On October 3rd, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann took part in Democracy Comes Alive, a one-day, nonpartisan virtual music festival aimed at channelling the power of music to make a critical impact on civic engagement in this November’s elections and beyond.
In his 30 year tenure with the Dead, Kreutzmann saw his fair share of wild scenes. From the Acid Tests out in California to playing in front of 600,000 people at Summer Jam in 1973, Billy K has racked up hundreds—if not thousands—of crazy adventures. Even in terms of the Dead’s tantalizing and sometimes tumultuous tenure, however, the year 1972 sticks out as a critical in the growth band and the country.
During an interview segment with Benjy Eisen—his confidant and co-author of his biography, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead—Kreutzmann opted to bring some levity to the serious event with a wild tale from the road that just so happened to intersect with the world of politics.
The legendary drummer recalled an encounter the band had with then-Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern that year as he was running for office. It just so happened that, as the Dead were preparing to tour stateside ahead of the legendary 1972 European tour, they ended up on the same plane as the senator from South Dakota, and the politician struck up a conversation with none other than Jerry Garcia. As Kreutzmann explained,
McGovern said, “if I win I want you guys to play at the White House” and he gave us all kinds of kudos and stuff. We proceeded to be on the tour and about halfway through that tour we discovered McGovern was staying at the same hotel, which was probably a hotel mistake… And so we come back from the gig that night, Bobby [Weir] and I had a little strangeness on the sidewalk. We were so high from playing, [and] you don’t just leave the gig at the gig, you come home with all this tremendous energy you just rip roar no matter what you’re doing. What happened was me and Bobby were wrestling on the sidewalk and Ram Rod stopped us from hurting each other. We went back up to our rooms and, lo and behold, our crew went through these states where fireworks and firecrackers were legal and they literally bought hundreds of pounds of firecrackers and bottle rockets. Fifty-pounds each, it was amazing I’d never seen a box of firecrackers that big.
As you may have guessed, the story doesn’t end well. Thanks to the U-shaped architecture of the hotel, members of the band and their crew engaged in a firecracker battle the likes of which that hotel has probably never seen before or since. Him and his roommate Keith Godchaux got in a war with the equipment guys, and unfortunately the bottle rockets weren’t too accurate “and sometimes you hit the wrong room.”
As the bottle rocket war to end all bottle rocket wars continued to escalate, Kreutzmann recalled,
We did that for a good long time. Then next door to me, one flight up was Ben Haller, he was our light designer at the time. He had had enough of this, he gets up early and stays up late working, and he wanted to sleep and this wasn’t gonna let him sleep very well. So his room was right above Ram Rod’s room and he opened his window and took a pillow full of down feathers opened the bottom of it up, and leaned way out his window over on Ram Rod’s window and all the feathers got sucked in to Ram Rod’s room because the ventilation at the old hotels worked that way. So Ram Rod came out of his room yelling and was really pissed off. Haller won, we had this contest of who was gonna get who with the fireworks and Haller did it in Grateful Dead style.
Pretty soon there’s this heavy knock on the door, and this is the kind of knock you can tell its not a pizza delivery person. You know it’s like if you don’t answer this knock then maybe the door will come in the next time. So I open the door and I’m leaning up against the wall with my left hand and didn’t realize… the first line of guys were hotel security, they were kind of softer looking, behind them was the secret service protecting McGovern. It turns out, they mentioned to me, when that stuff started going off they all dove for the floor in the lobby.
The guy asked me, “Hey have you been setting off fireworks?” and I lean off the wall leaving a perfectly clear black handprint from the powder waste of the bottle rockets… and the cops laughed.
Sure enough, Kreutzmann and Godchaux were asked to move to a different hotel across the street, where Kreutzmann lulled himself to sleep by listening to jazz on the radio. Though Kreutzmann admitted that he did not vote in the 1972 election, he maintained that he will participate in the upcoming one, saying, “they’re just not the same times, are they?”
You can watch the full Democracy Comes Alive conversation with Bill Kreutzmann and Benjy Eisen below:
Democracy Comes Alive Conversations — Bill Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead) & Benjy Eisen
Bill Kreutzmann joined 50+ performers and 10+ other speakers as part of Democracy Comes Alive, presented by Live For Live Music in partnership with voter registration nonprofit HeadCount. The 10-hour streaming event, powered by Nugs.TV and Plus 1, generated $40,000 and counting in funds for HeadCount as well as the participating artists, who remain out of work as the pandemic continues. In addition to the funds generated, Democracy Comes Alive led thousands of people to HeadCount’s tools to check your voter registration status and register to vote. For more information, head here.