Probably the most striking and telling segment in “Grateful Dawg,” a new documentary on the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and noted mandolinist David Grisman’s musical relationship, was captured almost by accident.
Toward the end of the film — directed by Grisman’s daughter, Gillian — the mandolinist and Garcia are shown working through an old timey song in the living room of Grisman’s Northern California home. With the sun pouring in the room from a nearby sliding glass door, Grisman is pickin’ away on mandolin, and Garcia is doing the same on acoustic guitar. Grisman is loose and playing off of Garcia, who seems totally oblivious to Grisman’s dog and children walking in and out of the room.
They finally they take a break and Grisman gets up for a sandwich. Garcia starts to do the same, but stops, seeming almost to have had an epiphany. He grabs his guitar, sits back down, and with his head down, returns to work on the song.
“That’s like my favorite spot in the movie,” Grisman says. “That was just a camera left on a shelf. Nobody staged that.” The moment captures the essence of Garcia and Grisman’s musical relationship, which, as the movie explains, was based on a true passion for everything from bluegrass and folk to jazz and blues.
“I think it shows that, when we got together, we were really workin’ on music,” says Grisman. “And we were both excited about playing together, even though most of it wasn’t on stages, but in my living room. [That clip] shows kind of what we always did. We didn’t really put in a lot of hours over the course of 30 years, but I think all of them were quality hours.”
Though Garcia and Grisman’s history dates back nearly 40 years, it wasn’t until about a decade ago that they began recording together on a regular basis. “Grateful Dawg” leads the viewer through their first meeting, at a 1964 concert by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe at a nightclub in Pennsylvania — which eventually led to Garcia and Grisman forming the short-lived bluegrass outfit Old and in the Way in the 1970s.
Over nearly the next 15 years, the two musicians saw little of each other, as the Grateful Dead became more and more popular and Grisman launched his solo career. But after a chance encounter, they decided to rekindle that relationship. “The very first time we got together to play, Jerry walked in and said, ‘I think we should make a recording so we have our excuse to get together [on a regular basis].’ So I said, ‘When do you wanna start.’ He said, ‘Now.'”
In the roughly five years before Garcia’s death in 1995, the two recorded virtually everything they did together. What wasn’t captured on tape in Grisman’s basement studio, was caught on video by Gillian.
“It immediately became a thing where, every time we got together, we just recorded. I realized that it would just be worth taping everything, cuz there’s that old saying, ya know, ‘The best stuff gets away.’ It’s all the stuff that doesn’t get recorded that’s really great. So, I just said, ‘Hey, tape is cheap. So we’ll just pretty much record everything.'”
The two, often backed by Grisman’s bassist (Jim Kerwin) and percussionist (Joe Craven), recorded mountains of songs. Acoustic Disc, Grisman’s label, has released five collections of their sessions. The soundtrack for “Grateful Dawg” collects songs from each of those albums, as well a few rarities.
Below, Grisman reflects on their work, “Grateful Dawg,” and Garcia’s passing:
When you first got together, what was the gameplan?
It was going to be a record, but we didn’t set a schedule. We didn’t set a budget, we just said, ‘Hey, let’s just develop this stuff and record it while we’re going.’ We weren’t getting paid, so all we had to pay for was the tape and the engineer, which, relatively speaking, is inexpensive. And, when we brought in my guys, we’d pay them.
Was it at all challenging getting the records in the stores, considering the type of music you were playing and with Acoustic Disc being a relatively tiny operation?
Well, with Jerry’s name on ’em, it was relatively easy. At that time, I had put out one record. And, ya know, it’s not easy to put out music that isn’t commercial and get it widely distributed. But, Jerry in our world made that a lot easier. When he came and said, ‘We should make a record.’ I immediately said, ‘Well, you’re under contract, aren’t you?’ And he said, ‘No, that’s just the Grateful Dead. I can do whatever I want.’ I said, ‘Ya know, I just started my own company, and I just put out one record so far.’ And he said, ‘Hey, we’ll do it for you.’ And it was never a question of money.
How would things have been different if you were on a major label?
We would of had the freedom. I’ve recorded for major labels and independent labels and that’s one thing I always had — I never let ’em know where I was [as far as progress on a project] The first one for Rounder, they knew where I was, because they put me there, but I never let that happen again. But there would of had to been a budget and then it would have gotten real linear, probably. Although with Jerry, if he had said, “Hey, we have to do this for Arista [the Dead’s onetime label],” or something, we would have probably done it and we probably would have taken a lot more time to make money on it.
My company does business differently than almost any other record company. I abandoned the stock formula of record contracts, which makes the artist pay the budget of the record back out of his royalties. With my company, it’s recouped off the top, and the artist and the company go into profit sharing at the same time.
See, by the time a budget has been paid back out of an artist’s royalties, the record company has made a sh**load of money. It’s just simple math. And this is like a bad deal that’s been force-fed to musicians. And now it’s like the norm.
So, when I started my company, I wanted to be super fair to musicians and, actually, I made it totally the opposite, I said the record company had to pay for the whole budget, and then I saw that was unfair to the record company. So I said, it’s more of a 50/50 thing. And so, we recoup a lot earlier. So, with the major labels, you have to play the game of getting a lot of money up front, because chances are you will never get anymore. So, with Jerry, that never came up. I knew that we would put together a record at some point. But we just started exploring these kind of tunes, that kind of tunes, whatever we wanted to do.
How much music do you think died with Jerry?
Well, that’s an interesting question. Hopefully, no music died with Jerry. I mean, if he would have kept going, he would have cranked out a lot more music, unquestionably. We talked about it and we said, ‘Hey, we can just keep doing this for the rest of our lives.’ And, unfortunately, that was it for Jerry.
What was lost with his passing?
That voice. I mean, Jerry’s a one of a kind. Ya can’t replace him. And I wouldn’t look to replace him.
I still do some of our songs [in concert], the instrumentals, because I wrote most of them. And it was essentially my band playing with us, or the core of my band. So, we still do those songs, “Grateful Dawg,” “Arabia,” and “Dawg’s Waltz,” and another one, “Dawg Nation” that we recorded with Jerry. And, actually, the jazz things too, because that aspect of the music was kinda more in my area. But Jerry had left his stamp on everything. There is no other Jerry. We’ve got recordings — Ya know, there’s still more recordings left.
Ya know, we didn’t really do any touring hardly. We played in California pretty much. I think we played the David Letterman show, but that was, I think, the only time we played outside of California. And I think this film gives people who never saw the band a chance to at least see the band live. But when he died, one of the first things that went through your mind was “Thank God we did have the record button on.”
When you get to be my age, I’ve lost a lot of musical friends, voices have been stilled, ya know. But music is something that is part of my psyche. It’s part of me that doesn’t have a body or a mind. And I think Jerry’s in that place. Ya know, musicians affect each other in ways that are not just of the physical plane. I’m really grateful that we got to do it at all. And when I go back over that stuff, so much of that stuff is good.
Have you felt his impact on your career?
Yeah, I’ve seen those tie-dye shirts. Obviously, I think a lot of his fans have checked out my band, and a lot of ’em have become my fans, and some of ’em probably haven’t. But there’s always been that element there, because I played on “American Beauty” 30 years ago.
Because you always had a limited time together, a matter of just days at a time, did you prepare material ahead of time so that you could get the most out of each session?
I think we probably tried to think of tunes that we would like to do. But a lot of that was spontaneous too. Because we were both kind of like — as the movie says — we’re kind of like musicologists. We had listened to so much music and gotten into all this old time folk music, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, early country music, modern country music, jazz, Hogey Carmichael. I mean there was stuff that we were both into and never really got a chance to explore. We were both very eclectic, and didn’t view music as anything closed. We weren’t there just to play bluegrass music, or just to do folk songs, or kids songs, or jazz instrumentals. I mean, we were there to do anything that came into our minds. And Jerry was a guy who was up for that. He could sing a reggae tune. He could sing a Bob Dylan tune, he could sing an old time folk song, or he could play the guitar.
Did it ever feel like Jerry was getting bored as a member of the Grateful Dead? In the film, he seemed refreshed by his work with you.
Oh, I think that’s obvious. It was to me. Well, he would say things. Yeah, If you do anything for 30 years, day in and day out, and you get the chance to do something else that you really dig… It’s a special thing — that’s what made it special, the fact that we hadn’t played together for 13, 16 years. And what helped make it special is that during that time, we both kept working on music during that time, and we were able to utilize all that experience when we got back together. We both had developed a lot.
What is your hope for “Grateful Dawg?”
That Gillian will get a chance to develop some more ideas for movies. I think she did a great job considering the material she had which was pretty much home movies. Ya know, before she did the film, I hadn’t seen any of the stuff she taped. When she would tape a gig for us, it was like, ‘OK, we’ll have a record of it, if we want to look at it.’ But it’s just like, I tape all my shows, but I never have time to listen to ’em. It’s like playing back your life. Ya barely have time to live it, let alone play it back.