When I interviewed Ann Coulter a few months ago, I knew it would get a lot of readers and shock almost all of them, but I had no idea how big the storm would be. Among the hundreds of e-mails I received: Bob Weir’s tour manager trying to get Bobby in touch with Ann, an old Cornell Deadhead who ran Students for Reagan at Cornell, the guy who listened to Rush Limbaugh and made candles, the guy who runs GDTS who defended Al Franken, a stalker, liberals expressing amazement, conservatives expressing amazement, a nasty letter from a Relix staffer, a bunch of Ann’s old friends from tour, and two fact-checkers from two different newspapers who wanted to make sure the interview was not a joke before running an article about it. It was a joy to watch conservatives coming out of their tie-dyed closets by the dozen, and watch the blogs light up across the aisle. A lot of people asked me “Why? Why did you give her the publicity?”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of publicity for the site, but I wouldn’t have done the interview for that reason alone. I did it because I think it’s awesome that the most famous right-wing pundit and the most famous left-wing pundit are both Deadheads. I wanted to show that being a Deadhead transcended politics it is the bridge which unites people on opposite sides of any spectrum (be it political, economic, lifestyle, or any other category) and testifies to the power of music to give common ground to opposite people. But now, it’s time for the interview with the most famous left-wing pundit.
It’s a rare treat to interview someone who made your childhood that much brighter, but Stuart Smalley himself, Al Franken, was nice enough to take a break from his radio show to talk about his Grateful Dead experiences. He saw his first show after graduating from Harvard, and his last show while making Stuart Saves His Family in Las Vegas (I don’t care what anyone says. The movie is an American classic.).
“That last show was really special,” Franken said. “I took my daughter backstage and she got to meet Jerry.”
Franken, unlike the casual Deadhead (and casual Deadhead may be an oxymoron), knew the band, and worked with them, putting on sketches for NYE extravaganzas, getting the band on Saturday Night Live, and even writing a move entitled “One More Saturday Night.” He shared stories about being backstage, in front of the stage, and even in production with, the Grateful Dead.
Franken recalls pranking his co-star of One More Saturday Night, Tom Davis. "There was one time Jerry came in, and we hung out with Jerry, he kind of produced some music we did for One More Saturday Night. Tom (Davis) and I are in a band. At one point, we just had Jerry lay down a solo for Tom. Basically, we played the stuff, because we were going to play it in the movie. We played a bar band. But at one point we had Jerry lay down a solo for Tom. And Tom didn’t know it. I think he was in the bathroom. He came in, heard it, he just knew it was Jerry.”
Franken was a friend of the band, and the band worked to create magical moments for his family. When asked for a favorite experience, Franken cited the bond that the music created with his family, bridging generations.
“You know, I really liked – there was one at Giants Stadium I really, really liked. I took my daughter, and we ended up backstage. I asked them to play Box of Rain’ for the encore, and they did. My daughter and I just love Box of Rain.’ Phil forgot one line, words half-spoken, thoughts unclear.’ There are some songs that are kind of circular.”
Franken, like Coulter sometimes, uses the Grateful Dead as show introduction music. When asked how he chooses, Franken said “Intro and outro music is always without lyrics, because what it’s covering is IDs from other stations, so you don’t want any lyrics covering. It’s really choice Jerry solos, almost entirely.”
Sometimes the busy schedule that comes with politics made readjustment to the musical world difficult. “The first time at the Jammys was a little bit of a disaster,” Franken said. “I should have known this – I agreed to do it, but I had a plane leaving ridiculously early the next morning at Kennedy. So I told the organizers ‘look, I have to leave at a certain time.’ So I was supposed to present an award to the Dead, to Bob, and it just kept getting later and later. Finally, it was like 11 or so, and I said unless this happens soon I’m going to have to go, and just then the Allman Brothers and somebody else got up to jam together, and it was pretty clear that I was going to have to go. So I didn’t get to do what I really came to do. But I got to meet Leo Kottke. There’s a jammer I liked to meet.”
At the same time, it was the way to cope with its demands, and the music provided Franken with a four-hour vacation. “I could go to a Dead concert and come back refreshed, mentally,” Franken said.
Franken pulls no punches when asked for one of his favorite Grateful Dead moments from the front of the stage a moment enhanced by more than music. “My favorite story is going to a concert at Winterland, and this happened sometime pretty early, like in ’74, ’73,” Franken said. “I took [something], and there was a girl on top of a guy’s shoulders. Danced to the whole thing on top of the guy’s shoulders. I’m ashamed to say it, but I spent almost the entire concert looking at her breasts. She had a tight, like leotard kind of thing on. I remember just, like, you know how you can look at something for hours? I’m really not sure how long I looked at ‘em. It was really, very pleasant listening to the music, and she was dancing on top of the guy’s shoulders. He must have been very strong, and it was great. One of the best moments of my life, or one of the best several hours of my life." When asked if the woman was the “Pride of Cucamonga,” Franken laughed and said “Yeah she was.”
Franken was asked, as Ann was, if the Grateful Dead gave them something to talk about during their debates, but (gasp!) there are even people who are friends with both of them. “More we talked about Tim Downey, who’s a mutual friend. He’s a conservative, with whom I wrote a lot of the political stuff. We wrote a lot of the Bush (41) debate stuff with him and others. We were really very much deep in politics. We were political junkies (on Saturday Night Live).”
Considering that I was on the phone with a childhood hero, I couldn’t resist, and asked him what Stuart Smalley would do to get Bob Weir and Phil Lesh onstage together again. After Franken stopped laughing, he gave a candid answer regarding the band’s tumultuous history.
“Well, obviously it would start off with Stuart trying to find out who they are. I don’t think Stuart’s a Deadhead. So that would be the first part of the lesson, familiarizing himself with the history. Stuart would probably break it down to some kind of codependency issue. The dynamic of the dead, sad goodbyes, addiction, everyone’s dependency on each other Jerry, Brent, Keith dying. People not in denial about these things. Processing it properly, embracing their grief, not talking about it enough.
Considering that almost no fans of improvisational music under 25 have seen a Grateful Dead show, I asked Franken what he would most like them to realize. It is something many of us know and have felt with different bands, and it is refreshing to see the spirit passed on.
“It’s how important the music was, and also how important the community of people that came to watch them was. It was a magical, communal experience going to the concert – being wrapped up in the music. The music was paramount to me, and not the lights, and Bobby might play something with a flourish every now and then, but other than that it was all about the music.”