Washington, DC — As someone who has known for some time that conservative pundit Tucker Carlson has been a longtime fan of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, it was great to see his interview with Dead bassist Phil Lesh on his recent PBS show.
It was also interesting to find out that Tucker saw over 50 shows — just shy of Ann Coulter’s tally of about 70 shows, she said, while at the University of Michigan back in the 80′s.
As a proud Republican Grateful Dead enthusiast with 187 shows under my belt from 1977-1995, herewith in celebration of the band’s status as classic Americana, a transcript of the Tucker Carlson-Phil Lesh interview courtesy of the Tucker Carlson Unfiltered website:
Carlson: For four decades Phil Lesh has been playing music with Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann. For thirty of those years they were joined by Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead. It was one of the most innovative acts in American music. Evolving from Bay area acid rock to bluegrass and almost everything in between. As its bassist, Lesh may have been the band’s most musically adventurous member. I saw Phil Lesh play with the Dead more than 50 times, and when he came to Washington to talk about his memoir, Searching for the Sound, I interviewed him, unapologetically, as a fan.
For our viewers who aren’t as familiar with the Grateful Dead, one of the things that comes out in your really nicely written excellent book —
Lesh: Thank you.
Carlson: Is how much you all toured.
Carlson: Give me an overview sense of the last 40 years.
Lesh: Well, we started out playing for dancers in the ballrooms of San Francisco in the late 1960′s. And that’s really what we’ve always thought of ourselves as, as a — essentially a dance band, a lot like the swing bands of the 1930′s and 1940′s. We always wanted to — we just wanted to play for more people. Because the way we thought of our music was as kind of a communion ritual, sort of we commune with each other and form what we thought of as a group mind. And that brings the music out and then we can transmit that to the audience and they send us energy back. And so that was the main reason we played music was to get that communion going and that sense of community.
Carlson: How would you describe Grateful Dead music? It seems to go all the way from acid rock to almost country. What is it?
Lesh: Well, it’s something that has — it’s a kind of music that has a wide range of influences in it. And so from the beginning, we wanted to try and blend and fuse, really, all of those influences. And so we consciously tried to look at the music as being texturally greater than the sum of the parts.
Hoest You’re early music was influenced by L.S.D. You have this amazing description of being at a show and somebody puts a bunch of acid in your orange juice and you get on stage. And you’re not sure what this device is in your hands.
It’s a bass, as it turns out, which you played.
Carlson: Did L.S.D. make the music better?
Lesh: It didn’t do that much to the music — it didn’t make anybody play better or worse. What it did was, fuse our minds together in a kind of telepathic manner that allowed us to — see the best part about making our kind of music is when the music is pretty much playing us and there’s no one there at all moving the fingers. That is to say we all subassume our identity in a sense in a greater whole. We call that — the group mind. That’s the tool that we use to open the valve to that pipeline which funnels that greater music down through us. Stravinski once said I am the vessel through which the music passes. In the case of the Grateful Dead, that’s also the case.
Carlson: The Grateful Dead, at least from the outside it appeared to be a libertarian spirit, a reluctance to tell other people what to do. It struck me as a kind of nonpolitical band at least from the outside. Other bands always lecturing you from the stage. No one from the Grateful Dead, the shows I went to, anyway, was lecturing you who to vote for. You’ve got this amazing line in the book, I want to read it to you, a show you played in 1966 in the panhandle of San Francisco, you said there was a Buddhist chant led by Alan Ginsburg. After that, poets read, bands played. We even had some leftist politicos ranting the only bring-down of the day.
Lesh: I’m referring to the human being there.
Carlson: Yeah. When all these bands became political, all the bands in your world, why did you all choose not to?
Lesh: Because we felt that what we were doing was more — I hate to use that word because it’s almost a cliche — religious. What we were doing was religious in the sense of the word, which means to bind together. We were trying to create a community of spirit with the music and the political harang and — again, it was just like a cop trying to tell people what to do, legislate morality or legislate private behavior. It was just anathema to us.
Carlson: But you have these wide-eyed fans who love you. Isn’t it tempting to send a message?
Lesh: The metaphor of the band cooperating and collaborating and being one organism, that’s the message.
Carlson: If it’s a religious movement, you have all these religous followers, what did you think of the Dead Heads?
Lesh: God bless their little pea-picking hearts, as my mother used to say. I’m going around now and doing book signings. In the past I’ve done blood drives. It is just the most wonderful experience to meet these Dead Heads face to face, just like you and I right here and shake a hand and get a smile and all everybody wants to do is say thank you. Thank you for changing my life.
Carlson: So you never thought that there were people taking it too seriously, devoting their lives to going on tour, for instance?
Lesh: Well, there was — yeah, people were doing that and I saw that, and I think we all did as the last great American adventure. You can’t hitchhike or run away with the circus or ride the rails anymore. Going on tour with the band, any band, really, is an adventure. There’s a little uncertainty, a little danger. Generally it’s a safe environment and you can extend yourself. You can explore other realities and still come back and tell the tale the next day.
Carlson: I was amazed to read that for all the touring you guys did, 30 years, almost full time, a lot of the time it seems like.
Carlson: You weren’t making a huge amount of money. Why?
Lesh: We started out — it’s strange. Up to a certain point before we had our big record in 1987, we weren’t really making that much money. We were supporting ourselves and we put everything into the general kitty. And the band and everyone else drew salaries. And pretty much, you know, cost of living salaries. They’d go up from time to time. And the idea was to put everything back into equipment and, you know, to increase — to enhance, rather, the experience and the technology of presenting the music.
Carlson: Why couldn’t you ever capture your sound in the studio?
Lesh: We — you know, I don’t think any of us ever believed it could be done. Because there’s just so much — there was just so much range to it. Not necessarily only dynamic range or — but there’s just so much emotional range to it and we just — we found ourselves in the studio always trying to tone it down, which really isn’t what we do. We’re not about turning it down. We’re about opening it up.
Carlson: I was impressed and amazed that you let people tape your shows with high-tech equipment. You’re best known for live touring. Your albums don’t sell as well as your concerts. You’re giving away the product. How does that work, and why was that a good business decision?
Lesh: It was a good business decision because we didn’t think of it as a business decision. It was that libertarian spirit, I think, that prompted it. It just started happening rather spontaneously. We started noticing microphone stands in the audience. We thought, OK, they’re taping the shows. It was first cassettes and digital audience tape and mini disk, and now it’s hard drive, I guess. But management came to us and said, well, we can’t let them do that and Jerry just stood right up and said, listen, after we’ve played it, we’re done with it. They can have it. Let them do whatever they want with it. We did ask them not to sell it, you know, just trade it. Give it away. That’s what happened. People would copy their tapes and give the copy to a friend or to a sibling or to a parent, even. And it was the smartest thing we ever did. It just —
Carlson: Really? Because I never —
Lesh: It disseminated the music.
Carlson: Yeah, but I never bought your albums when I was little. I just got tapes for free.
Lesh: We didn’t care. We only made the albums because it was maybe what we were supposed to do. You know, you make records. It brought in a little money, you know. It was interesting to play in the studio and see what could be done with it. But that wasn’t why — that wasn’t why we were playing music, to make records.
Carlson: You have this description in the book of Jerry Garcia in his later years staying home and building model trains and teaching his cat to fetch.
Lesh: I saw it with my own eyes.
Carlson: Were you surprised when he died? When Jerry Garcia died?
Lesh: I wasn’t surprised. I was shocked and saddened and, in fact, devastated, but I wasn’t surprised. Really, we’d all been waiting for this a long time. He’d been really sick in 1986, again in 1992. And he couldn’t seem to shake the habit. But to his eternal credit, he was really trying to turn it around when he died. He’d gone to Betty Ford. That hadn’t worked out for him. But right after that he came back and he checked himself in to another facility. Which — for rehab. And he clearly hoped that that was going to help. So — but it was — it was really hard to make the decision to tour at all, for me, because after Jerry’s death I didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t think I wanted to play music with anybody but him. He was the reason I joined the band in the first place.
Carlson: Phil Lesh. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Lesh: Thank you.
Carlson: Searching for the Sound.
Lesh: Thank you. Good to be here.