As host and producer of the nationally syndicated "Grateful Dead Hour,"
David Gans is heard by thousands of music fans each week.
In addition, Gans has carved out a burgeoning musical career as a
singer and songwriter.
Gans has a well established tenure as a journalist, and has
authored several books about the Grateful Dead, including
1985's Playing In The Band and 1991's Conversations With The Dead.
He served as a co-producer of the Dead boxed set release So Many Roads (1965-1995).
He also hosts a weekly program, "Dead To The World," on radio
station KPFA in Berkeley, California. The amorphous format
of the program allows him to expand past the music of the Grateful Dead.
Digital Interviews: When did you first start playing music?
David Gans: My parents shoved a violin into my hands when I was a little kid, which
didn't last too long. About fourth or fifth grade, I started
playing the clarinet in school orchestras and stuff. Then when the Beatles
came along, I got interested in pop music, and actually made an aborted
attempt to play clarinet with my friends in their rock and roll band,
which they didn't want. It didn't work out too well. When I was about 15,
I started playing my brother's guitar, which was a much more satisfying
thing. My brother had taken a couple of my teenage poems,
set them to music, and taught me the chords.
So I really was a songwriter from day one. That was 1969. I got the
Beatles White Album songbook and the Crosby, Stills and Nash songbook,
and learned all the songs. I was off and running.
DI: What other kind of music were you into at the time?
DG: The mellow, singer-songwriter stuff. Elton John, Cat Stevens,
John Prine, Jackson Browne, stuff like that. I wasn't much a fan of the blues
and the heavier rock and roll. I had no interest at all in Led Zeppelin and
stuff like that. I came to Grateful Dead music through the songwriting
DI: When did you first see the Dead?
DG: March 1972. The first thing that grabbed me
about Grateful Dead music was the songs. Over the next few years I went
to a lot of shows, and started to get a handle on what
was going on instrumentally.
DI: How did you begin your writing career?
DG: In 1976 some friends of mine started a music magazine, which lasted about
three issues and then keeled over. I took my unpublished writings to a
fledgling music magazine here in the Bay Area called BAM -- Bay Area Music.
I became a regular contributor to BAM.
I always did Dead stuff. I wrote a column in BAM called "Dead Ahead," where I
would catch up on all the latest stuff. I also did a lot of cover stories.
I interviewed Joe Walsh, Leo Fender, and I did a lot of industry stuff. When
the first Portastudio came out, which was a self-contained mixer and four-track
recorder, I did a series about that. I was enriching myself as a musician and
composer by interviewing and writing about the technology and the people doing the stuff.
DI: As you were writing you were picking up little hints?
DG: Exactly, and when I interviewed Phil Lesh in 1981, one of the reasons we hit it
off was that I knew as a musician what was going on. At one point I remember -- 'cause
it thrilled me -- I was asking him about something that happened at this particular show,
and he caught himself in mid-sentence and said, "Whoa, you really have done your
homework, haven't you?" It was flattering as hell. I was able to approach Grateful Dead
music, and all sorts of other music, from the standpoint of being a musician and a
composer myself, albeit a totally unknown one.
DI: When did you become even closer with the members of the Dead?
DG: When I was writing a column for BAM, I made friends with Eileen Law, who is
basically the emissary to the Deadheads, and really, to this day, one of the
nicest, kindest people in that whole scene. I always wanted to do stuff about
the Dead, and it led to freelance assignments. I interviewed Phil for Musician
magazine. Those assignments led to friendships with the band members. I got
friendly with Bob Weir after interviewing him several times, and my interviews
with Phil led to a friendship with him. At the same time I was doing a lot of
mainstream stuff and I picked up other gigs. I went to work for two publications
in the early '80s -- Record magazine, which was a new music-oriented magazine
published by Rolling Stone, which at that time was becoming more of a lifestyle
and political magazine, and I also became the music editor of Mix, the recording
industry magazine. Those two part-time gigs paid my rent, and allowed me to
continue my path of educating myself in the ways of the industry.
DI: How did your involvement in the 1985 book Playing In The Band come about?
DG: In the fall of '82, I was given the assignment to write about the Dead for Rolling
Stone. That led to going on a very cool press junket to Jamaica. Thanksgiving weekend
of '82, I went to Jamaica with the Dead to attend and report on the Jamaica World Music
Festival, which was a very eclectic event. On that trip I met Peter Simon, a photographer,
reggae expert and "stone" Deadhead; and his editor, Bob Miller of St. Martin's Press.
They were down there to meet the Grateful Dead and work with them on a book that Peter
was doing with another journalist. I stayed in touch with those guys, and made friends
with them. In 1983, when the deal they had with their other journalist fell apart,
they invited me to take over the text responsibilities for Peter's book. I, of course,
was thrilled about that. I had collected a bunch of material. The
Rolling Stone article never happened, but I had done a bunch of really fun interviews
for that article. I had gotten Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia together for a tandem interview,
and I had gotten Phil, Jerry and [Grateful Dead assistant] Steve Parrish together for
an interview. When the idea came along for the book, I was really ready to roll.
I had material that I had not published anywhere -- dynamite stuff about what it
was to be in the Grateful Dead, what that music was all about.
DI: As host of the "Grateful Dead Hour," you've single-handedly presented a lot of music
people wouldn't otherwise hear.
DG: It's a glorious opportunity. When Playing In The Band came out in February of
1985, KFOG, a local station in San Francisco, had
started a show called "The Deadhead Hour," hosted by a disc jockey named M. Dung.
He wasn't really a Deadhead, plus he was doing the morning drive shift and doing
his own specialty show already. He had hooked up with a doctor from Berkeley,
Richard Raffel. Richard and I were feeding material to Dung for The Deadhead Hour,
and I appeared on there as an author, and produced a segment
for him called "Greatest 'Pump Song' Ever Wrote." I just loved it. It was much
more fun than writing articles. I sort of became addicted to doing the radio show,
and I think I probably "elbowed" Richard Raffel aside, because I was just so into it.
M. Dung was happy to have my contributions, because it meant less work for him, and
ultimately the station invited me to take over, and I was way into it. Starting in
1987, I started syndicating it nationally. I did well enough at building my own
network that commercial syndicators came after me. When I
got a big offer, I entered into a contract with Grateful Dead and this
broadcasting company. We did a year, from Labor Day '88 to Labor Day '89, and I was
distributed on vinyl discs which are still out there in the collector's market.
But it was not a successful property for the syndicator. They couldn't figure
out how to make money on it; listeners were somewhat offended by the presence of
zit cream and Army recruiting ads in it. At the end of that year, the
syndicator didn't want to continue on those terms.
The Grateful Dead allowed me to continue, and they allowed me to keep they money that was
left under the contract, to use it to continue operating while I developed my own network.
I started migrating toward public radio at that point, because public radio is much
more responsive to their listeners, much less enslaved to consultants and all the
bulls--t that plagues the creative process when commercials are attached to it.
DI: So you're on public stations in some markets, and commercial outlets in others?
DG: I like having a hybrid network. I want to be on the station that is most
interested in having the Grateful Dead on the air. In Chicago, that means WXRT,
a great commercial station. In Philadelphia, I got dumped by WMMR,
a great commercial station, but their new management just couldn't relate.
I went to WXPN, a great college station, and said, "You give me a four hour
fundraising marathon, and I will raise enough money to pay for the program for a
year." And they did -- and I did! The listeners of Philadelphia responded,
they pledged money to that station, and they put us on the air, where I remain to this day.
DI: Where do you get the music for the Grateful Dead Hour?
DG: From the Grateful Dead. [Vault archivist] Dick Latvala, who was one of the kindest
and most generous people I've ever known in my life, was responsible for working with me.
DI: How would you contrast the Jerry Garcia of 1972 from the Jerry Garcia of 1982?
DG: '72 is when I got on the bus, and I didn't hear tapes of those shows for years.
I still haven't heard a really good tape of my first show. My next four shows were
in Berkeley in August of '72, and it wasn't until '87 or '88 that I heard more of those
shows. I was finally able to hear what I had heard back then. I realized that they were
smoking shows! Those guys were on fire. It's no wonder my life changed -- they were f--king
great at BCT in 72! That music was right there; it dug its way into my head, and took
up residence in my DNA. Jerry was a master, and he was very much alive in those days.
In '82, Jerry was not that well. I was very tight with the band, hanging out at Club Front
in those days, and everyone was worried about Jerry. There were dozens of people
on the payroll, hundreds of people in a direct economic relationship with the Grateful
Dead organization, thousands more people with indirect financial, artistic and
spiritual relations with those guys -- and every single bit of that weighed on the shoulders
of Jerry Garcia. It was an impossible spot for anybody to be in. It was a tremendous weight
for him to carry, and on a certain level, you can't blame him for escaping.
All he had to do was show up and play his guitar and people loved it, and the uncritical
adulation that we showered upon those guys was one of the most detrimental things, because it
meant they had no incentive to improve.
DI: Yet, weren't there always high points?
DG: The Cal Expo run in '94 was frightening, but on the other hand, they played
some glorious stuff in the fall of '94. Jerry had
fallen down a bunch of times and had always gotten up again. He came
back in '87, and some wonderful music came out then -- a new bunch of
songs came out then. A whole bunch of ensemble playing that was really wonderful
happened in late '87 and '88. They had some renaissances. And there were some people
that got on the bus late who came for this beautiful scene, and maybe didn't
understand what was missing from the music like some of us older geezers did.
DI: What was August 9, 1995, the day Garcia died, like for you?
DG: I spent that day being a talking head. News crews came to my house. I
didn't get much of a chance to grieve privately about it, for a while,
because I had a community service to perform. In a way that was a relief. I
didn't have to sit around feeling bad. I was too busy articulating it
for the benefit of the community and the media. It was a privilege to
be asked to talk about it.
DI: You helped bring Phil Lesh back out on the Bay Area musical scene.
DG: Phil and his wife asked me and my wife to be part of the Unbroken Chain Foundation.
We worked with them on the planning for the PhilHarmonia event, which took place in
December of 1997. At the same time, here in Berkeley, I was working for a club
called the Ashkenaz, run by a wonderful, cranky guy named David Nadel.
David was murdered by a patron at the club. He threw the guy out because he was causing
trouble. The guy came back, David threw him out again. The guy came back another
time with a gun and shot David. This death affected me, more deeply in a way,
than Jerry's death [or] Bill Graham's death. I wasn't that close to David,
but his death was more of a shock. David Nadel was an
honest man, a committed People's Park
activist, a socially conscious human being, an
exemplar of a certain kind of attitude that I found entirely admirable.
When he died, it shocked the s--t out of me, and I found myself with a surprising
level of commitment to helping keep his club alive. I got the inspiration to do a
series of benefit concerts to pay for an improved sound system. It's the thing I
learned from Seva. Seva said, "We're going to find doable things in the world,
a health problem that we think we can tackle,
and we're going to solve it." Eye surgery in Nepal, for example. Inspired by
Seva, and by Ram Dass, and by Wavy Gravy, I went
to John and Helen Meyer of Meyer Sound. I was friendly with them, and I said, "If
I can put together a set of benefits, would you give us a discount on a speaker
system, and would you be willing to accept the monthly proceeds from these
benefits as payment?" They said, "That sounds great. Let's do it."
In August 1997, I went to Phil and said, "We're going to do this thing, and it's
going to be a DJ part of the day, and then live music part of the day. Would you
be willing to come and jam with us?" Phil said, "Yeah, that sounds okay." He came
over the day of the first Deadhead Community Center benefit. I put together an all-star
band, and Phil joined in that day. He came up onstage with us, and we played
"Scarlet Begonias" into "New Speedway Boogie" and the place went apes--t! Phil
had walked in and saw this thing happening. He saw a dance floor of people grooving
to his music, and he said to my wife, "This is amazing. I've never been to a Grateful
Dead concert before." I'm standing on the back of the dance floor with Phil, and I'm
saying, "Listen man, if you think this is cool, you multiply it by a hundred, and then
you'll get a rough idea of how happy you made us all those years."
We had booked the Maritime in San Francisco for the PhilHarmonia, and we needed an
extra day to prepare. In order to compensate Maritime for giving up a Saturday night,
a paying gig, Phil agreed to do a show at the Maritime with my band. [The Maritime]
could make some money, and we'd give some money to the Unbroken Chain Foundation.
So on November 6, 1997, it was David Gans and the Broken Angels, with special
guest Phil Lesh. I put together a three-ring circus for Phil to jam with.
Phil had a great time. We scheduled another one for December 27, 1997, at the
Maritime, and I put together another band of musicians from the Bay Area for
Phil to jam with. In the meantime, the PhilHarmonia happened. I
was asked to be the house band for the "after party" at the Hilton Hotel.
My band played a short set, and then Phil recruited Bob Weir,
Donna Jean Godchaux and Bruce Hornsby to join him, with my band. We played a wonderful
set together, "Box of Rain" and "Cassidy" and stuff like that. That was really the
high point for me. That same night, Bruce Hornsby and Bob Weir went to Phil and
said, "Cool, you're playing music, let's do something." That was what began the
process that led to the Other Ones tour of '98. We scheduled another benefit for
January 31, 1998, at the Fillmore, and for that one I brought in a few more people.
Vince Welnick joined us for that one. It was really fun.
DI: How did you decide what would appear on the So Many Roads box set?
DG: [Grateful Dead executive] Peter McQuaid called me, and [authors] Steve Silberman and
Blair Jackson, and asked us what we would do if we were given the gig. Steve and Blair
and I, working with Dick Latvala, improvised a structure, and designed a box set.
One of my working models was the DGQ20 -- the David Grisman Quintet's 20th anniversary
collection. David put together previously unreleased material -- all live -- rather than
a greatest hits package. He concentrated on the most meaningful performances from his
career. We cobbled together a loosely chronological thing that did not concentrate on
the big hits. Some of the most obvious selections are not there. We went for the most
interesting performances. We asked Dick for stuff. We said, "'Scarlet Fire',
whatta ya got?" He gave us three DATs, with 10 versions.
We said, "Which one do you like the best?"
He says, "Oh, no. These are the ones. You guys have to take it
from here." He made us do the hard part of selecting the final one. He gave us a DAT
full of "Uncle John's Band," he gave us a DAT full of this, he gave us a DAT full of "dat,"
It's been my privilege and pleasure for 15 years to put the Grateful Dead's best foot
forward musically, every week. To engage in the blissful creative process of listening
to that music that I love so much, and selecting the most interesting and illuminating
parts of it to share with the world.
DI: Right now you're playing live in a solo acoustic setting?
DG: After I worked with Phil, I realized that I was 45 years old. I had been a musician
my entire adult life, but it had taken a back seat to other work for 20 years.
I'm very proud of the work I've done with the Grateful Dead, and I'm thrilled that
my work with them is increasing now. I had been writing songs
for thirty years, and I very much wanted to "do it" before I was too old to do it.
I had a moderate amount of success in the Bay Area, so I decided to get busy.
I'd been approached by a very nice guy named John Metzger. He'd heard some tapes
of me, and he said, "How come you never play in the Midwest?" I said, "Well, I
don't know anybody in the Midwest." He said, "Let me see what I can put together."
In June 1998, I flew to Chicago and did a five-day tour. John found some
very nice places for me to play. We sold t-shirts and CDs out on the road. I was
thrilled. I had so much fun doing it, and John was very committed to this. In September
1998, I went out and did a longer tour, like a twelve-city tour, which was also
successful. Just me and my guitar. I have been having a ball. It's been really fun.
Essentially, I needed to tour solo, because every time
I had played with a band, people assumed it was a Dead cover band. I've been developing
a repertoire that takes into account all of the music that I love. I really needed
to get back to square one, and just be me and my guitar and my songs, and see what I could do.