Persuasions sing the kind of music that Jerry Garcia had in his heart and ears as he wrote the music for these tunes, listening to gospel groups like the Swan Silvertones and the Golden Gate Singers. We're talking about black music; you might even say church music. Garcia loved that music. Just listen to the Jerry Garcia Band — music that wouldn't have been out of place played before a storefront congregation. Part of the reason why the Grateful Dead's music had such muscle was because it was nourished by rivers of great black music, from gospel to jazz, to R & B and the blues. That element is missing from the music of some of the Grateful Dead's jam-band successors, who seem to have skipped their classes at the University of Black Music beyond Funk 101.
The Grateful Dead are remembered as the prototypical jam band, but what everyone forgets is that Deadheads also came for the songs. The Grateful Dead's ballads, especially, had the durability of well-worn hymns. They made some unspeakable burden lighter. They whispered that it all mattered somehow. No one will ever be better than Garcia playing his songs on guitar, but in the Persuasions, the world that Hunter created has found its ideal human chorus.
The Persuasions find corners in the music the Grateful Dead never turned up. Listen to Jimmy Hayes plumb the depths beneath Ship of Fools, or Liberty, which is transformed from the declaration of independence of one witty rebel into a don't-tread-on-me anthem from the streets. The celebrations on this record go beyond the Jehovah's favorite choir finding Fennario on the streetcorners of Brooklyn. David Gans and Rip Rense pushed the Persuasions' formula to include weird human kazoos blurting perfect solos on Might As Well — shades of the original mix of Aoxomoxoa! And dig Eric Thompson's mandolin on Lazy River Road. It strikes me that Garcia would probably have liked this record a whole lot better than a lot of the wanking done in his name. It's humble and focused — the vocals are more robust than the Grateful Dead's, but with their own edge.
Like Harry Smith's Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, this is music from a completely invented place, outside of time. It sounds like it fell out of some opening between the past and the future; as dependable as the former, but as unpredictable and lively as the latter. I can imagine those voices coming out of the grille of an old radio; heard on a sunny street in Denver, 1945; pouring out of your mother's convertible when she was younger than you; and especially, right now — when we Deadheads still miss the Old Man so much, not realizing that the sharp pain of absence could go on so long.
In a month of incredible releases of Dead-related music, this is the one you'll be giving to your parents, your family, that friend who understands. Like American Beauty and Old and In the Way, it's suitable for non-Deadheads; it will be used to "explain" the Grateful Dead to relatives who will say variations of, "I never knew their music was so nice." But it will also function as a secret weapon, seeking out potential Deadheads in the general population. Those who are destined to find their hearts in the Grateful Dead's music will be delivered right into the heart of it. And those who aren't will still be allowed to visit a place as old as the dream of a Promised Land, where members of a black and white congregation sing their sacred and earthly songs together.
SILBERMAN: David, what was the moment that you first heard about this project?
GANS: It was the work of Rip Rense, a journalist I've known for about 15 years. Rip is a Deadhead — I remember being really tickled by a piece he wrote for an LA paper about a Dead show in Las Vegas in the early '80s. I bought freelance pieces from him when I was a magazine editor, and we stayed in touch over the years.
Rip started working with The Persuasions a few years ago, and he got them a couple of record deals: Frankly A Cappella, a collection of Zappa stuff, and On the Good Ship Lollipop, a wonderful collection of songs for kids. He was interested in having the Persuasions do a record of Dead songs, and he wanted my help.
At that time, I was collecting material for Stolen Roses: Songs of the Grateful Dead (released August 8 on Grateful Dead/Arista Records). This was means to be a compilation of material the artists had chosen on their own — as opposed to a "tribute" album of works commissioned by a producer — but I invited the Persuasions to submit a track on spec. Rip helped the band pick out a song, and (I believe) paid to have Black Muddy River recorded. I was knocked out by their performance, and so I included the track on the CD.
Robert Hunter also expressed a very positive opinion of the Persuasions' rendition of Black Muddy River.
Stolen Roses was put on hold for a while in 1999, while I worked on the GD boxed set So Many Roads (1965-1995) with you and Blair Jackson. That project turned out to be a huge hit, which gave me the confidence to present Rip's proposal of a Persuasions-do-Dead CD to Grateful Dead Records. Hunter's praise for the track helped, too. To my great delight, the record company said yes.
SILBERMAN: What songs were at the top of your list when you thought about the Persuasions singing them?
GANS: Rip and I decided to ask Hunter for a list of songs. He suggested:
Cats Under the Stars
Ship of Fools
So Many Roads
Lazy River Road
Rip and I each wrote up a list, too. The three lists were surprisingly congruent, and so Rip put together cassettes of 30 or so more-or-less unanimous selections, and Jerry Lawson chose the material from the tapes.
SILBERMAN: You elected to add other players and other instruments to the Persuasions' standard a cappella format, including your own guitar on One More Saturday Night. How were those decisions made?
GANS: The decisions about what instruments to use on the which songs were made collectively by Jerry Lawson, Rip Rense and myself. I selected the musicians — and that is the one aspect of my participation in this project that I am proudest of: my choices were right on the money.
Lawson had some ideas about instruments, including a full band with drums and electric bass — which Rip and I both opposed 100%. I know a couple of "vocal percussionists" — Joe Craven of the David Grisman Quintet and Andrew Chaikin, formerly of the House Jacks — and although the Pers were skeptical about this idea based on past experience, they were happy with what these two guys came up with.
I have been a fan and supporter of Mary Schmary, a San Francisco a cappella quartet, for ten years. They're big fans of the Persuasions, and I knew the two groups would make great music together. We put in a huge day with the Schmaries, just playing stuff for them and then standing back while they found their own sweet way into the music.
I knew I wanted to get [Schmary member] Alyn Kelley's "trumpet" into this thing somewhere, but I didn't know where until we were working out the Schmarriage on the title track. I just turned to Alyn and said, just for fun, "Give us some trumpet." She did, and everyone loved it. While we were listening back to it, the rest of the Schmaries and a couple of Persuasions started making trombone sounds, so we recorded some of that. And everyone loved all of this so much that we broke out in spontaneous applause every time we played it back — so I recorded some of that, too, and it stayed in all the way through the final mix. Magic!
When we started working on It Must Have Been the Roses, Lawson kept miming a steel guitar. I knew EXACTLY what instrument to use there: Pete Grant's Zephyr ten-string Dobro. I knew of this instrument only because I visited Pete's house with my friend Jim Page on our way to a gig earlier this year, and when we sat down to do some pickin', Pete charmed me to pieces with it. Electric pedal steel wouldn't have been appropriate, and a traditional Dobro sounded a little too harsh for the context (Pete brought in one of those, too). The Zephyr is strung like a pedal steel, with the same close intervals between the strings, so it gives rich, full chords with a very sweet tone.
We had invited the surviving Dead members to join us. Bob Weir and Mickey Hart were both willing, but schedules couldn't be coordinated. Vince Welnick was both available and interested, and as I knew he would, he put both a great spirit and a huge amount of musical knowledge into his participation. We worked out the arrangement of One More Saturday Night in the studio, in a circle around Vince at the piano — the five Persuasions, Andrew Chaikin splooshing and chunking his magical sounds, me in there signaling vocal ups and downs. We used Take 1 of that song, by the way. Bertha came about through a similar process. And Ship of Fools just arranged itself: Vince playing that lonesome cocktail piano ("Closing Time at the Psychedelic Cafe," I call it) and Jimmy delivering the performance of a lifetime.
The Persuasions and the Schmaries laid a bunch of background vocals down, just for the pleasure of stacking the voices a mile high, but everyone knew we were going to carve almost all of it away.
I invited Peter Rowan with an ear to his mandola, but he never took it out of its case. Once the Pers heard that voice of his, we knew what Sugaree needed.
Eric Thompson was my second choice for mandolin, I must admit. David Grisman was the first call, because of his greatness but also because of his association with Jerry Garcia, but we couldn't get our time frames to match up. Eric, too, had history with Garcia — they played in bluegrass bands and jug bands in the early '60s. Eric worked out a lovely solo for Lazy River Road, and laid down a perfect minimal rhythm part on the end of Ripple.
My acoustic guitar part on Sugaree was originally intended as a guide track only. That is, I played it as a reference for the singers only. We decided later to actually put it into the finished track. I made the part up on the fly, just trying to follow the new groove the Pers had created for the song. Sugaree is in 12/8 time, I think — some multiple of three, anyway — but the Persuasions turned it into a 4/4 thing and simplified the chord structure quite a bit.
The electric guitar on One More Saturday Night was a last-minute overdub. We were mixing in August, and as Lawson left the studio to fly back east for some Persuasions gigs, he told me to put an electric guitar part on while he was gone. I was surprised, and a bit nervous, too. But I trusted Lawson's instincts, and I came up with a part that didn't adhere too closely to the Dead's version. I slipped a quote from another favorite Dead song into my solo.
SILBERMAN: In my introduction to this interview, I talk a lot about the thrill of hearing this music sung by black singers, how natural that feels. Critics don't seem to talk much about the black influences on the band's music, which were significant, considering Jerry's love for gospel music, Pigpen's upbringing as the son of a famous rhythm-and-blues DJ, and Billy Kreutzmann's passion for the jazz polyrhythms of Elvin Jones. [The Dead's late archivist] Dick Latvala told me that he first got hit with the soul-transforming potential of music by seeing gospel groups perform at the Kaiser Auditorium — people in the audience would start speaking in tongues or faint, and get carried out by white-gloved ushers, who would fan them back to consciousness. Did you ever talk with Garcia about his interest in black vocal groups like the Golden Gate Singers?
GANS: No, but it was clear from his choice of songs to cover with the JGB, and in the utter catholicity of his discourse about music in every interview and backstage conversation I ever heard, that Jerry understood that spirit, inspiration, brilliance and power could be found in just about any corner of the world.
SILBERMAN: Were there any songs that you tried to nail down for this record that you just couldn't get right?
GANS: We started Stella Blue twice and did not manage to get it anywhere near completion. I'm not sure why.
SILBERMAN: That would have been great. Can you recall any moments when the Persuasions seemed to *get* what Dead music is all about?
GANS: I don't think there was any single epiphany. I suspect that each band member made his own connection with the songs, and with the spirit of the Grateful Dead, in his own time while studying the tapes. By the time I hooked up with them, they had been rehearsing for several weeks.
In the studio, we would talk about the lyrics — sometimes with a lot of laughter. For example, there was a great moment when we discussed the literal interpretation of One More Saturday Night: "Let's see here... 'I went *down* to the mountain, I was drinkin' some wine, I looked *up* into Heaven, Lord, I saw a mighty sign' — where exactly *is* he?" They decided: purgatory!
Somewhat more seriously, Jerry Lawson surprised and delighted me when he suggested that It Must Have Been the Roses was about a suicide. In more than 25 years of carrying that song in my mind, that possibility never once occurred to me — but once he said it, I could imagine it being so. That deepened my appreciation of the song.
They kicked around the bridge of Lazy River Road — "Moonlight wails as hound dogs bay" — quizzically, until they realized that it wasn't necessary to "understand" the words in that literal way. What it evokes, what it suggests, is as important as what it denotes. That was one important aspect of "getting it" about what Dead music is all about.
SILBERMAN: As host of the Grateful Dead Hour, you've been marinating in this music for so long — what new perspectives did you gain on the Dead's music in the course of these sessions?
GANS: Well, I will confess that while Jerry and Jimmy were laying down the bass and lead vocals on Ripple — a stunning moment enshrined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, who attended all the sessions — I whispered to Jon, "This version makes the Dead sound like a bunch of speed freaks." I am a big fan of Garcia's soulful singing, but there was something else happening when the Persuasions got hold of some of this stuff.
I was also really impressed with the pure sexiness of Sweet Joe Russell's take on Loose Lucy. Lazy River Road, already evocative of the Stephen Foster vibe that suffuses much of Hunter's oeuvre, really takes wing on this disc. The harmonies take me back to my childhood, getting up early on Sunday mornings in search of cartoons on TV and finding gospel choirs.
We've always known the Dead drew on these many threads of music in their compositions, but the connection is much more clearly audible to the naked ear when you hear the Persuasions sing these songs.
SILBERMAN: Who decided on the sequence of songs? There's a great flow to this record, from the little Here Comes Sunshine opener, followed by some engaging uptempo stuff, into heavier ballad places, then rave-ups toward the finish, with a lovely Black Muddy River coda.
GANS: I created the sequence, and Lawson made one change (swapping He's Gone and It Must Have Been the Roses). I had expected that process to be much more of a challenge, but the sequence suggested itself quite readily and Jerry and Rip agreed.
SILBERMAN: How is the feedback on the record? Have you been surprised by any of the reactions to the album thus far?
GANS: Not surprised — just thrilled. The ol' Deadhead grapevine seems to have lost its sense of global networkitude over the last few years, and I wondered if the word would get out about this CD. I was delighted to see so many familiar faces at the CD release party in San Francisco, and I've been gratified by the comments I've received in email and read on DeadNet Central and the WELL.
The non-Deadhead world is getting interested, too. The Kitchen Sisters spent a day with us at the end of the recording sessions and produced a wonderful 12-minute piece for their Lost and Found series, which aired October 20 on NPR's All Things Considered. That broadcast got us a lot of very enthusiastic feedback from the general public, and I've gotten quite a bit of email from people who don't much care for the Dead but really like this version of the Dead's music. That is especially gratifying to me because I have always thought the Dead's songwriting was world-class even if their performing and recording skills weren't exactly mainstream.
SILBERMAN: How does Might As Well represent one example of a hopeful future for the Dead's music?
GANS: These are great songs that have always deserved a place in history. If the Dead's own performances were too homely for the sensibilities of a large proportion of the populace (and I think we have to grant that they were), then it's a great thing that other performers tackle this body of work. Wake the Dead is another very satisfying take on the music, intertwining Dead songs with traditional Celtic tunes.
I think it's also great to hear musicians adopt a Dead song or two into their repertoires without devoting an entire CD (or career) to it. That was my mission in putting together Stolen Roses: Songs of the Grateful Dead: rather than recruit musicians to play the songs I chose for them (although I did that in the case of Dark Star by the David Grisman Quintet), I wanted to collect the Dead covers that artists had come to in their own time. I would like to see more of that. Dead songs deserve a place in the Big Book of American Music right alongside Robbie Robertson's, Lowell George's, and Brian Wilson's.
SILBERMAN: To stray from our primary subject for a moment, I've been blown away by Bob Weir and Ratdog's new album Evening Moods. Frankly, it's a lot better than I expected: the songs are very very strong (several of them would have become Dead classics, I feel), Bob's guitar has emerged from the gimmicky sounds that it was buried in since the early '90s to be soulful and kick-ass again, and the live feel of the album — like the jam between Two Djinn and Corrina — is very pleasing. The lyrics, too, befit Weir's age and station, reflecting on some of the darker questions that one becomes conscious of at mid-life. A younger musician wouldn't have been able to get this profound on certain essential matters, such as when he sings about drinking from "the cup that is always dry." Any thoughts on Evening Moods?
GANS: I agree with you 100% and then some! I wasn't expecting to love this CD as much as I do, but I found myself listening to it over and over in my rent-a-car on several long-distance drives recently. And I put it on at home even after I finished my interview with Bobby for the Grateful Dead Hour.
Bob's guitar sound has indeed arisen from the grungy murk of the latter-day Dead. His singing is as good as it's ever been. And he has taken songs written with a number of lyricists and created a body of work that hangs together very well indeed; that says something important about his maturity as a songwriter.
SILBERMAN: What would you tell someone whose first taste of Dead music was Might As Well?
GANS: If you like this, go get Workingman's Dead, Blues for Allah, and Live Dead. When you've bonded with those three CDs, there's plenty more where they came from! And check out On the Good Ship Lollipop, too — that's the delightful collection of children's songs that the Persuasions put out last year.
SILBERMAN: What elements of the Dead's legacy are consistently overlooked?
GANS: The single element I listen for is the hardest one to deliver: genuine collective composition. We aren't getting any of that in the Persuasions' CD, of course, but it wasn't part of the deal; this is abut the songs.
When I play Grateful Dead music, I want to do what the Dead did: take off from a known realm into the uncharted ether, where sensitive musicians listen to each other and build structures in thin air. At their peak — I'd offer 1973 and much of 1974 as the place to look for awesome examples of this (the Soundcheck Jam from Watkins Glen on So Many Roads leaps to mind) — the Dead could go for upwards of half an hour between "songs" without a heartbeat's worth of wankage.
The best of the "cover bands" take the stage without a set list, because it is contrary to the spirit of the music to plan anything beyond your point of departure.
This was my problem with Dark Star Orchestra when I saw them or the first time, and I still don't think theirs is the most appropriate approach. But last summer I found myself dancing in the dirt in front of their stage, very much enjoying the authentic vibe they were putting out. And I was surrounded by a few hundred more ecstatic dancers, so how can it be wrong? They do plenty of improvising within the known song list, so I had to withdraw my objection.
I had a conversation with someone the other day in which I was trying to sum up the special magic of the Dead. What makes this music work so well for people of a certain mindset — and psychedelics may be an important part of its formation, although not essential to the practice — is that combination of great songs and extended jamming. What we got in a Grateful Dead concert that is damn hard to find anywhere else in the post-Dead world is some deeply challenging idea — a story, a moral question, an evocative poetic notion — followed by a jam that serves as perfect accompaniment for rumination.
I have often written that I get some of my best thinking done at Dead shows, solve problems, cry wholesome tears, etc. It's because the songs tend to give you great food for thought — and not just in the lyrics, either. I remember certain times hearing Bobby's keening in the jam out of Estimated Prophet, wondering what lives inside him that inspires the desperation he's portraying. The Dead would set us up with something in their world that illuminates something in our own private universe, and then we'd think along with the music while they worked at building those cathedrals in the sky. I have yet to hear another jam band whose songs provide that same sort of charge, let alone an ensemble whose improvisations provide a comparably stimulating soundtrack for cogitation.
What does this have to do with the Persuasions? Not much, I guess, but the depth of their interpretations of these songs feeds back into my appreciation of GD music on tape, and that's one way to keep the music alive and fresh.
SILBERMAN: Thank you, David.
David Gans is a musician, the author of Playing in the Band and numerous other books on the Dead, and Steve Silberman co-authored Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads in 1994. With Blair Jackson, they co-produced the Dead's box set, So Many Roads (1965-1995).
Please note: This album was reissued as a two-disc set
Persuasions of the Dead: The Grateful Dead Sessions
Persuasions of the Dead: The Grateful Dead Sessions is available
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