Photo credit: Dean Budnick
Bill Kreutzmann turns 75 today. This weekend, he will celebrate via Grateful Mahalo, a special three-night event in Kauai, Hawai’i featuring his Billy & The Kids band (Aron Magner, Tom Hamilton and Reed Mathis), Carlos Santana, Billy Strings and James Casey. The shows will be available at fans.live/mahalo.
To mark the occasion we revisit this interview from 2012 that touches on the origins of the Grateful Dead and first ran in August 2012 to mark the 70the birthday of Jerry Garcia
Bill Kreutzmann was only 18 years old when Jerry Garcia invited him to join some fellow Bay Area players in a jam session that would culminate in the creation of a new group: The Warlocks. These players would later rename themselves the Grateful Dead and begin a career that would span four decades. Today is the 70th anniversary of Garcia’s birth and yesterday afternoon Kreutzmann shared a few moments to reminisce about Jerry. He will honor his longtime friend and band mate over two special shows in the coming days. Tonight’s Kretuzmann’s 7 Walkers will appear at New York City’s Beekman Beer Garden. Then on Friday they will take the stage at the Rock and Roll hall of Fame. Here are his thoughts on Jerry…
Can you talk about the first time you met Jerry?
The first time I met him I watched him play at a little nightclub—more like a speakeasy coffee house— in Palo Alto called The Tangent. I sat and I watched him and it was just mesmerizing. He had the audience in his hand and they loved him and he was smiling the whole set. I got to sit right in front of him. He was playing banjo with Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. It was just a remarkable moment and I commented to myself, “I’m going to follow that guy forever.” I said it right there and then and lo and behold it happened.
You saw him that night on banjo and over the years he really distinguished himself on both acoustic and electric guitar, which is rarer than some people imagine.
He was an accredited banjo player and he was pretty well known in the bluegrass circuit. I didn’t hear him play banjo a lot but with the acoustic guitar I remember around the time that Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, it kind of turned everyone around a little bit. Garcia thought the same thing: “I want to be an electric player. I want to go electric, it seems to be what’s happening.” Of course the Rolling Stones were already out there and the Beatles were just getting going, so he went electric and he was good at both those instruments.
Now when Jerry asked to you to play with him, at that time you were teaching?
I had a little job teaching basic drumming at Dana Morgan’s music shop. And he was teaching guitar.
Did you play with him at all?
We didn’t really play. Maybe I’d been there a few weeks teaching, I’m not sure how long he was there but he called me and asked if I wanted to play with him and Bobby and Pigpen and Dana Morgan on bass. I said yes and I just had an inkling that these were the guys that wouldn’t play safe, that they’d always want to be experimenting and going further out…and that turned out to be true.
What do you recall of that first session?
It was in Dana Morgan’s music shop. He taught lessons in the back and sold instruments in the front. We locked ourselves in with him because he had all the instruments and we couldn’t afford instruments back in those days. But unfortunately he had to be the bass player and that didn’t work. Jerry let me know right away that Morgan wasn’t playing bass in the band.
Before that point, you’d been playing rock in local garage bands?
Even a little bit bigger than that. I was in local high school band for a couple years there and we played at the YMCA dances and at the high schools around Palo Alto.
As the group came together did you have any expectation that this would be something that would carry you out of the Bay Area?
I always wanted to play in a band that was a great band and really inventive and I hoped everything could happen but when you’re starting out, it’s really a day-to-day thing. You’ve got to make sure you get food to eat and there’s a place for the band to practice. I used to drive the band around long ago in Haight Ashbury in an old 58 Dodge station wagon—all the equipment fit in there amazingly enough, the drums everything. And we had a p.a. that blew out in one gig of course and we didn’t have to carry that anymore. But that’s how it was, it was just day-to-day and to think about bigger and famous was just a waste of time. It didn’t seem like a possibility.
Do you recall the moment when it first occurred to you that it might be a possibility?
It kind of came at one time and then it spread out. One time I remember we were playing the Acid Tests at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco, a big old open hall and Ken Kesey at the time was on the run for the police. We’d be doing Acid Tests with him for a few months, once a week at least. There’s all kind of costumes and all of sudden this guy comes walking up to me and Jerry and he’s in a space suit. Then he opens the visor and it’s Kesey. He’s hiding out from the cops but he doesn’t want to miss the trip. It was the San Francisco Trips Festival and there he was. He says, “You guys are going to get much more known than just around here.” And I kind of went, “Oh, maybe he’s right.”
It’s kind of obvious but that happened: a guy walks up to you in a space suit raises his visor and tells you that you’re going to be more famous than you know and later on, sure enough…