As each year rolled on in the long strange trip of the Grateful Dead, there was an increasing sense of a band on borrowed time. Over the course of 30 years pushing the wave of American rock 'n' roll, the steady progression of tragic losses kept mortality close in mind. Pigpen, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and, finally, Jerry Garcia were successive casualties of a life in hard pursuit of the outer limits.
Two and a half years ago, Grateful Dead founding member and bass player Phil Lesh nearly joined his bandmates beyond. After touring with alumni Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bruce Hornsby as The Other Ones, Lesh discovered that he was anemic and losing muscle mass, and after two episodes of esophageal bleeding in September, he realized he needed a liver transplant.
Lesh had discovered at a routine physical in 1987 that he had hepatitis C, which he believes he contracted during the mid '60s. Following the diagnosis which urged a liver transplant in '98, he spent months researching and testing before finally having the operation on December 17, 1998 at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
Four months later he was back on stage, his renewed vigor and musical commitment matched only by his determination to raise awareness about organ donations. Whenever possible he sponsors a blood drive along his tour route. It's a way of maintaining the social commitment that has always surrounded his music, giving his fans a way to contribute immediately and to open their minds about the possibilities of organ donations in the future.
Recalled to life
"People die every day because they don't have the right kind of blood or enough of the right kind of blood," Lesh told the Indy in an exclusive interview from his home in San Francisco.
It's not exactly a sensitive issue for Lesh. In fact, you get the feeling he'd rather talk health awareness than anything these days, and with good reason. "I personally was saved by blood donations twice and by a transplant once," he said. "My current life is a result of donation. So I'm eternally grateful. I feel like every breath I take is a gift from somebody that I'll never meet. There's a certain poetry to that, and a certain nobility and generosity to that."
Lesh is pleased to see awareness actually increasing, and without getting preachy about it, he makes sure to get a basic message across to his audiences. "You don't even have to carry a card," Lesh explains of the minimum notification process. "If you inform your family that you want to be an organ donor, then they'll know and that'll make it a lot easier on them to make that terribly difficult decision." Lesh notes that the donor who donated his liver was a young man who had told his mother six months before his death in a motorcycle accident that he wanted to be an organ donor.
The results of Lesh's efforts regarding organ donations may not be immediately apparent, but the blood drives offer a quickly quantifiable measure of his effectiveness. When Lesh and his new band, Phil and Friends, came through Colorado for a couple shows at the Fillmore in February, 191 pints of blood were donated, more donations than the Broncos were able to draw at their drive. "We were very proud about that," Lesh said, sincerely. "We're proud of Deadheads for delivering the blood."
Lesh shows his appreciation by showing up at the blood drives to meet the donors. "I bring a bunch of posters and I sign posters to people personally and I shake their hands," he says. "Sometimes they'll tell me their story and sometimes they'll just say 'Hi, glad to meet you, thanks for the music.' It's really a wonderful experience for me to get close to these people because to me they are all beautiful. They are just wonderful people."
He laughs in bemused wonder. "It moves me tremendously, more than I would have thought."
Another link in the chain
While Lesh is generally subtle about his own spiritual perspectives, he's billing his summer tour as The Odyssey, and he sees that theme as a way of reaffirming people's sense of community involvement and social awareness. "We're encouraging people to go on their own little Odyssey of the Spirit," Lesh explained, "by helping others and doing good works in your own community."
Putting his Unbroken Chain Foundation (see pg 18) to use, Lesh is encouraging activism by accepting proposals for volunteer projects from interested parties all along the tour route. "What we've said is, if you need assistance for materials or for whatever, ask for it," says Lesh. "We may not be able to help, but let us know what you're doing and we'll help if we can."
The foundation's mission is "to generate support for, and public awareness of, groups and individuals that bring hope and inspiration to communities where great need exists, and to create partnerships of people working together for a common good, especially in such areas as the arts, education and the environment."
One of the foundation's pet projects has been to support Music in Schools programs through benefits and by offering matching funds of up to $100,000. "The money that we get in that fund, both from Unbroken Chain and from individual donations, is going out to the Music in Schools programs hopefully in every city that we play during the summer's tour," Lesh says.
The longstanding commitment to this project goes back at least to 1975, when Bill Graham organized a benefit at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. Years later, however, the San Francisco Unified School District cut all art and music programs from elementary schools. Lesh put a benefit together in '94 to help the Music in Schools program in Berkeley. The following year, as Lesh puts it, "the people in Berkeley rammed a bond issue through to continue that. Our benefit took care of the first year and then their bond issue put music education in the elementary schools in on a permanent basis."
That kind of social involvement has been an indistinguishable element of the Dead's identity since the band's earliest incarnations, pulling a community together first in Haight-Ashbury, then in the rest of San Francisco, and soon enough, nationwide. "It started out with the Grateful Dead playing free in the park," Lesh said of the long-standing tradition of social activism. "We always loved to do that. It was a great party and you knew just about everybody there anyway. It was a way to go out and rehearse under the sky and play your music to the people that you knew and loved."
As the band got bigger, it got increasingly more difficult, logistically, to be personally invested in all the projects the band wanted to support. They collectively created the Rex Foundation in 1983 (see pg 18), which has granted over $7.2 million to hundreds of recipients since its inception. "That was very satisfying," Lesh said of the foundation, on which he served as a board member. "We did a lot of good work in getting money to organizations that sort of fell through the cracks. Grateful Dead was very proud of that and rightly so."
The music never stopped
"I didn't know if I'd ever perform again after Jerry's death," Lesh said, thinking back on the extended break he took when Garcia died and the band decided not to go on. The band members each dealt with the loss of Garcia in different ways. For Weir, it was important to be playing music with an audience the night Garcia died. For Lesh, it meant hanging up the bass. It meant the end of a 30-year stretch that exceeded his most imaginative visions.
It was the pull of a handful of community service benefits that drew Lesh back to the stage. "It just transpired that Hornsby came to town, and Bob was going to go over and sit in," Lesh recalls of one of his first ventures back on stage. "I just sort of went over and borrowed an instrument and sat in and it was so much fun. ...That was very exciting."
Lesh began putting together and playing at benefits for the Unbroken Chain Foundation. As he reentered the San Francisco music scene more than 30 years after helping to invent it, Lesh discovered that the music of the Dead was alive in the playing of a new crop of musicians and bands. Some, like Jazz is Dead, were completely committed to covering the Dead, while others let it color their own original music and played numerous Dead songs in their concerts.
"I started sitting in with local bands that played Grateful Dead music," Lesh said. "I found that they brought a kind of different interpretative approach. So I decided to start rotating some of these players in and out of a sort of ad hoc band to do benefits and stuff like that."
What followed was Phil and Friends, an ever-evolving series of shows, and ultimately tours, that turned Lesh into a godfather of the jam scene playing stints with like-minded jamsters including Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, and Mike Gordon of Phish; members of moe., String Cheese, and Galactic; Robben Ford; Paul Barrere and Billy Payne of Little Feat; Jeff Pevar; Branford Marsalis; Jorma Kaukonen; Derek Trucks; Steve Kimock; David Nelson; Billy Kreutzmann; Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay; and Merl Saunders, among others.
"After two years of rotating guys in and out, I think I finally found the ultimate unit," Lesh said of the band he's been playing with for nearly a year. "The alchemy between us is truly phenomenal. Half an hour into our first rehearsal we were playing at a level which I hadn't experienced since like 1974. I've been busting my butt since then to make sure that this line-up stays intact."
The band includes Jimmy Herring (Col. Bruce Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jazz is Dead, The Allman Brothers Band) on guitar, Warren Haynes (The Allman Brothers Band, Gov't Mule) on guitar, John Molo (Bruce Hornsby and The Range, The Other Ones) on drums, and Rob Barraco (Zen Tricksters) on keyboards.
Fans who crave the vintage Dead of the mid-'60s to mid-'70s will find a kindred soul in Lesh, who says he thinks of that period as his favorite decade with the Dead. "Not necessarily the best," he told an on-line group last week, "but the most exciting for me, because the most exploratory stuff was played then."
Lesh has recreated that atmosphere with his new Friends, settling into long, adventurous renditions of songs like "St. Stephen," "Dark Star," "Terrapin Station," "The Eleven," "Unbroken Chain," "Morning Dew," and covers like Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," Miles Davis' "Milestones," Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy," Bob Dylan's "Tom Thumb's Blues," and The Beatles' "Why Don't We Do it in the Road."
Far from the democracy of sharing moods with the Dead, we're deep in the Phil Zone as he steps into the role of band leader. "I want an ensemble that creates a tapestry of music, of sound," Lesh said of his approach with Friends.
Playing in the band
Though the set list is heavy on Dead standards, the new band hasn't gotten to a point where it's comfortable taking the stage without a set list. "Grateful Dead could get away with some of that stuff because they played together for 20 or 30 years," Lesh said of the improvisational, self-determining shows the band was famous for. "I'm hoping in the not too distant future to be able to call a key and agree on a groove and then just surf the currents of the energy that's coming through us, that's descending through our group mind, as it were, and arrive at a song to play, and from there continue.
"We wouldn't write a set list; we would truly find our way. Sort of finding your way through a labyrinth to a destination and then turning our backs on that and continuing on. That's something that I know this band can do. I just haven't had the nerve to try it."
The classically-trained Lesh has always looked at music as a journey. "Each set is a journey, each show is a journey," he said. "It tells a story on some level. Sometimes the lyrics will connect in a certain way, sometimes the music will just connect in a certain way. But the one thing that I'm trying to be constant in doing is not to do the same thing all the time."
One way to keep things fresh is to keep finding ways to inject the influences of musical peers and progeny. This summer's tour features rotating guests like Bob Weir's Ratdog, moe., Junior Brown, String Cheese Incident, Galactic, Derek Trucks Band, Susan Tedeschi, the Allman Brothers Band, and Willie Nelson, who, Lesh says, "like Jerry, is true Americana, and like Jerry, he has a voice that has the power to reach into the depths of your soul." At the two upcoming Red Rocks dates, Les Claypool's Frog Brigade opens Friday, an "interesting and provocative" band led by the man Lesh calls "one of the finest bassists in rock," and Disco Biscuits opens Saturday, a band whose music Lesh calls "very intricate and powerful" rock and trance music.
Lesh has often described Red Rocks as one of his top two or three venues, citing its "magical qualities." His summer tour is designed to tap into those qualities at select shows as the band makes their cross-country journey. Part of his vision for the Odyssey tour includes a thematic link that will heighten the level of musical subtext at seven of the shows on the tour. "We're taking the seven shows and I'm relating each one of them to a different planet," Lesh explained, referring to the carefully thought out and researched musical bonus.
"And when I say planet, I mean the planets that the ancients knew and could see by the naked eye. That's the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn," he said. "That sequence is what in some esoteric teachings is the sequence of planetary spheres that the soul ascends through after death. So there you have the ultimate journey. I've made up a little music that relates to those planetary spheres in various ways. So at each one of these selected shows we're going to play this music. I've just written some sketches. Kind of like Miles Davis used to do with Kind of Blue. I'm just going to use these as a basis for improvisation."
Leave it if you dare
So determined has Lesh been to avoid repeating himself creatively that he went 30 years without writing another song with Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Dead and the collaborator with Lesh on some of his best work. Through 1970's American Beauty, Lesh and Hunter worked together to create such classics as "The Eleven," "Alligator" ( also with Pigpen), "Mason's Children" (also with Garcia and Weir), and "Cumberland Blues" "St. Stephen," and "Trucking" (also with Garcia).
But the poetic pinnacle was American Beauty's lead track, "Box of Rain," arguably the Dead's best single song, lyrically and musically, and apparently Hunter's favorite, judging from its use as the title to his annotated anthology of lyrics.
"Phil Lesh wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words," Hunter wrote of the song. "If ever a lyric 'wrote itself,' this did -- as fast as the pen would pull." He elaborated on the process in a documentary film series on classic albums, telling director Jeremy Marre "He'd just written these lovely changes and put 'em on a tape for me, and he sang along -- scat singing the melody -- so the phrasing was all there. I think I went through it two or three times, writing as fast as I could, and that song was written. I guess it was written for a young man whose father was dying."
Thirty years later, Lesh found himself with another piece of music calling out for Hunter's lyrical touch. "I had some music that I had made up in the early part of this year," he said enthusiastically, clearly energized by the creative process. "One of them, I was playing through it, and I just spontaneously changed the groove and it sat up and said to me 'I am a Robert Hunter song!' " Lesh brought the assertive little tune and two other new compositions to Hunter, and within two days they had lyrics for all three. "They've turned out to be extremely successful," Lesh added.
"It's funny. When I'm writing my own lyrics, I sort of have to pull them out of the music, the music will suggest them," Lesh said as he tried to explain the knack Hunter has for finding the words his music is trying to express. "Hunter just blazes, just busts them right out. ... His lyrics evoke stuff that I didn't even know was there exactly."
Hunter is not the only old bandmate that Lesh is reacquainting himself with. Deadheads have long been concerned about a troublesome relationship between Lesh and Weir. Differences on the handling of the Dead's business concerns strained their relationship and caused Lesh to forego last fall's "Further" tour with The Other Ones, including Weir, Hornsby, Hart, and Kreutzman. But Lesh has booked dates with Ratdog for his Odyssey tour, and to start things off on the right foot, he invited Weir to join his band at an unannounced gig in San Francisco a few weeks before hitting the road at the end of June.
"It was just a desire to put our relationship, Bob's and mine, back on a new plane," Lesh explained. "We've been at the opposite ends of the table in the business world, and that's not really where I like to have relationships." Lesh couldn't imagine playing on a bill with Weir without sharing the stage and jamming with him. "I was having my band rehearse, so I invited Bob to come down and teach us some songs. Then we set up a stealth gig just to run through it and see what it felt like. We all had a lot of fun."
The differences haven't been resolved, but Lesh is determined to salvage the friendship and the musical camaraderie the two have known since day one of the Dead. "Let me put it this way," Lesh said. "You can love someone without agreeing with what they do. I've known and loved Bob for 36 years. I love his playing and I love him. Even though I still disagree 100 percent with what Grateful Dead is doing business-wise, that doesn't mean that Bob and I can't make music together. I know he feels the same way, because he came out and did it. I'm just delighted that we can put it on a higher level."
Waking the Dead
In keeping with the Dead's tradition of bucking the musical establishment, Lesh is showing his appreciation to his vitally supportive fans by releasing free soundboard recordings of his recent shows to download (at gdlive.com and etree.org) and share. He has revived that utopian level of existence that the band was able to ride for so long without worrying about record sales or music videos. It's a charmed phase of Lesh's career, free from any kind of outside pressure, where he's perfectly able to approach his ongoing musical legacy on his own terms while rediscovering his own body of work afresh with a corps of musicians that push him and challenge him every night they play.
"The glory of all that material is the fact that it holds up under these different interpretations," Lesh said, as enthused as anyone to hear his music liberated and reinvented by his own new band as well as scores of new groups paying homage to the ones who started it all. "This music wants to live. It wants to change; it wants to grow."
Lesh invites fans to jump on board and join the band for a leg of the tour, calling it "one of the last great American adventures, just like hoppin' freights or leavin' town with the circus." He's got his family along on this Odyssey, eager to share the unique adventure of "cool places" like Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon between gigs. "My kids get to see some of the great historic places in the United States and get a feeling for the country," he said, "so I do love that."
It's hard to imagine what it would take to make Phil happier than he is in this period of his life. When asked if he can pinpoint what he did to make things turn out so well in his career, he has no problem finding the precise moment. "I accepted the invitation from Jerry to join the band," he said, laughing again with the humility of someone who recognizes the fortunes he owes to fate. "That was the move."
Thirty-six years later he's able to give freely to his fans, and in so doing to encourage them to give freely to their communities. And perhaps most importantly, he's able to revisit the music that makes up the soundtrack to his life. He has nothing to answer to but his own conscience, his instinctive drive and the musical groove that beats in him like a pulse.
"There's no pressure at all," he joyfully confirms, relishing the karmic rewards of a lifetime spent charting and navigating a nation's long strange trip. "The only pressure is the pressure that the music demands to exist. It really wants to exist. It won't let me sleep at night unless it's happening."