As the Grateful Dead’s four surviving members prepare for their final shows this summer, drummer Bill Kreutzmann is coming out with a memoir of the anarchic band that became an unlikely American institution.
By ALAN PAUL
It’s been 50 years since the Grateful Dead formed in Palo Alto, Calif.; 20 years since lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia died; and five years since the group’s four surviving members last played together. Now, as the quartet prepares for what they say will be their final shows, drummer Bill Kreutzmann is coming out with a memoir of his years with the anarchic band that became an unlikely American institution.
One of the group’s two percussionists, Mr. Kreutzmann was the Dead’s musical rock, his steady beat keeping even their most tipsy jams from running off the rails.
“Bill was the pulse and rhythm of the Grateful Dead,” says Dennis McNally, the group’s publicist for their final 11 years and author of “A Long Strange Trip,” a history of the band. “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,” Mr. Kreutzmann and co-author Benjy Eisen recount the Dead’s formation, its zigzagging rise and many low points. Unlike other books about the Grateful Dead’s history, Mr. Kreutzmann homes in on his own experiences with the group. “Deal” chronicles partying with John Belushi, riding camels through the desert to a Bedouin musical jam and encountering George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.
“As ridiculous as some of those stories sound, they all happened,” Mr. Kreutzmann says. The drummer, who turns 69 next week, lives with his fifth wife, Aimee, on an organic farm in Kauai, Hawaii.
Drumming With the Dead
Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann is coming out with a memoir of his years with the band, ‘Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead.
Mr. Kreutzmann spoke with The Wall Street Journal in Philadelphia, where he was performing with his new band, Billy and the Kids. The new group displays the Grateful Dead’s signature improvisational style and will perform May 15 at “Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia,” a Maryland concert. This summer’s five shows by the Dead’s surviving members will be at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., (June 27-28) and Chicago’s Soldier Field (July 3-5).
An edited interview:
The Journal: You write that when you took acid for the first time you knew your life would be changed forever. Why?
Mr. Kreutzmann: 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. There were no rules. No one was judging you, and you didn’t have to look right or play songs a certain way. You could be a total free spirit.
Have you ever felt responsible for leading people down the path to drugs?
No, because I’ve never once told anyone to do drugs. I can’t say that taking acid was good for everyone, because obviously it wasn’t. People had bad experiences, but for those for whom it was good, it could be very good. We’re talking about Silicon Valley giants like Steve Jobs. You can see by looking at Apple and Microsoft which one took acid.
Owsley Stanley, the master LSD maker, became not only the band’s supplier, but also a patron of sorts.
Not of sorts—he was our patron! He bought us clothes and food. We didn’t need to have day jobs or answer to record companies or anyone else. To give you an idea of how broke we were: We were all living together, and my mother sent me $15 for my birthday, and we went and bought as much spaghetti as we could get. Then we could eat for two days.
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 felt 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.
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. Could you have done more?
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. He would 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.
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 like an older, wiser brother with an unlimited amount of love to offer. There’s a spark in some people that can’t be denied. Jerry was also my best and most complete music teacher. For me, getting along with guys—being able to look someone in the eye and talk about something real—is as important as anything. Music has to come from the heart, not just the head.
You were adamant that the band was over when Jerry died.
Yeah. We had a meeting where names of people who could step in were discussed. The others wanted to keep on going, but it was not for me. 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 lay 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.”
In 1998, there was a regrouping as The Other Ones, but you declined to join.
I was in bad shape, physically and otherwise and knew that I had to really heal. 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 you joined all subsequent regroupings. How are you feeling about the Dead’s final 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 Lesh 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.
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