David Gans’ musical activities first came to my attention when I was asked to review his 2008 album, The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best, for this site. The title referenced fresh produce and how items that don’t look pleasing to the eye are still delicious.
I mention this during our recent conversation, and how mainstream food culture has caught up to him. The low-key Gans shrugs off that viewpoint. “There’s nothing even slightly new about that. My wife was part of an organic grocery collective in San Francisco in 1976. Eating healthy is one of the central tenets of hippiedom going back to the ‘60s. So, there’s nothing novel about that.”
Gans has made good with his allegiance to hippie ways and a creative life. He’s put together a comfortable career that involves writing (songs and books), recording and performing, as well as focusing on the Grateful Dead as host “The Grateful Dead Hour” and “Dead to the World” and co-host of “Tales from the Golden Road” on SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead channel. He also incorporates the group’s catalog in his solo and band concerts.
Already an author of three books on the beloved San Francisco act (plus one on the Talking Heads), Gans is now supporting a new take on the band. Co-written with Blair Jackson, This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead offers a breezy read and exhaustive account that features the perspectives by more than 100 new and archival interviews including band members, associates and Heads.
Simultaneously, he released his 11th album – It’s a Hand-me-Down – which consists of his interpretations of 13 numbers originally performed by the Dead. Numbers such as “Lazy River Road” and “Attics of My Life” are presented as intimate solo acoustic versions while “Ship of Fools,” “Stagger Lee,” “Brokedown Palace” and others use multi-tracking to mimic his guitar looping technique when he plays these songs live.
As Gans explains, the two works were meant to link up in multiple ways.
JPG: You’ve been touring in support of the album and the book, of course. Both are connected by using a crow in the artwork of the album and sporadically in the book. Why that imagery?
DG: Blair Jackson and I were fortunate to be able to participate in the design of the book. Sometimes, the publisher will either have an in-house or outside designer do the work and not allow the authors to participate. We wanted to make sure they that didn’t doll this thing up in a cheesy psychedelic graphics. We didn’t want any trippy lettering. We didn’t want dancing bears. We didn’t want any of that hokey stuff on our cover because we figured it’s a serious document about an important cultural phenomenon. It was more important to…we just didn’t want it to be loud and stereotypical.
We collaborated with the designer, Harry Choron, and…in textbooks you need a little graphic device like at the end of sections so it divides the text. So we said, “No, we don’t want to use skulls. We don’t want to use dancing bears.” We thought the crow would be cool because “It’s the same story the crow told me…” (from “Uncle John’s Band”). That crow. If you look through the child ballads and all the folk stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the crow is a recurring image. It shows up in folk tales. We thought that would be a really cool object to use. And Harry worked it into the design beautifully as the marker between text and he also put it on the title page in a shadow.
Harry Chorpn also did the cover for my new record, It’s a Hand-me-Down. I released the album in the same month as the book because it made sense to do so from a marketing standpoint. I needed to put out a new record because the last time I put out a new studio album was 2008. So, I was definitely overdue for a new record. Harry was kind enough to do the cover design for me, and we both agreed it would be fun to have the crow on the cover as the unifying graphic device to tie it to the book.
Then, I put out another record at the same time as part of my Kickstarter called You Are Here with all original material. I wanted to do that so it didn’t appear that I was putting all my eggs in the basket of the Grateful Dead. “Hey, I’m doing all these Dead things but I’m also a composer of original music!” It’s just a quiet way to assert my originality in the context of all this Dead stuff. And Harry was kind enough to let me borrow the crow to use on the back cover of that record as well just to tie them altogether.
The crow is just a wonderful image. “It’s the same story the crow told me…” It’s on the cover of Wake of the Flood. It turned out to be a beautiful image to use and I feel good about it. Oddly enough, this morning my wife and I were just out taking a walk here in Alabama [where he inducted Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame] and we were walking around in the neighborhood and I took a couple pictures of a pair of crows on a branch. I got that from the hike and dropped that on the Facebook page for the book. It’s a perfect picture of two crows looking like they’re having a conversation.
JPG: Then there’s the book’s title, which is taken from “Box of Rain.” Any reason behind that choice?
DG: The editor and publisher of the book thought of that. One of the great things about this book project was that we did it for Bob Miller, the head of Flatiron Books, who was the editor on my very first book 30 years ago, Playing in the Band. I was just starting out in the business. That came out on St. Martin’s Press. So, we stayed friends over the years and he signed us up to do this book. He thought of the title because he’s a big ol’ Deadhead, too.
Again, we were incredibly lucky to be part of a team putting out this book in that we’re entirely on the same page. There was not one bit of friction. The editor was great to work with, our agent was great to work with, Harry who did the design was great to work with. Blair and I had no conflicts at all doing this book together.
So, when Bob suggested that title we both said, “Yeah. That’s great.” Saved us having to think of one! I don’t know exactly what the reasoning is but why not? It’s a perfect title; a wonderful, hallucinatory quality of the story being told.
JPG: Then, what about the title of your album, “It’s a Hand-Me-Down?” It makes me think of it as a folk reference, which can also relate to the Grateful Dead’s use of folk music and the band’s catalog being in a sense folk music.
DG: It’s a line from “Ripple,” which is not on the album. Again, it’s just a perfect description of the transmission process of music from one generation to the next. The Grateful Dead were folk musicians and played a lot of other people’s music and made it their own. And this is what happened in the process of doing this record. It’s telling those guys’ story in my voice.
JPG: Speaking of one generation to the next, what are your thoughts about so many people coming out of the woodwork claiming to be Dead fans – actress Helen Mirren wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt and how suddenly on the third season of “Broad City” there are these Dead connections and indie rock bands, that in the ‘90s wouldn’t want to be associated with the Dead or admit it publicly, are embracing the band?
DG: Well, it seems to me that guys like us, have always tried to tell the world how great this music is and now the rest of the world is figuring that out. That can’t possibly be a bad thing. There’s no sense of, “What are you doing here?” to those people. If they dig it, they dig it. I don’t have any right to kick them off the bus ‘cause they’re newcomers. That’s not how culture works.
JPG: Oh, no. I don’t want to kick them off the bus. It’s just strange and interesting to see that happening.
DG: I have this theory that the generation that immediately followed the hippies was reacting against what happened before, right? So, the punks were kind of like, “Screw you, hippies! We’re going to make our own loud simple music and just beat people over the head with it.” And the Dead were doing sophisticated multi-cultural music.
It also is true that a lot of people who think that they hate the Grateful Dead, basically, are reacting to the stereotype Deadhead. They find the positive attitude of hippies annoying so they reacted against it. Now, 20 years after Jerry died we’re a couple of cultural waves past all that shit and now all these people are just listening to the music going, “Wow! This is great! I’m sorry my dad thought it sucked because he was reacting to the hippies but I’m digging it now.”
I knew 30 years ago that this music was going to live forever. So, this was very gratifying to see young musicians discovering it and getting deeply into it. We discovered and got deeply into it, so why should we be surprised when other people do? It’s a wonderful thing.
JPG: In spite of the growth and diversity of its fans, the media still puts out the “tie-dyed hippies” scenario in its coverage.
DG: That’s the easiest way to get a handle on it but it’s getting a different kind of attention. Again, it’s in the grooves. What the media do is less important than what’s in the grooves. Musicians are making this music. They’re doing tribute records. They’re adopting these songs into their own shows, and that’s the way the music lives forever. Magazines will be pulped in a month but the fact that the music is being continued and carried forward by younger musicians means it’s going to live for more generations and that’s a good thing.
JPG: Could you address the Dead’s fandom and its effect on the band as far as how that support made the group very popular yet in the post In the Dark era – the size of the audience and the party atmosphere sideshow it attracted became stifling, particularly for Jerry.
DG: I think Jerry grew very weary of being That Guy. He was the focus of an immense social and economic circle, with dependencies of all kinds everywhere he turned. And once he started to retreat, the music began to suffer even as the crowds got bigger. The anarchy that worked so well in the early years led to an overwhelming excess of everything in the final half-decade.
*JPG: There have been some thoughts as to what would have happened had Jerry not passed away (one author who wrote about the Dead conjectures that he was going to give up music and devote himself to painting). Any thoughts or knowledge from others of what might have possibly happened if Jerry had a successful rehab and his heart condition was fixed? *
DG: Really hard to say. As is made quite clear in the book, things are pretty close to unmanageable and the tour might have come to an end even if Jerry hadn’t died when he did.
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