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Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead on the Power of Live Music: ‘When You Play to Real People, Man, That’s Where It’s At’ (Q&A)

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Along with Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann was the heartbeat of the Grateful Dead for more than thirty years. After more ups and downs than any band should have to endure, it all came to a crashing halt when Jerry Garcia, the band’s guitarist, heart and soul, and titular leader, died in 1995.

But far from retreating or retiring, Kreutzman is as busy as ever. His recent book, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, recounts the history of the most famous jam bandv in the world, as well as the many adventures and career left turns he took along the way. Kreutzmann also took part in the recent Dead documentary Long Strange Trip, and his reunion with his former band mates as Dead & Company this decade, which is hitting the road again in 2019 — starting this week, in fact.

Rock Cellar caught up with Kreutzmann, who was happy to talk about his long career and the Grateful Dead, past, present and future.

Rock Cellar: You’re getting back out there with the Dead. How’s that feeling for you?

Bill Kreutzmann: That feels really good. It’ll be fun doing those shows.

Rock Cellar: In case fans missed it, you have a book about your years in the Grateful Dead -– and so much more -– and I think one of the things they’ll like about the book is that you name check a lot of shows that fans hold in high regard and that have traded on the bootleg circuit. I was at the ’82 New Haven show.

Bill Kreutzmann: Oh, cool. That’s a very famous one.

Rock Cellar: It is a famous one. When you look back, you’ve got — I’m going to guess almost 3,000 shows under your belt with the Dead — what makes a show stand out for you?

Bill Kreutzmann: You know that I have an acute memory, and that I remember every show and exactly the detail I played it in, right? Well, I’m kidding you, because I don’t.

The way I remember shows is that overall they were a lot of fun to play. I don’t really remember one moment or another moment that stands out. Just that the whole ball of wax from one night was really fun.

Some nights were a little stranger than other nights, and one song will save the night. A song will come up in the second set that will make up for whatever was happening.

I don’t really remember shows, though. People think that I do, but I don’t really. I just have a really good feeling about what I got to do with the Grateful Dead. It was a lot of fun and exciting that I got to turn people on and make them happy.

Rock Cellar: Yeah. You must though have a fairly good memory of making the records and the connection you guys had both live and in the studio, in a more general sense. Your book certainly makes it seem so. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Bill Kreutzmann: For me — this is a generalization — I enjoy the live playing the most. I really rely on an audience being out there sending good vibes and great energy to you on stage. That’s the real thing.

When I’m in the studio, I don’t get that. Even though the music can be just as great, this is for me personally, I never got the feeling of completeness that I did at a live concert. Gratification would be a better word. I never got completely gratified. So the studio albums were interesting, you know, but I don’t remember any one of them sticking out. They were all fun to do, pretty much.

Rock Cellar: Well, Workingman’s Dead holds a place in American music that will probably never be surpassed. It’s an amazing record.

Bill Kreutzmann: That comes out in the book, too. It’s great you bring that up. I did that right after I’d been with a Native American, Rolling Thunder. In my book, there’s a part in there when I’m at Rolling Thunder’s in Nevada. I get a telegram, right, and I have to make up my mind to choose one or the other, to choose between the three doors to eternity. Which one are you going to choose? There’s no way I could say no to my brothers in the Grateful Dead. I came home from my two weeks of outrageous realness living with Rolling Thunder and learning some deep spiritual practices that I still hold today as part of me and did Workingman’s Dead.

I came from that energy, right, that earth energy, and I brought it in for that album. That’s the one thing I remember most about that record actually, that I had that adventure before that record.

Rock Cellar: I think that’s what I was trying to get at with my earlier question. I picked out that anecdote and was asking you about time in the studio because I thought it would naturally lead into Workingman’s Dead. That seemed to be a unique and memorable experience for you, maybe more so because of what happened before.

Bill Kreutzmann: That’s exactly right. I came back with a wide open, clean heart and felt great about playing music. Then boom, we got to do Workingman’s Dead. It was wonderful. We did things really simply on that album. We didn’t use two drum sets. We barely used a whole drum set ever. Mostly we used shakers and percussion type instruments; noisemakers. We just wanted to do something different. We wanted the music to totally speak for itself and not to have synthesizers or anything like that. This is way back.

Rock Cellar: You were probably on eight-track for Workingman’s Dead? Maybe sixteen?

Bill Kreutzmann: No, we were doing at least 16. If you remember, in the book, we hauled that sixteen track. That was quite a scene getting that thing up the stairs.

Rock Cellar: Those things were heavy back then.

Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah, they were. Two-inch tape. Yeah.

Rock Cellar: One of the things that comes out that I really liked is a more complete picture of Jerry. I don’t want to say you were in awe of him, but you really loved that guy and looked up to him, didn’t you?

Bill Kreutzmann: Well, me and millions of others looked up to that guy.

Rock Cellar: Yeah, but you worked with him. You had close quarters with him. For me or anybody else, we’re on the outside looking in, but you also felt that same way, didn’t you?

Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah, for sure. I still love that guy to this very day. I got to do a little recording session recently. There’s this group of people, Playing For Change. They go around the world, and they’ve got one song. Musicians play along to that song all around the world with different types of instruments. They chose “Ripple”. So I headed down to New Orleans to play “Ripple” with all these different musicians. It’s a wonderful thing. They’re fantastic.

Rock Cellar: Yeah, Jackson Browne did that recently. Keith Richards, too. Maybe that’s who you saw?

Bill Kreutzmann: Maybe it was him, or even before that one, maybe. The one I saw moved me so much I said, ‘God, I wish I could have been part of that.’ Then I got a phone call and headed down to New Orleans to do it. The reason I brought that up was that song “Ripple”. It always reminds me of Jerry, because he did it on the album, he sang the lead on it.

Rock Cellar: In your book, and the recent documentary, it seems as though you really were adamant about not going on when he passed, weren’t you?

Bill Kreutzmann: Well, I was adamant, but it wasn’t that I was mad or anything like that. It’s just that I wasn’t in shape, I wasn’t healthy enough to go back out with The Other Ones right after Grateful Dead had ended. I just wasn’t, man. I needed time to heal.

I moved to Hawaii, which is a very healing island. It’s a place you can get better. You can look at your life and change it if you want to. Consequently, I still live there today with my wife. We love it there.

Rock Cellar: I thought it was interesting, too, how the band stayed apolitical when kind of everybody around you was really getting neck-deep in politics. Was that something you guys agreed upon or fought about?

Bill Kreutzmann: We agreed upon it. We were apolitical. We didn’t have much use for politicians. They didn’t seem to be helping anybody. If Jerry would have been alive, we probably wouldn’t have done that Obama fundraiser.

Rock Cellar: That was my next question. It’s interesting that, now that he’s gone, there was a little bit of a shift. Did you feel like maybe it was …

Bill Kreutzmann: Let me backtrack a little bit. Let me talk about McGovern. You know how hindsight can be 20-20, right? I think that it would have been a good idea for us to back McGovern, compared to who won, right? Who started the War On Drugs? That might have been a mistake.

Maybe we should have been political. But that’s all hindsight.

Rock Cellar: Sure. You brought up drugs, and I’m curious. You’ve pulled no punches talking about them, and certainly about Jerry’s addictions and your drug experiences. You’re pretty honest that acid was the key for you. George Harrison said that, and a lot of like-minded people have said that. What was it about that? And doing it together. You wrote about doing it together, and how important that was.

Bill Kreutzmann: Let’s leave acid out of it for a minute and let’s just talk about doing things together in a group. When you have a group of like-minded people, I don’t care how different their personalities are. If they have a goal — in this case it was music — and you put them together, you’re going to get a higher thing than if it was just one person.

Now if you take an ingredient like LSD and give it to that same group, it’s going to go up so many levels higher. It’s not just double. It’s way, way higher. That’s what happened for us, way back in the day.

We all took acid. It was hip, you know? We didn’t know what we were going to do. You couldn’t even see it. You looked in this capsule, held it up, and there’s like a little speck of dust in the bottom of it. It was like, ‘This isn’t going to do anything!’ Anyway, that was the beginning of it. The other part of your question … It’s a key. It opens up a part of the human being that’s already there, but for some reason, because of society or our parents or our schools, we’re not allowed to see the most important things that are in us. It’s a key to that. It allows us to see things that we wouldn’t ever get to see. That’s what I meant by that.

Rock Cellar: It’s interesting you bring up your parents. Your dad didn’t want you to play the drums because he thought you’d never make money at it. But that wasn’t what it was about for you, was it?

Bill Kreutzmann: Not at all. I never even considered that. My dad said that to me, but the first time I ever played for some friends, they got up and danced.

I realized the connection between me feeling good and watching other people across the room feeling good, was because of something I was doing; playing music.

I got that as a young person, and that was probably the luckiest gift I ever got in my life, besides love from my parents. My dad didn’t understand, though, because rock and roll hadn’t hit yet. Musicians were the guys who had to use the side door or the back door, to him. My dad was at Stanford, and he thought that was how you did it. You had to go to school, get an education, and then you could go out and earn money.

Rock Cellar: How long did you work on your book, out of curiosity?

Bill Kreutzmann: That’s a great question. Benjy Eisen and I were writing it for three years, or maybe a little more.

Rock Cellar: So, when you started it, you really had no sense you’d be doing live shows with the Dead again in the future?

Bill Kreutzmann: No, that’s another good one. We had no idea of that whatsoever. We just wanted to write a really good book, and to write a really good book, you can’t do it in an hour and a half or a week. I’m not an experienced writer, so Benjy had trouble getting it down and getting facts out of me. A lot of time was spent researching the information and making sure what I was coming up with was in the right timetable and stuff.

Rock Cellar: Sure. Yeah, getting those live dates right.

Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah. I always have problems. It’s funny, you asked me earlier in this interview. I don’t really remember shows that way. I don’t remember that two and a half minutes into the second set we did this song or that song. My memory doesn’t work that way.

Rock Cellar: No, that’s understandable. But you do mention very specific shows and very specific moments. For fans that’s very interesting. Like earlier, when I said ‘New Haven, ’82.’ When I mention that to Deadheads, or any fan, everybody knows that was a monumental show. They just know it was a big deal. So when you name-checked shows, it was interesting to me that maybe they were important to you, too. Obviously, that view from the stage is different, but I thought that there was something special about it from your point of view, as well as for us out in the audience. You know what I mean?

Bill Kreutzmann: That was always the case. I said a minute ago I always felt a good feeling after the night. That was because we had a good connection with the audience. It’s the back and forth, the giving and taking from the audience to the band. I honestly never thought the band was more special than the audience. I actually believed the audience was more special than the band, and I do to this day. I really do. It’s like we said earlier, when I played in the studio to machines or a big glass wall, there’s just not much humanness there.

When you play to real people, man, that’s where it’s at. I feel that way today. I love our fans.

Rock Cellar: What was it that elevated those special shows? Some were obviously more special than others. Was it Jerry, the interplay between you guys, what exactly?

Bill Kreutzmann: This is the best way I can answer your question, and the most truthful way: The band always called the magic of making the music ‘the it.’ ‘The it.’ It’s a noun, but it’s also an adjective. It’s a description but also a noun.

It’s about not being in yourself when you’re playing the music, but with the other players. There’s something else going on that’s much higher than the five or six musicians on the stage. That’s the thing we call ‘the it.’ Those were nights that I remember being really great nights, because you don’t have plans for what you’re going to play. You might have a song planned, but then the jams inside of it might turn out to be some totally different song. When the jams were really happening, I’d forget what song we were in. I wouldn’t remember what song we were in, because I wasn’t thinking that way. I’m playing in the now and remembering the song I’m playing now. I used to laugh about that, because I’d remember the wrong song. I’d have to go back and be, like, ‘Oh shit.’ It was just in my head. I’d have fun like that with it.

Those were the nights when not one person was the star. It was like the whole band was a star. That’s what made it work on those high nights. It’s really a group thing. I’m just trying to say that with better words.

Rock Cellar: I get it. I do.

Bill Kreutzmann: I know you do. You’re a musician.

Rock Cellar: There was such a unique dynamic between you guys, especially with Jerry, I know Trey is a great guitar player, and so is John Mayer. And Bruce Hornsby; he’s played with you guys a lot. But it is a different dynamic. How do you manage your expectations relative to the old days?

Bill Kreutzmann: I don’t. Expectations are very dangerous, because a lot of times they’ll let you down. It’s better not to go in with expectations. It’s much better to just go in with an open mind and open heart and be open for something new to happen. I have a hope, and it’s a hope that something new will happen. But that’s all I can tell you about it really.

Rock Cellar: No, that’s beautiful. Is there any way I could get you to talk about your top drum moments or top live moments?

Bill Kreutzmann: I’ll have to think about my top moments. I’ll tell you, right now, I’m playing the best I’ve played, and I’m working with the best people I’ve ever worked with in my life. Benjy, my co-author, and my wife Amy have been instrumental in supporting my music. In fact, she was the one who got me to do the book. And we have the best group of people together we ever have.

So this is my top moment. If it were a Top 10, you could skip the other 9, and just go right to number 10, or the best one. Because I’m living the life I always wanted to live right now.

Rock Cellar: That’s a beautiful thing.

Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah, man, I really am. I’m very pleased with the music I’m getting to play and the people I’m working with. The Dead are really happening, and so are Billy & the Kids, my other band. I’m so happy to be playing music that’s up and lively and getting people up and dancing.

Rock Cellar: Do you get to interact with Dead fans?

Bill Kreutzmann: I do. Recently, I was out and we went to a bar, and there was a band playing in the back room. Nobody had come yet, because it was really early. They were playing a Grateful Dead tune. I thought, ‘ah …’ I just went back and asked the kid if I could play. They had no idea who I was. I saw the expression on their face like, ‘How does this guy know the song so well?’ After the song I told them my name, and you should have seen their jaws drop. I think it made their night. They were sweet kids.

Rock Cellar: You know Bill, they’re going to tell that story for like the next 20 years.

Bill Kreutzmann: You know what, that’s what I’m trying to get across to you. That’s how I work. I don’t make any of these big plans. We just go out on the street and start having fun as stuff comes up.

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