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Sometime in the late 1980s, Jerry Garcia and I took a trip that didn't involve dropping acid, but it was still long, strange, and psychedelic. Our band, the Grateful Dead, had recently hit the high-water mark, both creatively and commercially. After twenty-some years of taking stabs in the dark, our latest album, In the Dark, was a hit. We had a Top Ten single ("Touch of Grey") and its accompanying video was in heavy rotation on MTV. We sold out a five-night stand at the world's most prestigious arena-New York's Madison Square Garden-and we had recently come off an incredibly successful stadium tour with Bob Dylan.
We decided to celebrate by getting as far away from it all as possible.
The Grateful Dead had toured all over the world-including Alaska, Luxembourg, and even a few shows at the base of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. There were few places we could go where someone didn't come up to us, telling us that they met their future husband or wife at one of our concerts, or that in the middle of one of our jams they realized they wanted to change careers, or-even-that they came out of a coma when their family played them a tape of one of their favorite Dead concerts. Every experience was different; personal, intimate. But they all had one thing in common: the Grateful Dead changed their lives. It's hard to explain how that makes you feel, being a part of it. In some ways, I was no more a part of it than anyone in the audience. But as a band member, I also knew that with that privilege came a duty to the fans and to the music. Everyone felt like they owned a little piece of the Grateful Dead, and I think, philosophically speaking, that's probably true. For those of us on stage, however, all of that came with a great and heavy responsibility to always be the band that everyone wanted us to be. That was a weight that we were glad to bear. But that was a weight.
Gravity has different rules, underwater, though. Weight is balanced by buoyancy. So we decided to give it a try and see if we could become weightless in the deep.
There was a dive shop across the highway from where we recorded In the Dark-in San Rafael, California-and we signed up for lessons. It was me, Jerry, and our roadie, Steve Parish. I was the only one who had gone scuba diving before, but it was reckless: I had no experience and little instruction. It was in Laredo, Mexico and I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. I wasn't certified. I never minded getting in over my head, but I knew it wasn't safe.
I decided to get certified and I convinced Jerry and Parish to do it with me. We flew to Hawaii for our open water certification dive. Jerry was in a wetsuit, with an oxygen tank strapped to his back. In that moment, he didn't look like a famous guitarist. He looked like an explorer. Which, I suppose, he was. He also looked like something straight out of a comic book or, perhaps, a character from one of the sci-fi novels that he loved so much. The underwater world that we were about to explore was easily as strange and unusual and captivating as anything we had read about in Kurt Vonnegut books. That was fiction; this was not.
Also: It was as psychedelic and far-out as anything we had seen during the Acid Tests, or at Woodstock, or during our strange days wandering around San Francisco during the Summer of Love. And yet, we were sober for this one. After years of persistent pot smoking, psychedelic excesses, alcohol benders, cocaine binges, and heroin abuse, scuba diving was going to be our new drug.
The first time out together, we just got our feet wet. We were in, maybe, twenty feet of water, just off a pier. We didn't really know much about diving yet. We were there to learn. But one thing we did know was that we were on the other side of the forest from the multi-beast known as the Grateful Dead.
Jerry and I were submerged under the water, digging this weird, new landscape and trying to get lost in its vastness and implications. Just then, a woman instructor swam up to us, with a waterproof notepad that you can write on under water. It looked like she was about to write an instruction but, instead, she asked Jerry for his autograph. Twenty feet below the surface! I nearly spat out my regulator from laughing so hard.
Afterward, back on solid ground, Jerry looked at me and said, "I can't get away from it, Bill." I nodded: "We'll get deeper next time."
Which we did. Many times, in fact.
We started doing exotic dives with a shop called Jack's Diving Locker in Kona. The Big Island. We went diving with dolphins and pilot whales and white-tipped sharks and conger eels and all sorts of strange, far-out creatures that we never even imagined existed. That far out on the water, and that deep under the surface, we found that we could, actually, get away from the world above. It was the one place we could go where we weren't rock stars; we were just friends, exploring an underwater landscape. It was our great escape.
Palo Alto, California
The first time I met Jerry Garcia, he was standing in the doorway at my parents' house, asking for my dad and clutching a fistful of dollars. My father always wanted to play a stringed instrument, so he bought a five-string banjo. But he wasn't very good at it, so he listed it for sale in the classifieds of the Palo Alto Times. He ended up selling it to Jerry for fifteen bucks. Years later, when Jerry and I reminisced about it, he said, "You know Billy, it's actually a really great banjo." He enjoyed playing it.
Jerry's banjo playing would become world-famous, but it was his skills as a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and improviser in the Grateful Dead that made him a legend. I played drums in the Grateful Dead from our very first rehearsal down to our very last gig, thirty years later. During those three decades, we sold millions of albums and moved even more concert tickets. We toured the world and played thousands of shows. We traveled Canada by train, Alaska by plane, Europe by bus, and Egypt by camelback. A nation of Deadheads followed us wherever we went, bearing torches lit from the flames of the 1960s even when the rest of the country got swallowed up in 1980s bullshit. We weren't just a band; we were a community, a culture. We became a brand and a lifestyle. And Jerry Garcia was our leader, our nucleus, our heart.
But that day, I had no idea who Jerry Garcia was, what he did, or why he wanted that banjo. It didn't compute. I must've been around twelve years old and I wasn't listening to bluegrass or any kind of banjo music at all. And, even though he was four years older than me, which at that age feels like lifetimes, in truth, Garcia was also just a kid. He was just someone in the doorway, buying something from my dad.
During one of our Hawaiian scuba diving trips-either in the late '80s or early '90s-we were hanging out and talking in the back of the dive boat. We were both high from being in the water. On it and under it. We really loved diving. We loved being in the Grateful Dead, too, but it wasn't exactly calming. Not like being in the ocean. Back on the mainland, everything around us was whirling and buzzing, a constant three-ring circus, going full-throttle all the time. Tours, records, fans, press, parties, nonstop noise. But out there on the water, we could really relax. It was also good for our health. When you're diving, you can't drink your weight in booze the night before or stay up all night plowing your nose through a pile of cocaine. Your eyes, your nose, and your mind all have to be clear.
I can still picture us in the back of that boat, watching the water go by, with no sign of land in any direction. Jerry and I looked at each other and made a promise that if the Grateful Dead ever ended, we would both move to Hawaii, go on dives, get healthy, and live a much different lifestyle. He never had a chance to fulfill his end of the bargain. But after he died, on August 9, 1995, I fulfilled mine.
I chose the island of Kauai because it was the most remote, the least touristy, and it reminded me, in a way, of California's "Lost Coast," up in Mendocino where I lived on a ranch for many, many years. At first I moved to Kapa'a, then up the shore some to Anahola, which is basically a small residential community that's mostly made up of island natives. Pacific Islanders. They're suspicious of Americans, no matter how long you've lived there. There remain various tensions, unspoken resentments, injustices, racial undercurrents, and all that horrible crap, between Pacific Islanders and mainland transplants. The natives call the white intruders haoles ("howl-ies"). All Caucasians are haoles. It means "without breath" because, when Captain Cook "discovered" the archipelago in 1778, he refused to greet people the traditional Hawaiian way, by inhaling their breath. He opted for shaking hands instead.
Well now, I found a house right on the beach in Anahola, and I decided to take it. I dug right in. I bought a twenty-two-foot Sea Cat, a power boat that I named the Far Eagle, and kept her right out front, in my yard. This really, really large Hawaiian nicknamed Big Joe used to walk past my house and harass me all the time: "Billy, when are you going fishing in that thing? Get the boat out! C'mon, the fish are running today!"
Big Joe wasn't the friendliest to haolies like me; in fact he had a reputation for altercations. That's putting it kindly. But for whatever reason, I was the exception. He was an experienced fisherman, so I agreed to take him out fishing if he'd help me get the boat in good shape. It was a deal and we went out fishing for our first time together.
As soon as we got out there, a big squall came in and started dumping rain on us. Suddenly, we had a bite. We hooked up what we guessed was a marlin, because it just started running line like crazy. Joe and another guy on the boat with us start yelling at me, in Hawaiian. "Hana pa'a! Hana pa'a!" I was new to fishing, new to the island, new to Hawaiian culture; I didn't have any clue what they were saying. Why would I? They were trying to tell me that we were hooked up to a fish. They thought I understood that it was my cue to gun the boat for a few seconds, push her forward, because it would sink the hook in the mouth and get us one step closer to bringing in the fish. So what did I do? I backed off the gas, instead.
"Okay," I thought, "Let's stop and reel it in!" The fish instantly spit the hook and got away. I got yelled at a few times during all of this. That's how I learned what "hana pa'a" means and also what to do when I heard it. I wouldn't make that same mistake again. But I still had to prove myself to Big Joe and his friends. And I had to prove myself to the island. I had to prove that I was worthy.
The next time out, it was just me and Big Joe. We managed to catch two really large ahi tunas. They might've been 100-pounders. It was serious. I didn't fuck up this time. I started driving the boat home while Big Joe got to work cleaning the fish. He gutted them efficiently, then threw them on ice in the fish boxes. When he was done, he sat down next to me-it was a good day at sea. We were happy fishermen. But something caught my eye: in the back corner of the boat, there was this triangular fleshy thing, with a white valve on it. "What the fuck is this?" I picked it up with my hand and, lo and behold, it was beating. It was one of the fish's hearts and it was still beating! I was totally shocked. I grabbed Joe's arm and shook his hand with it. He tried to play cool but his eyes betrayed him. I caught him off guard.
I knew what I had to do. I took the heart back in my hand, looked Big Joe in the eye ... and then ripped into it with my teeth, taking a bite out of it. It was easily the worst thing I've ever put in my mouth. Fucking horrendous. Worse than anything on the menu at Applebees. I could feel the heart beating between my teeth. I spat it out, guzzled a Budweiser and fought to get my composure back. Then I looked at Big Joe. I stretched out my hand and offered him the rest of the heart. Here was this 300-pound Hawaiian whose acceptance and respect I had been trying to earn. But suddenly, there I was, daring him-challenging him-to take a bite out of a beating, disembodied fish heart. He looked back at me with big, alarmed eyes; he knew damn well that it was a test. The tide had turned. He took a little bite, spat it out, chased it with beer, and then said, "Holy shit! That was disgusting!" We laughed about it, all the while knowing that we had just cemented our friendship. I passed his test; he passed mine.
Big Joe's face softened up and he, very gently, said, "Don't tell any of my brothers about this. I don't want them to know." He made me promise I wouldn't tell, and I promised, and for years I kept that promise. The only reason I can tell you now is because, eventually, he took to bragging about the whole thing.
Later on, when we became regular fishing buddies, Big Joe would shout orders at me, like, "Hold that pole like a man, Bill!" He didn't give a shit that I was in the Grateful Dead. We caught fish together and that was all that mattered.
Palo Alto, California
People have always called the Grateful Dead a San Francisco band, but the truth is that we were a San Rafael band that started out as a Palo Alto band.
I was born in Palo Alto, a small town about thirty-three miles south of San Francisco. It's less than an hour's drive to the city-usually-but it can feel like continents apart, and not just because of all the standstill traffic. It's a whole different culture.
I spent most of my time in Palo Alto just trying to figure a way out. I needed something bigger, something more. I wanted to break out.
My parents met at Stanford University. My dad was from San Francisco and my mom was from New Orleans. The hospital where I was born, Stanford Hospital, is now a rehab center. Kind of apropos, huh? That was May 7, 1946.
I have one sister, Marcia L. Kreutzmann, thirteen years younger than me. I was an only child for thirteen years. Our house was at 1512 Byron in Palo Alto. It's still there.
The first music concert that I went to was in Palo Alto. It must have been some time in the summer and it was on the back of a flatbed truck. I think it was a country-and-western/rock band, and I watched the drummer play and it looked really cool to be able to play music and still get physical with stuff. It was the music and movement, working together to create rhythm that I really liked. I wanted to play piano and I wanted to play trumpet, but I never picked up either one. My parents didn't have a piano so that wasn't going to happen, and drums just became the thing.
And yet, I hated the snare drum, growing up. Our house was in earshot of a military academy; every afternoon, we'd be forced to hear marching band practice. I was always aware of the time, because they would start at 2:30 and for the next hour, the marching band would be louder than my thoughts. And my thoughts were, "I hate those drums." There was no escape. You could hear it all throughout the neighborhood. I was sick of stupid march music. I wanted nothing to do with it and never wanted to hear another snare drum in my life. But then I saw my first live band and the drummer had a full kit and it was a whole different ball game. He used all four limbs and the snare was just one thing in his arsenal of sound. Also, I think this might explain why I had an aversion to Mickey Hart's marches, decades later. But we'll get to that.
By the time I was in sixth grade, my last year at Middlefield Elementary School, all I wanted to do was to play music. I was so determined, that I joined the school's god-awful band class, even though it didn't sound like music to me. Whenever I walked by that classroom, all I heard was noise. And the poor teacher taught all the different instruments, including the drums. Every instrument. A lot of the kids from wealthier families had their own equipment, but since I didn't, I was assigned one of the school's drums. I was handed a big old marching bass drum, covered with dust as if nobody had ever played it. And then the teacher handed me sheet music and I was supposed to read it and play along on the drum. I had been told that much, but I hadn't been told how to do it. I could tell during that very first class that this wasn't going to work. About a minute into the second class, the teacher came over and kicked me out. She said, "You can't keep a beat."
My response was, "Okay, good." The music sucked. I didn't really care. I just hit the bass drum any time I felt like it-kind of like I do today. There was nothing for me to keep a beat to; the notes on the page looked like someone spilled an ashtray across the sheets after a full night of partying. The splotches of ink made no sense to me. And I didn't hear anything that I wanted to play along with, anyway. It wasn't music to my ears. I'd been listening to Ray Charles and Fats Domino and all this wonderful stuff as a kid. My musical tastes were already hip. Remember, my mom was from New Orleans. So whatever the teacher was trying to get these kids to play, it was like, "What the fuck?"
Lucky for me, both of my parents loved black music, and they would listen to the black radio station, KDIA in the East Bay. "Lucky 13." It's still there today, I believe. For many years it was the heartbeat of soul music in the Bay Area. Our whole family tuned in to it. We wouldn't be caught dead listening to KDIA now, though, because it devolved into a Christian rock station.
My dad worked up at the Emporium-one of the first real department stores-and I'd go to work with him some days, just to hang out or go to a movie, and he would always have the dial tuned to KDIA. I don't remember all the music-a lot of it embarrassed me, because it was so frank compared to the white stuff-but my parents loved it. It was cool.
After I got kicked out of band class, I got on my bike and rode up to old town Palo Alto to a music store, and there was a sign in the front window that said, "Drum lessons, three dollars per half hour. Call Lee Andersen at this number." I called him and that very Saturday he met me at the music store. That's when I bought my very first pair of drumsticks. At $1.95, they were too expensive for me, but Lee loaned me the money, and I remember those sticks to this day. They were the most precious thing I'd ever owned. It was like, "Ah, this is me! I'm holdingme for once." I finally had something that really meant "Bill." Something that I could identify with.
Lee Andersen became my drum teacher. Immediately after my first lesson, I went home and took out all my mother's pots and pans, and started playing on the kitchen floor. I didn't have a drum set yet, but my parents weren't home. So I did that for hours.
Lee lived up behind Stanford University on a street called Perry Lane, which is where Ken Kesey was writing his novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. They were almost next-door neighbors. Kesey was working on his book at the same time that I was taking drum lessons, just a few houses over.
Walking inside Lee's house was like taking a trip to the Hawaiian Islands-it was decorated top to bottom in Hawaiian style, with fake palm trees and hula skirts lining the bar. It was my first trip to Hawaii. Little did I know I'd end up living on Kauai.
Lee had a silver Slingerland drum set sprawled out like furniture across the living room, with a bass drum that doubled as a floor tom if needed. During my lessons, he also taught me some more advanced stuff, such as the finer points of making multicolored mixed drinks. You have to layer them so the colors don't run together. That was very important. So was drinking them. At the beginning of the lesson, he'd tell me about the woman he had been with the night before, what she looked like naked, and all these other things. It was all part of the drum lesson. It was learning the rhythms of life.
After one of the lessons, Lee started high jumping with some friends of his, over a high bar that they had set up outside. Kesey was there, too, and came crashing over the bar. At age thirteen, it was too high for me, so I went back inside the house and banged on Lee's kit until dark. He never stopped me or told me to quit.
Lee got a physics degree at Stanford, then regretted it. When you're a physicist, who wants to hire you the most? The government. And what do they want you to do? Make nuclear weapons. Lee said fuck that. He wanted to invent. He had the idea that he was going to invent a machine that detected gold.
My whole focus was on getting to that drum lesson every Saturday afternoon. I had to ride my bike up the hill behind Stanford University and I can still remember the smell of the eucalyptus trees along the way. It was the beginning of fall and the trees still held the smell of summer. The scent of the trees, with the feeling of the drum sticks in my pocket, gave me the motivation to ride uphill, as fast as I could go. I never missed a lesson.
I barely noticed any of the other houses around Lee's, but Phil Lesh told me a funny little story once about one of them. At some point, Phil actually snuck into Kesey's house and read part of the manuscript Kesey had been working on, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, before it was published. He came back and said, "Kesey's a really good writer." Everybody knew he was writing a book, so the buzz was already out among a certain crowd. But Phil had the courage, the audacity, to go in and read his stuff. "Yeah, he's a good writer." I didn't know Phil yet, but that would change.
Not far from Perry Lane was a boarding house nicknamed the Chateau, where Phil, Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter-who became the Grateful Dead's lyricist-and many other creative types lived at various points. Some of them would in some way intersect with my life in the years that followed, some were just transients. Jerry and Robert actually lived in their cars, out back, at first, before they could afford rent. I didn't know anything about Jerry, or the others, when I visited there, though. I was the high school kid; they were the beatniks.
I knew some of the other musicians staying at the Chateau but I only remember Danny Barnett, a good jazz drummer who's no longer with us, darn it. Somebody must've invited me to go over there once and I stumbled into a really hip scene. Almost too hip for me, at the time. I don't remember smoking dope or anything, I just remember being there. There was a great jam session in the living room and that's what I was really after. I sat in on the last song of the night, where I got to show off my newest trick: a shuffle. I was nervous. I was also elated.
I always gravitated to places where I could hear music that was far-out. In downtown Palo Alto there was a coffeehouse called St. Michael's Alley, next to the movie theater on University Avenue, where I would go to check out live music. Jazz. And there was another place I used to frequent called the Tangent, which was where Garcia played banjo with Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions.
The first time I played music in front of people wasn't at a gig. It was just playing around, in front of friends, for fun. My dad drove me there. I was probably thirteen or fourteen years old. I didn't have much of a drum kit, though. My dad rented me a snare drum and a hi-hat, and that was it. The bassist's dad rented him a bass and a bass amp, and he knew about as much on bass as I did on the drums. The guitarist was this hot local player who knew some rock 'n' roll songs, and we sat there and played for a while. The last song we did at the end of the session was "Johnny B. Goode." The guitar player really got it right and, to my surprise, my friends on the couch all got up and started dancing, and I said, "Yeah!"
That moment was the catalyst for everything. It was the first truly joyful moment of my life. I was given the gift of finding something that was so clearly my passion, it was undeniable. That was my direction from then on.
Afterward, my dad came to pick me up and on the way down the front stairs, he saw something sparkling in my eye, lighting up my entire face like a kid at his first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, watching his favorite cartoon character waltz across the sky. I was lit from doing something that I really loved. And from out of nowhere he said, "You know, Billy, you won't earn any money playing music." I said, "Dad, I didn't even think of that." My head was still somewhere else, still high from the experience of playing music and the unexpected joy it brought me when I saw those kids dancing to my beat. It was my own little acid trip, years before I first tried acid. I learned a lot about my dad in that moment and I knew that he had seen something new in me that wasn't there before. I now had desire in my life. Passion.
My dad was so concerned with money and that was very strange to me. The war had ended something like twelve or maybe fifteen years earlier, but it had taken him out of Stanford, where he was studying to become a lawyer. He had to become a soldier instead.
My dad wanted me to go to college and become a businessman and make a respectable income. Musicians were still second-class citizens-the "help," back then. My dad loved me and he supported me, but he never thought I'd have much of a career being a drummer. I think he wanted his own second chance, through me, and didn't think that it would happen if I ran off chasing fantasies with a rock 'n' roll band.
Years later, he returned to Stanford, but this time to watch the Grateful Dead play a sold-out concert at the Frost Amphitheater. He wore a shirt that said, "Grateful Dad."
I got a paper route so that I could buy my first drum set. I'd throw my papers the same way that most paperboys do. You know how kids ride without holding onto the handlebars? That's what I did. It was a flat and easy paper route, so I'd just practice playing drums on the handlebars as I rode along. It was fun to do that; I didn't think anything of it.
Around this time, I got totally hooked on rock 'n' roll. I couldn't have been more into it. There was so much to learn but I was an eager student. I started playing Ray Charles songs, like "What'd I Say." I found out that a lot of the stuff that I liked in my playing came from Fats Domino-more of a 12/8, more of a shuffle feeling, a New Orleans feeling. That's really my style more than straight sixteenth notes. It bounces a little bit and it feels good. Anyway, that came from listening to that earlier music-Fats Domino and the music from New Orleans. I don't remember many of the other artists by name. My mom had lots of albums by black groups that were really good. She had an album by a band called the Olympics that had one or two really great songs. And she had Duke Ellington.
The first time I listened to James Brown was when I was a senior in high school. I had my own apartment where I could play drums and nobody would complain, so I would put on albums and try to play along and learn the parts. But when I tried to do that with James Brown, I went, "What the fuck is that guy doing, and how the fuck is he doing it?" Of course, years later, I learned that he had two drummers on those albums. That's interesting to think about now. Two drummers, eh?
I liked jazz a lot, too, but my heavy jazz stuff didn't really start until I was nineteen and living with Phil Lesh. So that came later. Mostly, I listened to early Ray Charles, just to get off on the way the drummer played so musically. I was fascinated by the different rhythms he used throughout the album and the way the different parts and instruments all fit together. I loved that music. I loved hearing Ray Charles's Live at Newport-that was a really big one for me, because it had "The Night Time is the Right Time" on there, with a killer intro sax solo. I used to listen to that all the time. I also listened to some funk.
I joined my first band before that-the Legends. They were all guys from Palo Alto. One of the members played football on the high school team-I was still in junior high. The others were all perfectly fine muggles. I haven't kept in touch with them but one of the guys got into politics and became some kind of town representative in Palo Alto.
We had matching band costumes-we wore red sport coats and black pants and black ties. It was all corny, straight stuff. Nobody had taken psychedelics or smoked pot yet. The Legends were still a straight band. We were just copying other songs; we didn't have any original material. It was just a platform to learn and play music, while having fun.
We had a sax player and we played whatever was popular then. We'd do "What'd I Say," which I already said I loved and knew how to play. And we did stuff like Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." We also did some Ventures' songs-"Walk Don't Run" was one of them.
Our first gigs were at the YMCA. They were always big events for us. I wasn't sixteen yet. My dad would drive us all over there. We would load everything into his Ford station wagon and then he'd help me set up. It was always a horrible scene: the Mexicans would beat up the white guys. I was glad to be on a drum set, playing, so I didn't get in a fight. It was terrible. They were such fighters, but we were just white, middle-class kids. For a while I grew up frightened of Mexicans.
My parents got divorced when I was in eighth or ninth grade. My mom couldn't handle me at home. I was too wild or something. At least, in her eyes. So she sent me away to a prep school that was run by a headmaster who was once on a football team that my grandfather coached.
My grandfather, Clark Shaughnessy, coached the Stanford University football team that won the 1941 Rose Bowl. He modified the T Formation and tweaked it until it was wild enough to win championships. It was innovative and crazy at the same time. It made him famous. He eventually accepted the position of head coach in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams and then, later, coached the Chicago Bears. He was a really good man. I loved him. Still do.
Until Stanford won that championship, though-at the end of his first year as head coach-they were really uneasy with his nontraditional approach. They were worried about his twenty-fifth-century way of thinking. They had never seen plays like his before, and that concerned them. When someone comes along and changes the way something is done, if it doesn't work, they call it foolish. But when it works, they call it revolutionary.
Whether you loved the Grateful Dead or felt differently, there's no disputing that we changed the way things were done. Even when we tackled traditional songs, we always approached everything with an eye toward innovation. Some of it worked and some of it didn't, but we put more money on risky chances than on sure bets, every time. People told us we were crazy, pretty much every day of our career. Yet, we ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. My grandfather ended up in the College Football Hall of Fame (and accumulated other, similar accolades as well). So, as the drummer, you can see where I got it from.
After playing for my grandfather, Charlie Orme became headmaster of the prep school that his father founded in Prescott, Arizona: the Orme School. My mom sent me there. I ended up only going for a year-ninth grade-but it was an interesting year. Not my favorite.
I didn't get in there on my grades or accolades; I got in because my granddad was a well-known football coach. They made me repeat the ninth grade, but it was either that or military school. That was the ultimatum my mother gave me. I really had no choice at all. It was either horses or guns. But with horses came the promise to play football. Guns we'll get to later.
I had been playing music for a few years at that point and really getting into it. Being sent to prep school meant that I had to be away from my drums, but not my drum sticks-I brought those sticks that Lee Anderson bought me. In bed at night, after lights-out, I would count the days until I could be reunited with my drum set. It was like suffering a punishment for a crime I didn't commit.
For sport, at this prep school, I played six-man football. We had a really good team. We won every game. But I couldn't keep a grade point, so they kicked me off. It's embarrassing telling you all this now, actually. But I was big for my age, so I was a redshirted freshman. I was on the varsity and played with all the seniors and did really well-just because I was big, not because I was any good at football. When they booted me from the team, they said, "Now you have to ride horses."
That didn't sit very well with me. The other people that rode horses were mostly girls, and they weren't exactly pretty, so it was kind of like, "Ehh." And I wasn't able to play any music. Whenever I could, I would practice by hitting my drumsticks against my pillow. Every night, I'd listen to Ray Charles and the cool stuff from when he was in his R&B period, when he first started playing, and I'd fall asleep happy.
Every day, I begged my mother to take me out of prep school. I wrote her letters from study hall, insisting she let me withdraw. But she didn't. Then my dad did the coolest thing. He crated up my drums and shipped them off to Arizona. I didn't know they were coming. When they arrived, I pried open the crates, not knowing what to expect. At the very first glimpse, the very first second I saw that my drums were in there, love and meaning and passion all came flooding back into my life. I had my drums back.
The school allowed me to play those drums after class instead of riding horses, which was really cool of them. They let me set up my drums in the multipurpose room, which actually was a reconditioned barn, with a stage.
I could go in there and practice every day after school, just about whenever I wanted, unless they were holding meetings. One day, I was playing away and in walked the headmaster with this guy that had these really thick coke-bottle eyeglasses, and the headmaster signaled me to be quiet. You know, "Come on, shut up, enough already." But his guest didn't mind. He prodded the headmaster in the side with his elbow. "No, tell him to keep playing. I've never heard anything like that." I liked that guy. It turns out, that guy was Aldous Huxley, the author.
I had no idea who Aldous Huxley was at that time. He was there to give a lecture later in that very same room to the student body. We heard the lecture that night. I remember being there really well, I just couldn't figure out what the hell he was talking about. I recognized that his words had a really good energy to them, but I didn't understand what they meant. Years later, it began to make sense.
Huxley's most famous book, Brave New World, was about his fear of a government that could manufacture people, creating a nation of exact duplicates. The cloning of the masses. Huxley's trip was that we're approaching a point where we'll have the technology to do that. Give a government enough power and control, and they could start mass-producing obedient citizens. And it would be a total nightmare. A living hell.
Huxley was English, and he experienced the horror of Germany during its darkest period. Hitler wanted a world of clones. Huxley did not. He had a fear of a country-not just Germany but maybe even America-trying to artificially make their own flawed idea of the perfect race of people. That was the theme of his lecture.
I have that same fear and it's even more relevant today. In more ways than most of us care to admit, America isn't that far away from doing something like that right now. It's just more insidious than in Brave New World.
But the coolest thing about my serendipitous encounter with Huxley is that Huxley was also an acid head. A few years later, so was I. In fact, in different ways, we're both now famous for our love of acid. And because of it.
Anyway, that's one of my clearest memories of being a kid. My other memories include my parents doing some pretty wild stuff. My dad taught me rocketry class. It should've been called missile class. This was earlier; I think I was around eleven or twelve at the time. He said, "We're going to learn to make rockets, Billy," and I said, "Okay, let's do that." We packed black powder into copper tubes, put firecracker fuses on them, and fired those fuckers off. I got the hang of it pretty fast. We'd shoot them out across the road, carelessly. Luckily, we didn't hit anything. At least, nothing that mattered or complained.
Then one day, my dad said, "Okay, I'm going to teach you about thrust." We had a wood swing in the backyard, hung by metal chains. He took clamps and bolted an eight-inch metal pipe to the swing, packing it with black powder. Passersby would have not-so-causally thought, "Hey, why is there a pipe bomb stuck to this kid's swing?"
I had a sneaking suspicion that this might not be set up correctly, so I went over and got a piece of plywood and hid behind it. I'd seen what the smaller copper tubes could do and this one looked like it could've belonged to NASA. As soon as he lit the thing, it made a loud whooshing sound and the whole area instantly filled up with smoke. It was a complete white-out. I couldn't see a thing but the swing hadn't moved-not an inch. The rocket itself was gone. My dad told me to go inside. "If anybody asks," he said, "tell them the car backfired." When I felt it was safe to come out, I found my dad looking through our orange tree at a brand-new six-inch hole in the back of the house. At least we knew where the rocket had gone. That was my dad, for you. He was pretty carefree like that. We did lots of wild stuff together. But that was the end of rocket class.
After that, my dad said, "That's enough, no more black powder." But he'd leave to go to work and I knew where he kept the black powder, so I went in and continued the experiments. There was this really wealthy kid down at the end of the block, Jeffrey Smedburg, and we wanted to prank him. We had a Prince Albert can-way before we used them for marijuana-and we took it and I filled it about half full of this black powder. I said to him, "When you light it, whatever you do, don't look in it. Hold a match out in front of you; don't let go," and I heard this big whoosh and saw a giant cloud of white smoke. When the smoke cleared, the hair on Jeffrey's face was completely burnt off. We were just kids, so there was no mustache or facial hair, but his eyebrows and eyelashes were gone, his hair was burnt way back, and his face was black. I took him inside and scrubbed him up. I washed him off as hard as I could, hoping to make him look good so his parents would believe the story I was going to make up for him. It finally came to me: "Tell them you've been to a séance." I didn't even know what a fucking séance was. "Tell them you've been to a séance." And that was the last that Jeffrey Smedburg was ever allowed to play with me. With other kids, we just did stuff. We grew up. We did whatever kids do.
I started smoking pot when I was sixteen and I loved it. The first time I got high was right next to my junior high school, at some guy's house in downtown Palo Alto. He had a matchbox full of marijuana-it looked like oregano to me, but when we smoked it, all of a sudden we got this funny buzz and went outside and said, "Oh, this is fucking great!" and we walked all around Palo Alto, stoned. It felt like I was walking on mashed potatoes. Everything was gravy. The next time we bought weed from him, he sold us actual oregano. Bait and switch. So I learned right away what the difference was. You learn about these things as you go; it's a wonderful part of growing up. You learn, you grow. I'm growing now.
Both of my parents went to Stanford and they had a great library. There was never anything good on television, even back then, so whenever I got bored, I would go through my parents' books. When they weren't home, I'd investigate and start reading whatever interested me. I read a bunch of Faulkner and it was kind of intriguing-he wrote in such a weird way. I loved Steinbeck, too, of course.
I don't think I got Jack Kerouac's On the Road from my parents' library, but it came to me somehow. I read it before I really knew the other guys in the Grateful Dead-I know that-but it was an important book to all of us. It became influential to me in the same way that certain music was influential. It was jazz, on the page.
I never met Jack Kerouac but I eventually became friends with Neal Cassady, the real-life hero of On the Road. His character, Dean Moriarty, was larger than life. Even in real life. He was Kerouac's inspiration behind that novel, but he also was an inspiration to anybody who ever crossed paths with him. Myself included. And Ken Kesey. And his Merry Pranksters. And Jerry Garcia. And the Grateful Dead. That was all to come; sooner than you might think.
But when I first picked up On the Road, it was my boarding pass out of Palo Alto and into destinations unknown-my life's great adventure. It seemed to say that there was something greater out there, and even if it didn't appear within my reach, I could grab ahold of it anyway, just by believing that it was possible. That's really important. Because after that, I started reaching for it. And sure enough, I was able to grab ahold.
This was right at the age when everyone started getting their driver's licenses and we got to experience some of the freedom that Kerouac talked about in On the Road, but for real. This was the teenage version because we still went home at night. The first car I had was a '58 Dodge station wagon, not unlike my dad's. We wore grooves in the asphalt on Highway 101 going up to San Francisco. Sometimes we'd hit Skyline and take the back roads up. That's how I learned that the best stuff is often found on the alternate routes.
In San Francisco, there was a club called the Jazz Workshop and they used to have an eighteen-and-over section. You could sit behind a screen of chicken wire and watch artists like Cal Tjader play. They had to keep us separated from the bar because we weren't old enough to drink, but I'd go there because I could hear live music-live, far-out music-and that was always my calling. I'd find myself in Santa Cruz ... I remember Big Mama Thornton singing at a club across the street from the boardwalk. Since I wasn't twenty-one yet, I had to look through a hole in the wall, but I could hear the music. I'd always do that kind of thing-anything to get within earshot.
When my parents finally got divorced, it had a much bigger effect on me than I first admitted. It hurt because you can't really side with one or the other. You love them both. You don't want to see them fighting. I came home from prep school after only one year. At first, I stayed at my mother's house. Then my dad helped me get my own apartment. I left home, basically, at sixteen. Still in high school.
In order to pay for my first apartment, I worked any kind of job I could get. I gave drum lessons, just trying to get by any way I could. I worked at the weirdest job ever-I sold human hair wigs. "That wig is so you; you look ten years younger!" That was when I was a junior in high school.
I wanted to be in a band again, so I tried to get my gig back with the Legends. I lucked out when they didn't let me rejoin. They said, "Oh, you left." "Well ... okay." "You were sent away to school...." "Yeah, I know." Thank God they didn't take me back, because soon after that, I went and saw Jerry Garcia play at the Tangent and that led to being in a band with him and that led to everything that followed. The rest of my life.
I played a gig with Jerry before that, but with him on bass. He didn't even sing. He did it just to do it. That group was called the Zodiacs. A guy named Ron McKernan played harmonica. You know who that is? That's Pigpen. He didn't have that nickname quite yet. The guitarist's name was Troy Weidenheimer; he was a hotshot player from Palo Alto and it was his band. Jerry was the hired bass player and I was the hired drummer. I only remember playing that one gig with them, but I was in way over my head. I always did that. I always played things that were really hard and it didn't matter. I just went for it.
The night that I saw Garcia at the Tangent, he played banjo with a jug band called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. I had forgotten that he bought my dad's banjo. He might've even been playing it that night.
It was an amazing night. He had the whole place totally under his spell. I sat right in front of him, spellbound. Right then, I became the first Deadhead because I said, "I'm going to follow this guy forever." I really did say that to myself, and I'd never said that about anything or anybody before. About two weeks later, he called me and said, "Hey, you want to play in a band?" "Yeah, sure." Suddenly I had a band again. We called ourselves the Warlocks, then we changed our name to the Grateful Dead.
Copyright © 2015 by Bill Kreutzmann