On the occasion of his birthday….
Give the Drummer Some
As he prepared to release his memoir, Deal, Bill Kreutzmann reflected on the joy and frustrations of life in the Grateful Dead, working with Jerry Garcia – and what Phil Lesh had against John Belushi. Going deep with the drummer.
A small portion of this interview ran in The Wall Street Journal on May 1, 2015. The rest was published only in my Kindle Single Ebook, Reckoning: Conversations With the Grateful Dead.
It’s been 50 years since the Grateful Dead formed in Palo Alto, 20 years since Jerry Garcia died, and five years since the band’s four surviving members last played together. Now, as the quartet prepares for what all say will be their last shows ever, the band’s musical rock Bill Kreutzmann is coming out with a memoir that captures his honest view of the inner workings of an anarchic band that became an unlikely American institution.
Though he was one of two drummers, Kreutzmann was the Dead’s musical rock, his steady beat keeping even their most tipsy jams from falling off the rails.
“Bill was the pulse and rhythm of the Grateful Dead, the fundamental propulsion,” says Dennis McNally, who was the group’s publicist for its final 11 years and is the author of the band biography, A Long Strange Trip. “He’s the guy who maintained the drive no matter what.”
In Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, Kreutzmann and co-author Benjy Eisen unflinchingly chronicle the Dead’s formation, its improbable, zigzagging rise to become rock’s top-grossing live band, and its many low points. The latter include deaths, drug addictions, falling outs and personal failings that led to a string of broken marriages.
“As ridiculous as some of those stories sound, they all happened,” Kreutzmann says, leaning forward in an overstuffed modern chair in a Philadelphia hotel suite, the Liberty Bell National Park visible through large windows behind him.
The tales in Deal include partying with John Belushi; riding camels through the Egyptian desert to a Bedouin musical jam; drawing Secret Service wrath for setting off fireworks in presidential candidate George McGovern’s hotel; blowing up abandoned cars; drunkenly racing Alfa Romeos through the San Francisco streets; and behind-the-scenes reports on Woodstock and Altamont. Through it all, Kreutzmann and most of his bandmates gobbled LSD like baby aspirin.
Today, Kreutzmann is tan and lean, with thinning gray hair sprouting at improbable angles, a neatly trimmed goatee and almost invisible frameless glasses. The 68-year-old drummer lives on an organic farm in Kauai, Hawaii, with his fifth wife, Aimee. He is playing at a high level heading into the five Fare Thee Well shows in Santa Clara, California (June 27-28) and Chicago’s Soldier Field (July 3-5). His new band, Billy and the Kids, displays the kind of loose-limbed improvisational sense that marked the Dead’s finest moments.
“Yesterday at rehearsal, I had two transcendental musical experiences of the type I thought were behind me at my age,” Kreutzmann says with a smile. “Bullshit! can happen at any age if you’re playing the right music with the right people.”
Kids’ bassist Reed Mathis has been amazed watching how Kreutzmann operates. “Bill wants true group improvisation,” says Mathis. “We will get to sections of a song where we eject from it completely and begin composing, which is what I love about the Grateful Dead, and I think Bill is carrying on that legacy more truly than anyone else.
“With Phil, for instance, it’s very clear who’s in charge. That’s just his way. Bill doesn’t want anything like that. He wants an authentic group experience, for us to play as his equals. I’ve realized that the more I speak my mind on my instrument, the more he brightens up, the more he plays.”
Hours after our interview, during soundcheck at the Ardmore Music Hall, the band is ripping through the Dead’s “Eyes Of The World” when Kreutzmann abruptly stops playing. He jumps up, exclaiming, “We’re fucking good!”
With a smile, he ambles over to the bar for a glass of water. “I’m playing music with people who love to play music,” he says, with a faraway look in his eyes. “I’m a very happy man.”
You write that when you took acid for the first time, you knew your life would be changed forever. Why?
BILL KREUTZMANN: Because my dreams were coming true. I always knew that there was more out there than met the eye, or that I was being taught in school or by my parents. Then I took acid and thought, “Ah, the key!” Taking acid together was the best suggestion that was made to the Grateful Dead in the early days. Pigpen (Ron McKernan) was the only who wouldn’t do it. The rest of us took it and had a great time.
I didn’t even know what it was, but I had the most wonderful time. The first trip was with the whole band and Robert Hunter, who I spent most of my time with. What a wonderful man. Isn’t it lucky that we found him?
And it wasn’t just taking the drug, right? The band really gelled by playing at the acid tests.
The acid test was a place where you could take acid – or not – and play music – or not. There were definitely no rules. No one was judging you about if you looked right or were playing a song right. You could be a total free spirit and that encouraged us to experiment and to just play. It always worked for people who were high on acid. And we were fortunate to be getting the good stuff and to all be in sync because we were taking the exact same drug.
We originally got Sandoz [LSD from the Sandoz lab in Switzerland, where it was first created]. There were these little red capsules and you hold them up to the light and see this little tiny speck of dust; a microgram is really a very little amount, except in LSD. We all had Sandoz, and then that stopped. And then Owsley (Stanley) came into our lives and was making stuff that was the equivalent, and we had plenty of that for a long time.
And beyond the drugs, Owsley was sort of your patron.
Not sort of; he was our patron! He bought us clothes and food. We didn’t have to have day jobs. It was totally important because none of us had any money. One time we were living in Olompali and my mother sent me a check for $15 for my birthday. We went and bought as much spaghetti as we could so we could eat for two days. We were like that at the beginning. 15 bucks!
Characters like (Neal) Cassady and (Ken) Kesey became hugely important to the band’s development and…
They were larger than life figures. Neal Cassady and I became really good friends. I loved that guy. I’m attracted to people who are out of the ordinary. When someone says, “Oh, that guy’s a hard case,” I immediately want to find out what makes him so hard. I want to learn about that. So Neal was like a giant library of interest. He was a far out guy.
Have you ever felt responsible for leading people down the path to drugs?
No. I feel compassion for people who have a hard time, but I don’t feel responsible, because I’ve never once told anyone to do drugs. I cannot say that taking acid was good for everyone, because obviously it was not. People had bad experiences, but for those for whom it was good, it could be very good. We’re talking about Silicon Valley and giants like Steve Jobs. You can see by looking at Apple and Microsoft which one took acid.
You write that when Jerry’s opiate problem became obvious, you all wanted to play with him so much that you turned a blind eye. Blessed with hindsight, could you have done more?
It’s not that we didn’t try to do anything. We attempted interventions, but he saw a setup for what it was. And he would go to [rehab] places, but he was smarter than the therapists and could outtalk them all. I think 12-step is a great program, but he would have nothing to do with it, firmly believing that a person had the right to do whatever he liked as long as it didn’t hurt other people. But hurt where? Hurt how? Emotional pain can be much more painful than physical pain.
And your pain is still evident.
We just had no luck with getting him to leave heroin. The drug owned him and that’s really sad. I was never mad that he was a heroin addict. I felt compassion and deep sorrow, which I could sometimes hear in his playing. He would come out alone after Drums and Space (the band’s famous improvisational segments), after Mickey (Hart) and I had done our thing and filled the night with crazy sounds, and play the most forlorn, lonesome-sounding solos. It was the one time where I could really hear inside him, and it was a great, deep sadness.
Why did you feel like you couldn’t hear inside him at other times?
He would never talk about his personal life. I knew things about him, of course, that he watched his father drown in a river, for instance, which is a horrible thing for anyone to witness, much less a nine-year-old kid. He didn’t talk about that stuff. He wasn’t open like that to me.
You say several times that the Grateful Dead’s lack of communication was perhaps reflective of men of your generation.
Yes. My wife really believes that. I’ve pondered it quite a bit and I’m not sure. I was actually always someone who was comfortable talking about my feelings and emotions, but the Grateful Dead was not conducive to that. In the beginning we were, but it faded more and more.
The Grateful Dead was very much a band, but you’re quite open about Jerry’s importance.
He was so charismatic, just bigger than life, and the first time I saw him play, with Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, I thought, “I’ll follow this guy forever.” He was almost a father figure, but more like an older, wiser, very warm brother. That was the feeling, and he had an unlimited amount of love that he could offer. There was this very open feeling about him that was really cool. Jerry was also my best and most complete music teacher.
The similarities and differences between Jerry and Duane Allman are very interesting. Duane was not shy about telling people what to do.
Right on, and Jerry did not like that.
Right, but they both had this thing where people wanted to please them unconditionally and followed them, without them ever having to be asked.
Yes! I don’t know how to describe it, but there’s a spark in some people that you can’t deny. It’s there and it’s palpable but it’s not always easy to put into words. The word love isn’t even complete enough. And Jerry was my greatest musical teacher. I was a kid when we met and knew nothing. He literally said, “These are changes.”
And you write that Phil was your life leader, that you wanted to be like him as a person. Can you explain that?
Phil was seriously my older brother, and I looked up to him totally. It’s one of those charisma things again. He just had an attraction. He had stuff to teach me or tell me about. It was how he carried himself and conducted himself, but mostly about music. He turned me on to John Coltrane when I was 17. I never heard drumming like Elvin Jones, and I thought, “God, that’s legal?” I meant by the laws of physics! He turned me on to so much good music and opened my mind. Hearing Coltrane and taking acid in the same couple of years was like… how lucky can you get?
You learned from all your bandmates; when Mickey joined, he taught you a lot about rudiments.
Yes. He was a rudimentary champion, beating his dad who had won the year before. And that’s a hard-ass thing to do. You have to stand in front of a snare drum alone and play a three-minute piece that you have composed using all of the rudiments.
It speaks volumes about how some fans viewed the Dead that you feel the need to write, “We were not a cult and Jerry was not the messiah.”
I never wanted people to think that we were better than them. We were good musicians who were like-minded and who found each other in the right time and place. That’s all fortunate.
When I first started playing drums, my father, who went to Stanford, said, “You can’t be a drummer, Billy. You’ll never earn any money.” That wasn’t my goal, but he really thought musicians were like the help, who had to come in through the back door, and he didn’t want that for his son. Then one day he showed up at a show at Stanford wearing a Grateful Dad shirt and I went, “Yay, dad.”
Did people looking at him as a messiah become an increasing burden on Jerry?
Oh, yeah. The other side of being famous is you can’t just walk down the street and be like anybody and that’s a drag. I could put a hat on after a show, pull it down and walk by people. Jerry was a lot more visible. He always did great stuff, for my money; I mean, real early on if someone was having a hard time on acid, he would talk him or her down for the rest of the night. That became impossible, because the line to see him snaked out the door.
Did you and Mickey work stuff out or just sit and play?
Oh, no. No. [laughs] It looked that easy, huh? We worked stuff out. In the beginning, I actually played with him playing marches just for my hands and stuff. That was part of my education from him.
After all the practice, once you were up on stage, were you playing parts, or were you listening to him and playing off what he did?
Both. If he got on the low tones, big drums, I’d get on the higher tones and we’d have conversations, which I loved.
The closest comparison is the Allman Brothers, but…
There’s really no comparison. I love the Allman Brothers – and I love you, Jaimoe! – but there’s no similarity other than having two drummers. And there hasn’t been anyone that really used two drummers like Mickey and I did, which is that four-limbed beast thing.
Other bands have the drummers play the same thing, which…
… is pointless!
It can create more power but no more breadth and depth.
And it’s not really creating more power. Turn the drums up louder if that’s what you want. I have some strong feelings about double drumming. By the way, Jaimoe is one of the greatest drummers ever.
Your co-author Benjy Eisen is now your manager. I’ve never heard of anything like that. How did it happen?
When you work closely with someone for three years you learn one another’s nuances. And nothing ever came up that spoiled my feeling about him. I saw how hard he’ll hustle and the great ideas he comes up with, so one day I said, “You want to be a manager?” and he said, “Yeah.” And here we are.
Over the years, the Grateful Dead had issues with a lot of managers.
Yeah, just different things would come up. Like the time in France where we had to literally lift the promoter up because he wouldn’t pay us – me and the biggest equipment guy… and he had just tons of francs in his pockets. He was stuffed like a scarecrow with bills. Then I had to let the manager go. I just said, “I’m not supposed to do that. That’s not my job.” And anyhow, this heavy-handed shit is not the Grateful Dead.
But were you guys just unmanageable? It’s got be hard to manage a gaggle of proud iconoclasts.
[laughs] That’s a great question and a fair point, but I don’t think we were hard to manage. From where I stood, they just didn’t have a handle on it. At the end of the Grateful Dead, Cameron Sears was our manager and he was great.
Most of the odd time signatures and complicated musical passages came from Bob and Phil, not Jerry.
The time songs. For sure. That’s right. And?
Well, you say in the book that you often didn’t like playing their songs as much because they didn’t feel as intuitive.
That is particularly true of Phil’s songs. Phil’s songs were definitely mind songs. Bobby’s songs were more intuitive.
I’m wondering if you just don’t like the odd time signatures.
No, no. I do. I just loved the Jerry songs more. He brought them in and he knew what he wanted, so all of us could find our parts quickly and easily and intuitively. And Jerry was an incredible songwriter; he could look at a lyric sheet and say, “This chord will perfectly match that word” – and he’d always be right! Bobby’s songs were always much rougher sketches that would take more effort for us all to fill in.
For instance, Bobby came and showed me “Estimated Prophet” at a rehearsal. And he had it going, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…” I said, “Bobby, that’s no groove. That’s not working.” I went home on a rainy night and stood in front of my fireplace by myself, rocking my body back and forth and counting and thinking. And I went, “Wow. Why don’t we make it half time and make two bars of seven into a 14? So it’s 7 doublets and you come down on an even number!” So we play sevens in bars of two; phrasing it that way is much more musical. That’s how I gave “Estimated Prophet” groove. [sings the beat] The half time is the end of 4, which takes you to a new 7.
Was Phil less open to interpreting his songs because he presented them as compositions?
Um…. They were just really hard to interpret. I about busted my ass trying to find good things to play on some of them. That’s not all of his songs – just towards the end. There are others that were much more fun to play.
Is it true that at one point Pigpen and Bobby were fired but just kept coming?
Yeah, but that’s been covered and written about so much. And I never got into those committees about firing people. I honestly never got into taking sides. I was like, “What is this? Aren’t we musicians?” Jerry was like that, too. We’d come along at the end of the meetings and say, “Oh, ok.”
We had a meeting about firing Bobby once and nobody even brought it up. Not even the management. [laughs] And that’s the Grateful Dead. We need to find a new word for waffling, because that’s far too mild. It was a double-decker waffle!
Phil seems to have been the one pushing this. What was his issue?
He had something up his sleeve. I don’t really remember specifically what the issue was because it didn’t have that much importance to me. I care about the music and what people are doing on stage.
And you say that (keyboardist) Tom Constanten couldn’t really cut it on stage.
He had some kind of stage fright. I could never understand that. He would play brilliantly in rehearsal and we’d go, “Yeah, right on, man.” Then we’d get on stage and nothing; it was, “Yikes. Come on. Where are you now? We need to hear from you.”
Of course you had a lot of keyboardists.
Yeah, that was the hot seat. Or maybe I should say cold seat.
it seemed like once Keith (Godchaux) joined, you and he and Jerry would really lock into grooves.
Yeah, that was the band. We could have been a jazz band. We could have been lots of things. Jerry called me one day and said, “Billy, come down to the studio. I’ve got this guy you’ve got to hear.” He couldn’t get ahold of Bobby and Phil, but I came down right away. Jerry and I tried to fool Keith as much as we could, throwing him every curveball we could think of, and he was all over it. There was nothing we could play he wasn’t on top of.
He was a complementary player, weaving in between us all and making everything sound better. And he didn’t make the mistake that a lot of pianists did of copying Jerry’s line, shadowing him. Jerry hated that, man. That was one time you’d see him really mad: “Don’t play what I just did!” Vince (Welnick) did that more than was necessary – which is not at all.
Why did the band refuse the McGovern campaign’s request for an endorsement in 72?
We were truly apolitical. We backed Obama in ’08 and Jerry would have vetoed that had he been alive, because he put all politicians in the same bag; some are more tolerable than others, but they’re still politicians.
You were not happy when Mickey first left the band and you had to become the only drummer.
Yeah, it was kind of empty-sounding for a couple of gigs.
Do you think the time alone spurred your development as a drummer?
It totally did. I was ready to be my own drummer. I used all the stuff I learned from him and just kept drumming. Drums and Space was way less, of course. I just did some drum solos. But the band played great. The ’72 tour of Europe was wonderful and you can hear that. It’s a nice steady record. It’s grooving.
It seems like you were coming into your own as a drummer. Did you need to be forced into that situation for that to happen?
I agree, but that wasn’t my motivation. My motivation was Mickey was going through a really hard time then. We tried to play and he was just out of it. All that tightness we had learned before wasn’t there. It just wouldn’t work. Playing with two drummers, it’s either really on or really off. And it had gotten off.
When he first came back, you were not happy about it. Did you just feel, “I’ve been playing my ass off and the band sounds great. Why are we messing with it?”
A little bit like that, yes. I just didn’t think it was necessary. I pretended to be ok, but I thought it sounded horrible. It wasn’t working and it took a lot of rehearsing to get it sounding better.
But listening to me would have been the world’s biggest mistake; so much good music was still to come with Mickey back. I’m not always right! These are just the emotions I had at the time and being honest about them.
How long did it take you to start feeling good again?
It probably took a while. I’m going to tell you something: two or three years can go by and I feel like it was a week. I really have no length of time sense. It’s confounding to people, but if we didn’t have these devices that remembered things for us, I would be fucked. [laughs]
It is ironic to hear you say that you have no sense of time.
As a drummer, yes. [laughs] I have a great feel of time. That’s different.
You write about 5/7/77 as one of the best shows in the band’s career. That was a great era…
Right on. Just after Mickey returned!
…and right after you recorded Terrapin Station with an outside producer forcing you to buckle down and tighten up. Do you think it paid off?
It did pay off on the album, but I’m not sure about in the way that you mean, on stage, because in recording sessions you’re not really playing ensemble music. It’s not like being on stage where the whole band is out there cooking with full-on vocals.
And that recording was aggravating – especially the song “Terrapin Station,” which is not a simple drum part. Mickey and I had not come to agreement and it was dragging on and on. I was kind of upset and I finally said, “Mickey, come in my room. Let me show you how this song goes. We’ve got to play the right parts here or we’ll be in here for another month and I’ve had it with LA.
I just went, “This part works really well here. This part works really well there… “ We learned it like that, in sections, and went in the next night and recorded it.
Things were getting a bit torn and frayed both inside the band and in society in 1970 and you guys came out with the more stripped down Workingman’s Dead, then American Beauty. Do you think that was a reaction to and reflection of the times?
I think all music played at any given time is a reflection of what is going on in that person’s life, so yeah. We are the kind of musicians who play how we feel. We were just totally gung ho going for it in terms of music at that time. Totally focused and locked in together.
And a big change between was those two albums was Crosby, Stills and Nash coming in and saying, “Hey, you guys, this is how you do parts. This is how you do harmony.” It changed the ballgame entirely.
Incredible. People associate the Grateful Dead with peace and love but there are a lot of guns…
:… in my book, right? Yes. Well, we never brought that attitude on stage. That was just boys having fun out in the backwoods. No one got hurt, thank God, and rather miraculously.
It’s amazing that you guys never did any real jail time.
Yes. I did 10 days once, for growing what were probably all male marijuana plants. I didn’t know what I was doing, which is not really a defense. Those 10 days weren’t so bad. I walked in and some guy handed me a pill, smack or something I didn’t really do, and I just popped it and went to sleep for two days. It went by very fast and I didn’t give a shit. There was a guy in there who knew me and liked the band, so he passed me down burgers at 3 in the morning when I was starving.
You said that when Jerry was arrested in ’85 the judge was a Deadhead and went easy on him. Do you think at some point he would have benefited from not being treated that way?
Yes. I totally agree with what you’re saying. The addict will never voluntarily tell you they need help, and they are never going to be voluntarily arrested.
I had my hopes up for Jerry big time when he went to the Betty Ford Center, but he only stayed two weeks and it’s a fact of medicine that your body takes a minimum of 28 days to develop a new scene. And for someone who’s been using for a long time and heavily, 28 days is nothing. It’s a day. You have to stay away for at least six months. And then you have to really work with someone, a therapist of some sort, to make it work.
You write that you think Jerry was thinking of putting the Dead on hiatus again.
We actually talked about that in ’93 but the business had gotten to be so big that we had to keep playing or we’d financially crumble.
You felt an obligation to the empire and to keeping everyone employed?
Yes. That’s the sad thing; I did. The only way we could have helped Jerry is if we would have stopped being the Grateful Dead, just refused to play. But he would have just had other musicians come in. It wouldn’t have mattered. It wouldn’t have been the Grateful Dead, but nothing would make Jerry stop playing music – or using drugs.
You managed to walk that line all these years.
I don’t seem too crazed. I somehow know how to handle this shit.
I always felt like I was walking on the edge of a really sharp sword. It wasn’t cutting me, but if I went too far this way, ooh, man! If I went too far that way, it was over. I tried to stay right there in the middle on the edge, where I still felt pretty healthy.
John Belushi was another nutball friend of yours.
Oh, yeah! I don’t call him a nutball. I call him a wonderful, spiritual human being. I loved that guy so much. I was driving when I heard the news of him dying on the radio and I almost wrecked. It just took the wind right out of me because we were really close.
We were both as loony as each other and it was great. He was actually a drummer before he became known as a comedian. I used to joke about him practicing and he showed me his Samurai sword at his house in LA, darn it. He’d come to a show and sit down behind me and make one of those faces and it would just make your night. The warmth and energy and intensity coming off of him were tremendous.
And he crashed your stage one night at the Capitol in New Jersey.
He did. That was the farthest out, coolest, funniest thing. That big guy did a cartwheel waving a flag to “US Blues” and landed in front of the one empty microphone and sang the chorus in perfect time.
This was after Phil and Jerry didn’t approve of him coming on stage?
Jerry did! I asked Phil first because he was always the one I knew would be most strict about anything, so I figured I need to run it by him before it goes anywhere else. And he said, “No, Bill. We can’t do that!“ So I went to John and said, “I’m so sorry, man.” And he faked me out and said, “Yeah, Bill. No problem. I understand.”
Phil was often the contrarian to such things. Did he just have a strong sense of how things should be done?
Yeah… For some of that stuff, huh? He definitely had his vision of how everything should be. He was looser than that but sometimes he just didn’t want anyone coming on stage unless it was Ornette Coleman or someone.
Do you think that the pickiness of Deadheads kept you guys honest? You couldn’t get away with anything because they would call you on it.
No, I kept myself honest. I had a real esteem about playing good. I never, ever went out there feeling like I was going to throw one off. I went out with the deepest sense of giving the best I can to the audience. That’s what I’m there for. Not “I’m gonna play good for the Deadheads who know what’s going on.” It was for all people, for myself and for the music.
You say that post ’93, anyone listening to the tapes can tell that not everyone took that approach.
It was very frustrating because if any one person is having a seriously hard time, the band is at that level. You truly are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.
Did that become a source of tension?
The tension in the Grateful Dead was all inside, because we didn’t communicate verbally very much. It was an internal boil and you could feel it in the music on stage. People would be sending each other signals and messages. When your lead guy is having such a hard time and forgetting words, there’s just no way you’re gonna say the music’s good. You can’t pretend. You can’t ignore that or cover it up.
Were you able to feel connected to the crowd once you were playing in stadiums?
No. Stadiums were the hardest for me because you didn’t get any contact. One of the things I loved doing at smaller gigs was find somebody in the front who was looking at me and smiling and I’d use them all night. They’d become my muse
The Wall of Sound is the craziest thing, but I never thought about if from the perspective of the guy sitting directly underneath until I read your book.
Ha! The first time I saw it was in Reno and the thing was blowing because they only had one two-ton winch up there and one chain down to it and I went, “Nuh-uh, no good. I’m not sitting under that thing.” I’m not an engineer but I said, “Put two more winches there, one on each corner so it’s triangular shaped, with the longest side on the speakers out front.” And that made it a lot better, but it was intolerable for other reasons!
It was too impractical. All your sound came from behind you and that’s ridiculous. It made the drums sound horrible. Just think about that much sound going out over you. It went right into the drum mics. It was far out, but it was hard for me to get real intimate. I didn’t like it.
You say that the band in later years had lost communication so much you couldn’t take acid together.
That happened pretty early on, I’m afraid, darn it. It happened at different times with different people. I became afraid to take acid after a while because you had to play for the crowd instead of yourself. Suddenly the energy of being free to play got lost and now we were just playing the songs good like any other band. It wasn’t a good acid experience anymore.
I gather that you are back to feeling comfortable taking acid and playing.
Yeah, there’s a thread of psychedelics in the book. I do every once in a while take a teeny bit.
You were the one who was adamant that the band was over when Jerry died.
Yeah. We had a meeting where names of people who could step in were being discussed. The others wanted to keep on going, but it was not for me. My feeling was that I didn’t make this decision; Jerry did. I was in serious grieving, which was not caused only by his death. Those years leading up to his death were very draining. We held in a lot of sadness and it all flushed out when Jerry died.
I was blindsided and emotionally distraught. I don’t even know how I could drive when I heard the news, but I managed to get myself to the ocean and surf. I didn’t even try to catch waves. I just laid on the water and cried with waves breaking all over me. I was almost paralyzed. 1995 was just the worst year of my life. Jerry died, then my father died a month later, and my girlfriend had lung cancer. I entered a serious depression, and was at home drinking wine and taking tons of pain pills. I called my doctor and said, “Get me into rehab. I can’t do this.” I went to Sierra Tucson, who helped me out immensely.
In 1998, there was a regrouping as The Other Ones, but you declined to join.
I was still in bad shape, physically and otherwise, and knew that I had to really heal Bill. And I was glad with my decision, because when I went to see them, I knew I could not be on that stage. I got there late, walked in to them doing Jerry songs, and felt terrible. It wasn’t good enough for me.
But after that, I did join the next Other Ones, with Alphonso Johnson on bass, who’s a fine musician and a wonderful human being. And for me, more than half of it is, how’s the person? Can you get along, look him in the eye, talk about something real? Where I come from, to play music it has to come from in here, the heart, not the head.
Is that what you look for now with the guys in Billy and the Kids?
Oh, yeah, and I have it. I had this interesting thing happen playing with the Dead many years ago up in Canada, where I couldn’t feel my body. I was out here observing myself playing. Maybe it’s like what a yogi does in meditation. And I had that feeling in practice the other day for the first time in ages. I was just going, “Wow! I’m not asking my body to do anything. It’s just doing.” And of course, as soon as I observe that, bam! It goes away. Being in the moment is the only thing that matters. It’s like active meditation.
How are you feeling about the upcoming Fare Thee Well shows?
I’m totally looking forward to them: to making Deadheads happy to see us again, and to playing real good. I’m very happy with my drumming right now and feel really confident.
Given the history, something special must happen when the four of you play together.
Well, we’ll find out! Phil and Jerry were my older brothers. And I loved them dearly and deeply and I still do. We might not get along right now or at a given moment, and we might not talk much, but I’ll love Phil forever. I can’t say too much about what we have planned for the shows, but I am looking forward to it all immensely.
It’s like I’m Billy Kreutzmann in 1965 and I’m Billy Kreutzmann in 2015. The way I feel about music hasn’t changed. My ability to play has certainly changed for the better. But the way I feel about the integrity of music hasn’t changed.