[This is the unedited version of an article that appeared on the Talkhouse website. Thanks to Michael Azerrad.]

I should introduce this article with a disclaimer, which will clarify as the piece draws to it’s conclusion. I think despite my best efforts this article is going to be more fun for people who are familiar with the Dead, their many flaws and occasional transcendent charms. The Grateful Dead were nothing if not polarizing. . .during their long career and certainly after. There were their often grotesque fans – mucking up beloved city parking lots and downtown ghost towns during the Dead’s many US tours. There were the band’s unremarkable albums – even their most beloved feel phoned in. Of course – there are mountains of bad taste to wade through. . .and life is too short. I would say the Grateful Dead are a phenomenon, even a holdover from the United State’s great tradition of utopian communities. They made music sure – and some of it was incredible. . .but perhaps they also embody something awkward, something free – and yes – something deeply flawed and aspirational.

Perhaps Bill Kreutzmann is the least recognizable member of the Dead. . .definitely a cypher once we step into the MACH 2 dual drummer version of the Dead after the release of 1975’s Blues for Allah. At this point Mickey Hart’s giant personality and omnivorous percussion appetites start to build and eclipse Kreutzmann’s presence. Kreutzmann never really gets his due – well because for one: Jerry is Jerry is The Grateful Dead. . .the only reason many of us are there if we’re going to be brutally honest with ourselves. But also because Kreutzmann’s voice as a drummer is subsumed by the two drummer band. . .and that’s probably what most people remember about the Dead. Phil Lesh of course studied with Stockhausen and the cursed keyboard seat held a number of bright moments (Keith Godchaux, Pigpen. . .I don’t know) and Bob Weir wrote a couple keepers. . .but Kreutzmann? I have always admired his drumming – when there was only one drummer in the band. But even with that – I never had a sense of who he was as a person. . .or even a musician in a philosophical sense.

OK maybe you’re not a Deadhead – or maybe you’re a casual fan who doesn’t get into the Sportscenter-style roster jockeying approach to fandom. I would not call myself a Deadhead b/c really – in terms of the scale of the stuff – I don’t know much at all. For a while I was someone who found the Dead little more than a curiosity. I spent four years at a high school where The Grateful Dead were a pivot on which all things counter-cultural moved – which will reveal quickly that my high school years (87-91) were pretty staid, reactionary and enthralled in a past that we’d never recapture. The Dead were the sacrament to a cult of casual stoners. . .they were an emblem that represented something that was free and unmoored – but the Dead were also pretty safe, and an institution – mainstream in their own way. And the music! Well – a lot of the times it made no sense to me. It was terrible for so much of the time. The Bob Weir cowboy songs, Jerry’s Midi nightmares of the 80s, the spongy drumming, bad keyboard timbres, the strangled vocals and just plain fraud being perpetrated were easy enough to see through. It’s all a sham really – especially if you’re 15 years old and you’re learning that everything is doublespeak and lies. If you spend any time on the Sirius/XM Grateful Dead station – all of the band’s incredible weaknesses will be on display most of the time. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy afoot to display the most flaccid, uninspired elements of the band to anyone curious enough to tune in.

And yet. . .

I think someone played me some earlier tapes – perhaps some tapes from the late 60s – Live Dead. . .Dark Star. . .The Other One. . .Mountains on the Moon. . .some odd live tapes that seemed to elevate with telepathic interplay. . .there’s real magic being made – moment to moment.

Some people actually look to me as a Deadhead and ask me sincerely, “So what albums should I listen to?” or even if they are slightly more in tune, “What shows should I listen to?” I used to do this as well. I would approach my bonafide Deadhead friends and be like, “Can you send me some shows where it’s really gnarly, super out there, Jerry on speed. . .like Live Dead. . .raw. . .?” I would get responses. . .I might get some tapes, some CDR comps, some links to archive.org. . .and they were always disappointing. I mean even the shit I LOVE is disappointing. Even Dark Star from Live Dead sometimes sounds weak to me.

But then I started to realize – The Grateful Dead are not about ANY OF THAT. They aren’t about some flawless SHOW. . .though there are better shows than others. They are definitely NOT about albums. . .and when my friends tell me they prefer the albums to ANY LIVE SHOW THAT ANYONE HAS EVER PLAYED THEM. . .I find it sad. I’m not patronizing them – I’m just thinking – well – the Dead are not about any of that. They are actually about MOMENTS. . .and this is their primacy and their biggest flaw. Some of these moments are of uncanny telepathic communication. . .lightning strikes really – which as we know – are quite rare. But on the whole they had terrible taste so these strikes are never gonna happen when Bobby sings f’in Mexicali Blues. Seriously. . .that’s some aficionado, high level “I’ve acquired a taste for this Sardinian maggot cheese” kind of thing.

Speaking of Mexicali and Bob Weir’s “cowboy song” tendency I’m gonna digress for a moment – but at their 8/27/72 Veneta, Oregon show which was also made into a film called Sunshine Daydream (more below about this). . .they reach this incredibly obtuse, abstract and harmonically complex moment 31 minutes into Dark Star. It’s transcendent and alien. . .it’s really remarkable. . .and then after about a minute of this they start playing “El Paso,” a terrible Marty Robins cover. It’s blasphemy. It’s poisonous. It’s horrifying. It’s profanity.

But that’s the Dead! Them’s “the boys!”

So why why why would I ever recommend that someone who’s uninitiated ever delve into this nightmare? Why do I need other people to share my love of Jerry? Well – I’m over it. I don’t care if you don’t like the Dead – b/c I really can’t help you. I’m not a proselytizer. I’m not in the saving souls business.

Right now I’m telling people to watch Sunshine Daydream – an excellent version – the DVD rip is on youtube. . .watch it and listen. And if you aren’t moved then forget it – there’s nothing to see here. Of course this even goes against my earlier stance of, “Well I just like the late 60s and then I’m done” – b/c it’s not true anymore. I realize that Jerry’s technique got A LOT better in the early-mid 70s. . .and so I’m just lost. I don’t know which end is up anymore. Soon I’ll be talking about that OTHER PEAK in the 80s and you should just shoot me.    

Of course the other thing happening is that maybe you’re a musician and at first you might try to play what the Dead are serving up. Maybe you cover a few tunes – China Cat Sunflower for instance or Eyes of the World . . .and you find just can’t play the songs. If you try to actually voice ONE NOTE that Jerry plays, or comp a chord like Weir or play a bass line like Phil Lesh. . .it’s very much out of your reach as a musician and will likely be FOREVER. So hate all you want – they made more.

So OK – let’s quickly address the book at hand b/c ostensibly I’m talking about it. It’s a good book. It’s not a great book and it’s not a bad book. It’s well constructed and edited well on the whole. It’s honest. . .it’s revealing. . .and at times it’s moving. But this is a book for the Heads, the converted and the curious. A lot of the stages of the Dead’s career are covered here. . .we get nice details from all their early SF and California headquarters, their early records, those early shows, when they fired Mickey Hart the first time, when Mickey came back to the band, their trip to Egypt in 1978. . .etc. . .and there’s also commentary about most of the controversial periods of their career – some insight – or often times NOT – but still. . .Kreutzmann was there from the begining and I really can’t remember reading any opinion from him – or even a comment. So that in an of itself is amazing. This book also focusses an even amount of energy on all eras of the band. We get a lot of 80s and 90s info – which is lacking in other books because frankly the music from those periods is challenged. I was introduced to this incredible video for instance.

What’s lovely about the book and in it’s own way surprising is that Kreutzmann claims that he was the original Deadhead! There’s a great passage where he talks about seeing Jerry play banjo for the first time:

“It was an amazing night. He had the whole place totally under his spell. I sat right in front of him spellbound. Right then, I became the first Deadhead because I said, “I’m going to follow this guy forever.” I really did say that to myself, and I’d never said that about anything or anybody before.”

I think those of us who are touched can relate.

Bill Kreutzmann voices a lot of opinions about the Dead and their music that are surprising in their frankness. To BK, the band is all about Jerry’s songs and Robert Hunter’s lyrics. He says outright that he felt that some of Bob Weir’s songs kind of trudged along. He thought “Lost Sailor” was kinda stupid, he thought the cowboy songs were silly but fun to play, he didn’t really think that singer Donna Godchaux ever fit into the band, he thought Vince Welnick was mediocre, he was outraged when Mickey Hart came back to the band. . .on and on. In a way – he’s kind of like your average Head. I think if you took a poll – a lot of people who love the Dead might agree with many of these assessments. I recognized a lot of his opinions as my own. . .

There are some odd ticks in the narrative of the book. . .like whenever he mentions that someone has died it’s followed by “darn it.” But maybe if you knew Kreutzmann you’d be laughing b/c maybe he talks just like this! I don’t know. . .I’ve never met him.

I admire his drumming – especially from the period where he was the sole drummer in the Dead. . .he had to carry the entire package. . .and he’s often lively, tight and interesting. The book doesn’t really get into too much technical drumming stuff – that’s fine. But once again – we get a sense that even though the Dead protected the stage from the insanity of their business and the money that was pouring in – they did not protect the stage from drugs. . .and those peaks, those beautiful moments we’re seeking, started fading out. We see why they were fewer and far between and then we’re taken through the tragedy of Jerry’s death in 1995. During the final years of the band they weren’t even talking to each other! They would finish a tour and they wouldn’t even say goodbye to each other. You can hear this in the music.

But more than anything this book allows you to clarify the mystery of the Dead. . .what went right, what went wrong and why. It’s good to have his voice out there – it’s a surprise and a pleasure. . .not unlike some of those 60s and 70s shows. 

Hey guys –

So here’s where I give you some insider tips. . .exclusive info. . .about this new album out NOW on NNA Tapes!

This material was created with Don Godwin. . .some of it I took from demos for the project I did with William Basinski for Ecstatic Music Festival, other stuff I grabbed from a recording of a live piece I did with students at Middlebury College – it’s a composition that’s not available anywhere. We played it a few times and it’s just kind of lost. But there were some recordings. . .the first few minutes of Side A is from this piece called The Cave I did with some students there.

Side B is kind of nuts. It’s me at the Millay Colony – recording onto a 4 track cassette machine. I was trying to get a solo piece together. Of course it was sounding sick when I played it just to myself – then I started recording it every day for about a week. It got worse and worse by the day. This performance was the one that was just not quite as good as the ones I’d played before. Plus I did some singing while I played. The singing sounded so weird and kind of damaged – almost not part of the performance that I started to like it. It’s as if a drunk guy is talking into the mic – maybe the bootlegger is running his mouth off while I play. I liked it. . .it’s definitely NOT FOR EVERYONE.

I will have a few of these at the Brooklyn Museum when we do 100 Disciplines.

Thanks to NNA – this release is cool – I’m happy it’s out.


OK – I’m a little late to announce this on my website – but I’ll give you additional EXCLUSIVE material here. For anyone who still reads websites.

Probably over a year ago I approached Adam Shore from Red Bull Music Academy with an idea to do a major piece with at least 20 musicians, all drummers, playing intense rolls on their drums – all of them close miked. I created a few demos. . .

Adam trusted my vision and it’s the first commission that Red Bull has ever done! I didn’t realize this until I read the press release. Incredible – thank you. . .

So we’re premiering this thing at the Brooklyn Museum on May 3rd. . .it’s free. . .there are two performances – one at 2pm and one at 4:30pm. The piece is about 50 minutes long and it has evolved quite a bit from the original idea – but it still has 20 musicians and most of them are percussionists.

I don’t want any spoilers here but I decided to reach beyond things I’ve done before. . .and try to create something as insane, melancholic, lyrical and brutal as possible. Huge thanks to Adam Shore, RBMA and Matt Evans for all the help with this. . .almost there!

I’ve been feeling like I would love a mentor to help guide me through the maze of the music business. I’ve been at it for twenty years and I’m still running into novel and ridiculous issues.

So I considered mentors and wrote this piece on Talkhouse.

A quick look in on the Grammy’s provided me with this golden nugget – a transcript of Dylan’s MusiCares Person of the Year acceptance speech. What a treasure trove! I didn’t even have to watch the Grammy’s thank DOG.

I think we were all hurt to discover the Joan Baez was hurt by Dylan. . .perhaps seen during the Scorsese documentary from a few years ago. . .with Baez and then some old Dylan interview back to back – and then maybe we saw Don’t Look Back and tried to read between the lines as they were provided to us. . .Dylan is shunning Baez. Maybe she should be getting on stage too! For sure. . .yes. . .definitely! Give something back. . .we think.

So Dylan thanks Baez in this speech –  that feels good – as if a wound I didn’t even realize I had gets some salve. Dylan being humble. . .and shattering the myth – while it’s perpetuated.

But more than anything we’ve been given more by Dylan! Every time Dylan surfaces – whether it’s on Letterman with The Plugz. . .or an interview with AARP – at least he’s not speaking to some British LOOK BACK magazine. . .it’s an endless flowing stream. . .constant brilliance and commitment – even when he’s phoning it in. Who knows what that even means. . .

But seriously – are you aware of this? If you A/B the Plugz performance on Letterman with Infidels – it’s like LIFE and DEATH. The Letterman performance is a jewel. . .a diamond in the rough.

So then from that speech – I get to some Staples Singers. . .and get to experience that for a while. . .

It reminds me of getting into Gesualdo earlier this week. . .Werner Herzog perhaps made a silly and great film. . .eccentric as hell – I mean he’s interviewing the attendants at the buildings where Gesualdo murdered his wife. . .as if they were experts – and maybe they are. It’s strange and out of control. . .there are no boundaries – and I think that’s why the film works.

So I get to spend some time with The Tallis Scholars, The Hilliard Ensemble – as I’m exploring some early vocal music. . .how is this the week in music?



That’s me sitting there in that autumnal sweater, gold sparkle drums, watching drummer Wayne Smith Jr as closely as I can. . .trying to stay in time. I received an email a few weeks ago about workshops, sponsored by Northern Spy Records, happening at a venue called the Sugarcube at South Street Seaport. The Sun Ra Arkestra would be hosting a workshop. . .playing the music of Sun Ra – and it was free. I knew I had to be there and I was also terrified.

I was afraid because I can’t swing. . .and I surely have no business playing with those guys – but the music and life of Sun Ra and his musicians is one of the foremost inspirations of my musical life. There probably isn’t anything as heavy to me. So I packed up my drums and went. . .and figured the worst that could happen was I would be humiliated – and that’s not so bad in the grand scheme.

First of all – the musicians in the Arkestra were incredibly accommodating – so there was nothing to worry about there. . .and also – the music that we played wasn’t too technically demanding. . .I could hang – at least on the surface. There are of course worlds that are not accessible to me at this time.

Marshall Allen is apparently 91 years old. I can’t even contemplate that. When he plays there’s so much energy going into the horn. . .he stands the entire time. What the hell is going on there? How is that possible? I suppose the Sun Ra Arkestra is impossibility made manifest. Nothing about it feels like it can exist in this cynical world – but it does – and it’s valued.

During the Q+A section of the workshop I asked about Sun Ra’s Disciplines because guitarist Dave Hotep spoke about learning the Disciplines when he joined in 2000 – and that’s a song title listed on a ton of live Sun Ra records. What are the Disciplines?

I was told that Sun Ra wrote 100 of them. They were pieces that you had to learn. . .and that Sun Ra felt their performance allowed the band and the audience to experience discipline and actualize it at the same time. Alto-sax player Knoel Scott quotes Sun Ra as saying, “Discipline makes the man,” and that it was a very important concept for Sun Ra.

Scott also described being a young musician in the Sun Ra house – I think he said he was 20 or 21. . .and every morning he would hear Sun Ra playing the piano. Scott described himself as young and very naive. I wondered if the resolution of the story would be something like, “you have to practice everyday,” but it wasn’t of course.

He said that Sun Ra said, (no quotes b/c they aren’t direct, I’m paraphrasing) Well – we are always asking the Creator for things. We want love, we want money, we want security, we want a mate. We walk around this world needing things, demanding things, asking for things. I WANT, I WANT. . .nobody ever gives back. Nobody gives to the Creator. Well every morning, I wake up and I give the Creator a song.

I went to their performance last night at Studio 10 in Bushwick and yes it was an amazing show. I’ve had the good fortune to see this collaboration a number of times over the years. . .part of Brian’s Drums and Drones project. Though perhaps it is not news – I’d like to say how deeply Brian’s drumming and work with tuning has inspired Man Forever and my own playing. On the one hand – my drums sound better more consistently now – even though I’m still lazy about tuning them (“I’ll tune them in mastering.”). But more importantly his vision opens up sound worlds and concepts that are out of reach for me normally. Brian is a generous teacher and artist. . .his work illustrates this. I am deeply in his debt.

My observations of the show last night are going to be cursory – but I can say that the work feels even more present and clarified now than it did a year ago. Brian is a tremendous technician on the kit but this project isn’t about that – it’s far deeper and more refined. There’s a miked snare drum on the floor. . .the sound material from a single tap (sometimes taps) on the drum (the entire timbral range of overtones) is fed into a computer and manipulated in subtle ways by Brian on the fly. Ursula’s visuals create a meditative mood – and her images buoy and buffet Brian’s sound. Like Dreamhouse – both elements of the performance are essential and it’s a completely immersive experience and I believe it’s profound.

I once performed with a Kundalini gong player named Propheta. We played in the basement of the Ace Hotel on a Saturday night. There was a club next door with thudding bass and I was concerned about how it might disrupt her performance. . .our set was just going to be 45 minutes but she was going to follow it with an all night gong bath performance. I was hung up on needing a quiet and pure sound environment. Propheta wasn’t phased at all! She welcomed sound from outside. She opened my mind further to accepting performance situations “as is.” It was a major lesson for me that I’m still considering.

Last night there was some sound bleed from a stereo or PA coming into Studio 10. . .and it didn’t matter. Brian and Ursula collected it into their own performance effortlessly. They didn’t express anxiety about it – so the audience was not phased.

Cage was right about silence. . .it doesn’t exist. I don’t think he spent as much time as I have sitting in front of loud monitors and louder drums. Kids – don’t romanticize extreme loudness!

Thanks to Brian Coughlin of Fireworks Ensemble I’m listening to “period” versions of Beethoven and Mozart that aren’t in equal temperament. It means that the consonant sections sound more beautiful and the dissonant sections sound more insane. I knew about this in the back of mind somewhere. . .but it was gone. So it’s been a nice revelation. Also I recommend that you subscribe to The Trap Set with Joe Wong – a new podcast focusing on drumming and drummers. . .