The Spring Tour of 1987 was an interesting time for the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia had pulled out of his nose dive, and with his rejuvenated energy, everyone experienced a lift in energy and spirit. Though I’d been working with Jerry and John Cutler on the new Dead record (In the Dark), my job as Phil Lesh’s and Brent Mydland’s roadie-in-training for that tour took me far away from my dream of becoming a film director. Don’t get me wrong — traveling cross-country in the Dead’s crew left me with permanent life lessons, although I suppose they could just as accurately be called scars.
In the last nights of the tour, Jerry and I were talking in his Chicago dressing room about the storyboards video director Gary Gutierrez had sent. Jon McIntyre, the band’s manager, came in to run Arista’s idea of a “making of” video to go with Gutierrez’s music video for “Touch of Grey” past Garcia since it would be the band’s first. So, I dropped out of the final days of mixing the album.
In an interview with MTV, Jerry Garcia explained how I came to be involved in the Making Of “A Touch of Grey” video. “Justin is Bill Kreutzmann’s (our drummer) kid, and he’s a film whiz,” Garcia clarified. “He worked for the Smithsonian, their film department there, for a couple years and he worked for Francis Ford Coppola. He’s got a background in film. That’s what he wants to do, and he was around. I thought Justin would be perfect for this. He knows the scene. He knows what we’re doing, and he’d been working as a second engineer on the record, so his feet were wet, so to speak. The perfect guy to call in to do it. So he did it, and he did a nice job, too. It’s one of those happy things of serendipity.”
One night while they took a dinner break, I brought a film crew into Front Street Studio to interview Garcia, who thought it would be cool to show Deadheads what the studio looked like. Though I asked him many things, I only used the parts that concerned “Touch Of Grey” for the video. What follows is the complete interview, although I admittedly wince at some of my lame questions. I was, after all, only 17 years old, and this was my first interview. True to form, however, Garcia saved the day with his thoughtful answers.
Like a Deadhead listening to a tape of a favorite show, reviewing this interview transports me back to some good, old days when I worked with and got to know Jerry.
Justin Kreutzmann: The whole idea of the Grateful Dead doing a music video is kind of strange to everybody. Can you explain what brought that about?
Jerry Garcia: I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to do something with Gary Gutierrez, who did the animation on our early Grateful Dead film — any opportunity to work with him is always fun. We were working on this album and I thought somewhere along the line the record company was going to require a video from us, so I sent some rough mixes of the tunes to Gary. They liked ‘Touch Of Grey,’ and it just sort of fell together. His idea was so good that everybody loved it immediately, and the record company went for it.
JK: With this record and the video, do you think you’ll reach a whole new audience that might not have ever heard of the Grateful Dead?
Garcia: Hard to tell.
JK: Also, it seems that now that you are middle age, that you’re involving your children more. Do you think it’s good for re-circulating?
Garcia: Sure. Especially if they find a place that’s comfortable for them. Annabelle (Garcia’s oldest daughter with second wife Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams) has been wanting to do this kind of work for a long time. So I can relate to it because when I was 15, I already had my first electric guitar and here I am. It’s neat that we’re able to provide a context for the kids to work in.
JK: Do you think this will be the big one — the double platinum album?
Garcia: No telling. Every time we make a record, we always hope that somebody will buy it. And it’s disappointing when they don’t, but on the other hand, after 20 years of no particular success with records, I can’t say I’ll be crushed if this record doesn’t go platinum in a week.
JK: It seems that the recording has a more live sound than on past albums.
Garcia: Yeah, the sound is good. It sounds more like the way we play — more…it’s the way we perceive music to work. The studio is a little sterile, and the studio playing approach is a sterile approach compared to what we do. So yeah, we were able to capture some of that feeling for this.
JK: You’re using a shortened version [of ‘Touch of Grey’] — slowed down to articulate emotions out of the skeletons. Are you going to have trouble trying to lip sync that at half-speed?
Garcia: I don’t know whether we’ll have to lip sync at half-speed or not. I doubt that we will, but operating the puppets would be easier, probably. They have the option of changing the speed in a number of ways to make it easier for them to operate to whatever is the best operating speed.
JK: Is there any fear that the skeletons might outshine the band in the video?
Garcia: I don’t doubt that they’ll outshine us. Probably better than us. They’ll be the stars of the video.
JK: When we went over there today, it seems like what they’re trying to do is capture the characters of the original band members in each skeleton. Do you think they can get real close with that?
Garcia: Yeah, those people are really good at this stuff.
JK: Can you give us a little history of how you got involved with Colossal and The Grateful Dead Movie?
Garcia: Gary Gutierrez is a great guy to work with. He has endless enthusiasm and he has great ideas, and his whole scene has gotten to be very successful in the last ten years. He’s really done well. It’s always nice having an excuse to work with somebody that you like and somebody whose work you like. And it doesn’t pop up that often in the music world where you get a chance to do something collaborative with other people apart from the music itself, which is a collaborative venture, at least the way the Grateful Dead does it. So, it’s neat to be able to include more people, more energy, more kinds of ideas, more minds. And it’s just fun to do.
JK: It seems at this stage in the game, you guys can pretty much choose who you want to work with.
Garcia: Right. No matter how it comes up, it’s always interesting. This is a hot year for us, so far.
JK: How has the tour gone?
Garcia: Good! What I remember of it.
JK: Will this record tie in with the summer tour?
Garcia: Well, it’s hard to tell. The release of the record has to do with the delay in between our delivering the masters and their actually manufacturing the records. Sometimes it takes a long time; sometimes it doesn’t take so long. It depends on what the backlog is at the factories and all this other stuff. So that can come down to a spread of between say three-and-a-half to four weeks if they’re really rushing, to two-and-a-half months. So it really depends on when these things all find their way into the stores, and then they start putting advertising money into it and so forth. Luckily with us, we’re more or less ongoing, that is to say we don’t have a yearly tour and that’s the end to promote the record. We don’t work that way; we work more or less continuously so that everything ends up promoting everything else. So it really doesn’t matter what comes out first or what appears first or any of those things. For us, everything we do has some promotional value as far as everything else that we’re doing is concerned. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just place and time, too. Warner Brothers is still selling our old records from 17, 18, 19 years ago, and every time we appear, we are also promoting them. So everything we’ve ever done is slowly creeping along.
There haven’t been any headaches so far. The biggest headache…well, I’ll say the one big headache, which is always a headache when you’re making a record, is now we have delivered a mixed short version of the single which means that now our whole project has moved along a little bit and that means there are certain problems that go along with that. That’s the worst part. It means that we are now working under deadlines. We don’t create one for ourselves, but sometimes that works against you.
Sometimes, when you get to almost the end of a project, it can go on and on for months. So this, in a way, is helpful because okay, now, we have to deliver a mixed version of the edited single — the edited version of “Touch Of Grey” — by this date in order for them to be able to animate to it — in order for them to be able to do this whole thing. And also for Arista to release a promotional single to promote the album — all these things now have dates attached to them. That’s the worst part — it’s the dates. But like I say, it’s a mixed blessing — it may be the best part. It may be the only reason that the record gets done.
I first heard “Touch Of Grey”… I heard Hunter do it. He does it with a different melody so I rewrote the melody. He did it completely differently, but I love the way it worked. I’m not sure what it’s about, either. But everybody seems to think it’s about growing older and something like that, so I’ll go along with that. It seems reasonable. I don’t know whether Hunter meant that in the lyric or not; but for me, the song has turned into an anthem in this last tour. Everybody loves it. It doesn’t matter what it originally meant anymore. It’s acquired a meaning. Hopefully, it does mean different things to different people. I like to not tie things down, if possible. But it’s a great song to sing. It’s a great song to perform. It really works well. So from a musician’s point of view, does the song have a life of its own? It has a life of its own, so it’s a good choice.
JK: Skeletons and the Grateful Dead have been synonymous throughout the years, and it seems like it would have been hard to bring in the skeleton idea after all these years without the band being tired of it.
Garcia: Yes. There’s that, and it’s almost gotten to the point where someone mentions skeletons, everybody goes, “Oh no.” But the tie-in is obvious, and if it is a good enough idea, like Gary’s last creation in the skeleton world with the Uncle Sam skeleton with the top hat, we still use it here and there as a logo or to identify us. I don’t know whether I’d accept this from anybody else, but I think Gary’s ideas are funny enough and fresh enough. They’re the way he wants them to be. Even though the idea of skeletons is not exactly a new one to us, this version of it may be terrific. This might be something special, so that’s the reason for going for it.
JK: Now that this is your last record for any company, that basically makes you free from the music business. You’re not under contract. You can do the greatest Mary Poppins tunes you’ve ever heard. Are you guys going to maybe move in a different direction as opposed to album, tour, album, tour, sort of?
Garcia: Well, we never really have done that very much anyway, at least not that strict in the music business sense. We don’t know. We are wide open. We’ll see how this record does. Events have carried us this far, and we’re just going along and that seems to work pretty good and we sort of take a hands-off approach. Kind of let things happen. So we’ll see what happens — where this gets us. Right now, we’re in motion. We’re on our way somewhere. It’s hard to tell where.
The video is like a performance piece except that it starts on a darkened stage with the band coming out and doing our little pre-show thing. It’s based on the Grateful Dead in performance, as far as our fans know us, and we don’t come out with a big splash or anything. We sneak on stage and fool around in the dark for a long time. Well, this takes it from that point. It starts at that point with us puttering around. But there’s something a little funny. You can’t quite see everybody, and then we’ll reveal the skeletons when the lights come up and the performance starts. The skeletons are full-sized, articulated skeleton puppet guys that will play the first part of the song and then there’ll be a bunch of stuff that happens to them like skeleton gags, and they eventually will sort of transmogrify into us playing live ‘cause they represent us anyway. They’re wearing our clothes and playing our instruments and so on. That’s the sense of it. So it’s skeletons to us. And it’s sort of a play on the “I will survive.” Something about that, plus the Grateful Dead idea, in a large way, and hopefully, it will be funny and it will look good and it will work.
JK: And will there be more videos if this is successful?