Bill Kreutzmann on the Highs (and Lows) of the Grateful Dead

Bill Kreutzmann, playing a djembe during a concert in Denver. Grateful Dead band members Brent Mydland, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia (from left to right) are in the background.
Bill Kreutzmann, playing a djembe during a concert in Denver. Grateful Dead band members Brent Mydland, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia (from left to right) are in the background.

I spent most of a recent week on a bike tour from the San Luis Obispo, California area up to Marin, with a two-night stay in my old home base of San Francisco. Drinking beer and reading former Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s new autobiography (written with help from Benjy Eisen, who is now Kreutzmann’s manager) was a fitting way to kill time around the campfire at night after doing coastal bike rides during the day. Though I recently wrote a feature about the Dead’s controversial upcoming reunion/farewell shows, interviewing Gary Lambert and David Gans of Sirius XM’s Grateful Dead channel, I hadn’t listened to almost any Grateful Dead in years, so immersing myself in 360 pages of “Bill the Drummer” tales while listening to some choice Dead bootlegs was a California treat.

Kreutzmann has long been known to outsiders as the relatively normal member of the Dead, a Palo Alto native known for stating flatly, “I am just a guy who plays the drums.” He was the Dead’s drummer from day one, when they were a young mid-‘60s bar band known as the Warlocks, playing pizza parlors south of San Francisco before becoming the house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, later bombing at Woodstock and Monterey Pop and then rocketing to decades of headlining arenas and stadiums around the country as the psychedelic ’60s torchbearers.

But Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs reveals that Kreutzmann was also a hard-drinking, hard-drugging womanizer from day one, immersed in acid and narcotics on a level only singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia surpassed. Unlike Garcia, Kreutzmann was thankfully able to thwart drug addiction, partly through falling in love with scuba diving. No doubt the drummer also eventually got (mostly) clean through not being as famous as Garcia, who used heroin to deal with constant tugging from not only obsessive fans but also the Grateful Dead touring machine, which Kreutzmann admitted gave Garcia—and no one else—a pass for his clearly terminal drug abuse because they needed him to keep the fame-and-fortune machine alive.

Deal is full of funny but also scary — tales of drinking, fucking, drugging, traveling and even alcohol-fueled car racing. One scene involves a riot Kreutzmann helped start at a whorehouse after learning condoms were required; he also admits that, for a while, a roadie gave the drummer a bottle-cap full of cocaine to snort after every song. But Deal is also full of poignant insights, sometimes downright shocking in their honesty. The book provides commentary on the imperfections of the Grateful Dead and the many members it saw come and go (sometimes literally out of this world) over its thirty years (1965 to 1995) as a touring band.

One of Deal’s first zingers includes Kreutzmann criticizing bassist-singer Phil Lesh’s songs as sometimes sounding so cheesy they reminded Kreutzmann of “the theme from The Love Boat." Tom Constanten, who played keyboards with the Dead from 1968 to 1970 — one of the band’s must fruitful, historic periods — is described by Kreutzmann as having never been “a card-carrying member of the Grateful Dead.” Fellow Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who took a hiatus from the Dead from 1971 to 1975 after getting into “dark drugs” in the aftermath of his father stealing most of the Dead’s money, is labeled a control freak by Kreutzmann, who admits he did not want Hart to rejoin the band. (“He weaseled himself back into the band” is one of the most memorable lines in Deal) Kreutzmann eventually relented, which led to the tight, fiery and mesmerizing 1977 peak of the Grateful Dead, arguably the band’s most exciting period, along with the years just prior to keyboardist Brent Mydland’s death by drug overdose in 1990.

Donna Jean Godchaux, who sang with the Dead from 1972 to 1979, “never fit in with the sound that we were going for,” according to Kreutzmann. “It took away from the music.” What’s more, Kreutzmann (along with many fans) says keyboardist Vince Welnick, who started touring with the Dead just weeks after Mydland’s tragic death (he was just 37), was never a fit either.

“As for Vince, I’m not sure who invited him,” Kreutzmann writes in Deal. “We looked at other keyboardists [and] Vince Welnick was my least favorite. He was flat broke and desperate for work. Perhaps that played into our decision to hire him. Vince got voted in by default.”

Welnick’s voice was flat-out grating, as were his cheesy keyboard runs, which usually sounded like obnoxious trumpets. But Kreutzmann’s harsh, honest criticisms of Welnick would be more amusing and easy to swallow if the keyboardist hadn’t taken his own life in 2006, just a few years after the Dead started touring intermittently for the first time without Garcia (who died of drug-related causes in 1995). Welnick was understandably, and deeply, hurt by Kreutzmann and the others billing the initial Dead shows in 2002 as “a family reunion” featuring “the surviving members of the Grateful Dead.” Welnick was a member of the band for the five years preceding Garcia’s death.

In all, however, I’m most impressed by Kreutzmann’s repeated passionate descriptions of what the Dead, when it wasn’t nodding at the wheel, was trying to do musically. He wanted to be rock’s Elvin Jones, and at some points (Europe ’72, anyone?) he got close; the Dead wanted to push the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll to include bluegrass, classical poetry and no-boundaries improvisation, and sometimes it worked.

Kreutzmann was in junior high when Garcia, four years his senior, bought a banjo from Kreutzmann’s father and made the drummer, at first listen, “the first Deadhead.” He made an internal vow to follow Garcia anywhere the music led, and that turned out to be Madison Square Garden (52 times), a stage beside the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and of course the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

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Unfortunately, as Kreutzmann admits, following Garcia meant giving him “a pass” for the heroin addiction and generally toxic lifestyle that led to his death at age 53.

The Grateful Dead lost two keyboardists and one lead singer/guitarist to substance abuse, one keyboardist (Keith Godchaux, who Lesh once said reached “an almost vegetative state” due to drugs and alcohol) to an automobile accident and one to suicide. 

But the music, thanks to Archive.org, is there for us. Nearly every Grateful Dead show is there, streaming in high quality format, and—though I challenge you to find a Dead show that’s interesting and exciting from start to finish—many of them have magical moments—like nearly all of May 1977, and obscure nuggets like a beautifully strange “The Other One > Stella Blue” with Ornette Coleman in 1993.

Kreutzmann’s book is timely, as the Grateful Dead is playing five shows in Santa Clara, Calif., and Chicago this summer (with Phish’s Trey Anastasio filling Garcia’s shoes) as both a celebration of and funeral for the music the group started playing at bars, restaurants and parties in the Bay Area 50 years ago. One wonders whether Kreutzmann’s poking at his bandmates in Deal will make the rehearsals awkward, but it’s also clear they must all feel grateful just to still be standing after such a long, strange trip.


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