A New York story
From Poughkeepsie Journal:
Grateful Dead rocker has deep love for Empire State
By John W. Barry
Like the return of the robin, the movement of the moon and tug of the tide, the Grateful Dead over decades for many signaled the turn of a season.
Arguably the most-traveled band in rock 'n' roll, the Dead shunned the traditional music model of touring every few years to support a new album. They opted instead for the steady steam of a choral caravan and rumble of tractor-trailers hauling a circus of song around the country, typically each spring, summer and fall.
While logging these hundreds of thousands of miles, many of them on the East Coast, Dead bass player Phil Lesh, who was born in Berkeley, Calif., gained an affinity for New York — the city and state. Along with dozens of memories of playing in the San Francisco Bay Area band that perplexed some and inspired others, Lesh discusses his love of the Empire State in his recent memoir, "Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead."
On Sunday, Lesh gets another chance to soak up some of that New York nuance when he and thousands of Deadheads head to the Washington Avenue Armory in Albany for a performance by his band, Phil Lesh & Friends.
"In my opinion, he's the hottest bass player in the world," said Poughkeepsie resident Sam Schreck, who saw his first Dead show in 1978 in Troy. "It's just his technical approach, the intelligence in his note playing."
A mix of players
Joining Lesh in his rotating ensemble will be Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes and jazz guitar master John Scofield, whose list of performing credits ranges from trumpeter Miles Davis and Saugerties bassist Dave Holland to jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood.
"I want to hear Scofield interpret Garcia's licks," said Rick Schneider, who hosts "Woodstock Jams" each Wednesday at 10 p.m. on WDST (100.1 FM). "I want to hear Scofield interpret the Dead. ... Scofield is a complex cat and a complex player."
Album made there
Adding to the evening will be Lesh's return to the state capital, where the Dead played often and in 1990 recorded a live album, "Dozin' at the Knick."
"In a way, New York is my second spiritual home," Lesh said during an interview with the Journal. "The energy, of course, is awe-inspiring and almost overwhelming."
Lesh writes fondly, throughout the 352 page book, of New York:
On playing a free concert at the Central Park band shell for 300 people during the early days of the Dead: "There's something extra that New York has always pulled out of us, as if the audience were more a member of the band than elsewhere. It always seems as if there was more at stake in a New York performance, not just in terms of success, but that the possibility exists for transformation on a grand scale, rippling like waves out through the collective consciousness."
Lesh writes about playing on "Saturday Night Live" and hanging out in Manhattan with comedians John Belushi and Dan Akroyd.
He recounts with vivid, frightening and hilarious detail the experience of performing at the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair, where the stage was collapsing, the lights went out and Lesh's bass guitar pickups transmitted radio chatter from nearby helicopter pilots through his amplifier.
During his recounting of the Woodstock tale, Lesh unleashes some of the writing in prose that made his original lyrics and music cornerstones of the Dead's legendary play lists. An electrical ground that failed at Woodstock, Lesh writes, produced in the sound system, "a saber-toothed crotch-cricket of a hum."
Lesh also turns a nice phrase when describing his father, who enjoyed working with "mechanical things." "Crippled machines would magically materialize on his workbench," Lesh wrote. "All my dad had to do was breathe on one of them and it would sit right up and start barking."
Taking the good with bad
The musical honesty that the Dead and their fans embraced — the band could be spectacular one night, awful the next, but everyone still tried again at the next show — takes the shape of openness on the part of Lesh in his book. He discusses his dependence on alcohol and cocaine and Jerry Garcia's ongoing battle with drugs that led to gut-wrenching interventions that the band held with the lead guitarist, who died in 1995.
"It didn't seem like it was his decision," Lesh said to the Journal about Garcia's use of heroin. "Heroin is an addicting drug. ... The poor guy. It's just so sad. Toward the end, I think he really wanted to get out of it."
Lesh writes passionately about meeting and marrying his wife Jill and counts the positions of fatherhood and rock star as equally satisfying roles. He also talks in fine detail about surviving a liver transplant and his varied, non-Dead musical interests. But lurking around every corner of his life and exploding in bursts of ecstasy was the Grateful Dead, which seemed as much a part of Lesh's life as a limb, on the good days and the bad.
"If you're going to tell a story, you've got to tell a whole story," Lesh told the Journal. "You can't just skim over the parts that aren't pretty. There were so many great, positive experiences in the beginning and over time, darker and less positive ... that's the story that wanted to be told. It really has a moment and shape of its own."
John W. Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.