"Might As Well" Interview

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Message-Id: <p04330109b61df4263f8d@[]>
Date: Thu, 26 Oct 2000 10:47:02 -0400
From: Steve Silberman <[email protected]>
Subject: "Might As Well" Interview

"Might As Well:
The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead" (GDCD 4070)
An Interview with David Gans
by Steve Silberman

NOTE:  This interview is freeware, a non-commercial gift to the 
online community.  I did it because I think the Persuasions just made 
an amazing record, and I figured I'd use the occasion of posting my 
rave review to the Net to ask David some questions about the making 
of the album.  Feel free to post or forward anywhere without 
	-- Steve Silberman ([email protected])

INTRODUCTION:  Some records take two or three listens before you 
realize you're hearing a classic album for the first time.  This 
isn't one of them.  "Might As Well" is the kind of record that seems 
familiar and deeply right the first time you hear it.

	For years, I'd been seeing the world that Dead lyricist 
Robert Hunter sketched out through the Dead's eyes.  Other people who 
covered their music had a way of sounding like tourists in that 
world, dressing up in the native garb for a tune before catching the 
next plane out.  This record is different.  The Persuasions sing like 
they live in that world -- they are *of* that place that all those 
songs on "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty" and "Europe '72" 
are about.

	It's no wonder.  The Persuasions sing the kind of music that 
Jerry Garcia had in his heart and ears as he wrote the music for 
these tunes, listening to gospel groups like the Swan Silvertones and 
the Golden Gate Singers.  We're talking about black music;  you might 
even say church music.  Garcia loved that music.  Just listen to the 
Jerry Garcia Band -- music that wouldn't have been out of place 
played before a storefront congregation.  Part of the reason why the 
Dead's music had such muscle was because it was nourished by rivers 
of great black music, from gospel,to jazz, to R & B and the blues. 
That element is missing from the music of some of the Dead's jam-band 
successors, who seem to have skipped their classes at the University 
of Black Music beyond Funk 101.

	The Dead are remembered as the prototypical jam band, but 
what everyone forgets is that Deadheads also came for the songs. The 
Dead's ballads, especially, had the durability of well-worn hymns. 
They made some unspeakable burden lighter.  They whispered that it 
all mattered somehow.  No one will ever be better than Garcia playing 
his songs on guitar, but in the Persuasions, the world that Hunter 
created has found its ideal human chorus.

	The Persuasions find corners in the music the Dead never 
turned up.  Listen to Jimmy Hayes plumb the depths beneath "Ship of 
Fools," or "Liberty," which is transformed from the declaration of 
independence of one witty rebel into a don't-tread-on-me anthem from 
the streets. The celebrations on this record go beyond the Jehovah's 
favorite choir finding Fennario on the streetcorners of Brooklyn. 
Gans and Rense pushed the Persuasions' formula to include weird human 
kazoos blurting perfect solos on "Might As Well" -- shades of the 
original mix of "Aoxomoxoa"!  And dig Eric Thompson's mandolin on 
"Lazy River Road."  It strikes me that Garcia would probably have 
liked this record a whole lot better than a lot of the wanking done 
in his name.  It's humble and focused -- the vocals are more robust 
than the Dead's, but with their own edge.

	Like Harry Smith's Folkways "Anthology of American Folk 
Music," this is music from a completely invented place, outside of 
time.  It sounds like it fell out of some opening between the past 
and the future;  as dependable as the former, but as unpredictable 
and lively as the latter.  I can imagine those voices coming out of 
the grille of an old radio;  heard on a sunny street in Denver, 1945; 
pouring out of your mother's convertible when she was younger than 
you;  and especially, right now -- when we Deadheads still miss the 
Old Man so much, not realizing that the sharp pain of absence could 
go on so long.

	In a month of incredible releases of Dead-related music, this 
is the one you'll be giving to your parents, your family, that friend 
who understands. Like "American Beauty" and "Old and In the Way," 
it's suitable for non-Deadheads;  it will be used to "explain" the 
Dead to relatives who will say variations of, "I never knew their 
music was so *nice*."  But it will also function as a secret weapon, 
seeking out potential Deadheads in the general population.  Those who 
are destined to find their hearts in the Dead's music will be 
delivered right into the heart of it.  And those who aren't will 
still be allowed to visit a place as old as the dream of a Promised 
Land, where members of a black and white congregation sing their 
sacred and earthly songs together.

SILBERMAN:  David, what was the moment that you first heard about this project?

GANS:  It was the work of Rip Rense, a journalist I've known for 
about 15 years.  Rip is a Deadhead -- I remember being really tickled 
by a piece he wrote for an LA paper about a Dead show in Las Vegas in 
the early '80s.  I bought freelance pieces from him when I was a 
magazine editor, and we stayed in touch over the years.

Rip started working with The Persuasions a few years ago, and he got 
them a couple of record deals: "Frankly A Cappella," a collection of 
Zappa stuff, and "On the Good Ship Lollipop," a wonderful collection 
of songs for kids.  He was interested in having the Persuasions do a 
record of Dead songs, and he wanted my help.

At that time, I was collecting material for "Stolen Roses: Songs of 
the Grateful Dead" (released August 8 on Grateful Dead/Arista 
Records).  This was means to be a compilation of material the artists 
had chosen on their own -- as opposed to a "tribute" album of works 
commissioned by a producer -- but I invited the Persuasions to submit 
a track on spec.  Rip helped the band pick out a song, and (I 
believe) paid to have "Black Muddy River" recorded.  I was knocked 
out by their performance, and so I included the track on the CD. 
Robert Hunter also expressed a very positive opinion of the 
Persuasions' rendition of "Black Muddy River."

"Stolen Roses" was put on hold for a while in 1999, while I worked on 
the GD boxed set "So many Roads (1965-1995)" with you and Blair 
Jackson.  That project turned out to be a huge hit, which gave me the 
confidence to present Rip's proposal of a Persuasions-do-Dead CD to 
Grateful Dead Records.  Hunter's praise for the track helped, too. 
To my great delight, the record company said yes.

SILBERMAN:  What songs were at the top of your list when you thought 
about the Persuasions singing them?

GANS:  Rip and I decided to ask Hunter for a list of songs.  He suggested:

"Brokedown Palace"
"Cats Under the Stars"
"Franklin's Tower"
"He's Gone"
"Midnight Getaway"
"Ship of Fools"
"Stella Blue"
"So Many Roads"
"Lazy River Road"

Rip and I each wrote up a list, too.  The three lists were 
surprisingly congruent, and so Rip put together cassettes of 30 or so 
more-or-less unanimous selections, and Jerry Lawson chose the 
material from the tapes.

SILBERMAN:  You elected to add other players and other instruments to 
the Persuasions' standard a capella format, including your own guitar 
on "One More Saturday Night."  How were those decisions made?

GANS:  The decisions about what instruments to use on the which songs 
were made collectively by Jerry Lawson, Rip Rense and myself.  I 
selected the musicians -- and that is the one aspect of my 
participation in this project that I am proudest of: my choices were 
right on the money.

Lawson had some ideas about instruments, including a full band with 
drums and electric bass -- which Rip and I both opposed 100%.  I know 
a couple of "vocal percussionists" -- Joe Craven of the David Grisman 
Quintet and Andrew Chaikin, formerly of the House Jacks -- and 
although the Pers were skeptical about this idea based on past 
experience, they were happy with what these two guys came up with.

I have been a fan and supporter of Mary Schmary, a San Francisco a 
cappella quartet, for ten years.  They're big fans of the 
Persuasions, and I knew the two groups would make great music 
together.  We put in a huge day with the Schmaries, just playing 
stuff for them and then standing back while they found their own 
sweet way into the music.

I knew I wanted to get [Schmary member] Alyn Kelley's "trumpet" into 
this thing somewhere, but I didn't know where until we were working 
out the Schmarriage on the title track.  I just turned to Alyn and 
said, just for fun, "Give us some trumpet."  She did, and everyone 
loved it. While we were listening back to it, the rest of the 
Schmaries and a couple of Persuasions started making trombone sounds, 
so we recorded some of that.  And everyone loved all of this so much 
that we broke out in spontaneous applause every time we played it 
back -- so I recorded some of that, too, and it stayed in all the way 
through the final mix.  Magic!

When we started working on "It Must Have Been the Roses," Lawson kept 
miming a steel guitar.  I knew EXACTLY what instrument to use there: 
Pete Grant's Zephyr ten-string Dobro.  I knew of this instrument only 
because I visited Pete's house with my friend Jim Page on our way to 
a gig earlier this year, and when we sat down to do some pickin', 
Pete charmed me to pieces with it.  Electric pedal steel wouldn't 
have been appropriate, and a traditional Dobro sounded a little too 
harsh for the context (Pete brought in one of those, too).  The 
Zephyr is strung like a pedal steel, with the same close intervals 
between the strings, so it gives rich, full chords with a very sweet 

We had invited the surviving Dead members to join us.  Bob Weir and 
Mickey Hart were both willing, but schedules couldn't be coordinated. 
Vince Welnick was both available and interested, and as I knew he 
would, he put both a great spirit and a huge amount of musical 
knowledge into his participation.  We worked out the arrangement of 
"One More Saturday Night" in the studio, in a circle around Vince at 
the piano -- the five Persuasions, Andrew Chaikin splooshing and 
chunking his magical sounds, me in there signaling vocal ups and 
downs.  We used Take 1 of that song, by the way.  "Bertha" came about 
through a similar process.  And "Ship of Fools" just arranged itself: 
Vince playing that lonesome cocktail piano ("Closing Time at the 
Psychedelic Cafe," I call it) and Jimmy delivering the performance of 
a lifetime.

The Persuasions and the Schmaries laid a bunch of background vocals 
down, just for the pleasure of stacking the voices a mile high, but 
everyone knew we were going to carve almost all of it away.

I invited Peter Rowan with an ear to his mandola, but he never took 
it out of its case.  Once the Pers heard that voice of his, we knew 
what "Sugaree" needed.

Eric Thompson was my second choice for mandolin, I must admit.  David 
Grisman was the first call, because of his greatness but also because 
of his association with Jerry Garcia, but we couldn't get our time 
frames to match up.  Eric, too, had history with Garcia -- they 
played in bluegrass bands and jug bands in the early '60s.  Eric 
worked out a lovely solo for "Lazy River Road," and laid down a 
perfect minimal rhythm part on the end of "Ripple."

My acoustic guitar part on "Sugaree" was originally intended as a 
guide track only.  That is, I played it as a reference for the 
singers only.  We decided later to actually put it into the finished 
track.  I made the part up on the fly, just trying to follow the new 
groove the Pers had created for the song.  Sugaree is in 12/8 time, I 
think -- some multiple of three, anyway -- but the Persuasions turned 
it into a 4/4 thing and simplified the chord structure quite a bit.

The electric guitar on "One More Saturday Night" was a last-minute 
overdub.  We were mixing in August, and as Lawson left the studio to 
fly back east for some Persuasions gigs, he told me to put an 
electric guitar part on while he was gone.  I was surprised, and a 
bit nervous, too.  But I trusted Lawson's instincts, and I came up 
with a part that didn't adhere too closely to the Dead's version.  I 
slipped a quote from another favorite Dead song into my solo.

SILBERMAN:  In my introduction to this interview, I talk a lot about 
the thrill of hearing this music sung by black singers, how natural 
that feels.  Critics don't seem to talk much about the black 
influences on the band's music, which were significant, considering 
Jerry's love for gospel music, Pigpen's upbringing as the son of a 
famous rhythm-and-blues DJ, and Billy Kreutzmann's passion for the 
jazz polyrhythms of Elvin Jones. [The Dead's late archivist] Dick 
Latvala told me that he first got hit with the soul-transforming 
potential of music by seeing gospel groups perform at the Kaiser 
Auditorium -- people in the audience would start speaking in tongues 
or faint, and get carried out by white-gloved ushers, who would fan 
them back to consciousness.  Did you ever talk with Garcia about his 
interest in black vocal groups like the Golden Gate Singers? 

GANS:  No, but it was clear from his choice of songs to cover with 
the JGB, and in the utter catholicity of his discourse about music in 
every interview and backstage conversation I ever heard, that Jerry 
understood that spirit, inspiration, brilliance and power could be 
found in just about any corner of the world.

SILBERMAN:  Were there any songs that you tried to nail down for this 
record that you just couldn't get right?

GANS:  We started "Stella Blue" twice and did not manage to get it 
anywhere near completion.  I'm not sure why.

SILBERMAN:  That would have been great.  Can you recall any moments 
when the Persuasions seemed to *get* what Dead music is all about?

GANS:  I don't think there was any single epiphany.  I suspect that 
each band member made his own connection with the songs, and with the 
spirit of the Grateful Dead, in his own time while studying the 
tapes.  By the time I hooked up with them, they had been rehearsing 
for several weeks.

In the studio, we would talk about the lyrics -- sometimes with a lot 
of laughter.  For example, there was a great moment when we discussed 
the literal interpretation of "One More Saturday Night": "Let's see 
here... 'I went *down* to the mountain, I was drinkin' some wine, I 
looked *up* into Heaven, Lord, I saw a mighty sign' -- where exactly 
*is* he?"  They decided: purgatory!

Somewhat more seriously, Jerry Lawson surprised and delighted me when 
he suggested that "It Must Have Been the Roses" was about a suicide. 
In more than 25 years of carrying that song in my mind, that 
possibility never once occurred to me -- but once he said it, I could 
imagine it being so.  That deepened my appreciation of the song.

They kicked around the bridge of "Lazy River Road" -- "Moonlight 
wails as hound dogs bay" -- quizzically, until they realized that it 
wasn't necessary to "understand" the words in that literal way.  What 
it evokes, what it suggests, is as important as what it denotes. 
That was one important aspect of "getting it" about what Dead music 
is all about.

SILBERMAN:   As host of the Grateful Dead Hour 
(http://www.gdhour.com), you've been marinating in this music for so 
long -- what new perspectives did you gain on the Dead's music in the 
course of these sessions?

GANS:  Well, I will confess that while Jerry and Jimmy were laying 
down the bass and lead vocals on "Ripple" -- a stunning moment 
enshrined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, who 
attended all the sessions 
-- I whispered to Jon, "This version makes the Dead sound like a 
bunch of speed freaks."  I am a big fan of Garcia's soulful singing, 
but there was something else happening when the Persuasions got hold 
of some of this stuff.

I was also really impressed with the pure sexiness of Sweet Joe 
Russell's take on "Loose Lucy."  "Lazy River Road," already evocative 
of the Stephen Foster vibe that suffuses much of Hunter's oeuvre, 
really takes wing on this disc. The harmonies take me back to my 
childhood, getting up early on Sunday mornings in search of cartoons 
on TV and finding gospel choirs.

We've always known the Dead drew on these many threads of music in 
their compositions, but the connection is much more clearly audible 
to the naked ear when you hear the Persuasions sing these songs.

SILBERMAN:  Who decided on the sequence of songs?  There's a great 
flow to this record, from the little "Here Comes Sunshine" opener, 
followed by some engaging uptempo stuff, into heavier ballad places, 
then rave-ups toward the finish, with a lovely "Black Muddy River" 

GANS:  I created the sequence, and Lawson made one change (swapping 
"He's Gone" and "It Must Have Been the Roses").  I had expected that 
process to be much more of a challenge, but the sequence suggested 
itself quite readily and Jerry and Rip agreed.

SILBERMAN:  How is the feedback on the record?  Have you been 
surprised by any of the reactions to the album thus far?

GANS:  Not surprised -- just thrilled.  The ol' Deadhead grapevine 
seems to have lost its sense of global networkitude over the last few 
years, and I wondered if the word would get out about this CD.  I was 
delighted to see so many familiar faces at the CD release party in 
San Francisco, and I've been gratified by the comments I've received 
in email and read on DeadNet Central and the WELL.

The non-Deadhead world is getting interested, too.  The Kitchen 
Sisters spent a day with us at the end of the recording sessions and 
produced a wonderful 12-minute piece for their "Lost and Found Sound" 
series (http://www.lostandfoundsound.com), which aired October 20 on 
NPR's "All Things Considered." That broadcast got us a lot of very 
enthusiastic feedback from the general public, and I've gotten quite 
a bit of email from people who don't much care for the Dead but 
really like this version of the Dead's music.  That is especially 
gratifying to me because I have always thought the Dead's songwriting 
was world-class even if their performing and recording skills weren't 
exactly mainstream.

SILBERMAN:  How does "Might As Well" represent one example of a 
hopeful future for the Dead's music?

GANS:  These are great songs that have always deserved a place in 
history. If the Dead's own performances were too homely for the 
sensibilities of a large proportion of the populace  (and I think we 
have to grant that they were), then it's a great thing that other 
performers tackle this body of work.  "Wake the Dead" is another very 
satisfying take on the music, intertwining Dead songs with 
traditional Celtic tunes.

I think it's also great to hear musicians adopt a Dead song or two 
into their repertoires without devoting an entire CD (or career) to 
it.  That was my mission in putting together "Stolen Roses: Songs of 
the Grateful Dead": rather than recruit musicians to play the songs I 
chose for them (although I did that in the case of "Dark Star" by the 
David Grisman Quintet), I wanted to collect the Dead covers that 
artists had come to in their own time.  I would like to see more of 
that.  Dead songs deserve a place in the Big Book of American Music 
right alongside Robbie Robertson's, Lowell George's, and Brian 

SILBERMAN:  To stray from our primary subject for a moment, I've been 
blown away by Bob Weir and Ratdog's new album "Evening Moods." 
Frankly, it's a lot better than I expected:  the songs are very very 
strong (several of them would have become Dead classics, I feel), 
Bob's guitar has emerged from the gimmicky sounds that it was buried 
in since the early '90s to be soulful and kick-ass again, and the 
live feel of the album -- like the jam between "Two Djinn" and 
"Corrina" -- is very pleasing.  The lyrics, too, befit Weir's age and 
station, reflecting on some of the darker questions that one becomes 
conscious of at mid-life.  A younger musician wouldn't have been able 
to get this profound on certain essential matters, such as when he 
sings about drinking from "the cup that is always dry." Any thoughts 
on "Evening Moods?"

GANS:  I agree with you 100% and then some!  I wasn't expecting to 
love this CD as much as I do, but I found myself listening to it over 
and over in my rent-a-car on several long-distance drives recently. 
And I put it on at home even after I finished my interview with Bobby 
for the GD Hour :^)

Bob's guitar sound has indeed arisen from the grungy murk of the 
latter-day Dead.  His singing is as good as it's ever been.  And he 
has taken songs written with a number of lyricists and created a body 
of work that hangs together very well indeed; that says something 
important about his maturity as a songwriter.

SILBERMAN:  What would you tell someone whose first taste of Dead 
music was "Might As Well?"

GANS: If you like this, go get "Workingman's Dead," "Blues for 
Allah," and "Live Dead."  When you've bonded with those three CDs, 
there's plenty more where they came from!  And check out "On the Good 
Ship Lollipop," too -- that's the delightful collection of children's 
songs that the Persuasions put out last year.

SILBERMAN:  What elements of the Dead's legacy are consistently overlooked?

GANS:  The single element I listen for is the hardest one to deliver: 
genuine collective composition.  We aren't getting any of that in the 
Persuasions' CD, of course, but it wasn't part of the deal; this is 
abut the songs.

When I play Grateful Dead music, I want to do what the Dead did: take 
off from a known realm into the uncharted ether, where sensitive 
musicians listen to each other and build structures in thin air.  At 
their peak -- I'd offer 1973 and much of 1974 as the place to look 
for awesome examples of this (the "Soundcheck Jam" from Watkins Glen 
on "So Many Roads" leaps to mind) -- the Dead could go for upwards of 
half an hour between "songs" without a heartbeat's worth of wankage.

The best of the "cover bands" take the stage without a set list, 
because it is contrary to the spirit of the music to plan anything 
beyond your point of departure.

This was my problem with Dark Star Orchestra when I saw them or the 
first time, and I still don't think theirs is the most appropriate 
approach.  But last summer I found myself dancing in the dirt in 
front of their stage, very much enjoying the authentic vibe they were 
putting out.  And I was surrounded by a few hundred more ecstatic 
dancers, so how can it be wrong?  They do plenty of improvising 
within the known song list, so I had to withdraw my objection.

I had a conversation with someone the other day in which I was trying 
to sum up the special magic of the Dead.  What makes this music work 
so well for people of a certain mindset -- and psychedelics may be an 
important part of its formation, although not essential to the 
practice -- is that combination of great songs and extended jamming. 
What we got in a Grateful Dead concert that is damn hard to find 
anywhere else in the post-Dead world is some deeply challenging idea 
-- a story, a moral question, an evocative poetic notion -- followed 
by a jam that serves as perfect accompaniment for rumination.

I have often written that I get some of my best thinking done at Dead 
shows, solve problems, cry wholesome tears, etc.  It's because the 
songs tend to give you great food for thought -- and not just in the 
lyrics, either.  I remember certain times hearing Bobby's keening in 
the jam out of "Estimated Prophet," wondering what lives inside him 
that inspires the desperation he's portraying.  The Dead would set us 
up with something in their world that illuminates something in our 
own private universe, and then we'd think along with the music while 
they worked at building those cathedrals in the sky. I have yet to 
hear another jam band whose songs provide that same sort of charge, 
let alone an ensemble whose improvisations provide a comparably 
stimulating soundtrack for cogitation.

What does this have to do with the Persuasions?  Not much, I guess, 
but the depth of their interpretations of these songs feeds back into 
my appreciation of GD music on tape, and that's one way to keep the 
music alive and fresh.

SILBERMAN:  Thank you, David.

David Gans ([email protected]) is a musician, the author of "Playing 
in the Band" and numerous other books on the Dead, and Steve 
Silberman ([email protected]) co-authored "Skeleton Key: A Dictionary 
for Deadheads" in 1994. With Blair Jackson, they co-produced the 
Dead's box set, "So Many Roads (1965-1995)."


steve silberman
contributing editor
Wired magazine