All truths wait in all things,
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it – Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Jambands.com concludes its two-part series with the singer-songwriter, producer, author, photographer, and radio show host David Gans as we take a further look into his creative process, and a deeper focus on the resonant quality of the songs that appear on his vigorous new work, The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best, as well as his other recent endeavors.
RR: Let’s look at another side of your influences. You developed a unique take on “Down to Eugene” with lyrics by Jim Page which has Grateful Dead references.
DG: Jim’s a real hero of mine. He’s a songwriter from Seattle, and I’ve been a fan of his work since the early 70s. I met him at the High Sierra Music Festival probably about 10 years ago. We shared a little songwriter-in-the-round session one night, and I just introduced myself. I said, “I’ve been a fan for years,” and we stayed in touch. I would play his stuff on the radio, and then at some point, I asked him if we could do some gigs together. I think in 1998 we did a short tour here in the Bay Area, and I would back him on his songs.
I love his songs so much. He’s one of those guys that write topical songs that are very earnest and serious. He’s like a tree-huggin’, queer-lovin’ union man. He’s very much into progressive left-wing causes and puts his ass on the line all the time. He was in the streets during that World Trade Center stuff in Seattle several years ago, and he wrote a song about that called “Didn’t We.” He writes songs about people who are being destroyed by society. He writes songs about bigger issues. He writes songs about individuals. He writes beautiful love songs, and he’s just an ideal of that kind of songwriter….
“Down to Eugene” is a song from his album, Whose World is This, and his version is an electric band, electric guitar and stuff, and it’s not in a style that I can manage. I love the song, tried to play it his way, and it didn’t really work for me. One night, I had flown to Jacksonville, Florida to begin a tour and I was sitting in my hotel room playing my guitar, just farting around, and I came up with this little finger pickin’ ditty and got the inspiration to try Jim’s words. Somehow, my mind made the connection that his words might fit that music. I tried it, and with a little bit of minor surgery, it fit. I probably played it a couple times on that tour, and then sent him an mp3 in e-mail and said, “Do you mind if I crib your lyrics for this?” He said, “No problem.”
I put a version of that on my first solo CD, Solo Acoustic. My live albums, Solo Acoustic, Solo Electric, and Twisted Love Songs, are just basically made from board tapes. They are not studio recordings, and I considered all of those songs to be fair game to be recorded properly with a band. Those are just CDs that I sell at gigs and stuff so I considered all of those songs to be basically virgin material, and available for The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best sessions. When Tim picked it to be on the album, and record it with the bandI taught it to those guysand it works beautifully. It was Tim’s idea to play harmonica on it, which I think adds tremendously to it, as well, but Jim Page was kind enough to let me take the lyrics and put them into my own musical setting.
RR: I’d love to hear about the origins of your composition “Autumn Day.”
DG: Yeah. (laughs) There’s actually a cool story to go with that song. This, again, is one of those songs that kicked around in my head for a really long time. I had the idea that there would be a song where it started “Her name was Autumn Day.” It was just a sketch. I had the pieces for a while, but didn’t really have a coherent sense of what it was.
It’s been 10 years, maybe more. My wife’s best friend got married at Yosemite National Park, and it was at the end of October and it was an amazing day. The wedding and the party took place at the Ahwahnee Hotel on the floor of the Yosemite Valley. We had the wedding outside on the lawn, and everybody carried their chairs inside for the party. As we were coming inside to begin the reception, the weather turned. It started raining, and it rained furiously the entire time this party was going on, about four hours. At the end of the party, the clouds lifted and there was snow on the top of the mountains and there were a million instant waterfalls coming down the sides of the rocks. It was an absolutely stunning display of autumn weather. Also, there was this woman at the party, this very striking red-headed woman, and somehow all of things conspired to add to that song.
The process of creativity is so mysterious because I didn’t say: “Oh, this is great; I’ll write that song now.” But that night, we were sleeping in the hotel there, and it just sort of was rolling around in my brain and the ideas started coming. That night I got up out of bed, went into the next room, sat down and started working on it some more. Some time in the next couple of weeks, I finished it. These two thingsthis amazing weather event and just the sight of this red-haired womansort of became the character. It has nothing to do with her really except her visual appearance. It’s not like I fell in love with this woman. I was there with my wife who I adore, but this thing became the inspiration. It was the catalyst to help me over the hump to finish the song. That song is a work of fiction that was inspired by a couple of real world events.
RR: You’ve also been inspired by Chris Rowan and Lorin Rowan in a collaboration which has spawned the Beatles jamband Rubber Souldiers.
DG: The Rowan Brotherswho I remember from years and years agoare Peter Rowan’s younger brothers and they were pop stars in the early 70s. They made a record that Jerry Garcia raved about and David Grisman produced. It was kind of a lost record
because they got stuck in the grinding wheels of the music business. They were signed by Clive Davis to this deal with Columbia Records, and then between the time they signed and the time the record was finished, Clive was fired from the label. The record came out, but it didn’t have the support from the label it would have had if their boss had still been there. I didn’t know them or anything. I saw them play a bunch of times. I remember one particular gig in 1975 when they opened for Kingfish and the Garcia Band in Palo Alto and that was when the three Rowan Brothers were in a band together.
Flash forward to 2003 or so, Chris and Lorin put out an album on BOS Music called Now and Then. The first disc was all new stuff, and the second disc was old stuff from the early 70s that they had gotten out of their vault. The most amazing thing happened in that the new stuff was better than the old stuff. A lot of times that doesn’t happen. A lot of times: “Spare me the new stuff. Play me your old hits.” I invited them to appear on my radio show out here [Berkeley] on KPFA, Dead to the World because I really liked the stuff, and one of the songs that they did was a Beatles song. I think it was “Baby’s In Black.” I couldn’t help myself, I sang along with it in the soundcheck, and after we got off the air, I said, “Do that song again, man,” and I sang along with them there. I said, “I love those Beatles songs. Do another,” and we sat there for probably an hour doing Beatles songs together. I said, “Man, that is so much fun,” because they had grown up on the Beatles too, just as I did and we knew them all. They were just in our DNA.
Some time after that, we spent an afternoon at Stinson Beach at the home of a dear friend of mine who is also my business manager. She was dying of cancer, and she was basically camped out in this house that a mutual friend had given to her for this. She was just kind of hanging out and partying for the rest of her days. We didn’t know how long she had to live. She was just hanging out up there, and we would go out and spend time with her and people would entertain her. It was kind of this salon. One day, Chris, Lorin and I and Barry Sless, who was in the David Nelson Band for years and is now in Moonalice, pedal steel player, we just played Beatles songs for Goldie for what must have been about four hours. We must have played about 75 Beatles songs.
It was huge fun. I said, “We ought to do this. We ought to put a little band together just for fun and just play Beatles songs jam style the way we just did.” It started off real slow. We did a benefit concert for Rock the Earth on September 17, 2006 at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheatre and we had Robin Sylvester from RatDog on bass. And Robin’s the "adjudicator of Beatle Court" because he’s an Englishman who grew up on that stuff and he’s a total master of it.
Somewhere along the line, shooting the shit backstage, we came up with the name Rubber Souldiers. We’ve done this gig once in a while over the last couple of years, and just recently started thinking it would be really fun to do it a little more often. I booked us a gig as the Rubber Souldiers Revue. I was trying to get them down to Florida to the MagnoliaFest that I play every year. People in Jacksonville produce the Suwannee Spring Fest and the MagnoliaFest out at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida,
and Peter Rowan is one of the headliners every time. Peter and I have been trying to get them to bring his brothers out for a couple of years. I said, “Lookthe Rowan Brothers are a great act as a duo, you’d get the three Rowans to do some stuff together, and we’d have this Beatles jam that would just be great.”
They finally agreed to do it in October 2008, so I put together a rhythm section. I got Byron House, who is Sam Bush’s bass player and also a great record producer. He produced the Jorma records Blue Country Heart and Stars in My Crown. I got Wildman Steve, the radio guy from Alabama, who turns out to be a great drummer, and Mark van Allen from Blueground Undergrass to play pedal steel. We had a prime time slot.
We had 6pm on the outdoor stage, we had this amazing sunset framing our set, and we had a great time. It was kind of the talk of the festival. So now, the Rowan Brothers and I are hot to do more Rubber Souldiers gigs. We did one at a club here in Berkeley called the Ashkenaz, and again had a great time using some local guys as the rhythm section. A friend of mine who has been interested in possibly becoming my manager came to the show, and was just blown away by it, saying, “This is really something. You guys should do this,” so we met with him a couple of weeks ago, and now we’ve got management.
We’re actually going to do this Rubber Souldiers Revue thing that would include us doing our individual music, as well, because none of us want to give up playing original music just to do Beatles songs. We’re not a fucking Beatles cover band. It’s a Beatles jamband. We take these songs because we love them. We love to sing them and play them. We stretch them out, and we run them together. It’s a Beatles jam, and it’s music that everybody loves; little kids love it, too, so it’s something that we are going to be pursuing in the year to come with some management and marketing behind us. Hopefully, we’re going to get out there and play some festivals where we can do this thing which is a real crowd pleaser, and also play our own songs.
RR: Peter Rowan played live with Boris Garcia on December 10, 2008 on your KPFA program, Dead to the World. Dennis McNally turned me on to Boris Garcia, and I immediately loved the band. How did that collaboration come about?
DG: At the Magnolia Fest, in October, at the end of the show on Sunday evening when everybody is packing up their camp sites, there is usually a barbeque backstage and all of the staff and crewsound people and musicianshave a little backstage gathering. We were back there eating our barbeque and a woman that I know who is involved with the support crew said, “I missed all of your Rubber Souldiers stuff. Could you play us a few songs?” I went and I got Chris and Lorin and I said, “Come onlet’s entertain these people.” We grabbed our guitars and set up in the tuning tent behind the stage, and started playing Beatles songs. Before too long, we had a crowd of 200 people back there, and Peter Rowan joined us. Again, we must have played 75 Beatles songs. Various people would come up, a guy with a hand drum played with us for a little while, somebody played a harmonica for a couple of tunes, and Peter got his guitar out, and it morphed into
a Rowan Brothers family reunion. They started playing old doo wop songs and Everly Brothers tunes that they had been playing since they were kids. It was a great thing, and we wound up playing for about four hours just to entertain the troops back there.
That was really great for me because Peter Rowan is another guy who is a total hero of mine, and this was a chance to really get loose and get down with him and sing with him and let him see what I can do. That was very rewarding for me on a personal level, and it was raging good fun to play with these guys.
Soflash forward to December 10. Boris Garcia is a newish band out of Philadelphia and Dennis turned me on to them, as well. As I said earlier, my number one thing is the songs. I don’t care how good your licks are if your songs aren’t good. That’s why I love Railroad Earthbecause Todd Schaeffer’s great. I love Donna the Buffalo because they have this deep, deep groove, and two amazing songwriters. And I love Boris Garcia because they have three great songwriters. I just liked their first record so much. They’re in my age group, and we just related. We hit it off really well. We ran into each other on the festival circuit and wound up jamming together at various hotel rooms and on stages.
They were coming out west on a promotional tour, and I said, “You have to play live on KPFA.” I booked the studio and the engineer and we gave them the entire two hours to play, and because Dennis is one of their managers, he put them together with Mark Karan to sit in, which also makes me happy. I love Mark. And as far as Peter Rowanthere was a Rex Foundation Benefit on December 13, and Peter’s management wrote to me and said, “is there any way you can get Peter on the air to promote the Rex benefit?” I said, “I’ve got this band booked, but they’d probably be real happy to have Pete sit in. Let me see what I can do.” I e-mailed Boris Garcia and their management, and said, “How would you guys feel about having Peter Rowan join you for a few tunes?” Their answer was “Absolutely! Why not? Sure.” (laughter)
We got there, loaded in, and did our soundcheck. Peter showed up about an hour before showtime, and we had a little conference. It turns out that the Boris Garcia guys know “Midnight Moonlight,” and Peter showed them a couple of other tunes. Boris Garcia played for about an hour with Mark joining in, and then we brought Peter in and they did this great old mountain music tune called “The Cuckoo Bird.” We talked about the Rex Foundation Benefit and then they played this kick-ass version of “Midnight Moonlight.” It was just a serendipitous, wonderful thing. We had the time and the opportunity and Peter fit right in. They loved him.
That’s one of the thingsI’ve got to saythe fact that I have a radio show on KPFA with no program director telling me what to do is amazing. Add to that the fact that we have a really great performance studio and several times a year, I can put live performances on the air to the world free, for nothing, is a miracle. Over the years, I’ve had Wake the Dead, RatDog, David Nelson, the New Riders [of the Purple Sage], Tea Leaf Green, New Monsoon, ALO, Railroad Earthit’s been amazing. If I went back and looked, I’ve probably had 30 live concerts on the station of just amazing musicians. It has all been for free just for the love of the music. It’s an amazing gift.
RR: Not to mention the quantity of live Dead music you have played on your show over the years. I grew up in the Bay Area, got on the bus with the Dead, and listened and taped your weekly show, so I’ve definitely been someone that has benefited.
DG: It’s an amazing thing to be able to have two hours of completely unrestricted time to serve the music, to play the best stuff. The fact that it has an audience and I’m able to support the music that means the most to me is just a tremendous gift. It’s good for me. It’s good for my karma or whatever, but it’s really about serving the music and turning people on, and if I’ve been able to help a band like Boris Garcia reach a new audience, then that’s just an amazing thing. It’s a blessing beyond price.
RR: Indeed. On December 21, 2008, the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, on Sirius XM’s Grateful Dead Channel, Tales from the Golden Road hosts Gary Lambert and yourself discussed the history of “Dark Star” over a 24-hour period where various renditions of the classic song were played.
DG: The Dark Star Marathon is the coolest thing we've ever done on the Channel. It's not the "best" Dark Stars, but it is an excellent overview of the Dead's improvisational masterpiece over time. I asked various knowledgeable Deadheads for their advice, and some of the messages I got from those informants were quoted in spoken intros to
some of the more significant entries.
We had Henry Kaiser on the air with us for “Tales,” and some other guests as well. The playist can be found at: http://cloudsurfing.gdhour.com/?p=1361.
RR: We briefly spoke about your photography in our first interview three years ago. You went through a hiatus period, and then you kicked back into it, right?
DG: I started dabbling in photography when I was a little kid. My dad had a 35mm camera and he’d sometimes let me play with it. When I was in college in the 70s, I had a job working on a newsletter for the public employees union in San Jose, and part of that job involved taking pictures and being a photojournalist. I had access to a dark room while I was in college and I loved doing photography. I was given a beautiful Nikon camera for my 21st birthday, and so I would take pictures and work in the darkroom. When I started working for music magazines in 1976, I would also take my camera with me. I’d do interviews and I would take pictures of the artists, and take pictures of the concerts, as well. Basically, from ’76 to ’86, I earned my living as a freelance journalist, and I would also take pictures and sell my photos.
When I got into radio, two things happened. When Peter Simon printed my negatives on the book we collaborated on Playin’ in the Band, it was so amazing. He did such a good job of printing my stuff, and I realized that I was never really going to be as good a printer as I want to be. I was a musician. I was a writer. It would take me a whole other lifetime to get any good at it. When I started doing the Deadhead hour on KFOG [San Francisco rock station], which became the syndicated Grateful Dead Hour, my freelance writing career wound down at that point. I started concentrating on the radio thing. Something had to give. I didn’t really have a market for photography after that, and I didn’t have the time to do it as a hobby, so basically photography got pushed to the back burner for several years.
Somewhere along the line, probably 10 years ago, I got a digital camera, and then it was like “oh yeah, man. (laughter) No dark rooms. Get Photoshop on your laptop. Carry a camera in your pocket wherever you go. I’m there, baby.” I never go anywhere without my camera. I’m on the road and I’m in these cool situations. I’m backstage. I’m out on the interstate. I’m driving around Utah. There’s just always amazing stuff to take pictures of, and so I now take pictures all the time. I have thousands of images, and I’ve developed this hobby of taking pictures at the Farmer’s Market. I just started taking the camera with me to the Market, and taking pictures of the organic produce and stuff like that, just because I find those things irresistible. All these digital cameras have macro settings on them so you can get real close to things and take pictures of detail like drops of water on leaves and things like that.
I started putting them up on Flickr and Fotolog and places like that. Then, I started using them in my work. The cover of my album Solo Acoustic is a photo that my wife took at Joshua Tree and that my friend, Ned Lagin photoshopped up into psychedelic glory. [Author’s Note: Lagin is also a pioneer in the field of mini-computers and synthesizers. He played keyboards with the Grateful Dead in the mid-70s, specifically in performances featured between the first and second Dead sets, accompanied by his friend, Dead bass guitarist Phil Lesh, and on occasion drummer Bill Kreutzmann and guitarist Jerry Garcia. His 1975 recording Seastones features Lesh, Garcia, and Mickey Hart, as well as David Crosby, Grace Slick, David Freiberg and Spencer Dryden.]
The cover of Solo Electric is a portrait of myself that I took. It’s my reflection in an art gallery window. I used a picture that I took in Colorado of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for the cover of Twisted Love Songs. Both of those are what I would call sly self-portraits because one of them, you have to sort of look at it twice to recognize that it’s my face reflected in this gallery window. The Twisted Love Songs cover is my shadow. It’s a photo of the sunset facing east so it is my shadow in the image, not me. I started using my images to make posters for my gigs, as well. If you go to my Flickr site, there’s a whole set of pictures that I took that I use. I just started using my own images in my promotion just for fun, and to save money. (laughs)
When it came time to do The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best, the title as you may deduce came later as the last song was written, I did not know what I was going to call that album. I had a code name for it; I was calling it “The Jersey Project” [Author’s Note: producer Tim Carbone records at Mix-o-Lydian Studio in Lafayette, New Jersey], but that would have been the lamest of all possible names to actually use on the album. When I came up with the song “The Bounty of the County,” that line just jumped out: “now, that’s a title for an album.” I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback. People really love that title. I sent Jeff Otto, who did the package design, a CD full of my photos of produce, and he used them to create the cover. He took a picture of me himself that he used on the front and merged it into this funny image. I painted a face on a turnip. I don’t even know why. I sent that one to him as a whimsical thing, and he wound up putting it on the cover. The disc itself is a picture I took of a nice, big, ripe red tomato. There are other images that Jeff used for the packaging, too.
Photography is sort of a hobby and an artform that I’ve engaged in. About a year ago, my wife and I did a show in a coffee house in Oakland at a show that we called “Water Textures,” and all of my images were from a trip to Hawaii where I would take pictures of the surface of water. My wife took pictures of surfaces of water up in the Sierra on her camping trips. The thing about water surfaces is that there’s always three elements: there is what is in the water, under the surface, there’s the texture of the surface of the water itself, and then there is what is being reflected on those surfaces. It’s one of those thingsit’s an infinite source of abstract wonderfulness, and my wife and I are both photographers and so we had this showing of stuff, this mutual theme that we both loved of water textures. Photography’s just another creative outlet, another one of the many, many ways I’ve discovered of having a great time and not making a living. And somehow, I’ve managed to make it all add up to actually earning a living.
– Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.