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Monday, December 16, 2013

Reading Notes: Jon Sievert's 1978 Guitar Player interview with Jerry Garcia

Man, this is such a great interview. Sievert always connected well with Jerry.

These are my "reading notes", which just means that I am drawing quotes and dropping them back into context. So, for example, some of the pedal steel talk below has been pasted back into my materials on the pedal steel guitar and on the NRPS. There is no pretense of completeness, nor even unbiasedness. This is not a random sample. It's the stuff I think, on this read, worth noting.

As I said, some great stuff here.

Sievert, Jon. 1978. Jerry Garcia: For More Than A Decade, the Patriarch of the San Francisco Sound. Guitar Player 12, 10 (October): 44-46, 114-122, 126-136, 142.

Reading Notes

Puts John Dawson with everyone in 1964 in Mother McCree’s, but I don’t think that’s right? I don’t remember that. (Sievert 1978, 45) #NRPS #John Dawson #pre-GD

Garcia on stagnation and renewal: “I think it's something that happens to every guitar player as he keeps on playing through the years. You're struggling to learn a whole body of material, and you finally learn it and can play it expertly, and then you get bored. It becomes a Now What? situation. You're struggling to obtain ground and you reach a plateau, and then your boredom finally drives you to develop to new levels. I think that's a healthy and normal thing. I seem to go through it about once every year and a half or two years pretty regularly. That's pretty much how my metabolism seems to work. I think of myself really as a guitar student as much as a player or performer, because there's so much being developed and so much that's already been done that I'll never learn it all.” (Sievert 1978, 45).

When he’s in a renewal phase: “First I go out and buy all the new guitar method books that have come out since the last time and read through them and try out ideas and exercises. I find it really helpful to see somebody else's handle on it, because it's possible they can show me new ways of looking at the instrument or music that l hadn't considered before. The state of guitar education today is incredible compared to just 15 years ago. You can learn an astounding amount from just reading books that are available today. I'm working very hard now. I'm working hard on things that I haven't worked hard on before. I have certain exercises that I do, but it's more like working out little bits and pieces of unfinished ideas. A lot of it is just free playing, exploring for places where all of a sudden something is vague or awkward - like suddenly finding yourself in a position that's odd in relation to the key you're playing in.”  etc. (Sievert 1978, 45)

JG 1978, working hard: “I'm spending seven or eight hours a day with it. I'm trying to rebuild myself; I feel like it's time for me to do that in my playing. I don't know whether it will amount to anything, but in six months I'll know. I'm sort of in a two-year plan right now- the first pause of the next level.” (Sievert 1978, 46)

When you're not going through these intense learning periods, how much time do you usually spend with a guitar? “It depends on the schedule. When I'm on the road it's a lot more, but when I'm home I'd say I spend no less than an average of two hours a day at the absolute worst. That's like really screwing around. I think four hours is more normal for me. On the road it goes up to about six, including the show. I lose my edge in a day if I don't stay on top of it constantly. Anything more than two days and it's like being a cripple. And the more you play, the more you notice it if you miss a day. But then there's also the thing that if you're away from the guitar for two or three days sometimes you can come back with something else. Now that's not one of those things you can depend on, but sometimes it does happen just in the flow. You come back and you have a little more of something. I don't know what-confidence, new ideas, or something.” (Sievert 1978, 46)

How did your early process of music education work? “My first orientation was learning from my ear. So I learned mostly from records-Freddie King, B.B. King extensively - and, you know, everybody else. That was my first exposure, mostly because the [San Francisco] Bay Area didn't have that many guitar players back when I started playing, and there really wasn't a lot of local information, or at least I wasn't able to uncover it. For me, I would describe my own learning process as wasting a lot of time. I d id it the hardest way possible, or it seems that way now. I had to spend a lot of time unlearning things- bad habits and so forth. I think I went through as many of these unlearning cycles as I could. It was around 1972 or '73 when I finally unlearned all the things that had hung me up to that point” (Sievert 1978, 46)

boredom and enthusiasm cycles” JG (Sievert 1978, 112)

“There are times when I wish I were a combination of a French horn and an oboe”, anticipating MIDI (Sievert 1978, 112).

Do you have an Alembic guitar? “Yeah, but I’ve never used it on a gig. I used it on recording sessions a little bit, mainly with. Merl Saunders.” (Sievert 1978, 118). I am not an axe guy, but I don’t recall knowing that he used an Alembic guitar on any of the Merl records. It’d be interesting for gear heads to try to find out where! #gear, #Merl Saunders, #official releases

#methodology Here’s Garcia contradicting himself in the same magazine, seven years apart. 1971: “There is no relationship between [guitar and banjo] except for the fact that they are fretted instruments” (Stuckey 1971 36); 1978, in response to a question about his guitar fingering technique:
“I think it has something to do with my early 5-string banjo playing” (Sievert 1978, 118). Now, he might have changed his mind, or he might have gained new insight in the interim. But it’s also possible that he is responding to questions thoughtfully, but spur-of-the moment. Who among us might not contradict ourselves? Some days I love Jerry’s banjo playing, other days not so much. Being surrounded by recording devices, like a contemporary celebrity or public figure, would flat out suck, consistency-the-hobgoblin-of-petty-minds and all that. We just need to be careful not to overinterpret any one mosaic stone. #banjo

Great line: “Generally speaking, I tend to be style conscious in terms of wanting a song to sound like the world it comes from” (Sievert 1978, 120).

You've described yourself in previous interviews as a playing junkie. Do you still play all the time? “It's what I do. And now I think I'm probably playing more nights per year than I ever have.” (Sievert 1978, 122).

GD and JGB: “Those are really the only things I'm involved with on a continuing basis, because right now they're both sophisticated, demanding, interesting, and fun enough. They're both very satisfying, and that's all I really could deal with right now and do it right.” (Sievert 1978, 122)

Who does your band consist of right now? “John Kahn, my old partner from way back, is playing bass. Buzz Buchanan, a young guy from L.A., is playing drums, plus there's Keith and Donna Godchaux from the Dead, and Maria Muldaur when she's around and she wants to. It has a nice balance of instrumental proficiency and a fine vocal thing, too-both of which I like a lot.” (Sievert 1978, 122) #JGB, #1978

Going back to the early days, why did you switch from electric to acoustic at first? “Well, economics were involved: I could get work as an acoustic player. And also, in terms of accomplishment, I wasn't very good when I stopped playing electric. I didn't really start to develop an understanding more than just a feel for the music-until I got into acoustic. It gave me that chance to be more reflective about it.” (Sievert 1978, 126) #acoustic

“Something about the rhythmic quality of fingerpicking and banjo was getting at something I wanted to develop further, but the rigidness of the banjo stopped me.” (Sievert 1978, 126) #banjo

What are some of the things you've gained playing with people like Merl Saunders? “When I was playing with Merl we did a lot of instrumental material- standards and jazz tunes and things like that. That required a whole lot of quick education for me, and Merl was responsible for that. He really helped me improve myself on a level of harmonic understanding. Playing with him required a whole different style from three-chord rock and roll or even ten-chord rock and roll; it was a whole different thing. But what I was able to bring into that situation was the ability to use odd-length runs in conventional formats. I was able to use ideas that were rhythmically uneven because of working in odd time signatures so much with the Dead. Because Merl did not work in odd times, my relationship with his rhythms made it possible for me to create ideas that were, for example, seven bars long against something that was fundamentally a 4/4 feel.” (Sievert 1978, 128)

How about your work with Howard Wales? “With Howard we never had tunes; Howard would just play through tremendously extended changes. That developed my ear to an amazing point because I had nothing to go on. I didn't even know what key we were in. Here were all these extended chords coming out, and I really had to be able to hear a correspondence somewhere. Merl helped me improve my analytical ability and to understand more about how substitution chords work in standard musical forms. Howard was a great in-between there, because his playing was so outside and totally unpredictable. Also, playing with Merl gave me a real feeling of freshness that carried over to later work with the Dead. So for me, it's very healthy to work with other people. I like doing sessions when I can, but my favorite stuff is really my own band and the Dead. Those are the two most complete experiences for me. ” (Sievert 1978, 128) #Howard Wales, #Merl Saunders, #JGB, #GD

How did Old And In The Way happen to come about? “That band was like scratching an itch I'd had for a long time. I got very much into playing 5-string banjo early on but was frustrated insofar as never really having a good band to play with. Bluegrass is band music, and I've always loved that aspect. In fact that's what I like best – band music rather than solo music. Playing with Old And In The Way was like playing in the bluegrass band I’d always want to play in. It was a great band, and I was flattered to be in such fast company. I was only sorry that my banjo chops were never what they had been when I was playing continually, though they were smoothing out toward the end.” (Sievert 1978, 128) #banjo, #1973, #oaitw, #bluegrass

What is your relationship with the pedal steel guitar these days? “I haven't played it much for quite a while, though I played it pretty steadily for about four years. I really got into it, but it kind of became an either/or situation: I found it very hard to play half the night with a pedal steel and a bar in my left hand and then switch to straight overhand guitar. The difference between a solid finger configuration and a moving arm, wrist, and fingers was too great. It was painful to the muscles. It got to where I couldn't play either of them very well, and I realized it just wouldn't work. I don't consider myself a pedal steel player, and I'm always embarrassed to see that I've placed in the Guitar Player poll.” (Sievert 1978, 128) #pedal steel guitar, #NRPS

Could you talk about your process of composition? (Sievert 1978, 128). [my copy seems to be bungled around here.]

Lots of great complimentary talk about Bob Weir as “the best rhythm guitar player on wheels right now” (Sievert 1978, 130).

“If you have the space in your life where you can be high and play and not be in a critical situation, you can learn a lot of interesting things about yourself and your relation to the instrument and music. We were lucky enough to have an uncritical situation [during the 1965-1966 Acid Tests], so it wasn't like a test of how stoned we could be and still be competent - we weren't concerned with being competent. We were more concerned with being high at the time. The biggest single problem from a practical point of view is that obviously your perception of time gets all weird. Now, that can be interesting, but from a practical standpoint I try to avoid extremes of any sort, because you have the fundamental problems of playing in tune and playing with everybody else. People have to pay a lot of money to see us, so it becomes a matter of professionalism. You don't want to deliver somebody a clunker just because you're too high. I don't, anyway.” (Sievert 1978, 130) #drugs

He works to be able to sight-read music because “there are times when I find it necessary to sketch out an idea to somebody who has a legitimate background – a string player or whatever” (Sievert 1978, 134). He and Kahn had mentioned the great player they got for Cats … I think it was a French horn. see 3/11/78 interview?

“l trade tapes.” – Jerry Garcia, 1978 (Sievert 1978, 136).

What kind of music do you listen to? “Just about everything, really. I buy lots of records, and l trade tapes. I also have a lot of friends turning me on to things, so I'm continually exposed to new music. And not only modern American music or guitar playing, but I listen to keyboard players a lot. I go through little fevers, like one time 1 suddenly got excited about orchestration and started listening to all of the Duke Ellington I could find. I went through a period- actually I'm still going through it- of listening to as much [jazz keyboard legend] Art Tatum as I can find. So much great music has already happened that catching up is a hell of a job. And there's so much new stuff coming out all the time that's so impressive.” (Sievert 1978, 136) #influences, #jazz

What do you like that's new? “It's really hard to draw a line on what's considered new. I really like AI Di Meola, George Benson, and Pat Martino. Pat's really one of my favorites; rhythmically he's really fine. There's a young flamenco player named Paco de Lucía who knocks me out. He has a beautiful flow to his (Sievert 1978, 135) music that's really rare to guitarists. And every once in a while I hear something on the radio, and I can't believe it and have no idea who it is I'm hearing.” (Sievert 1978, 136).

Elvis Costello recently said that he really likes your playing. “Oh yeah, too much. How flattering … I like his music, too. I like most of the new wave stuff- if he's considered new wave. It's obvious as they pass by who's here for keeps and who isn't. Some people have something to say, and it really gets to you no matter what you believe or think that you like. I keep an open mind. I like disco music a lot. All that stuff is interesting to me- it's all music. I like music from other cultures, too.” (Sievert 1978, 135)

“For me, playing in my band -it's like a four-piece band, essentially- is like playing in the new string quartet. It's the new conversational music where the instruments speak to each other, and you have that kind of tightness and dynamic happening- the stuff of string quartets” (Sievert 1978, 142). #JGB, #1978

“I don't have plans. I get surprised because suddenly an interesting project will come up sort of on its own accord. It's a matter of inspiration rather than long-range plans. I'm working as much as I want to now. If I wanted to work all day long, every day, I could do more, but what's the point? Right now I have more to keep me interested and occupied than I ever expected” (Sievert 1978, 142). #why, #1978

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