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.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Grateful Dead: Fall 1979

Released in November 2007, Road Trips 1.1 highlights the Dead’s “blazing fall 1979 East Coast swing.” Having heard the CDs, I thought it interesting to go back and listen to the whole tour, which included fourteen shows from October 24th to November 10th. Workingman’s Tracker has been doing a ’79 project and I took the opportunity to gather up as many shows from that tour as possible. I wound up with soundboards of ten of the shows. Audience tapes of the first two nights in Springfield and New Haven came up as well, but sticking to soundboards gives me a way to keep my downloading addiction in check. I’m currently closing in on a terabyte of disk space, and that’s just silly.
When Rhino began releasing Road Trips, I frankly thought it was a great idea. Full-show-puritanism notwithstanding, there’s something to be said for an overview of a given tour. Starting in the early seventies and certainly post-hiatus, the band was able to organize clearly defined tours. In between tours, band members had extended periods of time off, so that tours themselves had a certain coherence in terms of sound and vibe. In later years, as the catalogue broadened, there could be very few versions of a given song in a tour. Picking out highlight versions of each tune would, in theory, make a relevant historical snapshot.

The fall of 1979 was notable for several reasons. The Rhythm Devils had just recorded the drum tracks for Apocalypse Now and were now carting around the famous “Beast.” Consisting of a large cylindrical frame festooned with toms, bells, gourds and other assorted rhythm-makers, it provided the drummers with a huge palette of sounds to play with. Though the “drums” section had existed for years, it was in 1979 that it became more than a conventional drum solo. “Space” was tacked on at the end but it was much shorter than in the 90s; where Drumz could eventually stretch to almost thirty minutes, it stayed under 15 in the fall of 1979.
Phil, meanwhile, was in the process of sobering up. By his account, he was drunk in 1978; he put on a lot of weight, and peripheral crew members and tour personnel had taken to calling him Phil Lush. Years later, in one of the band’s interventions with Garcia, Jerry laid into him about his sloppy playing in that period. Phil had also recently switched to a Doug Irwin bass modeled after Jerry’s new Tiger (the same bass he couldn’t get to work during the 1980 Radio City telecast.) He would not stick with the bass very long; to my ears it had a gorgeous midrange but lacked the low-end power of his later Modulus basses.
While Phil was drying out, however, Garcia had slowly begun to make escapism a way of life. He had started using heroin in 1976 during the exhaustive process of editing the Grateful Dead Movie, though it was, for the moment, not affecting his playing; nonetheless, the rest of the band would soon compose an only-half-joking letter accusing him of playing without dynamics and not listening to them like he used to.
Finally, after six months in the Grateful Dead, Brent was hitting his stride and played superbly. In addition to his predecessor’s marital and drug abuse issues, a musically logistical weak spot had been Keith’s insistence on playing a conventional piano. With two drummers, bass, and Jerry’s single-note style, the percussive piano was, as Garcia put it, “more of the same.” They had long pressed Keith to play something with more sustain, and Brent’s facility on the organ was just exactly what they had been looking for.

The overall sound of the tour was that loping style they had perfected over the last two years. Dancing in the Streets and Not Fade Away are the clearest examples. The former was in fine disco-Dead form, with one noticeable difference: while everyone’s favorite version, from Cornell, had a ten-minute Garcia solo, the jam now involved more equitable contribution across the board; rather than holding the groove, the band was throwing ideas around, making things more interesting. The latter song, NFA, was in the same general swingy/sulky shape as the long workout from the Closing of Winterland show. My favorite rendition was on November 2nd, where they took some time to work into it from the drum break.
New to the repertoire were Althea, Sailor>Saint and Brent’s Easy To Love You, as yet the only one of his tunes to make it into the rotation. Althea was in that same sort of lope, and it only got five outings. Easy To Love You got seven; generally very tight and well executed. Sailor>Saint, also seven, was evolving: a few words were not yet settled, and the transition between the two really only jelled halfway through the tour. Though Franklin’s Tower was not new, they were playing around with its location. Initially paired with Help>slipknot, it started coming after Half-Step in late ’78. By fall ’79, it could appear anywhere and it was not until 1989 that it permanently went back to following Slipknot.
Brent’s playing bears some mentioning: he asserted a strong presence with his fills, adding color all over the place and keeping things very interesting. But the biggest testament to his abilities is the facility with which he jumped into the longer jams, especially Playing In The Band. The tune was already eight years old, and that centerpiece jam was about as out-there as the band got in the late seventies - no form, no “one” – and yet Brent was right at home in the middle of it, even taking a few choice leads.

From the occasional banter that survives, the band sounded pretty relaxed. Weir’s joke of the moment, which he told at least three times, was “What’s the difference between a duck?” (“May I have the envelope please”) “And the answer is: One leg’s both the same!” Finally, on the last night, Mickey cracked: “Hey Weir, that’s not even a bad joke! That’s even lower than a bad joke!” On another occasion, at Nassau, he announced that he had heard it from a usually reliable source that the Russians had bombed Staten Island, and so that those in the audience who lived there needn’t go home tonight. There were a few crowd issues on Long Island: on the first night, there was so much pushing in the front rows that they were crushing the snake cable that ran to the soundboard, causing audible pops in the sound, and the band had to stop twice to ask them to move back.

Overall, the tour got better and better, starting off competent but not particularly noteworthy, and improving markedly from the end of the Nassau run (10.31-11.02). For what it’s worth, this is borne out by the track selection from Road Trips, which comes almost exclusively from the second half of the tour. If I had to pick a favorite all-around show, it would be Buffalo on November 9th, though not by much; all of the November shows were better than average (except, inexplicably, November 6th: a very long first set with breaks upwards of four minutes followed by a four-song second set, plus drums). A few highlights: Music from 10.28; Shakedown from 10.31; Peggy-O and Scarlet>Fire from 11.01; Althea from 11.05; Playin’ from 11.06; and Minglewood from 11.10.

This is a tour well worth checking out; the short tunes were tight, the long tunes inventive. They were still plagued a little by jam segments where they didn’t listen much to each other, letting Jerry fly off with those loopy 5/2 figures (especially on Eyes) that are impressive technically but so busy that nobody else can get a word in. Yet Brent was such a fresh sound that it breathed new life into the whole band, and they displayed a lot of discipline in terms of crafting a tight feel for newer tunes; Easy To Love You and Althea stand out (Peggy-O was also endowed with a fabulous groove that took some work to maintain). The band still regularly took the time to get into a ten or fifteen minute jam on some song or other, a trend that would fade markedly during the eighties. By all means buy the Road Trips, but also know that soundboards of the best of the tour are out there.
[EDIT: sorry there are no hyperlinks; archive is not responding just now.]

Up Next: I’m currently listening to RatDog’s fall ’06 tour and loving every minute; for my money it was their peak period; faster tempos than later, and transitions so tight and subtle it’ll give you chills. However, I don’t think I’ll post on that, barring overwhelming demand. Instead, I just picked up Sam Cutler’s new book “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He details his time managing the Rolling Stones’ US tour in 1969, which included Altamont, and then his time with the Grateful Dead. According to McNally, the four years Cutler spent with the Dead were pivotal in getting them on a professional footing in terms of touring. Should be interesting.