top of page

In Conversation with Michael Kaler

p. 1 of 3

0      1      2      3

I have known Michael "Blitz" Kaler for the more than twelve years that we’ve been playing together in the psychedelic jam band the Starfires. Blitz is an amazing bass player and multi-instrumentalist. He's also an acclaimed scholar in Early Religious Studies. And given his diverse talents – author, musician, scholar – he can find fascinating points of connection between seemingly disparate areas: for instance, between the Coptic worldview and the emergence of an improvisatory language specific to rock music.


Currently on research leave from the University of Toronto, Blitz (as always) has numerous music projects on the go – as well as a new book in the works, about music and magic. 


We met on Zoom earlier this summer, and discussed his soon-to-be-released Get Shown the Light – focusing on the role that LSD played in the formative years of the Grateful Dead’s creative career, as they were establishing their signature improvisatory, open-jam style of music-making. 


I found it fascinating to learn just how integral acid was to the Dead as they tapped into and explored the spiritual dimension of their music. Blitz also gave me his take more broadly on the connection (or lack of connection) between psychedelics and breakthrough insights.


Be sure to check out the excerpt from Kaler's new book that follows this interview. Published by Duke University Press, Get Shown the Light: Improvisation and Transcendence in the Music of the Grateful Dead drops November 17. – Jamie Thompson

Jamie Thompson: Just to get rolling, if you could introduce yourself, and let our readers know what you're doing for the summer and what you're excited about these days, that would be great. 

Michael Kaler: Sure. Yes, my name is Michael Kaler. I'm professor at the University of Toronto, Mississauga Campus, and musician. And this summer I'm working on putting together a course on Music and and Religious Experience that I'll be teaching for the first time in the fall, and thinking a little bit about a new book. And then the ‘older’ book comes out in November. 

JT: I love the title – 


MK: – Right, Get Shown the Light


JT: – Such a great title! Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the book. You’ve already written extensively about the Grateful Dead – will you be picking up on some of that content? And what revelations have you had during recent research? 

MK: So the book is an expanded and developed version of my dissertation that I did a bunch of years ago at York University, and so yeah, it does contain edited or rewritten versions of material that has appeared in previous papers. It's also got a bunch of new material that hasn't appeared anywhere else, and the stuff that's in the previous papers, I mean, those were papers that were published in a variety of places that can be difficult to access, so it's bringing together that stuff. And then it's updating it and adding to it. And it's basically on how and why the Grateful Dead developed their improvisational approach.


JT: Right, that sounds really great – I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy! It must feel great to pull that all together, especially if you've been exploring that whole early scene for a number of years now – was there a particular time period that you mainly zeroed in on?


MK: Yeah, the stuff I'm talking about is the early, early Dead. I think my musical examples are drawn from like ’66 to ’68 or 9 mainly, so I'm looking at the earliest period of the Dead. The Dead formed in 1965, in the fall of ’65, yeah, and then they turn into what we would think of as the Grateful Dead probably like end of 1967 into 1968. So a lot of the discussion of the Grateful Dead's music often focuses on ’69 and afterwards. So one of the distinct things about this book is, when I'm talking about music, I'm talking about the stuff that they did more in ’66, ’67, ’68, which most folks don't really talk about.

JT: Yeah. Were there any revelations that you had in your research for new content, things that were totally unexpected, that you're excited about?

MK: Well, the big, big deal for the book for me was – it was intended to just be a musicological book, looking at how they developed their improvisational practice. And when I was doing that work, and then once I started really digging into the interviews and into the documentation, it became apparent that their development of an improvisational musical practice was actually in the service of facilitating spiritual goals that they had for the music. 


The sixties is the period when improvisation starts getting more accepted again in the West. The Western musical tradition [had] sort of moved away from improvisation for a hundred-and-fifty years, going back to the Romantic period for “art music,” and then there was a slow buildup through the twentieth century of folks rediscovering improvisation. So you get jazz starting and putting a heavy emphasis on improvisation, which really freaked out establishment people.  And then, by the 1930s, you start to get folks like John Cage, who are bringing it back into classical, “art music” traditions, and that keeps developing.

In the forties and fifties, jazz starts to go much further out there – like Dixieland improv is improv, but it's kind of restricted. Whereas with the beboppers and the modal-jazz people, the improvisation starts going much, much further afield. You get your first open free-improvisation recordings in the mid-to-late 1940s coming up, so that's picking up at the same time, too, especially as we move into the fifties.  And early-sixties North America is getting a lot more immigration of folks from places outside of Europe, and a lot of those folks are coming in with their own models, these improvisational musical traditions. So particularly with regard to, say, folks from India, there's a lot of people coming in in that 1950s, 1960s period. And there's a lot more attention being paid, consequently, to Indian music. And you can't talk about Indian classical music without talking about improvisation, right? Like it's, it's part of it. So yeah, so it all starts building up, and then in the sixties, it breaks out in a number of different areas, in, you know, “art music.” 


Then there’s minimalism: you get people like La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and you get the whole Concept Art sort of thing that's going on in New York, taking improvisation to some really wacky places. In jazz, you get free jazz, which is going five steps beyond where modal jazz was in terms of opening things up for improvisation. And in rock, 1965 seems to have been the big year for the rock improv tradition starting:  you get Pink Floyd starting out in London and the Pink Floyd of 1966. You get the Velvet Underground starting in New York in ’65 as well. You get the Grateful Dead, obviously, in the San Francisco area. 


JT: But that improvisation is not necessarily connected to any kind of spiritual or religious impulses, right? 


MK: So in some cases, it clearly is.  Like Coltrane is explicit, explicit, about that kind of stuff. But you get folks like the free-improv people from England, most of whom are not – are in fact vigorously rejecting any kind of religious or spiritual interpretation. So people like Derek Bailey or John Stevens, they expressed that expressly, expressly, “We're performing without a spiritual component.”


I think they just didn't see the music as being like – like you get people like [John] Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders, or Alice Coltrane, where it's like, it's like,  it's like a tying their music to their spirituality explicitly. The British people, from my reading, they don't seem to be doing that – I mean Derek Bailey – for him, music seems to have been, like, straight-up music, you know?


JT: Maybe in a way that's more spiritual, the simply being it?


MK: Sure, maybe, you know [laughter].  I don't know, I have no idea what's going on in Derek Bailey's head, or what was, but definitely in terms of presenting the music, there was no – there was [nothing] like Coltrane naming songs, you know, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The British folks are not doing that. 

You have improvisation coming up again and again, but it doesn't have to include an explicitly spiritual or religious component. So some folks seem to be just doing it as a musical exercise, or as an artistic thing, but not necessarily in any spiritual way. 

But for me with the Dead – the interesting thing, when I started doing the research, was to find that from the Dead, from the members of the band's perspective, it seems to have been motivated by spiritual concerns. They weren't just playing this way because it was fun, or because they felt like this was the artistic direction they wanted to take. They were doing this because they felt that they had had certain profound experiences. And they had these experiences while playing this kind of music, and they felt that this kind of music was a way of generating those sorts of experiences. 


JT:  Right. So, and from what you've just described, that's a lovely snapshot of the emergence and practice of improvisation, and how the improv seed was planted. So it's not like when the Grateful Dead came on the scene, that that element of improv came out of nowhere. They were tapping into a tradition, and maybe you could talk about the influence of the blues, I think, which had elements of improvisation that sometimes are overlooked. When it got commercialized and compressed for vinyl, for recording, the improv elements sometimes were deemed not as marketable or whatever. So a lot of people aren't so aware of how open-ended some of the music forms were like the blues.

MK:  I guess there's two things I think with regard to traditions. I think one of the things that makes the Dead and the Velvets and Pink Floyd extremely – and Jefferson Airplane to a degree – significant, is that, is that –

Improv is different depending on the tradition, right? – like there's different rules.  So Mozart was improvising all the frickin’ time he was playing, but his improvisations fit into a classical context, and they probably wouldn't have worked in an Indian-classical, Hindustani Raga tradition. Some folks have said that part of the way that you know that a musical tradition has now matured, is that it has its own improvisational approach – 

JT:  – Right? Almost like the flower, or the flowering of the tradition or something. 

MK:  Yeah, or just the tradition has to be firmly enough established in terms of what it does and what it doesn't do for folks to be able to jam in it. So I would say that one of the significances of the Dead, along with Floyd and the Velvet Underground, and Jefferson Airplane and a few other bands, is that rock did not have a distinctively rock improvisational tradition before that:  when rock players soloed, they were drawing on other various musical styles. Clearly they were either doing blues, or they were doing country, or occasionally they might try to do jazz. But there wasn't a distinctively rock way of playing this stuff. And so part of the importance of the Dead – and I think this is important even if as a person you don't care about the Grateful Dead! – historically, they're significant because they're this first generation of rock players going: “Okay, we want to improvise. But we're not blues players. We're not jazz players. We're not country players. We're not classical players. How the hell do we do improvisation that's authentically rock?”


And so the Dead developed one way of doing that. Floyd developed a different way. The Velvets developed a different way. But these are all bands who are saying, “Okay, we've grown up in this tradition – it's time that this tradition develops an improvisational approach.”  So that's part one of a response.

There were lots of influences from other traditions on the Dead. I mean, clearly they were heavily into the Blues. Phil Lesh, the bass player, was hanging out at the San Francisco Tape Music Centre with Terry Riley, when when Riley was developing “In C,”  so Lesh is definitely getting into the early ’60s classical, minimalist/avant-garde-type stuff. They're all listening to Coltrane, Coltrane up to like ’63. Lots of influences are coming in from all over, and I guess their job is to say, “Okay, how do we bring all these influences together and make something coherent and rock-y out of them?”


The Dead's overall approach was – I mean, Garcia could do the blues soloing kind of thing – and he did sometimes – but to me, that's not where they're original.  Like when they're playing like a blues band, that's cool, but it's the stuff that goes beyond the blues that they bring in that really makes it interesting!

JT:  How important, or what kind of role, did psychedelics play in enhancing the experience, you know, both for the musicians and the Grateful Dead, as well as for the audience? 

How significant was it that there was this kind of a “perfect storm” of circumstance with LSD exploding on the scene, and being embraced in a very counterculture way – maybe you could just talk a little bit about that?

MK:  Sure.  Well,  the Dead are really clear here: LSD was the key for them; it's what led them to develop their musical approach. They were playing music on LSD, and they were like “Whoa, they, this is bigger than we thought!  We need to develop a way of doing this on a regular basis!”  So there's absolutely no question in the Dead's mind that that LSD was huge.

Table of Contents

In Conversation with Michael Kaler

0      1      2      3

bottom of page