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In Conversation with Michael Kaler

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Their experiences were huge. They never critiqued LSD. The Dead experimented with a variety of drugs – Phil Lesh had some alcohol issues for a good long time, Garcia obviously did everything under the sun; those are the two big ones, but other folks did other things. And if you read the interviews, you do sometimes find people criticizing heroin, or they'll criticize cocaine. They criticized booze or whatever, but they never, they never come down on acid, like even the ones like Bob Weir, Bob Weir has said, he reacts extremely strongly to drugs. And so he didn't do tremendously much, but even the people who weren't taking drugs all the time don't seem to have ever felt that the LSD intake was a bad idea; I think they looked at it as a positive thing, and they were quite open about it. 

And also at the time, this is a period when, I mean, they were also doing things that we would regard as being immoral, right? So, for instance, they were dosing people without their consent, you know –


JT: – Uh-h, yeah, not cool –


MK: – And that's, that's, you just don't do that shit! Like, that's from a nowadays perspective; from their perspective in San Francisco in 1968, they thought it was great. So I don't go there with them, I don't go as far!  I think their idea was, “Well, if everybody took LSD, the world would be a better place. Let's just give everybody LSD. Whether or not they want it.”  And they would. 


LSD was huge for them. They always felt that it was: they never disavowed it. There's a few interesting quotes from Garcia on the topic. He talks about the influence of Ken Kesey, the acid test. Garcia is at one point asked about the influence of Kesey and and the Pranksters, and Garcia says, “Without people like Kesey and the Pranksters, when weird things happened, I might have just thought, ‘Oh, that's just a weird, subjective thing that happened in my head.’  But they were the ones who convinced me that it could be, it might not just be in my head, like it might be something bigger than that.”

JT: Right? It's interesting, so that it alludes to the collective experience, both the musicians getting in the same head space, and also sharing that with the audience,  and that kind of frisson between the audience and the band. What role do you think the audience played, you know, whether they spiked the punch or not? You know, how important was that vibe of the acid party,  the acid test?


MK:  So I think you need to distinguish there a bit,  because the Dead definitely made a distinction between playing the acid tests – which they weren’t doing all the time,  there weren't a hell of a lot of acid tests altogether – versus playing gigs. I wasn't at any of the acid tests or any sixties gigs, obviously. But the acid tests were intended to be a much more open space,  so there wasn't so much an “audience” and a “band.”  There were folks hanging around doing stuff, and what the Dead often were doing was playing – although they felt it as a test not to play as well, which is one of the reasons they liked it.  They would sometimes play, and then go, “I'm too high. I'm just going to wander off and do something else…,” even when they were playing the acid tests, which were designed to be mind-fucking overdoses of stimulation. You know what I mean.  So there'd be bright lights.  There's people in weird costumes everywhere,  many, many people are really really high on, like, unsafe doses of 1960s acid.  

So the Dead were part of this overall, weird-shit, you know, sensory-overload-type-of-scene at the acid test. So in those environments, they seem to have felt that there were these weird sort of spontaneous currents that would go through the crowd, and you'd suddenly find yourself doing something, and you wouldn't know it, but you'd suddenly realize, oh, yeah, this relates to what that guy over there is doing.  But you didn't talk about it.  There was just this wave of like sponsored aid to your synchronicity, or something going through the crowd.  The crowd, you know, were responding to it.  And it felt bigger, too, it felt meaningful


I think these for them,  it felt like that was something bigger than just gigs:  they were getting at something. 


Whereas with gigs, there was more of a divide between the band and the audience than there would be at the acid tests. There's interesting comments from I think it's Rock Scully, or one of their managers or staff people, about how the Dead were always very conscious of it if it was a paying gig – that they were going to give value for money, you know.


So they, well, they were – they were professionals, you know, they were professional musicians as well as acidheads, so they would do gigs.  I, I feel like at the acid tests, they would feel more free to not play and just wander away if they were too high.


They took musical chances at the gigs, too: they were doing that regardless. But definitely,  at the formal gigs,  if they were booked to play from 10 till midnight,  they played from 10 till midnight. Whereas with the acid tests, I think they showed up, and when they felt like playing –


JT: – They played a little more like at Mooseman! [Laughter] So hey,  you and I,  we've known each other, well, not quite 15 years, but for a while, and we've played together in a Toronto band,  The Starfires,  which is an improv-based, psychedelic jam band is,  I guess,  is how we just describe the band.  Does that sound about right? 

MK: Yep!


JT:  Starfires played at Mooseman a couple of times, maybe a few times. 

And there were elements of being multidisciplinary, whether it's lights or a certain sense of freedom off in the Haliburton Woods where we would, you know, play on an open stage off in the forest while people are tripping. Moose Man is like Burning Man north, and there was definitely an enhanced vibe there!  Somehow,  things transformed. Was that a continuation of the acid test parties,  like a kind of free-for-all out of control,  mayhem,  or however you would describe it for me?


MK:  Hmm, for me, not so much, I mean you're one of the band,  but for me in terms of really establishing what The Starfires were doing, I felt like it was that first gig we did.  I think you showed up for the second one – 


JT: – I always felt like the newbie [Laughter].

MK:  The second was great, too. 


I had another band that was supposed to do a residency that night, and one of our members couldn't make it. And so that's why I just was like, “Okay, I'm gonna call up a bunch of interesting people,” right? Among them was Martin, who used to be your next-door neighbor, and so we did the gig, and then we were talking about doing it again. And Martin was like, “Oh, I know this guy, Jamie, he’d be great.”


But that first gig for me was important, because it was folks who had never met each other before.  And we're getting up there playing.  And we did like a 23-minute “Peggy-O,”  and it was just gorgeous.  Yeah,  we had four songs total, so that to me set the template for what The Starfires were.  But I think everybody was straight.  I don't know –  I was straight.  I'm not sure if everybody else was. But it was just in a space.  But there was no audience there, really.  There was just us. 


Later, there would be times jamming when it would, it would be just down to you and Paul Newman. And you guys would be doing some just like harmonics and like high overtones and and weaving around each other, and if Andy was playing at the high end of the keyboard,  you know – and that free, layering aspect is something that the Dead were exploring. 


JT:  I mean, I knew that that was part of the scene,  but I didn't know how integral it was to to their music practice.  And it's really cool that you're writing this book and that articulation coming from them that they're there looking for a shared spiritual experience with the audience.  That kind of thing. 

MK: People have talked about the Dead and religion a fair bit. But when they do talk about it, typically there's two perspectives that they tend to talk about it from.  So number one is, they'll look at the audience and they'll say, “Okay, like, I want to talk about how these Deadheads look like they're called members,  who are members of like – they have this religious allegiance.”  So that's valid.  That's one approach to talking about it. 

Another approach that Deadheads will often take is to look through Grateful Dead lyrics and they'll go, “Oh, ‘Ripple,’ you know, looks to me like Taoism or St. Stephen. What does this have to do with the first Christian martyr?,” who was, you know, the Book of Acts of Apostle talks about St. Stephen being martyred.

And those are both valid approaches. But for me, the thing about the book is,  it's not looking at either of those perspectives. It's looking at the band's own perspectives, and especially Lesh and Garcia. And it's saying, “Hey, how did they regard this?” Not “Does this look like a cult?,” but like, how did Garcia actually feel about what his music was doing?


I'm really interested in this, because it really does seem to me that they –  some weird shit happened when they were playing the acid tests that felt bigger than life. And for many of us, when the weird shit that feels bigger than life happens, we go, “Okay, that's just I'm just stoned. I'm just whatever. I'm not gonna let that change me.”  Whereas with them, they went, “Oh, okay, well, maybe this is real, like, maybe we are touching on something bigger than life. If we are, what do we need to do with our music to make it more likely that we'll touch on that thing again?”

JT: You mentioned getting a glimpse of something bigger than themselves. I mean, they did translate that expansive quality from the acid test parties to the stage. The discography of bootleg recordings is extensive for the band, and kind of unique. And whoever was handling the audio helped develop this huge wall of sound. The Dead always had paid a lot of attention to sound quality and like they were really finicky about it, and I think a lot of that has to do with Owsley Stanley, the bear, who was the LSD chemist, who was also the sound guy.  He was just really interested in sound quality and the Dead also were willing to fund him – like, they were willing to put their money where their mouth was in terms of developing really good sound. One of the things that I do know that they were real innovators for was the use of monitors. So a lot of major bands like the Beatles are playing Shay Stadium without monitors, you know, you imagine they can be trouble, too, if you don't have somebody that you can trust. But the Dead were one of the bands who were really focused on on bringing monitors in, which is huge, and so they can send us the sound and almost have this biofeedback.


MK: Yeah. And then the wall of sound that you’re talking about was something they developed, I think it's ’72 – were developing it ’71, ’72. And I think it was rolled out ’73, ’74, I believe, which was just this massive backrow of PA amplification stuff that apparently gave unbelievably clear and clean and undistorted sound. 

And my understanding is that it was designed so that they were mixing it on stage themselves – like, they had it set up so that there was less going on in the board, and more like, if Lesh felt like the mix needed more bass, he just turned up the bass on stage – a pioneering approach. So I mean, these musicians have so much control.

It cost a lot of money to develop. It cost a lot of money to transport it. It was a bitch to transport:  they had to be able to set up two back lines, two walls of sound, so that their crews would sort of leapfrog. Like they'd be playing in New York on Wednesday night with one of them. Well, the the other trucks are in Boston already, and getting set up there for the gig there, because it took so long to put together. It was a major, extremely expensive, extremely labor-intensive thing that they were willing to do, because they really cared about sound quality.


In Conversation with Michael Kaler

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