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Tales From David Gans: Profiling The Musician And Grateful Dead Expert

Longtime Deadhead and L4LM contributor Sarah Bourque had the distinct honor and pleasure of sitting down with David Gans after his set at Gathering of the Vibes Festival last weekend. For those unfamiliar, Gans has not only been a part of Grateful Dead history for many years, but is also an accomplished musician, long-time writer, and co-host of the broadcast Tales From The Golden Road.

He first became involved with the band in the ’70’s while working as a music journalist for BAM, a San Francisco based magazine. He has since gone on to write for various publications, including Mix, Relix and Rolling Stone, to name a few. He has written several books, released several CD’s, and helped produce numerous albums with The Grateful Dead. Here’s what he had to say about all of his ongoing projects.

L4LM: How did your role from interviewer to producer evolve with the Grateful Dead?

David Gans: First I started out as a fan going to shows and then I got involved with them as a journalist doing interviews.  I just sort of hung out and made friends with various people in the band and the scene.  Guys in the band seemed to recognize that I had a musician’s perspective, as opposed to a fan’s perspective, so they appreciated my journalism. They encouraged me. 

It was just a series of accidents.  I wandered into KFOG in San Francisco to appear on the radio and promote my book, Playing in the Band, and wound up having so much fun producing pieces for them that they gave me a responsibility for the show [“The Grateful Dead Hour”].  Then I started hearing from other radio stations and they wanted to carry the show too. Without ever making any plan to, I started syndicating “The Grateful Dead Hour” nationally.  Then, it was my day job so I was heavily involved in that music and I had access to the vault.  The guys in the band recognized that I had some value and could help with a critical ear. 

Also, because the nature of the way that business works, if you have an idea, and it’s a good idea, they’ll let you do it.  The first thing I ever did with the Dead, formally that way, was in ’89.  I got hired by Arista Records to do a radio documentary for the album, Built to Last.  I had a creative relationship with them, then they found me useful for various things.  I’ve always considered it just an immense privilege to work on that music and to have my name listed as a producer on important documents of the Grateful Dead.

L4LM: How do you think the different writing styles of members of the Grateful Dead affected the way the music was collaborated?

Gans: Each one of them has a different musical personality and writing style.  Their thing has always been an ambitious mix of various approaches and styles.  The kind of music that each guy writes is influenced by the stuff that they listen to, and the stuff they grew up on and the stuff they were paying attention to in their creative lives.  I think the Grateful Dead had this unspoken rule that every new song was going to stretch the band in one direction or another.  After that sort of early ’70’s Americana writing binge, all the major new songs that came up after that were unique.  “Terrapin Station” had this folk ballad thing and then a beautiful composed suite after it.  “Shakedown Street” was this sort of gigantic funk groove.  Each song opened up new harmonic and rhythmic areas for the Grateful Dead’s universe to expand upon and so, I think, each guy had this unspoken imperative to expand, make it new. I think they were challenging each other all along to do that.  

L4LM: With the members of the Grateful Dead so different individually, what do you think made them so magical?

Gans: That was one of the things.  The Grateful Dead had a bunch of really different guys and their styles.  They worked hard to make the collaboration work but the great difference in their styles gave them immense stuff to sink their teeth into, such as challenges and opportunities.  Every band has that “thing” and you look at the picture of them and you invest them with personalities.  The Beatles had these carefully cultivated personalities from each guy that may, or may not, have had anything to do with who they really were as people. Fans create this narrative with musicians, particularly with the Grateful Dead, because we were so deeply involved with them and followed them so closely. 

You didn’t see The Beatles on tour.  You saw the records and all that stuff. With The Grateful Dead, you had this opportunity to have a really, really deep and really, really extended period of contact with the image of them, so each of us has this narrative that we’re acting out with the Grateful Dead in the Grateful Dead movie.  Each of us has a unique Grateful Dead movie, including them. We’re all characters in each other’s Grateful Dead movie.  

L4LM: Name five of your current favorite Grateful Dead songs because, as we both know, they are ever-changing.

Gans: Right now, I’m working on songs for a record.  I’m making an album of Grateful Dead songs.  I’ve been thinking through and rethinking my songs and how I do them.  I try to find new ways to approach them.  I just recorded “Wharf Rat” and I was really pleased with how it turned out in the studio, so that’s my favorite at the moment. One of my current favorite Grateful Dead rewrites is “Keep Your Day Job”, which I’ve been doing upbeat, but not as upbeat as the Dead or a Chuck Berry-ish kind of rock. I always loved “Terrapin Station.”  I’m also really high on “Looks Like Rain” and “Attics of My Life.”

L4LM: Let’s talk about Chicago. What was it like to commentate for Tales From the Golden Road during the Fare Thee Well shows at Soldier Field for SiriusXM?  That must have been unique.  Tell us about that experience.

Gans: It was fun. It’s not a job that I coveted. I knew there was a chance they were going to have us do it. I’m willing to do it.  It’s my job to do it but it’s not the kind of thing that I crave.  I like what I do. I guess what I’m saying is that my primary source of gratification is my own music. The other stuff is stuff that I do professionally, and I thoroughly enjoy doing it, but it’s not where I get my jollies. I didn’t take myself so seriously in the job of doing it.  They gave us the assignment to do it and the first thing I thought was, “a three hour pre-show every day? Kill me now! What the fuck are we going to do for three hours?”  

They put us in this beautiful public spot right outside the Will Call booths and there was traffic going by the whole time. We were in a tent with our broadcast playing on speakers out into the public. People were paying attention to what we were doing, we had an audience and people we love just kept walking by. We would call people and have them come over.  So we wound up having this endless parade of really, really fun stuff and then things happened.  

I watched this guy come into the museum across the street because his envelope was in the display.  It turns out, he had flown out because a friend of his saw the envelope. He didn’t have a ticket.  He drove from Jackson, Wyoming to Salt Lake City, Utah.  Slept in a Walmart parking lot.  Got on a plane the next morning and flew to Chicago without a ticket to see his envelope in the museum.  And, check this out, I’m standing there with the director of the museum and she sees the commotion and she goes over to find out what’s going on and she says, “oh my god. Frankie [Accardi-Peri] has got to meet you. She’s the woman who runs the Grateful Dead ticket sales and, it turns out, that was one of her favorite envelopes.” When the guy shows up to look at his envelope, Megan [Beckert, Field Museum Director] calls Frankie and say, “you won’t believe who I just found.” Frankie got tickets for the guy. We got to miracle that guy. Then I called and had him and the museum director come over and we interviewed them on the air. 

So it was that kind of thing, just cool stuff, that just kept happening that we threw on the air.  Then we got to go upstairs just before show time and watch from the 40 yard line on the second level.  Great sound, and we had the pay per view feed right in front of us so we saw the close ups.  We had great seats.  

Again, because I don’t take the role seriously, I just do the job. I deliver the information.  I try to be a pleasant personality and say something meaningful, or useful.  I was just surprised how much fun it all was.  Gary Lambert, my partner, is way more of a kind of cheerleader type than I am.  I’m more critical and cynical than he is.  I was in such a good mood that I didn’t feel any need to counter his pleasant stuff by being cynical or critical.  I thought one particular song hadn’t worked out well, I said so and Gary argued with me and that was that.  The music was so good.  I was really surprised at how much I liked the music so talking about it on the air was easy.  It was great fun.  

Then we bumped into John Meyer [founder of Meyer Sound]. We ran into him backstage on our way in one day and invited him to come up and talk. So between sets we interviewed him talking about the speakers and about why it sounded so good on the back row of the stadium. If you open your mind up, and you’re in a good mood, and you make yourself available, shit happens.  

L4LM: How do you find balance between your professional life, your musicianship and finding time on the personal side?

Gans: Everything balances out really nicely on its own accord, because all of the jobs that I do are music related.  When I’m on tour, I listen to music for my radio show.  When I’m on SiriusXM on Sunday, I’m usually on the road reporting from someplace with a story to tell about where I am and what I’m doing.  I meet musicians, hear music on the road and I bring records home to play.  I’m not like a spoiled rock star who needs to go get drunk and destroy a hotel room.  When I’m on the road, I’m getting things done.  I’m reading and writing.

These days, you’re on Facebook and Google docs and everything else you need, and I can produce my radio show on an airplane.  I’m able to work, when I need to work, wherever I am.  When I’m home, I get to do all those things from the comfort of home and not have to work as hard.  I spend more time on the road in the summer than I do in the winter, but I never go out for more than two weeks.  The longest I’m ever away is about 18 days because I like my life at home.  I’m not one of those guys who’s life is on the road and the home is where he hangs out between tours.  My wife just retired from teaching so we have more time to do stuff together.  I’m more interested in being at home and thinking about getting her to come on the road with me a little bit more. That would lead to having an even more integrated life when all of the stuff that I’m doing fits together. 

L4LM: I read that you’re credited with bringing Phil Lesh out of retirement, which eventually lead to the forming of his Phil and Friends ever-changing group of musicians.  

Gans: I don’t know if that’s true or not.  It certainly seems possible.  He did that concept with my band, The Broken Angels, several times at the end of ’97 and once in ’98. I guess he liked the idea because very soon after that he started putting together his own band.  If he got the idea from me then I’m proud and pleased. That’s all I know. He took the idea and turned it into something world class. It was an honor to play with him a few times. I’m an infinitely better musician now.  I was scared more in ’97 because I wasn’t as accomplished a guitar player, but I did what I was asked to do. I put together bands for him to jam with and sort of curated music that worked for the musicians that were with him, and got him some interesting situations.  Clearly he enjoyed that. I got him a pedal steel guitar player to jam with; I got him a cello player to jam with. We got Vince Welnick out there to jam with us once, and we sprang “St. Stephen” on Phil, which he seemed to enjoy. It was a little bit daunting, but I felt like I did okay.  

L4LM: From what I understand, you got away from music up until Jerry Garcia’s death. Talk about that. 

Gans: I didn’t get away from music.  I sort of took a musical detour.  I always did music related stuff.  When I was younger, all I wanted to do was play my guitar.  In 1976, I started freelance writing about music because it was a way to make money.  If you’re making fifty bucks playing in a bar two or three nights a week, you’re not making enough. I supplemented my income by writing record reviews and doing interviews, plus I got to meet people.  I got to meet Les Paul and Leo Fender and Lindsey Buckingham.  I got flown to Detroit to interview Joe Walsh

I got to be in the music business from that side, which was a great thing, but also a bad thing in a way because I had a fairly long career as a music journalist, which made it hard for me to reinvent myself as a musician on a certain level.  Now, especially in the Bay Area, people know me as a radio guy and a journalist, and it’s hard for them to picture me as a valid musician too.  I felt like I had to overcome that in certain places, but, in general, and on the whole, it’s been really great because it allowed me to synergize all these different things and learned how to be a writer.  I learned a lot more about how to be a musician.  After Jerry died, in 1998 or so, immediately after having those adventures with Phil actually, I started touring.  I decided I needed to get out of the Bay Area and establish myself on the international stage.  This festival that we are at now [Gathering of the Vibes] is very much an important part of that because it got me out of the house, onto the other coast and onto a poster of a major event, which helped me start to get gigs. I had a booking agent for a short while, a year or two, but that didn’t really work out so basically I’ve been doing it myself ever since.  It’s great to be able to do it on my own terms and control my own destiny to the extent that I do. 

L4LM: You’ve been playing Gathering of the Vibes for a number of years. How did you initially get involved?

Gans: I’ve been to all but about three or four of them.  There was a stretch in there that I didn’t do.  At first it was a much smaller event and I was more central to the visibility of it, because I had “The Grateful Dead Hour”, which was a really popular feature in the Dead head community.  Now, with the internet, and Archive.org, it’s hard to imagine that an hour radio show every week was so important to so many people.  In those days, I was liberating really important tapes from the vault to put them on the air.  I was part of their initial team to help found it because I was part of the culture.  Terrapin Tapes was a sponsor of “The Grateful Dead Hour”, and one of the producers of this festival, so I was central, and in an inner orbit, at the time with these guys.

Over time, the role of “The Grateful Dead Hour” has diminished greatly, but the history of the show in the lives of these people, is still strong enough. So the first time I was there [at Vibes], I played a set and sat in with a bunch of people. I met Strangefolk for the first time. I met moe. for the first time. I met The Zen Tricksters for the first time.  I played with all three of those bands at Deadhead Heaven. I’m in the promo film they did for the 20th anniversary. They did a photo documentary of the first one, Deadhead Heaven.  I’m in it jamming with moe. and Al [Schnier, of moe.] talks about how nervy it was of me to get up there to play a song I’ve never played before. It’s a real feather in my improvisational cap. I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of this festival.

There are huge festivals I would love to be playing at but I’m nowhere near their radar. I don’t have a prayer of getting on those festivals.  Any festival that treats me as a part of their family, I’m eternally thankful and do everything in my power to return the favor by supporting them in everything they do.  It helps that I love the way the Vibes does it.  These people really have a family feeling of how they run their business. It feels like we’re all part of the same family, rather than a promoter hiring employees to usher. It’s more like our people in all of these positions and it’s being done with our particular cultural desires.  It’s a safe place to be high.  It’s a safe place to bring your kids.  It’s a safe place to play music.  It’s a safe place to hear music.  So the fact that it’s all those things together takes into account that getting high isn’t a bad thing and wanting your kids to be safe isn’t a bad thing.  Figuring out a way to make it possible for both of those needs to be satisfied is why this is such a good place. I’m sitting here with a view of the Long Island Sound and I played my set with this incredibly sweet breeze blowing across the stage while watching boats on the Sound.  The audio was great. The stage crew were kind.  I had a good crowd to play for and I played well. There’s no better situation than a festival where they love you, and you love them, and you can do your best work.  I just got to do my best work. 

L4LM: Do you have any other projects you’re working on right now?

Gans: I have a book coming out on November 10th. I co-wrote it with Blair Jackson and it’s called, This Is All A Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of The Grateful Dead. It’s from Flatiron Books and it’s already available for pre-sale on Amazon.com.  It’s got a couple of good reviews already.

L4LM: What last bit of advice do you have to offer for young musicians today?

Gans: Figure out who you are.  Be that self to the max.  Trust your instincts. Be kind to people. Don’t expect people to be kind to you, but be kind to people anyway.  Do your best work as often as you can. Stay true to it. It’s hard but it’s worth it. 

For more information on David Gans, please visit his website. You can also catch him on Sunday afternoon on SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead channel during his show, Tales from the Golden Road.