Blair's Blog

What Would Jerry Do?

I’m of two minds when it comes to releasing studio outtakes and “rarities” by deceased performers. The music historian in me wants to hear it all—especially if it’s by an artist I’ve followed closely. More is better, right? We gain more insight about the artist, maybe hear some gems that would otherwise have been lost to the sands of time. But there’s also that little voice in the back of my head that says, “There are reasons that XYZ didn’t want to put this out. These are rejected pieces, discarded as I would toss out the first draft of an article I write, or an engineer would scrap a first pass at a mix.” The fact that the music has survived on tape in a vault somewhere is not an endorsement in itself. Nine times out of ten, artists don’t even know what gets saved and what is trashed from a given recording session. What if by releasing outtakes, we tarnish an artist’s legacy? Maybe we shouldn’t hear those rough edges, those embryonic sketches of songs, those ideas that never quite went anywhere. Most musicians work damn hard on their albums and they are acutely aware of what they are presenting to the public. Who are we to mess with their intentions after they cast off the mortal coil? Yes, my life would be poorer if I didn’t have Miles Davis' The Complete in a Silent Way Sessions, which lovingly present hours of uncut studio performances recorded around the same time as Davis’ heavily edited 1969 masterpiece. And here’s a case where Miles’ legacy is actually enhanced, rather than diminished, by presenting all the outtakes, most of which are magnificent. But I’ve certainly heard “expanded” CD releases where I’ve wondered, “Why the hell did they put that out?”

This is an issue I’ve had to deal with on projects a couple of times in recent years and it’s always been a tough call. Because of my long history writing about the Grateful Dead, a few years ago I was hired—along with fellow Dead scribes David Gans and Steve Silberman—to produce a five-CD box set called So Many Roads, which covered the Dead’s entire career from 1965 until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Most of it would be culled from the thousands of hours of live performances in the Grateful Dead’s tape vault. The group had already been plucking choice shows from its archives for many years, so for us to go in and find a few nuggets was no big deal to anyone. Indeed, we were ably assisted by the band’s vaultkeeper, Dick Latvala (namesake of the “Dick’s Picks” series of GD releases, currently numbering 32 selections), until his death midway through the project. But we also wanted to present some studio rarities, and that’s where the questions began: Here was a studio version of a song called “Mason’s Children” which the band performed live only a few times in the winter of ’69-’70. It was recorded around the time the Dead were making Workingman’s Dead, but it was never completed—Garcia never laid in his guitar solo. The rest of the track is sparkling, however, with some of the best harmonies the band ever mustered in the studio. Garcia stopped performing the song and didn’t put it on the album, so obviously there was something he fundamentally did not like about the song. Would Garcia have wanted this to ever come out? We’ll never know. But we were too excited about our find to dismiss it; plus we did have Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh as a band representative saying “yay” or “nay”—and he rejected a few of our choices (mostly his own songs, however).

At the time of Garcia’s death, the Dead had stalled in their attempts to make a new studio album. There had been a number of sessions over quite a long period, but Garcia’s declining health had prevented them from really catching fire. GD engineer John Cutler went into the studio after Garcia’s demise and listened through the session tapes and determined that no, there was nothing good enough to release. In the course of working on the box, however, we stumbled across a number of DATs of rehearsals of many of the unrecorded songs—typically, the Dead would rehearse songs a few times in their Marin County studio/rehearsal space, Club Front, before they would play them live for the first time. So there on the DATs were lovely versions of some of their best late-period songs, including Garcia’s and Robert Hunter’s “Days Between” and “Lazy River Road,” and Bob Weir’s “Eternity,” which he co-wrote with Willie Dixon shortly before the bluesman’s death. An added bonus, which we didn’t know at first, was that the DATs had come from multitracks of the rehearsals that Cutler had made. The version of “Eternity” was literally one of the first times the band had played it—in fact Weir can be heard calling out chords, and at one point he stops the band to teach them the bridge. However, with David Gans sitting at the same Sonic Solutions workstation he uses to pump out his nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Hour radio program each week, we managed to work up an edit that removed the spot where Weir stopped the band, and created a seamless performance. Later in the process, Cutler went into the multis and removed Weir’s chord directions by muting his vocal track. The result is a fine rendition of the song that’s absolutely true to Weir’s intentions.

More controversial was a decision we made about the title tune, “So Many Roads,” another of Garcia and Hunter’s last songs. Here, there was no existing rehearsal to give us the studio version we desired, and though the song was performed 55 times between 1992 and 1995, we simply couldn’t find a version we liked enough to put on the box. Most had lyric flubs of some sort (always a problem for Garcia, but particularly his last few years) and we didn’t want to present what we all agreed was a beautiful and powerful song in a bad light—hell, we’d already named the box after it!

One night, though, I had a revelation. I was listening to a tape of Garcia’s final show with the Dead—at Chicago’s Soldier Field, July 9, 1995—and it dawned on me that with a little creative editing, perhaps the flawed but supremely emotional version of “So Many Roads” from the first set of that show, could be used on the box. There was a muffed verse, a solo that never went anywhere, a sloppy intro…but also tons of passion and, of course, the finality of it being from Garcia’s last show. I excitedly went over to David Gans’ studio and that night, and after loading the song into Sonic Solutions, we spent the next couple of hours splicing and dicing the digital file until we had constructed a version that had the heart and soul of the performance, but not as many flaws. We stole the guitar intro from another live version, we eliminated the messed up verse and took out the aimless solo. It’s still not perfect, but it’s powerful enough that we chose it to end the entire box set; in a way it’s the coda.

We knew when we did this we were going to have to cop to our editing in the CD’s liner notes—after all, tapes of that final Dead show had been in circulation for a couple of years, so many Deadheads already had the unedited performance. And when the box was released, there were purists who believed it was sacrilegious to alter a live performance. But I felt no guilt over the matter: the Dead themselves had released many “live” albums through the years that had included edited performances, so there was a precedent. Beyond that, I felt we’d tried our hardest to present every song we chose as well as we could. “So Many Roads” had to be on there and our edit of it shows the song at its most powerful. I can’t even remember what the “original” sounds like now. But this version still brings a tear to my eye.

More recently, David and I were brought in to select the bonus material for a box set of Jerry Garcia’s solo recordings: All Good Things, released in the spring by Rhino/Warner Bros., consists of Garcia’s five solo albums, with bonus tracks drawn from contemporaneous studio sessions, plus a sixth disc of previously unreleased studio material.

The first step on this project was to wade through the dozens of hours of material, which spanned the years 1971 to 1982. Most of the tapes were 16-track reels; some later ones were 24-track. They’d been recorded at a number of different studios by various engineers: in the Bay Area at Wally Heider’s, His Master’s Wheels and the Dead’s Club Front; and some at Devonshire in L.A. There were also a bunch of 2-track half-inch reels that had been copied from the multis at some point. While most duplicated multitracks we had access to, a few were copies of multis that had either vanished or been recorded over through the years, and therefore were the only existing records of some sessions. Most boxes had track sheets, but some did not, and a few of the ones that did were wrong. Getting a listenable mix going was a time-consuming process every reel. David got to be quite good at this, however, and he dutifully listened to every second of every multi and 2-track, all the while creating a database to catalog the contents of each reel. I was around for much of the listening, but can’t honestly say I heard all 18 studio takes of “Valerie.” As he went along, David would burn tracks that intrigued us; during later marathon listening sessions, these CDs were the handy reference points for the bonus tracks we chose.

Sorting through the material, which ran the gamut from obviously releasable master-quality takes to loose rehearsal sessions, I once again found myself asking that $64,000 question: What Would Jerry Do? As someone who admired the late guitarist, I take Garcia’s legacy very seriously. During his lifetime, he had never gone back to listen to any of this stuff (except for a few sessions from 1974’s Compliments which he purloined for use on 1982’s Run For the Roses). Garcia was an artist who always lived and created in the moment, and he tended not to look back much. So can I say with any authority that he would have wanted to release most of the bonus tracks on All Good Things? No. I seriously doubt he would. But as historians and as sympathetic fans, David and I could (hopefully) make some informed judgments about what material was worth showcasing for posterity and which would do justice to Garcia’s legacy.

This time we were aided by the great engineer Tom Flye, who was brought in to mix the project. Tom is probably best known for his work with the likes of Sly Stone and Rick James, but he’s also been in the Grateful Dead’s camp for many years as Mickey Hart’s engineer. Still, he hadn’t worked with Garcia in the studio and nearly all of the material he was mixing was completely new to him.

It was both a joy and a fabulous education sitting in the studio watching Flye at work each day. This was one of those classic analog-digital hybrid projects. Each track was first transferred to Pro Tools, but it was mixed through an SSL G-series analog console using tons of vintage outboard gear, from LA2As to Pultecs. To fatten up certain parts, he would occasionally run tracks through a miked Fender amp and a Leslie speaker he had put in the main studio room. He treated the decades-old tapes with all the care and attention to detail he would lavish on a current session, meticulously isolating and tweaking every track—drums, then bass, guitar, other instruments (if there were any) and finally, vocals. I quickly discovered that Flye is an absolute master at riding vocals—he was able to bring out so much nuance in Garcia’s singing, just through his minute adjustments with the console faders. Other times he’d have an entire instrumental part brought up or down half a dB in Pro Tools. Where possible, funky notes were eliminated or replaced. We were able to do a couple of vocal fixes from multiple takes of songs. On a few studio jams, we carved out passages that didn’t seem like they were advancing the music—an idea I would have previously thought was heretical, but which, with our mandate to present Garcia’s work in the best light possible, seemed to be required.

Early on in the project, two of Garcia’s grown daughters—Annabelle and Trixie—and Jerry’s older brother Tiff, stopped by Fantasy to hear some of the tracks we’d chosen. Their faces lit up as they heard Jerry joking in the studio, and as he led David Grisman, Vassar Clements and others through a marvelous, Djangoesque acoustic reading of “Back Home In Indiana” from a 1974 session. They were bopping in their seats as their dad and brother led his 1975 group with piano ace Nicky Hopkins through a scorching version of “Mystery Train.” And they were all moved by the plain but haunting sound of Garcia, playing rudimentary electric piano, singing Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like A Martyr,” backed by Grateful Dead engineer Bob Matthews on bass and roadie Steve Parish on drums. Now, there’s a track that would probably never have seen the light of day if Garcia were still alive. But in those few minutes, Garcia completely bares his soul on a song he never sang again. What would Jerry have done? Who cares! That had to come out. And I’ll proudly take the heat for it for the rest of my days.

What would YOU do? Write to me: