The Pooterland Interviews
Tom Constanten - Grateful Dead

 

Tom Constanten began his career as a classical musician in 1961. He shared an apartment, and worked with Phil Lesh (the bassist), and met Jerry Garcia (guitar) and Robert Hunter (lyricist), before they formed the Grateful Dead.
TC (as he likes to be known) joined the band in 1968 after a short spell in the US Air Force. During his time with the band they released 3
classic psychedelic albums, ‘Anthem Of The Sun,’ ‘Aoxomoxoa’ and ‘Live Dead.’ The avant-garde influence TC brought to the band can be heard most clearly on ‘Anthem’ an album that merges bold new ideas with fluent, archetypal acid-rock.
After his departure the band combined more traditional American musical roots into their style and of course went on to rock ‘n roll immortality. TC’s contribution was not forgotten, though, and in 1994 he was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame along with the other founding members of the band.
He has had a long and illustrious career as a solo artist working with such worthy names as Robert Hunter, Mickey Hart, Jorma Kaukonen, and Henry Kaiser, to name but a few, in the band Touchstone (with ex-Country Joe and the Fish drummer, Gary
‘Chicken’ Hirsh), and currently has a multimedia partnership with Bob Bralove, the Dead’s former sound engineer, MIDI expert, and technical innovator (check out the brain-sizzling ‘Infra-Red Roses’), named Dose Hermanos. The Hermanos’ CDs (Search For Intelligent Life, Live from California, and Sonic Roar Shock) and DVD (Shadow of the Invisible Man) can be ordered online at www.dead.net and a full TC discography found at www.deaddisc.com

TC very kindly agreed to an interview, and the Pooterland crew is proud to present the resulting musings, recollections and insights:

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: You began your musical career studying first traditional classical and then more avant-garde classical music. Do you get the same levels of satisfaction and enjoyment from the different kinds of music you perform?

It’s like apples and oranges – literally. One can enjoy both, and still distinguish between them quite well. Hey – Keith Richard says (in an interview I read in a magazine) that he listens to Mozart. Years ago musicians I knew in Las Vegas would
get together after hours to play Schubert – with Neil Sedaka at the piano. It’s not that the borders aren’t there. It’s that you’re free to cross them. In one sense, that’s what the avant-garde was all about. Questioning assumptions. Seeking out what Berio called the “inner hidden harmony.” Looking over the cubicle walls and appreciating both the differences and similarities of those on the other sides.
In my travels I’ve discovered two dangerous misconceptions that can derail your whole legitimacy of judgment. The first is that people are different. An abundance of examples underscores the universality of human experience. The second misconception is that people are the same.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: How did the move into rock music come about?

Before I could approach Rock, it had to evolve a little. I could appreciate the simplicity as a musician (easy chord changes = easy money), but as a listener it somehow didn’t get it for me. I’d as lief coast off on a Boulez or Monteverdi tangent. Or Adam de la Halle, Gustav Mahler, Antonin Dvorak, Aleksandr Scriabin (ask me about him again some time)…not to mention increasingly available (remember, we’re talking 1960, here) recordings from India, Bali, Japan, to only begin to list them…there were far too many interesting sounds around for me to enjoy to want to diddle with I-IV-V.
I’ve since come to appreciate the earlier Blues and Rock artists more than I did at the time. I remember at the Woodstock Festival, when Nicky Hopkins came to Pig Pen’s and my hotel room (yes, we doubled up back then), they instantly had a lot to talk about – they’d bring up players going back decades, trading stories and impressions with a glowing zest for the music.
It was the first time I’d heard some of the names. For me, the big names in piano had been Artur Rubinstein and Moriz Rosenthal. Pig Pen subsequently turned me on to the Boogie-Woogie masters like Albert Ammons and “Pine Top” Smith.
More brass tackily, I’d come to know Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia in late 1961. Their tastes in music were as exacting as mine, and as they (and others) started to make things more interesting, it got my attention.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: More specifically, can you outline the events that led to you joining the Grateful Dead?

Mmmmmm…a lot of this is in my book (Between Rock and Hard Places. Hulogosi Press; Eugene, Oregon, USA. 1992.). To be sure, it would have been better, in all sorts of ways, for me to be with them from the start. I sure would have enjoyed it more. As it
happened, I was spirited away, to put it malappropriately, into the U. S. Air Force. Still, stout fellows that they were, they held on and waited for me to get loose from Uncle Sam’s clutches. There were a couple of times I did get away, on leave or on a three-day pass, to record or perform with them. Other than the
embarrassment from the shortness of my hair, I recall exciting times. It was during one of the Anthem of the Sun sessions that Jerry officially invited me to join the band.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: The rest of the band had been playing and rehearsing quite intensively for a couple of years before you joined. How easily did you adapt to playing in the band?

I’d played with Phil, most notably at a 1964 concert, under the auspices of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, that featured Phil, Steve Reich, and me. Phil contributed a quasi-concerto for prepared piano called 6 7/8 for Bernardo Moreno, with me on piano. We gave four performances, each unique (although the third night was especially magical, in my memory). Now, if things had developed as Phil, Steve, and I were imagining, it would have got really interesting. Not to say what actually went down
wasn’t amazing, but…well, it’s like the sixties science fiction writers predicting we’d have a Moon colony by now. Ironically, it’s only in the past couple of decades I’ve got the hang of the “jamband” idiom. But then, the keyboards are better now, too.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: How much informal playing had you done with other band members before joining the band? Was it a case of not being in the band one day and being a member of the Grateful Dead the next, or was it a more gradual process?

Your question understates the actual situation. It was a case of being an Air Force sergeant one day and a Rock and Roll star the next. But hey – culture shock is my life.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Did you have any involvement with the Acid Tests or any other happenings of the mid-60s?

Well, that depends. I wasn’t at any of the events specifically book marked as the “Acid Tests,” but I was at others that amounted to much the same, and it was very familiar territory to me at that (to my knowledge, I was the first to import LSD to Las Vegas {in 1964 – when it was legal}). Remember, there was a period before it became a front for Rock shows (or vice versa). There was a proto-loft milieu, where the likes of John Cage, Alan Watts, and William Burroughs ruled. Timothy Leary referred to Cage’s music as “classically psychedelic.” For all we knew (especially Phil and me), that was where things were headed.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Your first recording with the Grateful Dead was ‘Anthem of the Sun,’ which contains some pretty avant-garde sounds, particularly for a rock album of that time. How instrumental were you in shaping their sound back then?

There were already forces afoot that were bigger than all of us. I was just along for the ride.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: What sort of reaction did you get from the other members to your input? I can imagine that Phil Lesh, with a similar musical background to yourself, was most enthusiastic. Is that right?

Even though I didn’t come out of an authentic Blues or Rock background, everyone was supportive. The sixties ethic included being kind on general principle, and I was the beneficiary of that. Besides, the band members, each in his own way, encouraged me.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: ‘Anthem’ was a very different album from the debut. How pleased were you with the end result? And how happy were the band as a whole?

At the time we were very aware of the gulf between the experience of our performances and our recordings. A live show was so much more fulfilling. We wondered what it was that kept the magic from getting to the grooves of vinyl. Anthem…was a deliberate overcompensation, in the sense that we felt that if we raised our sights, maybe, considering windage, trajectory, and all, we might have a better chance of hitting the target. And even if it didn’t, it’d be an improvement over the
seemingly shrink-wrapped first album. It was like the producer felt he had to “dress us up” to make us presentable. We felt we knew who we were, and were in the best position to represent where we were really coming from.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: The next album to be released was ‘Aoxomoxoa,’ which also sounded very unusual by the standards of the day. I would guess that ‘Mountains of the Moon’ had a certain TC influence; is that correct?

The harpsichord is especially prominent on that track. Not unlike the organ on Dupree’s’… It’s nice to be able to contribute something that fits into the mix.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: What about other songs on that album? Do you have a favourite?

I’ve been a hireling for Jesus my whole life. I don’t know what “favourite” means. Arnold Schönberg, when asked to pick a “favourite” among his own compositions, said it was like picking a “favourite” among one’s own children. He’d loved them all while creating them (ahhhh…the compositions, that is, but the metaphor still obtains), and that love was absolute.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Were you as happy with the final result as with ‘Anthem?’ Jerry Garcia was reported as saying that sometimes the experimentation got in the way of the effectiveness of the songs. Do you agree with that analysis?

It was simply a matter of grappling with a nascent technology. Those years marked the early stages of multitrack recording. Anthem… was done on an eight-track system. Aoxomoxoa was done on sixteen. In the passing years I’ve heard engineers bemoan
the concurrent deteriorization of microphone quality. Some of them have old tube Neumanns that they cherish and wield as “secret weapons.”
Multitrack recording invites you to separate the various parts of the textures and record them individually. Sometimes we’d overdub a single instrument at a time. This led to problems, though. For one thing, there wasn’t the “feel” of a live performance. It was more like building a house. First you pour the foundation - the rhythm section, then add the instruments, and then the vocals. And it was new to all of us. Imagine – you’ve got 14 tracks recorded. Funny how easy it was to think of two more things to add to round out the sixteen. That complicates the mixdown. The mixing sessions amounted to performances, themselves, what with three or more of us at a time with hands on knobs, faders, or whatever, listening for cues…

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Would you care to comment about 'St. Steven' and 'China Cat Sunflower' becoming two of the most performed Grateful Dead songs of all, even though the initial reception for Aoxomoxoa was not exactly wholehearted? These two songs seem to have stood the test of time very well, having risen from modest beginnings!

St. Stephen and China Cat Sunflower were already staples of the live shows long before Aoxomoxoa came out. So the album had no effect on our public’s perception of the tunes, one way or the other, except perhaps to note the stiff, contrived nature of the versions on the album, due to the multitrack recording methods of the time. The live versions always flew, and went over well

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: There are also reports that this was a particularly heavy phase for the use of hallucinogenic drugs for some of the band. Would you say this was a factor in how the album turned out?

The band found early on that too much of a good thing didn’t work. It took a while to find a happy functioning level. But remember, one can also be influenced by insights away from the concert stage. Hypotheses to test.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: It certainly seems the case that certain drugs can influence the perception of music by the listener. What kind of effects (if any) do they have on the creative processes working within the musician?

Mmmmm…that’s mainly above the timberline (see below).

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Do you have any recollections of the live recordings that went to make up the ‘Live Dead’ album?

I’d known her in Las Vegas. She went to my high school, and she came to visit me that weekend, when we were playing at the Fillmore West. It felt like we did well, musically speaking. But all I remember from that weekend is her, and wistful fancies of what might have been. The weekend at the Carousel Ballroom was one of those few times that I had a relatively decent stage setup. That is, I could hear the organ in the monitors, and its sound didn’t make my skin crawl. As on other such occasions, however, it was such a surprise to me when it happened that it took some time to adjust to. And I never got that time, anyway. Thankfully, sound technology has progressed since then, but my other problem was timeless. Despite continued efforts, I’d been unable to get a keyboard to practice on at home. Hence, I was learning chord changes on the fly, if at all. And the opportunity to practice, such as I’ve had a taste of since, wasn’t even a dream.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: ‘Live Dead,’ is probably most notable for the inclusion of ‘Dark Star,’ which has attained legendary status, certainly among Grateful Dead fans, but also with many other psychedelia devotees. There is a lot of information on the Grayfolded release about how this song came about, but what is the TC perspective?  

Like the music itself, it’s like Dark Star was always there. Like the Clouds of Illusion.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: You’ve included recordings of ‘Dark Star’ on several of your solo recordings, and there is an excellent version on the ‘Heart’s Desire’ album with Henry Kaiser’s band. How do you rate the song and what is its appeal from the musician’s point of view?

It’s remarkably easy to fly. I’ll give you a counter example. On the same Henry Kaiser Band album is a marvellous Band number called King Harvest. A pleasure to listen to, every time I hear it, but it’s a bear to play. All the way through, you’re counting, preparing, concentrating. No time to enjoy the magic. Dark Star is the opposite. You can relax, even enjoy it from the listener’s point of view, cackle over what you’re planning to spring on them, listen, interact...

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: You also featured Jorma Kaukonen’s ‘Embryonic Journey’ and Grace Slick’s ‘Lather’ on your ‘Morning Dew’ album in a fascinating mixture of West Coast rock and classical music. What factors influence your choice of songs on
your albums?


It’s just a matter of what works. In the mind, in the ears, and for the audience. But “what works” isn’t always directly transferable from mind to hands to audience, and there’s no telling what’ll happen until you take it out for a ride, so it’s an iterative process.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Jorma worked with you on that ‘Embryonic Journey’ track, and you also released a whole CD of different takes of the song, from those sessions. It makes for absorbing listening. My impression (though I’m not aware of
how much conversation between takes has been edited out) is that there is a private world of musicians in which you can communicate almost without words, using the language of music. How accurate is this assessment in your view?


I believe that the connection between music and language is stronger than that between music and mathematics. Both involve mastering a symbology for the purpose of expression. As useful as words are, though, there’s a quasi timberline above which
music can go, but words can’t. The Curse of Babel seems to be at least partially lifted, too.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: After leaving the Grateful Dead, you were involved in the ‘Tarot’ mime show with the band Touchstone. How did you get involved with the project?Also, who was/is Rubber Duck, who plays tambourine on the album and seems to have been behind the original Tarot mime project? Who was in the line-up at various stages of the band’s career?

Joe McCord, aka Rubber Duck, had been doing gigs around the Bay Area, and I wound up in the “backup” band to his mime show. The “Rubber Duck Company.” Sometimes I was the entire band. A student of Étienne Decroux, he was developing a mime play at the time, based on the characters in the Tarot. The “ride” then moved to New York, and I went along. Touchstone had "evolved" a bit betwen the Tarot show (1970-71) and the KEMO-TV appearance (September, 1972). Guitarist Paul Dresher and Bassist Wes Steele were still with me, but we'd added Bill Ruskin on guitar (I saw him a couple of years ago - he's a fire chief now!) and Gene Reffkin on drums.

Doctor Dark’s note: the line up on the LP was TC, keyboards; Paul Dresher, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, flute; Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsh, percussion; Wes Steele, bass, cello; Art Fayer, violin; Jim Byers, classical guitar; Rubber Duck, tambourine.)

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Was it ‘your’ band? Were you the leader?

Nominally, perhaps. But it was a very egalitarian New-Lefty setup.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: There was a superb album (‘Tarot’ by Touchstone) released in 1972. Some of my favourites from that album are ‘The Lover’s Walk In The Magic Forest,’ ‘The  Chariot Space Voyage/The Star,’ ‘Mandala Music,’ and ‘Limbo’. Where does this album rank among the many you have made, in your opinion?

It came out quite nicely, I daresay. But I sigh for the double album it was originally conceived (and recorded) as. Not only was it in dramatic sequence, so you could follow the story along, but a couple of good tracks had to be left out. Also, Chicken Hirsch’s painting that wound up on the inside of the album was supposed to be the outside.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsh,’ ex-Country Joe and the Fish, was the percussionist on the album. Any news of Gary since you were in that partnership?

Like all of us, his has been a long and twisty path. He joined Touchstone on our Hollywood spree. Since then he’s been in Santa Cruz carving cameos, and back East.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: What of the other band members? Have they recorded in other groups/line-ups to your knowledge?

Paul Dresher is building on an already redoubtable reputation as a composer.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Who was/is Rubber Duck, who plays tambourine on the album and seems to have been behind the original Tarot mime project?

See above.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Was there any plan for the ‘Touchstone’ band to continue performing after the Tarot performances?

Touchstone moved to Los Angeles after the NYC Tarot run. Michael Butler, whose show Hair was running (and raking it in) in six cities at the time, was contemplating taking Tarot on. When that project ran into problems, he came up with a concept for a musical version of Frankenstein, and signed me to do the music. Aside from preparing for that, Touchstone did a few shows as an instrumental band in California. United Artists Records was cool to instrumental bands, though, so they didn’t promote the album a whole lot. The fact that the show didn’t catch fire during the New York run didn’t help. So the second album our contract mentioned (and we had material for) evaporated into the fog on the Hollywood hills.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Your connections with the Grateful Dead have continued over the years. I gather you have collaborated with Robert Hunter. What was the outcome of that partnership?

He and I did several shows together, in two formats. We did a nine-city tour in 1990 where I did an opening solo set, and then he did a solo set. Now and again I’d join him on Mountains of the Moon. Then we’d do a show where he’d read his poetry while I played behind him.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Your latest involvement continues with Bob Bralove, the Dead’s ‘sound man.’ Can you tell us about both the musical and the multimedia aspects of what you and Bob are doing with Dose Hermanos?

Musically, it has both the freedom and heat of playing in a volcano. The music isn’t solid, but liquid. But nowhere else have I needed to be so careful with my thought processes as I play. What we do is, to paraphrase Earle Brown, is present a performance that is composed – as opposed to a composition that is performed. But it’s the most liberated I’ve ever felt onstage. It’s like – when we were doing Tarot, I fantasized about throwing the cards each night, to determine that night’s script. A fantasy to go along with my four-CD set of A Thousand Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
But Dose Hermanos is every bit as flexible, and responsive to The Moment. We can turn on a dime, and our supraverbal communication lines are a whole network by now. It’s better, really, because we don’t need the cards.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: How favourably do you view midi, computer and multimedia technology, compared with traditional ways of making music?

Well…the very notion of “traditional” can change markedly within a few years. As much as I love Eastern European grand pianos that begin with a “B” (you know, Bösendorfer, Bechstein, Blüthner), there are advantages to MIDI technology. For instance, the way that Dose Hermanos can control the light show from our keyboards. It’s interesting to grapple with gestures that work visually, but not musically, or vice versa. A fascinating new world to explore.
Recording digitally also rewrites the rules. It’s become possible to “finger sync.”

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: How easy is it to take this kind of a project on the road?

It’s a bit more involved a setup than a bar stool, a guitar, and a microphone, but it’s not undoable. Throw in some able techs, like we had in Tokyo last July, and it can work quite nicely, thank you!

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Are you keen to perform live? Do you prefer to work in the studio?

Both are nice. Working in the studio with Bob is like being next to Leonardo da Vinci. He just opens up possibilities like Gangbusters. But there’s a lot to be said for connecting with an audience on a good night.

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: Finally, I’m aware you have toured in the Far East, do you have any plans for appearances in Europe? We’d really love to see you!

I’d love to come! Please!

pOoTers pSycheDelic shAcK: I’d like to thank you for your kindness in answering these questions and also for the many hours of enjoyment your music has given us over the years. What a long strange trip it’s been, and long may it continue!

Thanks yourself! You got follow-ups?

 

Interview conducted by Doctor Dark - Pooterland Crew October 2001

 

 

 

 

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