Sam Cutler is best known as the former tour manager of The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones. The outspoken music industry insider has earned a reputation for speaking his mind and takes a candid approach to discussing his history within the music industry. Recently, Cutler spoke with Live For Live Music from the bus in which he lives in Australia—having spent most of his life in the music business being surrounded by masses of people, Cutler now prefers solitude and spends his time living, traveling, and writing alone.
Talking with Sam Cutler, it’s clear that the infamous figure harbors a profound love of music and respect for the people he has worked with. It’s also clear that there’s a depth to the former tour manager, showing a depth beneath the outspoken, if not aggressive, caricature frequently joisted upon him. He spoke with us about his lengthy career, his time with the Grateful Dead and the tragedy that befell frontman Jerry Garcia, the disastrous Altamont concert, the dangers of fame, and much more. Check out Live For Live Music’s exclusive interview with Sam Cutler below!
Live For Live Music: What was your first job in the music business?
Sam Cutler: Oh, Jesus. The thing is, in the sixties, if you wanted to be in the music business, you volunteered. Everyone just got involved—it was a very cooperative thing. So you learned by doing. I used to go and hang out at gigs. The same way I guess people do today. I helped carry the equipment, and I learned how drum kits got assembled all that kind of stuff. So job—I mean the first job I ever had really was with Alexis Korner, the British blues musician). I went on tour with him to Europe and just kind of carried the guitars. I didn’t get paid. It was all good. It was just me and him. He did a little solo tour of Europe, so I think that was the first official job I had.
L4LM: How did you get involved with the Rolling Stones?
SC: That’s a whole big thing. Basically, I did a series of shows in Hyde Park in London. One of the shows was with the Rolling Stones. They really liked it and offered me a job.
L4LM: What made you good at your job?
SC: I cared about it. I cared about being good at it, and I cared about the music, and I loved the people I was working with. I only really ever worked with people that I loved. Just the general level of commitment I supposed.
L4LM: You said in reference to the Long Strange Trip film that it was painful to see “the mistakes.” What mistakes specifically?
SC: Well, Jerry’s early death could be viewed as a mistake. I think getting rid of me was a mistake because I don’t think anybody in the Grateful Dead had the experience to deal with the kind of problems that Jerry was facing—the problems of fame. None of them really knew about that, they didn’t have any experience with it. It is sort of tragic.
‘Long Strange Trip’ Official Trailer
L4LM: Did you see it coming? Was it obvious to the people around him?
Sam Cutler: I didn’t see it coming because the reality was that when I left The Rolling Stones and went to work for The Grateful Dead, Garcia knew that I wouldn’t have anything to do with heroin. I didn’t want to work with bands that had anything to do with heroin. So when I was around, he didn’t touch it. After I left in ’74, he was dabbling with that.
L4LM: Do you think most “big” bands suffer from those same ailments: fame and drugs? Is it the internal forces within a band that lead to their demise or the external forces that surround them?
SC: It could be both, couldn’t it? Who knows. I don’t think any band comes anywhere close to The Grateful Dead in terms of their experiences. The Grateful Dead were completely unique. I don’t think that The Grateful Dead’s experiences apply to anyone else. They were an amazing band—completely and totally different.
L4LM: When you left The Rolling Stones, were you hesitant to join forces with The Grateful Dead?
SC: No, I loved the idea. I thought it was great. I adored their music. I thought they were really interesting and that they were a completely different trip than anything I had been involved in ever before. I was very smitten with The Grateful Dead, then and now. I always have been.
L4LM: What goes into planning a major tour like the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 tour?
SC: I mean, a lot of care, obviously. In some respects, a lot of experience. We learned over the years the things that are necessary—you know, the kind of ways a stage is built, how large it is, how high up it is. We learned that people need water and toilets. Everything you have now when you go to a music show is a result of accumulated experience in the music business.
You don’t let off fireworks in a club, do you? People have done it, and hundreds have died. Now we know about this. When you go to a nightclub, for example, or a municipal stadium or hall, you see emergency exit signs with little running men above the doorway. Even if the electricity fails, they light up because they use separate batteries, right? Well, that is because the industry has learned that shit happens. What can happen is that people can be isolated when there is a fire.
These are all things that were born of bitter experience by the human race. We make progress by fucking up. Excuse me, but you know what I mean. We make these huge mistakes and then suddenly people go “Hold on a second! That was a big mistake”. A lot of the simple things that we all take for granted happen because of mistakes. For example, the first pop festival that I was involved in was in 1965, there were no toilets.
Grateful Dead’s ‘Europe ’72 [Live]’
L4LM: Where was that festival?
Sam Cutler: Leeds in England. There were no portable toilets in those days. They didn’t exist. The Altamont concert that The Stones did where the guy got killed. The big error of that concert—certainly not my fault, it wasn’t anyone’s fault—was that the stage only came up as high as your knee. If you have a stage like that in the middle of 300,000 people with the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and, Crosby, Stills, & Nash on the stage, then 300,000 people will try and get on the stage. Idiots. It creates a big problem. So as I said, unfortunately, people make mistakes and we make progress as a result. So that is what has happened in the music business.
L4LM: What was your favorite part of working with bands?
SC: Well, I don’t think you could do what I did without loving the music. I loved the people, the camaraderie. Going on the road together is a major kind of bonding thing between people. Once you have been on the road with people a couple of years, you really know them in ways that you don’t necessarily know people in real life—you go on this grand adventure together. That’s why everybody followed around the Grateful Dead—for the closeness and camaraderie of journeying with people. It’s why people climb mountains together and sail boats together, all those things that we do together. It’s why people form bands. People love it, don’t they? It is a cooperative endeavor.
L4LM: What bands on the scene now move you musically?
SC: Contemporary bands? There is a band in America called Cabinet. I love Cabinet I think they are great. They’re fun. I listened to all kinds of stuff, but I must admit I don’t find many contemporary bands that great. I love Chris Robinson’s band. I think Neal Casal who plays guitar with him is pretty amazing. I love Moon Alice. Barry Sless is amazing. Plus, they’re just nice people and I like their approach to things. Roger McNamee started the band—they play for free and everyone gets a poster, and it’s just a nice California kind of vibe. I am sure there are lot’s of bands that are great, but I am kind of old and not that wild about going to scenes anymore. I’m a writer. I live in a bus. I travel around.
L4LM: You live on a bus in Australia?
Sam Cutler: Yes. I have my own bus that I ride around in. I go and see friends or ride up in the mountains. I find that I’ve spent a lot of my life with other people so I like to be alone. I need to be alone. I mean, with writing, no one can really write for you—it’s a pretty solitary activity. I need to isolate myself in order to do it. I am just getting over a disastrous marriage and have just gotten through three cancers in three years. Three cancers and four wives has been a bit of a lot to ask of myself. My last book that I am writing has been a struggle to find the energy and space.
L4LM: Who is the most important person you have met over the course of your career?
SC: No one is more important to me than anyone else. I am just as happy to meet you as I am to meet someone who is famous. I don’t give a fuck about fame. Fame is the illusionary bullshit trip that kills people. Look what happens to famous people: they abuse women—Harvey Weinstein and all that. It is not very human, it is ugly. Fame has to do with illusionary stuff. I am a Buddhist. I can’t pretend to be the world’s best Buddhist, but I’ve been one for many years so, of course, I just see fame as a little bit more of the nonsense. I don’t go for it.
In another way, as a tour manager, you can’t really go for it, you know what I mean? I have to turn around and tell people, “Don’t do that. That is a bad fucking idea. Do not do that!” So if you are completely obsessed with someone’s status, power, fame—whatever you call it—it limits your ability to give advice, or it could, and I think it does. I have always been infamous for telling people exactly what I thought. They might not always want to hear it, but at least they got it straight from me between the eyes. “This is what I think” and “This is what you should do.” They don’t like it but too fucking bad. At least they get good advice.
If you look at people like Prince and Jerry, no one had the balls to stand up to them or say what they thought. They were all in awe of Jerry. Even the people in his own band couldn’t tell him. Well, I certainly fucking did. I had some good rounds with him. In fact, I have had some good rounds with everyone because I tell people what I think. I mean, what is the point of having someone like me around if you don’t tell people honestly what you think? I think it’s one of the problems with the entertainment industry. It is full of psychopaths that don’t express honest opinions—they just say “Yes, yes, yes!” all the time.
Poor old Prince, poor Janis. All these people died because they were surrounded by people who didn’t have the balls to tell them, “Hey! That is a fucked up trip you’re on! You need to change that man!” Of course, they don’t do that because nine times out of ten, if you tell people that, they’ll fire you. They don’t want that kind of person around. That’s the problem with fame. People don’t want people around who tell them the honest truth. They want people around who say “The world needs you!” Poor people, what a shallow life. I mean just how meaningless is that? I mean, there are reasons I’m not involved in the music business anymore, and that is one of them—unconstrained demented egoism.
L4LM: Your writing is not really about music, which is surprising. Why is that?
SC: Music is its own kind of writing. I mean, what can we write about Bob Dylan that Bob Dylan can’t say himself. It doesn’t need someone like you or me to explain it. I never really chose to write about music I listen to or have helped into being. I have never told any band or artist that I have worked with that “That’s shit” or “You shouldn’t play that.” I have always left that up to the people I work with.
I have made an effort to only work with people who are worthy of the title “Artist.” You don’t earn the name “Artist” because you picked up a guitar and played. There are very few people who deserve the title. Just as when it comes to writing, there are thousands and thousands of writers that aren’t very good. Let’s be cruel about it. There are paid musicians that aren’t very good. Artist is a bit of a function of egoism, not creative reality. Someone said, “Art is about five percent inspiration and ninety-five percent perspiration.” You have to do the work. That is what I am doing. I am doing the work trying to finish a book.
L4LM: A book is a huge task. How many books have you written?
SC: It is not how many books you have written, it’s how many books you have published! I have published two and I have written about eight thousand. It’s a huge task and you just have to soldier on. All artists, in the end, have to have a kind of faith in themselves. There are many wonderful writers that are recognized as being great and wonderful who never received any real recognition in their lifetime. Kafka is one.
L4LM: Metamorphosis is a great book.
SC: Indeed! The Trial I think is maybe an even better book. The Trial is amazing. There are plenty of good books. In the end, if you are a writer you have to do the work and be true to your own vision.