Photo by Rob Chapman
You mentioned playing in a high school band. I recall reading in Dennis McNally’s book that back in high school you once played for Aldous Huxley. Can you share that story?
My parents unfortunately were getting divorced when I was about 16 and my granddad [Clark Shaughnessy] had been a famous football coach, is a famous football coach at Stanford University. The headmaster at Stanford had a prep school in Prescott, Arizona and my mom sent me away to get me out the house, because it was too much: divorce and Billy is too much.
I was 16 and luckily my dad sent my drums down there. I got kicked off the football team for whatever reason and my dad sent my drums. It was a miracle. I can remember opening these giant wooden crates and unpacking my drums and they would let me play after school hours in the auditorium. So one day I’m up there practicing the drums by myself and in walks the headmaster and this guy who looked like he was seeing through coke bottles and that was Aldous Huxley.
The headmaster gives me the finger to the lips like “Be quiet” and Huxley gives him a little elbow in the ribs like, “No, I never heard anything like that, tell him to keep playing.” At the time I had no idea who Aldous Huxley was but years later I found out and I even found out what the speech was about. I wasn’t able to understand at 16 but I went back and read it of course and I was able to understand it. I had no idea about Brave New World or anything that Huxley had written and when I got hip to those I said, “Wow I wish I had read a little earlier I might have tried to talk to the guy.”
Back to Jerry. Can you talk a a bit about his impact on your life and music?
His impact was just monumental and it was monumentally good. He was basically the best music teacher I ever had. He had really great taste in music. He’d teach you about full bar, full measure—that means, “Don’t rush, play right in the pocket.” He’d run all that down. But also his purity, his essence of being a true musician. He got up there every day and was playing guitar and that rubbed off like crazy. He also turned me on to really good music.
Would he continue to surprise you, musically, throughout your time together?
Yeah like at soundchecks and stuff he’d just casually he’d come with a new some song to play some old song that had been around for years.
Speaking of music that has been around for years. I remember reading Rolling Stone article shortly after Jam Cruise in which you mentioned that you had started listening to the Europe 72 box set. What did you take away from that?
Mostly I just decided that I really liked the parts that had “The Other One” in there. The playing around that is fantastic.
In terms of peak years from the band, what periods stand out for you?
When Europe 72 first came out there was only recording from all those concerts and I don’t know how they even deduced which songs to select. So when it finally came out as a box set it was refreshing as heck to know that we really played some great music there. ‘78 is neat when we went to Egypt because you have all the Egyptian influence and we actually recorded in front of the Great Pyramid, it was amazing. I also think 89 was one of those years: 86 and 89 somewhere in there were some really big years too. You know there are probably more years than I am capable of remembering. (laughs)
You also played with Jerry in some of his projects outside the Grateful Dead. What are your memories there?
It was really refreshing because we didn’t have to do Grateful Dead tunes. We hardly did any as a matter of fact, just some of his original tunes. It was just a different band and it’s fun to play in different bands because you get contrasts with different musicians. It was great playing with Merl [Saunders] and John Kahn those musicians were wonderful. I did that for a while, it was fun.
Wednesday will be Jerry’s 70th birthday. How do you think he would celebrate?
He wouldn’t want to have big party as you might imagine. He probably would be with some real close friends, taking about old times. He’d probably have a guitar in his hand and play some bluegrass. He wouldn’t make a big thing out of birthdays. He’d let other people have fun around him and then he’d grab on to it. That’s how he was.
On Friday night while you’re at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with 7 Walkers, Bob Weir is hosting a special event at his TRI Studios. Your son Justin is involved with that. Can you talk about his relationship with Jerry and what it’s been like for you watching his career develop?
He was really close with Jerry. When he was making albums that weren’t necessarily Grateful Dead, Justin was helping him. Jerry did a video with Justin for “The Thrill Is Gone” in black in white. He shot it in San Francisco on Broadway Street and made a great video. Jerry would allow him to do things like that, so they were really close. Jerry liked Justin’s cinematography and he just liked him being into film. They’d always be talking about film.
I love having my son doing something really creative. I’m glad he’s working at TRI, that’s a lot of fun for me.
Final question. You have two big 7 Walkers gigs on the horizon. On Jerry’s birthday you’ll be in New York City and then on Friday night you’ll appear at the Rock Hall. Can you talk about those shows?
The band right now physically is in Manhattan we’re just having a lot of fun playing. We’re out there doing what we do and we do some Dead songs and Papa Mali sings them just wonderfully. We do “Wharf Rat” and I love the way he sings.
The second gig at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that’s a tribute to Jerry, that whole event. Even though they’ve set up this theme of the Grateful Dead on the top floor, for me it’s about Jerry really. They have three of his best guitars there on display and it’s fun to go there and see that stuff. But you know I don’t try to plan these things out. I get to the gig and I let the emotion of the night and what’s going on, that’ll be how the gig is. So I can’t tell yet. I know it’ll be great but I can’t give any color to it yet.