Endarkened forces are bearing down
On us unconforming souls
Waving flags and bashing fags
And burning truth like coal.
— Lyrics from It’s Gonna Get Better by David Gans
You may or may not have heard of David Gans. If you’re of a progressive mindset, don’t trust your government, believe in enlightened approaches to social justice, think romance is often a comical game, and are just generally fed up with the bullshit from Corporate America, you probably already like Gans—you just don’t know it.
A California native and lifelong resident, Deadhead documentarian Gans has enjoyed a multi-faceted career in both journalism and music that has spanned nearly four decades and includes books, albums, and the Grateful Dead Hour, a nationally syndicated radio show and his day job for the past 22 years. His songs are an eclectic collection of intelligent, socially conscious, and political rabble rousing tunes often doused in biting irony.
During his career, Gans has interviewed some of the biggest names in popular rock music. Artists such as Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, the Talking Heads (the topic of one of his books), Jerry Garcia (the topic of several of Gans’ album and book projects), and the Doobie Brothers gave their stories to Gans for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Musician.
In the fall of 2007, David Gans and I spent some time backstage at the Fall Hookahville music festival where he was performing. We discussed the Grateful Dead (the topic of most of Gans’ work), his latest album, and national politics—while exploring the libertarian values espoused in his music.
Gooey Rabinski: What is it about Jerry Garcia and this god-like magnetism?
David Gans: He was a ridiculously charismatic guy. His musicianship was superlative. And his song writing and the character of his performance were just incredibly attractive to people. A lot of people who like to get really really high–in a positive way, not stupid fucking drunk people—but people who took acid as a tool of self-discovery and to widen the doors of perception and all that…it’s not that they took it seriously, but it was, in a way, a spiritual pursuit.
Going to see that band and hearing that guy play, he could take you on trips and just amazing places—if you got that. The people who didn’t understand Grateful Dead music and just thought it some stupid stoned hippy music, they never got it. But the people who did get it really got it. It could really take you someplace.
When Jerry was paying attention, when he engaged with the music, it really was deep shit. So I totally understand people who would follow him to the ends of the earth. There reached a point somewhere along the line when the legend started to eclipse the man. I think Jerry got kind of tired of being Jerry Garcia pretty early in the game.
GR: Do you think that coincided with the band’s commercial success?
DG: Yes and no. That was really a whole other thing. I think Jerry sort of withdrew from that reluctant guru role much earlier than that. He had that thing like Bob Dylan had of being somebody where everything he said was taken so seriously that an offhand comment would become a moral lesson in the world. I think he began to realize that, when he spoke from the stage, people were listening a little too intently.
GR: It’s almost like a Jesus Christ syndrome in how people regarded Jerry….
DG: Yea, Jerry was dealing with that as well. Because he had all these people who got really really high and really into what he was doing—and took it more seriously than he took it. And more seriously than I think he thought it was meant to be taken. The power of that alarmed him some. He didn’t want to be responsible for telling people what to do and he didn’t want people interpreting what he said as being powerful instructions.
I have this feeling that’s one of the reasons why he and Bob Dylan connected so well. They were two guys who had had way too much attention. That, you know, Dylan was famous in the early ’60 and late ‘60s for having that guy Alan J. Weberman going through his garbage and divining stuff. Dylan also changed the world and he kept sayin’ stuff that mattered to the world and he kept making observations.
GR: But just because he drinks a pint of milk every day doesn’t mean that cows are god….
DG: Well, right. People were taking his stuff way too seriously. Just as a practical matter of how to live in the world, not being able to go down to the corner and have a beer I think could get to you after a while. But Jerry was an unbelievingly engaging guy. When he had the charm turned on—which was most of the time I ever saw him—he could talk about anything and not just be bullshitting, you know? He was interested in stuff…he was well-read…he watched movies…he watched TV. He knew what was going on in the world and he cared about what was going on in the world. He could talk intelligently and inspiringly about it.
I think the Grateful Dead and the whole San Francisco hippy movement thing really did, for a while, think they could change the world. And then reality closed in and they realized that, not only could they not change the world, but they couldn’t even live the way they started out to live.
When the Grateful Dead started being a touring band—in like 1968—I think the whole nature of their family existence changed. ‘Cause they started out as a neighborhood band living communally in this big social experiment with all these other people and they ended up…. Being on tour is like being in a space capsule, but it’s launched on earth. You’re not really in the world. You’re carrying this complete environment of your own around with you. And part of their mission in those days was to bring that thing to various places. They were going to turn New York onto it.
Whatever notions they had about a social experiment fell by the wayside. And this is just my opinion from years of observation. I wasn’t there at the time, but I had seen how it went down and what became of it. I just think the practical matter of being a touring band and keeping your music fresh and dealing with that audience and stuff became their reason for being. All that early stuff that they thought was going to be so cool ended up being less important than keeping the show on the road.
GR: I’ve heard your latest album, Twisted Love Songs. In It’s Gonna Get Better, you label politicians as “pious thieves.”
DG: People have been beating god to death to get what they want from the world. An example is this guy [Senator] Larry Craig from Idaho who pleads guilty to this crime of soliciting sex in a public bathroom—and this is a guy who has spent years advocating loudly and passionately legislation to punish guys like himself.
What does that tell you about that party and those people? The ugly, violent, moralistic nature of that party provides this incredible cover for economic crimes. You know, they get everybody all hung up about sayin’ “fuck” on the radio….
GR: Or a tit at half time….
DG: Yea. You know, there’s all these things regarding public morality—which they’re so hypocritical about–but they’re just ways of distracting people from real crimes. They’ll police our behavior in private and with each other, but they won’t police people’s terrible economic abuse of one another in the marketplace. They keep trying to forget the role of the state in regulating toxic emissions into the environment and abuses of financial instruments to enrich people at the expense of others, and then they want to creep into everyone’s bedroom and find out who’s fuckin’ who up the ass.
It’s just so completely wrong. That they’ve managed to acquire this much power with that as the lever of it is just absurd and criminal to me. So that’s what that song’s about: They’re pious thieves.
GR: But can we really get rid of them? Everyone says, “back in the good ol’ days,” but I believe that there was no “good ol’ days.” There’s been corrupt, evil motherfuckers forever. Egypt…Greece…Rome…England…we’ve always had an evil ruling class. As we do now.
DG: America was supposed to be this experiment in social equality. And the Constitution is a beautiful, absolutely brilliant and humane document that has been neglected, forgotten, abused, and raped by these people. Particularly the Bush Administration, which is the worst thing that’s happened to the planet in I don’t know how long.
GR: But what do we do about it? I hear all these simple solutions, such as “go vote,” and none of them sound quite right.
DG: Well, voting is a part of the solution. Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” That means embody those values that you think matter. You can’t live a completely pure existence. One of the great pitfalls of trying to do that is to demand ideological purity of everybody. You just can’t be 100% ideologically pure in this universe.
GR: So what do you like to do most? Write music? Play music? Write? Or is it less about the medium and more about the topic?
DG: Well, getting to be a Grateful Dead expert wasn’t really what I intended. I was a general interest journalist for ten years—’76 to ’86—but then, toward the end of that time, I accidentally got a book deal and wrote Playing in the Band.
GR: Your music encompasses the way many Americans and Canadians feel since Bush came into office.
DG: I grew up in a time when we thought music was going to change the world.
GR: The late sixties?
DG: Yea, pretty much. The Beatles got everybody’s attention and then started doing something constructive with it, which was great. Everybody wanted to hear what they were doing and, as they grew up, they started writing music that meant something more than just mating rituals. Which is what all the early stuff was.
GR: Like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis?
DG: Well, you know, music was about raw energy and it was about sex and shit, but people came along. The folk singers tried to change the world and Bob Dylan tried to change the world and the Beatles were pop stars who had a much bigger audience than the folk singers and they started doing socially responsible stuff. That’s when I came of age.
DG: Well, they’ve done their best to get rid of it, but I think it might survive. I don’t know…history is all about survival of the fittest and the brutality of people in defense of their own property and in reaction to their own fears going back to the beginning of history. America was founded on these principles—and operated in spite of these principles—since day one.
A lot of people have been screwed over and a lot of people have gotten rich off the backs of other people in the name of American values. But I think, on a whole, it’s been a pretty successful experiment and, if we’re careful and if we’re positive and if we’re proactive, we can save it from the degradations of the kleptocrats. The Bush people are just the worst in terms of not giving a rat’s ass about who’s lives are made more miserable by their profiteering.
GR: You said earlier that you think Bush has been….
DG: Way worse than Nixon.
GR: Worse than Nixon?
DG: Well, we hated Nixon with a passion in ’74.
GR: But he created the DEA….
DG: Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon went to China. Nixon did stuff that….
GR: So you’re saying he gave a damn?
DG: Well, Nixon was pathological, too. Believe me, man, Nixon was a sick motherfucker. But he was politically expedient. In those days, you could do more things. With the rise of the religious right, the fundamentalists and the profiteers have formed this incredible unholy alliance. The fundamentalists provide this great distraction, this cover.
Everybody’s arguing about a titty being seen at the Superbowl, but the debate about toxic waste and economic justice is relegated to the middle of the newspaper and not even covered in the evening news because all these other circuses are crowding it out.
I’ll rave about this shit ‘til the cows come home, but when I get up on stage, I try to make a little subtle reference to it here and there and just tell my story and let people get some value out of it—and maybe some inspiration.
GR: ‘Cause certainly if we look at the 2000 [U.S. presidential] election with Florida and then the 2004 election with Ohio….
Neighboring camper/pot salesman: How are you guys doin? I don’t mean to interrupt, but I have a bag of [Crutchster’s] Dumpster…a bunch of little bottoms. A quarter is $60. Perfect for rollin’ joints! I just got a huge pile of it.
GR: I might want to swap you for some hash.
Salesman: What kind of hash?
DG: [Laughing] I’m not in the market ‘cause I’m flying home Saturday morning.
[We talk briefly with the guy selling pot and then return to the interview.]
GR: Is it fair to say that, within a reality of not being 100% ideologically pure, that one votes with one’s dollars?
[Gans, an old school master of journalism in almost any medium, has also produced or co-produced eight other albums, including Grateful Dead: So Many Roads, a five-CD collection spanning Dead shows between 1965 and 1995.]
GR: It’s nice to know that yuppies can also get stoned and trip and listen to good music….[laughing].
DG: It’s not about yuppies. Everybody in the world should hear that music, you know? The fact that they’re putting a record together that’s sold in a place where lots of good music is being sold these days. And because the regular retail record business is completely falling apart.
You just have to try to make things better in any way that you can and try not to make things worse and—you know what I’m sayin’? You can’t say Starbucks sucks and the Grateful Dead shouldn’t do business with them, because they’re trying to sell their music and get new people to like it, which is something we were always trying to do, too. When we were young Deadheads, we wanted to evangelize this to the world.
Okay, now they’ve found a way to get [this music] in the hands of people who would never run into the Grateful Dead in their ordinary travels, but they see that at Starbucks and they check it out.
Like this thing came up recently where the Grateful Dead put out a CD that’s being sold at Starbucks. It’s a double CD and it’s kind of an introduction to Grateful Dead music. It’s kinda neat. It’s not a record that I need because I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead for 35 years.
But a lot of people are totally up in arms. They’re asking how can they get in bed with Starbucks, these corporate criminals. I know there’s some truth to that, that there are things that Starbucks has done in terms of being predatory in locating their stores and stuff, but I also hear from some people—and I’ve not done any direct research on this—that they’re very good employers. That [Starbucks] treats their workers well and their workers are stakeholders in some way and have good health plans and such.
And Bill Graham flew them to Canada that one time in ’67. The went up there with this intention. But over time, a rock ‘n’ roll tour just becomes this thing of its own and that became what they were.
GR: You articulate those values well.
DG: Well, thank you. Mission accomplished [laughing].
Anybody who expects me to take their faith as the truth is going to have a problem. If you believe god did this and god made that and god wants you to do that…then fine, you do that. But you don’t get to tell me how to behave because your god believes that shit, because I don’t believe that shit.
All of Western religion is based on stories that were told and written down years after the events took place and it’s all people telling other people what to do and you have to ask, what’s in it for them? The patriarchical god doesn’t do me the slightest bit of good because I don’t know him. And I’m not taking anybody else’s word for his. I think it’s a criminal thing to go around trying to run the world and telling people to deny their own nature on the basis of some shit that’s been told for 2000 years and passed along by people with a vested interest in continuing to be in power.
That doesn’t mean that I hate religion, it means that I hate religious fanatics who want to run the world in their image. That’s one of the things that my songs get a little gnarly about. I’d like to inspire and persuade people, but you don’t do that by telling them what to think. You do that by showing them how you think and setting an example. That Ghandi thing again: Be the change you want to see in the world. So I try to live a life that’s not lethal to anybody else.
The Works of David Gans
- Conversations with the Dead (The Grateful Dead Interview Book)
- Playing in the Band (An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead)
- Not Fade Away (The Online World Remembers Jerry Garcia)
- Talking Heads (The Band and Their Music)
- Twisted Love Songs
- Solo Electric
- Solo Acoustic
- Home by Morning
- Live at the Powerhouse
- Grateful Fest 6 (Live at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park)
Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed dozens of feature articles to magazines such as High Times, SKUNK, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana (2015 Edition), available on Amazon Kindle, and is a contributing writer at Whaxy.com.