Author Howard F. Weiner was in a good mood when we tracked him down at his New York abode to ask him about his seventh and newest book Deadology: The 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead History. And really, who can blame him? Since its release on April 30th, the uptick in Grateful Dead music-related activity from current Dead & Company and Phil Lesh & Friends tours has helped to spur attention and sales, and he also received an additional boost from his recent guest appearance on David Gans’ and Gary Lambert’s weekly Tales From the Golden Road radio show on SiriusXM.
Weiner’s innovative approach to Deadology allowed him to tackle one of the most sizable writing challenges in the Grateful Dead universe – writing a single book that discusses the most memorable of the 2,314 live shows the band performed over 30 years from 1965 to 1995, but also taking care to draw from all eras of the band instead of a heavy focus on the band’s widely-agreed-upon peak years of 1972 through 1977. And aside from grilling him about the book, we couldn’t resist tapping further into his expertise by throwing some of our favorite hypothetical questions at him towards the end.
Andrew Carter: Let’s start with the world’s oldest question for authors: Where did you get your inspiration for this book?
Howard F. Weiner: I wake every day and I think about Grateful Dead history, and what happened on that particular day, and I go to the internet posts, and the memories. It definitely was a natural progression that this book, Deadology, evolved from that, with the dates and the love of history.
AC: So, the Grateful Dead got its hands on you right after you’d been blown away by a legendary and intense NHL game at Nassau Coliseum?
HW: The first night that I really got into the Grateful Dead was the night that I went to see an Islander game (on January 24th, 1981), and that night (NHL Hall of Famer) Mike Bossy became the first player (since Maurice Richard, in 1945) to score 50 goals in the first 50 games of the season. And then on the ride home, my friend put on Europe ’72. And I was like, “Holy shit, man!” It was incredible. And I was like, “This is why people like the Grateful Dead.” It had never struck me like that before. So it was a memorable hockey night, but an even more memorable night (musically). It definitely changed my life that night when I first heard Europe ’72. I heard “Cumberland” and my jaw just dropped. It was so rocking, and bouncy, and (at that point) I was pretty much just a straight rock fan, so when I heard that it was like, “What kind of realm is this music coming from? Wow!” But I think the song that hit me the most was “Ramble on Rose”. I fell in love with that.
AC: Eight weeks later you saw your first show on March 9th, 1981 at Madison Square Garden.
HW: Yes. But at the time, I was too much of a novice to truly appreciate it. They did play “Ramble on Rose”, which is the song I wanted to hear. So my first show was a great one, but I kind of missed it because I didn’t have enough Grateful Dead knowledge under my feet.
AC: Was that show where your “hooked for life” moment happened?
HW: No, it happened when I was listening to a tape. I got my first bootleg after that first concert. Englishtown. 9/3/77. I was getting into the Grateful Dead, but I didn’t understand how people would say, “Jerry Garcia is the greatest guitarist” and when I got that bootleg, and I heard the “Mississippi Half Step” and the ‘Eyes of the World” on that, I was like, “I get it now.” That was the ‘Garcia is God’ moment.
AC: Now that you’d been indoctrinated, and your next big moment was traveling from New York to see the now-legendary show at the Philadelphia Spectrum on April 6th, 1982.
HW: Exactly. Listening to (this music), I couldn’t wait to be part of it, and I imagined how much adventure there was in the road trips. And that Philly show, when I woke up, there was a foot and a half of snow in my hometown. We drove through it, and we got to the Jersey turnpike, and we got down to Philly and it was still windy. It was a terrible winter day, but we got there. And if I had made a wish list of the songs I wanted to hear, it would have been “Shakedown Street”, “Terrapin Station”, “Morning Dew” and “Sugar Magnolia”. And as the show was going along, and they played (all four of) these songs, it was almost like I had some control over what was happening. And as it turned out, it was the only show in Grateful Dead history where they played all four of those songs. Needless to say, I was hooked for life.
AC: And after that you got on the bus and stayed for the six years?
HW: As much as I could afford. I wish I was a little richer, but I caught (almost) all the east coast shows, and some Midwest tours for about six years, and made it out to California one time for a couple shows. Going to Hampton became a rite of spring. When (March or) April would come, you’d be in your car, going to Hampton. It was a ritual for being (an east coast) Deadhead in the 80s and following them around. There was also loss. John Lennon had been murdered. There was the loss of the 70’s; all that great music was gone and New Wave had taken over. It looked like rock ‘n’ roll was on its way out. But people were (still) looking for music, and looking for the inspiration, and the Grateful Dead totally tapped into that generation of people – teenagers growing up in the (early) 80s.
AC: In late 1987 you cut back on touring around the time you discovered Bob Dylan and started seeing his shows regularly. Were these two things related?
HW: Yeah. I realized there was a world outside the Grateful Dead. I loved Dylan, but there was still some gap (before I started following Dylan). But it was really Jerry’s failing health. Towards the end of the Brent [Mydland] era it seemed like Jerry was sharing the load with the other band members a little more…I think it became more difficult for Jerry to dig in on long solos, and that’s when I started losing my interest a little bit. There were still great moments in ‘88, ‘89 and ‘90, but you could also see him aging much quicker than he should. It was kind of painful for me. I was very result-orientated; I loved the music so much, so to see Garcia fade away? It bothered me, to the point where I stopped touring. I didn’t want to see 90% Jerry. Even when he was having his physical troubles in the 80s (before his diabetic coma in 1986), his guitar playing was incredible. (But) I think he never really came back 100% after the coma.
AC: The Grateful Dead scene practically doubled in size around this time, after the success of the In The Dark LP. Did that also play a role in you taking a step back?
HW: It played a huge role. I don’t know the exact quote, but Garcia alluded to that too, that it was not an intimate experience any more, and that as a fan he wouldn’t have been into going to these giant stadium shows. There was definitely a loss of intimacy, because in the 80s I could see the Jerry Garcia Band in places like Kean College (in Union, NJ), with 900 people, and it was so exciting. And then to have to go to a huge stadium, and you’re in the upper deck, the music…it’s not as intimate. So that definitely played into it.
AC: How many shows did you have to listen to with professional ears to write this book?
HW: Oh, it was quite a bit. I probably touched on at least 300 shows in the book, which meant I had to analyze…you can’t just listen to the show once and write about it. Even if I thought I knew the show, I really didn’t know the show. A great example of one I discovered was Bickershaw, (May 7th, 1972, midway through the the band’s legendary Europe ’72 tour). I knew it was a great show, but when I sat down and really listened to it, it blew me away it was so good. I could have listened to that show for a month straight, but I had to develop the discipline to move on, because there was so much listening to get to. But I really picked these dates apart. If a show didn’t look great, and I sampled it, I didn’t see a need to elaborate on a show that was so-so. But any show that was worthwhile, I really dug into and really listened to over and over again.
AC: But there was often a tricky line to walk when you had to make a decision to exclude a show from a chapter?
HW: Right. And as a critic, you have to be careful about putting a show down, because what might seem average to me was the brilliant, on-the-bus moment for someone else. So sometimes you’ve gotta be careful when you’re critiquing this stuff, because you don’t want to go too hard on something, and because somehow all these Grateful Dead shows meant something to the people there, and even when they weren’t “on” there was always magic out there.
AC: Why did you ultimately go with 33 dates?
HW: It was interesting. I started with 50, and as I was doing it I realized I was looking at a book with over 500 pages, and I thought it was a little too much, so I tried to cut down to 30, so that there would be one essential date for each year. But I just couldn’t do it. There were so many essential dates I loved, and I said, “What other number could I go with?” and the only thing that made sense was 33. It’s spiritual, and it’s the weirdest number between 30 and 50. And I did throw in a couple essays (on other shows) in the back of the book, because there was so much that I wanted to talk about. The nice thing about this book is that it gave me the freedom to talk about shows from all the different eras. Because if I had picked the 50 greatest shows ever, I probably would have been in one era, from 1972 to 1977. So doing it this way, telling the history of the greatest dates, gave me the flexibility of covering the best music from ‘65 to’ 95.
AC: You delved pretty deeply into the dirty Eighties era, which often doesn’t get as much attention in books about the Grateful Dead.
HW: Yeah, I couldn’t leave that behind. I’m emotionally attached to that music. Looking at it academically and intellectually, you’d have to say the 70s, and ’69 were the Dead’s best years, but there’s something about when Garcia and the Dead were on, in the 80s. By this time they were masters of their craft, so when they were on, they had some of their best moments in the 80s. There was that great Philadelphia Spectrum (on April 8th, 1985) show where they opened with “Midnight Hour”, “Walking The Dog”, and “Big Boss Man”, one-two-three to open the show. So just when you think that the Grateful Dead were set in their ways, they come out for the last show of that tour and just knocked it out with those three songs.
AC: At time the book becomes a mix of your memoir and the Grateful Dead’s history.
HW: Doing a project like this, and as critical as I try to be and trying to take myself out of the picture, you just can’t do it (completely) because touring with the Grateful Dead was such a personal experience. You do have to leak out some of yourself into the book, and some of your experiences. But I tried to do my part to be an observer, and to be critical of the music in a good way. But the tour stories come out. There’s no way to avoid that.
AC: What were some of the dates that just mixed the cut?
HW: June 18th would have been the 34th. May 8th. That was obviously a great date because of Cornell (in 1977), but there just wasn’t enough from the other shows on that date to take it to the top. There were a couple other dates in June – June 9th, you have that great Winterland show (from 1977), and I was just looking at June 21st, the summer solstice, when they played 13 shows, and there were a lot of great ones. The book could have easily been 75 essential dates. But it just goes to show what a rich history they have, where you can write a mini-documentary on the band based on one date.
AC: If you had a time machine, what are some of the Grateful Dead shows from before your era that you would travel back to attend?
HW: Wow…(pauses)…February 28th, 1969. Just to be in the Fillmore West, in the thick of the psychedelic groove. I probably would have taken acid on that day, and I would have heard that amazing “Eleven”, and that “Dark Star”. To be in the audience, and feel the sweep of a hot “Eleven”, when they were cooking, in the 60s, man? Fuggedaboutit! That would be incredible. That would be the wish, to be there during a cooking “Eleven”. There’s something about the power of that, that’s out of control.
And then, there’s my love for ’72. Let’s go with May 7th, 1972 at Bickershaw because it’s so crazy and so incredibly hot. I love that “Dark Star”, and the “Other One”, and (thinking about) just being out there in the mud. It was amazing how they just focused on the music and were oblivious to the insanity going on around them, and the gloomy, rainy weather. They just pioneered ahead with 4 hours of trailblazing music. Yeah, there’s a video on YouTube, and it looks hectic, you know? There was a big fire burning, (and) it was just a messy, messy affair but the Grateful Dead at that point? Man, they were just oblivious. They just dug in harder and played better.
And then, I would say May 8th, 1977. Cornell. I know it gets the “overrated” label and everything, but it’s just…when I heard that second set, the first time I heard that second set it blew me away. The first truly great “Scarlet” > “Fire”, and I don’t know that it’s ever been topped. The only “St. Stephen” into “Morning Dew”. What could be more emotional than that? And It was snowing outside, it was Mother’s Day, it was the end of the (academic) year at Cornell, it must have been amazing in the building that night. But it is, possibly, their greatest second set of music. I took a trip to Barton Hall 39 years after the show, and actually went into Barton Hall and listened to the second set. That was a journey unto itself. But to be there on that night? That was pure magic.
It’s fun talking about Cornell, because before the Betty Board came out, it was already legendary pretty much for the music on its own. People say it’s overrated. But there’s nobody promoting Cornell, there’s no reason for people wanting it to be the greatest show. It earned this reputation just by word of mouth. Before the Betty Board came out there was quite a buzz about it. And also, In Deadbase, when you look at the best versions of songs (in the readers’ poll), people went nuts. They overdid it in Deadbase. They took every song from Cornell and voted it the best, and that’s where I think the ‘overrated’ label came from.
AC: Can you name a couple of shows from the era you were around that you most regret missing?
HW: I know them both; they are very easy calls. October 16th, 1989 at Meadowlands Arena. Bobby’s birthday. It went on to be the “Nightfall of Diamonds” release. They broke out the “Dark Star”, the “Attics of My Life”. It’s an incredible show, and incredibly well-played. At that time the show took place, The Rolling Stones were in town and The Who were in town, so I got caught up in seeing some of these other shows. And perhaps the one that I regret even more is the first Branford Marsalis show (at Nassau Coliseum) on March 29th, 1990. Man, I would have been blown away to see that “Eyes of the World”. Branford was amazing. Definitely the best guest to just come onstage and get into the spirit of the Dead without ever hearing them or knowing how the music goes. He jumped right on it.
AC: If the Grateful Dead started a “Howard’s Picks” release series, what would be your first picks?
HW: I would focus on the 80s, because that’s probably the most overlooked. I’d start with 3/9/81 at Madison Square Garden. That’s gotta be an official release. It’s ridiculously hot. Garcia’s guitar tone was very unique (that night), and just the energy of his playing. The opening “Feel Like a Stranger” and “Althea” are definitely top-5-of-all time versions, and it’s as good a “Ramble on Rose” as you’re ever going to hear, and the great “China Cat” > “Rider”, and the “Estimated” > “Uncle John’s”. It’s one of the great post-’74 “China Cats”. So, that would be one of them.
Grateful Dead – Madison Square Garden – 3/19/81 – Full Audio
[Taped by Barry Glassberg]
There’s a pair of Palo Alto shows from 1982 that are spectacular – October 9th and October 10th (at Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheatre). I think I would go with those. Oh, and there are so many from ’72, ’73 and ’74 that haven’t been released. I don’t know if a good enough recording exists to release July 18th, 1972 at Roosevelt Stadium (in Jersey City, NJ). But I think it’s one of their best concerts ever, and whatever I had to do to clean up that recording, even if it had to have a patch or two, I would release that.
AC: Last but not least, lets touch on current events. Do you Phil & Friends or Dead & Company at all?
HW: Yeah, occasionally. And the thing is that I go there to (just) enjoy it, not as a critic, like I was in the Grateful Dead days. I enjoy Phil & Friends. I love what (John) Mayer is doing with Dead & Company. I love the fact that an established, great guitar player who’d never been into the Dead before, one day listens to an “Althea” and he has his on-the-bus moment, and he just dives into this with such enthusiasm. Here’s a guy who’s a great guitarist, who came to the Grateful Dead so many years after, and seeing him onstage, he’s got that “first love” passion, like when we were fans and when we first got into the Grateful Dead. Except he happens to be one of the greatest guitarists in the world. So it’s exciting to watch him play. I really enjoy that “first love” factor that he has onstage with the music. Because he doesn’t need to be doing it for the money. Yes, there’s money there, but this guy could be doing other things for money. He’s doing it for the love.”
Fans should head here to pick up your copy of Howard F. Weiner’s Deadology: The 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead History.