“It began like so many of these journeys began, with a whopping dose of LSD and a trip to Winterland on March 5th, 1972″—that’s how David Gans set out on his trip down the Golden Road.
Now in his fourth decade of hosting the syndicated Grateful Dead Hour, Gans has become one of the unofficial voices of the Deadheads. Before the mass proliferation of the internet and its music-trading capabilities, it was Gans who acted as the cool older brother with a hand-picked tape for generations of Grateful Dead listeners.
Devoted fans of the Grateful Dead each have their own opinions as to which concert, year, and era are best. Books have been written, documentaries produced, and message boards filled on a whole manner of subjects related to the psychedelic rock band that emerged from San Francisco in 1965. No one person’s opinion is objectively more “correct” than the next, and whether you saw Jerry Garcia or not you’re free to voice whatever preference you may have. Every fan has an opinion, but one of the few things that separates David Gans from the average connoisseur is that he gets paid to share his.
I’ll Meet You At The Jubilee
When he was a “baby singer-songwriter” living in San Jose, CA in 1972, Gans finally gave in to the constant besieging of his songwriting partner to check out the Dead.
“I [had this] incredibly overwhelming experience that I won’t get into great detail on,” Gans told Live For Live Music over the phone, “but I remembered enough of it to go home and start listening to the records and beginning to get a handle on what I had heard and the Grateful Dead just completely exploded and expanded my understanding of what music is. It took a few months. I went back and saw them four times in Berkeley in August of ’72 and that really sort of set it in for me, what they were doing. Their songwriting was amazing. Their way of performing and their way of improvising completely revolutionized my understanding of how music works.”
Gans has built his entire professional life around music. Beginning as a musician himself in southern California, Gans became a music journalist in the mid-1970s “mostly as a way to learn and make connections and get free concert tickets and records and stuff.” He got his start at BAM Magazine in California in the mid-’70s, running a column about the Grateful Dead, who by that time had developed a scene around them that warranted regular coverage. There, he picked up assignments like reviewing The Grateful Dead Movie and interviewing Mickey Hart after his car accident in 1977 as well as Bob Weir that same year.
“I started becoming friendly with band members, becoming more involved in that scene because now as a journalist they recognized, I think, that I understood what they were doing musically a little better than most of the writers did,” Gans said.
The real break in the case, so to speak, came in the summer of 1981 when Bill Graham‘s former press secretary, Zohn Artman, persuaded Phil Lesh to do an interview with Gans for Musician magazine. The interview took place in two installments, and by the second Lesh had invited Gans to his home to listen to classical music and examine conductor scores. This led to a lasting friendship between the two.
“He also, I think, just recognized that I was somebody who could help explain the Grateful Dead in useful ways,” Gans said. “That I was a journalist who really could clarify what they were doing and make a case for it in the world.”
Music journalism led him to the Jamaica World Music Festival in November of 1982 where he had a lucky encounter with fellow Deadhead Peter Simon who was working on his photo book, Playing In The Band: An Oral And Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead. Gans wrote the text for the book and landed himself on the KFOG Deadhead Hour in San Francisco to promote the work. For that appearance, he also produced the documentary Greatest Pump Song Ever Wrote, a radio documentary examining the nearly identical qualities of “Greatest Story Ever Told” from Bob Weir’s Ace and “Pump Song” from Mickey Hart’s Rolling Thunder, both released in 1972. While there, he developed a taste for radio and soon after found himself behind the desk, hosting his first Deadhead Hour on February 18th, 1985.
“Then, other stations started calling and asking if they could carry the show,” he said. “Now you understand, I planned none of this. The book offer came to me. I didn’t pitch it. I didn’t know I was in the running for it. I went in there to promote my book and wound up having some fun and joining that team… So, somehow, 37 years later, this is still a big part of my life. And all of it happened by happenstance and doors opening in front of me that I just saw opening and I stepped through, but I did not create those opportunities. I’m an amazingly lucky man, in short.”
Along the way, Gans developed a sense of duty. The pantheon of the Grateful Dead can be an incredibly intimidating subculture for a person to break into. All of the names, dates, and places could fill college courses and symposiums (and they have). But the curious could find Gans on their radio dial on a regular basis to teach them the sacred texts.
“I realized that radio show was an opportunity for people to stumble across the Grateful Dead accidentally and get hooked on it,” he said, “so I’ve been evangelizing Grateful Dead music on the radio for 37 years. And that’s been an incredibly rewarding thing when people come up to me and tell me that I brought them into this. It’s like, that’s so cool. That was what I meant to do: turn people on to this great thing.”
Tell The Story In Your Own Voice
Throughout his career, Gans continued to develop his own unique musical voice, inspired though separate from the Grateful Dead. He has put out over a dozen albums containing original music alongside beloved covers, like on his most recent release, 2018’s Drop the Bone. Through his live performances, Gans has become an active participant in the Grateful Dead’s music rather than just a passive observer. It was through this participation that he found himself at the Dead-centric Skull & Roses Festival in Ventura, CA back in April.
In addition to performing a solo set alongside headliners like Phil Lesh & Friends, Dark Star Orchestra, Oteil & Friends, and more, Gans enjoyed an extended sit-in with Brown Eyed Women, the all-female Grateful Dead cover band that he initially helped connect from across the country thanks to a conversation on the SiriusXM Grateful Dead Channel‘s call-in show, Tales from the Golden Road.
“I was so delighted when I finally got to hear them because they’re really, really good. It’s not just a gimmick, it’s real music being played by really, really skilled musicians. And so I was really, really proud to have been instrumental in creating the band and thrilled when they invited me to sit in with them at Skull & Roses,” Gans said with pride. “And we did that thing we do. I mean, this happens to me all the time. I go around the country and step on stage with people I’ve never met before because the way Grateful Dead music works, you can do that. We all speak the language so we can jump up on stage and start playing meaningful stuff from scratch.”
Brown Eyed Women tapped into a maxim that Gans articulated as “tell the story in your own voice.” Being a Deadhead for 50 years, he has heard the band’s music played forward, backward, and upside-down nearly his entire adult life. While everyone loves a good Grateful Dead night at their local bar, what truly excites Gans in the world of Dead cover bands are those that can do something completely original with music written by someone else, “I’m partial to the ones that take it someplace new,” he said, “that do something different with it.”
He rattled off examples like he was naming his favorite Dead shows. One, Wake The Dead, touts itself as the “World’s Only Celtic All-Star Grateful Dead Jam Band.” One of Gans’ favorite records of the past 20 years is Garcia Songbook by Joe Craven and the Sometimers, in which Craven reimagines the Dead’s songbook into new styles like an Afro-groove version of “Crazy Fingers” or a Dick Dale-esque Texas surf-rock rendition of “I Know You Rider”.
David’s own Fragile Thunder crosses cultural boundaries with its interpretations of Dead music with Stephen Inglis on Hawaiin slack key guitar and Anela Lauren on Celtic harp. Back in 2018, the group got together with multi-instrumentalist Robin Sylvester (RatDog) and recorded an electric and an acoustic “Dark Star” as well as “St. Stephen” and Gans’ own “Jacquiline” and released it as One Afternoon Long Ago.
“Tell the story in your own voice,” he reiterated. “Jerry’s gift was to listen to all this amazing music from so many different places and interpret it through his magical style, right? He brought in country music and blues and jazz and old-time music and all this different stuff and interpreted it just brilliantly and made it sound like him. I think the most important thing that [the Grateful Dead] did was give equal weight to interpretation and originality in their presentation.”
Let The Words Be Yours I Am Done With Mine
In 1981, Gans spoke candidly with Jerry Garcia about the power and the ultimate legacy of the Dead’s music. Even at a time when the band’s stock was rising—and would continue to do so through the next 14 years of their career and well beyond—Garcia was acutely aware of their impermanence despite recognizing the impact of their creations.
“Blair Jackson and I were interviewing Jerry, we talked about this,” Gans recalled. “We said, ‘You know, this music is going to outlive to people who invented it.’ And Jerry said, ‘Yeah.’ And you know, he recognized that these songs are so good, and so many people love these songs.”
That legacy lives on every evening at Grateful Dead nights in bars, venues, and even ballparks across the country. Chicago, New York, Detroit, and it’s all on the same street. Gans can (and sometimes does) waltz into any Dead night across the country and fit right in with bands young and old.
“There are third- and fourth-generation Deadheads now,” he said, “and there are third- and fourth-generation Dead bands now because the songs are so great and that way of making music is so much fun to do that people are going to keep doing it forever. And I suspect if you looked at the numbers, you would find that the Grateful Dead is more popular now than it was when Jerry died.”
Gans even told me, a 25-year-old who wasn’t even born when Jerry died, “You are also an embodiment of the power and permanence of this culture.” So that’s going on the wall.
“When Jerry died, I kind of thought the radio show might wind down over a few years, but it didn’t, the music just kept being strong,” he said. “And the musicians who play that music kept making music. … So there’s no reason for any of these things to dry up because the culture keeps renewing itself and new music keeps being made.
“And I don’t have to give up Grateful Dead Hour ’cause it’s still going strong and people still want to hear all that stuff. And there’s also zillions of homegrown Grateful Dead radio shows all over the place. … That’s another thing, I have no exclusive on these things. The music wants to make itself heard in so many ways, and so many people are picking up on it and taking it forward. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”
For Gans, what keeps the legacy of the Grateful Dead going is something inherent to its DNA, something that no amount of death or time can erode.
“I think it’s the power of the music and the pleasure of the music,” Gans said. “To play this music is so much fun that people just do it. I mean, I’ve been playing Grateful Dead music for fun and profit for 50 years, and everybody who loves playing this wants to keep doing it. You don’t really need an incentive other than the fun of doing it and the fact that it’s a viable thing, you can pull an audience to do it. People play this music because they love it. The music wants to be played, and it’s self-sustaining.”
For a list of Grateful Dead Hour broadcasts, head here. David Gans broadcasts a live performance every afternoon at 7 p.m. ET on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Streamstock.tv. He also has his own website with music, autographed books, and more.