Listening to everything, so you don't have to

All the new stuff will be here: RatDog, Furthur, Phil & Friends... I listen to the rehearsal tapes that surface on etree, I watch the videos from Dime and Trader's Den. I also occasionally post little research projects on various periods and people that were pivotal in the life of the Grateful Dead.
Everything you never got around to checking out, I did.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sam Cutler: "You Can't Always Get What You Want..."

“…my life with the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and other wonderful reprobates.” At three-hundred-odd pages, it’s a surprisingly quick read. As the sub-title implies, the book covers the five years between mid-1969 and mid-1974, during which time Cutler managed the Rolling Stones’ American tour and the Grateful Dead. It describes all the debauchery of the rock and roll circus, complete with a colorful cast of drug dealers, con men, cops, shady lawyers and ruthless promoters.
It is very well written; better, I confess, than I would have expected from a man whose life experience is so far removed from literary academia. Suspecting that it was ghost-written, I took a look at Cutler’s blog. The styles match, and if there was clearly some professional editing, Cutler’s language and turns of phrase are prettier than Phil’s and more colloquial than McNally’s.
From a strictly academic point of view, there are some deficiencies. Written thirty-five years after a period during which, by his account, he was high (on any number of drugs) and/or drunk virtually all the time, he outlines certain events with suspicious specificity. There are also a few inconsistencies and factual errors sprinkled about – for instance the claim that Keith Godchaux joined the Dead in 1970, rather than ’71. This book is a memoir, not a piece of historical literature, and while I had trouble nailing down any hard facts of objective significance, it was immensely enjoyable.

The first half of the book – after a cursory summation of the author’s childhood and coming-of-age – focuses on the troubled US tour that the Rolling Stones engaged upon in October 1969, with a special focus on the Altamont debacle. Cutler outlines, in the introduction, his intention to set the record straight on the Stones’ responsibility for Altamont. While I for one had a different impression, he starts from the premise that to this day, the Stones are held responsible for the whole thing, that they organized it and hired the Hell’s Angels to do security. The picture he weaves is highly complete and nuanced, written from the perspective of someone at the center of the disorganized, uncontrollable zoo.
As tour manager, Cutler’s job was to take care of the band members themselves, a position that put him in the administrative center of the tour yet conferred on him very limited power: he saw all but could affect nothing. On one side were the groupies, stunning girls who insinuated themselves into every backstage area, hotel room, airplane and limousine to engage in every manner of drug-addled debauchery with any member of the touring party, no matter how far removed, in a quest to get access to the band themselves. Then there were the legions of local personnel, promoters, agents, peripheral business executives and assorted hangers-on that constantly entered and exited the circus as the band traveled along, a constant gaggle of authorized personnel that nobody at the center knew nor cared about. Finally, and this is where the intrigue starts, there were a few highly connected people who, despite not having any official connection to tour management, became centrally influential players in daily operations.
One of these was Ken “Goldfinger” Connell, a rich and well-stocked drug dealer, a friend and confidant of the West Coast rock scene, who had lost a hand in a freak accident while running drugs out of Mexico. Another was a certain John Jaymes who first introduced himself as the “man from Chrystler,” on scene to smooth out a little trouble with missing rental cars. Within weeks, however, Jaymes was inexplicably handling security with twenty off-duty NYPD officers and a private drug dealer to keep the band and crew well-supplied with cocaine and everything else, entirely without contract or payment from the Stones’ management.

The Altamont concert was a half-baked idea thrown about on the suggestion of Bay Area acquaintances, primarily the Dead’s Rock Scully, which grew legs of its own when Mick Jagger, constantly needled by media attacks about greed and high ticket prices, announced the free concert as a fact. The West Coast people organized it, such as it was, as a one-day festival, while it was represented in the media as a Rolling Stones affair. Cutler had serious reservations about the feasibility of the event, and into the breach stepped Jaymes. He claimed to represent the Stones (with no legal authority to do so) and, unsolicited, set about “making it happen.” The last-minute venue changes, the pathetically small stage and the organizational issues of the concert itself are fairly well known, but there were wider intrigues as well, including a huge, mysterious batch of extremely potent LSD which had extremely adverse effects on a large portion of the attendees, causing freak-outs and fights almost from the moment people started showing up 24 hours before the show.
The central revelation of the book is Cutler’s assertion that the Federal authorities had a major hand in the catastrophic mood of the concert. He asserts that Jaymes was a small-time mafioso affiliated with the Castellano mob in New York and who had testified against another mafia group in New England, and that he was somehow also working for the FBI. The Feds were supposedly seriously concerned with the potential impact of the Woodstock culture and were determined to sabotage any further mass concerts. Largely on the word of Ken Goldfinger, Cutler states that Jaymes and a lawyer, also involved in the planning, had recently been meeting with the FBI, and that there were a number of undercover federal agents at the show, including the head of the FBI’s San Francisco branch. He also reveals that the mysterious acid contained a nearly toxic 1600 micrograms of pure LSD, “almost seven times the normal “meeting God” dose,” and that, according to the small Bay Area community of underground LSD manufacturers, it was created using a pill press worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a sum vastly beyond the means of any underground chemist but easily accessible to a government authority.

Immediately after Altamont, the Rolling Stones skipped town as fast as possible to avoid the media and police frenzy over the death of Meredith Hunter, the gun-wielding concert-goer stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels in front of the stage. As Cutler tells it, he stayed behind of his own volition to represent the band and defuse the inevitable backlash that would follow. Jagger tried to discourage him but finally acquiesced, promising that all his expenses would be paid. Nothing came of the promise and Cutler found himself penniless, homeless and friendless. The only people he knew in the area were the Grateful Dead, who had been his main contacts in the planning of Altamont, and he made his way to Mickey’s ranch in Novato. The GD family welcomed him. Jerry invited him to stay with Mountain Girl and himself at their place in Larkspur.
It was nine months after the departure of Lenny Hart and Garcia was thinking about how to reorganize the Dead’s managerial apparatus. He offered Cutler the position of co-manager, with David (and Bonnie, by default) Parker and Jon McIntire; they would be in charge of tour management, accounting and general management respectively. The Dead were in a huge financial hole. Not only had Lenny stolen some 150 thousand dollars, but the band owed money to Warner Brothers, and their touring was haphazard and financially nonsensical. In the next few years, Cutler would overhaul the Dead’s touring practices, putting together tours that made geographic sense, he would streamline their travel arrangements and structure per diems to eliminate waste and conserve as much money as possible. He also founded Out Of Town Tours, a company based down the street from GD headquarters in San Rafael, that handled travel arrangements for the Dead, The Band, the New Riders, the Allman Brothers and others.

His memories of the band members themselves are almost all very kind. He remembers Mickey’s kindness in welcoming him in the first place, Garcia’s generosity and the emotional background they shared, and Pigpen’s soft bluesman soul, buffeted by the psychedelic winds that had overtaken the band he had more or less founded, and who was fundamentally not at home in the midst of LSD parties and musical space flight. He talks about Ramrod, Steve Parish and Bear, and describes his ongoing rivalry with Bill Graham with some relish (they got in a fist fight at one of the Stones’ west coast shows).
There is a chapter on Weir that illustrates the not-so-cute side of Weir’s legendary mischievousness. “[He] considered the whole business of being on the road an opportunity to try out every dumb practical joke he knew. He loved to wind me up and it annoyed me no end. Weir, I quickly noted, had problems in airports. In fact, Weir had problems in any kind of public space. I tried to think of a name for his condition and the best I could come up with was “anarchic agoraphobia.” In other words, give the guy a wide-open space and you’d have complete chaos on your hands. The later it was in the day, the more likely he was to indulge in all kinds of silly tricks.” Making the road manager’s life a pain in the ass seemed to give Weir endless pleasure, and it took a while for Cutler to come around. Eventually, after losing it and popping Weir in the nose one day, the two had a sit-down and straightened things out.
The Dead family was something very different from the Stones'. Cutler’s recollections of his time with the Dead, which included the Festival Express and Europe ’72, are full of anecdotes about traveling and practical jokes, most of them revolving around the crew’s practice of dosing anyone and everyone with LSD. For instance, the birthday cake rolled out on Janis’ (last) birthday at the end of the Festival Express tour was completely laced, and everybody wound up partaking, including the police officers in charge of security. A few choice stories from the Europe tour also illustrate the chaotic yet good-natured anarchy that were Grateful Dead tours in the early seventies.

But the life of a tour manager is stressful and complicated, and there is no rest for the weary. Cutler weaves in the unglamorous side of living with the world’s most successful touring acts. His primary job was getting The Money, no small feat in a world with few contracts, little insurance, and endless layers of promoters all trying to get their end. At the same time, he had to be available and lucid at any time of the day or night to deal with travel arrangements, venue logistics, cancellations, local promoters and crew, errant band members, busts, police hassles, crowd control, guest lists, backstage passes, hotel complaints, fights, parties, etc. After Europe, he was hospitalized with a stress-induced bleeding ulcer; a little while later, David Nelson confronted him about whether he was skimming money from the New Riders; finally, in mid ’74, he was told in a band meeting “Sam, we have someone who can book the band for five percent.” Cutler was charging 10. He told them “good luck” and that was that.

He does not seem to bear any rancor towards either the Stones, who abandoned him after Altamont and never paid him the money they owed him, or the Dead, who he felt neither appreciated his efforts nor trusted his honesty. There is no mention of what he did afterwards, but he seems to have moved on quite well after his years at the apex of the Rock world, hanging out with Janis Joplin, getting high with Hendrix and Keith Richards, a man he adored, and drowning in groupies and cocaine… In retrospect, those five years must have sated his interest in the glamour of Rock and Roll.

There are sure to be some exaggerations in the tale, some embellishments and some omissions, but “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a hell of a read nonetheless. I find his description of the circumstances of Altamont perfectly plausible, and his accounts of life with the Stones and the Dead are not out of line with the prevailing literature on the subject. If there is one significant angle here, it is the excellent description of the uncontrollable beast that was the Stones tour, of the powerful competing interests at work and the relative impotence of the actual band members, and of how the free concert took on a life of its own despite innumerable warning signs. It also provides some commentary on the early phase of the Grateful Dead and the way in which their stubborn insistence on mutual trust and communal decision-making left them open to exploitation and prevented them from making any real money.
It is, overall, a very interesting read for anyone who wants to know what it was like to ride that storm. It wouldn’t stand up in court, so to speak, but it communicates the atmosphere wonderfully, and it’s full of good stories.

Up next: really not sure. Suggestions welcome.


  1. Fascinating entry! Based on your summary, I think Sam Cutler WAS a little bit bitter about how Rolling Stones had treated him and wrote the book partly to set the record straight and to find piece of mind?

  2. I think you mean "peace" of mind;-)
    A great read, Benito!

  3. Thanks for your great review. I also liked the book better than I expected.
    I feel that the Stones should pay Cutler royalties in retrospective for the intro on Get Yer YaYa's Out. It still gives me goosebums all over my fuk.
    A pleasant coicidence for myself that Cutler also got me hooked on the Grateful Dead.
    Just started with Live , Beauty, Europe 72 and Egypt the Cradle.
    Best Regards,
    Erwin J. Hoetjes / Amsterdam / The Netherlands

  4. I worked FOR & With Sam on that tour. His Book is as unerringly accurate as ANY EVER WILL BE. I was there, witnessed, Participated & Saw. Sam REMAINS My VERY Close Friend to this day. His Book is FAR more Accurate than Mine WILL BE ...

  5. Where in the world did you get the assumption that people who are involved with rock music aren't educated enough to write a book without a ghost writer? If you'd read Cutler's bio you might know he has a degree in history,and taught at Cambridge,yet you suggest he can't have remembered the incidents he writes about. You write: " From a strictly academic point of view..." What are your credentials to make such a statement?

    1. In response to Anonymous: looking back now, my attitude borders on condescension, and an apology is warranted.
      I meant no disparagement about a possible ghost writer; politicians regularly use ghost writers, and it's common for people to publish books with a co-author. I had in fact seen that he had taught at Cambridge, which ought to have been enough of a clue. In my defense, the tattoos-and-grim-expressions press photos I've seen, combined with the cut-throat nature of the business dealings he describes in the book left me with the impression that he was tougher and more down-to-earth than the academics I know. In terms of memory, I know I get fuzzy on things that happened more than a few years ago; I was on fewer drugs than he, and his experiences date back 40 years. Finally, about the "academic point of view," I'm currently researching a PhD, so corroborating sources independently is a bit of a necessary obsession. In addition, there are plenty of apocryphal and/or fabricated anecdotes from people who were there (I'm thinking especially of Rock Scully in this context).
      Anyhow, none of this is an excuse, only an explanation. No offense was meant.

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  7. Just found your blog. I'm reading the Steve Parish book Home Before Daylight - wonder if you have read that? I plan to read this Cutler book next. Nice blog!

  8. I trained as a teacher of emotionally disturbed children at the Cambridge Institute of education, and also have an honours degree in Contemporary History. Acedemic qualifications have NOTHING to do with whether one can write or not. I have been writing for some forty years, and consider myself primarily as a writer, so the suggestion that my book was ghost written is hurtful. Other than that, thanks for the 'review' which is certainly one of the better ones than I have read.