Touch of Grey: Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia Talks Gear, His Near-Fatal Illness and 'In The Dark'
Garcia and the band had several years to play much of the new material live and develop its arrangements before making the record.
Garcia pointed out that he never played “Touch of Grey” the same way twice before it was recorded. When asked if the recoded version represents his idea of the ideal guitar sounds, he answered, “It has enough contrast with the other elements in the mix so that it comes through on its own. I selected the sound based on what it does with the other things, so it sort of fits in, it has sort of a bell-like top and that fits in with the bells and metal-like top end on the track. The process of selecting the tone on the guitar is an aesthetic process like any other, so you try a lot of different things. Most of the things I’ve tried I’ve tried in live performances, so selecting this tone was not a problem; and the band has gotten very, very good. On a great night, sometimes miraculous things happen. But for a record, it’s an okay record.”
What a long, strange trip it’s been … but of course, the Dead is more a live band than anything else, so you have to see this statement in context.
As usual, Garcia played his customized guitar on In The Dark. “I have one custom guitar which I play almost exclusively,” Garcia said. “I have others—sometimes you want a little texture, kind of a different sound or something My guitar is a mutation between a classic Fender Stratocaster guitar, which I played for years, and a Gibson solid-body like an SG or a Les Paul. It contains all sounds of the basic classic rock ‘n’ roll guitars. It does what I want it to do,” he smiles.
“It’s not really me—I don’t design guitars or any of that kind of stuff, since I don’t have that kind of mind. The guy that made this guitar, Doug Irwin, is a luthier, a guitar-builder. His guitars all have great hands. My hand falls upon one of them and it says ‘play me,’ and it’s one of those things not all guitars do. Some guitars definitely don’t do it, but his guitars do that and it’s just a special thing.
"It’s not entirely a matter of balance, it’s not a matter of dimensions, of measurable stuff, it’s something indefinable, but my hand loves it. There’s almost like a physical attraction. The man’s work is museum quality, the workmanship and the detail—it’s a beautiful instrument. But even the aesthetics of it are not what make me like them, it’s just the way it feels in my hand. I don’t know what it is, he doesn’t even know what it is, but he just builds them the way he thinks I would like them, and it works perfectly.” Garcia found Irwin by the same process of serendipity that he uses to explain a lot of the fortuitous coincidences he’s experienced.
“He was working for a friend of mine, I picked up a guitar that he had built the neck for at a guitar store and said ‘Wow! Where did this come from? I gotta have this guitar.’ I bought the guitar, and that’s the first guitar I’d gotten where he built the neck and then I said, ‘Who’s the guy who made this neck?’ and the friends of mine that he was working for said, ‘This guy over here.’ I commissioned him to build me a guitar, and he did, and I played that guitar for most of the seventies. "When he delivered it to me, I said, ‘Now I want you to build me what you think would be the ultimate guitar. I don’t care when you deliver it, I don’t care how much it’s gonna cost or anything else.’ A couple of months later he told me it would cost about three grand, which at the time was a lot for a guitar, since it was the early Seventies. He delivered the guitar to me in ’78, eight years later. I’d forgotten I’d paid for it.
“Whatever the guitar says to me, I play.”
The Dead Play Dylan
Most bands who’ve survived the near-fatal illness of their lead guitarist, then gone on to make their first record in seven years would pat themselves on the back and call it a day. But not the Grateful Dead. They decided to go out on a mind-bending mini-tour of the nation’s biggest stadiums with Bob Dylan. “It’s serendipity,” said the Dead’s lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia.
“Of course, it has to do with everybody being willing and wanting to do this. "The thing of where you almost lose a guy, whatever it was that anybody might have been reluctant to do before, it’s like, ‘we may never get a chance to do something like this again, let’s go for it.’ There is a certain opening up, loosening of that kind of spirit of adventure.”
Dylan, dubbed “Spike” because “we already have one Bob in the band,” was an ethereal presence in breaks during rehearsals at “Club Dead,” the band’s funky Marin County office-studio complex. As soon as the band set up to play, though, he crackled with a kind of musical electricity, his body coiled and radiating pure energy.
Once they start playing, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan are such a natural combination that you wonder why it took them this long to get together. In fact, the Dead have been playing Dylan songs for years, and the feeling is that these sessions recall Dylan’s momentous Basement Tapes, recordings with the Band in the late Sixties. “His approach is very much like ours,” said Bob Weir.
“He’s loose and we just rattle around from song to song.” “It’s hard to describe,” said Mickey Hart. “He’s a great musician, one of the most important poets of the century. He brings this whole feeling with him, his smell, musically. We’re playing all kinds of songs. We treat it all like Grateful Dead music.” Together they cover a staggering range of material—folk, blues, rock, jug band music. Dylan’s ragged, insistent guitar strumming lays a new rhythmic foundation for the Dead, creating wonderful, surprising results on songs as varied as “Tangled Up in Blue,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Serve Somebody,” “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” and “Chimes of Freedom.”
For encores, Dylan joins the Dead on “Touch of Grey.” “A lot of the songs I know,” said Garcia, “but his versions of them now are sometimes very different from the ones I know. It’s a lot of fun. You get three or four of those serious Dylan rushes every day, that’s the fun part, and it’s authentic, it’s the real thing.” Garcia realized that there was a certain amount of rick to going out with Dylan. “Every band’s got its chemistry, got its special mojo, adding one new element to it can sometimes really screw up what’s there. Sometimes it can help, though, if you know enough about the music and you’re familiar enough with the guys that are playing.” Playing with Dylan, Garcia also tried a little steel guitar and banjo, instruments he hasn’t “really touched” for the last 10 years.
“We’re doing this voluntarily,” concluded Garcia. “We’re doing this consciously by way of an experiment. We know that it’s only gonna last so long, and maybe be an opening for future possibilities, too. There’s no simple way to characterize what’s going on here, because Bob’s got his own weight, there’s too much to him to find out about in a few weeks. He’s packing 20 years of stuff all by himself.”