Jerry Garcia on Bob Dylan 1981

I’m posting this here so I can link to it from the Grateful Dead Hour archive page on DeadNet

Excerpt from Jerry Garcia interview w/ Blair Jackson and David Gans 4/28/81

David Gans: What was it like playing with Dylan [at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on November 16, 1980]?

Jerry Garcia: I was surprised that the tunes were as difficult as they were. A lot of the tunes that he writes are deceptively simple-sounding, when in reality they’re not. There was really only maybe two or three of the five or six that I played on that I wasn’t doing anything besides trying to learn the tune.

David Gans: You had no rehearsal?

Jerry Garcia: Oh, no.

David Gans: He didn’t do any of your old favorites?

Jerry Garcia: One or two, but not many of them, and his versions are so different from my versions of his tunes –

David Gans: That pissed me off about him.

Jerry Garcia: What do you mean?

David Gans: I walked out on his show one night. It seemed like he’d just randomly rearranged his tunes–

Jerry Garcia: He’s got a perfect right to do that, don’t you think?

David Gans: Yeah! But I’ve got a perfect right to get pissed and leave, don’t I?

Jerry Garcia: Yeah, I suppose you do, if you’re gonna be that way about it.

David Gans: Well, I don’t usually do that.

Jerry Garcia: It depends on how recognizable they are. He mutilates, I must admit… But even so, I’m willing to give his license to do it. Certainly he can do it, even if no one else can.

David Gans: … But when Dylan came back with his Christian thing in ’80, I loved it because he looked happy and relaxed for the first time.

Jerry Garcia: That was nice.

David Gans: His lyrics got stupid, but his changes got good.

Jerry Garcia: That’s what I mean … musically, a lot started happening to him. The last time that he went through a scene of his songs going through a heavily melodic renaissance was like Blonde on Blonde, and that was really the influence of Robbie Robertson. A great example of that — you know the Planet Waves album? The two versions of “Forever Young”: the country-and-western version is Dylan’s version, and the slow version is Robbie Robertson’s version. So you can get some idea there of Robertson’s contribution to the songs on Blonde on Blonde. All those passing chords … the relative minor substitutions that sort of characterize those songs, the moving second lines that happen in them. All those things are signatures of that era of Dylan’s writing – the kind of melody which you hear but he doesn’t sing. There’s a melody to all those songs, like “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” – those songs all have this melody which you will hear in your head, but he doesn’t really sing. He really more speaks them, but the music so well frames them that there’s this melody that you imagine they have. I really think it’s a neat quality of his stuff.

It might be that he’s been working with someone as far as the arrangements of the tunes are concerned, the compositions or something like that, but I was surprised. That was what was interesting about playing with him: the tunes were difficult, man. Some of them were like – what? [Turning his head quickly as if it had already gone by]. The guys in the band were telling me that he changes them freely, and rehearsing is not necessarily security like in most situations, and then there’s this additional double- whammy that happens. When you’re playing with an artist who changes the material as you’re playing, you develop this deep-seated insecurity, because you have to pay attention all the time. You never know what’s happening; you don’t know whether a bridge is going to come up, whether he’s gonna use the same structure for whatever musical piece you’re about to enter. And the guys in the band were talking about how it works both ways with Dylan. They develop that insecurity because he performs them differently, and then he throws them further by then being consistent. It’s a very interesting space, something you can appreciate if you’ve had to work as a sideman. This peculiarity that some people have. For me, the closest thing to that is working with Hunter.

Working with Hunter – he is like a guy who’s not a musician, and not even particularly a performer, really.

David Gans: He drops beats all the time?

Jerry Garcia: Yeah, unconventional stuff, which is okay, all stuff that’s easy enough to accept. It’s that he has a way of doing it in a random sort of way, you know, and it gets to be non-repeatable. If you make an effort to memorize it, to regularize some aspect of it, you run into trouble. But I’ve gotten to be good at – we worked out a whole bunch of acoustic stuff which is never going to be released, unfortunately, earlier this year. That’s what I was doing in January and February of this year. We worked on a whole bunch of stuff that was supposed to be Hunter’s acoustic album…. A lot of the time spent was a matter of rehearings and training Hunter to do that. It was one of those things I don’t like to do to somebody, especially somebody who’s a collaborator and a friend, because it makes me feel like a cop, making them play the same thing over and over again. It’s one of those things that you try to temper in some way so that the person still has an opportunity to be spontaneous on some level and let something interesting and new happen, even if you’re making tapes.

Dylan apparently is really, really famous for that. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to who’s worked with him on sessions says you don’t get a second chance at anything, or sometimes you don’t get rehearsals.

Jerry Garcia: [Dylan’s songs] speak to some kind of universal persona which you can pretty clearly recognize. He hits a real good deep nail on the head in terms of writing songs about something.

Blair Jackson: You have any trouble singing a song as bitter as “Positively Fourth Street”?

Jerry Garcia: No, not at all. It’s easy for me to cop that asshole space, easy. I was that guy, too. There’s a certain kind of pose that that goes along with – there always were those people, in a way.
For me, it occupies the same space as “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It tells that person who’s lame that they’re lame, and why they’re lame, which is a very satisfying thing to do. Certainly something everybody knows about.

David Gans: He was good at that in that period.

Jerry Garcia: Yeah.

Blair Jackson: And later. Listen to “Idiot Wind.”

Jerry Garcia: Really. “Positively Fourth Street” has this way of doing it where it’s beautiful, too. And “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is basically a putdown, too. It’s one of those things like, “you’re losing bad – dig yourself.” Being able to say that and say it beautifully – it was the beautiful sound of “Positively Fourth Street” that got to me more than the bitterness of the lyric. The combination of the beauty and the bitterness, to me, is wonderful. It’s like a combination of something being funny and horrible; it’s a great combination of two odd ingredients in the human experience. Anybody who can pull it off that successfully is really a score. That’s something that only Dylan has been able to pull off, in terms of modern songwriting.

This interview is included in my book Conversations with the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book, which these days is available as an eBook and in paperback.

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